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.

Long Goodbye

It’s a strange sensation, like a high-tensile wire stretched six hours west to a bluff above Bismarck and the Missouri River, a steady thrum, more felt than heard, reminding me that a part of me is there. Not gone, but definitely not here, and I can’t know from one moment to the next what he’s about. We are six hours distant, so I know less about his day-to-day — but I am more keenly aware of him than I have been in years. His absence is a presence, palpable, in our home.

I am wearing an old hardware-store t-shirt he left behind.

I haven’t felt this sort of connection to my eldest son since he first came home with us — the heaviest ten pounds I ever lifted — and I realized he was ours to shape and raise to manhood. Then the connection was direct, bare skin on bare skin, almost frighteningly close: his little chest expanding and contracting, the soft spot where his skull had yet to form pulsing, his every need and discomfort so close to the surface we could almost feel it. Now it’s this invisible strand from one eggish Thorpian occiput to another. He’s always at the back of my mind.

I wonder if he feels it, too?

* * * * *

At different points this past summer, it felt like such a blessing that the University of Mary started late. We planned an August send-off, since Brendan didn’t want a grad party and had lots of time to plan and few conflicting parties to contend with. As we watched more and more friends drop their teens off at college, we thought it was helping to prepare ourselves for this weekend. Perhaps it did. But the past three weeks or so began to feel like a very long goodbye. Brendan left his job at the hardware store at the end of July, and his electrician’s job a few weeks back. His band, Pabulum, played their Final Jam. (They insist they are done as a group, which would be a pity.) All of his friends expect Olivia (who is a senior this year) left for college, and he started packing his things, some for Bismarck, some for storage.

The week before last he took a solo road trip to Michigan to spend some down time with my folks. As God’s providence would have it, a high-school friend of mine has a son who was transferring to St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul this fall; he and Bren were best friends in preschool, and Will and his stuff needed a ride to Minnesota. They came back together, two peas in a pod, and Will dropped right into our family. When we took him to the seminary a day or so later, it was actually a little emotional — call it practice or anticipation, we were beginning to feel the ties to Brendan being stretched.

Last Monday, Jodi and I took Brendan out to supper and to get sheets, supplies, and decor for his dorm. We had such a good time eating his favorite food (Mexican, this time at El Bamba), listening to his current favorite band (Icelandic blues-rock outfit Kaleo — Bren, his friends and I are going to see them in October); making him pick out dishes, sheets, and towels when he couldn’t care less. It was a great evening.

And then this weekend. Originally only Trevor wanted to make the trek to UMary, until Gabe realized he could potentially get 12 hours of driving toward his license. Once he decided to go, Emma jumped aboard, realizing that otherwise she would be left to babysit Lily alone. So all seven of us went — the largest single-family contingent I saw on campus.  Jodi and I took Friday off, and we left early in the afternoon so Bren could connected with his NDSU friends in Fargo and catch our local high school’s football game against Moorhead. He spent the night on campus; the rest of us in a hotel. Seeing his friends joyful and comfortable on campus, was reassuring; arriving at UMary itself was doubly so: simple, joyful, peacful.

Bismarck’s Big Boy Drive-In — unique in my experience,
with menu items you don’t see anyplace else. Google it!

We met his roommate, Ethan, a nursing student and Vikings fan from western Minnesota, and Ethan’s parents — they seem like a wonderful family — and heard from UMary president Monsignor James Shea, who told the students with clear affection and blunt honesty that their lives were not their own, but a gift for others, and unless they find a way to spend themselves in love, they will have wasted their time here. He told us parents, as well, to step away and allow our children to stumble and fall that they may learn to stand on their own.

He strikes me as a good man, and I couldn’t be happier to entrust Brendan’s young mind and character to him these next few years.

One other speaker shared an Erma Bombeck quote, comparing raising children to flying a kite: letting out more and more string until ultimately the tether breaks and the kite soars away on its own. It’s not a bad metaphor, but I see things differently. This connection between us is stretched thin, but not to breaking; it is keen, sensitive, and strong, and though it can be tangled, wound about the world, stretched to invisibility and nigh untraceable, it cannot be broken.

I told him as much, in a letter I left in one of his boxes. No matter how far away he goes, I am here waiting for his return. Because he is mine, and I love him.

When we finally decided, after dinner on campus, that it was time to head home, Bren walked with us to the Suburban. He hugged each of us (Mom and Lily more than once) and told us he loved us. He told the older kids to keep doing their thing: Emma, to keep baking; Trevor, to keep drumming; Gabe, to keep being himself and making people laugh. Lily’s last words to him from inside the Suburban: “Love you, Brendan! Don’t do anything bad out here!”

We’ve done the best we could. I think he’ll be alright.

Time Flies: A Thorp Family Update

The most recent photo of us all, with my folks and
sister’s family thrown in for good measure.

I’ve remarked more times than I can count in the past year: “My age doesn’t bother me; it’s the fact that Brendan is heading to college.” It’s my kids’ ages that get to me — not the the additional salt in my pepper, the aches and pains, the fact that I’m often tired and can rarely sleep.

This past year has flown, and with a grad party and a trip to Poland for World Youth Day, the summer promises to be even faster. So I thought I’d offer you all an update on our family before we blink and the leaves fall again.

Prom-goers: Brendan and Olivia

Brendan, as you may have heard, is headed to UMary in the fall. He will graduate early in June in the top 10 in his class, with a varsity letter in wrestling and local scholarships from Knights of Columbus Council 4174 (of which he is one of the newest members), the American Legion, and the Hanover Athletic Association. He loves Ultimate Frisbee (actually all four of our teens/tweens do), dabbles in swing-dancing, and is still happily dating Olivia. (Last night’s consisted of Adoration and ice cream.) He is still working at the hardware store, and just starting a second job with a local electrical contractor for the summer. He loves his bass and his music (Foo Fighters is his current favorite band), and yesterday, he bought an acoustic guitar for song writing and kicks. And he has a pipe, which he smokes on occasion.

Swing-dancers: Gabe and Kate

Gabe is now the tallest in our family, by perhaps a quarter inch. He is working on getting his driver’s license this summer, helping our friend’s taxidermy business, and preparing for his junior year of high school. He was confirmed this month, was just inducted into the National Honor Society like his older brother (NHS at our high school does a great deal in service to the school and community), and will be one of the leaders of the high-school pro-life group in the fall. He played soccer but didn’t wrestle this year, and is on the fence about next year — too many other interests, including reading and writing, teaching himself piano, learning Quenya (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish language), and swing-dancing. In this last activity, he works hard and excels — especially when paired with his friend and fellow Lord of the Rings geek Kate. They aren’t dating, just dancing and discerning together.

Emma and two of her flute-playing besties

Emma is easily the tallest female in the house and explored the high-school for the first time yesterday as an incoming freshman. She played volleyball in the fall and is running track this spring — plus playing flute in the band and woodwind ensemble and singing in the middle-school choir. The music, at least, will continue in high school. Emma has followed her brothers to help with the church’s Core Team and is also an avid swing-dancer (which means boys); Gabe’s dance-partner is one of Rosebud’s mentors in becoming a young woman of virtue. Emma dabbles in piano, too; reads voraciously, and bakes like our family is twice the size (and it will be, unless we share her goodies). She is hoping to start baby-sitting soon and wants a new dog almost as much as her dad.

Trevor rocking

Trevor will be our sole middle-schooler next year, and plans to work out this summer in hopes of wrestling on the school team in seventh grade. He is a rhythmically gift version of the boy his father was: a creative thinker and storyteller, easily distracted, heart-on-his-sleeve…but coordinated enough to rock a drum kit (or the kitchen table, a couch cushion, his thighs…), to play basic piano music with relative ease, and to dance to almost any song when the mood strikes him. Also an avid reader and a good student, but with a style all his own: whereas Gabe has a hat collection and wears them on occasion, Trevor wears a brown fedora each day to school. He shows signs of a mechanical knack (another difference from his father) and still loves Legos.

Typical Lily

Lily completed her year of Catholic co-op preschool yesterday. She is colorful, funny, opinionated, and creative, with an ever-expanding vocabulary and a precocious sense of humor for a four-year-old, included puns and word-play and physical comedy along with the typical (non-sensical and never-ending) knock-knock jokes. She, too, likes to dance and to watch her swing-dancing elders, and she makes her siblings friends her own whenever she has the chance. She, too, has sprouted in the past year — she is a head taller than her plastic barn playset she so enjoyed last summer — and although she rarely eats a lot at a sitting, she would eat constantly if allowed. And she loves superheroes, especially Batman and the Justice Leaque.

Jodi and I are well — and abundantly blessed, in the midst of such breakneck activity. My bride often says it feels like only a short while ago that Brendan got on the bus for kindergarten the first time, and so it seems to be as well. We will have been married 20 years this August, and for my part, I am as happy as I have ever been.

That said, I had to be reminded of something not long ago, with the help of a priest friend: as Christians, spouses, parents, we have a serious call in this world, which requires a serious, heartfelt response — but none of that means that God doesn’t desire our happiness or enjoyment of this life. He came that His joy may be ours — shame on us if that joy does not pervade all that we do, and all that we are. It can seem terribly romantic to think ourselves unworthy of the blessings in our lives — the soft warmth of the one who lies next to us in the wee hours before waking, or the noise of a full and laughing house — and to strive and sacrifice to show our appreciation and earn our worth. But in truth, we are worthy — intrinsically — as God’s beloved children. So while I must not take my beautiful bride and these five awesome children for granted, I can love them best if I realize that my worth, and each of theirs, comes from our creation in His image and in resting in his embrace.

We are so blessed. As sinners, we don’t deserve it…but what else should we expect from such a God as this?

Last summer…where does the time go?