The library (and our culture) in decay

img_1807I’m currently reading Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, by Anthony Esolen. Published in late January (and currently listed at #1 in New Releases in Sociology and Religion on Amazon), it is the first of three books I’ve had on my reading list since I read they were to be published early in 2017. The second is Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christina World by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput (published this week) and The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher (due on March 14). I am halfway through Esolen’s book having bought it last week and he is setting a high standard for the other two. These books are building off of two books I picked up a few years ago: John Senior’s The Death of Christian Culture (written in 1978) and its sequel The Restoration of Christian Culture. Professor Senior was a founder of the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas who influenced and taught my diocese’s current bishop, James Conley.

I wish I was adept at providing book reviews, but will say that the reason I’m so interested in these books is not because they reaffirm how bad things have become in our culture as we’re all aware of that. I’m reading them because of the solutions they propose within their pages. I’m done with the complaints. It’s time to get to work. It’s time to rebuild.

The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction in which Esolen invites us to imagine a great manor house lived in by the Weston family. He begins a tour of the mansion (a metaphor for our former culture) in the spacious drawing room, continues into the library, and then proceeds to tour the grand house’s conservatory, ballroom and chapel. This portion is from his tour of the home’s library. I thought it presented a creative way of looking at where we’ve been, where we are, and provided a glimpse of the work that lay ahead.

Then we enter the library, with its high ceiling and large windows to the east and south and west that flood the room with light all hours of the day. A movable ladder on wheels runs along a track set eight feet from the floor, to allow access to a gallery that divides the lower half of the room from the upper half. Lord John Henry Weston, two hundred years ago, had the room built in this way. The lower half is stocked with books in several of the modern languages of Europe. They include novels, collections of poetry, histories, biographies, travelogues, and so forth. If you’re a nine-year-old boy and you want to read Humphry Clinker or Robinson Crusoe, or if you’re a little older and you want to read Pope’s translation of the Iliad, you can find them ready to hand. Or you can get lost there on purpose, as you might go forth into the woods on a sunny day, not knowing where the path will take you.

Lord John Henry devoted the upper half of the room to the upper half of knowledge and culture. There we find works in the ancient languages, Latin and Greek, and books dealing with philosophy, divinity, political constitutions, law, and natural science. The sermons of Lancelot Andrewes are there, near Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament in Greek and Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity. The legal writings of Coke and Blackstone are there, near Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis and the works of the Roman jurist Ulpian. Montesquieu, Bossuet, Pufendorf, and Grotius are there, and not just for decoration. Plutarch is there in the original Greek and in North’s sixteenth-century English translation. Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Hesiod—all the poets are there; the Hebrew Bible; various works by Augustine, Chrysostom, Gregory  of Nyssa, Lactantius, Jerome. It was the library of a learned man interested in everything human and divine.

If you moved that ladder now, you would notice, in the channels of its wheels, a thick coating of grime and mold. There was a bad storm fifty years ago, and rain began to seep through some broken shingles on the roof, dripping down to the plaster ceiling. One corner of the room is quite gray-green with mildew. No one has done anything about it. If you open that edition of Horace from the Aldine Press, you will be greeted with a dank smell.  Spots have begun to appear on the books wherever paper was exposed to the air. You let your hand rest on one of the shelves but then whisk it away at once, when you will a strange grit lying all about—mouse dirt. In fact, some of the spines of the books have been gnawed through.

The library is not abandoned entirely, though. In one corner there’s a table heaped with glossy hardcover biographies of celebrities, like Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison. That’s also where the most recent children in the Weston family have stashed their old schoolbooks. Lately the family has taken to using the room for storage, so we also find, crushed against one another, old hat racks, trunks full of outworn clothing, souvenirs from a trip to Disneyland, a sideboard that was supposed to have been repaired but never was, and photo albums filled with pictures of people no one can any longer identify.

From the Introduction to Out of the Ashes, by Anthony Esolen: “The Rubble”. pp. 5-7

abandoned-library

Abandoned library image source

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Scenes from wartime: “This constant strain.”

churchofspies_bookcoverAmongst the books in the stack next to my bed garnering attention is Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler by Mark Riebling. Published in November 2016, the book was gifted to me last spring from a grateful friend who had borrowed several books from me while she researched a college paper. While it has its slower moments, the book really is a fascinating and, at times, exciting read set during a time of madness. The only reason I have not finished it by now is my own inability to focus my attention on one book at a time. While I have the attention span of a gnat these days I do highly recommend this book.

I pulled the excerpt below from the end of Chapter 15: Shootout at the Cathedral. In my haste I neglected to write down the time period of this meeting between a German politician, Josef Müller and Wilhelm Canaris, a German admiral. They had met at a German hotel to exchange information when they discovered that the SS, led by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, had already staked out a table in the hotel restaurant. I thought it did a great job of capturing the intrigue and strain these men were under in such a dangerous time.

*****

Müller went upstairs to Canaris’s room. Canaris did not seem quite himself, and the report of Kaltenbrunner’s presence seemed to unhinge him. (SS spy chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner is described as “taller than the rest, with a long scar down his cheek.) He started knocking on the walls, looking for microphones. He took the pictures down and scrutinized the areas behind them, then ran his hands under the edges of the tables and the chairs. Apparently satisfied, Canaris put his coat over the telephone and asked about the interrogation. Müller said that they had asked about his Vatican missions, but he had purged all his files before Sauermann arrived. They found nothing. But Canaris worried about the money Dohnanyi had given Schmidhuber for U-7. They seemed trapped. The admiral sank into a chair and muttered, half to himself, “This constant strain.” His nerves seemed shot.

muller-canaris-kaltenbrunner

L to R: Müller, Canaris, Kaltenbrunner

Müller saw only one way out. Canaris should reconsider Keitel’s offer to let military intelligence set up its own internal policing unit, so that Canaris could investigate crimes within his own service. In their current straits, that certainly would help them control the probe.

Canaris would not consider that. The Rosa Luxemburg case haunted him. After Luxemburg’s assassination by a paramilitary Freikorps in 1919, Canaris had served as a junior officer at the court-martial, which imposed a strangely lenient judgment on the perpetrators. Some suspected him of complicity in Luxemburg’s death. He wanted nothing to do with “manhunts,” he told Müller. He already had enough emotional burdens from “the old days.” Rising abruptly, he suggested that they go downstairs to eat.

Müller suggested they eat elsewhere, given the SS stakeout. Canaris disagreed. They should always do the unexpected. When a sniper had someone in his sights, he said, the target must break cover to confuse him. As they descended the stairs, however, Canaris grabbed Müller to steady himself. “That criminal,” he said in a loud voice, “is still sacrificing millions of people just to prolong his miserable life.” Startled, Müller pulled him back into the room to recompose. When they stepped out into the hall again, Canaris slung an arm around him and said, “My nerves, my nerves! I can’t stand it anymore.” No one know what he had endured since 1933. He murmured about a tightening noose and then forced his face into a mask of normality. Together they descended to the restaurant to meet the enemy over a four-course meal.

Canaris sat down and nodded to Kaltenbrunner. Müller sat by Canaris. They all talked like old friends. The surreal dinner had the feel of a parlay between the Greeks and the Trojans. When it ended, the war resumed. Over the next months, Müller would return to the Vatican, and the pope would again become an active conspirator—as the plotters accelerated their plans to destroy Hitler before he could destroy them.

– from Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler by Mark Riebling. Chapter 15: Shootout at the Cathedral, pp.140-141.

*****

Postcript

Josef Müller (27 March 1898 – 12 September 1979), also known as “Ochsensepp”, was a German politician. He was a member of the resistance during World War II and afterwards one of the founders of the Christian Social Union (CSU). He was a devout Catholic and a leading figure in the Catholic resistance to Hitler.

Wilhelm Franz Canaris (1 January 1887 – 9 April 1945) was a German admiral and chief of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, from 1935 to 1944. Initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler, he later turned against the Nazis as he felt Germany would lose another major war. During the Second World War he was among the military officers involved in the clandestine opposition to the Nazi regime. He was executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp for high treason as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

Ernst Kaltenbrunner (4 October 1903 – 16 October 1946) was an Austrian-born senior official of Nazi Germany during World War II. An Obergruppenführer (general) in the Schutzstaffel (SS), between January 1943 and May 1945 he held the offices of Chief of the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt; RSHA). He was the highest-ranking member of the SS to face trial at the first Nuremberg trials. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and executed.

National Dog Day, Cromwell, Liberty Valance, and so on…

A cool breeze and Supertramp on the radio.

A cool breeze and Supertramp on the radio.

Today is National Dog Day. In the spirit of this designation I thought I’d share a photo of the ever faithful Buster the Wonder Beagle™ doing what he does.

Snippets of what I’ve been reading or observing are below. Instead of the Friday Five format that I’ve been using for the last several years I’m switching up a bit this week. Basically because I have more than five things I wanted to include and rather than hold some over for next week I wanted to get them published today in case I get too busy next week. Mostly it’s because I’m too lazy to edit myself.

• Today is Day 12 of the 54-Day Rosary Novena for Our Nation and so far I’ve remained engaged. I have enjoyed getting up earlier to watch the sunrise while praying. I also continue to read Fr. Calloway’s excellent book Champions of the Rosary.

An unexpected treat in this book has been the history of the Rosary through the centuries. A little sampling perhaps? Ok then, here’s an excerpt from pages 93-94:

One telling account of the tremendous love that the Irish people had for the rosary during this time of persecution was written by the hand of the man who was sent to persecute and kill Catholics in Ireland: Oliver Cromwell.  Cromwell was an English military leader bearing the title “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland.” During his military campaign in Ireland, he sought to rid the country of Catholics and made the following report back to his superiors in England.

All is not well with Ireland yet. You gave us the money, you gave us the guns. But let me tell you that every house in Ireland is a house of prayer, and when I bring these fanatical Irish before the muzzles of my guns, they hold up in their hands a string of beads, and they never surrender.

Incredibly, to this day in the town of Clonmel, in County Tipperary – an area of Ireland where the Dominicans have not had a house since medieval times – the following prayer is said by the faithful during the recitation of the rosary:

Glorious St. Dominic,
intercede with Mary Immaculate
to crush the serpent,
and let peace reign in the whole world.
You are the founder of the most holy rosary.
Do not permit the enemy
to penetrate into these places
where the rosary is recited.
Amen.

• This bit about the bloodthirsty fanatic (well he was) Cromwell struck me this week as I encountered an individual online who was a classic relativist. She persisted in defending the innocence of Islam while condemning the “bloody history” of Catholicism. She hit all the standard lines: the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust (wait…what?). After yet again citing the historical fact that 3000-6000 persons were killed over a 500 year period of the Inquisition (not “hundreds of millions”), and how the Crusades were a counter-attack and a defense brought about by Muslim aggression, I admit I shut it down when she trotted out the Holocaust.

Fr. Calloway’s book has already covered the Siege of Vienna, the Battle of Lepanto, and various other battles waged by Catholic Christians in defense against Muslim aggression.

• While we’re in the medieval era of Europe: I stumbled across a film I’d never heard of this morning called Ironclad (2011). According to imdb.com:

It is the year 1215 and the rebel barons of England have forced their despised King John to put his royal seal to the Magna Carta, a noble, seminal document that upheld the rights of free-men. Yet within months of pledging himself to the great charter, the King reneged on his word and assembled a mercenary army on the south coast of England with the intention of bringing the barons and the country back under his tyrannical rule. Barring his way stood the mighty Rochester castle, a place that would become the symbol of the rebel’s momentous struggle for justice and freedom.

The trailer is below, and I’ve already saved it to my Netflix watch list. I’m in the mood.

• As long as I’m in movie mode one of my favorites was brought to mind yesterday when I retrieved a rather thick, important looking envelope from my mailbox informing me that I was on call for jury duty for two weeks in October. Immediately my mind raced for ways to recuse myself before a possible jury selection process and for whatever reason this scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance popped into my head:

What do you think? If I stand up and holler “That’s right! Hang him! Give him a rope necktie and let him swing!” the attorney for the defense will want to keep me on the jury?

Just a (admittedly bad) thought.

• One more comment about medieval times and for that I defer to Hilliare Belloc, a favorite historian and an essay he wrote in 1912:

The Barbarian hopes—and that is the very mark of him—that he can have his cake and eat it too. He will consume what civilisation has slowly produced after generations of selection and effort but he will not be at the pains to replace such goods nor indeed has he a comprehension of the virtue that has brought them into being. Discipline seems to him irrational, on which account he is for ever marvelling that civilisation should have offended him with priests and soldiers. ~Hilaire Belloc: This That and the Other. (1912)

Did I say it was about medieval times? Sure sounds like it could have been referring to our 2016 barbarians, donit?

By the way, I’m not a Game of Thrones guy. Never seen an episode or read a page. Is that odd? Maybe, but I’ve read enough about it to know that in the limited time it just doesn’t draw me in.

And now you think less of me. Ah well, can’t win ‘em all.

• Michael Baggot, a Legion of Christ brother, wrote an article that caught my eye over at First Things this week. In “Lectio Divina and the Facebook Newsfeed” he begins:

Puppies bounding through a field, a jubilant wedding, a new round of beheadings in the Middle East, homemade tacos al pastor, an Olympics triumph over adversity. As my thumb slides over the Facebook newsfeed, I am drawn hypnotically to swipe and swipe again. Perhaps I will rediscover an old friend from college, or scroll upon a factoid to share at the dinner table. As I feed my curiosity, I realize that I have lost a half-hour, with little to show for it. I paid a visit to Facebook for a refreshing diversion, but instead I have grown wearier.

There is so much more I’d like to quote from this brief article, but it is brief and I do not want to steal his thunder and would instead very much encourage you to click over to read it yourself. Baggot points out how the endless scrolling and consuming all manner of different things from our Facebook newsfeed (and I would also include Twitter) affects our minds, as well as our ability to think, read and reflect. I have noticed as much during the past year when I read. I cannot seem to endure long passages of time spent in a book like I used to and have had to own up to the fact that each night I can’t stop picking up my phone to scroll through my timeline. Ironically the day before I read this article I logged out of Twitter and deleted it from my phone. Baby steps.

Baggot’s article is here. Please do yourself a favor and read it.

• The “On This Day” feature on Facebook is one in which it displays all the posts you made on that specific date during the year. This includes photos, links or your friend’s posts in which you were “tagged”. As I’ve read these over the past year the thought has occurred to me (more than once) that I was much more carefree, interesting and funny from 2009-2014. In short, I’ve passed my “sell by” date on social media. Or more accurately one might say that from 2009-14 I was Don Knotts’ character Barney Fife: affable, likeable, and funny now and then. But now I’ve morphed into Ralph Furley: the annoying, unfunny, overstayed-his-welcome guy who lives downstairs.

• Even my metaphors and references are as dated as the jumpsuits and ascots Furley wore.

Just a few more items and I’ll wrap this up.

• Brandon Vogt has produced yet another useful free service for Catholics that want to spend some time ahead of Sunday Mass reflecting on that week’s gospel passage. Simply go to DeeperGospel.com and sign up. Every Thursday you will receive an email containing that coming Sunday’s Gospel text along with three reflections from various saints or popes regarding that passage. I received my first email yesterday (Luke 14:1, 7-14) and the reflections were from St. John Chrysostom, St. Josemaria Escriva and Pope Benedict XVI. I read through it Thursday, did again this morning and will once more on Saturday.

A much better use of time than scrolling through cute kitty videos on Facebook, no?

• PS: You don’t have to be Catholic to put this to use.

• My bishop, James D. Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, was featured in an interview that appeared in Catholic World Report yesterday. In the course of the interview Bishop Conley discusses his background, as well as that of our diocese and our high amount of priestly vocations. You can read the whole interview here.

• Yesterday I read this wonderful post by blogger John Pavlovitz from this past February. The title is “On the Day I Die” and is a marvelous meditation and reflection on what will happen on that fateful day. It is also a call to live. I was going to post a portion of it. But then I remembered the second reading from The Liturgy of the Hours that I’d prayed yesterday on the Memorial of St. Louis IX. It is from a spiritual testament written to his son are contains some great advice on how to live. I’ve decided to close out this week with some bulleted excerpts from it below. Both the words of St. Louis and of John Pavlovitz are worthy of mental chewing over the weekend.

  • My dearest son, my first instruction is that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength. Without this there is no salvation.
  • Keep yourself, my son, from everything that you know displeases God, that is to say, from every mortal sin. You should permit yourself to be tormented by every kind of martyrdom before you would allow yourself to commit a mortal sin.
  • If the Lord has permitted you to have some trial, bear it willingly and with gratitude, considering that it has happened for your good and that perhaps you well deserved it.
  • If the Lord bestows upon you any kind of prosperity, thank him humbly and see that you become no worse for it, either through vain pride or anything else, because you ought not to oppose God or offend him in the matter of his gifts.
  • Listen to the divine office with pleasure and devotion.
  • As long as you are in church, be careful not to let your eyes wander and not to speak empty words, but pray to the Lord devoutly, either aloud or with the interior prayer of the heart.
  • Be kindhearted to the poor, the unfortunate and the afflicted. Give them as much help and consolation as you can.
  • Thank God for all the benefits he has bestowed upon you, that you may be worthy to receive greater.
  • In conclusion, dearest son, I give you every blessing that a loving father can give a son. May the three Persons of the Holy Trinity and all the saints protect you from every evil. And may the Lord give you the grace to do his will so that he may be served and honored through you, that in the next life we may together come to see him, love him and praise him unceasingly. Amen.

Friday Five – Volume 108

I don’t know where to begin. I haven’t written a word outside of emails in a long time. I’ve tried to start. Several times. My excuse during the spring and summer was that I was just too busy with my son’s baseball schedule. But that excuse has been gone for almost a month now. The kids are back in school. And I’m faced by the fact that I just cannot muster the will to write for the first time in almost two decades. It’s like I’m staring at a 50 foot wall and just cannot find a way over or around it.

This is my attempt to begin to knock down that wall.

Mostly my summer was filled with baseball, taking my daughter to the neighborhood pool, and awaiting the return of our oldest. Squeezed into all of that a columnist at our local paper wrote a nice follow-up story to one she’d written ten years ago regarding me and some of the little league boys I used to coach. The result was The baseball that went to Iraq and back and the boys who became men.”

In the meantime I’ve been keeping busy with some reading. I’m still working my way through Paige Erickson’s excellent The Nice Thing About Strangers, Particles of Faith by Stacy Trasancos and Champions of the Rosary by Fr. Donald Calloway. Once I’ve completed those I’m finally going to tackle a long-time goal and read The City of God by St. Augustine. At this time in history it really feels like a book I need to read.

*Full Disclosure: Paige was kind enough to include me in the Acknowledgements portion of her book and Stacy had an advance copy of her book in Kindle format sent to me for reading. I really want to finish both books and write what would be my very first Amazon book reviews. I do not know Fr. Calloway, but his book is one of the best I’ve ever read on the subject of the Rosary (or any subject, really). Obviously I never met St. Augustine of Hippo…but I wish I had.

Friday Five-Mere Observations

— 1 —

It’s been almost three years since we cut the satellite television signal out of our lives. Not only did this serve to liberate our pocketbook but our minds as well. A fact proven to me every time we find ourselves at a hotel for an overnight stay during baseball season. This summer found us staying in six or seven cities and each time my children couldn’t wait to turn on the television so they could watch cable. This never lasted long however as the bombardment of commercials every 7-10 minutes became too overwhelming for them. This was a relief to my wife and I as we paid attention to the content now on display on our children’s former favorite channels like Disney, Nickelodeon and ABC Family (now no longer calling itself by that name which may be the first honest thing they’ve done at that network).

Near the end of July my son and I spent a week in Utah for his final tournament of the year. It was here that my son actually advocated just shutting it off. We’d watch a ballgame on ESPN when it was on, but otherwise he at last understood why we got rid of cable television.

We are not without access to other things via the television besides what we receive over the air for free however. We subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime and so have discovered many television series and movies that we otherwise would never have known about. My 9-year old daughter spent the first half of the summer repeatedly watching the three seasons of “Liv & Maddie” on Netflix, and it became a family favorite as well. Other series we’ve enjoyed include “Merlin”, “Granite Flats” and “Spooksville”. On Amazon we’ve enjoyed the first season of “Just Add Magic” and three seasons of “Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street.” We have also stumbled across and enjoyed many movies that were not box office champions but were instead terrific stories. I’m grateful to them.

As for me I’ve taken in “The Office”, “Firefly”, “Daredevil” and “Stranger Things” on Netflix. I’ve several others queued up for viewing, but my time is limited so it takes me awhile.

Plus the kids and I are currently about a third of the way through the journey we take now and then through the (sadly) only season of “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” that I own on DVD. I crack up every time my daughter says in her best cowboy drawl “You touched mah piece! Nobody touches mah piece!” Pete Hutter and Brisco’s horse Comet are her favs. My son likes Lord Bowler and Professor Wickwire (played to a tee by John Astin). Of course I’m partial to Dixie Cousins myself, but we all love Brisco.

— 2 —

Here’s an interesting quote I read the other day, spoken by FCC Commissioner Newton Minow:

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

By the way, Minow did not recently make that statement. He said that in 1961.

His full speech is here.

I actually read that quote in the comments of this column written by Randall Smith for The Catholic Thing. One part in particular of his commentary resonated with me:

Televisions, computers, and iPhones are the perfect instruments for those who want to know everything about everything, but know nothing about themselves. (emphasis mine) The gadgets can reveal many things. The one thing you don’t usually see is yourself. Perhaps as a public service, every video screen should come equipped with a little “viewer’s box” – the kind you see when you’re using Skype or Google Chat – so that you have to look at yourself while you’re looking at the screen.

What would you see?

You might see a person interested and engaged – for a while. But if you were endlessly checking texts on your phone or watching television to “kill time,” what would you see then? A person sitting, staring blankly? A person with empty eyes? A person being drained of life?   Would you turn off the television, computer, or iPhone, or just stop using the “viewer’s box”? Would you turn away from the video screen, or just from looking at yourself looking at it?

What do I see? That unless I change my own habits I am going to continue down the path to zombiehood with the rest of our nation. I cannot merely point the finger at everyone else anymore. I need to change, too. It sounds like I watch a lot of television, but I average about an hour per day. No, it’s this damned phone. Zombie Nation.

— 3 —

The following was written by a convert to Catholicism. I read it (again) in the comments for and article I read this week (which I now cannot locate) and it struck me as being as close to the reasons for my own conversion as anything I’ve read (or written myself) so far. Someday I really do need to put it into my own words. Until then, there’s this:

I’m a convert to Roman Catholicism from Protestantism. Like many other converts, I was initially attracted by the depth of the intellectual tradition, the beauty of the architecture, church history, the truth of the moral teaching, but never found those to be sufficient reasons to enter the Church. For years I flirted with Rome; it was enough to read Aquinas and de Lubac on my own, to buy coffee table books of Gothic architecture, to consult the Catechism on any number of controverted ethical matters, but I could remain a Protestant and have those things sufficient to my needs. In the end, however, I heeded the rather stern advice of a priest who reminded me that St John and Our Lady were to be found with Jesus near the sacrifice of the cross while I was happy enough to look on from a safe distance. In other words, I entered the Church for the Eucharist. Not for the pope, not for the architecture, not for the theology, but to be with Jesus in the Tabernacle and on the Table. For my entire life I “had” Jesus in theory, in my thoughts and in my “heart,” but I no longer wanted my experience of him, I wanted him, and he was right there, right over there! (Shocking truth, a marvel!) I could see him, I could touch him; he sees me, he hears me, and I adore him (in and as the Host) with profound reverence.

Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890), himself a convert to Catholicism from the Church of England, once said: “To be deep in history, is to cease to be Protestant.” This maxim is also applicable to my conversion.

— 4 —

On Monday I began getting up earlier than normal in order to sit outside and pray a rosary. It’s part of a Rosary Novena for our nation that will last for 54 days. I believe in the power of prayer and in the power of the Rosary. I believe it is the greatest spiritual weapon in our arsenal. Given the vitriolic political nonsense I see every day I’ve chosen this as my recourse and solution to keeping my peace of mind (that and a forthcoming extended break from ALL social media). At 5:30am on August 16th there was a brief downpour and when I came outside after 6am I was treated to a beautiful sunrise. Buster the Rosary Beagle has taken to joining me outside also.

The Rosary Novena will end on October 7th. You don’t have to be Catholic to participate. You don’t need to purchase the books in my photo below either. All the prayers and meditations are posted online or you can sign up to have the delivered via e-mail.

Thursday morning I prayed for the virtues of humility, charity, detachment from the world, purity and obedience. Lord knows I need all of them.

I'm using the Sacred Heart rosary I picked up while on retreat at Broom Tree four years ago.

I’m using the Sacred Heart rosary I picked up while on retreat at Broom Tree four years ago.

— 5 —

Speaking of St. Augustine, this excerpt was from the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours for August 17th:

So we must not grumble, my brothers, for as the Apostle says: Some of them murmured and were destroyed by serpents. Is there any affliction now endured by mankind that was not endured by our fathers before us? What sufferings of ours even bear comparison with what we know of their sufferings? And yet you hear people complaining about this present day and age because things were so much better in former times. I wonder what would happen if they could be taken back to the days of their ancestors—would we not still hear them complaining? You may think past ages were good, but it is only because you are not living in them.

[snip]

How then can you think that past ages were better than your own? From the time of that first Adam to the time of his descendants today, man’s lot has been labor and sweat, thorns and thistles. Have we forgotten the flood and the calamitous times of famine and war whose history has been recorded precisely in order to keep us from complaining to God on account of our own times? Just think what those past ages were like! Is there one of us who does not shudder to hear or read of them? Far from justifying complaints about our own time, they teach us how much we have to be thankful for.

Just a reminder that St. Augustine lived from 354 to 430. His advice is still very pertinent for today.

Be thankful.

What is Adoration?

When we go before the Blessed Sacrament, let us open our heart; our good God will open His. We shall go to Him; He will come to us; the one to ask, the Other to receive. It will be like a breath from one to the other. – St. John Vianney

I read the following passage in a great little book I picked up recently called Manual for Eucharistic Adoration, written by the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration and edited by Paul Thigpen, whose Manual for Spiritual Warfare remains a favorite. I’ve been using both books during my weekly visits to the adoration chapel in town. The following passage stood out for me as a great explanation about what adoration is, particularly for those who might not understand what is meant when I write about it. It also explains why I think it is a difficult contrast to grasp for many in our me-first, self-centered lifestyle.

It’s from Chapter 5: Guidelines for Adoration (pages 32-33).

*****

How Do I Adore?

manual-for-eucharistic-adorationIt is important to remember that feelings of love, fervor, and devotion are not essential for adoration. Adoration is not a sentiment.

Fr. John Hardon, in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, defines adoration as “the act of religion by which God is recognized as alone worthy of supreme honor because He is infinitely perfect, has supreme dominion over humans, and the right to human total dependence on the Creator. It is at once an act of mind and will, expressing itself in appropriate prayers, postures of praise, and acts of reverence and sacrifice.”[1]

Our adoration, therefore, begins when we walk in the door of the church or adoration chapel. When we genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament, kneel in the pew, and show Him our respect by giving Him our full attention, we adore Him. When we turn off our cell phone and maintain reverent silence in the chapel, we adore Him. When we make a simple act of faith in His Real Presence, we adore Him. When we place ourselves before Him as empty vessels to be filled with His love, we adore Him.

In our self-centered culture and classic American emphasis on work, we often feel we have to accomplish something during our times of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. We rate our experience by how “good” our prayer was, how heartfelt our devotion was, or how focused we could remain. Yet prayer and contemplation are fundamentally God’s work, in which we are invited to participate.

We need only to give Him the opening, and He will do the rest. By coming to adoration, we are handing Him the key to our hearts, allowing the rays of His love and grace to bathe our souls in the light of His Presence, as the rays of the sun bathe our bodies in light. If we can take the time to pull away from the busyness and distractions of life and just sit at His feet, He will lead us.


[1]“Adoration,” in Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary (Bardstown, KY: Eternal Life Publications, 2000), 13.

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.

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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.

The nice thing about a good book

thenicethingaboutstrangers_coverMy friend Paige has written a book: The Nice Thing About Strangers. She was kind enough to list me on her Acknowledgements page and as far as I know that’s the first and perhaps only time that’ll happen in my life. So that’s pretty cool.

I fully intend to purchase a paperback version of the book because Paige has promised to autograph it for me one day. In the meantime she sent me a copy of the Kindle version that I’m still in the process of beginning to read, mostly due to the busyness of the holidays right now and preparing for our oldest son’s visit (his first leave since February). However, having read Paige and the material she has based her book off of for 2-3 years now I am very confident when I say I know I’ll love it. It will also result in my writing my first ever Amazon book review. And I know you’ll love it too.

Why? I can sum it up best by saying simply “Take a look around.” What are you consuming each day on the Internet or other media? If you’re like me, in an effort to keep yourself informed you consume a lot of the negative in an effort to stay afloat. For me it’s become crippling to the point where despite having ideas every day to share on this blog I just can’t seem to muster the energy or will. But Paige does, and thank God for her.

The subject matter for her book is based upon her blog. It is a style I’ve attempted a few times myself (and I have two “in the hopper” that I’ve promised Paige I’d write). Simply put: she opens her eyes and observes the wonder around her. It’s the same beauty that surrounds us all. We just need to slow down and open our own eyes. If you like little scenes of interest regarding the humanity that surrounds us, you’ll enjoy this book of Paige’s everyday observations that she made while traveling in Turkey, Austria, the United States and elsewhere.

A two part interview with Paige is here and here. The Nice Thing About Strangers is available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle format. Paige’s blog is here.

Please do yourself a favor in 2016 and read her book.

A better idea: buy one for yourself and another to give as a gift.