Be Present to the Present

Note: This post also appears in the St. Michael and St. Albert bulletins this weekend.

Last weekend I visited my parents in Michigan. It’s a 12-hour drive; my sister and I spent two days helping to sort through and organize 50 years of accumulation in their basement—then I drove 12 hours back home. It was a good weekend, in large part because I mostly avoided my phone and computer to focus on where I was, what I was doing and—most importantly—who I was with.

That is no small thing for me, because I slip easily into thinking about tomorrow, next week, the future. I am a planner by nature and struggle with uncertainty, but providentially, I listened to a wonderful audio version of C.S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters on the way to my folks’ place. The book is presented as a series of letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape, who is offering advice to his nephew, a junior tempter trying to lure one particular human soul to Hell.

Continue reading

Mass Hospitality: Welcoming Strangers to Worship

Not long ago, our pastor implemented the practice of having parishioners stand and greet those around them just before Mass begins. Predictably, the reaction was split: Some people like it as a small gesture of warmth, welcome and connection, while others think it’s unnecessary, corny or even disruptive to their preparations to worship God in the Divine Liturgy.

What struck me most among the reactions, however, was something I saw on social media: That standing and saying good morning to each other before Mass is fake in some sense and doesn’t make us more welcoming. This observation bothered me enough that I set out to determine why. Here’s what I discovered in my own heart.

* * * * *

For several years now, Fr. Richards has challenged us to intentionally seek out and introduce ourselves to people we don’t know in the parish, especially people who appear to be new to the community or otherwise disconnected. I have never taken this challenge seriously. Instead, I have a list of rationalizations, excuses and cop-outs that will show up rather poorly when I have to explain them to Jesus. These are just a few: Continue reading

Book Break: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

The genius of C.S. Lewis continues to astound me. I read the Narnia series as a child and liked-but-not-loved them (although The Lord of the Rings has taken on new dimensions now that I am a practicing Christian, so perhaps I should revisit the world in the wardrobe, as well). But as an adult, Lewis’s nonfiction — Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man, and The Weight of Glory — has consistently delivered new spiritual insights and deepened my conversion, and his fictional meditation on the afterlife, The Great Divorce, is one of my favorite books of all time.

Which brings me to The Screwtape Letters. This little book has been on my shelf for quite some time, and my oldest son, Brendan, read it a year or more ago and loved it. The book, ostensibly, is a collection of found letters from the demon Screwtape, an experienced administrator in the bureaucracy of Hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a young tempter striving to lure a budding Christian away from salvation. The letters show the subtlety and patience of the diabolical, the insidious ways in which we are knocked off the straight and narrow path, and the relentlessness with which we are pursued by the “roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

I saw myself in nearly every letter, as Screwtape outlines the fledgling Christian’s typical stages of conversion and the best ways in which to turn his progress into regress. The book is darkly funny, which makes the medicine easier to swallow. For example, Screwtape admonishes Wormwood for being naively enthusiastic about the outbreak of war in Europe, saying that while human death and destruction are always to be praised and enjoyed, it is not, in itself, necessarily helpful in the damnation of souls, because A) it affords opportunities for men to exercise saving virtue as well as condemning vice, and B) it can end lives in an instant — snatching souls for the Devil just as easily as from God, and undoing years of patient temptation. He also advises his nephew that tempting humans to great and glorious wickedness can backfire into stunning conversions, and that small temptations that lead them slowly, slowly away from God — all unaware of the danger — is just as good for their Father Below, and besides that, more enjoyable for the skill required.

We never hear directly from Wormwood, but we can hear Screwtape’s displeasure with his dear nephew’s failures and mistakes and begin to sense his affection for the young tempter is only marginally different from his ravenous hunger for condemned souls. My volume (pictured above) included an extra essay, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in which the demon lifts his glass to toast the Tempters Training College and uses the opportunity to explain to the new graduates how Hell is leveraging the public education system on Earth to promote the one thing democracy and virtue cannot survive: forced equality. It is biting and brilliant — and contains one of my favorite passages, about why small, subtle temptations and sins can be better for Hell that bold, passionate wickedness (remember, in this passage from the demon’s perspective, everything is inverted, hence “the Enemy” is God):

I have said that to secure the damnation of these little souls, these creatures that have almost ceased to be individual, is a laborious and tricky work. But if proper pains and skill are expended, you can be fairly confident of the result. The great sinners seem easier to catch. But then they are incalculable. After you have played them for seventy years, the Enemy may snatch them from your claws in the seventy-first. They are capable, you see, of real repentance. They are conscious of real guilt. They are, if things take the wrong turn, as ready to defy the social pressures around them for the Enemy’s sake as they were to defy them for ours. It is in some ways more troublesome to track and swat an evasive wasp than to shoot, at close range, a wild elephant. But the elephant is more troublesome if you miss. — C.S. Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

This is definitely spiritual reading, which you can apply to yourself if you try. A brief example might suffice to illustrate this point: in one letter, Screwtape advises Wormwood on what a huge difference a seemingly small tweak in the language of his “patient” can have on the fate of his soul. He urges his nephew to encourage the man to think of his duty to practice charity as unselfishness. Unselfishness has the advantage, Screwtape says, of turning a positive attribute (charity) into a negative (UN-selfishness), and an external, active habit into something more akin to navel-gazing: inwardly focused, inactive, and a potential source of pride.

He then goes into great detail as to how this commitment to unselfishness can be used to increase resentment and secret pride in marriages and families, as men and women forego the pleasures of this life not out of genuine love and desire of the good for another, but out of a selfish desire to appear unselfish:

“Let’s do what you want to do.”

“No, no, I insist, let’s do what you prefer.”

“Well, I don’t want to anymore.”

“Fine, we’ll do neither.”

She doesn’t even appreciate how unselfish I am!

I don’t need his pity — two can play at this game! 

Like The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters led me to think more deeply about the little things that draw me daily away from God, and underscored for me that getting to Heaven is something akin to long-range marksmanship: a tiny deviation at this end can, over the distance of years, result in missing the mark entirely. Yet it never ceases to be hopeful: the demons admit they are at a disadvantage and cannot challenge God directly — and they have no understanding at all of charity, and dismiss it as a lie God has told in service of a secondary goal they have yet to discover. They cannot fathom why He loves us so.

Book Break: Three Quick Reads

I’m playing catch-up on “reviewing” a few faith-building books I’ve read in recent months. I recommend all three, depending on where you and your family are on your faith journey.

Blessed Are the Bored in Spirit by Mark Hart

cee7e-boredinspiritMark Hart is a former Catholic youth minister, self-proclaimed Bible geek, and vice president of LIFE TEEN…and a recovering cultural Catholic who was just going through the motions in his younger years. Blessed Are the Bored in Spirit: A Young Catholic’s Search For Meaning is a short (less than 150 pages), light, and humorous look at the temptations, attitudes, and obstacles that keep teens and adults lukewarm in their faith. If you’ve heard Hart speak (as in this video we shared at LIFT this past year), you’ve got some idea of the tone and level of this book. I recommend it for teens, young adults, and family discussions.

Jesus Shock by Peter Kreeft

19ac5-jesusshockThe title and cover of Peter Kreeft’s 176-page Jesus Shock make you wonder if it’s by that Peter Kreeft. It is. Kreeft  is a professor of philosophy, lecturer, and author of countless books on theology, philosophy, history, and apologetics — but Jesus Shock is the result of asking God, “What do You want me to write?” The answer, he says, was “Me.” Kreeft asks questions of his readers to help them probe their knowledge of and attitude toward Jesus, and uses Scripture to show how the Incarnation, the God-Man, the Word of God and Savior of the World, is everything we long for and anything but boring. This a somewhat deeper and more academic read that Mark Hart’s book, and more clever than humorous, but still very accessible for adults and motivated teens. It’s a good book for self-reflection or discussion.

The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis

5a453-weightofgloryAnd now for something completely different: The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis is a collection of beloved homilies, lectures, and essays by the great writer and apologist, on topics as diverse as the problems with pacifism, why study of the liberal arts matters, the challenge of forgiveness, the incoherence of a strictly scientific worldview, what membership means (and what it should mean), and more. These individual pieces are not directly related to each other, except by authorship, but they present a picture of Lewis’s Christian outlook and concerns about the direction of modern culture that have stood the test of time and are perhaps more relevant today than ever. If you enjoy Lewis’s writings beyond the Narnia series, or if you want to dig more deeply into Christianity in the modern world, brew some coffee, get comfortable, and enjoy. This book is great for personal reflection and deeper discussion, especially if you like stretching your intellectual muscles a bit!

Book Break: The Great Divorce

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had a profound Good Friday, but that was only half the story. The other half of the story is that, early that Friday morning, I sought out some spiritual reading for the day, and wound up with a new top-five favorite book: C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Of course, when reading spiritually, the Bible is always a good place to start, and I’m also making slow but steady progress through Dante’s Divine Comedy a canto or two a day. But I wanted something fresh, something I could possibly read in a day, and something related to the penitential character of Good Friday and the great saving act of our Lord.

On a hunch, I took C.S, Lewis’s The Great Divorce from the bookshelf. I have great regard for Lewis as a writer and had heard good things about the book, particularly from my good friend Angie at Take Time for Him.

Lewis had me hooked from the preface, which begins by explaining the title of his fantasy:

BLAKE WROTE the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have written of their Divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant. But in some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable “either-or”; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain.

The book begins with our narrator in line at a bus stop in a grey and gloomy town, surrounded by people he doesn’t know and wouldn’t want to — unsure of where he is or where he’s going. It unfolds like Dante’s Divine Comedy in modern miniature: a pilgrim’s journey from hell to the edge of heaven in just 128 pages. I’m reading Dante now, too, canto by canto, and it is powerful in its way, but this held my attention from the preface to the end, with every word relevant to this sinner and this sinful time. Lewis articulates with poetic beauty and unflinching honesty the glory of God and his angels and saints, the pain of detaching from this world, and the stubbornness, the grasping, the pride and distrust that keep even “good” people from choosing God and reaching Heaven.

The book challenges the reader particularly on the Greatest Commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). On this point, Dante provides an unintended summary (being some seven centuries older) which, as providence would have it, I read over lunch on Easter Monday. In Purgatorio, Canto IX, Lines 127-132, he writes the words of the angel guarding the gates of Purgatory proper:

“I hold these keys from Peter, who advised
‘Admit to many, rather than too few,
if they but cast themselves before your feet.'” 
Then pushing back the portal’s holy door,
“Enter,” he said to us, “but first be warned;
to look back means to go back out again.”

We sin when we put anything — even the blessings of life on this good Earth — ahead of loving and seeking God. Pilgrim after pilgrim turns his or her back on Heaven because the cost of entry is too high: the cost of admitting that they are mere creatures and of letting go of their earthly pleasures, passions, and prejudices. They want Heaven on their own terms and choose Hell to feel like they have some say in the matter. They cannot stand the humiliation of grace as an unmerited gift.

It is a powerful book: perhaps tied at this moment with Steinbeck’s East of Eden as my favorite of all time (although Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings (which I still need to review as an adult) and Sigrid Unset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy are right up there, too!) It paints a stark and revealing picture of how far so many of us have to go to be purged of all sin. So I will end this post with Lewis’s words from the Preface, on a hopeful note:

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot “develop” into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, “with backward mutters of dissevering power”– or else not. It is still “either-or.” If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell. I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.”

The Great Divorce. Find it. Read it.