Many of you reading know that Jodi and I have been discerning the possibility of me becoming a deacon. A deacon in the Catholic Church is an ordained member of the clergy, meaning that like priests and bishops, they receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. An ordained deacon is a deacon for life. If unmarried, he remains unmarried; if married, he does not remarry after the death of his wife. They generally serve the Church and assist priests at the altar during Mass, with certain pastoral and sacramental duties, and with teaching and preaching. Generally, they maintain their careers outside the Church, which uniquely positions them as clergy out in the world on a regular basis.
The Church recognizes two types of deacons. Transitional deacons are ordained deacons on their way to becoming ordained priests. Permanent deacons are ordained deacons who do not intend to become priests but have answered God’s call to serve the Church in this deeper way.
In the Catholic Church, deacon is not a volunteer position or a job, but a vocational call—and for a married couple that has a vocational call as husband and wife, it ought to be a big decision. As the Institute for Diaconate Formation (IDF) here in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis often puts it, Wives need to be comfortable with their husbands marrying another woman, the Church.
I was blessed, on my trip to Michigan and back in the past few weeks, to listen to The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis in its entirety. The version available on Audible, narrated by Geoffrey Howard, is approximately 24 hours of continuous listening, and worth every minute. The three books of The Space Trilogy were certainly inspired by classic science fiction of the last century, but combine these influences with fantasy, mythology, horror and Christian theology.
- The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, is the most sci-fi of the three, delving into interplanetary space flight and exploration, extraterrestrial life-forms and more. A British linguist named Ransom is shanghaied onto a spaceship bound for a nearby planet known by its native inhabitants as Malacandra. He escapes his captors to discover multiple rational animals with very different appearances, skills and abilities, and cultures, who nevertheless live together in good-humored and mutually beneficial peace. Slowly Ransom abandons his earthly notions of power, control, and desire and strives to help the natives against the other Earthlings who seek to exploit them.
- The second book, Perelandra, is a science-fantasy tale also involving interplanetary travel and extraterrestrial life to frame a retelling of the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Ransom agrees to travel to the planet Perelandra on an urgent mission, but with no idea what that mission is. He encounters a lone humanoid woman who lives in harmony with the world and creatures around her and is searching for her man. An old adversary arrives from Earth to tempt the woman into disobeying the higher powers she knows on Perelandra, and Ransom must again fight against his fellow man as well as demonic activity to save a pristine world from importing Earth’s sin.
- The final book, That Hideous Strength, is as long as the first two books combined and takes place entirely on Earth, specifically, in England. It continues Ransom’s tale in a story combining dystopian fiction, Arthurian legend and horror to critique materialism, modernism, politics, education and contemporary ideas of gender and marriage. It follows a young sociologist striving to get ahead in his career by joining a new and increasingly powerful national scientific insitute, while his wife, who is struggling with bad dreams that appear to predict the future, falls in with a small band of local resistance led by an eccentric old linguist who is rumored to be contact with powerful extraterrestrials who are pure spirit and are preparing for a final battle over the fate of the Earth.
This year’s Christmas poem is a conversation and a modest attempt at Shakespearean style. The inspiration popped into my head several weeks ago: an imagined meeting of the World, the Flesh and the Devil, who are sharing a pint of “Christmas cheer” at the end of a seemingly successful year of sowing strife and division. The line that came first to mind was from the Flesh: “The spirit is weak, and the flesh is always willing.”—which survives in a modified form.
For whatever reason, I remain taken with the idea of Satan struggling to accept that he has been defeated by an Infant and His Mother. A few sparks from literature and pop culture also came to mind, for example, C.S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” Scrooge’s promise at the end of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to discuss Bob Cratchit’s situation “over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop,” and the exchange between Captain Jack Sparrow and Gibbs in the Tortuga tavern in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
It may be easier to print and read in this format. Apologies to the Bard—I hope a few of you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!
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Scene: A dark corner of a noisy tavern, lit by melted candle stubs and a large, crackling fire. A table with three chairs and three tankards. Two figures are seated: the World, slight, anxious and in constant motion; the Flesh, immense and languid, with eyes that rove around the room. A third figure, the Devil, well-dressed with a commanding bearing, approaches, and the first two rise.
Note: This post appeared in the December 13 editions of the St. Michael and St. Albert bulletins.
A wise older friend advised, “Every morning when you wake, ask God, ‘What do you want me to do for you today?’” Dutifully, I put a note on my side of the bed as a reminder, and most morning since, I have asked that question.
Occasionally, an answer emerges almost before I’ve asked—like the topic of this column, or the Lord urging me to be present, be gentle and listen to my bride. But often, I sit in silence, in the dark, and hear nothing. I wait a moment or two, then continue with my morning.
This makes me wonder if I’m not asking in the right way. I begin to grapple with the voices in my head and the desires in my heart, trying to direct a one-sided conversation with a God who, for the moment, chooses silence.
If I knew what He wanted at the beginning of the day, wouldn’t I make every effort to achieve it? So why won’t He just tell me?
Last night I finished Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which Venerable Fulton Sheen described as “a Twentieth Century form of the Confessions of St. Augustine” and which has entered my list of favorite books, perhaps in the top ten. Unlike some religious autobiographies written under inspiration or strictly under obedience, The Seven Storey Mountain is written by a writer, a craftsman and a poet. It is beautiful—honest and heartbreaking, profound and inspiring. It also provides a window into “enlightened” American culture between the world wars, providing a strong and particularly Catholic rationale as to how we got to this point.
Merton’s answer? In a word, sin. His, mine and yours. Continue reading