A New Mission

By now it’s pretty well gotten around that I’ll be leaving the role of faith formation director at the end of June. A number of you have said, “I can’t wait to hear what you’ll be doing next,” to which I reply, “Me, too!”  On the other hand, we have taken great leaps forward in the past three years, and I have never felt unappreciated or under-compensated working for the parish. It’s good work—it’s just not my work.

 I’ve made a discovery this past year: I have an evangelist’s heart.

I am competent at many things, and even skilled at some of them. I can be an administrator, a catechist, a communicator, an administrative assistant, and a laborer. I can do all sorts of things when needed. But I have an evangelist’s heart.

And, thanks be to God, I can write. I’ve known this for some time, and every staff or personal retreat I’ve been on for the past decade or more has resulted in me saying to my bride, “Whatever happens from here forward, I need to write.” I’ve been told the same thing countless times, by family and friends, acquaintances and total strangers. I’ve never made a successful go of writing on my own, however—I think primarily because, until now, I’ve tried to do it on my own. I’ve never really asked what God wanted me to write and waited for an answer.

I have always been the least rational and most emotional of all my male friends. I blunder through the world heart-first, find beauty in strange places, share too much, talk too much, and cry more than my bride. It’s embarrassing. I’m not good at casual friendships: most of the time I either go deep, or I can’t link a name to a face.  Any given week I love humanity and hate it, sometimes at the same time.

But when I share from the heart, when I speak or write about things I care about—faith, marriage, family—it moves people. When I talk about my own journey from part-time Catholic kid to an Ivy-educated agnostic with a porn problem to a faithful husband and father, it touches people. And I want to do that.

What’s more: God wants me to do that. (I finally asked.) No more pretending these gifts are weaknesses or wishing He made me differently. I am what He made me, and I’m only as free as I am obedient to His will.

It’s exciting: I feel like an apostle being called by Jesus to follow. And it’s terrifying: I don’t like reaching out to new people, because loving those people involves time, effort, and usually pain. Plus I can’t see my way forward. Peter and Andrew, James, and John dropped their nets and left their boats behind. Matthew left his post, his money, his whole former life. I have a primary vocation as husband and father. I can see no way to do what God is asking of me in my free time, and no simple way to make a living. I can’t see a logical next step.

So for the first time in my life, I find no solution other than utter abandon, to give everything to the Lord and let Him sort it out.

Dive in. Heart-first.

Hammer and Tongs

It feels to me as though God is hammering me into something harder and more useful than I have been thus far in life. And that can only be a good thing. But in this moment, I can feel the tongs, the fire, the hammer, and cannot see the pattern.* I don’t know what He hopes to forge or even the shape He desires. I can only stay malleable and submit, trusting the Craftsman’s vision is keener than my own.

That is not easy for me. Which is likely why it must be done this way.

—–

*Please regard this as a metaphor and a sentiment I wanted to capture; nothing more. My current anxieties are minor in the big scheme of things. I just wish sometimes I could see what He sees…

Tolstoy, or Three Things to Love About Anna Karenina

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, the end is near, this being number 14 of 15.

I am not like other men (or at least, not like many that I know). I have just past my forty-second birthday, and just read Leo Tolstoy’s immense novel Anna Karenina, by personal choice—and I loved it. 

My friend Fr. Tyler (from the Prairie Father blog) recommended it to me as “the greatest love story ever born in the mind of man and put to paper.” He has never led me astray in terms of fiction, but other men might not see that as a recommendation. I mentioned to a friend a week or so ago that I was reading it, and asked if he had ever. He laughed and said, “Ah…no.”

“It’s a great book,” I said, and again he smiled: “I don’t doubt it.” And that was that.

It is a big book (736 pages in my edition, with narrow margins and smallish type), full of Russian names and nicknames—Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Lëvin, Prince Stepan “Stiva” Arkadyevich Oblonsky, Russian place names and politics, and Russian aristocrats who flavor their conversations with French and occasionally German. (Thank goodness for Google Translate!)

Despite these difficulties, I struggled to put it down. It manages to be an amazingly detailed portrait of time, place, and people, and yet remarkably universal and relevant to this time and place: 21st century America and even the 2016 election. It is heartbreakingly tragic, and incredible hopeful and uplifting. It is newly ranked among my favorite books of all time.

Without further ado, Three Things to Love About Anna Karenina:

  • Complexity of Characterization: Tolstoy sees his characters clearly and portrays them in all their complexity. Think of this: Anna is written as captivatingly beautiful; men and women alike can’t help but respond to her appearance and charm—and neither can you. This beauty could seem stereotypical or convenient for the sake of the story. It could be hammered away at like a one-note tune. But Anna is never simply beautiful.* She is captivating and tragic: people are drawn to her and repelled; her passions are apparent; her motives unknown even to herself. Tolstoy makes you love her and despair, much like her husband. And all of the characters are this way. Tolstoy is a keen observer of people: his descriptions are not of men, but of  intellectual men, simple men, dashing and pasty men, dandies and duds (sometimes within the same character).The worst have their qualities; the best have their faults. None are flawless, and so we believe in them.
  • The Art of Pacing: Tolstoy’s novel is peopled by people, and they live as we do, in time, lost in thought and out in the world. He details the lives, habits, thoughts and appearances of his characters and weaves together different story lines in a way that is simultaneous clear and keeps the reader wanting more. I had to fight the urge to flip forward when he jumped from one thread to another. As a writer, I realized in reading this that I rush everything: descriptions, details, day-to-day life. I leap from scene to scene, dialogue to dialogue, crisis to crisis—and only sketch the people involved. Tolstoy takes the time it takes. I could learn something here.
  • Religion and Culture. In March of 2011, I wrote of The Brother Karamazov, “Dostoevsky does not shy away from religion and philosophy, permitting his characters to speak at length (and in character, so not always clearly) about the existence of God, morality, humanity, science, psychology, justice, the state, and more. I was struck by how a book written circa 1880 could have so much to say about our world in 2011.” Replace Dostoevsky with Tolstoy and 2011 with 2016, and it applies here. I have been struck throughout this challenge by the fact that the true classics of literature capture the universal condition of humanity. They are not old, but timeless. It’s a pity that increasingly these books appear not to be read.
One final note: What I loved most about the book (but didn’t share as one of the Three Things, because it’s so personal to me) is that I saw myself in it. Anna’s story is obviously the focus, but the protagonist of the main parallel story, Konstantin Levin, is an idealistic, emotional man who wants to understand how the world works, but when he engages in society, in politics, it makes no sense. He drives himself to the brink by contemplating what it all means; he wants marriage and family and life in the country—and yet he struggles to enjoy these things with all the pressures he puts on his heart. 
The description of Levin before and during the birth of his first son brought me to tears. (I am not like most other men.) And finally, this:

I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!

My list of 15 classics has changed somewhat over time; my next and final book will be much shorter: The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor. Back soon!
—–
* I’m free-associating now: we recently watched an old Western on Netflix, The River of No Return, with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. God bless Monroe, but she is a kind cinematic shorthand. She does what’s required: sing, seduce, weep, laugh, but her role in the story is, as our elder daughter once characterized her job as a toddler, to sit here and look beautiful. Anna is not that. At all.

Thomas and Me

Blogger’s Note: What follows is as close as I’ve come to a mystical experience. Because of this, I don’t doubt the charismatic side of our faith as much as some — but also, I recognize more fully that it is extremely hard to know what’s going on in another’s mind, heart, and soul. I wrote this back in 2003, shortly after moving to Minnesota and relatively early in my return to the Church– before my conversion, in many ways. As such, it is a glimpse into an immature prayer life that was blessed with a brief but up-close encounter with God’s love. I’ve made two small edits for clarity’s sake. I would write this differently today, but it is as accurate as it can be. 

Thomas was a lucky man.

Imagine sharing your life with Christ, in the flesh. Experiencing the gospels firsthand. Hearing the people talk of the healer, the prophet, the man who overturned tables in the temple — your friend. Imagine seeing miracles not just happen, but be performed by someone you broke bread with.

Thomas was lucky — not only to have known Jesus personally, but also to have missed His first appearance to the disciples. Imagine — Thomas comes back from wherever he’s been, and his friends are grabbing his robes, spinning him around, each trying to explain over the others that Jesus, three days dead, had come to see them. Had breathed on them. Now, Thomas is no fool — he knows his Lord was flesh and blood, and saw Him crucified. He knows that, despite Christ’s miraculous powers, he didn’t make it off that tree alive, and he can see nine ways to Sunday how somebody pretending to be a risen Christ could really mess things up good for the disciples, for the Jews, for the Romans, everybody.

So he puts up both hands, looks at his brothers and says, “I’ll believe it when I see it. No — as a matter of fact, I’ll believe it when I can examine the holes in His holy hands and feet. When I can stick my hand in His side.”

Imagine the audacity! The disciples are staring at Thomas in open-mouthed disbelief: After all you’ve seen, and all we’ve told you — after all we’ve been through together — you won’t believe until you’ve pierced Him again with your own hands?

Thomas glares resolutely around the room, then stalks out again.

Thomas is lucky, because his Lord wants to give the people every chance to believe and be saved. Christ could have come back the second time and scolded Thomas for his lack of faith in God and his fellow disciples. Instead, he smiles at Thomas and tells him to go ahead and touch the wounds. Put your hand in my side, my friend, and believe!

Thomas immediately falls to his knees and proclaims Jesus his Lord. As a result, we learn two things about our God — He’ll bend over backwards to save us, and being in His presence requires no further explanation.

With 2,000 years of faith, tradition and perspective behind us, it’s easy to fault Thomas for his doubt. But remember, Thomas and the disciples were a newly formed minority, out of favor with the Jewish leadership, and now leaderless. In times like these, it pays to be a skeptic, if only to protect yourself.

Thomas wanted what we all long for — certainty. Faith is fine, but how many times have we all asked for something more?

“Just give me a sign, Lord. Give me something to believe in.”

The signs are all around us, of course — we only need to open up to them. What follows is a true account of what can happen if you do.

*****
Jodi and I were youth leaders for three years before moving to Minnesota. We were volunteers — actually, we had volunteered to help with the high-school youth group, and were quite excited when, the next Sunday, Fr. Bill told the flock he had two new youth leaders.
We couldn’t wait to find out who.
Let me say right off that I’m no saint. Nothing in this world can make you more acutely aware of your own weaknesses than preaching the gospel to young people, or having their parents tell you what a wonderful, positive influence you’ve been in their children’s lives. As youth ministers, were we still sinners? Yes. Did we feel worse than ever about it? Oh, yeah.
Jodi and I did a lot with the group. We made pancake breakfasts for the parish. We sang Christmas carols for the locals. We saw the Pope in Toronto. And often, we just hung out.
The high point of the high-school youth group experience, however, is the yearly trip to Steubenville, Ohio, for Franciscan University’s famous Catholic youth conferences. Thousands of young Catholics, countless deacons, nuns, youth ministers and volunteer chaperones, and the widest assortment of priests you can imagine — biker priests, rapping priests, priests who speak in tongues, wizened old men and young fellows fresh from ordination — all spending the weekend together, singing and praying, laughing and crying. And on Saturday night, calling Christ to earth to walk among the masses.
Saturday night at Steubie is like nothing else. When the Eucharist passes through a gymnasium full of spiritually famished teens, “adoration” doesn’t do justice to the experience. Christ makes His presence known — not at the altar, not on the stage at all, but out among the hungry souls, the Bread of Life, meeting the young people where they are and taking them where they need to be. Their personal God and savior.
I’ve heard from teens who claim to have seen Jesus, talked to Him, held His hand. I’ve heard from people who have been held by Jesus, rocked, soothed. A friend of mine made peace with a relative long dead. Another heard, saw and felt his sins enumerated, forgiven and fall away like so many dry leaves. Kids shriek, laugh uncontrollably, sob, shout. Some stand upright, speaking aloud with God. Some fall flat to the floor, dead to the world around them. Some are prayed over, or escorted out. It quickly becomes apparent that the adults are no longer running the show.
Even so, group leaders are encouraged to devote themselves to staying alert and keeping their young people focused and safe. And the first Saturday night I spent at Steubenville, I wanted nothing more. It was unnerving to close your eyes for too long.
This past July, however, was different. Jodi and I had already relocated to the Twin Cities, and were coming back for one last Steubie trip with “our older kids.” I wanted to soak it up — all the energy, enthusiasm and love that they could give. We arrived at the St. Mike’s church parking lot at 5:30 a.m., and a number of the kids were there already, shivering, sleep still in their eyes. I was bouncing in place. My knees were shaking. It felt electric.
The trip was great — bittersweet, of course, with constant reminders that this was it, the last hurrah. That first night we circled up on the lawn after the evening session, and I told them how wonderful it felt to be there with them. I told them I felt like a live wire, feeding off their energy. I told them I thought the weekend was going to be amazing.
Saturday dawned early and rushed headlong toward adoration. So much going on, but the constant background buzz was tonight, tonight, tonight. The Steubie newbies didn’t know what to expect, and spoke in hushed tones, equal parts excitement and anxiety. The veterans exchanged knowing smiles.
And then we were there – a thousand voices singing softly, countless palms outstretched. The Eucharist appeared, raised high, glowing from within as the spotlight followed it on its slow procession. And the tears came. The laughter, the shouts, and the cries. Our kids were swept with the Holy Spirit, and Christ was there — you could see it in their eyes. I looked from one face to the next, and oh, how I wanted to see what they were seeing.
Gimme a sign, Lord, I thought. Just a touch, a taste.
I could hear the priest’s voice ringing in my head, advising the chaperones: “Remember, this is for the kids.”
But your will, not mine, I added.
*****
That night we sat in a wide circle on the grass. One by one the kids and the adults shared how Christ had manifested Himself, speaking their language, sharing with them exactly what they needed. When my turn came, I told them I’d felt jealous.
“I know I shouldn’t have felt that way, but I so badly wanted to experience what you were,” I said. “Finally I made my peace with the fact that this wasn’t my time — after that, it was just a joy to be with you all.”
And I told them I loved them.
On the bus home Sunday evening, we’re called to the mic at the front of the bus to share our final thoughts on the trip. I don’t know what I’ll say when my turn comes — I want badly to be light and funny, but leaving the youth group is weighing heavily on me.
“Tell us a college story!” someone shouts, and everyone laughs. I have a well-documented tendency to fall back on those stories — and to run long in the telling.
“No college stories,” I say. “What I want to tell you is something you’ve all heard before from me, lots of times. But I want you to really listen this time. I love you guys –”
“We love ya, too, Jim!” the girls in the back shout.
I stop a moment, shake my head: “Thanks, but guys, listen…”
I wait. The chorus of “love yas” slowly quiets.
“Listen to me. We have a tendency to say these things in a casual, off-hand manner like that, but I mean it. I love you. All of you. So much.”
The bus is quiet now.
“We goof around with that phrase all the time — either we don’t say it because it’s sappy or we’re afraid people might think we mean something we don’t, or whatever. Other times we say it offhand, like it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just something we say, right? Let’s not do that. Tonight, let’s take a minute to look at each other, to recognize each other for what we are — flawed human beings, and children of God. Let’s tell each other how we feel and mean it tonight.”
By the time we get back to St. Mike’s, Jodi and I have visited with nearly everyone on the bus, one on one. Even the chaperones have taken my speech to heart, and the bus is warm with affection.
The bus pulls into the church parking lot. A few cars are waiting there already, and a small knot of parents stand in the evening cool, talking quietly. The kids pile out of the bus, a tumble of sweatshirts, pillows and duffle bags, raucous from lack of sleep. Some hug their parents; some, each other. A few hug Jodi and me.
I shout above the din for the group to circle up, and invite the parents and bus driver to join us in a closing prayer. We join hands, and begin in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
“Guys,” I say, “I’m shaking again.”
I don’t know where to begin. I tip my head back and stare up into the heavens’ blackness, past countless twinkling stars.
“My God,” I say. “Look up there!”
My legs are trembling.
I begin: “Dear Lord Jesus, thank you. Thank you for the love in this circle tonight. Thank you for the experience of this weekend, for your love, for being there with us. For being here with us. Thank you for joyous laughter and cleansing tears. Fill us with your Spirit, Lord, that we may carry this feeling forward with us, and share it with everyone we meet.”
I ask if anyone has petitions. I’m still looking to the heavens. Ron and Josh, the boys on either side of mean, are squeezing my hands, and my legs continue to shake. There are petitions — for safe travel home, for the youth who couldn’t go to Steubenville, for the church, for sick loved ones, and for all the young people touched by God over the weekend. When the circle is silent, I’m out of breath. “You guys, I can’t stop shaking,” I say. Then I begin the Lord’s Prayer.
“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

The circle picks up the prayer, but my voice falters. The trembling in my legs hits my chest and spreads rapidly toward my fingertips. My head is back; tears are streaming past my ears, and my mouth is open as if to shout, but I can’t speak.

“You okay?” Ron says. He’s squeezing my hand tighter now. So is Josh.

A feeling like strength and power and pure joy arcs through me in waves, and I feel like I’m rising. The Lord’s Prayer complete, kids begin to laugh, shout and sing. The circle remains intact, however, and I manage a groan: “Guys!”

No one hears me. I can’t stop shaking — don’t want to — this feeling — incredible! I don’t know if I’m standing on the pavement or floating above it.

“Guuuys!” I rasp. “Pray! Don’t stop — pray!”

The new youth minister, Mianne, starts a Hail Mary.* I can barely hear them — the feeling is deep and resounding and intense and glorious.

My body is dissolving, except my hands, and I grip Josh and Ron more tightly.

Jesus. Lord Jesus. My God.

Mianne leads a second Hail Mary, and I’m coming down now. I’m laughing and sobbing as they finish the prayer. The circle is intact.

“You know,” I say, gasping for breath. “Remember…I said…I was jealous?…I’m not…anymore…I just…got mine.”

“Praise God!” says Mianne, and the circle cheers. I collapse on Ron and Josh — they are hugging me, and I tell them to hang on to me; I’m not sure I can stand.

Ron whispers in my ear: “What was that?” I look at him and see a knowing smile. “I could feel it,” he says. “Coming out from you. Could you feel it, Josh?”

He could. Ron leans close again, and whispers, “Dude, it felt like you were gonna lift off. We had to hold you down to keep you here.”

*****

I don’t think most of the adults knew what was happening. The kids who were closest to me in the circle knew I’d felt something incredible — some of them had felt it, too — but Jodi, on the far side of the circle, had thought I was just “getting into it” a bit.

I pull her close and try to explain. As the kids begin to leave, we walk to a bench outside the church and pray together.

I pray for understanding. Already my skeptic’s brain is working — I’m exhausted, and have so much emotion invested in the group, etc., etc. Had to be adrenaline, or something.

No. You were touched. And another wave hits me — just one. I look at Jodi with tears in my eyes, smiling.

“Jodi,” I say. “I think I felt God tonight.”

She smiles, and continues to pray with me.

When we arrive at my parents where we’ll spend the night, my mom is waiting up. She asks how the trip was, and we tell her it was great. I’ve a strange look on my face, and when she notices I tell her I had an experience I want to share with her, but I’m not sure how. I tell her I want to sleep on it.

In the morning it’ll be gone, my skeptic’s mind says. Instantly, I begin to tremble, ecstasy and tears rising to the surface.

That night I held my wife until she was sound asleep, for possibly the first time in nearly seven years of marriage. Always before I’d been too warm, too tired, too uncomfortable. Too selfish.

I woke wondering how to explain to my mother, only recently back to the church, and my father, who claims to be atheist, that I’d come heart to heart with Christ. I was afraid they would think I’d finally cracked — I’ve always been an emotional, and sometimes dramatic, child. I lay awake for a while and imagine what they might say to convince me otherwise. In my head their arguments made sense, but each time my heart would rise up and another wave would crash down on me — strength, power and joy. In the shower. Over breakfast. Each time I tried to deny what had happened, or call it something it wasn’t, I would be overcome.

When I finally explained to my parents, I was trembling again, not from fear, but from conviction. When I finished, they didn’t question me or laugh. When I finished, I knew the truth — I had been touched by God. And with the same certainty, I knew I wouldn’t get that feeling again.

*****
So far, I’ve been right. God doesn’t let us replace our faith with Truth, but fosters faith in Truth. My sign was mine alone, to believe or disbelieve, but as soon as I made my choice the sign itself was gone. I don’t tremble. I don’t float. I don’t spark anymore.
Only once in a while, I’ll brush up against it and get gooseflesh and tears — all that remains of that glorious feeling. The earthly things we enjoy — food, drink, sex — don’t come close. The greater joys — love for family and friends, spouse and children; memory; the beauty of life — these too fall short. All strength, all power and pure joy combined as…what?
Love. The love I’d preached to the youth group but never given before that night. A love without boundaries, infinite, founded on our deepest commonalities — we are alive, we are human and we need to love and be loved. A selfless, giving love that never ceases, and never dies.
Christ’s love.
I’d like to say I’m free now. I’d like to say that Christ touched my heart, and I sinned no more. But it hasn’t happened. Touching God didn’t make me perfect, any more than experiencing Truth means I don’t need faith. The good new is it’s harder now — harder to sin, and harder to bear it. The good news is I’m more aware now, and it matters to me. The good news is that love really is all we need.
The Good News is He is real, He is here, and He is love.
J. Thorp
29 Sept 03
*****
*Accounts differ from my own on this point. Mianne told me afterward that we didn’t pray a Hail Mary as a group and suggested that must have been between me and Our Blessed Mother. The teens couldn’t recall for sure.

It’s In the Small Things

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  — St. Augustine of Hippo

It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged.

I’ve been thinking for a couple of weeks now that I’m neglecting this site. I’ve been thinking that I ought to just provide quick updates and anecdotes about the kids. That’s what my readership (largely friends and family) tend to read and comment on anyway. But I also have in my head these much grander posts I’d like to write, but can’t find the time for — and I second-guess myself about the smaller updates and think, “Why spend valuable writing time on the day-to-day, when you have bigger fish to fry?”

As a result of this back-and-forth, I’ve written nothing.

Last night, a dear friend, Fr. Tyler from Prairie Father, visited from South Dakota. As usual, we talked long and late about everything under the sun — most amusing were his interrogation of Trevor on the topic of Greek mythology, which Trevor knows primarily from Percy Jackson and not from the myths themselves, and his discussion with Gabe about the nature of reality and the unintended consequences of Copernicus’s work and the scientific method.

Later, we began to talk more practically about how we, as Catholic adults, can live our faith on a daily basis and act as missionaries wherever we happen to be. I admitted a tendency to downplay the little ways in which I can evangelize in favor of planned grand gestures in the future: a book I’d like to write, or a pilgrimage or retreat I’d like to take with friends or family. Several times during the discussion, Fr. Tyler repeated, “It’s in the details. It’s in the little things.”

“I know you’re right,” I replied at one point, “but that’s not how I’m living on a day-to-day basis.”

I’ve said before that I believe men want to be a part of something great and glorious — but although I had a great marriage and glorious family, I’m constantly, restlessly searching for that great and glorious thing — that other life — I should be leading.

It’s in the small things.

I thought about his words throughout a restless night and morning — then checked my personal email and found a new, anonymous comment on this blog post. It’s the most popular post on my little site, and I joke about it sometimes, because my web stats tell me that post, in particular, is big in Russia.

Yeah, I’m read internationally. Deal with it.

The point is, not only am I looking for the next big thing, but I downplay, and even mock, the little things I do well. Today an anonymous reader (Fr. Tyler, was that you?) reiterated the message of last night: It’s in the small things.

* * * * *

Blogger’s Postscript: Apparently I’ve written this post before. How soon we forget…