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?

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.

Book Break: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

The genius of C.S. Lewis continues to astound me. I read the Narnia series as a child and liked-but-not-loved them (although The Lord of the Rings has taken on new dimensions now that I am a practicing Christian, so perhaps I should revisit the world in the wardrobe, as well). But as an adult, Lewis’s nonfiction — Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man, and The Weight of Glory — has consistently delivered new spiritual insights and deepened my conversion, and his fictional meditation on the afterlife, The Great Divorce, is one of my favorite books of all time.

Which brings me to The Screwtape Letters. This little book has been on my shelf for quite some time, and my oldest son, Brendan, read it a year or more ago and loved it. The book, ostensibly, is a collection of found letters from the demon Screwtape, an experienced administrator in the bureaucracy of Hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a young tempter striving to lure a budding Christian away from salvation. The letters show the subtlety and patience of the diabolical, the insidious ways in which we are knocked off the straight and narrow path, and the relentlessness with which we are pursued by the “roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

I saw myself in nearly every letter, as Screwtape outlines the fledgling Christian’s typical stages of conversion and the best ways in which to turn his progress into regress. The book is darkly funny, which makes the medicine easier to swallow. For example, Screwtape admonishes Wormwood for being naively enthusiastic about the outbreak of war in Europe, saying that while human death and destruction are always to be praised and enjoyed, it is not, in itself, necessarily helpful in the damnation of souls, because A) it affords opportunities for men to exercise saving virtue as well as condemning vice, and B) it can end lives in an instant — snatching souls for the Devil just as easily as from God, and undoing years of patient temptation. He also advises his nephew that tempting humans to great and glorious wickedness can backfire into stunning conversions, and that small temptations that lead them slowly, slowly away from God — all unaware of the danger — is just as good for their Father Below, and besides that, more enjoyable for the skill required.

We never hear directly from Wormwood, but we can hear Screwtape’s displeasure with his dear nephew’s failures and mistakes and begin to sense his affection for the young tempter is only marginally different from his ravenous hunger for condemned souls. My volume (pictured above) included an extra essay, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in which the demon lifts his glass to toast the Tempters Training College and uses the opportunity to explain to the new graduates how Hell is leveraging the public education system on Earth to promote the one thing democracy and virtue cannot survive: forced equality. It is biting and brilliant — and contains one of my favorite passages, about why small, subtle temptations and sins can be better for Hell that bold, passionate wickedness (remember, in this passage from the demon’s perspective, everything is inverted, hence “the Enemy” is God):

I have said that to secure the damnation of these little souls, these creatures that have almost ceased to be individual, is a laborious and tricky work. But if proper pains and skill are expended, you can be fairly confident of the result. The great sinners seem easier to catch. But then they are incalculable. After you have played them for seventy years, the Enemy may snatch them from your claws in the seventy-first. They are capable, you see, of real repentance. They are conscious of real guilt. They are, if things take the wrong turn, as ready to defy the social pressures around them for the Enemy’s sake as they were to defy them for ours. It is in some ways more troublesome to track and swat an evasive wasp than to shoot, at close range, a wild elephant. But the elephant is more troublesome if you miss. — C.S. Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

This is definitely spiritual reading, which you can apply to yourself if you try. A brief example might suffice to illustrate this point: in one letter, Screwtape advises Wormwood on what a huge difference a seemingly small tweak in the language of his “patient” can have on the fate of his soul. He urges his nephew to encourage the man to think of his duty to practice charity as unselfishness. Unselfishness has the advantage, Screwtape says, of turning a positive attribute (charity) into a negative (UN-selfishness), and an external, active habit into something more akin to navel-gazing: inwardly focused, inactive, and a potential source of pride.

He then goes into great detail as to how this commitment to unselfishness can be used to increase resentment and secret pride in marriages and families, as men and women forego the pleasures of this life not out of genuine love and desire of the good for another, but out of a selfish desire to appear unselfish:

“Let’s do what you want to do.”

“No, no, I insist, let’s do what you prefer.”

“Well, I don’t want to anymore.”

“Fine, we’ll do neither.”

She doesn’t even appreciate how unselfish I am!

I don’t need his pity — two can play at this game! 

Like The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters led me to think more deeply about the little things that draw me daily away from God, and underscored for me that getting to Heaven is something akin to long-range marksmanship: a tiny deviation at this end can, over the distance of years, result in missing the mark entirely. Yet it never ceases to be hopeful: the demons admit they are at a disadvantage and cannot challenge God directly — and they have no understanding at all of charity, and dismiss it as a lie God has told in service of a secondary goal they have yet to discover. They cannot fathom why He loves us so.

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!

* * * * *
“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.

Who Reigns In Your Heart?

Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save. 
Who breathing his last, returns to the earth; that day all his planning comes to nothing. – Psalms 146:3-4

This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, celebrating the authority and lordship of Jesus over all of creation and marking the end of the liturgical year. Falling just before the all-consuming holiday season and the secular New Year, this feast provides us with an opportunity to reflect on what holds mastery over our hearts before the avalanche of turkey and tinsel. And since it specifically celebrates Chris’s kingship, it takes on special relevance in the aftermath of a contentious election.

Who is this Jesus who rules over all? We are blessed to have an immense icon of Christ the King in the dome of our church. This image, called Pantocrator or “ruler of all,” depicts our glorified Lord looking down from heaven, holding the Book of Life by which we are judged (God’s justice) but with His right hand raised in blessing (God’s mercy). The three-rayed halo behind His head and Greek letters in the image identify Him simultaneously as Jesus Christ (IC XC) and as “I Am Who Am” (WON), or God Himself.

This God-man is the same Jesus who was born in a stable; who grew up a carpenter’s son; who ate with sinners and challenged authorities; who said to His followers, “This is my Body; take and eat;” who suffered humiliation and torture to die on a cross; who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven; and who sent the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in these latter years. This is the same Jesus about whom Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) and Thomas said, “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28).

We have a second icon of Christ behind the altar and tabernacle, depicted in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Though within His mother, He does not appear as an infant or as any child we have likely ever seen. His high forehead and discerning eyes convey wisdom and judgment beyond His years. This is the same Jesus that St. Augustine calls, “ever ancient, ever new” and that dwells in the tabernacle, in the Eucharist. He is the very Word of God referenced in John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5
What joy, what hope, what light we have when He who is the very source of all blessing sits upon the throne of our hearts—and what sorrow, what despair, what darkness we experience when we yield His seat to idols: to fallen persons or passing things that will not—cannot—sustain us.

Advent begins next weekend: four weeks of penance and preparation Christmas. As the Church year ends and we prepare to welcome the newborn King of Kings, let us ask ourselves in whom we have placed our hope and trust. What or whom have we set upon the throne of our hearts? The time is now to elevate Christ to His proper place, that all else may fall into place and peace may prevail.