Able-Bodied

good-friday-2264164_1920Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:27

Over the past three years I’ve been blessed to serve as faith formation director for our parish and to write a monthly column in our church bulletin. I’ve tried in that time to urge us all to discipleship: to cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus every day, listening and responding to what he asks of us, seeking the lost and leading them to heaven.

It’s a big job, to be sure, but we are not alone. We are one body, with Christ as our head. Through the Apostles, the bishops, our priests, and our baptism, His mission of saving souls has been given to each of us. Individually we are ill-suited to the task of redeeming the world, but together?

Together we are unstoppable.

We are strong. Twenty-two hundred families strong. We have the strength of the first-time mother bearing life big and round as the world beneath her heart and lungs; the bleary-eye father who sleeps little and talks less, but drinks coffee in the predawn darkness and heads to a job he tolerates for the family he loves. We are strong with the prayers of our elders in faith: paper-skinned ladies and shuffling old men, praying through the pain of fallen children and failing health and busted systems and a broken world. We are strong with Mass-going, Jesus-adoring teens and noisy children climbing over pews and running in the aisles and generally treating God’s House as their own—praise Him for that misperception! We are strong with the sacraments: with Sundays made long by baptisms, and solemn Eucharistic liturgies, and too many confessions for our number of priests.

We have the strength of history: a growing Catholic school and three Catholic churches before this one, each bigger than the one before, yielding vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

We are able-bodied, because we are His body: hardened by work and walking together, strengthened by prayer and fasting, fearless and capable, even unto death.

We are that Person. Do you see Him in us? I do.

Too often, however, we fall short. We struggle to find new volunteers and exhaust those we have. We do what’s immediate or comfortable for ourselves, out of guilt or necessity, without asking what God wants of us. We each pull our own direction, and the tension holds our parish suspended, neither falling behind nor surging ahead.

Imagine what we could achieve if each part of the Body—each organ, muscle, bone, and cell—found his or her purpose and did just exactly that one thing, to the best of his or her ability. Imagine that Body, with Christ’s head guiding, Christ’s blood coursing through, Christ’s own flesh sustaining. Imagine that Body, working wonders in the world.

Together we are unstoppable. What’s stopping us?

A New Mission

By now it’s pretty well gotten around that I’ll be leaving the role of faith formation director at the end of June. A number of you have said, “I can’t wait to hear what you’ll be doing next,” to which I reply, “Me, too!”  On the other hand, we have taken great leaps forward in the past three years, and I have never felt unappreciated or under-compensated working for the parish. It’s good work—it’s just not my work.

 I’ve made a discovery this past year: I have an evangelist’s heart.

I am competent at many things, and even skilled at some of them. I can be an administrator, a catechist, a communicator, an administrative assistant, and a laborer. I can do all sorts of things when needed. But I have an evangelist’s heart.

And, thanks be to God, I can write. I’ve known this for some time, and every staff or personal retreat I’ve been on for the past decade or more has resulted in me saying to my bride, “Whatever happens from here forward, I need to write.” I’ve been told the same thing countless times, by family and friends, acquaintances and total strangers. I’ve never made a successful go of writing on my own, however—I think primarily because, until now, I’ve tried to do it on my own. I’ve never really asked what God wanted me to write and waited for an answer.

I have always been the least rational and most emotional of all my male friends. I blunder through the world heart-first, find beauty in strange places, share too much, talk too much, and cry more than my bride. It’s embarrassing. I’m not good at casual friendships: most of the time I either go deep, or I can’t link a name to a face.  Any given week I love humanity and hate it, sometimes at the same time.

But when I share from the heart, when I speak or write about things I care about—faith, marriage, family—it moves people. When I talk about my own journey from part-time Catholic kid to an Ivy-educated agnostic with a porn problem to a faithful husband and father, it touches people. And I want to do that.

What’s more: God wants me to do that. (I finally asked.) No more pretending these gifts are weaknesses or wishing He made me differently. I am what He made me, and I’m only as free as I am obedient to His will.

It’s exciting: I feel like an apostle being called by Jesus to follow. And it’s terrifying: I don’t like reaching out to new people, because loving those people involves time, effort, and usually pain. Plus I can’t see my way forward. Peter and Andrew, James, and John dropped their nets and left their boats behind. Matthew left his post, his money, his whole former life. I have a primary vocation as husband and father. I can see no way to do what God is asking of me in my free time, and no simple way to make a living. I can’t see a logical next step.

So for the first time in my life, I find no solution other than utter abandon, to give everything to the Lord and let Him sort it out.

Dive in. Heart-first.

Book Break: Lord of the World

This past spring I ran across an Aleteia blog post relaying that both our current pontiff, Pope Francis, and our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, have recommended the same novel to the Catholic reading public. The book–Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World–is a dystopian novel about the coming of the Antichrist and the end of the world. So I bought a cheap copy for Kindle and have since devoured it. I could not put it down.

Monsignor Benson was the son of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury who converted to Catholicism and was ordained a priest. Though he and his work are not as well known today, he was praised in his time by great Catholic writers like Hilaire Belloc, and today by the likes of Joseph Pearce. Pearce has this to say about Lord of the World:

The world depicted in Lord of the World is one where creeping secularism and Godless humanism have triumphed over religion and traditional morality. It is a world where philosophical relativism has triumphed over objectivity; a world where, in the name of tolerance, religious doctrine is not tolerated. It is a world where euthanasia is practiced widely and religion hardly practiced at all. The lord of this nightmare world is a benign-looking politician intent on power in the name of “peace,” and intent on the destruction of religion in the name of “truth.” In such a world, only a small and shrinking Church stands resolutely against the demonic “Lord of the World.”

The novel was written in 1907, but from the world it creates, I would have guessed it had been published after one or both of the World Wars. It does feel prophetic, though I’ve ceased to be surprised by this, given the number of literary classics I’ve read in recent years that seem as though they fit our times. But Benson’s book is short, gripping, dark, terrifying at times–and beautifully represents the challenges of living a Catholic faith in a world with little use for it.
That said, it is a very Catholic book and may not be enjoyed as much by non-Catholics (unless, God willing, they have a heart very much open to learning about the faith). The cheap download for Kindle have numerous typos, but Ave Maria Press has a new edition out for those who prefer print anyway. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

O’Connor, or Three Things to Love About The Violent Bear It Away

Blogger’s Note: Several years ago, I agreed to my friend Jacqui’s challenge to read 15 Classics in 15 Weeks. Though 15 weeks is long past, this, at last, is 15 of 15!

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“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” 
— Matthew 11:12 (Douay-Rheims Bible); epigraph of Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away

I am somewhat embarrassed to say that this was my first venture into Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, and what an introduction. It is a dark, hard, unflinching work, awful and mesmerizing, like a wreck along the highway–and yet strangely hopeful even as it descends. 

The book tells the story of Francis Marion Tarwater, an orphan boy in the mid-20th century deep South, raised with backwoods, biblical faith by his great uncle who believes himself to be a prophet and the boy to be his successor. When the uncle dies (at the very beginning of the story, so not a spoiler), the boy begins a very real spiritual struggle to discover the truth of this calling and the fate of his soul. The book builds a sense of dread even as the reader clings to threads of hopefulness, and erupts in violence both in present tense and in flashbacks–calling to mind a number of interpretations for the title and scripture verse it references.

I hesitate to say much more, for two reasons: first, this is a novel to be experienced, not spoiled or “set up,” and second, I honestly am not entirely sure what to make of it. I decided to wait a day or so before writing Three Things to Love, in order to reflect on the book–and I purposely didn’t read any commentaries. This morning, however, I read a couple of reflections on it by other people, and it appears I am not alone. O’Connor reportedly agonized over it, and readers for years have struggled with its deeper meanings and implications. On the surface, it is about the persistent pull on our hearts of both God and the world, and each person’s struggle to find freedom: will they take up the Lord’s yoke and find that it is light, or cast off the shackles of belief and live this life, for this world? It can be read (and enjoyed, after a fashion) at this level, but I am convinced there is deeper meaning here and will read it again someday.

So with that preamble, Three Things to Love about The Violent Bear It Away:
  • The Descriptions. Unlike several of the other books I read for this challenge (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Melville), this is a short book but still ripe with detail and description. O’Connor uses sparse, poetic language; metaphor; and simile to sculpt with words; the results a real, living people unalterably carved in stone.
  • Unflinching Honesty. O’Connor does not shy away from the darkness in humanity, and shares the thoughts and actions of her characters with relentless, sometimes shocking, honesty. At the same time, she does not succumb to the modern tendency to dwell on violence with pornographic detail–her matter-of-fact simplicity makes the book that much more compelling.
  • Eternal Themes. Faith and reason. Freedom and destiny. The nature of love. The spiritual combat. Here they are again: themes that arise in so much of great literature through the ages appearing again in 1960, set in the south of the United States. 
I feel as though I am sharing very little about this book, so maybe some comparisons would help. It reminds me in ways of two other books I enjoyed: Steinbeck’s East of Eden (one of my all-time favorite novels) and a more recent novel, Tobit’s Dog. If you like, check out those reviews to gauge whether The Violent Bear It Away might work for you.

Tolstoy, or Three Things to Love About Anna Karenina

Blogger’s Note: Several years ago, I agreed to my friend Jacqui’s challenge to read 15 Classics in 15 Weeks. Though 15 weeks is long past, the end is near, this being number 14 of 15.

I am not like other men (or at least, not like many that I know). I have just past my forty-second birthday, and just read Leo Tolstoy’s immense novel Anna Karenina, by personal choice—and I loved it. 

My friend Fr. Tyler (from the Prairie Father blog) recommended it to me as “the greatest love story ever born in the mind of man and put to paper.” He has never led me astray in terms of fiction, but other men might not see that as a recommendation. I mentioned to a friend a week or so ago that I was reading it, and asked if he had ever. He laughed and said, “Ah…no.”

“It’s a great book,” I said, and again he smiled: “I don’t doubt it.” And that was that.

It is a big book (736 pages in my edition, with narrow margins and smallish type), full of Russian names and nicknames—Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Lëvin, Prince Stepan “Stiva” Arkadyevich Oblonsky, Russian place names and politics, and Russian aristocrats who flavor their conversations with French and occasionally German. (Thank goodness for Google Translate!)

Despite these difficulties, I struggled to put it down. It manages to be an amazingly detailed portrait of time, place, and people, and yet remarkably universal and relevant to this time and place: 21st century America and even the 2016 election. It is heartbreakingly tragic, and incredible hopeful and uplifting. It is newly ranked among my favorite books of all time.

Without further ado, Three Things to Love About Anna Karenina:

  • Complexity of Characterization: Tolstoy sees his characters clearly and portrays them in all their complexity. Think of this: Anna is written as captivatingly beautiful; men and women alike can’t help but respond to her appearance and charm—and neither can you. This beauty could seem stereotypical or convenient for the sake of the story. It could be hammered away at like a one-note tune. But Anna is never simply beautiful.* She is captivating and tragic: people are drawn to her and repelled; her passions are apparent; her motives unknown even to herself. Tolstoy makes you love her and despair, much like her husband. And all of the characters are this way. Tolstoy is a keen observer of people: his descriptions are not of men, but of  intellectual men, simple men, dashing and pasty men, dandies and duds (sometimes within the same character).The worst have their qualities; the best have their faults. None are flawless, and so we believe in them.
  • The Art of Pacing: Tolstoy’s novel is peopled by people, and they live as we do, in time, lost in thought and out in the world. He details the lives, habits, thoughts and appearances of his characters and weaves together different story lines in a way that is simultaneous clear and keeps the reader wanting more. I had to fight the urge to flip forward when he jumped from one thread to another. As a writer, I realized in reading this that I rush everything: descriptions, details, day-to-day life. I leap from scene to scene, dialogue to dialogue, crisis to crisis—and only sketch the people involved. Tolstoy takes the time it takes. I could learn something here.
  • Religion and Culture. In March of 2011, I wrote of The Brother Karamazov, “Dostoevsky does not shy away from religion and philosophy, permitting his characters to speak at length (and in character, so not always clearly) about the existence of God, morality, humanity, science, psychology, justice, the state, and more. I was struck by how a book written circa 1880 could have so much to say about our world in 2011.” Replace Dostoevsky with Tolstoy and 2011 with 2016, and it applies here. I have been struck throughout this challenge by the fact that the true classics of literature capture the universal condition of humanity. They are not old, but timeless. It’s a pity that increasingly these books appear not to be read.
One final note: What I loved most about the book (but didn’t share as one of the Three Things, because it’s so personal to me) is that I saw myself in it. Anna’s story is obviously the focus, but the protagonist of the main parallel story, Konstantin Levin, is an idealistic, emotional man who wants to understand how the world works, but when he engages in society, in politics, it makes no sense. He drives himself to the brink by contemplating what it all means; he wants marriage and family and life in the country—and yet he struggles to enjoy these things with all the pressures he puts on his heart. 
The description of Levin before and during the birth of his first son brought me to tears. (I am not like most other men.) And finally, this:

I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!

My list of 15 classics has changed somewhat over time; my next and final book will be much shorter: The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor. Back soon!
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* I’m free-associating now: we recently watched an old Western on Netflix, The River of No Return, with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. God bless Monroe, but she is a kind cinematic shorthand. She does what’s required: sing, seduce, weep, laugh, but her role in the story is, as our elder daughter once characterized her job as a toddler, to sit here and look beautiful. Anna is not that. At all.