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.

God’s Love Is Mercy

“Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God.”
– Jesus to St. Faustina
Devotion to Divine Mercy is not every Catholic’s thing. Some people struggle with the image of Divine Mercy: Jesus, His right hand raised to bless and heal, His left indicating his heart, from which rays of red and white, symbolizing blood and water, pour forth as a fountain of mercy for souls. Every version I’ve seen has been a bit mysterious and unsettling—which seems appropriate, given that it’s a vision of the resurrected Christ.
Some don’t like the chaplet, which is simpler and more repetitious than the rosary. Some consider the visions of a poor Polish nun to be private revelations: fine for her, but not necessary for us (even though she is a saint and was canonized by another saint).
And some struggle with the emphasis on God’s mercy, seemingly at the expense of His justice or even over His love. At first blush, saying that “mercy is God’s greatest attribute” (Diary of St. Faustina, 300) appears to downplay the seriousness of sin and the need for repentance. It suggests—much to the comfort of some sinners—that God will invariably forego His justice. It seems presumptuous.
But let’s think about what love, justice, and mercy actually are. Love, we are told, is willing the good of another regardless of the cost to yourself. Justice is giving another what is due. Mercy is often regarded as a bridge between these two: sparing someone just punishment for his or her benefit.
Because God is infinitely good, justice requires complete goodness from us in return. That is God’s due. But we are all sinners, and even the smallest sin stands in stark contrast to God’s infinite goodness—a grave injustice toward One who loves us perfectly.
What is our due as a result of this? Condemnation. We ought to suffer, not out of retribution, but as the natural consequence of our sins.
So God’s mercy does not deny the reality of sin or the need for repentance. Instead, it depends on these things. Without the grave reality of sin and the suffering that justly results from it, we would have no need of mercy. God’s mercy exists because of sin. There is no other reason.
But how can God be perfectly loving, perfectly just, and perfectly merciful—all at the same time? And how can mercy be God’s greatest attribute, when Scripture tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8)?
Look at it this way:
  • If God is love, then His very nature is to will our good, whatever the cost to Himself.
  • What is our good? Ultimately, it’s the end for which we were made: union with Him.
  • What is the cost to Himself? He sacrifices His claim against us for sinning against Him—He shows us mercy.

By doing this, it appears that God abandons justice in favor of love. But how can He do this, if He is perfectly just? Doesn’t sin demand punishment?

Yes, sin demands punishment. But with so much sin against so perfect a God, who could possibly bear it? Who, except God Himself?

So He becomes flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, living, suffering, and dying for us—willing the good of each of us at whatever cost to Himself. God’s perfect justice demands a perfect price be paid, so He pays it Himself. His love is mercy.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God loves us to death. All that remains for us is to return the favor.

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.

A Father’s Joy

 One of the highlights of a relatively laid-back (for once) weekend was heading into the Cities for the 10 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Jodi, Trevor, Lily and I did this because the University of Mary contingent (including Brendan) from the March for Life in Washington D.C. was planning to attend Sunday Mass there at that time, as well.

We arrived moments before the buses rolled up. We stood on the sidewalk and peered through the tinted glass, trying to glimpse the woolly-headed college man we knew to be our own. Instead we saw his STMA classmate, Anna, who grinned and waved joyfully at us — and who got a bear-hug from Lily when she got off her bus. We waited for several minutes then, scanning the lines of students emerging from the buses, until at last a bearded, lumberjack-looking fellow in red-and-black plaid emerged and came our way.

Lily didn’t see him at first; when she did, she ran to him, and I don’t think it was my imagination that her voice caught in her throat as he swept her up. Several of his college colleagues smiled at the hairy young man and his little princess — and I did, too.

It was good to see him, even briefly: good to see him safe and sound, to see his patchy beard grown long enough to cover the bald spots, to see his hair growing still more Robert-Plantish, to see the sense of peace and comfort he has surrounded by his friends. The center sections of the Cathedral had been reserved for UMary, much to the surprise of the regular Sunday Mass goers, and it was good to see so many Minnesota families and friends turn out to greet the pilgrims and pray with them. It was good to see hundreds of college-age men and women enter a Catholic church in quiet reverence, kneel and pray, and receive the Holy Eucharist together.

Lily stayed as close as she could to Brendan — closer even than Jodi. Olivia and her brother Kyle came, too, and sat with us — and after Mass (after a massive group photo at the Cathedral rector’s request) we stood and visited a long while, soaking up what time we could with the young man so like and so different from our eldest son.

When they left to get on the buses, we went downstairs in the Cathedral to show Lily and Trevor, among other things, the massive Lego model of the building. Then we went out to lunch (far more affordable with just two children). While finishing at Chipotle, we got a text from Gabe that the bus from St. Michael and St. Albert was nearly back from D.C., as well, so we hustled home. Jodi dropped Trevor and I off so she would have room in the car for the teens and their stuff, then she and Lily headed to the church. A few minutes later she arrived with Gabe and Emma, joyful and tired, ready for home-cooking and a bed. For a moment it felt like years since we had seen them — and there they were, suddenly, as though they’d never left. I hadn’t noticed feeling partial until the moment I felt whole again. After we visited a bit, I lay down for a nap — and I took a father’s joy in just hearing their voices and noises of their passing as I drifted off to sleep. They were home and the world was centered once again.

The Still, Small Voice of God

There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire—but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound.  When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. –1 Kings 19:11-13


It is Tuesday afternoon, and I am writing from home. This column should have been done and in already. It is not, because even a job working for the church is not as important as some things.

Around 9 p.m. last night my youngest son threw up, and my bride informed me she didn’t feel well either.  Between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. or so, my son was sick probably two dozen times. Jodi did not get as sick, but was as sleepless as Trevor—and I tried to stay clear so that hopefully I could handle little Lily in the morning and keep her from catching whatever this was.

I rose and prayed with Jodi at 5:30. She felt a bit better, and Trevor was sleeping, at last.  At around 6, Emma was sick the first time, and by 8, Lily was complaining that she didn’t feel well either. I was getting ready for work—Day 2 with our new faith formation coordinator, Andrea Zachman—but had the sinking feeling that it was only a matter of time before it hit me, and that my colleagues might rather I stayed home. I was torn—I felt fine, but so had Trevor and Emma before it hit, and I had plenty of work to do. Lily seemed fine, but if she were on the verge, I didn’t want her spreading it to her friends and their families. Jodi was torn, too—she didn’t feel great, but had a mountain of work waiting for her and didn’t feel she could afford to miss a day.

And as fate would have it, we had a blanket of fresh snow on the walk, cars, and roads.

Ultimately we compromised: we both went to work briefly to take care of a few things and bring some additional work home to do around our other duties. We were out of several basic food items in our house, so I fought the blowing snow to stock up on a few things—and now here I sit, writing furiously.

We are all called by God—do you hear Him? I often imagine the God of the prophets speaking to them in a deep, thundering voice, but that’s not what we hear in first Kings, above. Elijah recognizes the Lord in “a light, silent sound”—other translations say “a sound of sheer silence” or “a still, small voice.” God whispers, as it were, drawing us close with his words, into an intimate conversation with Him.

Unfortunately, the noise of the world too often drowns Him out. We hear the voices of our colleagues and bosses ringing in our ears; the ringing of the phone and ping of emails, IMs, and texts…the traffic report…the weather…and nothing of the still, small voice of God.

Excuse me a minute: my other high-schooler, Gabe, just called—he’s sick and can’t drive himself home. Jodi and I need to go get him and the Suburban.

We are all called to a first and universal vocation of holiness. Most of us are called to live out that first vocation in terms of a second vocation to marriage and family life—we sanctify ourselves, our spouses, and our children by imaging God Who is Love. Everything else we do and are come in below that. We are created from Love, and Love is our purpose and end. That’s all. That’s enough.

Because that’s everything.