Death Prep (Part 2): What We Must Do, What We Ought to Do

I will then prepare myself for that hour,
and I will take all possible care to end this journey happily.
~ St. Frances de Sales

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Of Pericopes, Susanna, and the Long Form of Our Lives

We can’t hope to know others as we should like to, but we should make it our business to know them as well as we can.
~ Dom Hubert van Zeller

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What Was Mr. Bennet Reading?

A physical book, like an open newspaper, declares itself to both the owner and the stranger. Its words face the reader, but its title is exposed to the world.
~ Boris Kachka

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Been There Before: My NPR Début

Based on my extensive research (which amounts to 20 minutes or so on Google), it was Vince Lombardi who said, “When you get into the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.”

Or it might’ve been Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant. Or Darrell K. Royal, head coach at the University of Texas in the 1960s and 70s.

Or, as one online commenter noted, “Probably some high school coach who will never be known.”

Anyway, you get the drift: If and when you accomplish something big, really big, something extraordinary, don’t behave like it’s a fluke or a miracle. Don’t, in other words, flop around in ecstasy for the cameras or whirl like a dervish. Instead, take it in stride – as in, “of course I made a touchdown in an NFL game in front of millions of viewers. Was there really any doubt?!”

I got to thinking about this following a recent segment on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” Scott Simon, the paragon of public radio mellifluence, gravitas, and geniality, had interviewed an expert on the history of special counsels with respect to the Trump-Russia morass. Here’s the final exchange between Simon and his guest, Stephen Carter:

CARTER: We don’t know if it’s true or not, but we should behave as though we know whether it’s true. But if it does turn out to be true, that’s very, very serious.

SIMON: Stephen Carter of Yale Law School and the esteemed novelist. Thanks so much for being back with us, Stephen.

CARTER: It is always a pleasure. Thanks, Scott.

“Always a pleasure”– almost Chick-fil-A-esque, don’t you think? So calming, so routine. As if talking with Scott Simon to millions of listeners is the most natural thing in the world and “always a pleasure.” And Mr. Carter had also used the phrase earlier in the segment after he was first introduced.

Clearly it’s a pleasure Stephen had enjoyed previously – hence the “always” and the “being back with us.” Consequently, the Lombari/Bryant/high-school-coach recommendation about how to act didn’t apply to him: Carter had been there before, and he was acting accordingly.

But at some point in his radio career, Stephen Carter must’ve made an initial NPR appearance. There was some moment – years ago, decades ago, who knows? – that Stephen Carter was at a microphone and Scott Simon was introducing him for the very first time. And perhaps, back then, Mr. Carter wasn’t famous enough to be assured of a return visit. For all Stephen knew, it might’ve been his lone NPR shot!

So, I wonder: Was his response to Scott Simon’s inaugural introduction a sedate, “It’s my pleasure?”

I bet it was. In fact, I bet all the guests on NPR are prepped along those lines. I bet all the guests – especially the rookies and one-hit-wonders (those whose first NPR cameo really will be their only shot) are advised to act like they’ve been there before. “Be cool,” they’re told. “Pretend like you’re just having a chat with a census taker or a bank clerk. Disregard the monumental impact your words could have on countless people; how your comments might be misconstrued and lampooned in the digital ether forever. It’s all cool. Be cool.”

That’s why they all sound like they’ve been on the radio a million times even if they haven’t. That’s why they all, without exception, come across as erudite and smooth.

Take Jane Kirtley who showed up on “All Things Considered” the other day. Jane is an academic with specialized knowledge pertaining to pink slime, the segment’s focus. Given that pink slime isn’t exactly a hot news item any more, Dr. Kirtley could easily wind up on the NPR one-hit-wonder guest roster. Even so, consider her initial exchange with host Robert Siegel:

SIEGEL: Joining us to talk about this case is Jane Kirtley. She’s the director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. Welcome to the program.

JANE KIRTLEY: Thank you.

I’m sorry, what? Just…“thank you” – that’s it? And that’s how she took her exit as well: a polite “thank you.” This well might be the only chance in her life – her whole life ­– that she’ll get to speak on NPR, and she goes out with a “thank you?” Probably she was as giddy as I would be to make it to ATC, but the pre-show handlers prepped it out of her.

No, I’m sorry, no. Look, Robert Siegel and Scott Simon and all you NPR guest wranglers, when you get around to needing a pro-life/anti-war former drummer with seven kids who works as a nursing instructor and refuses to carry a cell phone, I’ll be ready. However, know that I will eschew your advice about acting like I’ve been there before – I’ll sneer and scoff; I’ll give with a breathy chortle: “Herh, herh, herh.”  No, I will make good use of my 15 minutes of NPR fame, and it’ll go something like this:

SIMON: For more insight into Van Morrison’s unheralded contributions to healthcare reform and world peace, here’s Rick Becker, husband, father, blogger, and Assistant Professor of Nursing at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. Thanks for being here, Rick.

BECKER: Heck, are you kidding me, Scott – are you kidding me?! Shoot, yeah! Here we are, on NPR – N-P-freaking-R! – and you’re thanking me? I should be thanking you – in fact, I am going to thank you, right now: Thank you, Scott Simon! Thanks, NPR and Weekend Edition! Thanks, all you NPR contributors and underwriters! Thanks, thanks, thanks – this is awesome! Hey, kids! Hey, honey! I’m on NPR, can you believe it? Whooo-hooo! I hope somebody’s recording this!

Anyway, what’s your question, Scott?

SIMON: ….

Since there’s no question I’d be an NPR one-hit-wonder, why not go out in a blaze of glory? Feigning “been-there-before” cool – on NPR or in any part of life – strikes me as both fatuous and futile. Boorishness is underrated. Be awkward and loutish! Be free!

I’ll look forward to hearing from you, Scott.
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My Finest Hour in New York

Let me see new ones every day! let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!
~ Walt Whitman

It’s complicated, but decades ago I lived in Manhattan with a bunch of Mennonites. I had a room in their Gramercy Park townhouse for a few months, and the rent was cheap-cheap-cheap. The room was no bigger than a closet – actually, it originally had been a closet – but I only slept there, so it didn’t matter.

The rest of the time I wandered around the city, taking the subway here and there, bebopping and cavorting, looking, listening, checking things out. Up to the Cloisters, down to the Battery, Columbia and the Village, St. Pat’s and St. John the Divine, riding, walking, drinking it all in. Sometimes I’d pick a random neighborhood I hadn’t been to, find it on my map – a physical map, a paper map with lots of creases and impossible to refold – then head out on bus and train to find it. Other times (my favorite times) I’d dip into Dorothy Day’s autobiography and locate the sites she mentions like they were hallowed shrines – which they were because she’d been there, because she’d taken note of them. Dorothy was my lodestar in New York, a mentor as I stumbled my way into the practice of the Faith and adult freedoms.

So that’s how I spend most of my time in Manhattan, but I still had to pay my cheap-cheap rent, so I worked at a bookstore. Logos Bookstore of Midtown, on Madison Avenue, between 43rd and 44th (I think). It subsequently moved further north, but at the time it was definitely in the thick of urban things, at least from my suburban perspective. Grand Central Station was my subway stop; Times Square right down the street.

What happened was this. I was working the counter, ringing up books and magazines, answering questions, and Dan, the manager, took over. “Time for lunch,” he said – gladly. I hit the street, did a brief wander in the general vicinity, and settled on some eatery around the corner from the store and across the street. When it was time to head back to work, I maneuvered through the traffic, crossed back over 43rd and I noticed something in the gutter. It was a wallet – an oblong, brown wallet. I picked it up and looked around: nobody close by, nobody looking for it.

“It’s already been rifled,” I thought to myself. “Probably empty.”

It wasn’t.

I could feel through the leather that there was something inside. I undid the snap, and there were credit cards and pictures, a woman’s driver’s license and…cash! Maybe thirty, maybe forty bucks. I looked up again, sharply, glancing left and right – nobody around, no one near. Glory! A fortuitous moment – a serendipity; grace! I was in the right place at the right time, and I rescued this woman’s wallet from oblivion!

When I got back to the store, I showed off the wallet to my coworkers. “Can you believe it still has everything in it?” They couldn’t believe it either.

“Should I mail it to her?”

“Call information and get the phone number,” said Dan, “and call her.” Obviously. I gave the operator the address listed on the card and she gave me the number.

I dialed; a woman answered: “Hello?” I asked if I had the correct person. Pause – “Yes.” Pause – “Who is this?”

“I work at a bookstore in Midtown and I found your wallet today – on the street, on 43rd near Madison.” There was silence, another pause. “It was in the gutter – everything’s still in it.”

Again, another pause as she took in my outlandish claim. “You have my wallet?”

I assured her I did. “I’ll hold it here behind the counter for you.” I gave her the address and my name. “You can pick it up next time you’re in town.” We hung up.

She appeared the next day, accompanied by her brother, I think, or maybe a boyfriend. He hung back, but she inched up to the counter and identified herself, brow furrowed. I’m not sure what she expected – it was just a bookstore, after all, and a religious bookstore at that. Of course, these was the wild days of Mayor Koch’s New York, and I suppose it made sense that she took precautions. Perhaps she imagined a set-up for some kind of elaborate con, a rip-off in the spirit of The Sting, with Scot Joplin melodies tinkling in the background.

Nope. Just ordinary small-town decency. “Here it is,” I said, handing over the wallet. She immediately unsnapped the cover and looked inside: Cards, cash, license, all there. She glanced up at me through the furrows. Without a word she removed a bill – a ten spot maybe? – and held it out.

“That’s not necessary,” I said with a wave. She put away her money – it was an awkward moment. “Thanks,” she uttered as she turned to go. Her man-friend lingered, perhaps out of an abundance of caution, but eventually he exited as well.

That’s it. So simple, so straightforward, it wouldn’t even rate a second thought in the Midwest – in Dubuque, for instance, or Wichita.

But in Manhattan? I know I would’ve been shocked if a stranger had contacted me about a missing wallet, and even more shocked when he restored it to me intact. The whole episode would’ve entered my lexicon of family lore, a story told over and over whenever New York came up in conversation.

Which is why I call my own part in a surprise wallet recovery my finest hour: not because my actions were particularly meritorious, not because I did the bare minimum that most folks would do, especially those that aspire to be Christians. Frankly, if I’d been a real Christian, I would’ve hopped in a cab and delivered the wallet in person, on the spot.

No, I call it my finest hour because the unusual circumstances allowed me to become, just that one time, a bit player, an active player, in someone else’s New York sojourn. That lucky, that providential wallet find made me a character in a stranger’s memorable Manhattan moment that’ll stand out into her dotage, a story that her kids and grandkids will hear over and over, a command performance at Thanksgivings and other family gatherings. “Tell the one about losing your wallet in New York, grandma!”

And she’ll tell it with pleasure. “It was the strangest thing,” she’ll say. “I knew it was gone, and I was making plans to get a new license when I got this odd phone call….” And that’s me, in her New York story! What a gift, what a gift to add to her story, the city’s story, after having received so much.

She might’ve even told our story today, who knows? Wouldn’t that be a coincidence?
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Three Books I’m Going to Read Next

The medium is the message.
~ Marshall McLuhan

I toss that McLuhan quotation up there as if I understood what it means, but I’m no better off than the poor schlemiel in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall that receives a severe public drubbing from McLuhan himself. “You know nothing of my work,” McLuhan tells the pedantic blowhard, and I’m just as guilty.

Still, I’m going out on a limb to draw on McLuhan’s famous line nonetheless because it relates to the series of events I’m about to lay out here.

It all started back in March when I came across a MercatorNet essay by Philip Reed, a professor of philosophy at Buffalo’s Canisius College. “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Cellphone” was the title, and, if you’re like me, you can pretty much predict what follows – no? Flummoxed? Here’s a hint in Reed’s sub-title: “Why should I be tethered to the rest of the world 24/7?” Ah, yes, my thoughts exactly – indeed, my words exactly, since I’ve said virtually the same thing to my family and friends, students and colleagues for years. The convenience and wired capabilities that make cellphones so attractive to the whole planet are the very characteristics that make the infernal devices abhorrent to me. “The burden comes in the form of feeling an obligation to individuals and events that are physically elsewhere,” Reed writes, and I frankly enjoy being in one place at one time. Present realities are plenty for my fractious brain to deal with; I’ve no desire to be constantly pulled in a myriad cyber directions.

After finishing Reed’s online essay, I acclaimed “Hear, hear!” to my computer, and I immediately posted the article to my Facebook feed.

Wait – Facebook feed, you ask? Computer? “Ah, yes,” you might be thinking, “another pseudo-Luddite hypocrite.”

I don’t think so, because I have no objection to making use of the internet and high tech as tools. In fact, as a nurse and nursing instructor, I’m required to be familiar with electronic medical records, and I depend on email as a primary means of communication. That’s what I especially appreciate about Reed’s piece: He wasn’t eschewing technology as such, but extreme iMobility. With the advent of smart phones, our use of technology is swiftly morphing into a dependency, and universal Wi-Fi connectivity is essentially becoming a necessity for day to day existence.

The same day I was pondering Reed’s essay, I read a book review by Stefan Beck in the Wall Street Journal that offered an alternative perspective on technology. The book is The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, and it traces the real-life story of one Christopher Knight who disappeared into the wilderness of Maine for some 30 years. He lived a jerry-rigged life of isolation – part recluse, part scavenger – and somehow he survived. Why, you ask? Here’s how Beck gets at the question: “For some, the temptation to cast off the strictures of civilization by fleeing indefinitely into the woods, the desert or the mountains is intoxicating.” Right – cast off the smart phones, tablet, and other assorted gizmos! Be free, be free! We have nothing to lose, as Marx and Co. might put it, but our electronic chains!

Later in Beck’s review, he notes that Christopher Knight’s story is also, “unexpectedly, a tribute to the joys of reading,” and that the de facto hermit “read everything he could get his hands on.” OK, I’m not ready to jettison all of Western civilization and decent brewed coffee, but I’m all about books and reading. I clicked on my local library’s website, found The Stranger in the Woods listing, and clicked the Reserve button. “Top of the ‘to read next’ pile,” I thought – check!

Then I noticed that my friend Shawn had responded to my Philip Reed anti-cellphone post with a follow-up: A New York Review of Books link to Bill McKibben’s review of David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. The title alone was enough to return to my library’s website and click that Reserve button again. (“This’ll be number two on the pile” – check, check!) Sax provides a guide to the throwback underbelly of our hyper-digitalized Zeitgeist, describing, for instance, the appeal of such quaint relics as vinyl LPs, old-fashioned board games, and actual paper-filled notebooks – the kind you write on with actual pens and pencils. He also talks about e-commerce vs. brick-and-mortar stores, e-learning vs. face-to-face instruction, and even virtual vs. manual labor.

Of course, Sax also addresses books in his book, along with bookstores, and he predicts a rosy future for the book trade. Plus, he delineates his own flirtation with e-books and his retreat back to a preference for the printed page. “I couldn’t annotate to the cloud as I read in print,” Sax writes, “but I could underline, write notes, fold down corners, and never get lost by accidentally tapping the page with my finger.” It’s the testimony of a rehabilitated tech enthusiast – just one of many scattered through Sax’s work. That’s why it’s so curious that McKibben’s review of The Revenge of Analog begins with this depressing avowal:

Our accelerating disappearance into the digital ether now defines us—we are the mediated people, whose contact with one another and the world around us is now mostly veiled by a screen. We threaten to rebel, just as we threaten to move to Canada after an election. But we don’t; the current is too fierce to swim to shore.

Nonsense, and that leads me to the third book atop my “to-read” pile (check, check, check!) which I spotted when I made my way to library to pick up the other two: Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Again, the title alone was enough for me to grab it, but Gavin Francis’s review in The Guardian confirmed my choice. “Alter teaches marketing and psychology at New York University,” Francis writes, “and wants to show us how smartphones, Netflix, and online games such as World of Warcraft are exquisitely and expensively engineered to hook us in.” All I could think of was Russell Crowe’s riveting portrayal of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand in the movie The Insider. Alter’s revelations won’t have nearly the same impact I’m afraid, but maybe they should.

Anyway, I scurried home from the library with my three books and plopped them in a pile next to my bed. I was anxious to read them in hopes they’d enhance and expand my outlook on their common theme: The modern dilemma of coping with the avalanche of digital information and stimulation. Yes, the medium is the message, and it’s a disembodying, anti-incarnational message these days, and that by design it seems.

Such were my thoughts as I tuned into WSND on our analog radio with its bobby pin replacement antenna. Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” came on. “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,” goes the dominant melody line toward the end, echoing the old Shaker hymn and its promotion of downward mobility, lower tech, and simpler ways. It was a heartening moment of serendipity – I couldn’t have planned it better; the felicity was almost divine. After a succession of dire digital deliberations, the music’s message was heartening. “To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”
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A version of this essay appeared in Crisis Magazine.

The Night I Read ‘Catcher in the Rye’

Glinting, the Flatirons caught the sunrise as I
Headed home to recline and recover….

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Of Friendship, Faith, and Death: A Film Series for the Ages

Perhaps we’re most happy when we’re not aware of it, and enjoying a relaxed meal with some friends, just being with friends.
~ Neil Hughes

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Of Homicide, Humor, and Julian the Hospitaller

masolinodapanicale_scenesfromthelifeofstjulien

The maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.
~ Flannery O’Connor

Like so many insomniacs, I rely on light reading at bedtime to induce drowsiness. Dense philosophy or theology requires far too much concentration; a decent biography is just the thing, or, better yet, a fluidly written novel.

And what could be more fluid than an Agatha Christie murder mystery, right?

This past week I picked up a used copy of her Hallow’een Party (1969) and started it that night. As I settled into the covers, anticipating another satisfying Hercule Poirot page-turner, I was delighted to first encounter the following dedication: “To P.G. Wodehouse – whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books.”

How fun – and how unexpected! Wodehouse was the masterful English comic writer whose Jeeves and Wooster novels still make me laugh out loud, over and over again. Dame Agatha, on the other hand, equally masterful in her own right, can always creep me out, regardless of the sure knowledge that justice inevitably prevails in her stories. It seemed ironic, even askew, that two such dissimilar authors could have developed such a strong mutual esteem. They trafficked in such divergent worlds: the one saturated with mirth and hijinks; the other filled with malice and homicide. How did they connect? What bridged the divide?

Not that such a juxtaposition is unique in any way. Horror sprinkled with humor is a staple in the movie biz. Think Hitchcock, for instance, and more recently the films of Joel and Ethan Coen – especially their 1996 gem, Fargo. When the very pregnant Police Chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), captures a very brutal killer, she delivers the following lines with a rich Minnesota twang combined with a wry bewilderment:

So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya’ are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.

Gunderson’s plain-spokenness and evident fecundity throws the rest of the film’s amorality and violence into relief – and it’s comic relief. It’s not that the gasps are simply counterbalanced with grins, but that Fargo’s grim universe is made all the more tenable because there’s something to laugh at in it.

Such were my thoughts as I prepared for Mass on Saturday, February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. For some reason (who knows why), I got it in my head that the feast must’ve been transferred to Saturday from Sunday – that the actual Lourdes feast was really supposed to be celebrated on February 12. Instead of simply consulting a breviary or some other authoritative source, I turned to Google and popped the terms “February 12” and “saints” into the search bar. The results made no mention of Lourdes (much to my chagrin – what was I thinking?), and a list of wholly unfamiliar names appeared instead.

One of them stood out: Julian the Hospitaller. “That’s a funny title,” I thought to myself. “What’s his story?” I clicked the link and discovered that Julian was the patron saint of jugglers and circus workers. Oh, and murderers, too.

Whoa. I couldn’t have strayed much further from the healing waters of Lourdes.

Leaving aside the circus angle for a moment, Julian’s story does indeed revolve around murder – and murder of Shakespearean proportions. Of noble birth, Julian was cursed as a child and fated to kill his own parents. As a young man, he learned of this horrific destiny, and he swore to avoid it no matter what. Accordingly, Julian took action and permanently removed himself from the vicinity of his parents by walking for 50 days straight.

Eventually he stopped and settled, and married a wealthy widow. After obtaining a knighthood, he entered the service of a king. Decades flew by, and Julian no doubt thought that he’d outsmarted the patricidal curse. Throughout all this time, however, his parents had been diligently searching, and their efforts were finallsaintjulianghirlandaioy rewarded when they happened upon their son’s castle. Unfortunately, Julian was away on a hunt, but his wife welcomed them with great joy. Indeed, so pleased was she to meet her in-laws for the first time that she honored them with her home’s master bedroom as their quarters.

Returning home much later, Julian discovered the couple in his own sbed and assumed it was his wife with another man. In a mad rage, he killed them both, thus fulfilling the prophetic jinx. When his wife, who’d been to church, informed him of his tragic error, Julian grew despondent and despaired of his salvation. Nevertheless, according to one medieval version of the story, his wife offered unyielding encouragement. “Well I know that God is so merciful and so kind and loving,” she insisted, “that if we serve Him all our lives without anger and without envy, I do surely believe that he will grant us mercy.”

That was good enough for Julian who, with his wife’s support, dedicated the rest of his life to penance and good works. After a pilgrimage to Rome, the grieving couple established a hospice at a dangerous river crossing frequented by Crusaders, and Julian himself took on the duty of safely ferrying people back and forth. After many years of such service, Julian extended himself in a special way one night by taking in a frozen leper and billeting him in his own bed. The leper turned out to be an angel in disguise, the Golden Legend relates, and he came with a heavenly message: “Julian, our Lord hath sent me to thee, and sendeth thee word that he hath accepted thy penance.”

I’m well aware that the whole Julian story is likely a pious fiction. In fact, it’s exceedingly hard to identify the story’s provenance in terms of location or time period, or even if there’s any historical basis for it at all. Still, Julian the Hospitaller was an immensely popular figure throughout the later Middle Ages, and he was widely venerated as the patron saint of innkeepers, boatmen, and pilgrims – which makes perfect sense.

Yet, as noted above, he was similarly invoked by killers and entertainers. The murderer connection is understandable (for repentant murderers, that is); the entertainment connection, less so. I’m sure historians can ably unpack that incongruous linkage with insightful finesse, but I’m going to take a stab and suggest that it reflects a healthy contempt for the threat of death when one is rooted in joy – which might also account for the similarly incongruous reciprocal admiration that linked Christie with Wodehouse.

True enough, there’s nothing funny about death, let alone murder. But aren’t we invited by the testimony of the martyrs to laugh in the face of physical demise? “Turn me over,” St. Lawrence told his executioners as he was literally grilled. “I’m done on this side.” St. Paul seems to infer a similar glib attitude in his remarks to the church at Corinth: “O death, where is thy victory?” he writes, quoting Hosea. “O death, where is thy sting?”

Similarly, the fable of Julian the Hospitaller ends on a darkly comic note. After years of serving the poor and the sick in repentance, so the legend goes, Julian and his wife were struck down by thieves in circumstances neatly paralleling the saint’s assault on his parents long ago. It’s the kind of ironic twist that a patron saint of entertainers might’ve appreciated.

In any case, it little mattered – for either the real Julian, if there was one, or for the story’s audience – for the penitent’s final trajectory had already been settled. “Before man are life and death,” writes Sirach in today’s first reading, “whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Julian chose life after having first chosen death. For such as these, only more life awaits.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Everyone Matters

In The Crowd

The neighbor is not a ‘unit’ in the human collective.
He is ‘someone’ who by his known origins deserves
particular attention and respect (CCC 2212).

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