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.

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* 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.

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

Wednesday Witness: Tame My Tongue

I seem to have a faulty filter.

It is well established that I am an emotional and vocal person with a strong desire for affirmation and an apparent inability to suffer in silence. Those characteristics alone ought to be enough to sanctify my wife and children. But I have the additional quirk that my verbal filter was installed on the wrong end of my tongue. Instead of capturing the rubbish my brain produces before it exits my mouth, my filter is several seconds downstream, between my ears and heart. I hear what I’m spewing and my heart hurts, but it’s too late. My only hope is a pause in the outburst long enough for my heart to signal my brain to activate the emergency shut-off. Then I apologize, restart the system and begin again. Continue reading

Wednesday Witness: On Busyness

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

“Idle hands are the devil’s playground”—so goes the old saying, and I can verify its truth. So many of the sinful traps I fell into as a young man were concealed in downtime and baited with curiosity and pleasure.

It’s good for young men to keep busy, but I am no longer young. These days I struggle with having too much to do rather than too little, and that, too, can be a sin trap. A mentor of mine even has an acronym for BUSY:

Burdened Under Satan’s Yoke

Even if you work for the Church, as I am blessed to do, the acronym may still apply. Perhaps the best Christmas gift I got this year was the Monk Manual, a special sort of planner based on the prayerful patterns of work and reflection in monastic life. This beautiful leather-bound book serves not only to organize and schedule your work days, weeks and months, but leads you to examine what you achieved versus what is really important to you, at which points in the day you were at your best and worst, the state of your relationships and habits, and what God may be trying to teach you. Continue reading

A Quiet Place, or the Unbearable Blessing of Parenthood

AQuietPlaceCoverScary movies are not our favorite, but last weekend, Jodi, Gabe and I finally watched A Quiet Place, the unexpected, critically acclaimed monster/thriller from director John Krasinski (best know as quick-witted paper salesman Jim Halpert on the U.S. version of The Office TV series). Rated PG-13, the movie stars Krasinski and his real-life wife Emily Blunt (of Thorp favorites The Adjustment Bureau, Looper and Mary Poppins Returns) as a husband and wife trying to protect their children in a frightful world in which the sounds of day-to-day life are deadly.

Most horror movies and thrillers (honestly, most movies overall) are too violent, profane, explicit and/or gory to garner my attention, but the trailer for this one caught my eye, followed by a number of positive reviews, including this one (with spoilers; don’t read past the first paragraph if you want to view it fresh!) by Bishop Robert Barron in which he called A Quiet Place “the most unexpectedly religious film of the year.” Finally, my son Brendan and his fiance Becky recommended it to us, and it all became too much: It had to be seen. Continue reading