On the Threshold: Of Lent, Marriage, and Louie’s Backyard

last battle

“It’s a dangerous business going out of your door.”
~ J.R.R. Tolkien

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A Memorial Tribute to a Good Shepherd

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Bishop John M. D’Arcy addressing the alternative Notre Dame graduation rally, May 17, 2009.

 

Justify your episcopal dignity by your unceasing concern for the spiritual and temporal welfare of your flock.

Give yourself to prayer continually, ask for wisdom greater than you now have, keep alert with an unflagging spirit.

The greater the toil, the richer the reward.

~ St. Ignatius of Antioch

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On the Glory of Opaque Self-Awareness

“The great men I’ve known have no idea they’re great.”
~ Fr. Rich Simon

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Best Answers: Of Nursing, Foolishness, and SNL

SNL_Original_Cast

“We don’t go on because we’re ready. We go on because it’s 11:30.”
~ Lorne Michaels

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Encounters Lying in Wait: Owen Meany and Paper Moon

king_josiah_book_of_the_law

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,
which a man found and covered up;
then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has
and buys that field (Mt 13.44).

There’s an obscure moment in the Second Book of Kings that many Catholics might not be familiar with. It only shows up once every couple years in the Lectionary, and it’s on a weekday, so it’s possible that it would’ve escaped the notice of even those well catechized.

It’s this: During renovations of the Jerusalem Temple, the high priest Hilkiah discovers a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures and brings it to King Josiah’s notice, which in turn triggers a ruckus. “Go, consult the LORD for me about the stipulations of this book that has been found,” Josiah tells Hilkiah, “for the anger of the LORD has been set furiously ablaze against us, because our fathers did not fulfill our written obligations.”

Among biblical scholars, there’s a bit of controversy over exactly what that lost and recovered scroll contained, but it’s clear that its contents were news to the people of Judah and their king. Weird, huh? These are the ancient People of the Book, and they seemed to have misplaced the Book for some period of time.

In any case, I’ll leave the exegesis and hermeneutics to the experts, for my primary interest is in the surprising textual find – can’t you imagine the exhilaration? Reading a bit between the lines, I picture Hilkiah shoving boxes around in a store room in search of candles or a cushion or something; maybe swiping away cobwebs and blowing off layers of soot; and then – what’s this? A scroll, an ancient scroll – he’d heard of these. Trembling now, the high priest unrolls the dusty parchment and recognizes the script – and the words are familiar! Could this be – could it possibly be? The lost Scriptures are found, and they’ve been right here under the collective nose the entire time!

That image of encountering a life-altering text in unusual circumstances is a romantic notion, and it calls to mind a couple prominent episodes from my own eclectic and rollicking reading history. One took place in Manila (of all places) between my junior and senior years of college. I was still an Evangelical back then and on fire for missions, and after getting revved up at Urbana the previous winter, I’d signed up for a summer internship with Wycliffe Bible Translators in the Philippines. Getting there was pretty rough, both physically and emotionally, and I was starting to have my doupapermoonbts about the missionary vocation – at least for me – just as the journey was about to commence upcountry. My last day or two in Manila at the Wycliffe HQ, I was dejected and lonely – my fellow interns didn’t seem to be having any doubts at all – so I spent my free time in my room flipping through the books on the shelf.

That’s when I came across Joe David Brown’s Paper Moon – which some missionary left behind, perhaps after his own bout of disillusionment. I think by then I’d already seen the movie starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, so the novel’s title was familiar and I decided to give it a try. Hot and weary, depressed and wondering what the heck I was doing there, Paper Moon became a portable oasis that I carried with me into the boondocks. Originally titled Addie Pray, Brown’s story combines the traveling enchantments of Don Quixote with the Robin Hood-esque swindles of The Sting. It’s a tale of journey, of fatherhood, of sin and salvation, and it packs plenty of raw insight into the human condition. “It’s only when they start flogging themselves to get things they don’t really need – like big cars, and fancy clothes, and a house bigger than the one next door – that they get aggravated and mean,” Addie Pray relates at the beginning of the tale. “At least, that’s the way it appears to me.” It was just the relief valve I needed at the time. Serendipitous.

The other peculiar book encounter that stands out for me took place in Florida many years later and just prior to my marriage to Nancy. Her family was having a reunion with Grandma down there, and I tagged along to mingle with the crowd, especially Tom, Nancy’s dad and my future father-in-law. Tom was a retired AT&T engineer; I was an unemployed graduate student in theology. Hanging out together was awkward in those days, which is why Tom and I chose to routinely direct our attention to the one thing we were both passionate about: used books.

So it was that, when I traveled south to meet up with Nancy’s kin, used bookstores were bound to end up on our agenda. “I’m going to see what they have around here,” Tom tossed out one lazy afternoon. “Want to come along?”

“Sure,” I replied. It was well before the internet and the universal availability of every conceivable printed text. Shopping for used books was – and remains – like a treasure hunt without a map or metal detector. There’s no way of telling what you might stumble across, or what other treasure hunters might’ve passed over in ignorance or oversight. Back then, when used bookstores were plentiful, all you had to do was get out there and dig.

Theology was Tom’s main interest – Biblical scholarship, Christian mysticism, and the Church Fathers. You’d have thought that would’ve been my primary interest as well given my field of study, but I was already spending a great deal of time in such tomes, so I usually drifted off to other areas when we got to rummaging: biographies, for example, along with books abouowen meanyt music and movies, and especially fiction. Fiction had been instrumental in my Catholic conversion after all – Graham Greene, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor – so I was partial to stories as vehicles of encounter and delight.

Tom had tracked down an anomaly in the Yellow Pages – a Bible store with a used book section – and he wanted to check it out. It ended up being what you’d expect: a lot of NKJV and NIV, Evangelical commentaries and devotional books. “Not much here for me,” Tom shrugged. “You?”

I was about to concur, until I spotted the “FICTION” sign. “Just a minute,” I said to Tom. “Let me scan this shelf.” (Christian romance, Christian romance, end times novels, more Christian romance, and then…John Irving?) I picked it up: A Prayer for Owen Meany. I didn’t know much about Irving, but I knew enough to be perplexed by his appearance in a Bible bookstore. No doubt, whoever did the used-book buying for that store saw “Prayer” in the title, assumed it was a “how-to,” and threw it on the purchase pile.

“I’ll take a chance on this one,” I said to Tom.

Irving’s evocative tale of fate, faith, and friendship is gripping, and I remember reading it straight through in a couple sittings. The characters are so real, the relationships so rich, and the story so challenging that I’ve recommended it countless times to friends and family over the years. Moreover, Owen Meany was the first time I encountered the potent personality of the Catholic novelist Léon Bloy, whose epigraph launches Irving’s novel and, in a sense, captures its theme: “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.” It was a providential find at the time, and it gave me courage as I waded into the uncharted waters of marriage and family life.

Novels are like wormholes, facilitating movement through time and space and repeatedly accessible. What’s more, sometimes they’re sacramental nexuses of grace – and just as mysterious in their effects. For me, Owen Meany and Paper Moon were just such timely points of contact, and the curious manner of my encountering them only reinforced that distinction. They challenged and provoked; unsettled and enlarged – to what end? “If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love,” John Irving wrote in Owen Meany, “you have to find the courage to live it.”

Maybe I’ll give those novels another go – or perhaps I should rummage around and find something…new. Any suggestions?
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Musical Quietude: Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart (Lk 2.19).

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Mass Oddities: Three Quirks That Bear Witness

“Let us lay aside every weight,
and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12.1).

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Humorous Funeral Cards: Of Luther, Chicago, and Beating Death

Ingmar_Bergman-The_Seventh_Seal-01

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
~ Wendell Berry

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On “Silent Night,” SATB, and a High School Choir Director

There was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and then they sang ‘Silent Night’ – ‘Stille Nacht.’ I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life.
~ Albert Moren of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment, France (Christmas Eve, 1914)

We have a carol sing at our parish every year during the Octave of Christmas. The idea is to promote the celebration of Christmas beyond Christmas Day – “Keeping the Feast” is what we call it. This year, it took place on December 30 – the Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas – and it included a potluck dinner, yuletide cookies and treats, plenty of conversation and laughter, and some hearty vocals.

keepingthefeastMy wife, Nancy, made many of the arrangements ahead of time and got all the tables in the gym decorated nicely, but when it came to the music, she asked for some help. “I have someone to play the piano,” she told me, “but could you lead the singing?”

I had a brief career as a cantor, so my standing as a mediocre vocal talent is well established. Even so, singing at Mass put me over the hump with regards to stage fright at my parish. “Of course,” I replied. “It would be a pleasure.”

After folks had a chance to tuck into their fried chicken and Santa cupcakes, I moseyed over to the upright piano where Barbara, our evening’s guest pianist, was warming up a bit. “Ready?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “I know almost all the carols in the booklet, and the ones I don’t know I can fake alright.”

I tested the microphone, made a couple announcements, and then launched into “Adestes Fidelis,” followed by “Away in the Manger” – only because it was next in the booklet. To get away from an alphabetical evening, we went next with “Hark the Herald” and “I Saw Three Ships.” After that, Ben, a grade-schooler, sat in on the piano and led us in “Good King Wenceslaus,” and Juan did a terrific rendition of “Feliz Navidad.”

Franz_Xaver_Gruber_(1787-1863)We had a few more requests, and then Nancy gave me the high sign to wind things up, so I announced “Silent Night” – isn’t it always the most appropriate ending carol? We started singing, and I automatically switched from singing in unison to a more-or-less tenor harmonization – which confused Barbara and the other carolers in my immediate vicinity.

As I mentioned, I’m not a trained singer, although I sang a bunch in church and school choirs growing up. These days, however, I can barely pick out the melodies of unfamiliar songs in the hymnal, so harmony parts are generally out of the question. “Silent Night” is a prominent exception for me, and even though I get the tenor and bass lines all mixed up, I find it difficult to stick with the melody line alone – a compulsion on display last Wednesday, and one my kids have annually had to endure this time of year.

I learned the “Silent Night” harmony parts while a student at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. Fairview always had a fantastic music program, and the choir department then was headed up by Ron Revier. Ron’s a showman at heart, and his concerts were always elaborately staged and choreographed. Plus, Mr. Revier and his colleagues were superb musicians and uncompromising directors, so not only were the programs varied and engaging, the performances were consistently sterling.

The Christmas concerts, though, were special favorites every year, and they included both secular and sacred numbers – no apologies! And, traditionally, they concluded with a “Silent Night” sing-along led by all the school choirs spread out in the aisles of the auditorium. I sang in choirs all four years of high school, so I participated in four of those concerts, and Ron’s version of a four-part “Silent Night” became an ingrained part of my mohrChristmas consciousness. The Colorado snow, the anticipation of a holiday break, the genuine good will and cheer engendered by the season, and the satisfaction of together putting on a show so well received – all that is associated with “Silent Night” for me (and countless other Fairview grads I suspect). Combined with even a momentary rumination on the incarnation and the Bethlehem miracle, that marvelous carol richly voiced in four parts routinely brought tears to my eyes.

It still does – every time.

Later on Wednesday night, I plopped down at the computer to check email and the weather forecast. A quick check of Facebook – lo and behold, it was Ron’s birthday that very day! I scanned the long list of well-wishers – some very familiar, but plenty more strangers to me – and their expressions of gratitude, their cherished memories. “You’ve given generations the gift of song,” went one post, “and taught so many that music is indeed the strongest form of magic!”

So true – particularly this time of year. Thanks, Mr. Revier. You taught me much – about music, about striving for excellence, about friendship – and you’ll ever be a part of my Christmas.
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of the Advent Swell and the Pregnant Pause

“The discovery of God present in the soul
is one of the most momentous in the soul’s spiritual career.”
~ Dom Hubert Van Zeller

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