‘ere there be tooth fairies: part two

Eliot from Pete's Dragon.

Eliott from Pete’s Dragon.

In Part One we touched upon the romantic and the tales of old, as well as their role in helping to convey truths. The romantic also believes in dragons. Not the cute, cuddly kind found in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon or in Dragon Tales, an animated show for kids. We’re talking Smaug in the Lonely Mountain or Harry Potter’s Hungarian Horntail on steroids. When we dismiss the dragon we close ourselves off from adventure, imagination, trials and our own courage. Michael O’Brien addresses the dragon in his book A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind:

The dragon has a vested interest in having us dismiss the account of battle as make-believe. It is not to his benefit that we, imitating our Lord the King, should take up arms against him. He thinks it better that we do not consider him dangerous. Of course, the well-nourished imagination knows that dragons are not frightening because of fangs, scales, and smoke pouring from nostrils. The imagination fed on truth knows that the serpent is a symbol of hatred and deceit, of evil knowledge and power without conscience. If dragons do exist, it is not in the form of green steam engines or painted Chinese masks or overgrown lizards. The dragon that takes no form is the worst kind, and I would rather it not prowl around the neighborhood I call home. Most of all I do not want it infesting my children’s minds. I do not want them befriending it, either, nor do I want it calming their instinctive good fears and perhaps in the process taking possession of their very selves.

At this point I may sound somewhat contradictory. It seems that I do not want dragons in my children’s minds, I say, and yet at the same time I want them to read plenty of stories in which there are dragons that act like dragons and meet a dragon’s end. In fact there is no contradiction here. It is the real dragon against which I want my children armed. Their interior life has need of the tales that inform them of their danger and instruct them at deep levels about the tactics of their enemy. It is good that our children fear dragons, for in the fearing, they can learn to overcome fear with courage. Dragons cannot be tamed, and it is fatal to enter into dialogue with them. The old stories have taught our children this.

This is why our home contains books not just of history or the classics or even Calvin & Hobbes or The Far Side. Our shelves are also full of fairy tales, myths and legends. Our children cut their teeth learning to read them and have continued as they’ve grown in age and intelligence. For fairy tales and intelligence or reason are not mutually exclusive. We do not shelter our children from evil, but have taught them to recognize its existence and the many forms that it takes. They have learned or are learning about risks, failure, courage, selflessness and honor. These are some of the same values they learn in their Catholic faith. Why on earth would I steal that from them?

Lest you think I believe my children are perfect little knights and ladies let me tell you that they are as imperfect as any adolescent. They have tantrums, fights and irrational meltdowns. Come to think of it they are as imperfect as any adults, myself included. But I see in them hope. I see a fighting chance. I see the formation of honor in my sons and a dignified air about my daughter (who can also wield a rapier and battle ogres with the knights).

Is my children’s growth somehow stunted by their daily attendance at Mass from kindergarten through the 8th grade at their school? Or weekly Mass with the family? Or acknowledgement and study of history in the lives of saints? What about through prayers, not just for themselves, but for those people in their lives who may have even wronged them? In this area care is taken to ensure religion is not a crutch used to beat over someone’s head. To rob religion of its mystery…its heart…is what Longenecker describes below:

Poetry is the heart of religion, and when the poetical is lost, religion has lost its heart. That is to say, it has lost its romance. The lifeblood, the beating passion of religion, has gone. Instead of poetry and prophecy, we are left with pedestrian prose and pious platitudes. Religion has become not the realm of the romantic but a list of regulations and rules, doctrines and dictums, prohibitions and polite behavior. In other words, modern religion has become merely physical rather than metaphysical. It has become concerned with making this world a better place and has forgotten the next world altogether. In other words, modern religion has ceased to be a religion at all. It has become a set of table manners.

At the rambunctious heart of humanity, religion has always been about the supernatural commerce with the gods. Forget table manners. Furious, fiery beings were there to be wrestled with. A great war between heaven and earth was enjoined. The great dragon was engaged. Sacrifices were made. Blood was shed. Teenagers sang through torture. Old men smiled at their executioners and blessed the head of the one who would cut off their own heads. Holy men cracked jokes while they were grilled alive and scoffed at the terror of the scaffold. Housewives went into the flames with forgiveness on their lips or had their heads detached with a calm air of dignified detachment.

I know people whose religion is nothing more than table manners. How truly bland and boring. I also know people whose impressions about religion were formed by those who believe the same. More’s the pity, because the former have no idea what it truly is they have their hands on and the latter won’t give it a second look because of what they perceive it to be. Both are missing out on the adventure of an eternal lifetime.

Our kids know that St. Lawrence told his executioners “Turn me over” as Emperor Valerian had him slowly burned to death over an open grill because Lawrence turned his money over to the poor instead of enriching the coffers of Caesar. For Lawrence religion was not a set of rules and this life is not all there is. For him it was more.

The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, Tintoretto, oil on canvas, (Christ Church, Oxford)

The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, Tintoretto, oil on canvas, (Christ Church, Oxford)

O’Brien again:

Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world. True religion is the search of the soul for God in order to surrender itself to him, the search for his will in order to fulfill it, the search for truth in order to conform to it. False religion is the inverse. It makes a god out of oneself; it makes one’s own will supreme; it attempts to reshape reality to fit one’s own desires. True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control.

Lawrence surrendered. He knew there was more. For Caesar it was all about control.

My children have grown up seeing their father on his knees in prayer before God on a regular basis. It is not a foreign concept to them and hopefully a gesture they see as one of strength and humility. Not because I am overflowing with either trait, but because from them I draw the courage to be vigilant and to instill in them the values they’ll need to go out into the world and fight the dragons that lay in wait, both foreign and domestic; of this world or those principalities of a more supernatural nature (See Ephesians, Chapter 6).

And why do I kneel? Because I believe. I believe that there is something more. In something that exists beyond our world. And when one believes, well…a line from my favorite novel speaks of this:

The future opens ahead of us as a great mystery before which we can only kneel in reverence. Island of the World, by Michael O’Brien.

This brings me back to our tardy tooth fairy. And while there are some of your reading this who believe that our Catholic religion and faith is about nothing but control, know that once my children are out of our home at the age of 18 they are free to believe as they wish to believe. Our oldest will be at boot camp in eight months and in the Marine Corps will be free to follow his own path. The Marines define their character by the virtues of Honor, Courage and Commitment. As he has learned to recognize these since he was a child I’m confident he will embrace them as an adult. He will continue the fight and the adventure.

Hello, it's me.

Hello, it’s me. You’re going to college.

I should disclose that since the idea of joining the Marines was first presented a few years ago I fought my son on the idea. I wanted him to pursue the path of scholarship and baseball and career, most likely because it was the path I’d followed and known. During these (at times) knock-down drag out conflicts I morphed into his dragon. Actually, that’s not true. I was more of an orc or an ogre. But I was the thing that stood between my son and the path he had chosen for himself. But he had the courage to stare me down and once I recognized what was going on I blinked, put down my club and heard him out. He did not wish for himself the path that would lead him to a “life in doing neither what he ought nor what he liked.” He had been listening to what I’d been telling him since he was a small boy about finding your place and pursuing it even if it meant taking the path less traveled. He had seen his own father grow comfortable in the dreary flickering of mind that is involved in the cubicles and conference calls of corporate America while hating himself for it. My son wants more, and he slay the dragon blocking his path.

The other two may or may not follow his path but they will be armed with the same knowledge, recognize the darkness of dragons, and one day, perhaps as parents themselves, be less tardy in their role as the tooth fairy.

__________________________________

Going Deeper:

For more on prayer, particularly from a man’s point of view, read this post from The Catholic Gentleman.

For more on adventure, read On Adventure: A Letter To My Children by Bryana Joy over at Having Decided To Stay.

The 12 Steps to Holiness and Salvation, by St. Alphonsus Liguori. TAN Books, 2012.

The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, by Dwight Longenecker. Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2014.

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. HarperOne, 2009.

A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind, by Michael O’Brien. Ignatius Press, 1998.

Island of the World, by Michael O’Brien. Ignatius Press, 2007.

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‘ere there be tooth fairies: part one

tooth fairy_dollar

Better late than never: my daughter’s pillow

For the past few months the tooth fairy has earned a bad reputation at our house. She is often a day, or several days, late in delivering the coveted dollar for the latest tooth to fall from one of our younger children’s mouths. My wife and I have chronicled her tardiness on more than a few Facebook statuses and relieved to learn that our tooth fairy is not alone in being late. Her brother’s wife Kim is also having problems with the tooth fairy and has even gone so far as to outsource a replacement fairy. While she and her husband were here with their children to celebrate my daughter’s birthday a few weekends ago she admitted that while they were staying in town at a hotel her own sister had a key to their home and was ensuring that the tooth fairy had arrived and whatever gifts she was to bring would be awaiting Kim’s children upon their return home.

We ourselves were tardy again Sunday morning, then again on Monday. Upon waking Monday morning my daughter did a quick survey under her pillow and found nothing. Stumbling sleepy-eyed into the kitchen she sighed “I guess the tooth fairy is sick” to my wife and me. Turning around to exit the kitchen she mumbled “Maybe she broke a wing” and went to get dressed for school.

Monday afternoon she came home from school and discovered that the tooth fairy had added a school-day route to her delivery cycle. Crisis averted…until next time.

This is all I was going to write on the subject of our tooth fairy adventures. And then I asked myself: Why do we do this? Why do we perpetuate such myths in our household? Not just myths of tooth fairies and Santa Claus and hobbits and wizards and elves, but also tales of knights and maidens and dragons. Of chivalry, honor, courage, truth and beauty. Of saints and sinners. Why do we do this? Shouldn’t we grow up as adults use reason only and allow the world to force our children to grow up? How does this all square with what the cynics of this world consider the Greatest Myth of All: Christianity?

One can hardly look at the world today and witness what happens when we stop believing in things bigger than ourselves. Nihilism, narcissism and the cold, gray nothingness of despair is running rampant in our world and, saddest of all, infecting our children. We are robbing our children of hope. How can one experience joy, beauty or even love without hope?

Or should we simply limit ourselves to what we can see and feel around us and use only reason? Last night I read the following passage from this book by St. Alphonsus Liguori while watching my son’s indoor baseball practice and it reminded me of my own journey in my life of faith.

Reason takes us, as it were, by the hand and leads us into the sanctuary of faith, but itself remains standing at the threshold. Once we are convinced that the truths we are asked to believe really come from God, we are obliged to submit our reason and, on the strength of God’s word, to accept as certain the truths proposed, though we may not or cannot understand them. This is the humble simplicity so characteristic of the child, and of which St. Peter speaks when he says: “As newborn babes, desire the rational milk without guile, that thereby you may grow unto salvation.” (1 Peter 2:2).

This was from a chapter on the subject of faith in which St. Liguori was speaking of truth. No matter how many tantrums we throw as a species and scream that there is no absolute truth (which is ironically a statement made by someone who is uttering an absolute truth about truth), the fact remains that there are such truths. If we utilize our reason in a way that is honest with ourselves and the world around us it will take us to that threshold.

We find those truths hidden in the myths and fairy tales of yore. Indeed that is one of the main purposes of fairy tales, myths and legends. In his new book The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty (which I highly recommend) Dwight Longenecker writes about the differences between those who are romantics and those who are not.

…almost all of us are romantics at heart. Simply take us into the darkened hush of the cinema or theater and all our cynicism drops away. Allow us for one moment to be entranced by the spell of the storyteller, and the Cyrano de Bergerac in each one of us comes alive. There in the darkness the child within still believes that there are things as truth, beauty, and goodness. Even when we lapse into cynicism, doubt, and despair, the romantic in us lives—otherwise why would we be cynical and despairing?

The reason we become cynical is that we have come to believe that the ideals we thought were true are not true after all, or if they are true, they are impossible. We lapse into despair because we have lost the hope that goodness, truth, and beauty will prevail in the end. Thus, even the most despairing cynic proves that the romantic’s beliefs and hopes are an indelible and universal part of the human heart. If you like, cynicism and despair exist like parasites on belief and hope. You could say that despair is the compliment the cynic pays to the romantic idealist.

Cyrano and Roxanne (courtesy of bonzasheila.com)

Cyrano and Roxanne (courtesy of bonzasheila.com)

When living in despair as cynics our lives have the flavor of what Screwtape prescribed in C. S. Lewis’ collection of that devil’s letters:

All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” The Christians describe the Enemy as one “without whom Nothing is strong.” And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why.

This malaise is growing ever larger and ever stronger among our youth today. Just a few days ago I read where devices with screens now outnumber toys as gifts given to children. Screens that involve little thought, adventure or, if you will, pain of risking and failing. Longenecker continues:

The romantic way is an adventure with both great risks and great gains. On the other hand, to endure life as a cynic is at best jaded and dull, and at worst bitter and despairing. It is a dead-end street. Think of it like this: We all stand on the deck of a sinking ship. The Epicurean (those who seek only to enjoy life while it lasts) enjoys a five-course meal and drinks a cocktail and dances while the ship goes down. The Stoic (those who believe the suffering of life should be avoided through discipline and noble behavior) gives up his lifejacket and stands on the bridge in silent dignity, awaiting the deluge. But the romantic spots a distant light, decides it is a lifeboat, then jumps in to either swim for safety or die in the attempt.

The Epicurean and the Stoic both believe that there is nothing after this life. The romantic believes that there is more. In Part Two I’ll cover a bit of the “more”.

___________________

photo credits: Me and bonzasheila.com.

Friday Five – Volume 73

“This is the thing. You’re always in exile. To be with Christ is to be in a place of precariousness. We don’t get to have it our way. We don’t get to be secure. We’re always in exile.” – Heather King

Some heavy lifting on a fall Friday.

This may seem a dark topic to some but it was brought about by something I wrote this morning for a Facebook status involving a meme that’s been going around whereby you write an assigned number of random things no one knows about you.

One of my favorite examples of strength and perseverance in the face of adversity is that of Ignatius of Antioch, who after being summoned to Rome to be devoured by lions by the sadistic Emperor Trajan in 107AD said “I am God’s wheat and I shall be ground by the teeth of beasts, that I may become the pure bread of Christ.”

Perhaps it’s because I’ve read so many reports of the Christian’s slaughtered in Syria and the rest of the Middle East. Or maybe it’s due to the feast days just observed of All Saints and All Souls. The subject of martydom and/or dying for something you truly and deeply believe in has come to the forefront of late and is the subject of my Friday Five.

Friday Five_notepad2

— 1 —

First up: a documentary recently completed in England that is about the English martyrs. Filmmaker Christian Holden writes:

Many Catholics today have forgotten the stories of the English martyrs. We know the famous names like Thomas More, John Fisher and Edmund Campion, but how many remember the stories of Francis Bell or Thomas Maxfield? For me, one particular story really stuck in my mind and made a big impression. It was the story of Roger Wrenno from Chorley. He was condemned to be hanged at Lancaster for the crime of harbouring a priest. On the day of execution, as he was hanging, the rope suddenly snapped. After a few minutes he regained his composure and knelt to say his prayers. He was offered a reprieve if only he would take the Oath of Supremacy. He refused. When a new rope was attached to the gallows, Wrenno ran up the ladder! Asked why he was in such a hurry to die, he replied: “If you had seen that which I have just now seen, you would be as much in haste to die as I am now.”

Making the film was a fascinating journey. I discovered where these brave Catholics lived and worked, and visited the places where they laid down their lives for the sake of the faith. Along the way we got a glimpse the human side of each of these heroic figures, their struggles, their faith and their great courage in facing death. Working on this project has been an inspiration for me and I hope the film will have an impact on those who view it.

Today, when Christianity is facing new challenges and increasing hostility in all corners of the world, the courage of the martyrs and their profound faith will continue to give strength and inspiration to those who strive for truth and holiness.

There is more on the film including a video trailer here, and it may be ordered here.

— 2 —

Institut Catholique plaque

The monument above is on the grounds of the Institut Catholique in Paris and marks an event that occurred there on September 2, 1792. The plaque reads in Latin, “Here they fell.” The “they” were over 100 priests that died that night behind the convent of the Carmelites. (H/T Rod Dreher)

Of that night British historian Christopher Hibbert wrote:

The same afternoon another small gang of armed men burst into the garden of the Carmelite Convent off the Rue de Vaugirard where about 150 priests who had been held prisoner for the past fortnight, were gathered under guard, several of them reading their office. The men advanced upon them, calling out for the Archbishop of Arles. One of the priests went forward to meet them, demanding a fair trial for himself and his fellow-prisoners. A shot was fired and his shoulder was smashed. The Archbishop, after praying for a moment on his knees, then went towards the men himself. “I am the man you are looking for,” he said, and was immediately struck across the face with a sword. As he fell to the ground a pike was plunged through his chest. At that moment an officer of the National Guard appeared and managed to get the priests away to the nearby church where they gave each other absolution. While they were saying prayers for the dying, the armed gang broke through the door and dragged the priests out in pairs to slaughter them in the garden. After several had been killed a man with an air of authority arrived at the church calling out, “Don’t kill them so quickly. We are meant to try them.” Thereafter each priest was summoned before a makeshift tribunal before being executed. He was asked if he was now prepared to take the constitutional oath and when he said that he was not — as all of them did — he was taken away to be killed. Some bodies were removed in carts, the rest thrown down a well from which their broken skeletons were recovered seventy years later.

There’s more on the September Martyrs at Tea At Trianon.

Amy Welborn visited this very spot in 2012 and posted photos and her thoughts as well.

— 3 —

Just two years later the slaughter continued at the monastery of Carmelite nuns in Compiègne in northern France in 1794. In 1956 this piece of French Revolution history was reborn as a French-language opera of three acts that was first performed at La Scala in 1957: Dialogues des carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites). It was recently performed at the Metropolitan Opera and reviewed in HuffPo:

One of the most harrowing final scenes in all of opera is the ending of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” when the nuns condemned by the French Revolution walk one by one to the scaffold, singing a gradually thinning chorus punctuated by the slashing sounds of a guillotine.

So emotionally drained was the audience at Saturday afternoon’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera that silence lingered in the house for several moments after the curtain fell. Only then did tumultuous applause erupt for the terrific performance that had just taken place.

That chorus they are singing is the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen). The finale may be seen here and yes, it’s very powerful:

— 4 —

When you read about historical facts like these and consider the hundreds of thousands and even millions of people who have died for their faith over the past two thousand years you do pause to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Why on earth would I or anyone want to be a Christian and face such hostility and the possibility of martyrdom?
  • If I come face to face with the reality of my own martyrdom, how will I react? Will I have the strength, faith and fortitude of an Ignatius of Antioch, Thomas More, Roger Wrenno or the martyrs of the Reign of Terror?

I’m not the only one who has asked himself during the process of converting to the Catholic Church and seeing just how hated, mocked and ridiculed it is by the world “Why on earth am I doing this? And how will I be able to ask my children to face the same fate by raising them as Catholics?”

Sparing the long and arduous details of my own journey I will say simply that it involves faith and reason. When combined after much research, introspection, study and meditation, I reached the only conclusion I could before me. So that answered question one. As to question two that is a something I will never know unless the time should come. But immersing oneself in history and its players does in a sense help prepare you for the situation with examples of courage, faith and perseverance. 

— 5 —

Among the examples I can give of non-martyrs who help strengthen my faith as well as appeal to my reason are those such as the following by Flannery O’Connor. Both bring to mind the fact that we are called to live our lives in imitation of Christ in all things. The Beatitudes are inseparable from the crucifixion.

“…the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. ” – Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.” – Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

Recalling that “catholic” means “universal”, once you look see the world and creation as a whole containing an order to things, you see things as the novelist Walker Percy did. Or as Heather King explains, all things from different walks of life are part of the light:

Someone once asked the novelist Walker Percy why he was Catholic. He replied, “What else is there?” That’s the way I’ve come to feel as well. You can subscribe to Jungian thought with its archetypes, symbols, and dreams: all utterly valid and part of the light; you can detach from your thoughts through meditation: part of the light; you can experience the healing power of nature: part of the light; you can see and rightfully rail against the ways that we sometimes appropriate “religion” and ideas and belief systems to our own ends, and worse, try to impose [those ends] on others: part of the light; you can unearth the ways your childhood has shaped and wounded you: part of the light. But you will never get to the truth, and become your most authentic self, without seeing your own incredible propensity for darkness and sin; without acknowledging the ways that you have hurt, or are capable of hurting, others. “The operation of the church is entirely set up for the sinner,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, “which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”

In the words of Pope Francis the Church is  a field hospital after a battle where wounds need to be treated and healed.

— Postcript —

O’Connor wrote one more quote that stirs knee-jerk reactions from those who do not slow down to consider what she is saying and instead flip out when they see a word too-often abused in American politics today: liberal. This in turn “creates much misunderstanding among the smug”. Again in The Habit of Being she wrote:

“One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention.”

Some Catholics are guilty of doing the same as they mold Christianity into something that makes them feel secure in the world. If our faith and our religion (and here I am defining religion as one’s “belief in and reverence for God”) are reduced to vague poetry and feel-good platitudes that focus on ourselves and not on the Creator of All then one would not see courage, strength and perseverance in the examples given above. This would hardly inspire anyone, and the heroic offering of one’s life to such vagueness would be an empty gesture of futility. A waste.

This life is not a waste. It is not my own and it is a gift from God. But it is hardly a waste.

The opening scene in Poulenc's "Dialogues des Carmélites," during a dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (AP Photo/Ken Howard)

The opening scene in Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites,” during a dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (AP Photo/Ken Howard)

Friday Five – Volume 70

Friday Five_notepad

— 1 —

I’m at home today. Sick. As in I sound like a horse/camel/walrus when I attempt to speak. The dry cough that has plagued me all week has worsened and after a night of no sleep due to coughing fits I’ve stayed home. Buster isn’t aware of this and is sleeping peacefully downstairs. So lemon tea and honey is the brew of the day along with some reading while the house is quiet.

Being thick-headed (at least more than usual) also caused me to forget that my daughter had finally lost the second of her upper front teeth. She lost the other a few weeks ago and this one has hung on, sliding around in her gumline into weird positions, and refused to budge. While eating popcorn after school yesterday it finally gave way and like clockwork the tooth fairy forgot to make her rounds last night. She’s used to it by now as the tooth fairy has been late for almost every one of her teeth. I’m just glad she hasn’t charged a late fee or I’d be broke.

Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset

Last week I began to read a book that had been on my “to read” list a long time as I have always heard good things about it. So I’ve begun to read Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. I enjoyed Undset’s biography Catherine of Siena and Lavransdatter, a medieval trilogy, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 after its three parts (The Wreath, 1920; The Wife, 1921; The Cross, 1922) were published. Undset was born to atheist parents in Demark in 1881, converted to Catholicism in 1924, and died in Lillehammer, Norway in 1949. She lived a fascinating life and it’s a shame she isn’t more widely known.

So why on earth am I reading an 1100 plus page historical novel about a fourteenth century passionate and headstrong woman in Norway? Probably because it’s a really good story, full of genuine human experiences and emotions while not romanticized, and a bit of a stretch from my normal reading faire. (Just read the reviews of the book and Amazon and you’ll get the gist.) And because, well…you’ll just have to wait to read the quote by Dostoevsky in item #4 below.

— 2 —

Today is the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul. A little history via Wikipedia:

St. Vincent was born in 1581 in Gascony, in the Province of Guyenne and Gascony, the Kingdom of France, to a family of peasant farmers. He had four brothers and two sisters. At an early age, he showed a talent for reading and writing. At 15, his father sent him to school, managing to pay for it by selling the family’s oxen. A good ecclesiastical career, his father believed, would enable De Paul to be financially independent and to help support his family.

He studied humanities in Dax, France, with the Cordeliers and he graduated in theology at Toulouse. He was ordained in 1600 at the age of nineteen, remaining in Toulouse until he went to Marseille for an inheritance. In 1605, on his way back from Marseille, he was taken captive by Barbary pirates, who brought him to Tunis. De Paul was auctioned off as a slave to the highest bidder, and spent two years in bondage. Ultimately, the story goes, he became the property of an apostate Christian, whose wife aided in the escape of all his slaves.

Vincent de Paul escaped in 1607. After returning to France, de Paul went to Rome. There he continued his studies until 1609, when he was sent back to France on a mission to Henry IV of France; he served as chaplain to Marguerite de Valois. For a while he was parish priest at Clichy, but from 1612 he began to serve the Gondi, an illustrious family. He was confessor and spiritual director to Madame de Gondi. It was the Countess de Gondi who persuaded her husband to endow and support a group of able and zealous missionaries who would work among poor tenant farmers and country people in general.

In 1617, De Paul founded the “Ladies of Charity” (French: Dames de la Charité) from a group of women within his parish. He organized these wealthy women of Paris to collect funds for missionary projects, found hospitals, and gather relief funds for the victims of war and to ransom 1,200 galley slaves from North Africa. From these, with the help of St. Louise de Marillac, came the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul (French: Filles de la Charité).

— 3 —

Kidnapped by pirates. Auctioned off as a slave. Two years in bondage. Escapes. Goes right back to his studies. Sent back to France. And with the help of a wealthy woman and her husband he formed a small group that inspired Frederic Ozanam to form the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a mission that today is mirrored around the world.

— 4 —

Remember as you read the following quote that when de Paul speaks if charity he is referring to charity by its other name: Love.

Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity. – St. Vincent de Paul

But we love our rules, don’t we? Our squabbles and grievances used as our excuse for not doing anything to help. We generate faux outrage over the comments or beliefs of someone in order to distract ourselves from what we know needs to be done. I don’t know about you, but MAN does that get old. This happens on either side of the left-right liberal-conservative pendulum and is beyond tiresome.

We bemoan the lack of saints today in the world or worse, think that we could never be one. We’ll look in the mirror and instead of the potential to be a saint see a sinner. Guess what? All of the saints considered themselves to be the greatest of sinners. The difference often between them and us is that they see their lives reflected through the prism of God’s light and are more aware of the smudges on the window panes of their souls. Despite this they strove to do anything and everything, even at the cost of all their earthly possessions or even their very lives, to help their fellow human beings. They didn’t have time to work up a fake outrage or cluck their tongues like manic chickens. They were too busy getting things done.

When they looked in the mirror they saw not just a sinner looking back. They saw an image and likeness of God. They dared to see this. Do we?

*****

Man is a mystery. It needs to be unraveled, and if you spend your whole life unraveling it, don’t say that you’ve wasted time. I am studying that mystery because I want to be a human being. – Fyodor Dostoevsky

— 5 — 

The following passage of Scripture was in this morning’s Morning Prayer.

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:29-32)

What a different world it would be, eh?

I’m off to make some more hot tea. Until the next time…

Friday Five – Volume 68

Friday Five_notepad

— 1 —

I took the day off from work in order to (hopefully) finish almost completely the work I started just outside the patio door that I’m sitting by as I type. After three weeks of 95-100+ degree weather we’ve had a reprieve beginning a few days ago. It’s a pleasant 56 degrees as I write. The sun is breaking through the trees and the birds are getting louder. Unfortunately a neighbor’s power saw and nail gun are getting louder, too, as he’s doing some project or another like me.

I’m convinced that everyone should take at least one day off per month at a minimum if they can. In my previous employment, a job laden with deadlines and pressure, after five years I was about to snap and found myself in our department head’s office discussing my possible resignation as I’d had enough. He is the one who gave me the counsel to take one day off each month to do…whatever. And whatever it was I chose to do with my time should not involve checking e-mails, voicemail, or even the internet or using my phone. It may be the best advice he ever gave me.

Buster, our 20 month old beagle, is usually asleep on weekday mornings, but he heard me walking around upstairs and began to whine until I could no longer ignore it. My morning prayers and reading finished, I made myself another cup of coffee and let him outside where he leaped onto the stack of bricks and began his ritual of scanning the yard for wayward rabbits and squirrels.

buster_perch

Three weeks ago friends of ours whose son plays high school baseball with ours lost their home to a huge fire that took everything. Thankfully no one was hurt or injured in the blaze. Our baseball family immediately went into action via e-mail and organized whatever relief we could through donations, etc. We have had to once again go into that mode as the week brought the news that one of our baseball team moms was diagnosed on Sunday with stage four lung cancer and began chemotherapy Wednesday. This has been quite a shock to all. Sally and Jim’s oldest daughter is a freshman who just started college and their son is a junior in high school. As they gain their bearings the one thing they’ve requested over all others is prayer. Today is homecoming at our Catholic high school and I’ve been told by my son and others that following the football game the student body of over 1200 will lead a rosary for Sally in the endzone.

So that’s my day ahead.

— 2 —

So a few thoughts on “downtime” before I put on my old shoes, work gloves and grab a shovel.

From today’s reading in Divine Intimacy – “#306: The Gift of Counsel”:

There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit, by means of the gift of counsel, wishes to be our counselor in the way of sanctity. Why, then, are we so seldom aware of His divine reminders? First of all, because we are distracted; our soul is deafened by the voices of creatures, and filled with the noises of the world. Holy Scripture compares the voice of the Holy Spirit to the “whistling of a gentle air” (1 Kings 19:12). Therefore, we must be silent, silent exteriorly, but, even more so, interiorly, if we wish to be able to perceive this voice to tenuous and sweet. Only in silence can He be heard who manifests Himself “in divine silence”. (St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Maxims 1, 26)

— 3 —

Today the Church celebrates the feast day of another John, St. John Chrysostom, who reminds us in today’s Office of Readings from The Liturgy of the Hours that while we do need to be still and listen for that “still, small voice” of divine counsel, man was not made to be alone. We may also find God in a community of friends.

*****

Do you not hear the Lord saying: Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst? Will he be absent, then, when so many people united in love are gathered together? I have his promise; I am surely not going to rely on my own strength! I have what he has written; that is my staff, my security, my peaceful harbor. Let the world be in upheaval. I hold to his promise and read his message; that is my protecting wall and garrison. What message? Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!

[ snip ]

Yet where I am, there you are too, and where you are, I am. For we are a single body, and the body cannot be separated from the head nor the head from the body. Distance separates us, but love unites us, and death itself cannot divide us. For though my body die, my soul will live and be mindful of my people.

You are my fellow citizens, my fathers, my brothers, my sons, my limbs, my body. You are my light, sweeter to me than the visible light. For what can the rays of the sun bestow on me that is comparable to your love? The sun’s light is useful in my earthly life, but your love is fashioning a crown for me in the life to come.

*****

I’ll carry these thoughts with me tonight as I join hundreds of friends and their children after the football game tonight in prayer for our friend.

— 4 —

My apologies for not sliding the screen out of the way.

As you can see Buster is standing just outside the screen and has been calling to me to come join him so I need to finish this up. He’s also baying at our neighbor who is using his weed trimmer along the fence line. I suppose I’d better get out there. I’ll wrap this up with a little humor:

A middle-aged couple had finally learned how to send and receive texts on their cell phones. The wife, being a romantic at heart, decided one day that she’d send her husband a text while she was out of the house having coffee with a friend. She texted:

If you are sleeping, send me your dreams.
If you are laughing, send me your smile.
If you are eating, send me a bite.
If you are drinking, send me a sip.
If you are crying, send me your tears.
I love you.

The husband, being a no-nonsense sort of guy, texted back:

I’m on the toilet. Please advise.

— 5 —

Today, or soon, find some time to unplug and avoid situations like the one above.

Find some time to be still.

Relief. Discomfort. Just pull it already!

In hindsight it probably was a terrible idea to watch this clip before I head in to my oral surgeon tomorrow and have a cracked molar extracted. A consultation last week confirmed that a root canal would do no good. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!

But on the other hand I’m so sick of the pain and discomfort of the past three weeks, not too mention the irritable fog I’ve dwelled in due to the painkillers, that I’d be willing to have Dr. Szell go to work right now if necessary.

“Is it safe?”

“You’re damn right it’s safe, doc. Just take out this stinking tooth. And don’t skimp on the oil of cloves.”

is it safe_marathon man

Hoping this isn’t the last thing I see tomorrow morning.

Saint Apollonia is considered the patron saint of dentists and those suffering from toothaches. From Wikipedia:

Saint Apollonia was one of a group of virgin martyrs who suffered in Alexandria during a local uprising against the Christians prior to the persecution of Decius in 249 AD. According to legend, her torture included having all of her teeth violently pulled out or shattered. For this reason, she is popularly regarded as the patroness of dentistry and those suffering from toothache or other dental problems. French court painter Jehan Fouquet painted the scene of St. Apollonia’s torture in The Martyrdom of St. Apollonia.

You can view the painting by clicking here.

Apollonia is honored as the patron saint of dentists, but this woman who had her teeth extracted without anesthetic surely ought to be the patron of those who dread the chair.

The following prayer is published in F. Martinez’s book on dentistry published in Valladolid, Spain, in 1557:

Illustrious virgin martyr, Apollonia,
Pray to the Lord for us
Lest for our offenses and sins we be punished
By diseases of the teeth.

Yikes! How about instead I pray these comforting words of this traditional Catholic Prayer to St. Apollonia?

0 Glorious Apollonia, patron saint of dentistry and refuge to all those suffering from diseases of the teeth, I consecrate myself to thee, beseeching thee to number me among thy clients. Assist me by your intercession with God in my daily work and intercede with Him to obtain for me a happy death. Pray that my heart like thine may be inflamed with the love of Jesus and Mary, through Christ our Lord. Amen. 0 My God, bring me safe through temptation and strengthen me as thou didst our own patron Apollonia, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saint Augustine famously prayed “O Lord, make me chaste. But not yet.” I suppose I should pray for a happy death.

But not yet, ok Lord? No Dr. Szell is necessary. It’s just a routine tooth extraction.

Right?

Family Portraits

Apparently I repeated myself. I noticed last night that I’ve written before along the same lines as I did yesterday. Back in August 2012 I wrote about honoring those people (family and saints) with places on the walls of our homes:

That is what we do with the saints. We honor them as family with a place on our “wall.” For the most part the stories are not sugarcoated and lessons are learned from their struggles. Their triumphs are chronicled, too, and especially from those martyred we gain strength in lessons of perseverance and in heavenly reward. It is a reminder that there is more to life than what we see before our eyes.

Maybe that’s where so many struggle today. The walls on their homes are empty. The digital age affords us the ability to take more pictures than ever, but our walls are now on Facebook. The images are not developed and hung in a prominent or more permanent place. It is also my opinion that we have substituted family photos for those of celebrity, whether from the entertainment world or the political. We choose to know every detail of the shallowest of humanity who offer nothing more than an often-repeated example of how not to live our lives.

all-time greats

I guess that after over 500 posts on this blog I need to make sure I haven’t covered a subject before I post.

Above is a photo of the Red Sox plaque on my wall that I mentioned yesterday. If I have this hanging in a prominent place, why not do the same for those whom I really consider role models? I’d start with the following eight persons. If you look closely, aside from their being Catholic, you’ll notice other traits that run as common threads between members of this family.

Eight Family Portraits

Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
Who he was: A rich, partying playboy, Francis served a year in a dungeon as a prisoner of war. When finally released he went back to his partying lifestyle and retained his dreams of glory. Before leaving as a knight to join the Fourth Crusade and a chance to achieve his dream, he had a dream in which God told him his designs on glory were wrong and that he was to return home, which he did. In 1219 Francis decided to go to Syria to convert the Moslems while the Fifth Crusade was being fought. In the middle of a battle, Francis decided to do the simplest thing and go straight to the sultan to make peace. When he and his companion were captured, the real miracle was that they weren’t killed. Instead Francis was taken to the sultan who was charmed by Francis and his preaching. Francis’s visit to Egypt and attempted rapprochement with the Muslim world had far-reaching consequences, long past his own death, since after the fall of the Crusader Kingdom it would be the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and be recognized as “Custodians of the Holy Land” on behalf of the Catholic Church.

A story: One day while riding through the countryside, Francis, the man who loved beauty, who was so picky about food, who hated deformity, came face to face with a leper. Repelled by the appearance and the smell of the leper, Francis nevertheless jumped down from his horse and kissed the hand of the leper. When his kiss of peace was returned, Francis was filled with joy. As he rode off, he turned around for a last wave, and saw that the leper had disappeared. He always looked upon it as a test from God…that he had passed. (source)

A lesson learned: Francis of Assisi was a poor little man who astounded and inspired the Church by taking the gospel literally—not in a narrow fundamentalist sense, but by actually following all that Jesus said and did, joyfully, without limit and without a sense of self-importance.

Personal story: I took Francis as my confirmation name when I entered the Church twenty Easters ago.

*****

Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941)
Who he was: Born in Poland Kolbe became a Franciscan friar, joining the order founded by Francis of Assisi. Before being ordained as a priest he founded the Immaculata Movement which is devoted to Mary. He was a pioneer in radio and publishing, and at one time his movement’s magazine “The Knight of the Immaculata” had the largest circulation of any periodical in Europe. He traveled to Japan and India before returning to Poland a few years prior to the Nazi invasion of 1939. He was arrested and imprisoned at Auschwitz where he exchanged his life for another condemned man and was put to death in 1941.

A story: Kolbe described the following childhood vision he had of the Virgin Mary: That night, I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me, a Child of Faith. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both. (source)

A lesson learned: Kolbe’s death was not a sudden, last-minute act of heroism. His whole life had been a preparation. His holiness was a limitless, passionate desire to convert the whole world to God. And his beloved Immaculata was his inspiration.

Personal story: I joined the Knights of the Immaculata in 2001 and since then have worn the Miraculous Medal, much used and distributed by Kolbe, around my neck.

*****

Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917)
Who she was: One of thirteen children, at the age of eighteen she wanted to become a nun but was hindered by poor health. She helped her parents until their death and then worked on a farm with her siblings. She taught at a girls’ school for six years and founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart to care for poor children in schools and hospitals, and took her vows as a nun in 1877. She came to America with six nuns in 1889 to work among the Italian immigrants. She soon founded schools, hospitals and orphanages in the U.S. before her death in Chicago.

A story: In America she found disappointment and difficulties with every step. When she arrived in New York City, the house intended to be her first orphanage in the United States was not available. The archbishop advised her to return to Italy. But Frances, truly a valiant woman, departed from the archbishop’s residence all the more determined to establish that orphanage. And she did. In 35 years Frances Xavier Cabrini founded 67 institutions dedicated to caring for the poor, the abandoned, the uneducated and the sick. Seeing great need among Italian immigrants who were losing their faith, she organized schools and adult education classes. (source)

A lesson learned: The compassion and dedication of Mother Cabrini is still seen in hundreds of thousands of her fellow citizens, not yet canonized, who care for the sick in hospitals, nursing homes and state institutions. We complain of increased medical costs in an affluent society, but the daily news shows us millions who have little or no medical care, and who are calling for new Mother Cabrinis to become citizen-servants of their land.

Personal story: I first heard of Frances Cabrini around ten years ago during a story told by my priest upon the death of his mother. He said “My mom was a devoted woman of great faith. One of my childhood memories is of mom driving around the stores in downtown Lincoln seeking that elusive parking space. She would say ‘Mother Cabrini, don’t be a meanie. Find me a parking space.’ And each time she would find one!”

*****

John Vianney (1786-1859)
Who he was: The fourth of six children, Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney was ordained a priest in 1815 and made a parish priest of Ars, a small remote French hamlet of 230 people, in 1818. It was there that his reputation as a confessor and spiritual advisor grew until he was known throughout the Christian world. A mystic who had great patience, he was loved by the crowds but retained his childlike simplicity. It was well known that he heard confessions from people who travelled from all over the world to see him, with the lines lasting often for 16-18 hours each day. By 1855 the number of pilgrims who came to see him reached 20,000 a year. He, too, was a Franciscan.

A story: By 1790, the French Revolution forced many loyal priests to hide from the government in order to carry out the sacraments in their parish. In order to attend Mass, even though it was illegal, the Vianneys travelled to distant farms where they could pray in secret. Since the priests risked their lives day by day, Vianney began to look upon priests as heroes. His First Communion lessons were publicly carried out in a public home by three priests. He made his first communion at the age of 13. During the Mass, the windows were covered so that the light of the candles could not be seen from the outside. (source)

A lesson learned: A man with vision overcomes obstacles and performs deeds that seem impossible. John Vianney was a man with vision: He wanted to become a priest. But he had to overcome his meager formal schooling, which inadequately prepared him for seminary studies. His failure to comprehend Latin lectures forced him to discontinue. But his vision of being a priest urged him to seek private tutoring. After a lengthy battle with the books, John was ordained.

Personal story: I own two books that contain sermons by Vianney. They pull no punches and are among the most challenging pages I’ve ever read. I can see why modern men and women would avoid reading Vianney. I can also see why so many do.

*****

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
Who she was: As a teenager she cared only about boys and clothing and flirting and rebelling. When she was 16 her father decided she was out of control and sent her to a convent. At first she hated it but eventually she started to enjoy it – partly because of her growing love for God and partly because the convent wasn’t as strict as her father. She eventually chose religious life over married life and once installed at the Carmelite convent she began to learn and practice mental prayer. She is the founder of the Discalced Carmelites and in 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church for her writing and teaching on prayer, one of four women to be honored in this way.

A story: Her last words were “My Lord, it is time to move on. Well then, may your will be done. O my Lord and my Spouse, the hour that I have longed for has come. It is time to meet one another.”

A lesson learned: The gift of God to Teresa in and through which she became holy and left her mark on the Church and the world is threefold: She was a woman; she was a contemplative; she was an active reformer. As a woman, Teresa stood on her own two feet, even in the man’s world of her time. She was “her own woman,” entering the Carmelites despite strong opposition from her father. She is a person wrapped not so much in silence as in mystery. Beautiful, talented, outgoing, adaptable, affectionate, courageous, enthusiastic, she was totally human. Like Jesus, she was a mystery of paradoxes: wise, yet practical; intelligent, yet much in tune with her experience; a mystic, yet an energetic reformer. A holy woman, a womanly woman. (source)

Personal story: I am in awe of Teresa having read my way through half of her classic book The Interior Castle. She is a model of contemplative prayer. After her death a bookmark was found in which she had written:

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.

It is one of my favorite prayers and a bookmark in my copy of The Liturgy of the Hours.

*****

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556)
Who he was: Ignatius was born in the family castle in Guipúzcoa, Spain, the youngest of 13 children, and was called Iñigo. When he was old enough he became a page, and then a soldier of Spain to fight against the French. During the Battle of Pamplona a cannon ball and series of bad operations ended his military career in 1521. When recovering, Ignatius read a commentary on the life of Jesus Christ called De Vita Christi by Ludolph of Saxony and was to abandon his previous military life and devote himself to labor for God, following the example of spiritual leaders such as Francis of Assisi. He wrote on of the most influential books on the spiritual life ever written, the famous Spiritual Exercises. He founded The Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits. In September 1523, Loyola reached the Holy Land to settle there, but was sent back to Europe by the Franciscans. (source)

A story: Ignatius was dominated all his life by a desire to imitate Christ. His Spiritual Exercises, written over a number of years, are a series of reflections, examinations of conscience, and prayers, grouped according to a traditional set of four steps leading to mystical union with God. The spirituality identified with St. Ignatius is characterized by emphasis on human initiative. His little book is a classic of Christian mysticism and is much used by devout Catholics.

A lesson: Ignatius was a true mystic. He centered his spiritual life on the essential foundations of Christianity—the Trinity, Christ, the Eucharist. His spirituality is expressed in the Jesuit motto, ad majorem Dei gloriam—“for the greater glory of God.” It is probably true that the picture of Ignatius that most people have is that of a soldier: stern, iron-willed, practical, showing little emotion – not a very attractive or warm personality. Yet if this picture is exact, it is hard to see how he could have had such a strong influence on those who knew him. Luis Goncalves de Camara, one of his closest associates, wrote, “He (Ignatius) was always rather inclined toward love; moreover, he seemed all love, and because of that he was universally loved by all.

Personal story: I attended a weekend retreat in the spring of 2010 led by Fr. Timothy Gallagher who has authored several books on Ignatian spirituality. This peaked my interest in contemplative prayer and spirituality and I began to go deeper into both Carmelite and Ignatian spirituality. Last fall I attended a four-day silent Ignatian retreat. It was one of the most powerful few days of my life.

*****

Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (1891-1942)
Who she was: Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Poland, the youngest child of a large Jewish family. She was an outstanding student and excelled in philosophy with a particular interest in phenomenology. She fell away from her Jewish faith and became an atheist as a teenager. Eventually she became interested in the Catholic faith and was baptized a Catholic in 1922. In 1933 Edith entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany. However, the Nazis knew she had Jewish roots and as she wasn’t safe she was moved to the Carmelite convent in Echt, Holland. When the Nazis conquered Holland they arrested Edith and her sister Rosa and immediately sent them to Auschwitz by train, where she died in the gas chambers in 1942.

A story: On August 7th, 1942, the transport in which Sister Benedicta and her sister Rosa were traveling to her death at Auschwitz, stopped at the train station of Schifferstadt, not far from the town of Speyer where Stein had lived and taught for so many years at a Dominican school. Apparently the prisoners were allowed some access to the outside air as the train waited on a side rail. Stein identified herself to the station master, Valentine Fouquet; and she sent greetings to the Schwind family, who resided nearby, and to the sisters of St. Magdalena’s convent. She then added the comment, “We are heading east.” Later that same day, having been transferred to a cattle train, she reportedly stopped briefly in her old hometown of Breslau, and was reportedly sighted by the postal worker, Johannes Weiners, who was working in the railroad depot in Breslau (now in Poland). Weiners noticed the nun appearing at the entrance of the railway car as the door was slid open by a guard. After their initial conversation, Sister Benedicta looked around to see where she was; then she said: “This is my beloved hometown. I will never see it again.” She added: “We are riding to our death.” Johannes Weiners asked her: “Do your companion prisoners believe that also?” She answered: “It’s better that they do not know it.”

A lesson: The account continues with a description of the postal workers arguing among themselves whether or not they should do anything for those in the railway car. When some of them asked her if they could bring them any food or drink, she answered: “No, thank you, we accept nothing.” These gentle words of refusal, of gratitude, and of detachment are the final words recorded from her. If Sister Benedicta spoke these words as a way to protect the railroad workers from retribution, then the act of charity through self-denial, would have freed the postal workers from their difficult situation. Other accounts of people who observed Sister Benedicta during the transport to her death record that she gave special attention to the needs of the children and of their mothers during this traumatic time. (source, page 21)

Personal story: I don’t really have one with regards to Stein. But I’m fascinated by this brilliant woman who was born a devout Jew, became an atheist, a philosopher of high regard, and eventually a Catholic nun.

*****

Thomas More (1478-1535)
Who he was: More studied law at Oxford before embarking on a legal career which took him to Parliament. Known for his wit and as a reformer, this learned man listed bishops and scholars among his friends, and in 1516 wrote his famous book Utopia. He was appointed by King Henry VIII to a succession of high posts and missions before being named Lord Chancellor in 1529. He resigned in 1532 when Henry persisted in pressuring More to approve of Henry’s desire to divorce Queen Katherine of Aragon and marry his lover. In 1534 More refused to render allegiance to the King as the Head of the Church of England and was confined to the Tower of London as a prisoner. Fifteen months later he was convicted of treason. On the scaffold moments before he was to be beheaded More told the crowd that he was dying as “the King’s good servant—but God’s first.” (source)

A story: When the executioner offered to blindfold him, More said that he would do this himself. But after he had stretched his head over the low block—it was merely a log of wood—he made a signal to the man to wait a moment. Then he made his last joke: His beard was lying on the block and he would like to remove it. At least that had committed no treason. The heavy axe went slowly up, hung a moment in the air and fell.

A lesson learned: Four hundred years later, in 1935, Thomas More was canonized a saint of God. Few saints are more relevant to our time. In fact, in 2000, Pope John Paul II named him patron of political leaders. The supreme diplomat and counselor, he did not compromise his own moral values in order to please the king, knowing that true allegiance to authority is not blind acceptance of everything that authority wants. King Henry himself realized this and tried desperately to win his chancellor to his side because he knew More was a man whose approval counted, a man whose personal integrity no one questioned. But when Thomas resigned as chancellor, unable to approve the two matters that meant most to Henry, the king had to get rid of Thomas More.

Personal story: Utopia and The Sadness of Christ (a meditation on the Christ’s passion written while he was imprisoned in the Tower) are on my shelves and two of my favorite books. In an age where religious freedom is being removed from the public square, More is increasingly a role model for our era.

all-time great saints

*****

My next eight? I’m going with Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, Katherine Drexel, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Edmond Campion and the apostles John and Peter.