An Oasis in the Desert

This blog will be quiet for the next few days. My two older sons and I are headed to Demontreville to make a silent retreat.

Yesterday was my fortieth day without steady work. Forty days in the desert, hungry and tempted to turn back. But I chose to follow this path. I have such sympathy now for those who are without work by no choice of their own, whose families go without because they can’t find a job.

I see this retreat as an oasis from the bustle and worry of the past six weeks that I’ve been seeking employment. I’m looking forward to solitude, rest, and time alone with God.

I will be praying for you in the silence of these next few days. If you pray for me, pray that I might find the way to abandon myself entirely to God’s will and the courage to follow it. Pray that Jodi be lifted up and loved and given peace during this uncertain time. Pray that our children continue to grow in virtue and holiness and stay open to God’s vocation for them. Pray that we all become saints and rejoice together in heaven.

See you next week!

The Right Pomp for the Circumstance

We were at Mass one morning many years ago, at St. Michael Catholic Church in Remus, Michigan, when the local Knights of Columbus Fourth-Degree Honor Guard marched into the nave. I remember our son Brendan—only three or so years old at the time—watching with wide eyes as men in capes and feathered hats processed toward the altar, two by two, ahead of Father. They spaced themselves evenly on either side of the aisle, pivoted in unison to face the center, and drew and raised gleaming swords in salute to the cross and priest of Christ that passed between them.

After Mass, having watched the KCs process out again, Bren asked his burning question: “Why were there pirates in church?” Continue reading

Book Break: Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures

CatCoCI don’t remember exactly when I picked up Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures — or why — but it was on my nightstand, unread, for many months until Brendan came home from UMary and mentioned it was one of the good books he read in his Catholic Studies classes this year. Essentially a lecture delivered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) circa 2005, the book highlights the ways in which Europe’s widespread Christianity served as a foundation for many of the great advances of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which have paradoxically led to a severing of the Christian roots that made them possible and a grave imbalance between technology and morality, between what we can do and what we should.  Yet even as we stand on the brink of cultural collapse, Cardinal Ratzinger proposes an approach that could restore the moral foundations of Western societies and lead people back to God.

It is a short (115 pages of well-spaced text), but heady, read — unflinching yet hopeful in its outlook, recalling that all things are possible through Christ. Two major ideas touched on in the book stand out to me this morning, each of which I will paraphrase and tackle in somewhat of my own way so as not to spoil the lecture itself.

The first is that we live each day by faith, which is never blind but always rooted in authority of those who have firsthand knowledge of the subject at hand. An example a friend of mine shared some months ago: how many of us know our birth mother? How do we know? None of us can possibly recall the moment of our birth, and few if any of us have incontrovertible photographic evidence of that moment, with faces in focus and the umbilical tether uncut. We could have been adopted or inadvertently switched. But we have faith based on authority: the signed documents, the witness of family members and friends, and in most cases the presence and loving care of our mothers themselves.

Most of us aren’t engineers, yet we trust another’s deep understanding of engineering to get us to and from work safely each day and to perform our work functions. Most of us no longer raise the majority of our food, yet we trust that it is safe to eat. In the same way, while many of us do not claim to have firsthand knowledge of God in person, our faith is based on the authority of those who did (or do): signed documents, the witness of family members and friends, and the loving care of the Creator Himself.

Indeed, without this foundation of so-called irrational faith — this fundamental belief and trust in things outside our own personal experience — everything else, including the science and technology we cling to as “rational,” breaks down.

The second idea worth highlighting is that, as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it, “It is an obvious fact that the rational character of the universe cannot be explained rationally on the basis of something irrational!” If the origins of the universe, the world, and humanity are random, how then can we rely on them to unfold in a rational way and be understandable? If our brains are merely chemicals and electrical impulses particularly suited to our survival, what are reason and choice, and why do they matter?

Cardinal Ratzinger puts forth a compelling picture of the modern culture and offers advice for believers and non-believers alike to rebuild the crumbling foundations of Europe and the West. Brendan found this little book worthwhile, and so did I.

A Father’s Joy

 One of the highlights of a relatively laid-back (for once) weekend was heading into the Cities for the 10 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Jodi, Trevor, Lily and I did this because the University of Mary contingent (including Brendan) from the March for Life in Washington D.C. was planning to attend Sunday Mass there at that time, as well.

We arrived moments before the buses rolled up. We stood on the sidewalk and peered through the tinted glass, trying to glimpse the woolly-headed college man we knew to be our own. Instead we saw his STMA classmate, Anna, who grinned and waved joyfully at us — and who got a bear-hug from Lily when she got off her bus. We waited for several minutes then, scanning the lines of students emerging from the buses, until at last a bearded, lumberjack-looking fellow in red-and-black plaid emerged and came our way.

Lily didn’t see him at first; when she did, she ran to him, and I don’t think it was my imagination that her voice caught in her throat as he swept her up. Several of his college colleagues smiled at the hairy young man and his little princess — and I did, too.

It was good to see him, even briefly: good to see him safe and sound, to see his patchy beard grown long enough to cover the bald spots, to see his hair growing still more Robert-Plantish, to see the sense of peace and comfort he has surrounded by his friends. The center sections of the Cathedral had been reserved for UMary, much to the surprise of the regular Sunday Mass goers, and it was good to see so many Minnesota families and friends turn out to greet the pilgrims and pray with them. It was good to see hundreds of college-age men and women enter a Catholic church in quiet reverence, kneel and pray, and receive the Holy Eucharist together.

Lily stayed as close as she could to Brendan — closer even than Jodi. Olivia and her brother Kyle came, too, and sat with us — and after Mass (after a massive group photo at the Cathedral rector’s request) we stood and visited a long while, soaking up what time we could with the young man so like and so different from our eldest son.

When they left to get on the buses, we went downstairs in the Cathedral to show Lily and Trevor, among other things, the massive Lego model of the building. Then we went out to lunch (far more affordable with just two children). While finishing at Chipotle, we got a text from Gabe that the bus from St. Michael and St. Albert was nearly back from D.C., as well, so we hustled home. Jodi dropped Trevor and I off so she would have room in the car for the teens and their stuff, then she and Lily headed to the church. A few minutes later she arrived with Gabe and Emma, joyful and tired, ready for home-cooking and a bed. For a moment it felt like years since we had seen them — and there they were, suddenly, as though they’d never left. I hadn’t noticed feeling partial until the moment I felt whole again. After we visited a bit, I lay down for a nap — and I took a father’s joy in just hearing their voices and noises of their passing as I drifted off to sleep. They were home and the world was centered once again.

So Grateful Tonight…

Yesterday morning we loaded the Suburban, picked up Bren’s girlfriend Olivia are 7:45 a.m. Central time, and headed to Bismarck to fetch our eldest from University of Mary. Olivia rode shotgun (five bucks who can explain why I decided to call her “Coach”) to the campus, and we played the letter game, the license plate game, talked, sang along to the iPod, and ate Hardee’s for lunch in Jamestown, N.D.

We reached UMary and Gabe and Olivia retrieved Bren from his dorm. He came out with a box, a backpack, a duffle bag, a cased guitar, an uncased mandolin, and his heavy Carhartt jacket. We had room for the duffle bag and the guitar–but we stuffed it in, crossed the river into Mandan, and headed south by southwest to the Dennis Ranch in Red Owl, S.D., for supper. Bren and Olivia held the guitar at bay with the backs of their heads. At dusk the deer were moving along the roads; darkness fell quickly, and fog rolled in, so we lost time peering in the the gray-black, watching for movement.
We finally rolled up to Robert and Cindy’s new log house around 6:30 Mountain Time. The whole clan was there, waiting, including Fr. Tyler, who escaped his parishes for a Thanksgiving with his folks, his brothers Tate and Chance, and their families. Cindy, Hope, and Cass finished dinner, wrangled kids, and entertained Jodi, Emma, Trevor, and Olivia, while Bren, Gabe, and I help Robert and his sons move in a massive plank table edged in natural bark just in time for Thanksgiving. We enjoyed burgers and hotdogs, chips and salads, carrot cake, and Emma’s best oatmeal caramel chewies, and good beer (90 Shilling , picked up in Mandan). 
We visited and laughed together until around 9:30 or so, while Lily and little ones explored every corner of the  then rearranged the gear in the Suburban and loaded up for the Venjohns. Gabe needed night driving hours, so he took the wheel, with me navigating. The fog was thick, cutting our speed in half at times, but we rolled into Black Hawk and the house on Suzie Lane at 11:30  or so.  The adults were asleep, but cousins, greeted us. (Such is life: these days the adults turn in early, and the kids stay up to greet the latecomers.)
I woke this morning at 3:30, then again around 5 or so. Dozed until a little after 6, then showered and came went upstairs. Grandma Venjohn was next up, then one by one the rest of the family rose: everyone here but Jason and Carmen, who were hosting her family in Sioux Falls. Carmel rolls and coffee (and a little orange juice) for breakfast. Chris and Tally ran a Turkey Trot in Rapid City. Grandma, Matt and Brenda, and Brad and NaCole worked on snacks and dinner and watched the parade on TV, while Grandpa and our crew headed to 9 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Black Hills.
Their regular priest, from Poland, was sick; the old priest who celebrated Mass looked familiar, and his deep baritone and easy humor called to me from the past. Finally, halfway through the Mass, Jodi whispered, “I think that’s Fr. Bob from Wall,” meaning the priest who was at the Catholic church in Wall, S.D., when we first met and she first lured me back to Mass. I knew as she said it she was right.
He’s on oxygen now, and didn’t stand for his homily. He reminded us we are a thanks-giving people, and that Eucharist means Thanksgiving–then he told the story of a Thanksgiving day in the service, spent in the shadow of an armored personnel carrier in the Mojave Desert, eating MREs. The men were hot, the food (pork and beans) was crummy, and guys were already scarfing it down when their leader asked Father is he would bless their meal. So he did–and it struck him that we expect to feast on Thanksgiving, and to give thanks for all we have, but some people don’t have. He ended the petitions the deacon led with “For all those who only have pork and beans today, we pray to the Lord” and then, “For those who wish they had pork and beans today…”
During the sign of peace, I never more sincerely wished peace to those around me–and I’ve never felt more blessed to receive the Eucharist. We spoke to Father afterward. He didn’t remember us, of course, but knew we knew him, and (I hope) felt the love we have for him.
We got home just in time to watch the Lions-Vikings game. Gabe, Emma, and Trev were wearing Honolulu blue and were heckled by the bulk of Jodi’s family, who are diehard Vikes fans. It was a good game; Lions won a bit before dinner, and we prayed together over the food.
Not pork and beans, but turkey, ham, potatoes, stuffing, rolls, and squash. We ate, we played games, visited more, and some of us dozed. When the girls finally decided it was time for pie, we called Brendan upstairs to sing to him–he turns 19 today. Five different pies (apple, pecan, cherry, pumpkin, and pumpkin cheesecake) and real whipped cream. Brendan got a fleece blanket in UMary colors, three books, a capo and electronic metronome for his guitar, cards, and money. Some of us took a walk, others played Shut the Box and other games. At one point I went downstairs to find Bren, Olivia, and Gabe starting a rosary, so I joined in. Such peace–and such joy that they do this by choice.
We ate a little more a little while ago. Now most of the family is playing cards: Phase 10 in the dining room; Texas Hold’Em in the kitchen. I’m surrounded by voices and laughter and love. Such joy. So grateful tonight.
And we’re here ’til Sunday.
Friends and family, I love you and am grateful for you. God bless you tonight and always.