Book Break: Manalive

“Madness does not come by breaking out, but by giving in; by settling down in some dirty, little, self-repeating circle of ideas; by being tamed.” 

– G.K. Chesterton

I’ve quit believing in coincidence. When seemingly random events culminate in a meaningful way, providence is my line now. Such was the case when I was searching the Great River Regional Library website for an audiobook to accompany me to and from Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend. I searched for several titles by name, and several topics by keyword, to little avail. Then I stumbled across an audio version of G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive, narrated by athiest-turned-Catholic and Theater of the Word founder and actor Kevin O’Brien.

I didn’t know what the story was about. That it was Chesterton told me it should be good — but as I’ve said before, Chesterton can be too clever by half at times, and I’d never tried his fiction before. I put in a request for this book and for Mark Twain’s biography of St. Joan of Arc, and Manalive arrived first.

I hesitate to say too much. It is the story of an apparent madman or idiot who invades a British boarding house and turns the humdrum lives of the inhabitants upside down. Ultimately, he is accused of insanity, theft, polygamy, and murder  but how can a man as wicked as that make others feel so alive for the first time in years?

On the other hand, why would such a joyful simpleton  a holy fool  carry a revolver among his holiday luggage and playthings? Our protagonist has a mission, which sounds ominous and, indeed, mad: “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him – only to bring him to life.”

Like Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, which I reread over Holy Week, the book portrays a man who had dedicated himself to a worldview that the world has little use for and who pursues it at whatever cost. As a result, he makes us think about our own worldview and priorities. Manalive is chock full of great Chesterton quotes and paradoxes and memorable characters made moreso by O’Brien’s theatrical reading, voicing each of the characters as clearly as if he were several people himself.

By way of criticism: The work does wax poetic at times – particularly the introductory chapter – and at all times Chesterton’s presence is felt in the thoughts, wit, and turn of phrase of the characters. I would also be remiss in not pointing out Chesterton’s use of racial and ethnic stereotypes and language, particularly in drawing the character of  Moses Gould. In the context of this story, it was unsettling, but it struck me more as a product of his time than of strong personal animus. As to his actual views of minorities, I need to read more.

By way of endorsement: I listened to it start to finish on the way to Michigan, again on the way home from Michigan, and yet again on the trip back from Florida with Rose and Trev. It has climbed to the upper heights of my list of favorite stories — and if you want a fictitious explanation for why I’m leaving a good job at the church for a nebulous next step involving writing, this is it. I could not have stumbled across a better novel to bolster and encourage me in this time of transition.

That, friends, is providence.

Lenten Hits: Firelight Fridays

One of the most fruitful family sacrifices we undertook this Lent was to fast from electric lights after sunset on Fridays. We had already decided to abstain from television, movies, and video games for all of Lent, when I ran across an article by well-known atheist-to-Catholic convert Jennifer Fulwiler on the National Catholic Register website: “8 Reasons to Turn Out the Lights During Lent.” I proposed to the family that we undertake this fast at least once a week, and we decided on “firelight Fridays”once the sun went down on Friday evening, we would use nothing but candles in our house.

My hope was that, as Fulwiler suggests, this would spark a massive downshift in activity and draw us closer together as a family, around the flickering flames. It did exactly that.

The fact that we had already committed to shutting off the televisions for forty days laid a good foundation for Firelight Fridays, since that caused our older kids to break out board and card games and begin playing together and with Lily in ways we hadn’t seen in years. Soon they were inviting Jodi and me to play. Parcheesi, Sorry, Cribbage, Garbage, and head-to-head Solitaire were the favorites, and as darkness gathered late Friday, we would clear the coffee table in the living room, light several candles on a tray, and sit in a tight circle to talk, laugh, and play together. I discovered that Jazz 88 plays the blues all night on Fridays, which offered a suitable soundtrack to our “penitential” family time.

Usually we played together until some of us grew sleepy, then we talked, sprawled across the furniture and floors, until we could no longer keep our eyes open. Often we went to bed earlier that usual for a Friday, and still felt as though we’d had a very full evening, because our time together had started at sundown and was concentrated on the here and now, with the people we love. In retrospect, it strikes as similar to a silent retreat: when we reduce the distractions that keep our eyes and brains flitting about from one thing to the next, time stretches out and we expand to fill it.

By the end of Lent, I was ready to go full Amish and invest in candles for every day of the week. Lily—who each week would begin a countdown to candles on Tuesday or Wednesday—was close behind in her enthusiasm for continuing the practice.

Jodi and the older kids missed family movies and other typical Friday practices, so we compromised: We agreed that, beginning this spring we will commit to at least one Firelight Friday a month: indoors with candles in bad weather; outdoors at the fire pit in good.

Each Lent I worry that we’ll fall back into old patterns as Easter rolls ’round, and we will lose what we’ve gained from fasting. Yesterday afternoon, I picked up Lily from daycare. We hadn’t left Jennie’s driveway when she asked if she could have a snack and watch a show when she got home.

“You can have a snack,” I said, “but we’ll have to wait and see about a show.”

When we got home, she got herself a snack while I put aside my work and started thinking about supper. Next thing I knew, Lily was setting up Clue Jr. to practice playing it by herself. She made no mention of watching a show for the rest of the evening.

If unplugging and lighting candles can work such a change in our biggest little screen junkie, that, to me, is a sacrifice worth sustaining.

Poured Out In Love

 

Each year during Lent, the Church focuses more intentionally on the Passion and Death of Jesus. How strange it seems that, during the very season we are trying to examine our lives and conform ourselves to Christ, we are also focused on Jesus at His lowest: beaten, humiliated, tortured. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that, to be His disciples, we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Him—but surely we can stop short of whips and spears, thorns and nails, can’t we?

We are each a unique image of God, and each called to follow Christ in a unique way: to pour ourselves out in love for those around us. Most of us won’t be called to martyrdom in the bold and bloody sense—though some of us may. Most of us won’t be called to leave behind family and friends for foreign missions or cloistered religion life— but, God willing, some of us will.
 
Instead, most of us will be called to holiness in the context of ordinary, everyday lives: working, raising a family, pitching in where we can. This may seem easier than facing blades or beasts in the Coliseum, but I’m convinced it’s not. St. Josemaria Escriva warns us, “Many who would willingly let themselves be nailed to a Cross before the astonished gaze of a thousand onlookers cannot bear with a Christian spirit the pinpricks of each day! Think, then, which is the more heroic.”
 
To make a once-for-all choice for Christ, in the heat of the moment, facing certain death and eternal glory, seems downright doable compared to 70, 80, 90 years of making a million moment-by-moment choices to love the person in front of us, in every circumstance. Daily discipleship is difficult—and it’s made more difficult when we attempt to carry crosses we were never meant to bear.
 

Think about it: Each of us is called to be a disciple, and each disciple is called to pick up his or her cross and follow Christ. But since many people choose not to be disciples, we have a lot of crosses lying around, waiting for someone to drag them away. All these crosses can make it difficult to discern which is ours. They can cause us to stumble and fall. They can cause us to neglect our own cross in a misguided effort to clear the path.  But if we take the time to identify our own cross—the one God made precisely for our particular strengths and weaknesses—and if we shoulder it and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who walks the path ahead of us, He will show us the way.

This, at last, is discipleship: Not to drive ourselves into the ground trying to do everything for everyone, but to ask God what He wants from us, to listen for the answer, and to resolve to do exactly that—to embrace the cross the Carpenter has crafted with each of us in mind, and leave the others.


Imagine a parish of such disciples, all doing exactly what God has asked of them—no more, no less—and all moving the same direction, pouring themselves out in love on a world that desperately needs it.
 
Such a parish would change the world, because unlike time and energy, love never runs out.

It’s the Little Things

I often worry about what my wife and children, family and friends, and even those of you I don’t know, think of me. Am I doing good work? Setting a good example? Who sees me at the grocery store—and what do they see? Who walks down my street and hears me thundering away at my poor children? Am I letting them down? Am I letting youdown?

You know the old song: You’re so vain/you probably think this song is about you/you’re so vain. Yeah. I tend to think the song is about me. Like all of you don’t have better things to do than watch for me to stumble. I used to think, At least I’m not prideful—I’m worried I’m going to let people down!But now I see what twisted pride convinces a guy that everyone is looking at, paying attention to, and judging him.

I bring this up because Lent is on the horizon. In Fr. Mike Schmitz’s video reflection, Preparing for Lent, he cites three common mistakes people make in their approach to Lenten sacrifice:
  • Take on a very easy sacrifice that will have no spiritual impact whatsoever
  • Take on a very hard sacrifice just to see if they can do it
  • Take on a two-fer–use Lent as a reason to fix a broken resolution or to do something you should have been doing all along

I have done made all three of these mistakes over the years: trying to break old habits during Lent, but for myself, not for God, or piling on the sacrifices and prayer practices until I couldn’t help failing, then cutting back and simplifying to the point that I became an unprofitable servant, only giving to God the minimum due. And all the while, I’ve wondered: Who’s watching? Who’s judging

Who cares? The point of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving Lent is to draw nearer to God and to detach from things that keep us bound to our earthly lives. We should ask, What in this world is keeping me from Christ? What can I do to more closely follow Him? —and listen to the answer.

Jodi and I used to tell our youth group in Michigan that if they thought of a sacrifice and had a sinking feeling in their hearts because they didn’t want to give that up, it might be the right thing. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. In fact, once I started thinking in terms of the little things, I realized that this is where the real work is. I’m no longer a slave to those big, serious, mortal sins that used to weigh me down, but I have countless little attachments and anxieties that crowd God out of my life.

Do you, too? Pick one, and let it go this Lent. Replace it with a simply prayer practice (maybe genuflecting more slowly and reverently before the tabernacle or monstrance, as though the King of the Universe is present—because He is!) and self-giving (how about a loving compliment to each person we interact with?).

Uh, oh. I’ve got that sinking feeling…

Note: Lent begins on Wednesday, March 1, with Ash Wednesday. Watch Fr. Mike Schmitz “Preparing for Lentand collect bonus points for watching “4 Reasons for Fasting“…

Same Guy, Different Year

I don’t know about you, but 2016 caught me off guard. The new year leapt from behind our Christmas tree in the early morning darkness to find me unprepared and unresolved, the same shuffling sinner as last year, stumbling to the kitchen, rubbing my eyes and searching for coffee.

And now I notice Lent and Easter creeping up. Ash Wednesday, February 10, is less than three weeks away. In past years I would have broken multiple resolutions by this point and would be tempted to use Lent to get back on the horse—fasting, for example, in order to lose weight rather than gain perspective.

Since I’ve made no resolutions, however, I’m headed toward Lent with no agenda other than the humbling realization that this year’s Jim is much the same as last year’s. And in recent weeks I’ve noticed two sins within myself that, in the past, I have failed to confront and that need to be uprooted.

The first, I learned just last weekend, is a form of vanity. I worry, overmuch, about what people think of me. Not simply in terms of appearance, though if I’m honest, that’s a part of it. I worry that I’m making a bad impression, that I’m being misunderstood, that I’m coming off as a judgmental know-it-all or a sentimental fool. As a result, I want to do good work, but not always for God’s sake or even for your sake. I want to do it for my sake, so I can feel good about me.

This is hard to admit, as it’s not a particularly manly sin. All of us have the need for affirmation—but I get affirmation from so many of you and from God in prayer. Worrying about every misstep and stewing over every sideways glance or offhand comment to the point that I forget the Father smiling down on me is an evil that must be uprooted.

The second, I fear, is more humbling than the first. Between my work life and our home life, I am as busy as I have ever been, and yet I feel God pulling me toward other things He wants me to do. And I’m resisting, because Lord, I don’t have time—something’s got to give!

Then it occurs to me: perhaps I’m that something. Perhaps God wants more of me.

And then the panicky flutter starts up in my chest, like a moth realizing too late that he’s inside the shade and that beautiful Light burns. I can’t do this, I think. I’ve got to get out of here!

Yes, you can, says God. Stay with me.

I realize one of two things must be true: either I don’t truly believe God can help me, or I don’t believe He will. The first I recognize as rubbish immediately: He’s God; He can do whatever He sets His mind to.

The second is equally rubbish: He is Love and always wills the good of His people. I know this. I do.

But do I trust Him?

I’ve got a long Lent ahead of me. May your sacrifices be fruitful, drawing you nearer to Christ!