Book Break: The Seven Storey Mountain

MertonAutobioCoverLast night I finished Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which Venerable Fulton Sheen described as “a Twentieth Century form of the Confessions of St. Augustine” and which has entered my list of favorite books, perhaps in the top ten. Unlike some religious autobiographies written under inspiration or strictly under obedience, The Seven Storey Mountain is written by a writer, a craftsman and a poet. It is beautiful—honest and heartbreaking, profound and inspiring. It also provides a window into “enlightened” American culture between the world wars, providing a strong and particularly Catholic rationale as to how we got to this point.

Merton’s answer? In a word, sin. His, mine and yours. Continue reading

Wednesday Witness: Who Are You Pointing To?

The Superbowl was this past Sunday. Midway through the evening, social media exploded with critiques of the halftime show, which apparently featured two high-profile female performers in various states of undress dancing provocatively while sharing a medley of their musical hits.

I am not sorry we missed it.

I won’t rehash what I’ve read on the subject. The reason we did not watch was because a year or two ago, after repeatedly venting about the content of the halftime show and even some of the commercials, we agreed as a family to stop watching. When Superbowl Sunday rolls around, we prepare the usual snacks and treats, gather around the TV…and watch a movie.* We are not big football fans, and it occurred to us that it was a waste of time and energy to watch a game we didn’t particularly care about in order to see questionable commercial content and to be subjected to yet another pop-culture skin flick. It wasn’t easy to take that first step “out of the loop,” but honestly, we haven’t regretted it.

This is not to say you can’t enjoy football or the Superbowl. But I was struck by the volume of social media posts, articles and commentary that began with some variation of, “Thanks for exposing my child to X, Y and Z during the halftime show. They shouldn’t have to see that.”

They don’t have to see it—and as consumers and parents, we have the power and the responsibility to ensure they don’t.

Providentially, the next morning, the daily gospel was Mark 5:1-20. Bishop Robert Barron’s scripture reflection focused on the age-old practice of scapegoating: projecting our anxieties and anger onto a particular person or group of persons in order to preserve unity in our community. Bishop Barron suggested that we could interpret the numerous demons possessing the man living among the tombs as all the fears and frustrations of the people in that territory. They may not have liked the demoniac, but they knew him. They had a scapegoat. When Jesus sets him free and casts the demons into a great herd of swine, the people do not rejoice that their neighbor has been restored to his right mind. Instead, they are afraid and beg Jesus to leave.

How often are we uncomfortable with seeing and claiming our part in the evils of the world? How comforting it is to see someone else as the villain—to gawk, point and howl at wickedness instead of changing something in our own lives to prevent its spread!

How many years in a row did I shake my head at the garbage on our television but resist cutting the cable?

In last Sunday’s bulletin, I referenced Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. This morning I read his account of learning that war was again breaking out in Europe:

There was something else in my own mind—the recognition: “I am responsible for this. My sins have done this. Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too…” It was a very sobering thought, and yet its deep and probing light by its very truth eased my mind a little. I made up my mind to go to confession and Communion on the First Friday of September.

I knelt at the altar rail and on this first day of the Second World War received from the hand of the priest, Christ in the host, the same Christ Who was being nailed again to the cross by the effect of my sins, and the sins of the whole selfish, stupid, idiotic world of men.

I have to admit I was caught off guard when I read this—the vehemence with which Merton incriminates himself, and at the same time, the sense of relief he feels in coming to terms that he is in company with all of mankind, all to blame and all loved and redeemed by Christ.

There is an image often shared with children: When you point at someone else, the rest of your fingers point back at you. My wish for myself and all of you is that, as often us possible, we point to Jesus.

——-

* This year, appropriately enough, it was an annual favorite: Groundhog Day. I understand a Jeep ad based on the movie was one of the highlights of Sunday evening.

* * * * *

Blogger’s Note: This post first appeared as part of the Wednesday Witness blog series on the St. Michael Catholic Church website.

We’ll Always Have Poland

Poland Family

Last Sunday we were blessed to host a party of sorts. What started as my attempt repay the “Poland daughters” who took me out to dinner for my birthday last fall  turned into a mini-World Youth Day reunion, with many of the teens and a couple of the adults from our trip to Krakow a year ago.

We visited, prayed together, and shared a meal: grilled kielbasa and pierogies, pasta and sauce and salad, cookies and root beer floats. We shared our favorite memories and laughed and laughed. We talked about future plans—many of my Poland daughters are starting college this year. And I think we all longed to go back to visit the Motherland.

The next morning I thought I should re-share the post I wrote after the pilgrimage—only to realize I never wrote a recap. I thought about doing a standard Top-10 list, but no matter how I counted or grouped things together, I had too much to share.

So I’ll keep this to three moments that stand out to me above the others. Continue reading

Go Ahead: Be a Stick In the Mud

I watched the Super Bowl last night with my bride and, at times, my kids. They came and went as it held their interest, and I spent the second half contemplating why we consume this (or why it consumes us) year after year.

The game was exciting to the finish, marred at the end by an odd play call that sealed the victory for the Patriots, followed by a borderline brawl as the Seahawks saw the championship slipping away. But the halftime show and commercials were what really sparked my thinking. Unlike past years, last night there were only a couple of commercials that made me happy the younger kids had already gone downstairs to play — unfortunately, one was a movie promo, which means not only will we be seeing it for months, but there’s a feature-length version somewhere. The halftime show, on the other hand, once again had me talking to my three teens about what’s wrong with the world. It was a short, pointed conversation, since halfway through the performance, my eldest went downstairs to practice his bass and the other two voiced their agreement with my rant and tuned out (from the show, and likely me, as well).


I try to stay somewhat familiar with popular music to know what my kids are exposed to, so I watched the whole thing. Afterward I watched Facebook to see what friends, family, and the general public thought. As expected, opinion was polarized between fans of Katy Perry and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot (the female rapper who joined Perry onstage) and people who don’t like their styles of music. But I was struck by the number of comments in the middle — people offering some variation on the theme, “At least this year it was kid-friendly.”

Really?

Call me a prude if you wish, but Perry’s lyrics, antics, and outfits are not kid-friendly. Consider just the songs we heard last night: “This was never the way I planned, not my intention. I got so brave, drink in hand, lost my discretion. It’s not what I’m used to, just wanna try you on. I’m curious for you, caught my attention” (I Kissed a Girl). Or “We drove to Cali and got drunk on the beach. Got a motel and built a fort out of sheets. … Let you put your hands on me in my skin-tight jeans. Be your teenage dream tonight” (Teenage Dream).

Of course, these pale in comparison to Missy Elliot’s Work It lyrics, which I will not post here. Elliot’s verbal dexterity is such that I couldn’t make out most of what she said last night, but I’d like to assume that her halftime rendering of her hit song was substantially edited to even make it on the broadcast.

“Well, it could have been worse…at least she was fully clothed and not dancing suggestively, like in years past.”

Modesty comes in many forms, but crouching like an animal in a minidress, snarling, “I kissed a girl and I liked it!” is not one of them. And as I shared with the teenage boys I spoke to at the church on Wednesday, “It could be worse” is a pretty low bar.

Perry’s performance was only relatively kid-friendly, as compared to shows in years past — and that underscores the problem with relativism. This is how we lose the practice, or even the recognition, of virtue: by allowing ourselves to slip so far down the slope that a half-step back toward the top seems like innocence regained. And the entertainment industry knows their target market well. They don’t care if a 40-year-old dad enjoys the show — they want to hook my offspring, and in that respect, it’s probably better if I don’t like it. The gleaming space lion, the cutesy cartoon beach sequence, and the sandwiching of Perry’s more provocative songs between hits Roar and Firework, which even turn up in grade-school music concerts — the whole production is meant to keep the kids in the room.

Folks, like it or not, they are selling sex to your children — and not the life-giving kind. Last night’s post from the Practical Catholic Junto blog summarizes my concerns in two brief quotes:

It reaches the extremes of its destructive and eradicating power when it builds itself a world according to its own image and likeness: when it surrounds itself with the restlessness of a perpetual moving picture of meaningless shows, and with the literally deafening noise of impressions and sensations breathlessly rushing past the windows of the senses.  …

Only the combination of the intemperateness of lustfulness with the lazy inertia incapable of generating anger is the sign of complete and virtually hopeless degeneration. It appears whenever a caste, a people, or a whole civilization is ripe for its decline and fall.

— from Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues

When we say, “It could have been worse,” we are too comfortable. We have lost the capacity for righteous anger that could set the world straight. We’re giving in.

Late yesterday morning, I was talking to one of our deacons, who was shaking his head at the fact that families might skip religion classes to get an early start on the Super Bowl extravaganza. “I’m an old stick-in-the-mud,” he said, half-apologetically. “I’m not watching any of it. Not the game. Not the commercials. None of it.”

I suppose I’m becoming a stick in the mud, too. But perhaps such sticks will be the only thing people can grab onto to slow our descent.

Next year, I think we’ll watch Groundhog Day instead.

What’s Keeping You?

It’s been nearly eight months since I left the University of Minnesota to work full-time for our parish. At some point in each of my previous jobs, I looked around and asked myself, “Jim, what are you doing here?” Thankfully that has yet to happen since I joined the church staff, but I don’t doubt that it could—work is work, after all.

Faith is work, too. It’s hard sometimes to believe in a good God with so much wickedness in the world, including within the Church. It’s hard to do the right thing when so few people agree on what the right thing is, even within the Church. It’s hard to pray or read or learn more about Jesus, to drag ourselves to Confession, or to haul the family to Mass each Sunday when so many Catholics just…don’t.

I’ll bet at least once you’ve sat in church, looked at Father and the people gathered around you, and asked, “What am I doing here?” It’s a worthwhile question to consider. According to data collected by the Pew Research Center, not only do most U.S. Catholics say they attend Mass once a month or less, but many disagree with the Church’s fundamental teachings regarding marriage, contraception, and the sanctity of life. Yet they persist in calling themselves Catholic. What’s keeping them in the Church?

Well, what’s keeping you? Is it habit or family tradition that brings us here week after week? That makes us seek the sacraments for our children? Is it a hope we hold out for the next generation, even though we may have lost it for our own? Is it a hollow ache in our chest that insists there must be something more to this life? Or is it the peace that radiates from altar, the tabernacle, the Eucharist—peace the world cannot provide?

This month the adults in our LIFT classes focused on the Mass and Holy Communion. We heard the deeply personal testimony of one of our youth ministry volunteers on her own struggles with her Catholic faith—and ultimately, on how she could never turn her back on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Jesus said, “This is my body…This is the cup of my blood”—and so it is. Jesus is God, and God’s words are the very words of Creation. They bring about exactly what they say.

I’ve said more than once that if we as Catholics truly understood who was present in the tabernacle, nothing could keep us from Him. We would fill the pews to overflowing, bring family and friends to a personal encounter with Jesus. We would gladly sacrifice to spend time at His feet, listening to Him, learning from Him, serving Him.

And yet I don’t do these things. We don’t do these things.

The red lamp above the tabernacle signifies that He’s always there. What’s keeping you?

Blogger’s Note: This article appears in the Sunday, Jan. 25, church bulletin .