Weekend links, abundance-and-gratitude edition.

In which there is too much good stuff out there to choose just one topic for a post. Each of the items on my list today is a two-fer, so get ready:

1. First things first. Two fantastic links on prayer: Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington offers insight on how to be honest and find freedom in prayer when the experience of prayer is frustrating, hard, upsetting, even painful; then, Kathleen Beckman at Catholic Exchange shares a prayer of protection against demons and all other evils that can be prayed by laypeople.

2. A double home run by the wise and witty Simcha Fisher of the National Catholic Register: What’s wrong with ‘message art’ and the latest installment in her new and fabulous Artist of the Month series, in which she profiles a Catholic artist doing authentic work and living the faith. Do read them all if you have time. The most recently posted artist is Neilson Carlin for October, which means November’s artist is yet to be revealed. Exciting!

3. Over at Catholic Household, see Steven Drummel’s investigation of whether Chesterton’s nearly lifelong health and weight problems indicated a lack of temperance that could block his cause for canonization, and Dale Ahlquist’s fiery response. While the latter contains a bit of unfortunate ad hominem rhetoric at Drummel’s expense, it seems otherwise substantively correct. Obesity isn’t always caused by overindulgence, but instead is affected by hormones and microbiome in ways that scientists still don’t fully understand. And while the cause obviously has to take any legitimate questions about a candidate’s moderation seriously, still we’d hate to see one of our favorite authors kept off the altars on account of such.

4. “To restore all things in Christ”: Crisis magazine features formerly modernized churches renovated with beautiful art, and the Latin Mass finds an unexpected ally.

5. This has no twin, but it’s too lovely not to share as we approach Advent: this cover of “Mary Did You Know” that’s been making the rounds.

Happy weekend before Thanksgiving to you all!

[post image: “gratitude tag” by Eugene Kim, via Flickr Creative Commons]

A Preachy Temptation

I’ve been rereading Brideshead Revisited of late, once again glorying in the richness of Waugh’s prose and sinking with delight into a sea of nostalgia for a world I never knew:

Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days–such as that day–when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.

Who can read such a passage unmoved by its intoxicating spirit, its delight in the vibrancy of youth and its longing for eternity, palpable in its description of the university as an ageless haven?

I am, I have to admit, a sucker for nostalgia, and once Brideshead had gotten me in that mood, it wasn’t long until I found myself on YouTube and Pandora, searching for the soundtrack of my own adolescence and college years. I grew up during what appears to have been (cue the nostalgia) the Golden Age of the Rock en Español movement, a musical genre that English-speakers today commonly refer to as Latin alternative (those who know of its existence at all). Whatever you call it, it has always saddened me that this music is not more widely known among Americans, as not only has the movement produced some great rock music in Spanish, but it also includes some of the best bands, period, that you will find in any language. Names like Soda Stereo, Cafe Tacuba, Caifanes, Los Prisioneros, Enanitos Verdes, or Aterciopelados, among many others, ought to stand worldwide (as they certainly do in the Spanish-speaking world) among legends of rock and roll like the The Beatles, Queen, Nirvana, Bruce Springsteen, or The Rolling Stones. To give you a taste, here is Soda Stereo performing one of my favorite songs, “De Musica Ligera”:

During the ’80s and ’90s, Rock en Español bands successfully blended Anglo rock influences with a wealth of traditional rhythms to produce an original sound, which is evident in songs such as Cafe Tacuba’s “Las Flores” (part of an album, Re, in which the band experimented madly with everything from heavy metal to Latin Pop to Mexican “banda” music, producing some of the most memorable songs in the genre):

(If you want to take it up a notch, google the MTV unplugged version of “Las Flores,” which is simply magnificent, but which I am not posting here because it’s a tad long and because the lead singer is wearing a t-shirt to which some readers might object.) The point is, this movement produced a treasure trove of great music up through the early 2000s, and if you’re a lover of rock, I’m sure that if you go to YouTube armed with some of the names mentioned above, you’re sure to discover some new favorites. (No, it doesn’t matter that the songs are in Spanish, the music is awesome all on its own!)

As I kept going over old favorites, I began to wonder who were the new bands who had taken their place in the thirteen years since I left Colombia. Googleing around I found some new names, and also found some new material from a few of the old bands that are still together. Some of the new songs were quite good, if perhaps not at the level of the best that came out during the glory days of the genre. But what struck me the most were the songs I didn’t like, and the way in which I didn’t like them. The music was adequate, if not as inventive as in years past, but the lyrics were so annoyingly preachy that listening to them was very near unbearable. Take, for example, Doctor Krapula, one of the bands that has gained a measure of prominence of late with songs like “Ama-zonas.” It might have been a moving anthem for the Amazon rainforest, but the band is so determined to preach its message of peace and conservation (a perfectly admirable one, I might add) that the song becomes patchwork of vaguely inspiring cliches that barely fit together grammatically. Take the following passage:

For the water, for the Earth, for all of humanity
We sing for life, culture of peace
The Amazon, medicine, is our change and our awakening.

I’m sorry to say that’s one of the best parts. The band describes itself as a group that “transmits to humanity messages about transformation and the activation of conscience,” whatever that means. I really hate to be cynical, but that reminds me a tad too much of this Flight of the Conchords spoof:

Unfortunately, the problem is not limited to a band that is, after all, named Doctor Krapula. Sadly, the drive to produce message music has affected bands of greater stature, perhaps in a reaction against the notoriously frivolous songs of stars like Ricki Martin or Enrique Iglesias, or out of a misguided sense of duty to the people of many Latin American countries, who do indeed suffer great difficulties. I was most bothered by listening to some of the latest offerings from Aterciopelados, which was perhaps my favorite band as a teenager. Granted, they always liked to sing about “the issues,” but there is a big difference between a theme and a message, between a story and a sermon. For example, their own song about the Amazon, “Expreso Amazonia” (which translates into “The Amazon Express”) also celebrates the forest like “Ama-zonas” tries to do, but it is infused with tongue-in-cheek humor, describing the misadventures of a hapless visitor touring the Amazon on a fantasy train. I wouldn’t call it a great song, but at least it’s not a song that grates. However, when I turned to one of the band’s more recent offerings, I found myself listening to Doctor Krapula all over again. “Rio,” a song that was much touted on NPR’s World Cafe, is little more than an advertisement for cleaning up the Bogota River (which, again, is a laudable goal, but ads make for poor art all the same).

Art, of course, ought to deal with issues, but when it become about issues it almost always ceases to be art at all. Why should I care about your message just because you’re shouting it into my ear (or softly singing it, as the case may be)? Art must invite us into an experience at the human level, into the concrete details of life. If your art can be summed up into a message, it is not only not art at all, but it will most likely fail to bring anyone who is not already on your side to share your convictions.

As founder of Dappled Things, I’ve often received compliments from people who are delighted by the lack of didacticism in the fiction and poetry we publish. I’ve also read many articles and essays warning Christian writers against the dangers of preachiness in their art, of the implicit utilitarianism inherent in using a work of art simply as the means of making a point. The implication seems to be that this is a particularly Christian temptation, and certainly there must be some truth to the charge, as anyone who has listened to two minutes of “Christian” rock can attest. However, when we cross over to the point of praising a Christian literary journal simply for not being preachy, I think we are falling prey to stereotypes of our own making that don’t really correspond to reality. When I consider the corpus of Catholic literature, or even Christian peers of Dappled Things such as ImageRock & Sling, or Relief, I see much seriousness about the life of faith, but little evidence of didacticism.

My latest foray into the world of Rock en Español during these lean years of the movement has made it abundantly clear to me: when it comes to preachiness, Christians have no monopoly.


The Day Immanuel Kant Was Late

The philosopher Immanuel Kant had a famously rigid attachment to his daily walk. Clad in a threadbare coat that he steadfastly refused to replace, he perambulated without fail each day, home in plenty of time for his self imposed bedtime. Nothing hindered this walk. That is, until he read Rousseau’s Emile. So perplexed and overcome was Kant by a view of human nature as positively romantic as what he encountered in Emile that he is said to have missed his walk several days in a row. Later, the philosopher digested the lesson learned and came to see that the moral law is written in each human heart (and a starry sky above!). Perhaps encountering the true dignity and beauty of a human being ought to throw us all into a reverie. Perhaps we all ought to be taking more walks… or neglecting them as the case may be.

In J. Mulrooney’s new book of short stories, The Day Immanuel Kant Was Late, we learn in the title story of another mysterious encounter that gives philosophical pause. Kant changes his coat (!) and in so doing casts a philosophical shadow. It is in this shadow that nature becomes an oracle for the reader. The opening line is striking,

 As they did every year, the weeds in the meadow announced the arrival of spring in Koenigsberg.

Compare with a traditional fairy-tail trope about the flowers blooming every year in the spring and we already have a juxtaposition intimating a hint of despair. It is in this atmosphere that Kant sets forth. A nearby bee hive is full of camaraderie, but even so is a prophetic voice proclaiming that individuality is an illusion. A flower rooted nearby waits patiently for a bee to pollinate her so she can make a seed. She struggles in vain for love, but instead finds mistreatment from her suitors and creeping danger from the encroaching weeds. Meanwhile the sun moves on and all is left in a chill.

Is philosophy a vain pursuit? It almost seems as if the very concept of an interior moral law is belied by the brute forces that direct the exterior world. Kant seems to be the only one missing the delicate interactions of nature, his mind a million miles away pondering idealistic constructions, or, is it in fact the mind of Kant working tirelessly that imposes the narrative we are reading? I would guess the former, based on his callous interaction with both flower and bee. In the end, Kant is gone. The bees are gone. The flower is gone. The weeds remain. The philosopher is late getting home and the reader is left with the stinging reality of death.

This is only the first short story of many others. What follows is a collection that is creative and whimsical. The stories are written with a light hand. The prose moves along quickly and the author avoids the trap of being over-writing. For instance, from “Simon and the Economy of Salvation”,

 “I thought you wanted to marry me.”

Simon had said so, it was true. But he did not mean it anymore. It was obvious that things said at certain moments in life were not binding. He did not explain to Gloria, however, whom he knew would be incapable of understanding. Instead, he told her he did not know whether he still believed in marriage as an institution.

The humor is deft and I laughed out loud many times, particularly endearing is Oholiob the goat from Israel explaining how he became the scapegoat,

“So, thanks God, they didn’t take me nowhere near the slaughterhouse…they take me to the river…In fact, I have a bit of lower back pain even to this day, and I blame it on that cold river on that very night.”

There is a wide variety of topics and characters but it all holds together as each one is presented quite consciously to be living in a fairy tale of sorts. Some of the stories are quite shocking (“graceless” as the author titles one section) but never vulgar, and the actions and thoughts of the characters reveal the temptations and struggles each of us faces within our own hearts. Here, it is out in the open: a beating heart in a toilet, a mathematical representation of a life that seems incoherent, the way an untrue song is a danger to all of creation. In a day when sophisticated writing has devolved into postmodern pablum, it is quite refreshing to read stories that take place in a moral universe and place characters within it who, although not perfect by a long shot, are confronted by deep, unmovable mysteries. In the absence of such a moral universe, literature is at risk of becoming a caricature. No such danger here.


I asked the author, J. Mulrooney, a few basic questions, hoping that by being hilariously vague he might be tempted to reply at length. I was not disappointed.


What is the importance of continuing to read and write fairy tales?

A great question – it would take a book to answer it properly!  If you’re ever in upstate NY, let’s get together and have a beer over this one.  I’ll just touch on a few things here.

Fairy tales are really the bones of stories.  We’ve lost sight of that, I think – we tend to think Ernest Hemingway showed us the bones of stories, with his clipped phrases and ‘How little can I say and still tell you’ ethic.  I love Hemingway, but I think, far from writing the bones of story, he should be considered a stylist, no less than Henry James or William Faulkner – someone who has a peculiar and fruitful line of attack, but not someone who reveals the simplest kind of story.  If you look at stories from naïve cultures, you find Homer, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Tain, stories of wild imagination.  You don’t find “ ‘Isn’t love any fun?’ Marjorie said.  ‘No,’ Nick said” stories.

(Tolkien’s phrase was the Tree of Story, in which case fairy tales would be the root of the tree, out of which other kinds of tales grow.  Maybe that’s a better metaphor than bones.)

One of the things that happens when you get too far from the root is the problem of the Baroque – after a while all the filigrees and motion and technical fireworks leave you longing for the beauty of a clean line.  Or think of Modernist music – there’s some Schoenberg that I really like, but ultimately a music that rejects melody isn’t going to satisfy.  There’s something that Irish folksongs or “Oh Danny Boy” or even Paul McCartney singing “Yesterday” bring to the table that an alarming number of 20th century composers missed.  When writers turn their backs on fairy tales, they’re running that danger.

So that’s one kind of answer to the question.  Another, perhaps better answer would be to say, “Because they’re beautiful.”  For me, the Grimm stories, Hans Christian Andersen, Hawthorne’s “Tales of the Puritans” are just incredibly moving in a way that “The Sun Also Rises” is not.  To use the folksong analogy again, Paul Robeson singing “Loch Lomond” or “Danny Boy” brings a tear to the eye.  “Moses und Aron” and Stravinsky mostly don’t.

A third answer would be to quibble on “fairy tale”.  In a “real” fairy tale, all characters are the reader – ie, not only are you Snow White, you’re also a wicked narcissistic stepmother capable of destroying people you love; and you have inside you a handsome prince that can win the battle and awake you from slumber.  Fairy stories teach you that, regardless of what’s in you, your passive endangered beautiful self – your inner princess – will someday meet and marry the strength and power and rightful position that you somehow lost – your inner prince – and the rotten parts of your character will be defeated by your goodness.  My stories aren’t fairy stories in that strict sense, but they share fairy tale elements.


What is your favorite fairy tale?

A friend of mine gave me a book of faux Russian folktales, “The Spiritual Meadow”, by the modernist Aleksej Remizov.  One story on the Passion is called “The Kingdom of Darkness”, and it’s just terrific.  That story helped me write my own favourite, “The Devil’s Confession”.  Besides the Remizov stories, I love the things you’d expect – the Grimms, Andersen, Hawthorne.  I think I’d read Lord of the Rings about 5 times by age eleven.  I love all the pre-war stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Satan in Goray”, “The Manor”, “Gimpel the Fool”, “Isaac the Slave”, so many great stories.  Tolstoy’s pious tales.  Those aren’t quite fairy tales, but share some fairy tale elements.
You have mentioned in the past that you insist on writing 500 words a day, are you still fulfilling your quota?

No, I have been sadly remiss in the past little while!  I mentioned I have a novel coming out, so there’s been a lot of messing about punching old work into shape, rereading and rewriting, so my 500 new words per day has fallen off a bit.  Not good!
In what way has your faith shaped the way you write?

I’m a cradle Catholic, the son of cradle Catholics, went to Catholic schools and a Catholic university, married a lovely Catholic girl.  So in one way I’m just what Heidegger wants to make fun of, trapped in my little Catholic prisonhouse of words and meanings.  I probably have so many Catholic reflexes that if I was writing atheist propaganda it would be Catholic atheist propaganda.  But the heck with him.  I think the better in touch with reality you are, the better you can express reality.  If your view of reality includes saints and angels, devils and hell, those things will find their way into your fiction.

Even in the “Graceless Tales” or “Family Stories”, there’s a sense of those things.  There’s a story in the book about a boy who is kidnapped by his mother and has just an awful couple of years.  It’s realistic in style and tone, but mentions St Christopher in the title.  Saint Christopher, you likely know, tried to carry a small boy across a river, but as they crossed, the river became deeper and deeper and the boy surprisingly heavier and heavier.  The moment of crisis came when Christopher was sure he would have to drown if he continued to carry the boy.  But he held on and continued with the water sometimes covering his head, and made it, exhausted, to the other side.  None of that is mentioned in my story, but the relevance is clear: the kidnapped boy lives the life we all lead when we live without grace, when we live among people who turn away from God’s call.  It was his parents’ time to help the boy through the river, but they were not saints, they dropped him and swim for it on their own.  Even in an ugly story like that, the meaning a Christian sees may be different from the meaning taken by someone without faith.

The other thing I should say about faith interacting with my writing is that it allows me to focus on the work.  There’s always a temptation to compromise and write something ‘commercial’ (whatever that means, since the most unlikely things end up selling); or to give up altogether and ignore the whole writing thing.  Frederica Mathewes-Greene said to me recently that there are about 750,000 self-published books in America this year – and a lot of those are pornography or fan fiction about “The Gilmore Girls” or things your mom might like but no one else would – and 250,000 professionally published books.  In a market like that, why would anyone with sense even bother?  Breaking through the blague is more difficult than ever, because even after you break through everyone is swamped with 1,000,000 other books.  And yet, the great thing about writing stories is the opportunity to make something good and lovely.  And if I succeed in making something good and lovely, God knows about it.  So I can think, I always have an audience that matters to me.  I think it would be harder if I were an atheist: all that time ignoring people, ignoring my wife, children, friends, work – to do something that no one at all would ever care about.  I think if I did not believe in God the whole enterprise would take on a desperate character.


Do you want to give us a teaser about your forthcoming novel?

Thank you for asking!  In tone, it’s along the lines of the “Philosophical Fables” section of the short story book: a bit smart-alecky, playing with philosophy and theology, and yet with characters who are still (I hope) recognizable as real people.  I’m working on a contract with a publishing house for it now, hopefully that all goes through.  The target publication date should be spring 2015.

The title is “An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity.”  When the devil moves in next door, Cooper has the same question everyone else does: what will it do to the property values?  But when Cooper’s new neighbor invites him to a cocktail party, Cooper finds himself in love and holding the key to an equation of almost infinite complexity – the equation that predicts the exact date of death for everyone alive.  Cooper uses the equation to get a job as an actuary at a life insurance company.  As the novel unfolds, both the police and Death are stalking Cooper, and he finds himself on the brink of losing everything – until the devil appears with an offer that is too good to refuse.

Like the Philosophical Fables, the novel is both merry and sad at the same time.  I have a few bits to add the grated cheese to, but I think it’s turning out pretty well.



To purchase your own copy of The Day Immanuel Kant Was Late and see other titles from 188 Cassandra books, check out their website. http://www.188cassandrabooks.com/home.html







How Pilgrimage Changes You

On my visit to the Holy Land in May of this year to film for our next production on the Holy Father’s pilgrimage, we went to the Church of the Synagogue, which I hadn’t seen on my previous visit in 2011.

Filming in the courtyard of Nazareth's Church of the Synagogue

Filming in the courtyard of Nazareth’s Church of the Synagogue

Here, it is believed, is where the event from Luke 4:15 happened, when Jesus read from the scroll:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

After this, the people of Nazareth tried to throw him off a cliff.

Throughout my trip, I encountered sacred site after sacred site. Usually, I was rushed and had a lot to do every day.  I always tried to allow myself to enter into the history of the sacred sites, but at the end of the day, this was not a pilgrimage. I was there to work.

This was very different from the pilgrimage to the Holy Land we filmed in 2011, with Select International Tours and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Sure, I worked that, too, but I was given the opportunity to pray and enter into the sites more then than I was this May.

The difference between the two experiences makes me think back to an experience I had at the Church of the Synagogue in May. At one point, I was in the interior of the Church when Patrick, one of our other cameraman, came in. “Diana!” he said, “come outside! There’s a woman out there who knows you!”

It seemed inconceivable that anyone in Nazareth would know me, but I went outside anyway. As Patrick had been filming the exterior of the church, a small group from England walked in hoping to visit the site. As often happens whenever we film, the pilgrims asked Patrick what we were filming, and he told them we were filming for a production called The Faithful Traveler.

“Oh, I love that show!” one pilgrim said. “I watch it whenever it’s on!” And so Patrick came to introduce me to her.

Me and Jean

Me and Jean

Her name was Jean and it was her birthday! Jean was so lovely. (Jean! If you’re out there! Get in touch!)

We chatted for a bit and then I asked her and her group if they’d like to be in our show. They agreed, excitedly.

The cameras rolled and they told me about what they’d seen, that it was their last day in the Holy Land, and they would be going home later on that day. As I looked around at their smiling faces, it occurred to me, and I said so on camera, that from then on, all of those people who had heretofore been complete strangers now shared a bond that only others who had been on the same pilgrimage could understand. They’d go home, I told them, with their 8,000 or so pictures, and they’d try to show their families, but after, oh, the 1,500th photo, their family members would get bored and not understand the fire that they had within. Try as they might to explain how going to the Holy Land had changed their lives, had changed the way they looked at the world, read the Bible, looked at one another, or even at themselves… no one would understand. Except for those who had done the very same thing.

Now, I’m blessed. I get to share my experiences with you through The Faithful Traveler. But let me tell you something: the footage we used to produce The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land is about 1/4th of what we filmed over those 10 days. The footage I will use on my next production, and the next, and the next will be just a fraction of what I film. The same goes for stories. You might hear a lot of them, but how can I tell you everything? There’s just so much! And some of it, well… it’s hard to put into words. You just have to experience it for yourself.

Those who have walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, up Croagh Patrick barefoot, or up the walkway in Fatima on their knees know the feeling.


Pilgrims walking to the Basilica of Fatima on their knees

Those who have dunked in the waters at Lourdes, touched the foot of St Peter in Vatican City, or prayed before the tomb of any saint… they know, too.

Going on pilgrimage is special. It changes your heart and it changes your mind. But going on pilgrimage with others changes the way you see other people. I can’t help but think that God likes that. His Son did, after all, tell us that it was pretty important to love our neighbor.

My friend, Denise Bossert, just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and she experienced some of that, too. I saw it in her Facebook pictures–she grew closer to a group of strangers. They prayed together. They prayed for one another. They prayed over one another. Their individual concerns became group concerns. Like the bag of prayers Denise brought with her, they all had bags of prayers in their minds, prayers for other people. It’s caused them to grow together, from a group of individuals to a group united. United in FAITH.

In May, the theme of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage was “That they all might be one.” Perhaps this is one way of doing that in the microcosm of our lives: going on pilgrimage with others and experiencing the joys and sorrows of it all, and coming out of it stronger than we went in, because going in we were alone. Coming out, we are part of a team.

I know it might be a rather jarring comparison, but the one experience I have had that helps illustrate this point is when I went to Graceland in Memphis. For those of you who don’t know it, Graceland was Elvis Presley’s house, and it’s now a museum.

I was visiting a friend in Memphis and decided to go to Graceland. I went by myself because my friend had a job and I was the tourist. I was so excited. I really like Elvis, so seeing his house was really something I’d longed to do. When I went inside and walked room by room, I was astounded by the things I saw. I’ve forgotten many of them over the years, but the one thing I remember the most was the Jungle Room.

Graceland's Jungle Room

Graceland’s Jungle Room

When I saw the Jungle Room, I felt a mixture of amusement and sadness. A witty remark was on the tip of my tongue, but I had no one to share it with. Every laugh, every snarky remark, everything that I had to offer, I kept inside. I’ll never forget that experience. Experiencing some things alone is good. I can appreciate that. But some things are better when you experience them with others.

Pilgrimage is like that, I think.

This is coming from someone who had never gone on any kind of group tour before my Holy Land trip. Yet I long to do it again and again.

So I am. I’d like to invite you all to join me on my next pilgrimage to the Holy Land in April of 2015. It will change your lives.

Watch The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land series online or purchase a DVD set of the six-episode series here.

Our group from 2011

Our group from 2011

The Witness of Example: The Case for Canonizing Married Couples

Chester and Eileen Bellard picture by Nikki Barbre

Chester and Eileen Bellard
picture by Nikki Barbre

Three days from now–November 19, 2014–would have been my grandparents’ 70th wedding anniversary. They did not quite make it to that milestone. Both of them passed away this summer, he on July 28 and she on August 14, just seventeen days apart. Both were ninety years old, and they lived independently in their home together, against all odds and against all advice, until the stroke that took Paw Paw hit him six days before he died. Granny was admitted to the same hospital the next day. They died as they had lived: together.

It was, of course, a very difficult time for our family, but it also gave us cause to reflect on the beautiful witness of their life: sixty-nine and two-thirds years of a marriage so finely-honed, they made it seem effortless. Among the vast pile of stuff in their house, my mother found quite a few love letters. They are written, for the most part, on unlined white tablet paper and say things like, “To Eileen, I love you, Chester,” and sometimes, “This letter good for one trip to Las Vegas.” (They always won on the slot machines. Alas, I did not inherit that gene.) However, the most enduring testament to my grandparents’ love, I think, is the fact that all three of their children and all six of their grandchildren are married, and none has ever been divorced. A thousand other factors have contributed to that record, but I am confident I speak for all of us in saying that Granny and Paw Paw’s example certainly helped. We all grew up knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that such a marriage was possible, and we all wanted what we saw.

In fact, the children of parents in stable marriages are statistically far more likely to form stable marriages themselves. This is one of only many advantages studies have shown for the children of married vs. unmarried parents, but it is arguably the most important, because it is the one that breaks the cycle. If a child of divorced or unwed parents can find a way to live in sacred spousal union, then future generations of that family will be more likely to do the same.

In this time of history, when Holy Mother Church is seeking (some might say, desperately seeking) ways to pastor a world of blurred lines and broken homes, we know that we must help people overcome the educational, economic, and emotional struggles that often accompany non-traditional family structures. We know we must extend spiritual support to families of all configurations: a ministry so difficult, the bishops just held an Extraordinary Synod to try to figure out how to accomplish it. Still, it seems to me that we are overlooking one of the simplest and most effective things the Church could do to strengthen families, both in this generation and the next: we could leverage the power of example. The Church cannot wave a magic wand to bless every child with grandparents like mine, but it has the power to take the light of holy marriage out from under the bushel basket society has shoved on top of it, and show us saints.

The scriptures are filled with holy couples, husbands and wives who could not fulfill God’s plan except in communion with each other. Mary and Joseph are the pinnacle of such witnesses, but we also have Anne and Joachim, Ruth and Boaz, Tobit and Sarah, and on and on, all the way back to Adam and Eve. Yet, apart from these scriptural saints, the Church has never, in two thousand years, canonized a married couple together. Saints Isidore and Maria de la Cabeza were canonized separately, on the basis of individual miracles. A host of other married people have been recognized as saints, but without their spouses. (In fairness, not all of their spouses were saintly.) Yet surely, God did not cease to use marriage to work his will in human lives after the Biblical era. Surely, we can find couples to exemplify for this muddled generation the hope that marriage is as potent a path toward godliness now as it was when Zechariah’s child leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. We teach our children that a Christian has only one calling: to become a saint. How can we expect them to enter marriage as a means toward that goal if no marriages ever win the crown of sainthood?

Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini

Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini

The good news is, the road toward the canonization of couples is already half-paved. Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Therèse de Lisieux, have been beatified, along with Blessed Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini. It is a start, and a good one. One thing you and I can do to advance the vocation of marriage is to pray for the intercession of these holy men and women, and for their canonization. But we must also work to divest ourselves of the mentality that martyrdom, virginity, founding a religious order, and spiritual writing are the only paths to sainthood. We should acknowledge individual spouses blessed with holiness (Thomas More, Elizabeth Ann Seton), but we must not fail to see the Cross of Christ being lived within marriage itself[i], its grace efficacious for both husband and wife.

The crisis of vocations in our church is not limited to celibate vocations. The number of marriages celebrated in the church in 2013 was less than half the number in 1965. The two trends are not only linked by a societal turning-away from the faith; they are intrinsically linked in the life of the Spirit. “Whoever denigrates marriage also denigrates the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent.”[ii] Without vocations to holy marriage, we will continue to see a decline in vocations to priesthood and religious life because the two are halves of the same whole, both of them necessary for the health of the Body of Christ. Yet how will future generations know what a holy marriage is unless we show them? Documents and teachings are necessary and good, but they will never inspire human hearts the way that watching Granny and Paw Paw live their vows inspired mine.

Only God can award the crown of sainthood, and the Church should not lower the bar for canonization to create a “quick fix” of sainted couples. It is not necessary; if marriage is truly a sign of Christ’s love for His Church, then it cannot fail to produce miracles. We need only learn how to look for them. It is imperative that we demonstrate to the world that the ideal of Christian marriage is neither outmoded nor unattainable. If the Church shifts its focus from the abstract sanctity of the sacrament to the actual saintliness of real married lives, we might discover how much of the pastoral heavy lifting could be lightened by the strength of good examples. Not everyone has earthly grandparents like Chester and Eileen to emulate, but we can all become the spiritual children of Louis and Zélie, Luigi and Maria, and the countless others whose names we have yet to learn.

[i] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1615.

[ii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1620, quoting St. John Chrysostom

The Silver Age

Deep in our hearts, we love winter. Not the way we love snowflakes and sleigh bells and warm woolen mittens, which isn’t really deep at all, nor even the way we love ice skates and snow days and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. All these things are good, but it is not for their sake that we love winter. Our love for winter is patient, it is kind; it is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; it does not insist on its own way; it does not rejoice over wickedness, but rejoices with the truth; it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Like love, winter can come suddenly, in an October snowstorm that leaves us stunned and helpless, not knowing where to turn or what to do. Or we can recognize the signs from far off, in the falling of the leaves, the rising of the Pleiades and the turning of Arcturus, the cry of the wild geese on their journey south, and the wind that comes down the valley to rattle our windows late at night.

If we say that we love winter for what she is, we must choose our words with care. Winter is a high-maintenance relationship. Winter asks much of us; sometimes too much of us. Winter asks if we are really going to wear that shirt with those pants, and then tells us to put on a sweater and a heavy coat. Winter knows that we are tired of shoveling snow and that we miss the beach. Winter tells us not to hate her for being beautiful, and we know she is right. Every year we try to tell winter that it’s over. Winter always takes us back.

Winter always takes us back. As children, we were instructed by winter in the difficult and delicate virtue of hope. In the heat of summer, we learned to look forward to the winter wind that would send us scurrying to the coat closet for our scarves and hats. In the autumn downpours and as the last leaves fell we learned to look forward to the first falling flakes of snow, slow at first, hesitant and shy, then a sudden flurry and a whirl of white to snare and captivate even the hardest of warm-weather hearts. We hoped for snow and we believed in its return, though we knew neither the day nor the hour. After the fire of the autumn leaves, it was a still small voice: and when it came, it was a gift as free and undeserved as the grace of God, and bearing the same trademark.

For winter is also the season of faith, the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. It is the season of the seven virtues and the school of wisdom. We were not made for winter; the garden of Eden was not a winter garden. Winter was made for us: as a trial, and as a test, and as a promise. Winter reminds us that we are fallen, and that we are weak. It reminds us that our existence is contingent on the music of the spheres and the mercy of God. To accept the mercy of God in all of its myriad and difficult forms is to begin to seek out and define the nature of our peculiar relationship with him, and to set ourselves on the road that leads to his country. If we would look for him, we might search for him as the three kings did, and find him in winter; in the time when he seems most willing to be found by us, though in the most unlikely of places. In spring, summer, and fall the world clamors for our attention, but winter says: quiet down. Listen up. Look beyond.

We love winter because we are not afraid to live in the past when it is our future also; because we are not afraid to give up what we will receive again; because faith, hope, and charity abide, these three, but the greatest of these is charity. We love winter because opposites attract, and because power is made perfect in weakness. We love winter because the first snowfall will make us all children again, if only for a day, and because we are not to vain to admit that we are also another year older than we were the last time around. We love winter because it is telling us our life, and because the next best thing to the Golden Age is the Silver Age.

Now we must be patient, for winter, like love, like snow, like grace, like the end of the world, will come in its own time and in its own way. Pray that it does not catch you without a hat. In the meantime: Quiet down. Listen up. Look beyond. Put on a sweater. Close the window, if you must, but don’t forget to glance out of it once in a while. Perhaps the first snowflakes are already on their way.


Calling Young Catholic Songwriters (And Congratulations, Ally!)

logoFor the musically inclined among you, Pontifical Mission Societies has launched its 2014 Song Contest for Young Catholics. There are two divisions, the Adolescent category for high school students and the Young Adult category for ages 18-29. This year’s contest is based on the theme “I will build my church.” Young Catholics are asked to submit original songs on the theme before May 24, 2015. For entry form and more information, you can click here.

PMS has also released recordings of last year’s winners for free download. The Young Adult winner is Isabella Rose for “Go Make Disciples” and the Adolescent winner is my friend and all-around awesome young woman, Alessandra Rincon, for “Ignite in Me.” After more than a year of watching her alternately bite her nails and bounce with excitement, it is my honor to share her recording with our Dappled Things audience. You can also download both songs here, and there is a web chat with both winners.


Alessandra Rincon

Congratulations, Ally and Isabella, and good luck to all of you who might enter!

Quotes for Election Day

EuripidesI don’t know about you, but I always seem to leave the voting booth with my eyes closed and my upper lip curled from the stench of… well, you know. Since misery loves company, I decided to console myself with the electoral cynicism of greater minds than mine.

From Winston Churchill:

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

And T.S. Eliot:

An election is coming. Universal peace is declared and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.

Abraham Lincoln:

Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.

However, it turns out that when you search for quotes about “election,” you also get things like this:

I have not yet elected to bestow the grace of my saliva upon another human being. I have never… kissed anyone. ― Laini Taylor, Night of Cake & Puppets


Okay, the Greeks invented this democracy stuff. Surely, they couldn’t have been jaded about it back when it was still all shiny and new?

In a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it. ― Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War

To win the people, always cook them some savoury that pleases them. ― Aristophanes, The Knights

“When one with honeyed words but evil mind Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.” ― Euripides, Orestes

So why, exactly, did we come back several thousand years later and decide that these guys had it right? Oh, well, too late. No roundup of cynicism would be complete without Douglas Adams:

The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. ― The Restaurant at the End of the Universe


All right, enough patriotic wallowing. Let’s get out there and rock the vote!

On a lighter note: National Novel Writing Month.


Between the solemn tone of All Saints/All Souls and the passing of Brittany Maynard, the past few days have called forth some deep responses. Not to distract from these serious themes, but perhaps in the spirit of ars longa, vita brevis, I note that National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) is now underway. I’d like to invite a discussion, dear reader: are you, or have you in the past, written a November novel? What was the experience like for you? Grab a cup of tea and let’s talk it over in the comments while we avoid making our daily word count together. When you’re almost ready to buckle down again, read Dave Eggers’ 2010 pep talk over at the NaNoWriMo site (strong language alert):

Knowing there are thousands of others out there trying to do the same, who are using this ridiculous deadline as cattle-prod and shame deterrent, means [redacted strong language], you better do it now because you know how to write, and you have fingers, and you have this one life, and during this one life, you should put your words down, and make your voice heard, and then let others hear your voice.

Then get to work. Like I’m going to do, after I fold this [redacted strong language] laundry.

[image: “A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch,” Henriette Browne, 1870-74]

Three Poems for Brittany Maynard

Perhaps like me, you met the news of Brittany Maynard’s suicide today with the same shock, sadness, and guilt (yes guilt) that shook me when I heard this poor woman had killed herself. Like many thousands of others out there, our family had been praying for Brittany, and we hoped that God’s grace would soften her heart, fill it with joy for the dignity of her own life and the meaning of suffering revealed in Christ. I keep thinking I could have done more. She must have received thousands of letters daily (I should have sent one). If I had taken the time to write her, I might have sent along the three works of poetic genius below. I would have asked her to read them aloud and in order. No doubt she would have seen in them a movement from a celebration of death to a rage against death to a joyful confidence in the death’s own death.

The first poem, A.E. Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young,” lauds the athlete who dies (whether accidentally or not) before age outlives the quickly wilting garland of victory–a sign for the vigor of youth. The athlete is praised largely because he will never suffer the pain of being defeated, of being forgotten, of being a has-been. Housman captures the real, tangible fear the human soul has for the corruption of the body and the fickleness of fame. He captures as well the vain temptation to praise death as savior from these realities, for if the fame of the dead-in-youth lives on, it is but among shades who have mostly worn out their own. Shallow praise indeed to be adulated by the weakest of the weak, those whose only greedy wish is to have died as young as you. The poem at once creates an idol of physical health and popular renown while acting the lighthouse against their shoals.

The second, Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” begs his dying father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Thomas, falling to the opposite side of the mean, does not foolishly praise death but foolishly overstates and dignifies its power by his too-impassioned resistance. “Wise men,” “good men,” “wild men,” “grave men,” “and you” must do more than resist; all these rage. Perhaps were death a great injustice it may rightly demand rage, but it is on final count the fall’s just desert; the God of life patiently withholds it on account of his mercy yet only duly delivers when death arrives. Dylan illumines, though, the innate inclination to continue being what one is, as one is: a creature in the image and likeness of life, light, truth, goodness, and beauty itself (i.e., God). Dylan’s rage remembers the indelible dignity and value human life and the grave and disdainful, yet deserved disorder of death. Ultimately, though, Dylan’s rage serves an idol, the idol of temporal, material life, or if not that then the idol of man’s indomitable spirit. The poem displays a confidence but not yet the right kind.

Finally, John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10),” finds the true mean between rage and praise, the rightful place of peace in the face of man’s foe defanged. Donne denounces death; it is impotent, the pawn of the vicious and of chance, readily imitable, and ultimately mortal itself. Death, once a wall, has become a door opened to those who share in Christ’s resurrection. Donne opens for us a horizon onto death that allows the Christian confidence to see it for its temporary necessity yet its enduring evil. Though Donne sees in death a door, he does not loose sight of death as the enemy it truly is. In this balance Donne navigates the narrow way between “Athlete Dying Young” and “Do Not Go Gentle.” Death is no friend, but it is not so great an enemy as deserving the full passion of rage. Death, it seems, deserves a defiant laugh (and a bit of a scold). Death is laughable not for its impotence to cause intense pain, suffering, and fear. No, death’s comedy is its error, its pride. Death dies in a moment while the eternal life the faithful already possess remains and reaches fullness in saecula saeculorum.

We need neither the foolish celebration nor the desperate raging against such an enemy. We need instead the peaceful confidence of sharing in the life of the one who once conquered and will definitively destroy death on the last day. Read with me now, and pray with me that Brittany’s soul opened onto a horizon of humble Christian confidence, even if only with her dying breath.


To An Athlete Dying Young  —  (by A. E. Housman)


The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.


Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.


Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay,

And early though the laurel grows

It withers quicker than the rose.


Eyes that shady night has shut

Cannot see the record cut,

And silence sounds no worse than cheers

After earth has stopped the ears.


Now you will not swell the rout

Of lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran

And the name died before the man.


So set, before its echoes fade,

The fleet foot on the sill of shade,

And hold to the low lintel up

The still-defended challenge-cup.


And round that early-laurelled head

Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,

And find unwithered on its curls

The garland briefer than a girl’s.



Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night —  (by Dylan Thomas)


Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.


Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.


Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.


Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10) — (by John Donne)


Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die.