A few weeks ago, I attended a day-long training to become a home visitor for our local conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The most compelling part of the training was the section on what poverty looks like, from the perspective of the person living through it. This segment of the training was led by a man who was born and raised in some of the roughest areas of Chicago and Minneapolis, who was hired by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as a teen and loved and accompanied for years, through numerous trials and triumphs. Today he is a college-educated husband and father, a successful manager and talented speaker on the state and national level, and a Vincentian for life.
The training was thought-provoking and convicting; it, along with learning more about my own ancestors’ struggles with poverty before I was born, led me to want to dig deeper—which in turn led me to another unread book on my shelf: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.
Sinclair was an influential muckraking journalist, author, activist, and political candidate at the turn of the 20th century. The Jungle is his fictional but detailed and realistic account of power, corruption, and poverty during this time, particularly in the stockyard district of Chicago. The book follows one immigrant family from Lithuania, who moves to America on the promise of plentiful work for good wages, and finds a corrupt system of capitalists and politicians of every stripe, at every level, keeping prices high and wages low, controlling everything from housing and food supplies in the neighboring slums to law enforcement, inspections, and elections—and driving workers to desperate measures to avoid death by illness, exposure, or starvation.
It has come to my attention recently that many of the movies I take time to write about I hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend. Sometimes I see a new take on my favorite old stories and genres: westerns and martial arts; sci-fi and time travel; fantasy and fractured fairy tales. They may be thought-provoking, but somewhat strange; often they are objectionable in some way that makes me guard against a full endorsement.
Last fall I caught wind of an upcoming movie called Fatman, featuring Mel Gibson as a world-weary Santa with a price on his head. You may know that I am a big fan of the Man in Red in almost any interation, from the saintly Bishop of Myra to Father Christmas in Narnia to the Right Jolly Old Elf of my own childhood traditions. I imagined a foul-mouthed and violent “bad Santa” bent on revenge of some sort, and I was not a fan of the idea. The trailer suggested I wasn’t far from the truth:
But then somewhere along the way I read a review that suggested it might be a bit more than it appeared. I hemmed and hawed until almost Christmas, when my older kids suggested we watch it. So we did. After the initial viewing, I was concerned that I might actually like the movie. I spoke in hushed tones to the few others I knew who had seen it. Many of them kinda liked it too.
Still, I didn’t write about it. Give it a year, I thought, to see if the novelty wears off.
This year’s Christmas poem is a conversation and a modest attempt at Shakespearean style. The inspiration popped into my head several weeks ago: an imagined meeting of the World, the Flesh and the Devil, who are sharing a pint of “Christmas cheer” at the end of a seemingly successful year of sowing strife and division. The line that came first to mind was from the Flesh: “The spirit is weak, and the flesh is always willing.”—which survives in a modified form.
Scene: A dark corner of a noisy tavern, lit by melted candle stubs and a large, crackling fire. A table with three chairs and three tankards. Two figures are seated: the World, slight, anxious and in constant motion; the Flesh, immense and languid, with eyes that rove around the room. A third figure, the Devil, well-dressed with a commanding bearing, approaches, and the first two rise.
Note: This post appeared in the December 13 editions of the St. Michael and St. Albert bulletins.
A wise older friend advised, “Every morning when you wake, ask God, ‘What do you want me to do for you today?’” Dutifully, I put a note on my side of the bed as a reminder, and most morning since, I have asked that question.
Occasionally, an answer emerges almost before I’ve asked—like the topic of this column, or the Lord urging me to be present, be gentle and listen to my bride. But often, I sit in silence, in the dark, and hear nothing. I wait a moment or two, then continue with my morning.
This makes me wonder if I’m not asking in the right way. I begin to grapple with the voices in my head and the desires in my heart, trying to direct a one-sided conversation with a God who, for the moment, chooses silence.
If I knew what He wanted at the beginning of the day, wouldn’t I make every effort to achieve it? So why won’t He just tell me?
Three weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of getting our hands dirty as disciples of Jesus—of entering into the mess and sufferings of another person and walking with them, loving them where they are and leading them toward holiness and heaven. Of course, to lead someone to heaven we have to be headed that way ourselves, and holiness is a high bar. Even Jesus himself acknowledges that for man it is impossible.
Ever since the Fall, when Adam and Eve first saw themselves as vulnerable and covered their nakedness in fear, we all tend to protect ourselves. We hold a bit of ourselves back, even from those we love. Why? Because we don’t want to appear reckless, foolish or naïve. Because we don’t want to be abandoned and left with nothing. Because we secretly wonder to ourselves, If I give away everything in love, who will love me?Continue reading →