Wipo of Burgundy: Our Easter Template of Ordinary Discipleship

Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one, but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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Saturday Mornings and the Discipline of Daily Mass

It is necessary, above all in the beginning of our spiritual life, to do certain things at fixed times.
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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The End is in Sight: The Four Last Things

Blessed those who shall find themselves in Thy most holy will,
For the second death shall do them no ill.
~ St. Francis of Assisi

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Of Wound Healing, Scar Tissue, and Humility

My students just finished a unit on perioperative nursing – the nursing responsibilities and interventions associated with caring for surgical patients. One of the most important of these is monitoring surgical incisions for signs of infection and other problems.

By definition, surgery is invasive. It requires getting past the superficial layers of our skin in order to manipulate, remove, and/or introduce structures underneath, and so surgery generally involves some kind of incision, some kind of wound.

So, part of our classroom time was spent talking about the wound healing process – from inflammatory response and new tissue proliferation to maturation, remodeling, and restoration of function. It’s the same process, more or less, for all kinds of tissue disruption beyond the most superficial ones, although the results vary widely depending on a variety of factors.

Chief among these, perhaps, is how clean the original wound was and how closely its edges can be brought together in order to facilitate the repair. Some wounds are clean and even – like the incisions that surgeons make – and so they heal by what clinicians call first intention. The cut is bound together by sutures or the like, and so there’s direct communication between the separated sides as the tissue re-building commences. Healing by first intention is usually relatively rapid and thorough, with minimal scarring and limited loss of tissue integrity.

Other wounds, however, are not so tidy – like extensive traumatic injuries and bad bedsores. The edges can be jagged and hard to bring together, and they may be left open to allow nature to take its course – which is healing by second intention. Since the gap is so large, there’s no mechanism for healthy tissue to fill the void, so the body substitutes scar tissue instead. It takes longer, it’s unsightly, and it results in an area considerably weaker compared to the surrounding skin. Plus, they don’t seem to ever go away.

It was today’s Mass readings that got me thinking about incisions, wounds, and lingering scars. The first reading had Isaiah cowering before the majesty and glory of the Lord, and overawed by the angelic beings proclaiming their praise. In contrast, Isaiah was plagued by his inadequacy. He was “a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” Seriously scarred, in other words. Yet God (through his angel) intervenes, the imperfections are addressed, and the prophet steps up to his heavenly commission. “Here I am,” he tells the Lord, “send me!”

Then, in the Gospel, we see a crew of fishermen marveling at a miraculous catch of fish orchestrated by Jesus. It’s an epiphany moment, an encounter with incarnated divinity, and it causes Simon Peter to collapse and confess his own unworthiness, his own deep scars – going so far as to direct the God-man to scram: “Depart from me, Lord,” Peter pleads, “for I am a sinful man.” But Jesus calls him anyway, without even an Isaiah-like healing, and Peter, like James and John, drops everything to follow him.

There is no healing by first intention in the spiritual life. That would mean that God himself creates our wounds: precise, orderly, divine incisions in our souls that are meant to bring about miraculous healing while we passively sit back and await the outcome.

No such luck.

Aren’t we responsible for our own wounds? Some of them are downright self-inflicted, serious, and messy, but more often they’re simply collateral damage that we suffer as a result of our dumb choices and selfish behavior. God can always heal us, but the cavernous holes in our spirits, our psyches, our emotions and equilibrium, will not cover over easily. It’ll be a second intention kind of healing, taking much time, leaving weakness in its wake, and almost always leaving nasty scars.

But gaping lesions have to be filled up with something, and scar tissue is better than nothing. Besides, they’re good reminders to avoid what led to the original injuries in the first place, and they’ll make us sympathetic toward those with scars and injuries of their own, make us more generous toward them, more kind.

Even so, like Isaiah and Peter, we’re still terribly embarrassed by our sinful scars, and so we tend to draw back from the One who seeks to heal us and deputize us. “Be content that you are not yet a saint,” Thomas Merton prescribes. “Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand.”

Our interior scars might be weakened parts of our selves that declare our damaged histories, but they also demonstrate that we haven’t given up trying – that is, if we haven’t given up trying. And not giving up trying is at the heart of wholeness and holiness. Don’t give up.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Papyri, Perimeters, and Possibility

So keep still, and let Him do some work.
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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What 36 Hours on the Streets of Chicago Taught Me

The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own self-hood.
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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Compression of Character: The Two-Hour Test

Two hours of life are always two hours. A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.
~ Robert Louis Stevenson

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Joy in Parentheses

In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.
 ~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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Why I Remain a Catholic

“Something had given him leave to live in the present.”
~ Walker Percy

A friend of mine sent me an email with this subject line: “A challenge for your blogging….” She included Elizabeth Scalia’s invitation to Catholics everywhere in the internet cosmos to write about “Why Do YOU Remain a Catholic” – an invitation itself prompted by the recent Pew Research report on the statistical collapse of the American Church.

scalia

Elizabeth Scalia, “The Anchoress” (Patheos)

That report, with its grim portrayal of the Church’s retention record, already prompted me to write a bit about Catholic parenting and keeping our kids connected to the Faith. However, I’ll take Scalia’s proposition (and my friend’s email) as an excuse to add some additional, more personal thoughts.

So, why do I remain a Catholic? For me, the question might as well be, “Why do you keep breathing?” I can’t imagine not being a Catholic – there’s no alternative. Catholicism informs everything I think and say and do, and so the very concept of giving it up is unfathomable.

Curiously, this is not the case with regards to Christianity in general. I grew up in an Evangelical tradition, my beloved siblings and their families remain so, and I have great respect for my Protestant friends and colleagues. In fact, I not only admire their strong faith and piety, but I also strive to emulate their example. However, for me, Christianity is Catholicism – there’s no going back. Samuel Johnson (himself an Anglican) put it this way:

A man who is converted from Protestantism to Popery, may be sincere: he parts with nothing: he is only superadding to what he already had. But a convert from Popery to Protestantism, gives up so much of what he had held as sacred as anything that he retains: there is so much laceration of mind in such a conversion, that it can hardly be sincere and lasting.

gk_chesterton_smoking2

G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936)

That’s one of the quirky little secrets of Catholicism: It’s not just another denomination. It really does claim to be the true Church, and hence, the truth. Period. “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic,’” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” The funny thing is that conviction regarding the Church’s truth claims is not always the main motivating factor for conversion. For some converts, it might’ve been an attraction to liturgy; for others, it might’ve been marriage to a Catholic – there are myriad reasons to “pope,” all of them good enough. God will use whatever means he can to get us attached to his family, and then he’ll bring us along, sanctifying us one way or another, sometimes despite our objections and resistance. He’s sneaky that way.

However, at some point along the sainthood trail, the outlandish truth of Catholicism becomes virtually undeniable. It sounds crazy, I know, but at some point, we start to take it for granted that Catholicism simply comports with the way things are (truth) and, consequently, it’s the only reliable means of bringing about the way things ought to be (beatitude). Orthodoxy, orthopraxy; what is affirmed and what is aspired to – however it’s parsed, it’s a bulwark that stands between the faithful and the temptations of suicidal oblivion. It keeps us tethered to earth and directs our eyes to heaven. Above all, it gives us reason to hope: that our past may be redeemed, that our future might be glorious, and that our present…

Ah, the present. It’s so thick, so fraught with edges and endings, uncertainties and contingencies, yet Catholicism takes it all into account. Let’s see, how can I…

Well, here, let me paint a picture. Here’s how I envision Catholic Faith impinging on the present.
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“YOU DOING ALRIGHT?”
A Comedy in Three Acts

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

  • RICK – Apprentice husband, father, Catholic
  • BRENDAN – Hardware-store clerk
  • DR. OFFERLE – Optometrist
  • CHORUS
    • THOMAS MERTON, OCSO – Monk
    • HUBERT VAN ZELLER, OSB – Monk

ACT 1

At RISE:

(It’s Sunday afternoon at Menard’s. There is bustle and activity in the plumbing section, customers browsing for parts and tools. CHORUS is visible stage left. RICK holds a discount toilet seat, but appears stalled, adrift – no longer shopping nor moving in the direction of the check-out lanes. He seems poised to ask a question, and BRENDAN, alert and solicitous, approaches.)

BRENDAN

You doing alright?

RICK

Uh…

(RICK stares blankly at BRENDAN for a moment. Brendan freezes; Rick lapses into a reverie and addresses the audience, gesticulating animatedly; MERTON interjects throughout.)

Am I doing alright? No, I’m not doing alright.

MERTON

“I have no idea where I am going.”

RICK

In fact, I’m doing lousy, wondering how I landed here, shopping for plumbing fixtures while my children are growing up at breakneck speed – another one off to college next fall! – and there’s no way I can undo all the ways I’ve failed them, and failed my wife, plus my students, my friends, not to mention my God.

Thomas-Merton

Thomas Merton, OCSO (1915-1968)

MERTON

“I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”

RICK

My God (hands extended, arms upraised), I’ve been a Catholic for decades – over half my life now! Yet I’m barely past the starting gate – I’m just getting going! Mass and sacraments, prayers and spiritual reading, solid spiritual counsel and the best theological formation out there – for what? Scraping by, still scraping by, and there’s no second wind unless you’ve exhausted your first wind. I’m jogging here, just ambling along – not even! The race has started, and I’m just getting the shoes on.

MERTON

“Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”

RICK

So, am I doing alright? (pause, then addressing the frozen BRENDAN) Are you serious?

(Lights fade. End of ACT 1.)

ACT 2

(Lights fade in. Flashback several days. Eye doctor’s examination room – Snellen chart on the wall, typical equipment on counter and attached to wall. RICK reclines in the patient’s chair; OFFERLE sits on a stool directly in front of Rick, peering through an ophthalmoscope.)

OFFERLE

It’s bright outside. OK if I dilate your eyes?

RICK

Sure (leans back as OFFERLE instills eye drops). I already have sunglasses with me. (pause) You’ll be happy to know I’ve been using them pretty regularly since last time – whenever I’m out in the sun. They are a bit nerdy. (pause) My son calls them “cataract glasses.”

OFFERLE

That’s good (laughs) – he’s right! – and it’ll help. (Further examination via the ophthalmoscope.) Of course, some vision change is unavoidable. (pause) Do you squint to read?

RICK

No – not usually…. (raises eyebrows) presbyopia?

OFFERLE

Right – you can expect it. You’ll have to squint to read or hold books and newspapers away from you further and further. It’s a natural part of aging, but it’s manageable. (pause) For now, though, (pulling away ophthalmoscope) I don’t see any problems.

(OFFERLE freezes; VAN ZELLER, stage left, interjects; RICK turns to listen to him.)

VAN ZELLER

vanzeller

Dom Hubert van Zeller (1905–1984)

“As long as we are only tamed by years and not tired by them we have no cause to worry. Nor should we suffer ourselves to be unduly tamed. Looking wide-eyed at life we shall find much that will create in us that blessed sense of wonder – so much indeed that there will be no room in us for preoccupation with the crooked and the wrong.”

OFFERLE

(unfreezes) I’m leaving your prescription the same. (big smile) In fact, I don’t think you need to come back for another two years. That’s good, isn’t it?

(Lights fade. End of ACT 2.)

ACT 3

(Lights fade in, revealing the previous frozen scene in the Menard’s plumbing aisle. BRENDAN is in a solicitous posture; CHORUS is visible stage left; RICK addresses the audience; MERTON interjects throughout.)

RICK

God forgive me for my failures, my weaknesses, my petty selfishness and deceit. I love you, God – at least I think I do – but I keep messing up, over and over!

MERTON

“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

RICK

Give me your strength, your grace, your life, God. Help me keep going.

MERTON

“I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.”

RICK

Help my kids, my wife. Help me be a better husband and father, a better teacher, a better worker, a better friend. Help me, God, help me! I don’t even know how to ask you to help me!

MERTON

“Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

(Customers and BRENDAN unfreeze; RICK addresses Brendan.)

RICK

Yeah, (pause)… I’m alright.

(Lights dim. CURTAIN.)

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You see, the present is “an adventure,” Van Zeller reminds us, and “there are discoveries to be made round every corner” – tumult and opportunity, crisis and resolution, sin and salvation around every corner! We tend to lose that perspective as we get older, but Catholicism trumpets it perpetually and makes it happen. With faith, everything can be an adventure, every undertaking a quest – even shopping in the hardware store, even getting a check-up. Creation is a sacrament, people are Jesus, and everything points to God – no escape, but why would we want to escape?

jrrt

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

That question is at the heart of Gandalf’s first encounter with Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Bilbo is relaxing and showing off with his pipe smoke. “Very pretty!” said Gandalf. “But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” He’s perplexed: Why is it so difficult? Sure, there’s danger and death and no guarantees, but, c’mon, it’s an adventure! How can we say no?

Every time we Catholics go to Mass, every time we receive the sacraments or pray, we’re invited to an adventure and we take the risk of becoming saints – incredible. Will we agree? Will we go? What will happen?!

I think that’s a show worth sticking around for.
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A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

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