A Good Man Can’t Be Found: The Im/morality of Peter Pan

What happens when you put 5 children under 9 years of age, a pregnant woman, and her husband in a car for 17 straight hours? The mobile universe that is a Honda Odyssey becomes one of two places: either the portico of purgatory; or Never-neverland. On Sunday last, our silver bullet of a minivan became Neverland for 968 miles (okay, there were moments of purgatory as well) as our sore selves sat enthralled by the audiobook of J.M. Barrie’s masterpiece Peter and Wendy. I’m ashamed to say it, but I’d never actually read the book before. Having encountered the tale as a child through animated films and the feature film Hook, I thought we’d hear a splendid tale of heroism, joy, and virtue with some facile reflection on the freedom of childhood and the drudgery of adult life. What I heard, instead shook and troubled me deeply. I heard tell of a world where a good man is not merely “hard to find,” but simply put, a good man can’t be found.

Barrie’s London and Barrie’s Never-neverland refuse the reader even a single exemplary character. One is hard-pressed to find any paragon of virtue in the work at all. For me, this is what gave the work power. Barrie rendered painfully honest and incisive characterizations of men. What husband and father fails to find himself in George Darling and (dare I write this) Captain Jas. Hook?

We witness George Darling, a proud though cowardly man, force some foul-tasting medicine upon his children while refusing to take his own. Mr. Darling is all the more pathetic in that his children are conscious of the fact that they are witnessing the monument of their father’s moral integrity crumble. This moment highlights for any father the fault-lines on the continent of his own moral integrity. Do I give the children fruit for snack while sneaking a bit of chocolate myself? Do I refuse my children’s feeble exculpatory excuses in the face of paternal correction, only to offer my own weaker excuses in the face of my wife’s gentle correction? Mr. Darling does not improve much, however, even after the fateful night when he loses his children. In fact, his pitiful pride blossoms in the wake of the children’s flight. Mr. Darling gives himself the penance of spending every hour of his domestic life in Nana’s dog kennel. He puts himself, quite literally, in the dog house. (At least its an indoor kennel.) He goes as far as to be carried out to the cab in the kennel on his way to work, and to return to the kennel upon return home. Perhaps the penance began well, after all it was his rash decision to chain Nana outside that gave Peter Pan opportunity to take the children away. Soon, though, Mr. Darling’s penance garners popular acclaim and fame. Various important dinner invitations arrive, making sure to say…”and do come in your kennel.” In short time, even Mrs. Darling begins to wonder: “But it is punishment, isn’t it, George? You are sure you aren’t enjoying it?” (ch. 17). His sharp denial, “My love!” tells us all we need to know.

“But wait,” you might say. Doesn’t Mr. Darling adopt all the lost boys? Yes, but only after making known to his family how heroic he thought it and how hurt he was to have been asked for permission only after recourse had been made to Mrs. Darling. Sure, Mr. Darling’s interaction with his children can be jovial, playful, and imaginative even, but these are glimpses and moments. They are, too, at his own service rather at the service of his children. As a case in point, after agreeing to adopt the children and sleep them in the drawing room (which may or may not have really existed) Mr. Darling says, “‘Then follow the leader,’ he cried gaily. ‘Mind you, I am not sure that we have a drawing-room, but we pretend we have, and it’s all the same. Hoop la!’ He went off dancing through the house, and they all cried ‘Hoop la!’ and danced after him, searching for the drawing-room; and I forget whether they found it, but at any rate they found corners, and they all fitted in” (ch. 17). His behavior eerily matches Peter Pan’s in the forests of Neverland when Peter takes care of his band of boys. It is not the good of the boys that gives him joy here but the sheer cleverness of his invented adventure. This is in him no virtue, but merely a vestige or relic of his own Peter Pan, of the Never Land that was once his childhood mind. We see here, Mr. Darling is the man (or at least the grown up boy) who wishes he hadn’t grown up. He is Everyman.

While Mr. Darling unveils to fathers their own inconsistencies and fractured integrity, as well as their own secret remorse at having grown up, worse still is Captain James T. Hook. Hook is entirely consistent and entirely hateful, even in his seeming courage. Barrie’s Captain Hook puts flesh on the age-old tension between generations. He is the personification of Cronos fearing Zeus, Saul fearing David, David fearing Absolom, etc. Why is it that the old simultaneously hate, fear, desire to destroy, and vaguely love the young? A familiar reason might be that “the young nowadays have no respect. They’re cocky.” On the one hand, this is true of Peter, but it isn’t true in the way the grown man usually thinks it true of the young. Men, on the face of it, despise cockiness in youth because they think it inaccurate. Digging deeper with our hooks, however, we discover with Captain James that we despise the child’s cockiness because almost nothing is impossible for the child. Barrie tells us of Peter, “there was almost nothing he could not do, and now he imitated the voice of Hook” (ch. 8). The child’s overtaking me, the man, is a historical inevitability, even if not realized at this moment. Men are ceaselessly jealous of the young, a jealously which can lead them to a desire to destroy it as Hook desires to destroy Peter. The funny thing is, in his impotence to destroy Peter, Hook desperately grasps at the one satisfaction the old will have over the young, the “nitpick.” Hook’s dying words to Peter are, “Bad form!” In the end, Hook tricks Peter into kicking him from the ship’s edge rather than stabbing him. Hook considers the move bad form. It is, however, entirely fitting. For Hook is kicked into the awaiting jaws of the beast that devours all men, the beast from which all men cower yet cannot escape…time. The crocodile with the clock is, of course, time itself, which inevitably gives victory to the young over the old, and the old will go to their end crying out, “bad form!” I can hear myself now, saying, “kids these days!” How often do I, as a father, squelch the zeal and life of my children on the altar of “good form”? How often does my jealously of their vast potential and the power of their youth find expression in an empty critique of their “cockiness?”

At the same time, Barrie makes no great claims for the moral excellence of children. Children are children, after all, only so long as they are “gay, and innocent, and heartless” (ch. 17). Did you catch that? Heartless. Wow. Those are at once beautiful and cold words. What makes Peter Pan the quintessential child? It would seem his sheer immediacy and ultimate self-concern. Not moral excellence.

Here’s the conundrum: Barrie shows us a world where, for the child morality of any kind is psychologically elusive but for the man moral excellence is performatively elusive. The child is ever premoral while the man is always immoral. For Barrie, it seems, the child’s immediacy and ultimate self concern at once chains him or her into his own world and at once frees him from the adult world. That world, the child’s mind, is Neverland. In it, to be sure, dwell adventures galore, but caprice rather than constancy rules the day. The child cannot break out into the world of responsibility. The child can play at responsibility as Wendy plays at motherhood, as Peter plays at being husband, father, captain, etc. The role, though, must always remain at play, in flux. The moment responsibility becomes real, the child’s mind dies. The radical ambivalence of the role-play that determines a child’s mind shows itself in one of my favorite passages about Peter at battle. Peter was known to change sides at random during the middle of a battle with the savages, whom he would then convince to pretend to be lost boys. Tiring of pretending to fight lost boys, he would switch back to being a lost boy and convince the savages to be savages once again. How amazing is that? For Peter, for the child, one’s side in the battle makes not the slightest difference! More shocking still, after defeating Captain Hook, Peter dresses in Hook’s clothes, occupies Hook’s quarters, and postures his hand after Hook’s hook. But even this foreboding play, this glimpse at the fate of all childhood, cannot conquer Pan. He remains ever the child and sheds this role as well. After Wendy returns to London, he visits her occasionally, but ironically, he cannot remember their previous adventures. They hold no place in his heart or mind. In fact, during one visit, Wendy is shocked to discover that even Tinkerbell has flown from Peter Pan’s memory. For Barrie, Children, it seems, have no moral memory. Interestingly, although this fact is driven home in the final chapter, we get a hint of it when Peter flies the children to Never land for their first visit. In this first flight, the children find hints of Peter’s consummate childishness and its moral ambivalence:

“Peter was not with them for the moment, and they felt rather lonely up there by themselves. He could go so much faster than they that he would suddenly shoot out of sight, to have some adventure in which they had no share. He would come down laughing over something fearfully funny he had been saying to a star, but he had already forgotten what it was, or he would come up with mermaid scales still sticking to him, and yet not be able to say for certain what had been happening. It was really rather irritating to children who had never seen a mermaid.

‘And if he forgets them, so quickly,’ Wendy argued, ‘how can we expect that he will go on remembering us?’

Indeed, sometimes when he returned he did not remember them, at least not well. Wendy was sure of it. She saw recognition come into his eyes as he was about to pass them the time of day and go on; once even she had to tell him her name” (ch. 4).

J.M. Barrie makes all parties, all readers, of Peter and Wendy uncomfortable. Again, I say that fact is the work’s power. Moral order is true, good, and beautiful, but our harmony with it ever elusive. Whose purchase on moral order is stronger, the child’s or the man’s? The power of the child, or the consciousness of and acceptance of responsibility by the man? The capricious heroism of the child, or the mediocre constancy of the man?

What do you think?

Top Ten Thoughts about Advent from Fr. Rutler


If you haven’t heard of Fr. William George Rutler before, you’re in for a treat. I first learned about Fr. Rutler when I chanced upon a show he hosted about the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” from his Stories of Hymns series on ETWN, and now I subscribe to his weekly sermons. I don’t follow anyone else, so that’s a high compliment, coming from me. I have since discovered that Fr. Rutler is highly respected diocesan priest from the Archdiocese of New York, a former Episcopal priest, and that he has impressive academic credentials.  I could tell from the first time I heard him that he is a learned and eloquent speaker.

RutlerThe following ten deep thoughts about the Advent season are transcribed from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the show of Fr. Rutler’s that hooked me. You can view Fr. Rutler give his meditation on Advent and learn much more about the history and significance of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” here.

10.  The Church ritualizes anticipation, because the Church alone in Her wisdom knows what we are waiting for. We have a season dedicated to waiting.

9.  The name [Advent] itself means “the approach” “the coming” –of the Lord and of nothing less than our Lord.

8.  The season of Advent has become a lost liturgical season. We live in the time of instant gratification because we do not expect great things. We want little things to come immediately to substitute for the great glory that is about to be revealed.

7.  Patience is a virtue precisely because it conditions the mind and the will to anticipate that for which the world was made.

6.  We should examine our liturgical conscience and ask ourselves, “What have we done to Advent?”

5.  Advent does not require the strict kind of penance and mortification that Lent does but it does involve some sort of examination of conscience, some sort of self-denial, some sort of sober anticipation. And yet, when do we have our Christmas parties?

4.  How many of us without thinking celebrate Christmas at the beginning of the four weeks of anticipation, thus missing both the gift of waiting and the gift of receiving?

3.  There are twelve days for celebrating the Incarnation of Our Lord. And what happens then? The day after, December 26, what kind of celebration goes on? What happens in those great Twelve Days [of Christmas]?

2.  The Church has wonderful hymns for Advent, and if we don’t keep Advent, we are going to miss them. We know one very well, and because we’ve lost Advent, we tend to think of it as a Christmas hymn: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

1.  The very last line of the Bible cries out, “Come Lord Jesus!” The Lord wants us to anticipate nothing less than Himself.



Do Not Go Gentle


I almost never see movies in an actual theater. The sound of people eating popcorn makes me want to punch a hole through the seat in front of me. That’s normal, right? For Interstellar, though, I was willing to brave opening night crowds. Christopher Nolan is one of the few popular directors to consistently craft films that are both popular and thoughtful, both exciting and beautiful. No one will confuse one of his films with a philosophy treatise, but they are none the worse for engaging a wider audience. I loved the movie. At almost 3 hours long, I wish it had been longer.

Many of the initial reviewers hated it. Wesley Morris at Grantland hated it, writing, “It gives you everything you want in a vision of the future, everything except awe.” Armond White at National Review hated it. He considers it “insipid” and “hackneyed.” To these and the many other reviewers who accuse Nolan of creating a new-age, derivative jumble of cliché that “gets the science wrong” and devolves into sentimentality, I have an important rebuttal:

lebowski gif

I almost wonder if we are all so jaded that we confuse emotion with sentimentality, story structure with cloying cleverness, and virtue with unreality. A good film, we have convinced ourselves, must be gritty and nihilistic. When people like Nolan attempt to present to us unironic beauty, critics interpret it as cliché, as if there is a fault with the telling of old themes. There is, of course, nothing at all wrong with old stories. There are certain themes that are able to be examined from infinitely many angles and still enchant and delight us. These themes, by and large, have to do with the struggle of man with the eternal virtues. What is love? What happens after I die? How can I be good? To toss these themes in the dustbin as hackneyed is shortsighted and it is the reason that many of our movies are not worth seeing.

lebowski 2

Interstellar does not bother to hide its themes. They are there for all to see. Space travel is an analogy for the true destiny of mankind, the way in which we survive death. The question at hand, though, is what that destiny might be. Is science and technological advancement enough, as Dr. Mann (again, no attempt to hide!) contends. Are we here to survive simply for the sake of some abstract concept of the species? Project Lazarus (yeah, pretty obvious) has two options. Plan B is favored by Dr. Mann and consists of survival at all costs, manufactured life, the abandonment of everyone left behind on earth to a long, slow suffocation. Let’s let that one die along with Matt Damon, errrgh, Dr. Mann. To follow this plan would quite literally destroy all that makes humanity worth saving.

No, a resurrection requires sacrifice, true magic exacts a price, and love turns out to demand all that a lover has to give. The science with its promises of easy regeneration will not live up to its promises. There is in fact, only one power we know about that transcends the limitations of this universe–love. Before you laugh, stay with me for a moment. Love is not sentimentality or mawkishness. It is sacrifice, virtue, heroism, the total gift of self. The demands love places upon the characters clears up this misconception quickly. The answers do not come easy, and when they do they do not short-circuit the science. Love is grace, and grace does not destroy nature. It completes it. The science works! But it is not enough. Mankind will not survive on science alone. We are here for a greater destiny.

Back to the outer space analogy. Gravity is a force that exercises its influence instantaneously and mysteriously. It is gravity that holds us in place across time and space. Astronaut Brand makes the analogy for us when she declares, “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” Love is our gravity. It is, so to speak, Plan A. As St. Augustine writes, pondus meum amor meus. My weight is my love. Are we to sink down into the soil, choked by the blight, or are we to rise as flames in a fire? The only measure will be our ability to love.

The words of Brand as she explicates this concept to her fellow astronaut Cooper could not possibly be more Catholic:

Cooper: You’re a scientist, Brand.

Brand: So listen to me when I say love isn’t something that we invented. It’s observable. Powerful. It has to mean something.

Cooper: Love has meaning, yes. Social utility, social bonding, child rearing.

Brand: You love people who died. Where’s the social utility in that?

Cooper: None.

Brand: Maybe it means something more — something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.

This is not mere sentimentality, as if love is an emotion, or a physical attraction, or social utility. Nolan characters have been observed in the past reading Plato. Socrates, like Cooper, is schooled in the virtue of love by Diotima:

“For love, Socrates, is not, as you imagine, the love of the beautiful only.”

“What then?”

“The love of generation and of birth in beauty.”

Love is a virtue. All virtues are bound up with each other in some mysterious way. All of them speak to one, single truth of being, a kind of analogy to eternity. These virtues are not mere extras to the human being. They are, in fact, the fundamental stuff of which we are made. Love brings us back to ourselves. Says Diotima, “Wherefore love is of immortality.”


Let’s look at this from a different angle. I would be remiss if I did not at least mention it in an essay written for a literary magazine. It is the Dylan Thomas poem. We hear parts of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” four times during the movie. Constructed as a villanelle, the poem written for a dying father declares,

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 grieved 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.

All sorts of men, wise, good, wild, and grave, all grow old, all are alike as they press against the given limits of a lifetime, all are encouraged to hope in the face of despair. In what way do we rage against death? What tools is a frail man to wield in his favor? Nolan attempts to provide his own answers: family, sacrifice, love. One does not defeat death or scientifically subvert it, one is transformed by death.

Love is our gravity. The black hole, Gargantua, is the locus, taking us into the unknown, a place where physics seems to think our lives stretch out into a sort of eternally occurring death. Love in Interstellar comes with an enormous price. A father leaves his children to never see them again, slipping through a wormhole and into the event horizon. Gargantua takes a toll. This is a theme Nolan has explored in the past. In The Prestige, for instance, he explores the cost of true magic. Real magic always requires a sacrifice, whether it be the dove’s brother, or a pair of fingers, or a marriage, or the very life of the magician. The question, as I see it, is if we really appreciate the cost involved or if we are content with the mere spectacle. To be content with the latter is to miss the point entirely and it makes the virtue of love into mere sentiment. Without death there is no resurrection.

Why do we fight death? Should we? To not go gentle, does that mean fear of death or does it mean to hold tightly to that which will allow us to live again, that which death cannot snatch away: faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these, I am more confident than ever, is love. In such a way perhaps each of us in our time is gathered to his fathers and sees that in the heavens above there is, as Dante observed in wonder, “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

Advent is Not About Anger

Well, it’s that time again, folks! Thanksgiving has come and gone and, according to the secular world, it is Christmastime! Time to deck the halls and play Christmas tunes and shop, shop, shop! Everyone is in a Christmas mood!
Everyone, that is, except for the Liturgically Correct, who know that it’s not Christmastime, it’s ADVENT, the time of preparation before Christmas. Just like Lent is not Easter and black is not white.
Christmas doesn’t start until Dec 25th. Remember that old Christmas song, the Twelve Days of Christmas? It tells of the twelve days of Christmas, days after the 25th, during the days in which Christians celebrate Christmas, not before. (The Liturgical season of Christmas ends with the Feast of the Epiphany, dontcha know.)
Every time this whole argument starts up, I get tired and cranky. It has the potential for ruining my whole Advent and Christmas season. I’m tired of hearing about keeping Christ in Christmas and celebrating Advent during Advent and Christmas after the 25th. I’m tired of people fighting, especially over religious things and during a time when we should be joyful, full of love, and when we should be trying to see the Baby Jesus in our neighbor (and everyone else).
Shouting “Keep Christ in Christmas!” at the top of our lungs, and “HELLO! Christmas doesn’t start until the 25th!” feels like a tantrum every year.
I know that my less than liturgically accurate brothers and sisters see it that way, too. “GET OVER IT!” they must be thinking. “You do your thing, and we’ll do ours.”
And while I’m not one to argue with the Liturgical calendar–or the Church, for that matter–I won’t deny that I understand where our brothers and sisters are coming from.*
Keep Christ in Christmas
I do get frustrated by how the world  secularizes one of the most important Christian Holy Days by pushing the Baby Jesus and the whole point of His coming in a corner (nobody puts Baby Jesus in a corner…). They’re doing it to Easter, too, aren’t they? Making it all about chocolate and bunnies and eggs. Heck, they’re doing it to many of our Liturgical Feast days! St Patrick’s Day is about snakes and drinking and parades. St Valentine’s Day is about hearts and candy and expensive dinners. It’s annoying, and it drives me crazy.
But lets be fair. Hasn’t Christianity usurped many secular or pagan celebrations and Christianized them? Winter solstice became Christmas. Spring equinox became Easter. What goes around comes around.
Does this mean that we should just throw up our hands and wave the white flag? No… just because the world isn’t Christian doesn’t mean that I have to be any less so. If the President or the school system or my neighbor doesn’t recognize my Holy Days, that doesn’t keep me from doing so.
Happy Holidays/Season’s Greetings
I have never had a problem saying “Happy Holidays” during this time. I reason this way: how do I know that the person to whom I am speaking is a Christian and celebrates Christmas? We don’t live in a Christian world, after all. The people I meet from day to day might be atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, whatever.
At the end of the day, I think that Jesus would prefer that I treat my brothers and sisters in Christ–be they Christian or not–with love and respect, and not demand that everyone acknowledge my Holy Days, while I ignore theirs. Plus, for me, saying “Happy Holidays” to someone doesn’t make Advent less Adventy or Christmas less Christmassy. I’m happy, and it’s the holy days. What’s not to like about that?
The Materialism of it All
The world has become a very materialistic place, yes. No one saves. Everyone is in debt. And Christmas is all about shopping. Whatever. Just because the world says jump doesn’t mean I have to. If you have issues with how materialistic the season or the world has become, change your world. Don’t go shopping. Make gifts. Or don’t give gifts at all. Celebrate the Baby Jesus’ birthday, instead. Who cares if people think it’s cheesy?! Do your thing and don’t be ashamed of it. As my friend tells me, wave that freak flag high. And be proud of it.
Advent versus Christmas
Remember that while you might be agonizing over the fact that it’s Advent and everyone else is celebrating Christmas early, remember this: not all of those people are Christian. Not all of them care what you or the Church thinks, either. The world, and people in it, are going to do whatever they want to do. So you do your thing.
Read advent books.
Light Advent candles.
Make it simple.
Or just do what you can.
Create your own traditions.
Pray throughout Advent. Pray for those who are less fortunate than we are.
Consider the wonder of Advent and what it all means.
Do something to help them.
Go to Mass. Go to Confession. Bring a friend.
Watch this awesome video and share it on social media.

And when it’s Christmastime, CELEBRATE.
Then, Change the World
I think it’s safe to say that all of us wishes that the world and the people in it behaved the way we wanted them to. We wish that people were truly loving toward one another. We wish that Christmas was Christmas and Easter was Easter and that God were the center of everyone’s hearts.
This quote is attributed to both Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi:

Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Mother Teresa also said: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
I recently read an article about how to get people to do what you want that is very relevant to this discussion. It refers to a new TV series on National Geographic Channel called “Crowd Control” that looks pretty interesting. In this series, producers showed how certain ways of trying to get people to change their actions failed, while others succeeded.
For those of us who want the world to keep Christ in Christmas, I think we could learn a thing or two from the things these producers discovered. Read the article and watch the series. But let me tell you, the one quote from this article that stood out the most for me, and which we Christians need to remember at all times is this:

Setting an example is far more powerful than telling people what to do.”

Sound familiar?
If you want people to be loving, be loving first.
If you want people to smile, you smile first.
If you want people to be polite, be polite first.
If you want people to respect you, respect them first.
If you want to keep Christ in Christmas, who is stopping you? Keep Him in your heart as you respond to those around you. Keep Him in your mind as you consider how you will spend this Advent and Christmas. Keep Him on your lips as you speak to those who do not know of our traditions–if you get the chance, teach them with love, and pray that God will open their minds and hearts to His will for them. Maybe someday, we can all work together to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.
But do us all a favor. Stop yelling this Advent. Watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (on TV). Or whatever Christmas movie makes you happy. And don’t forget the reason for the season.

*For the record, I do believe that Christmas doesn’t start until the 25th. I keep my tree up until Epiphany, and I try my best to make Advent a time of preparation. I also put my Christmas tree up at the beginning of Advent and I have been known to play Christmas music shortly after Thanksgiving. As I type this, I am listening to my all-time favorite Christmas album, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Let it be said that doing these things does not make me a better or worse Christian than anyone else. I have a hard time believing that when I die, “playing Christmas music before the season” will even be part of God’s consideration when He judges me worthy of Heaven or Hell.

Image credits:

Advent image “Liesel 09-12-2012 2. Advent” by Liesel – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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President, Dappled Things

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