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.

Road Trip Review, Part 3: What We Saw

We saw 12 states on our road trip to and from the Keys: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas. Missouri, and Iowa. We saw mile after mile of beautiful woodlands, farmlands, and ranch lands that grew greener and greener as we travel south, and one long strip of hard gray asphalt littered with local fauna.

Most prevalent among the roadkill corpses were armadillos: we began to see them in Tennessee on the downward trip, and left off again in Missouri, I believe. Scores of dead armadillos, and nary a live one — when they venture out and whether they are overconfident in their armor or just that thickheaded, I’ll never know.

The armadillos appear to be substantially less bright than even iguanas: in the Keys we saw countless big green lizards along the highway, and only one dead: a brilliant green juvenile hit by the car in front of us. (We also saw one run across a dusty parking lot in front of a car, and if you ever see an iguana running full-tilt, its four legs windmilling from its sides, you won’t forget it!)

As a former lizard lover — I had an iguana named Ike as a teen — this was a thrill, but although we saw a couple up close, either we didn’t have a camera in hand or they were too hidden for decent shot. We also saw numerous brown anole lizards (my first lizard, Zeke, was of this variety; a family member brought him home, probably illegally, from Florida when I was in middle school) and a couple of curly-tails (my second lizard, Max, was a captive-bred curly tail) — and the kids spied a green anole outside the the Basilica of St. Mary, Star of the Sea, on Key West. (Click photos to enlarge.)

We saw countless species of palm trees. We saw the Key deer mentioned yesterday, of course, including a little velvet-antlered buck, and an endless variety of birds, from the ever-present grackles, crows, and buzzards, to a crowing parade of roosters and clucking chickens on Key West, to black-headed gulls, brown pelicans, American white ibises, and countless other sea birds. We saw endless horizons of grass and water, and signs warning us of bears and panthers crossing. We saw great everglades turtles sunning themselves on the road’s edge.

Our Everglades boat tour warrants special mention for wildlife, of course. We discussed the typical airboat tour, but the kids wanted to go whale-watching, too. Airboat rides are noisy affairs, and gators being relatively prevalent (we saw a half-dozen in the canals along the highway to Everglades City), we opted for a sunset tour with Allure Adventures through the maze of mangrove islands and out to the Gulf. It was just the three of us and Kent, our guide and captain, and before we even left the dock, he spied a manatee surfacing in the river beyond. We got three brief glimpses of the great sea cow as it moved quickly down the river — they move surprisingly fast for their bulk! As we set out on the boat, we saw an osprey eating a fish, and shortly after we emerged into the mangroves, we saw a pair of dolphins hunting in the shallows among the mangroves — again, only fleeting glimpses, as they were too focused on food to jump and play in our wake. (And again, it was amazing how quickly they could move, in this case, in water only a few feet deep.)

Captain Kent then took us to a stretch of Everglades National Park beach accessible only by boat, with the most amazing powdered white sand (a luxury for tired feet) and the rattle of thousands of seashells with every wave that touched the shore. This island was essentially a sand bar built up along a knot of mangroves, trees with aerial roots that reach down into the water, so that most such islands have no soil at all, except the sea bottom. We saw raccoon tracks in the sand: the only land animal that lives on these mangrove islands, the raccoons down there are not nocturnal, but tidal, according to Kent — they feed at low tide, whatever time of day. We also saw conch shells large and small (illegal to harvest), a horseshoe crab carapace (likely the raccoon’s meal at some point), and a couple dead starfish awash among the seashells. I stepped barefoot among the grasses growing on the island and discovered sand burs grow there, as well.

We boarded the boat again and took a winding and at times treacherous route through the channels among the mangroves, in search of more dolphins. Alas, it was not to be. Finally, toward sunset, Captain Kent followed the egrets and pelicans to their evening roosts: a squawking, croaking, clicking rookery of sea birds awaiting nightfall. Countless pelicans, cormorants, and egrets, and two roseate spoonbills made an appearance as we watched the sun drop behind a clouded horizon. On the boat ride back to the dock, we saw two osprey darkly eyeing the water. Captain Kent was a delight — knowledgeable and entertaining — and his obvious love and concern for the wildlife and ability to navigate the maze of mangroves at speed were impressive!

What else did we see? We saw Hemingway’s House on Key West, with countless artifacts and his office just as he used it — and a sun-tanned, silver-haired Hemingway lookalike on the beach before sunset. We saw the Basilica mentioned above, with doors along both sides where windows ought to be, open to the sunshine and breezes — a welcome haven from the sun and pavement of bustling Key West. We saw schooners and yachts and fishing boats, and a crew making a show of unloading their catch for the cameras of tourists. We saw kitschy souvenir shops, high-end art and fashion shops, and a funky clothing and music store called Good Day on a Happy Planet, in which a boisterous bohemian woman sold us coconut and bamboo wind chimes (for Jodi) and a nice cigar-box ukulele (for the family) — we stopped through in the morning, and when we returned for the uke in the afternoon, she actually cheered and sang to us in front of her other customers!

We saw the long and short bridges connecting the islands to the mainland. We saw people fishing, biking, tanning, swimming, and sailing. We saw glimpses of Miami and Atlanta from the freeway; the headquarters of Jodi’s former employer, Randstad, nearly overlooking the Chatahoochee; and St. Peter Catholic Church in the heart of Memphis. We saw the highest concentration of Baptist churches I could imagine in rural Alabama, and met Randy and Pat, the breeders of handsome hunting and working Airedales, distant cousins to our late Boomer. We can’t wait to get back down and come home with a pup, hopefully before snow flies!

I’m sure we saw other things — and I haven’t even touched on the food yet! — but that’s enough for today’s recollection!

We Are a Pilgrim People

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

We are on the home stretch: a week out from the blessed Feast of the Nativity, Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Many of us, however, feel as though Christmas has been upon us for weeks now, an immense burden of gifts, lights, music, and cheer under which we labor to breathe—like a lone elf struggling to load the loot of the world into a glossy red sleigh.

The first Christmas was uncomfortable for a different set of reasons. In the days prior, a newly-married couple traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem with a few essentials and a donkey. They traveled not by choice, but by order of the emperor in Rome. They arrived not to familiar faces, food, and comfort, but to a town crowded with distant kin and strangers, and the crudest of accommodations: a dugout-stable-turned-makeshift-nursery where the woman would give birth to a son.

It turned into celebration of sorts, I suppose, as angels summoned shepherds from the hills to the town to greet the newborn as they were, dirt-poor and smelling of sheep. A star, too, beckoned Magi from the East, strange and majestic, in rich robes and bearing gifts too generous for the circumstances. (I wonder if Joseph might have gripped his staff a little tighter, wondering how he, his wife, and son would make it back across the dangerous country alive while carrying gold, frankincense, and myrrh.)

Imagine a Christmas celebration in which only your third and fourth cousins showed up, along with the local indigent population and three fabulously wealthy foreigners—and then you had a baby the basement. Perhaps the stresses of this Christmas are more manageable from this perspective.

Mary and Joseph were displaced—from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census; from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for the presentation of Jesus at the Temple; and in exile to Egypt, to protect their son from the murderous intent of Herod. Even as a baby, “the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Matthew 8:20).

In LIFT this month, we are completing our study of the Mass. As an introduction to the adult and teen lesson, we are watching a short video from elementsofthecatholicmass.comon the role of parishioners in the Mass. As the video explains, the word parishioner comes from the Greek work paraoikos, meaning pilgrim—it’s the same Greek word that gives us the English word pariah, which means outcast.

We don’t belong here. We, like the Holy Family, are a pilgrim people, en route to our true home with God in heaven. The Church is the ship that carries us: the ark which preserves God’s people from the storms and waves that batter and drown the rest of the world.* Let us take refuge here from the maelstrom—the dizzying spin the world has put on Christmas—and draw near, instead, to Mary, Joseph, and the newborn king of kings.

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*In fact, the area of the church worship space where we sit, which we commonly call the sanctuary, is technically called the nave—which comes from the Latin word for ship.

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.

Who Reigns In Your Heart?

Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save. 
Who breathing his last, returns to the earth; that day all his planning comes to nothing. – Psalms 146:3-4

This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, celebrating the authority and lordship of Jesus over all of creation and marking the end of the liturgical year. Falling just before the all-consuming holiday season and the secular New Year, this feast provides us with an opportunity to reflect on what holds mastery over our hearts before the avalanche of turkey and tinsel. And since it specifically celebrates Chris’s kingship, it takes on special relevance in the aftermath of a contentious election.

Who is this Jesus who rules over all? We are blessed to have an immense icon of Christ the King in the dome of our church. This image, called Pantocrator or “ruler of all,” depicts our glorified Lord looking down from heaven, holding the Book of Life by which we are judged (God’s justice) but with His right hand raised in blessing (God’s mercy). The three-rayed halo behind His head and Greek letters in the image identify Him simultaneously as Jesus Christ (IC XC) and as “I Am Who Am” (WON), or God Himself.

This God-man is the same Jesus who was born in a stable; who grew up a carpenter’s son; who ate with sinners and challenged authorities; who said to His followers, “This is my Body; take and eat;” who suffered humiliation and torture to die on a cross; who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven; and who sent the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in these latter years. This is the same Jesus about whom Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) and Thomas said, “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28).

We have a second icon of Christ behind the altar and tabernacle, depicted in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Though within His mother, He does not appear as an infant or as any child we have likely ever seen. His high forehead and discerning eyes convey wisdom and judgment beyond His years. This is the same Jesus that St. Augustine calls, “ever ancient, ever new” and that dwells in the tabernacle, in the Eucharist. He is the very Word of God referenced in John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5
What joy, what hope, what light we have when He who is the very source of all blessing sits upon the throne of our hearts—and what sorrow, what despair, what darkness we experience when we yield His seat to idols: to fallen persons or passing things that will not—cannot—sustain us.

Advent begins next weekend: four weeks of penance and preparation Christmas. As the Church year ends and we prepare to welcome the newborn King of Kings, let us ask ourselves in whom we have placed our hope and trust. What or whom have we set upon the throne of our hearts? The time is now to elevate Christ to His proper place, that all else may fall into place and peace may prevail.