The Second Third, Week 3: Faith and Family

Blogger’s Note: The whole idea behind these “Second Third” posts can be found here. I’ve had multiple half-baked ideas for posts these past few weeks, but this one jumped to the forefront after reading Prairie Father’s latest post. Kudos, Father Tyler, for sparking this. The choice between two goods is the very definition of a dilemma, don’t you think?

Here at the beginning of my Second Third, I’ve gotten more comfortable with a me I never thought I’d be: a church guy. You know, a weekly worshipper, and more than that: a known quantity in the gathering space after Mass, a meet-n-greeter, a volunteer. One of those guys…

This is somewhat surprising. I was raised a good Catholic in every way except the church-on-Sunday way (so-called “old-fashioned” morals and values, but aside from a brief stint my late elementary years, no Mass or catechesis), then went on to study evolutionary anthropology, which was generally an atheist discipline. Thankfully I had just enough churching and manners to not drive Jodi away entirely when we first met. She brought me around.

The funny thing is, I got along with all sorts of people in school, but didn’t necessarily fit in anywhere. I was a poor athlete, and Coach asked me to help the first-stringers study for their exams. My bearded and be-hatted dad drove the mule to town now and again; that and my square tendencies caused even some of my closest friends to contemplate my Amish-ness. In college, too, I was square and old-fashioned, never an outcast, but never A-list. Friends were surprised when I went to South Dakota to sell western boots, and floored when I came back talking marriage and kids. These were not Ivy League aspirations — at least, not in the near-term.

Jodi brought this baptized Catholic back to the church. A number of good priests — good friends — inspired me and advised me to follow my doubts and questions. Even my dad, who does not share my faith, has never discouraged me from seeking and finding.

So I’ve searched and searched for people like me. Michigan to Connecticut to South Dakota to Michigan again, and finally to St. Michael Catholic Church in St. Michael, Minnesota. I have family in Michigan, family I miss terribly. But I have brothers and sisters here, too, and each week, each Sunday, it gets harder to imagine living anyplace else.

In early October, I had the opportunity to meet my dad on the Tahquamenon River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to fish on our old houseboat. I could get just Friday and Monday off from work: drive all day Friday, sleep Friday night, and head up the river at first light on Saturday to the fishing hole. The boat landing was a couple hours downstream from our fishing hole, and the closest Catholic church was 40 minutes from the landing, and offered just two Masses: 5 p.m. Saturday or 9 a.m. Sunday.

Either we’d have to pull up our anchor after lunch on Saturday, go to church, and sleep ashore again, then resume fishing mid-morning Sunday, or we’d have to pull anchor a couple hours before sundown on Saturday, sleep ashore at the landing, then drive into church Sunday morning. We’d get back to the fishing hole in early afternoon and get a couple hours of fishing in before we needed to head back to landing, since I’d need to leave first thing Monday to make it home.

I prayed on it, talked to a friends, and decided it was important to spend this time with Dad, even if it meant missing Mass. I further resolved to spend time Sunday praying the rosary and reading scripture — and to receive the sacrament of Confession before Mass the following Sunday.

I had a great weekend with Dad, a great Sunday, and honestly never felt far from God. But all weekend, when I thought about missing Mass, a little pang would shoot through my chest. For the first time, it wasn’t so much guilt for missing Mass…it was missing Mass. Longing for it.

How weird is that? I thought.

I did go to Confession the following Saturday, and another good priest told me he thought it was important that I spend time with my dad, but reminded me that if I truly believe, then I must also understand that attending and actually praying the Mass is the most powerful thing I can do for anyone I love. More food for thought.

In Matthew Chapter 12 is a passage that used to trouble me. Jesus is with his disciples, and he is told that his mother and brothers wish to speak with him: But he said in reply to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” — Mt 12:48-50

I think I’m beginning to understand. So in my Second Third, I’m embracing my inner Church guy, and working to balance our family by blood and our family in the Body. I can love both — and I should if I am to love either one well.

The Dark Humour

[Blogger’s Note: This is kind of a dark post. Really did see the two crows today, and heard a story like the latter one once. But where exactly this came from, I don’t know…]

Midwinter morning. Atop a threadbare shrub along a littered suburban artery, two young crows jaw above the din. I speak no Crow, only English, and my windows are rolled against the cold, but I imagine their daring: the double-dog, the triple, the triple-dog, the dark humour hot in the veins of each, the guffaws and squawk of chicken! They cheat death daily, these two, walking the yellow lines for bits of salted flesh. It passes the time.

The light goes green; on cue, they darken my windshield, chasing each other with unexpected agility, rolling and climbing alongside the oncoming delivery van, sweeping past truck and traffic to frolic like fighter planes before a rumbling Ford moving too fast for conditions along the service road. They bank and ascend to a high bare branch, laughing breathlessly.

They eat death for dinner, these two. From a far tree two houses over, their mother calls. They flap slowly away.

I think of them now, in the long night. I think of a summer day, and two black-clad bikers crossing the plains, winding through the hills and narrow canyon roads, wind in their hair and devil-may-care, the sun warm on their leathers, the dark humour hot in their veins. They eat danger for breakfast, these two. They take turns riding the yellow lines with their feet on their pegs, boot toes turned outward to the oncoming cars, egging each other closer, closer. They play this game for long miles and hours. It passes the time.

The end was not monotonous. High in the mountains on a narrow switchback, the winner’s toe caught a fender at fifty. His leg turned to jelly. With unexpected velocity he took to the air, rolling and climbing, darkening the windshield of the car behind the one he clipped. He bounced from glass to pavement, pavement to rocky shoulder. Leather did little; flesh did less. Bone met stone and gave way.

The paramedics came and went. The volunteer posse cleaned up as best they could. The dark humour stained the pavement even after the crows paid their respects. From far away, the cries of a mother.

Full Frontal Affection

I summoned Gabe to the top of the stairs yesterday morning in order to wish him a happy birthday before I left for work. He is now nine and is not a morning person, nor does he happily submit to parental scrutiny, discipline, or full frontal affection. So he ascends the stairs with a look of vague trepidation.

I sit on the edge of the coffee table and beckon with both hands. He comes a step closer, then two, then stops. I smile and beckon again. He takes a step, the anxiousness now solidifying in his face.

“Gabe, come here!” I laugh, lean forward, grip his skinny body on either side, right at the ticklish spot below the ribs, so he nearly crumbles to the floor, helplessly squirming. I hug him close and say, “Happy Birthday, son!” He mumbles a sheepish thanks, and on my back I feel the flutter of his hands, patting my back quickly to ward off awkwardness.

Gabe is not generally a head-on hugger. He prefers to sidle under an arm and slip his own around your waist, or back himself into a soft lap and warm embrace. A kiss is an instantly blush-worthy event, and a kiss in the generally vicinity of the lips (cheek, nose, etc.) will turn him inside-out with embarrassment. He simply isn’t an aggressive type, in anger, affection, or otherwise.

But something is changing in Gabe. It started this spring, when we traveled to Michigan to see my cousin Al before he deployed to Iraq. Brendan and a group of Thorp cousins we seldom get to see decided to play baseball, and Gabe, who plays soccer in the spring and rarely puts on a mitt, decided to play, too. Not only that, but to pitch.

After only 10 minutes or so of play, my cousin Mel tossed a pitch back to Gabe, and it sailed just above his mitt and smacked him solidly in the forehead. Gabe fell to the lawn holding his head, his eye welling with tears. I went to him, but as I approached, he got to his feet, hissing air in and out through his teeth, still holding his forehead, walking in rough circles near where he had fallen.

“Are you okay?” I asked. He nodded, eyes wet, jaw set.

“You wanna sit out a minute?”

He shook his head, picked up the ball, and returned to the scuff in the grass from which he had been pitching.

I quietly expressed my amazement to my sister. This was not like Gabriel.

A short while later, he took another baseball to the forehead, this one off a bat, I think. Oh no! I thought, running back out to him. His eyes were glassy again, but he rubbed his head with the heel of his hand and smiled. I moved his hand. You could see the stitches from the baseball imprinted in deep red on his skin. I told him so, and his eyes flashed panic, but only for a second. He went back to pitching.

He talked about both injuries throughout the day, both as points of pride and of sympathy, but never complained and never quit playing.

Fast forward to our trip to South Dakota over the Fourth of July. Gabe has an inexplicable affection for a large goat that perennially appears in the Piedmont (SD) Fourth of July Parade and could not wait to see Jacob this summer. Jodi took him to Jacob’s keeper’s farm a day or so early to visit, and Gabe was invited to march in the parade with the family and the goat.

This should have been a no-brainer, except that Gabe isn’t the most social of our children, especially around people he doesn’t know well, and wouldn’t offer any immediate response about whether he intended to do it.

Ultimately he agreed to do walk with them, and Jodi took him over before the parade to get dressed and ready. He would have to line up with the family, of course, so for the next couple hours he would be without familiar faces, except, of course, Jacob’s.

The results of the parade you can see in the photo above — a joy-filled kid and an alter-ego that still makes frequent appearances at our house: Mr. Patriotic. But the change seems to have gone deeper. Immediately following the parade, Gabe was verbally sparring with his siblings and cousins, keeping pace with their jabs and meeting them with wit and outright hilarity. He was more outspoken about his opinions. And at Brendan’s baseball picnic last weekend, he played pickup baseball with Bren’s team, mostly older boys and strangers, and although he started swimming lessons this year as though last year’s lessons had never happened, he ran into the water at the lake and played and splashed with Bren and his teammates until finally I had to (quietly) remind him that he doesn’t really swim.

How does one do that: admire and encourage the newfound confidence of his son and still protect him from the dunking natures of boys twice his size who don’t know that three months ago, he would barely jump into the water?

I went to soccer practice with him last night. He took a hard-kicked ball right between the eyes; his head jerked backward, and the coach’s wife seated next to me gasped. The coach asked several times if Gabe was okay. He shook his head to clear out the stars, laughed, and said yes.

Then he looked at his coach, smiled wryly, and said, “I got hit in the face … on my BIRTHDAY!” And he laughed again.

Happy birthday, Gabe — we are so proud of you!

"Feed My Sheep"

When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him: yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he had said to him the third time: Lovest thou me? And he said to him: Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep.
— John 21:15-17
* * * * *
The Thorp gang is in western South Dakota this week, where it has been a tremendous honor and blessing to see a dear friend of ours, Tyler Dennis, be ordained a Catholic priest last Friday, June 26, 2009. It is tradition that newly ordained priests give out prayer cards marking their ordination. The front of Father Tyler’s features the image above. The back bears this prayer and explanation:

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.

— St. Ignatius of Loyola
The pelican is an ancient symbol of Christ. It is said that when no other food is available, the pelican will feed its young with the flesh of its own breast, just as Christ feeds his people with his body and blood in the Eucharist.

The significance of the pelican is not unlike the Gospel reading above, which was the Gospel reading from the Ordination. The theme was repeated numerous times: Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.

It’s been an incredibly moving last few days. I thought I’d share a little of the experience, from our perspective.

* * * * *
Many of you know that Jodi and I met while working summer jobs at the world-famous Wall Drug Store, she in hats and western wear; I in boots and moccasins. Jodi worked with Cindy Dennis, whose husband, Robert, works his family’s ranch near Red Owl, more than an hour north and west of Wall. Cindy had a little place in town and as I recall, their oldest son, Tyler, was a cerebral and musical teenager working in the dish room at the Wall Drug Cafe. His younger brothers, Tate and Chance, stayed on the ranch with Robert that first summer, I believe (Tate worked at the drug store as a high-schooler) — and somehow they all stayed close.

Robert would come into town now and again, dressed every bit the cowboy of my boyhood visions: colorful boots pulled up over his jeans, western shirts and vests and silk scarves, big mustache and bigger hat. Sometimes he’d come by the house I lived in, guitar in hand, to share cowboy songs and country humor — but the night he played “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and allowed me to help with the lyrics, a friendship was sealed.

* * * * *
We’ve had more than a few adventures with “Cowboy Bob” (as Robert became known in my newspaper columns), Cindy, and the boys. We’ve been snowed in at their place with no power. We discussed all manners of philosophy, swapped jokes, drank beer and tequila and whiskey, traveled together and fished, shared poetry, you name it. It’s been a great friendship over the years, and since Jodi and I sit just about perfectly in age between Robert and Cindy on one hand, and their boys on the other, we’ve enjoyed being friends with the whole gang.

I’ve written about ol’ Jinglebob any number of times over the years, but probably the best picture of the Dennis family I can offer is this essay I wrote after accompanying my dad and our oldest son, Brendan, to the ranch for a branding.

At that time, Father Tyler was completing his undergraduate work at St. Mary’s in Winona, and I offered this assessment:

Bob’s oldest boy, Tyler, is leaning against Sorley, a stripped down Suzuki Samurai with a homemade plywood roof and four-wheel drive—the name comes from the little rig’s sorrel color. He’s only recently back from Winona, where he’s studying for the priesthood; he’s dressed in a plain t-shirt and sweats, untied duck boots and an old fedora. His little brother’s riding with the men below.

Tyler stands in front of the little 4×4, watching the cowboys work. He’s not like these others—he’s a big kid and prone to discussing philosophy, praying aloud in Latin or singing in Spanish—but he looks at home here and I snap a picture of him, God’s country in his eyes.

* * * * *
The little church in Red Owl, St. Anthony Catholic Church, is unlike any other I’ve ever been to. It’s tiny by Twin Cities standards (though not the tiniest West River Catholic church in South Dakota, I’m told): several short pews and a humble sanctuary, with no place to hide or “go through the motions” during the Mass.

During the ordination, Bishop Cupich remarked that a man raised in one of the smallest parishes in the Rapid City Diocese would now being serving in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, underscoring the unity of the church across all peoples and communities. Small town boy makes good, some may say, but I would suggest Fr. Tyler was good all along, and perhaps better for his rural ranch upbringing. Indeed, Monsignor O’Connell, the homilist during Father Tyler’s First Thanksgiving Mass on Saturday morning, suggested the diocese’s newest priest thank his father for teaching him how to work hard, his mother for showing him how to care about others (a virtue that seems pervasive in ranch country), and his brothers … for teaching him patience.

* * * * *
The weekend before we left for South Dakota, I told a fellow parishioner from our St. Michael Catholic Church that we were attending Fr. Tyler’s ordination, and he insisted there is no more beautiful liturgy in the Church’s traditions. We arrived at Our Lady of Perpetual Help with great anticipation. Deacon Tyler was greeting family, friends and future parishioners at the foot of the front steps to the cathedral, a broad smile on his face. Such joy, I thought. Robert hailed us from the top of the steps, wearing a dark suit, red tie, and his best boots, a grandson on his arm. Cindy descended the steps quickly to greet us, and she seemed joyful and nervous and warm, like a mother at a wedding — and so she was.

We sat midway back on the right. At the opening hymn, the priests processed in pairs, old and young, black and white, tall and short, stout and wiry, dozens of them from across the diocese and from the seminary, with deacons and the bishop, and Tyler, of course, singing with and above the others, the same broad smile in his cheeks as he sang. I grinned the first of several goofy grins that would crease my face all weekend.

The proceedings open with great formality, with Tyler called forth and the bishop asking for verification from his soon-to-be brother priests whether he is known to be worthy. I had been told to expect countless moving moments: the vow of obedience to the bishop and the Church; the laying on of hands upon Tyler’s by each prayerful priest in turn; the kiss of peace, in which each priest in turn greets their new brother with a welcoming embrace. The moment I was most anticipating I was unable to see from the middle of the pew: as those assembled prayer the Litany of the Saints, Tyler lay prostrate on the cold stone floor at the base of the steps before the altar, in the ultimate gesture of humility and submission. Gabe, Emma and Brendan* stretched into the aisle and stared at Tyler’s motionless form; I imagined how he must look lying there, and marveled. (Later I asked the three kids to demonstrate how Tyler was lying, with three very different interpretations. I asked Father Tyler at the Dennis ranch on Sunday, and he explained that he lay flat on his chest with his hands overlapping, palms down, beneath his forehead.)

But the most moving moment in the entire liturgy came at the end, and was entirely unexpected. As the Mass ended, Bishop Cupich announced he would ask Fr. Tyler’s blessing before the bishop himself offered his closing blessing for the congregation. We watched transfixed as the bishop knelt before our friend and humbly bowed his head. My breath caught as Fr. Tyler placed his hands on the bishop’s head and red cap and prayed over him. Incredible.

During the reception that followed, the five of us waited in line to receive our own blessing from Fr. Tyler. We knelt as a family, with Trevor close at heart, and our friend called upon the intercession of the Holy Family and blessing in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

* * * * *
On Saturday morning, all six of us made our way to St. Paul Catholic Church in Belle Fourche for Fr. Tyler’s First Mass of Thanksgiving, a Votive Mass for the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Robert and Cindy invited us to the front pew (“You’re family, y’know …”), and I again spent the hour with a goofy grin and a tear at the ready.

Tyler was no longer the dishwashing teen or the seminarian or the deacon. He had walked nearly a decade on the path to priesthood, from Red Owl to Rome to Rapid City, and he looked at home in the sanctuary. When he spoke the Words of Consecration in particular, our friend and our world changed. We believed, and said “Amen.”

* * * * *
Of course, I’m not the only one blogging about Father Tyler these days:
* * * * *
Finally, this weekend has me thinking about the nature of marriage and other lifelong commitments. Priests undertake years of education, preparation, formation, discernment. The call to the priestly vocation is often compared to the call to marriage as way of understanding the complete, lifelong commitment of the less common vocation.

Two observations come to mind: not for the first time, but with great clarity today. The first is that, while few people would agree to several years of preparation and discernment prior to marriage, perhaps this would drive home the magnitude of the commitment couples undertake when they say, “I do.”

The second is that the “marriage” a priest undertakes is far from loveless. I’ve posted before on my middle son’s own priestly aspirations, and these postings have generated lots of conversation, both online and offline. One friend, in particular, voiced the opinion that a marriage to God would be particularly hard and one-sided work, since your spouse has largely been silent for centuries.

The better metaphor is that a priest (like Jesus, the Bridegroom) doesn’t marry God, but the Church (the Bride) — and as we witnessed all this weekend, the Church consists of real people, is full of love for her priests, and is quite expressive. In addition, Fr. Tyler pointed out the sacramentality of his commitment. I took his comments to mean (in much simplified layman’s terms) the real belief in a real commitment between a real person and a real God doing real good in a real world. From this perspective, his relationship with God is hardly one-sided. (Or if it is, the effort is all on the Other Side …)

God bless you, Father Tyler — and all our priests.

*Trevor stayed with Grandma and Grandpa Venjohn for the ordination; it was scheduled for the evening, and his lungs don’t always agree with incense.