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?

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.

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.

Be the Bedrock

Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. – Matthew 7:24-25


A few weeks ago, my daughter Emma shared a beautiful encounter she had during Adoration at Extreme Faith Camp. While praying with her eyes closed, she saw a young girl not unlike our younger daughter Lily, and received the distinct impression that this was Jude, the baby we miscarried before Lily was born. At first she felt sad, reflecting on how she never knew her other sister—until she heard words of consolation from our Lord. After those words, she even invited Jude to sit in her lap, and felt her sister close to her.

Emma used this experience as an opportunity to witness to others: “I guess that what I’m trying to tell you from sharing this story is that the Lord is truly in the Eucharist and he is there to show you amazing things and bring you closer to him. Don’t doubt for a minute that he isn’t truly present because he is. He loves you and wants to have a relationship with you so you can have the amazing life he has planned for you. Also, remember that your loved ones you have lost love you and are praying for you so that you can join them one day in God’s kingdom.”

Experiences like these move me deeply, because I didn’t grow up this way. My children are learning at an early age that Jesus is really present in the Blessed Sacrament, that the Holy Spirit moves in their lives, and that God has a plan for their happiness, both here and in eternity. I am an old dog, struggling to learn tricks my pups have already begun to master.

I mentioned this to my confessor last week. “We’ve done the best we can for them,” I said, “but activities like Extreme Faith Camp and Core Team have changed their lives. They are experiencing things that I never have!”

“You know how this works, right?” he said. “The reason they are able to reach higher than you is because they are standing on your shoulders. You have given them stability—a firm foundation to stand on. So often we hear people say they just want their kids to have what they didn’t have. … But you are actually doing it. You are giving them spiritual gifts.”

So many of us want to provide our children with a better life, so we focus on material things, like money, toys, gadgets, or cars; or on opportunities, like extracurricular activities and camps; travel, food, and recreation.  These are not bad things, necessarily, but when we consider all of eternity, we realize we are focused on the wrong kind of better. As St. John reminds us, “the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever” (1 John 2:17).

What is truly good is not of this world at all. By doing as Christ Himself instructed—by loving God, neighbor, and enemy; by leading lives of prayer and striving for holiness; by sharing the Good News that Jesus is Lord and Savior—we can be bedrock for our children: the solid ground upon which they plant their feet and lift their hearts to heaven.

What Does It Mean to Be a Member?


This past week I finished reading The Weight of Glory, a collection of essays and lectures by the great C.S. Lewis. The piece that made the biggest impression on me was a reflection called “Membership,” in which Lewis explains the fundamental differences between what St. Paul meant when spoke of members of the Church and what we mean today.


Today, when we say someone is a member, whether of a church, a club, a team, or a family, we generally mean a unit—a part or cog in some bigger machine that shares some commonality or purpose. The emphasis is on similarity or even uniformity.

This is nearly directly the opposite of St. Paul’s usage of member in the sense of a part of body. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul emphasizes the uniqueness and irreplaceability of each part:

Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” – 1 Cor 12:14-21

God has created each of us as a unique image of Himself, with a unique purpose in the Body of Christ. That’s an exciting thought, but it also underscores the challenge of a one-size-fits-all approach to sharing our faith and the importance of each of us spending time with God to discern His purpose.

It is also important, however, not to compromise the truth of our faith in an effort to find our own path. The gospel reading a day or so after I finished reading Lewis’s essay was Matthew 5:27-32—in part:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your membersthan to have your whole body go into Gehenna.”

Our Lord is speaking in hyperbole, exaggerating to illustrate how seriously we must take repentance and avoidance of sin with our own bodies. The Body of Christ—the Church—exists for our salvation, but just like any body made with human parts, it too is prone to error and illness, and susceptible to temptation, comfort, and pleasure. Our members sin, and although the Lord desires everyone to be saved, He gives us only one way: Himself—“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Jesus in Scriptures. Jesus in the Holy Catholic Church. Jesus in the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. This is the path we’ve been given, and the only path we know leads to salvation. As members of the Body of Christ, it is our call to obey the Head, to pick up our cross and follow, and to bring as many others with us as we can.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) said, “Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love, and do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.”

There is no good compromise. Nothing short of the Truth satisfies, and Love cannot exist without it.