An Architect, a Displaced Bishop, and the Humility of Hiddenness


Every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Lk 14.11).

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Of Three Days, Two Move-Ins, and One University

Dad, Joan, and Benedict

What shall I say? I greet you at the beginning of a great career?
No. I greet you at the beginning, for we are either beginning or we are dead.
~ Wendell Berry

“Ready to go?” I asked my son Ben. He was returning to Notre Dame for his sophomore year, and it was move-in day.

“Yup,” he replied. “Let’s go.”

The van was packed with his luggage along with the stuff his buddies had stored with him over the summer. Ben had already said his goodbyes in the house – younger brothers and sisters, and a tearful mom – so no more stalling. I pulled away from the curb.

“What’s in the CD player?” he asked turning on the stereo. The cardboard thudding and euphonious bass line of Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” were unmistakable. “Led Zeppelin II,” Ben commented. “Nice.”

You’ll have to believe me that I hadn’t cued up that song ahead of time, but it turned out to be particularly serendipitous for our short trip up to campus. “Leaves are falling all around,” Robert Plant sang, as if to evoke the back-to-school season. “It’s time I was on my way.” Ben and I listened in silence for a while. “Thanks to you, I’m much obliged for such a pleasant stay, but now it’s time for me to go.”

“Why are you taking Twyckenham?” Ben wondered aloud.

“The move-in staging area is by the Joyce Center,” I answered.

“Oh, right.”

It was so different from last year’s move-in which had felt more like a practice run – like an experiment to see how this whole college business worked. Then, after spring finals, Ben moved home again, and old routines were re-established: We argued about current events and popular culture, and we laughed a bunch as well – often about the same things. He worked, hung out with his friends, took side trips, and emptied the fridge – again, just like old times. The end of August materialized out of thin air, and suddenly Ben was heading back for another ND round. This time, however, the leave-taking was all so very palpable – the connections to home more tentative, the domestic ties less secure.

That feeling was especially acute since we were still recovering from Joan’s move onto Notre Dame’s campus a mere two days before. Joan is our second child, and we were ecstatic when she accepted Notre Dame’s offer of a spot in the Class of 2019. Now, I’m well aware that the expression “Double Domer” is technically reserved to those privileged to complete both an undergraduate and a graduate degree at Our Lady’s University – I get that. However, can I plead a special application of the term to our situation and those like ours? Son and daughter, sophomore and freshman, both blessed to be attending the finest Catholic university in the land at the same time? If that doesn’t qualify us as double-domerish, then maybe another, better term should be invented.

August 19, 2012; Motorist line up along Notre Dame Avenue on move in weekend. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre DameAnyway, my wife and I helped Joan moved into her dorm on Friday morning, and then we attended a presentation there on Saturday afternoon. The rector introduced herself and her staff, and then they each briefly addressed various aspects of Notre Dame dormitory life. Aside from the change in venue and voices, it was remarkably similar to the dorm presentation we attended during Ben’s orientation the year before. In fact, at one point it seemed like Joan’s rector was directly quoting a talk we had heard last year in Alumni Hall – albeit with the expected gender substitutions: “Thank you for entrusting your daughter to us,” she said, echoing Fr. George. “We’ll take good care of her.”

When she said that, suddenly our unfolding family drama became exquisitely real and personal and disorienting: Joan, Ben, Notre Dame…our first two children are in college! Our kids are growing up – we’re running out of time with them, we’re running out of opportunity! Grasp, grab, cling – hold on!

It couldn’t be helped – events proceeded apace, Joan launched in the company of her new Irish family, and I was left mulling things over.

So, back to Ben – the next day, Sunday morning. We pulled into the circle in front of Alumni Hall and started unloading. A couple of his buddies came down to help, and soon the van was empty. “That’s it, dad,” Ben said. “We got it all.”

“OK, well, I guess I’ll say my goodbye here then,” I shrugged, giving him a hug. “See you soon.”

“Yeah,” he said, “see you soon.”

As I drove home to the south side, Prairie Home Companion was on the radio, and Garrison Keillor was singing a medley duet with an opera singer. “It is well with my soul,” they sang. “It is well, it is well, with my soul.” I love that old hymn, but it was hard to sing along under the circumstances. The truth was that my soul wasn’t all that well, and I had a gnawing sensation that I’d left something undone – something important, something that still required attention. My two oldest children were off to college, and the transition felt like an ending, a conclusion – but I wasn’t done yet! Fathering is an apprenticeship that seems to take our whole lives, and our kids grow up well before we reach anything approaching proficiency.

Then, thankfully, mercifully, Garrison and company transitioned into the second hymn of their medley. “For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child,” they sang. “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.” It calmed my spirit and reminded me that my fathering role was supplementary – and always had been. “[God] is the Father in a special way only of Christ, but he is the common Father of us all,” writes St. Ambrose, “because while he has begotten only Christ, he has created us.” Moreover, as sons and daughters of that creator God, we too are called to create – new beginnings, over and over and over again, every day. Ben and Joan starting at Notre Dame wasn’t merely an ending, but a host of beginnings as well – for them, for ND, even for me.

I arrived home later on Sunday and I was humming that hymn medley as I walked in the door. “Did you get him moved in alright?” Nancy asked. “Any problems?”

That gave me pause. “No problem,” I said after a moment of weighing the possibilities – the opportunities and chances of discovery, the adventure and risk, the endings and new beginnings. “No problem at all.”

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Sunday Obligation, Harry Stovall, and Catholic Spleen

And I said, ‘Well, that’s the one thing we’ve got.’
~ Deep Blue Something

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A Garage-Sale VCR: Three Picks from the Video Archives


The most beautiful journeys are taken through the window.
~ Last line in King of Hearts

My neighbor across the street had a garage sale recently, and she was closing up shop late Sunday afternoon. She spied Katharine, my fourth-grader, rummaging through the trinket table, and she told her to save her pennies. “I’m packing up what’s left as a donation,” my neighbor told Kath. “Take whatever you’d like.”

“Papa! Papa! She’s giving stuff away now,” Katharine breathlessly announced running into our home. “Pictures and toys and everything – can I get some?”

That’s a magical moment for a grade-schooler, and I was impressed that Kath had even thought to ask permission first. “Sure, sure,” I reassured her, “but not too much.”

“Don’t worry – there’s only a couple of bird pictures I want, and a nice basket,” Kathy explained. “Maybe you should come, too. There’s lots of books and movies.”

I crossed the street with her to check it out. No books that intdisneyerested me, and no DVDs – only a bunch of VHS kid videos. “We’ve got lots of Disney left,” my neighbor said. “Are you sure you don’t want any?”

“No, we’ve got all the Disney videos we can ever use,” I replied, and that was the truth. When our old VCR was still operative, we were still buying movies from thrift shops for a dollar or less. In fact, at one point, the local Goodwill was so overloaded with tapes that they’d only sell them in lots of thirty. If you found a single title you wanted, you could purchase it for a buck, but only if you took another 29 tapes along with it. Consequently, we were swamped with movies, and we had duplicates (even triplicates) of just about every Disney film ever made.

All the same, it was a small price to pay, because we amassed some beauts that way. With the advent of disc technologies, and now streaming video and Netflix, most everyone has pretty much dumped their VHS collections, and my semi-Luddite household has reaped the bounty. As long as the old VCR was still working, we had access to virtually limitless and extremely cut-rate cinematic entertainment – score!

Then the inevitable happened: The VCR conked out. Our vast hoard of VHS tapes was relegated to the basement, and used DVDs began to proliferate instead – although at a much slower and costlier rate. And so, as I poked about my neighbor’s movie table, I paid little heed to the VHemersondvdS offerings, aside from the slight melancholy they induced insofar as they reminded me of our defunct player….

But what’s this? I thought to myself. A silver, oblong case with dual drawers in front – one larger, one smaller. Could it be…yes! It was! A combo VHS/DVD player! “Does this really work?” I asked.

“Well, yes, it does…,” came the tentative reply.

“Oh, I wouldn’t expect you to give it to me for free,” I hastily clarified. “How much are you asking?”

“How about five dollars?”

“Sold!” – how could I pass it up? I rushed home with Kath – she with her treasures, me with mine – and I hooked it up. I think the first tape we inserted was a Hanna Barbara cartoon that my neighbor threw in at the last minute…and it played! A new lease on life for our humble home theatre – and at such a miniscule expense!

Down into the basement I flew. I pounced on the VHS stash and filled my arms with classics to release from exile. Star Wars was an obvious pick – tstar_wars__130504182746he original three episodes, of course, along with The Phantom Menance and Attack of the Clones. (I don’t think we’ve ever even owned a copy of Revenge of the Sith – who’d want to watch that again?) I also grabbed a few Disneys and Veggie Tales, and then, in my enthusiasm for having recovered the anachronistic mechanical link to our collection, I snagged three more videos for my older kids to watch.

At the moment, it was like blind emotion – “Quick! I’ve got to get them to watch these particular movies before we again lose our tenuous technological capacity to do so!” – and I didn’t give much conscious thought to my selections. Since then, however, I’ve pondered that pile – they’re still sitting there on the mantle, waiting to be electronically revived (teenagers are exceedingly busy people these days) – and I’ve wondered: why those three? Did they just happen to be on the top? Or were there other, more subtle factors at work?

For what it’s worth, here’s the list along with some observations. I’m no movie critic, and I have no pretensions in that direction. Instead, these are the comments of a cinephile father who wants his kids to benefit from older flicks they might otherwise pass over. See if my selections resonate with your own film-watching recommendations.

  1. Ulee’s Gold (1997). Peter Fonda plays Ulysses (Ulee), a Florida beekeeper with family troubles, and his performance is arrestingly understated. A single father doing his best to provide what stability he can to an unraveling family, he is battling plenty of peter-fonda-ulees-golddemons – both inside and out. The bees are his prime solace, providing routine and even a kind of liturgy, amid his chaotic, dangerous circumstances. Like every film, every story, it’s about sin and salvation, and it mixes in a healthy dose of enlightenment for stoic go-it-alone fathers everywhere. As a bonus, Ulee’s bees produce that rare ambrosia known as tupelo honey, which provides an excuse to include Van Morrison’s masterpiece of that title in the soundtrack. This movie is worth watching just to connect its images of hope with that incomparable love song.
  2. The Trip to Bountiful (1985). Based on Horton Foote’s 1950s play, this is a story about an aging widow, Carrie Watts, who feels increasingly alienated from the son and daughter-in-law she lives with in Houston. Mrs. Watts (played by Geraldine Page in this version; Cicely Tyson stars in a more recent TV production) longs to return to Bountiful, Texas, her childhood home that has taken on an Eden-like connotation in her imagination. It’s no surprise that when Carrie does eventually get there, she’s disappointed – a classic tale of “you can’t go home again,” as many have noted. Even so, it’s a rich journey, filled with illuminating encounters thatriptobountifult foster the notion that we do well to gently carry our homes and histories with us – a notion that “wherever we go,” in the words of critic Desmond Ryan, “will always be true.”
  3. King of Hearts (1967). Alan Bates plays Scottish soldier Charles Plumpick, a World War I carrier-pigeon wrangler who is mistaken for an explosives expert. After German forces abandon a French village, Plumpick is sent in alone to defuse whatever booby traps lie in wait. Between the Germans flight and Plumpick’s arrival, the inhabitants of a local asylum take over the village, and their histrionic portrayal of various townsfolk leads to much revelatory mayhem. The blurb on the VHS box claims it “became the longest running film in U.S. history,” which is apparently true: “King of Hearts” ran continuously for five years at a theater in Massachusetts, although it tanked when first released in France. In any case, it has risen to the “cult film” stratosphere, and so, by definition, it’s not exactly popular fare – in this case, a tri-lingual (sub-titled) quasi-farce about war and peace, sanity and madness, and the mystery of love and communion.

And speaking of communion, that brings me to my rather obscure reason for holding onto old video tapes at all – to wit: They preserve human connections in a concrete way. Take our VHS boxed set of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) for example. Sure, we have the DVD version now, but it was those six individual video cassettes that first introduced us to Simon Langton’s masteP&P VHSrful achievement. What’s more, it was those actual six tapes that we played at the end of several pregnancies – one episode at a time, one a night – as well as being the medium through which our youngest children themselves came to know Darcy and Elizabeth.

In other words, those six tapes have acquired a sacramental character – almost like relics that keep us in touch with former times and circumstances. “Perhaps in our technological age, the whole idea of relics may seem strange,” writes Fr. William Saunders, but “all of us treasure things that have belonged to someone we love.” In this case, it’s not only the content of those ancient tapes that we treasure – especially given their ready availability in updated formats. Instead, we treasure them because it was those particular cassettes we recall handling and watching and sharing with each other.

As such, they can mediate real encounters, bringing them forward from past to present, and that’s a good thing in this disembodied media age. It’s like Ann Packer’s description of “The Moth,” a popular podcast. “There are moments when, clearly, the storyteller has done something that a listener can’t see,” writes Packer. “It emphasizes the fact that this was something that happened in space and time somewhere.”

Exactly – like watching a particular video tape in an actual time and place, along with actual friends and family.

Pass the remote.

Of Rip Currents, Our Lady, and a Crippled Troubadour


Some try to run away from all temptations, and still they go on falling into sin. Flight alone will not conquer all temptations.
~ Fr. Anthony Paone, S.J.

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Of Planned Parenthood, Politics, and the Catholic Glass Ceiling


Because I’m pro-life, my religion is always thrown in there like some little code word saying, “Watch out for this guy. He’s a Catholic. He’s one of those people.”
~ Robert P. Casey, Sr.

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Of Baptismal Largesse and Healing Outside the Pool


The sun’s light is not diminished by this bountiful expenditure: no more is the influence of the Holy Spirit by the largeness of its outpourings.
~ St. John Chrysostom

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On Cultivating Patient Irrelevance: The Benedict Option 2.0


“The monks waited.”
~ Walter M. Miller, Jr.

It seems that I’m more out of touch than even my teens realize. Here’s how I know.

The Wall Street Journal’s “House of Worship” column appears every Friday, and I always make a beeline for it. For someone interested in religious matters – as I am – it’s a feature that never fails to inform and enlighten. Sometimes theology and politics, sometimes spirituality and culture; Christianity one week, Islam or Judaism the next, and occasionally Buddhism, Hinduism, and other world religions – you never know what will be there, but it’s always a fruitful, provocative read.

This past Friday was no exception. Evangelical author David Skeel’s concise summary of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” and the controversy it has lately engendered was elucidating, but, for me, a revelation – how could I have missed this? Apparently, this is a big deal on the web, but I don’t recall encountering it. In fact, my first thought as I read Skeel’s article was that he must be referring to retired Pope Benedict XVI – the “option” part was a mystery.

Obviously, I’m clueless, for Dreher’s idea has been around at least since 2013 when he floated it in an American Conservative article. After a brief review of the Benedictine history of tactical disengagement and cultural preservation, Dreher asked,

Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?

That’s the gist of Dreher’s proposal, and he’s gone on to write about it extensively on his blog and elsewhere. Moreover, plenty of others have commented on, expanded, and/or criticized Dreher’s scheme, and yet I’m just now running across the whole business – and this pleases me, you see. I suppose I take it as a sign that I’ve naturally gravitated to a certain degree of disengagement myself, even without Dreher’s recommendation.

That might sound like a backhanded compliment, so let me hasten to add that the basic Benedict Option thesis definitely resonates with me, especially when it comes to Dreher’s prognosis of our crumbling civilization. “We are fighting a losing game,” Dreher declared in a recent interview. “This is not our culture anymore. Maybe it never was our real home, but we have got to prepare ourselves and our families and our churches through intentional living, through disciplined living, and through an awareness of the cultural moment to deal with perhaps even persecution.” Yes, yes, and yes, I say, hear hear!

Yet, really, this is old news, and that’s my only complaint about Dreher’s suggestions. For example, he recommended in that interview that Christians “stay involved in the outside world, but let’s also do a strategic retreat” – join the club! Any Catholic who has paid the price of taking Humanae Vitae seriously already has scads of strategic-retreat experience, and that’s only the beginning.

In the interests of expanding the applicability of the Benedict Option for those who’ve already been fighting the good fight for a while – decades for some, even generations – I’d like to attempt a slightly different spin on the idea. Dreher acknowledges that the whole concept occurred to him after reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, and he included a paraphrase of one particular passage from that 1981 book in that recent interview:

MacIntyre says, “We’re waiting for a new and doubtless very different Saint Benedict to bring those who want to live the moral life together in community to survive through this current darkness.”

In a prologue for a new edition of After Virtue published in 2007, MacIntyre himself commented on that passage: “So it was twenty-six years ago, so it is still.”

So, while we’re waiting, let’s look to some other saintly Benedicts from the past that might help orient us to the resurgent Christian culture that a future Saint Benedict will presumably usher in.

  1. BENEDICT THE MOOR (1524-1589): Despite his first name, St. Benedict the Moor was a Franciscan, and his title derived from his African heritage, not his religious background. His parents were slaves in Italy, although Benedict won his freedom by his late teens. Known for his piety and intense prayer life, Benedict held various leadership positions in his order, but his preference was always to return to the kitchen where he’d long served as a cook. After a lifetime of service – including enduring the mockery of those who derided him for his skin color and lowly family background – he begged to be returned to his pots and pans that he might live out the rest of his life in obscure and humble service.
    *BENEDICT OPTION PRINCIPLE #1: In a world given over to acquisition and status, strive for downward mobility.
  1. BENEDICT JOSEPH LABRE (1748-1783): This lowly son of a Belgian shopkeeper desired nothing else than a monastic vocation. His youth held him off at first, but later his sickly constitution and personality quirks made his admission to any religious community an unlikely prospect. Consequently, St. Benedict Joseph took to the road, and he became a freelance mendicant, ever on the move, ever homeless, and ever given over to a rich life of deep prayer. He rarely bathed, dressed in rags, and begged alms – never keeping more than he needed for a day, giving away any surplus to his fellow beggars. The end of his life was spent primarily in Rome where he made the rounds of the various pilgrim churches there, often sleeping in the shadows of the Colosseum.
    *BENEDICT OPTION PRINCIPLE #2: In a culture obsessed with image and aggrandizement, have a healthy disregard for self.
  1. BENEDICT XV (1854-1922): A relatively overlooked heir of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XV is an exemplar of attempting the good despite overwhelming odds. Shortly before Benedict’s election, World War I had erupted, and the new pontiff made every effort to alleviate the ensuing wide scale human misery as well as bring a halt to total war. In 1917, Pope Benedict sent a seven-point plea for peace to all the nations involved in the conflict. This entreaty was met with polite demurrals that essentially translated into a continental and very public rebuke. “The debacle of this peace effort,” writes W.H. Peters, “was perhaps the greatest disappointment that Benedict XV suffered during his pontificate.” Nevertheless, the Holy Father never gave up on his vision of a reunited Europe, and at the war’s conclusion, he issued his encyclical Pacem Dei Munus Pulcherrimum“On Peace and Christian Reconciliation.”
    *BENEDICT OPTION PRINCIPLE #3: In a society fixated on security and the elimination of enemies no matter the cost, remain steadfast in a fundamental peace orientation.

That last principle – the peace-orientation principle – is an especially important one. We face growing violence and threats of violence these days, both here at home and from abroad. Nevertheless, our faith demands that we stand with Benedict XV, as well as John Paul II and Pope Francis, in our insistence that any war or potentially lethal violence carried out in our names must be an absolute last resort – and that’s simply not the case today. Thus, it’s all the more disturbing when we read that Dreher nimbly lumps together “we conservatives” with “we Christians.” To the extent that “conservative” is associated with support for targeted drone killings, “acceptable” collateral damage, and a constant national war posture, then political conservatism is something the Benedict Option ought to shun just as much as political, pro-abortion liberalism.

Putting aside political labels in an age of extreme partisanship is a good way to hemorrhage membership. No matter. It has never been about numbers anyway. In that regard, it’s helpful to turn to one more Benedict – the one I mistakenly called to mind when reading Skeel’s article the other day: Pope Emeretus Benedict XVI. Here’s what Pope Benedict had to say about the “remnant” Church when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges.

But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church…. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

That’s a vision that encapsulates the principles of the other three Benedicts listed above – downward mobility, disregard for self, and peace – with the added dimension of endurance. The real Benedict Option, in other words, is simply waiting out the storm, be it cultural, moral, political, or otherwise. In a word, it’s persistence – a refusal to give in to the prevailing anti-Church, come what may.

Intentional communities subsisting on the edges of society might be part of that, but they aren’t necessary. However, I certainly agree with Skeel when he recommends “perhaps turning off the TV more often.” If nothing else, that’s a good place to start.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

After the Credits Roll: The Rash Vows of St. Camillus de Lellis

Originally posted on God-Haunted Lunatic:


A saint is not a saint only when he is performing saintly acts. He may be more saintly then than at other times, but the thing is a life, not a lot of acts strung together.
~ Hubert van Zeller

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Of Habits and Hassles: The Sign Value of Chaotic Family Life


The Church must always seek to make her presence visible in everyday life, which is often very secularized and yet sensitive to the language of signs.
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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