Lent 2016: No trace of him remains

A few housecleaning items on this Ash Wednesday.

I promise I’ll get back to my The Screwtape Letters series. I got a little sidetracked by life during the last two weeks.

***

I did post something at my other blog earlier today about something I read by Cardinal Newman. Here’s that link.

***

Yesterday Amanda at Inside the Life of Moi wrote a terrific piece about her decision to delete her Instagram account. Near the end she writes:

And so I find the icons on my iPhone, jittering in fear, wondering who is going to get cut from the team. Quiver away, dear Instagram! Today, it’s your turn to get the boot.

I loved that part about the iPhone icons “jittering in fear.” If you’ve ever deleted apps from an iPhone or iTouch you know what she means.

***

In fact three of them were jittering on my phone last night: Twitter, Messenger and Facebook.

A week ago Twitter leaked that it was thinking of altering its feed and moving towards an algorithm-based feed that displays what it thinks you would be interested in. Aside from the fact that this would allow Twitter to control the news that you see on your feed (much like Facebook has done the past few years) I have grown tired of all the sarcastic overly-cynical angst-filled tweets. After attempting to log out of Twitter on my phone yesterday for Lent and finding that every time I touched the icon I was logged back in I decided to just delete the app. Since 99.99% of the time I access Twitter through my phone I’ve effectively left the service. I’ll decide after Lent whether to delete the account from my PC. So long Twitter.

I discovered that I cannot log out of Facebook Messenger from my phone. Farewell Messenger.

While I can log out of Facebook from my phone I was on a roll. And since I was leaving Facebook for Lent anyhow I decided to make it a triple-delete special. Auf wiedersehen-Goodbye Facebook.

Instead I’ll be here at WordPress when I can. Spending more time with Screwtape.

And with all of you of course.

***

In addition I chose as my reading this Lent an old book I found in some boxes. Meditation on the Passion was first published in 1946 and has been reprinted many times since then. The version I have was published in 1961. I found that it is still available in paperback form, but also in Kindle format for $2.99. All twenty-two reviews give it five stars, and from what I’ve read to this point I can’t find a reason to argue with them. While Amazon lists Fr. Walsh as the author he was in fact the editor and wrote the book’s introduction. According to the bookcover’s backflap on my edition the author was an unnamed member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was Mistress of the Novices for about thirty years.

***

Look at that old book cover. How could you not want to read it?

meditationsonthepassion_bookcover

***

I will also be participating in the 54 Day Basic Training in Holiness with Fr. Richard Heilman. The first day’s meditation and info is posted here.

***

It looks like I’m doing perhaps too much for Lent I suppose, but it’s very doable without the endless finger-scrolling and buried-face-in-phone-screen that was a result of social media. Even my two kids gave up their tablets and games on their PS4. And considering how fierce they’ve become at Star Wars Battle Front that was no small sacrifice for them. Ha!

There is a myriad of small groups offered at my parish during Lent to meet and discuss Matthew Kelly’s book Rediscover Jesus (get your free copy here) but alas…I could not find a time that worked for me. Hence the other options.

***

I also keep myself so busy to take my mind off of my oldest son, a US Marine. He is supposed to have a two-week leave in March prior to deploying to a not-so-very-safe part of the world for the rest of this year. Two weeks ago he told me it was cut back to a five day leave. Last week he said there’s a chance of his not coming home at all before shipping out. Nothing sobers me up faster than the knowledge that a photo I took mere minutes prior to saying goodbye to him at the airport may be the last one taken of he and his two siblings together.

siblings 1.2.2016

I’m sorry. That was a bit much. But it’s also my reality.

***

And finally, I stopped by the Pink Sisters today to pray the Divine Office. I thought the following selections from Psalm 103 and Isaiah 58 were particularly appropriate on this, the first day of Lent.

From Psalm 103:

For he knows how we are made,
he remembers we are nothing but dust.

Man – his life is like grass,
he blossoms and withers like flowers of the field.

The wind blows and carries him away:
no trace of him remains.

From Isaiah 58:

If you do away with the yoke,
the clenched fist, the wicked word,
if you give your bread to the hungry,
and relief to the oppressed,

your light will rise in the darkness,
and your shadows become like noon.
The Lord will always guide you,
giving you relief in desert places.

He will give strength to your bones
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water
whose waters never run dry.

You will rebuild the ancient ruins,
build up on the old foundations.
You will be called ‘Breach-mender’,
‘Restorer of ruined houses.’

***

When taken together I gleaned the following: my time on this earth is preciously brief when you take eternity into account. Psalm 103 has always been a sobering reminder of that fact. And in one of my favorite pieces of Scripture Isaiah reminds me of the same. So much of social media is in fact a yoke around our necks, filled with wicked/angry words typed through clenched fists (and teeth), and even if I do not fall prey to doing the same it is quite wearisome to read. That is time that would be better spent helping those around us. Silencing ourselves in order to listen to that still, small voice of God as it attempts to guide us and strengthen us. To be an oasis in this cultural desert for others and rebuild upon the old, tried and tested foundations.

Join me?

Screwtape Letter #2: Conversion and Old Habits

In his second letter Screwtape notes that Wormwood’s patient has become a professing Christian, but tells his nephew not to give up hope.  Many have been turned away, he notes, by focusing on the flaws and peculiarities of Christians rather than on Christ himself.  As long as the patient somehow thinks of himself as a good person, he can easily be persuaded that those he sees in church are hypocrites because of their imperfections. Wormwood’s task: Make him disillusioned with the church by highlighting people he self-righteously thinks are strange or hypocritical.

In Chapter Two, Screwtape lays out a strategy for Wormwood to follow:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.

How many times have you sat in church, looked around, and thought the same thing? Faith, if it’s honestly sought, demands to see the truth, even when the truth around you is not pretty. And no, the people attending church with you are not always pretty. Fortunately (for us all) it’s the condition of your soul and not your grooming that’s the key to salvation.

When you experience conversion, your call is to seek truth, beauty and goodness. That would be the Divine approach. The diabolical approach is rooted in old, familiar habits: to seek and notice the negative, the ugly, and the bad. We have to take off the old man, and put on the new in order to be changed. For example:

  • 2 Corinthians 5:17: Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.
  • Ephesians 4:24: … and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
  • Colossians 3:12-14: Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
  • 2 Corinthians 3:17-18: Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Or, as the Navarre Bible – New Testament Expanded Edition puts it on page 721:

First, you have chosen to take off the “old” man (Adam) and to put on the new (Christ). That new man is truth itself, and He will help you in the breaking of the old habits you bring with you into your new life with Him. The Christian no longer has the “old nature”; he is no longer the “old” person who lived in the darkness of evil, but rather a “new” one, who should reflect God in his behavior: he lives in the light of the Lord, as a wise man, full of the Spirit, in the midst of the world. His family and social life, too, should reflect the fact that he is a new person. In order not to succumb to the power of evil that is present in the world, he must always be vigilant, to keep up the fight, using the weapons of the Spirit.

Wormwood’s patient has joined himself to the Body of Christ. By joining yourself to His Church you have also joined His Body. Christ is the head of the Body. You comprise the Body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:26)

By joining yourself to this “body” you are yet paradoxically free. How is this so?

Jesus Christ brought about your redemption. To “redeem” means to “set free”. You gained your freedom by joining his body. “God made us in Christ. So it is through Christ once again that he has formed us anew. We are his members; he our Head.” – Ambrosiaster, Epistle to the Ephesians 2.5.

So you have your freedom. You’re feeling great about things and excited for what this new life holds in the future. But after a short time you’ll begin to look around at the other members of the body who are seated in the pews around you. Old habits of comparing yourself to others die hard. You may recognize some of those Christians around you and begin to think to yourself: “Wait a minute! I know this guy’s a cheat. And her! She’s the biggest gossiping hypocrite in town. What am I doing here with these people?”

There is a question in this chapter that Screwtape strongly warned Wormwood to keep his patient from asking. Therefore I suggest that you consider asking it of yourself: “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?”

In other words, resist the temptation to compare yourself to others. Remember, you have “put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:8-9)

"Church Pew with Worshippers" by Vincent van Gogh (1882)

“Church Pew with Worshippers” by Vincent van Gogh (1882)

So how do you avoid thinking or speaking ill of your peers in the pews? One way is keeping yourself immersed in the truth and humility. Remember, Christ is truth, and by keeping yourself in Him you can more easily ensure that you are not falling into the trap of slandering your neighbors.

Fabian Brusketwitz, the Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Lincoln told the following story on page 245 of his book A Shepherd Speaks:

Almost everyone remembers the saintly advice given to a gossiping woman who was struggling with her vice. She was told to cut open a pillow and let the feather fly out her window. Then the following week she was told to go out and gather them all up. Protesting that such a thing was impossible, she was then reminded that her gossip, wrecking the reputation of her neighbors, was like those feathers, spreading continuously and impossible to call back. Backbiting, slander, detraction, and calumny, as well as rash judgment, can be involved in gossip. In those kinds of sins, the readers and listeners (“enablers”) can share in the guilt of the gossiping persons themselves.

You must remain a sense of humility. Remember, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

Or as Lewis put it in Mere Christianity:

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed. – Mere Christianity, Book III, Ch. 8

Faith, if it’s honestly sought, demands to see truth, even when the truth around you is not as pretty. Christ is still present among you in the Liturgy while in church. Keep in mind that the liturgy is a public work meaning it calls us to proclaim a living faith in participation with God. Just because those around you are not participating does not mean that you shouldn’t either.

Above all, remember well these words: To imitate the Father, love like the Son.

Screwtape Letter #1: Faith

[Click here to read the introduction to this series.]

The first letter that Screwtape writes to his under-study, Wormwood, boils down to one thing: the use of jargon and appetites to undermine science and reason. Screwtape wants Wormwood to keep his “patient” (the unnamed man in our story) preoccupied with ordinary, everyday “real” life—not arguments or science. Those are the paths that lead to a man engaging in the use of reason. Wormwood is to deaden his patient’s mind with jargon and distractions. Thought about things beyond human experience is to be discouraged by any means necessary.

How is Wormwood to accomplish this? Screwtape explains (emphasis mine):

I note what you say about guiding your patient’s reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naïve? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous–that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

He goes on to explain:

You begin to see the point? Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable “real life.” But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation’. Do remember you are there to fuddle him.

info overloadAnd fuddled, you are. Remember that Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters over 75 years ago. Since then you have seen an explosion in news and entertainment outlets competing for your attention in ever more outlandish and brash ways. Ironically this has only served to isolate you more than ever from differing viewpoints as you make time only to read or listen to those outlets that support your viewpoint. You are not growing more diverse (ironic in this golden age of diversity über alles) but instead are increasingly intolerant of other viewpoints (again, the irony).

Basically the opening salvo advised by Screwtape is to sway the individual away from genuinely seeking truth. Here we see an attempt to keep the man from developing an authentic faith with an emphasis on keeping the human mind continually preoccupied with things outside of reality and with the trivial.

Rather diabolical, no?

Lewis alludes to the importance of having developed a strong faith through the use of your reason in order to avoid the distractions of our moods in his book Mere Christianity:

Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. – Mere Christianity, Book III, Ch. 11

It has just been whispered in your ear (and indeed it has been whispered on many occasions before) that materialism is courageous and true. A quick glance around you as you observe the people, the media, and the things around you would seem to reinforce that false claim. You have heard it said there is no truth, let alone an absolute truth. Doctrine and dogma are words spoken in chilled tones by tongues dripping with condescension. When confronted by dozens of false alternatives by the media or friends who haven’t taken the time to think too deeply (they, too, are parroting what is told to them) you’ve shrugged your shoulders and busied yourself with the routine of your daily “real life.” The ordinary and the familiar occupy all your reflexes except those of your mind. Your faith, the belief in things seen and unseen, is being slowly stolen from you.

How is this being done? By throwing an overwhelming flood of alternatives to the truth at you all at once. Accomplished author Walker Percy interviewed himself on the subject in a 1977 Esquire magazine article:

Q: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?

A: I don’t know what that means . . . . Do you mean do I believe the dogmas that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?

Q: Yes.

A: Yes.

Q: How is such a belief possible in this day and age?

A: What else is there?

Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.

A: That’s what I mean.

In a 2005 homily delivered at the Mass for the Election of the Supreme Pontiff, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said:

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

Attempts have been made to erode your faith (and quest for truth) while programming relativistic tendencies. Yet inherent within all men and women is the continuous search for truth. And here pride, that age old nemesis, is being used against you. Take the Creed of the Church for example. Also known as The Apostles’ Creed, it consists of many “I believe” statements. But how can this be? How can one be so bold (or so ignorant) as to recite these statements of supposed truth to ourselves or (horror of horrors!) communally? Has not relativism discredited faith as a reasonable way to answer any questions? The world will tell you “yes.”

The Apostles Creed

I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
Amen.

Saint Anthony of Padua described earthly riches as being “like the reed. Its roots are sunk in the swamp, and its exterior is fair to behold; but inside it is hollow. If a man leans on such a reed, it will snap off and pierce his soul.”

Saint John Chrysostom went further when he said that “our condition needs much endurance; and endurance is best produced when doctrines are deeply rooted. For just as there is no wind that is able to tear up an oak tree by its assaults because it sends down its root deep into the earth, so too the soul that is nailed by the fear of God—not just rooted but nailed—will not be able to be overturned.” (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John 54.1.)

Doctrine, by its very nature develops for the purpose of discovering deeper truth from the original source. These truths are discovered through the use of thinking and of reason. They are not discovered in the mundane distractions of reality television or social media.

You are free to choose which you wish to be: a reed or a mighty oak. Hollow and easily snapped in the breeze, or able to withstand the winds of popular opinion, materialism, and relativism by having roots deeply embedded in the truth…roots nailed to the cross itself.

You are free to choose. But if you choose poorly you will no longer be free.

Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)

Friday Five – Volume 104

Friday Five-Mere Observations

— 1 —

devils pleasure palace - book coverMy quote o’ the week comes from what may be the most important book I’ve read in years: The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West by Michael Walsh. Years ago I read Walsh very often as he would write for the National Review under the pseudonym David Kahane. His new book is, to put it lightly, simply outstanding. I’m only three chapters in and already plan on reading it at least 1-2 times more back-to-back, the second time with a highlighter. In time I hope to write a more thorough review but for right now all I could do is post a few snippets that, when taken out of context, may not make much sense. All I can say is that for me personally this book has been the catalyst to opening my eyes to something that I’ve always suspected was there, underneath the surface, and responsible for much of the head-shaking madness I’ve seen or read about in our world and our nation since the dawn of the 20th century. As I said, I’m not finished with my initial reading yet, but am close to designating this book as required reading.

Seduction, subversion, sedition—these are the tools of a creature we once called Satan, the Father of Lies, the loser of the Battle in Heaven. Yet he continues the fight here on earth with the only weapons at his disposal: man’s inherent weaknesses and zeal to be duped if the cause seems appealing enough. Chief among the weaknesses of Western man today are his fundamental lack of cultural self-confidence, his willingness to open his ears to the siren song of nihilism, a juvenile eagerness to believe the worst about himself and his society and to relish, on some level, his own prospective destruction. – page 6

— 2 —

One more, from pages 24-25:

The roots of the intractable political conflict that currently plagues Western societies lie almost entirely in our rejection of myth, legend, and religion as “unscientific” and in our embrace of barren “process” to deliver solutions to the world’s ills. Whether it goes by the name of “global warming” or “climate change” or “social science,” this worldview claims to be all-encompassing, eternal, and grounded in “settled science,” which boasts remarkable successes in empirical, experimental endeavors. With these technological achievements as cover and camouflage, this ideology brooks no rivals to its monopoly of knowledge; it dogmatically excommunicates all competing truth claims. Nulla salus extra scientiam, it thunders. Outside science, there is no salvation.

— 3 —

During Advent and Christmas one word seemed to leap off of the page each time I set aside time for prayer, reading or meditation: radiant. As in light. It began to appear so many times I considered highlighting or documenting through journaling each instance. I wish I had.

The light is always there no matter how dark our current moment in time appears. The darkness, while blanketing and trying to suffocate our hope cannot overcome or quench the light. That we succumb to believing the darkness is stronger is the Big Lie pedaled by the forces of that same darkness.

If you know me or have read me you know by now that at least once a week I go to the Pink Sisters (aka Sister Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration) convent chapel here in Lincoln. Sometimes I bring my breviary. Sometimes a book designed for prayer time. Sometimes I bring nothing at all. The important thing is that we all find and frequent that place available to us where we can refresh our spiritual batteries and bathe in the Light of Christ.

I can’t imagine doing otherwise at this point in my life. I have memories of my early adulthood when I wallowed in the darkness and allowed it to wrap itself around me as some sort of perverted security blanket. It is alluring. It is comforting. It lacks warmth, though we convince ourselves otherwise as we wrap ourselves in it like a warped semblance of a security blanket.

In our society, so big on the concept of choice, I see a clear line between the only real choice that matters. The eternal choice.

Choose the Light. And when the darkness threatens to overwhelm you choose it once more.

Ever radiant.

— 4 —

West facing window, Pink Sisters chapel - Lincoln, NE

West facing window, Pink Sisters chapel – Lincoln, NE

God our Father,
You conquer the darkness of ignorance
By the light of your Word.
Strengthen within our hearts
The faith you have given us;
Let not temptation ever quench the fire
That your love had kindled within us.

Morning Prayer for January 15, The Liturgy of the Hours

— 5 —

I have added two menu tabs to the top of this blog: The Divine Comedy and The Screwtape Letters. It is my intent and hope to regularly post, two times each week, entries about these two seminal works. I’ll be starting with The Screwtape Letters next week and follow later this spring with The Divine Comedy. I’m not sure if I’ll post on Monday/Thursday or Tuesday/Friday of each week. If I choose the latter there will be no more Friday Five entries (not necessarily a bad thing) but I do like to put these together on occasion. I guess I won’t know until I get started.

Stay tuned, and have a great week.

The Bonfires of November

[This was originally posted in November 2014, but it wasn’t until today that I noticed it was posted in a spot where it didn’t have the chance to be read.]

[Addendum: Well that was a big “whoops”. It turns out I had posted it in plain sight in November 2014. I failed to find it yesterday.]

angel leaves 600x800When I was a small boy growing up in a very small South Dakota town I always looked forward to this time of year because of the smells. Autumn just has a certain aroma: pumpkin spices, cookies and caramels, turkey and stuffing. But that’s just the food. I’m also referring to the crisp, chilled air of autumn that is all about the earth: the tilled dirt of gardens plowed under for the winter, decaying leaves and moist grass that lies beneath and, of course, the bonfires.

In our tiny town of two hundred villagers almost every yard contained raked mounds of leaves prepared for the burning. While some of us did carry the leaves into large metal trash barrels near the alley and set them ablaze, I recall, too, the smoldering, smoking leaves burning where they were piled on our lawn. Next to the pile I stood holding a rake that was too big for me, dressed in blue jeans, boots and layers of shirts with a knit cap, sniffling and wiping my nose with the back of my sleeve. My younger brother, aged six, stood nearby with ruddy cheeks, while our youngest brother, aged two, was sitting in the next pile to be burned, covering himself in the leaves recently shed from their trees.

I awoke this morning, refreshed by the extra hour of sleep thanks to the end of daylight savings time, and stood by my patio door with a steaming cup of coffee to watch the yellow, red and brown leaves rain onto our lawn. After praying Morning Prayer I reached for a book I do not read often enough to see if Monsignor Ronald Knox, an Anglican convert to the Catholic Church who lived from 1888-1957, had written something for me to meditate upon. I had purchased a collection of his sermons nine years ago when Ignatius Press had it on sale for a ridiculous price and have over the years become an admirer of his prolific and beautiful writing. I wasn’t disappointed. After pulling the heavy book from my shelf and scanning the table of contents I found his sermon for All Souls Day and smiled when I saw that he, too, was thinking of bonfires. An excerpt is below.

*****

But we mustn’t forget the bonfire! Don’t let us allow November to be ushered in without the bonfire, the natural sacrament of the dying year. The dying year, mark you, not the dead year. The year lies dead in January, under its shroud of white and its pall of black skies; but November is a transition stage between the golden glories of its maturity and the silver fineries of its funeral. And because the year is drawing to its end, we occupy ourselves in tidying up. Those leaves, whose violent emerald colour we welcomed so when they first sprang in March; those leaves, that made such a riot of restfulness over us and around us in the summer; those leaves, that autumn showed us beautiful even in decay, a golden ceiling over our heads till they fell, a golden carpet under our feet when they were fallen; they have lost, now, even the splendours of their maturity; they lie brown and damp underfoot, an unwelcome reminder of our decay. Sweep them up, then, and carry them to the bonfire. For the year is passing, and we must tidy up.

Most of us, I suppose, when we were small, didn’t care much for tidying up—at least, if we were brought up to put away our toys on Saturday night. It gave a chill finality to the end of the week—almost a premonition of death, that last, solemn Saturday night when all our toys have to be put away. We scoured the room half-heartedly, working under orders; and, when the last dragoon had been restored to his long-lost charger, and the last elephant had folded its reluctant legs into the Noah’s Ark, we turned away with a sense of duty done, indeed, but a sense, too, of regret at the law that will not let our games last forever. But the bonfire in November, at the great tidying-up of the year—that was a very different matter! Here was rich, pungent smoke rising, it is true, from a heap of refuse, but how satisfying to the nostrils! How it invited us to rush, breathlessly, through its fragrant eddies. And there was always the chance that you might find a potato or two somewhere, to roast on the embers. That tidying-up was worth having.

People are always telling us that our Christian festivals and fasts are only heathen festivals and fasts that have survived with altered names and altered ceremonies; but I take comfort sometimes in the fact that our All Souls’ Day, anyhow, is in bonfire month, in November. The ancients, too, had their Day of the Dead; but the Romans and Greeks, at least, the only ancient peoples for whom I can answer, celebrated it in February, and very naturally. For in February the year is dead; bare trees and sighing winds make us think of our end and the short time of our earthly passage. But that is not our Christian tradition. We think of our dead in November, the tidying-up of the year. For, when death separates us from the toys of earth, our souls are still such that there is a work of tidying-up to do. And, as St. Paul warns us, that process can only be effected “so as by fire”. There are still the leaves to be burnt.

Pastoral and Occasional Sermons by Ronald Knox. (Ignatius Press, 2002) “All Souls”, pp. 533-534.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo credits
Photo 1: An angel statue/flowerpot in the author’s front yard and taken last fall.
Photo 2: Morningside Cemetery in southeastern South Dakota, taken by the author in March of 2005. In this nearly forgotten pioneer cemetery the bones of my ancestors lie beneath the Dakota prairie.

Friday Five – Volume 103

Friday Five-Mere Observations

— 1 —

In my last post of 2015 I talked about learning to read again. And so far it’s going well. The graphic below comes from John Atkinson over at Wrong Hands. I encourage you to check out his stuff.

abridged-classics 1-2016

— 2 —

My quote o’ the week comes from Cardinal John Henry Newman:

Such is the rule of our warfare. We advance by yielding; we rise by falling; we conquer by suffering; we persuade by silence; we become rich by [abundant giving]; we inherit the earth through meekness…. Heaven and earth shall sooner fall than this rule be reversed; it is the law of Christ’s kingdom, and nothing can reverse it but sin.

— 3 —

Last fall I’d written about “Into The Breach” by Bishop Olmsted. It was an amazing document in its clarity and I encourage everyone to read it if you haven’t yet. This week the Diocese of Phoenix followed up Bishop Olmsted’s document with this terrific video:

Read more about it over at One Mad Mom. Here’s a teaser:

So many say, “We should be focusing on the poor and homeless!”, or “We should be focusing on drugs!”, or “Let’s stop human trafficking!”, but quite frankly, we need kill these ills at the root.  Pruning the bush does nothing.  The crud just grows right back.  Can we just stop banging our heads against the wall and admit where the real problem lies?  It’s the complete and utter destruction of the family.

Who’s to blame?  Pretty much most of society played a role at one point or another.  As a society, the Faith went bye-bye.  Feminists hurled the word “mysoginist” around like a verbal tick.  Men were relegated to their corners, afraid to open their mouths.  Masculinity went out the window for many men and grew in women.  The sexes were pitted against each other instead of working together.  We wonder why young men of the West are being sucked in by the radical, Islamic element?  They have a natural desire to being manly, and all they can find is this horribly disfigured version of it, because their own fathers are gone, on drugs, too busy with porn, completely emasculated, society tries to shame masculinity, etc., etc., etc.

— 4 —

In November I decided to pick up a copy of Magnificat’s Year of Mercy Companion and have enjoyed each day’s reading/prayer/meditation on the subject of mercy. Yesterday Anthony Esolen wrote about faithfulness and mercy in the face of ingratitude and included these words from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude.

Compared with the repayments of man, even the stiff wind of God’s winter are kind.

— 5 —

Epiphany is over so last night I finished taking down our tree. I hope everyone had a blessed Advent, a Merry Christmas and a terrific New Year. Today I celebrate being a father for twenty years. While in my opinion one should spend more time as a father than as a dad, when you add up the time spent being a “dad” as opposed to “father” I pray that both totals are close to equal on my balance sheet.

Tipped too far towards being a father and not a dad: detached disciplinarian.

Too far in the other direction: a buddy/friend/pal with no discipline.

It ain’t easy to reach that delicate balance, but it’s worth every minute.

New Year’s Resolution: learning how to read again

During a relaxing weekend at my in-law’s farm in south central Nebraska I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle online by Hugh McGuire that immediately caught my attention. Titled Why can’t we read anymore? McGuire writes of his own frustrations regarding his inability to concentrate long enough to read more than four books last year.

The reasons for that low number are, I guess, the same as your reasons for reading fewer books than you think you should have read last year: I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters. Chapters often have page after page of paragraphs.

It just seems such an awful lot of words to concentrate on, on their own, without something else happening. And once you’ve finished one chapter, you have to get through another one. And usually a whole bunch more, before you can say “finished,” and get to the next. The next book. The next thing. The next possibility. Next, next, next.

The irony of this sad fact is that McGuire’s professional life revolves around books. He started LibriVox and Pressbooks and co-edited a book about the future of books called Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto: A Collection of Essays from the Bleeding Edge of Publishing.

So he knows books. Just can’t read them. And he’s not alone.

So what does McGuire think has caused his frustration and shorter attention span? The same thing most of us do: our connectivity to the Internet through our smartphones.

Most nights last year, I got into bed with a book — paper or electronic — and started. Reading. One word after the next. A sentence. Two sentences.

Maybe three.

And then … I needed just a little something else. Something to tide me over. Something to scratch that little itch at the back of my mind — just a quick look at e-mail on my iPhone; to write, and erase, a response to a funny tweet from William Gibson; to find, and follow, a link to a really good article in the New Yorker. E-mail again, just to be sure.

[snip]

I find myself in these kinds of situations often, checking e-mail or Facebook, with nothing to gain except the stress of a work-related message that I can’t answer right now in any case.

It makes me feel vaguely dirty, reading my phone with my daughter doing something wonderful right next to me, like I’m sneaking a cigarette.

Or a crack pipe.

Once I was reading on my phone while my older daughter, 4 years old, was trying to talk to me. I didn’t quite hear what she had said. I was reading an article about North Korea. She grabbed my face in her two hands, pulled me toward her. “Look at me,” she said, “when I’m talking to you.”

She is right. I should.

You really should read it all.

As I read this (ironically, on my smartphone) I was laying on the couch digesting the third large holiday meal in 24 hours sitting amongst friends and family that we only get to see a few times a year if we’re lucky. Among these was my oldest son enjoying his first visit home in ten months. Yet here we were, half of us with our faces lost in the soft glow of our smart screens (the other half were out cold, sleeping off the roast beast).

I’ve been a reader all of my life, but most especially for the last twenty-five years. But even I have to admit that during the last 2-3 years I’ve noticed a large slowing down in my ability to read. I do most of my reading at the end of my day and have experienced the same frustrations as McGuire. It is taking me much longer to get through a book. Or, more likely, I begin a book only to lose interest a third or halfway through because it is taking forever for me to read. I’ve got two stacks next to my bed: those books I want to begin, and those books I’ve started but have not finished. The second pile has grown as large as the first.

At first I attributed this to my tendency to read books that, to be honest, might be a little above my pay grade. Theology, philosophy…stuff that should take you some time to digest. To test this theory out I picked two books to read during Advent: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI (144 pages) and The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans (125 pages). Both are smallish books and similar in size and typesetting. After two nights of struggling with Pope Benedict’s book I set it aside and opened Evans’ short story. I finished it in 4-5 nights. There was a time when I would have finished it in two (and in fact I read it in one night when I first received it as a gift in 1995.)

Is any of this scientific or definitive? No. Yet I have been feeling for quite some time that my time spent flipping through tiny screens devouring and re-devouring facts, opinions and information has diminished my ability to concentrate. But I also do not like the social effects of a group of people, especially family, sitting in the same room but otherwise disconnected. This has also attributed to my very sporadic writing/blogging this year. I just can’t seem to pull my thoughts together in an organized manner. It got to the point where I am undecided on whether to continue or not with the frustration of doing something that used to come so easily to me.

So what to do?

For one, Twitter is no longer accessible on my phone. This means I’ll probably rarely check use Twitter at all as I tend to shy away from it on my laptop at the office. This was a hard choice because the bulk of the best articles I discover and read I find on Twitter (like McGuire’s). Facebook remains, but I’m setting a timer on my phone to limit the minutes I spend on Facebook’s screens. I’ve also resolved to cut back even further on television. After cutting cable off two years ago I find that I’ve replaced it with an endless streaming of Netflix or Amazon Prime. Rather self-defeating.

My stack of books right now consists of around ten, a few of them rather smallish. The ones I’m most interested in finishing are the following:

three books

A book nerd’s Christmas present

I’ve already written of how much joy I’m getting out of Wisdom from the Monastery. I am really looking forward to reading the other four. Several months ago I had sent an email to my family stating that all I wanted for Christmas was a book from that list of three pictured above. I stated my reasons why and listed them at the top of my Amazon Wish List to make it easier for them. On Christmas morning before Mass I opened my present and found all three. Book nerd ecstasy.

I have begun to read books containing essays for whatever reason. I’ve begun (but alas, not finished) books containing essays by Chesterton, Joseph Pearce and Jay Nordlinger. But the beauty of those books is that you do not have to finish them all at once. They are usually disconnected essays of varying subjects so you can take your time. Stratford Caldecott was a favorite author whose writing I very much enjoyed before he was taken too soon by cancer a few years ago. What better essays than those on beauty by his friends as tribute?

Inspired by my reading of Rod Dreher’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life this past autumn I’ve decided to dedicate 2016 primarily to the reading and journaling Dante’s Divine Comedy, some of which may wind up posted on this blog. Dreher recommended a few books, Shaw’s among them, so I’m excited to get started and began to read it while on the farm last weekend.

Elijah in Jerusalem is the long-awaited sequel to O’Brien’s first novel Father Elijah (1997). I hadn’t read that book in almost fifteen years so I re-read it in November. O’Brien has become my favorite author and I own all of his books. Island of the World remains perhaps my all-time favorite novel. Although it had been many years between readings I rediscovered why I’d enjoyed it so much the first time. In 2005 O’Brien wrote a prequel, Sophia House, and I haven’t decided whether I’ll pull it from my shelves to read before diving into Elijah in Jerusalem or not.

These are the books I’m committed to reading in 2016. While I know I’ll read more, my goal is to read these five for sure and drastically cut back on my “started-but-not-finished” pile. So I’m going to tackle the problem of my “digital dopamine” hits on my brain and utilize the strategy successfully employed by McGuire:

No more Twitter, Facebook, or article reading during the workday (hard).

No reading of random news articles (hard).

No smartphones or computers in the bedroom (easy).

No TV after dinner (it turns out, easy).

Instead, go straight to a quiet room or to bed, and start reading a book — usually on an e-reader (it turns out, easy). The shocking thing was how quickly my mind adapted to accommodate reading books again. I had expected to fight for that concentration — but I didn’t have to fight. With less digital input (no pre-bed TV, especially), extra time (no TV, again), and without a tempting digital device near at hand … there was time and space for my mind to settle into a book.

What a wonderful feeling it was.

I can’t wait.

________________________________________

For more information on Michael O’Brien, read The Urgency of this Present Moment: Learning from C.S. Lewis and Michael O’Brien. It is an interview with Rev. John Morrison, an Episcopal priest who is also a retired English teacher, speaker and author. Do not let the titles such as Father Elijah scare you into thinking he writes books of simple-minded religious twaddle. All the great themes regarding humanity are within his books. A Father’s Tale is another favorite. You would be doing yourself a grave disservice to dismiss him so easily. It’s been five years since I last read Island of the World. I’m adding it to my list in 2016. You should too.