Carrying the cross of history

A little something I read on Ash Wednesday and wanted to share.

Rides the Sun

One of the greatest artistic evocations of the grittiness of Lent is Peter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary, which is housed in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum [Museum of Art History]. The Procession to Calvary is a large work, five and a half by four feet, featuring hundreds of small figures, with the equally small figure of Christ carrying the cross in the center of the painting. Bruegel included certain familiar motifs in rendering the scene: the holy women and the apostle John are in the right foreground, comforting Mary; the vast majority of those involved, concerned about quotidian things, are clueless about the drama unfolding before their eyes. What is so striking about The Procession to Calvary, however, is that we are in sixteenth-century Europe, not first-century Judea: Christ is carrying the cross through a typical Flemish landscape, complete with horses, carts, oxen, and a…

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Silence reveals itself

South central Nebraska sky near dusk. Credit: Me

South central Nebraska sky near dusk. Credit: Me

Silence reveals itself in a thousand inexpressible forms: in the quiet of dawn, in the noiseless aspiration of trees toward the sky, in the stealthy descent of night, in the silent changing of the seasons, in the falling moonlight, trickling down into the night like a rain of silence, but above all in the silence of the inward soul,—all these forms of silence are nameless: all the clearer and surer is the word that arises out of and in contrast to the nameless silence. – Max Picard, The World of Silence

*****

I picked up this book from Eighth Day Books after reading some quotes from it in a recent article by Anthony Esolen. I’m only a few chapters into the book but have already underlined much. This is the first of many quotes I’ve pulled from its pages. I really like the imagery it invokes, especially with regards to its scenes from nature. As much as I enjoy rising early to sit on my backyard patio with coffee and my breviary or other devotional, it almost never fails that someone in the neighborhood will choose that time to mow their grass or trim their edging. Or a motorcycle, semi or ambulance wails in the distance. That’s the city. And that’s why I cherish my silent retreats taken every other autumn at Broom Tree.

But I’ve learned over the years that it is truly the silence of the inward soul that counts the most. It is possible to achieve even amidst the noise of the city. It just takes time spent with the Word.

Recognize, advance, and restore all things to Christ

Having spiritual courage cannot mean overpowering trials. It means accepting that some trials do not pass lightly but rather take up a permanent residence in our lives and age along with us. The courage then is not in determining to put up a tough-minded fight. It is in conceding to divine providence the sovereign right to return in various guises of discomfort to draw our deeper submission to the divine will. – Fr. Donald Haggerty, Contemplative Provocations, page 144.

*****

At 10:17am on Monday morning while seated at my desk I received a call on my mobile phone from a local number I did not recognize. I answered to hear following recording:

There is a stabbing victim at Pius X High School.  She has been sent to the hospital, and police are on the scene.  The injury does not appear to be life-threatening.  I will send a further update as more information comes available.  Please do not come to the school or call. Please pray for all involved.

A stabbing? At my son’s high school? The voice said it was a girl so I immediately processed that he was not injured. But what was going on? Within seconds I sent my first text to my son Nolan, a senior.

“There’s been a stabbing at Pius? What’s going on? You OK?”

“Yeah we’re fine. Police are here, in lockdown.”

“Do you know who is involved?”

“No one knows what happened.”

LJS photo_10.7.2013

Pius students were quick to notice the verse from Exodus 14:14 on the school sign when this photo was published Monday afternoon in the local paper. (Lincoln Journal Star photo)

I later learned that Nolan was in a classroom on another floor on the other side of the school and hadn’t heard any of the commotion. I sent him a link to the local newspaper report a few minutes later. I also logged on to his Facebook account to see if other students inside the school were talking and found remarkably little. Part of this is I assume due to the restriction on the use of cell phones during the lockdown and also because most students these days communicate on Twitter, something neither me or my son use.

At 10:28am I received a second phone call from the same number:

This is (Principal) Tom Korta from Pius X High School.  The parents of the students involved in the stabbing have been notified.  Your child has not been involved, and is safely sitting in his or her classroom. This message is going to all parents.

A short time later, around 11am, the Lincoln Police Department released the following statement on their Facebook page:

Lincoln Police are looking for 17 year old Sarah* for her involvement in a stabbing this morning at Pius X. She may be driving a grey 1992 Buick Park Avenue (Nebraska plate XYZ 123*). Sarah is a white female, 5’5″, 105 pounds with brown hair. Call police immediately with any information.

The newspaper report gave the approximate location of the suspect’s home and said that a police officer had knocked and found no one home. The address was blocks away from my own home and I wondered for the first time if the suspect involved was a member of my parish.

I asked Nolan if he knew Sarah and he said that she was a year or two behind him at our Catholic grade school. That’s when I realized I did recognize her name and was acquainted with her and her family through our parish. Looking at her family’s photo in our parish directory Monday night confirmed this. While we have over 1200 families that comprise our parish and I do not know everyone personally the odds are that we’ve bumped into one another at a social event or school function.

At noon I asked Nolan if he knew who the victim was. The news reports still hadn’t named her. He said no one he had talked with knew yet either, but he added that “Someone put pray for Ellen on Facebook.”

An hour later he texted me with Ellen’s full name and told me to tell my wife. Janell had once worked with Ellen’s mom and knew the family.

The students quickly created a hashtag for Twitter: #PrayForPius. I also saw #PrayersForEllen and #PrayersForSarah.

Late on Monday afternoon the following statement was released by the victim’s family through the Southern Nebraska Register, our diocesan newspaper:

LINCOLN (SNR) – The family of a Pius X High School student who was injured this morning in an incident at the school are with her as she recovers. They released a statement today:

This morning our daughter Ellen was injured at Pius X High School. Ellen was taken for medical treatment, and is recovering with her family. We’re blessed by the outreach of friends in our community and across the country. Thank you for your prayers, your compassion, and your well-wishes. By God’s grace, Ellen will recover.

We ask you to join us in prayer for Sarah and her family. We pray that she may be treated with respect and with mercy, and that our community will also support her family. The love of God can conquer all things.

Thank you for all that you have done for us. At this time, we ask that you respect the privacy of our family as Ellen recovers.

At 8:30pm Monday night, students organized a rosary to pray for Ellen, Sarah, and their families.

Pius students rosary

Photo courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln’s Facebook page.

While I sat outside around 10pm under the stars on a cool autumn night I asked out loud “Where are you Sarah?” I asked because I suddenly felt the weight of her father’s heart who I knew was worried sick and asking the same question.

Within minutes of sitting down at my desk at work on Tuesday morning the wild speculation and gossip commenced once more. Slandering the victim. Projecting motives onto the suspect. Creating their own little crime drama-induced fantasy. Deciding not to get sucked into the conversation and needing a release of my frustration with all of the innuendo and soft anti-Catholic bigotry I’d heard and read the past 24 hours I wrote a new status on Facebook:

It’s been amazing the past 24 hours to listen to and read the comments of people who have no clue about an event yet fancy themselves as a character in CSI or some other crime drama wildly speculating about people, their motives and events, that again, they have no clue about while looking like fools. Or braying jackasses. Hard to differentiate between the two at times.

(Lord, I know I’m rough around the edges. Grant me a spirit of charity and humility.)

I should have just quoted Pope Francis who in his September 13th homily said:

People who judge and criticise others are hypocrites and cowards who are unable to face their own defects. Gossip, too, is “criminal” as it destroys, rather than exalts the image of God present in others. Those who live judging their neighbours, speaking badly of them, are hypocrites because they don’t have the strength, the courage to look at their own defects. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?

Yowza! Go papa!

Desiring to drown out the conversations I put on my headphones and found something calming to listen to. Mozart did the trick.

Late on Tuesday morning the following announcement from the Lincoln Police Department showed up in my Facebook feed:

**Sarah located** At 10am this morning, Sarah was located by law enforcement in Woodson County, Kansas. They responded to a call regarding someone with car trouble. She will be detained in Kansas until she can be returned to Lincoln. Pius X and her family have been notified.

Sarah had made it to a point halfway between Topeka and the Oklahoma border, around five hours and 275 miles away. Seventeen, little or no money, scared and frightened, and driving her boyfriend’s stolen car.

Shortly after this announcement an e-mail came from the Principal Korta:

Dear Pius family,

We are pleased to share with you that the police just informed us that Sarah has been found. She is safe and in police custody.

As we move forward, first and foremost I ask that you continue to pray for Sarah and her family, as well as for Ellen and her family. I ask you to continue to respect both families’ requests for privacy. Part of respecting their privacy is refraining from speculation about motives and/or spreading gossip and rumors about the situation. Please help us in delivering that message to your kids as well.

We give thanks to God for the safety of all who were involved in this incident, and pray for His continued peace and comfort as all who were impacted by this event continue to heal.

Being weak from a continuing battle with pneumonia I made the decision to head home at noon and finish my work from there.  I also knew that in my weary state I would be more likely to inject myself into the conversations and stridently correct some of the more grievous misnomers and slander taking place. This would likely not have ended well.

Later in the afternoon Ellen’s family released a second statement through the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln on Facebook:

Our family is happy to report that our daughter Ellen has returned home to continue her recovery. We’re overwhelmed by the kindness of our community in this difficult moment.

Today, we are rejoicing that Sarah has been found, and that she is safe. We are continuing our prayers for her and her family. We hope that she will be treated with respect, with charity, and with dignity. We pray especially that her family will be supported by this community as we have been.

We’re grateful for the leadership and support of the administration and staff of St. Pius X High School. Surely, God will “restore all things in Christ.”

We ask you to continue to respect our privacy as our family moves forward from this incident.

Tonight I paused to read the latest weekly column by Bishop James Conley in the SNR. He writes:

Christ brought peace to Pius X High School in the midst of turmoil. When chaos broke out at Pius, the principal Mr. Tom Korta and the leadership team at Pius acted swiftly and decisively to bring peace. Lincoln police did the same. And our students responded to crisis with maturity and virtue. Turmoil broke out at Pius X this week. But Christ has begun restoring peace.

An administrator shared with me the experience of watching Sister Maria Meza, M.S., standing in the hallway, hugging students as they passed. Father Meysenburg and his brother priests prayed with every student who desired it. And the school’s counseling team, and teachers, and coaches, and administrators, made sure that every student knew that Jesus Christ was present at Pius X High School.

Students organized a Rosary on Monday evening at Saint Peter Parish in Lincoln, asking Our Lady of the Rosary on her feast day to restore peace and healing to all those traumatized by the events of the day. Hundreds of students participated.

In the past twenty-four hours I’ve seen the same old bigotry rear its ugly head in a few office comments and the internet comboxes. Students at our high school are “holier than thou.” “Oh, but things like this don’t happen at a Catholic high school. Parents must be shocked to learn their little precious saints are no better than the heathen at public schools.”

And on. And on. My God it went on.

Here’s the thing: I send my children to Catholic schools not because I think this will insulate them from the evils of this world. I recognize that most if not all of the same temptations that public school students experience are ready and waiting: drugs, alcohol, sex, peer pressure, bullying, broken homes, etc. Evil does not discriminate.

I send my children to Catholic schools because in addition to the fine education they receive they are being prepared to deal with evil when it happens and meet it head on. They don’t slink away from it, laugh at it dismissively, or hide from it. They recognize it for what it is and advance towards it together. They learn from the actions modeled by the faculty and adults at the schools. They learn from their peers.

Bishop Conley continued:

I don’t know why violence broke out at Pius. Even as more facts unfold, we’ll understand very little. We can not assign motives or blame. Violence is always the consequence of the mystery of evil: of sinfulness, or sickness, or confusion. Violence ensnares those who act violently, and those who are harmed. When evil acts, it seeks to destroy.

But we know that Christ restores all things. This week, I am praying for restoration at Pius X High School. I am praying that a sense of security will be restored; that a sense of peace will reign. And I am praying that all who were involved in Monday’s incident—in any capacity—will know the restoring peace of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know why this happened either. I have learned while listening to and reading the gossip-mongers that they understand very little indeed, but feel the very real human impulse to understand by injecting themselves into the conversation, right or wrong. While I get that, they are not the models I would choose for my children.

I’ve witnessed the outpouring of support organized for a senior after his home burned to the ground in the first weeks of the school year, and how it inspired a rival high school student body to help out.

I’ve watched as the student body organized a rosary after a home football game that saw hundreds and hundreds of students and parents kneel in a large circle at midfield to pray for the mom of a student who had been recently diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Young ones knelt too. I know this because my ten year old son was on his knees beside me.

I’ve listened to the student section roar at halftime of the homecoming football game as the homecoming candidates were introduced with their parents, the loudest roar reserved for a student named Jory. Jory was in a wheelchair, having recently returned to school after battling a debilitating disease. He and his parents were positively beaming, and when his name was announced as homecoming king the roof would have blown off the place had there been one.

I’ve watched over the past day. The victim and her family. The school’s faculty. The student’s themselves. I’ve observed their actions.

They are the models I choose for my children. They are the models I choose for myself as well.

Not the critics. Not the trolls. Not the sarcastic and lost souls looking to score points in the comboxes of this world.

I choose the students at Pius X High School who have taken the mission of Pope Pius X into their hearts to “restore all things to Christ.”

They’ve proven they will not slink away from this challenge while submitting to the divine will.

PS: Pray for Ellen. Pray for Sarah.

*****

*I have chosen to omit the last names of the families involved and the plates of the car she was driving. While they are easily found on the internet due to the media coverage here in town, I chose not to do so here. I have also left out several anecdotes that I’ve heard, but cannot confirm. I’ve tried to stick to the facts as they have been documented and occurred.

I was going to tell you

“Travel is a means of achieving another life. Not the life you had been hoping for, but on the contrary, such a life as you cannot foresee when you set out.” – Philippe Diolé, The Most Beautiful Desert of All

(hat tip to Heather for the quote)

I was going to tell you of what I saw last Friday morning. It was a cool morning of 63 degrees. The sun was coming up behind me and the cottage as I sat in a chair by the front door. It was 7am. I held my breviary in my lap and had begun to pray Lauds quietly when I heard someone walking down the gravel road in front of the cottage. After a few seconds more of gravel crunching beneath feet I looked up. Only it wasn’t feet shifting the gravel and rocks. It was the eight hooves of two bucks, strolling slowly right to left before me. I swallowed the psalm I had been praying, let the book settle into my lap, and watched the deer stroll up the road.

How the deer saw me as I sat out front.

How the deer saw me as I sat out front.

Friday morning was the last day of our family vacation. We spent five days in the Black Hills and surrounding area of western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming.

Today I was going to tell you about the trip and share a few of the more than 500 photos taken.

I was going to tell of the white-knuckle monster thunderstorm I drove through on the first night to get to Sioux Falls, South Dakota where we’d spend the night before heading west on I-90.

I was going to mention that the drive west on I-90 across South Dakota has not changed much since the days of my childhood 35 years ago when my dad would load us into the station wagon and make the same trip every August before school started. There are still more billboards and tourist signs per mile than anywhere I’ve been.

I was going to talk about the stark beauty that is the Badlands. One hour west of Rapid City and the gateway to the Black Hills lie the lands the Lakota called “Makhóšiča“, literally bad land. I have always found it to be one of the most beautiful locations on the open prairies, and vividly remember walking along it’s paths as a boy of eight. On Monday I walked these same paths with my wife and children, and silently willed that memories of their own were forming and sticking somewhere inside the recesses of their minds.

I was to write about the rest of our week, each a separate day and chapter that begin to blend together as the week fades into the mists of time. Tuesday it was a drive through the central mountains, down quiet roads to an abandoned gold mine and small waterfall, before driving to Hill City to visit a railroad museum before lunch at The Alpine Inn. There are quaint stories about the German matriarch who owned the inn, but I won’t go into them now. After lunch we visited a large, pristine lake, and watched hawks fly high in the noonday sun above while the two youngest children skipped rocks.

It was to be the first day of spotting deer on either side of the road, hiding in the trees or grazing in the many meadows. My daughter, who had watched Bambi on the long drive west, was in heaven.

Then it was on to Mount Rushmore, and viewing what my daughter constantly refers to as “the four heads” (or “the foreheads”). There are paths and trails that didn’t exist the last time I was there in 1978, and I was so close beneath them this time that I have photos that literally peek up the nostrils of George Washington.

I was going to tell you of the play we attended at the Black Hills Playhouse in Custer State Park. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was an excellent production, full of wit, and enjoyed by all five of us from our seats in the front row of the stage right balcony. A thunderstorm raged outside and a wayward bat flew right at us from the stage in the beginning of Act II, all of which added to the fun. That night my young daughter awoke to nightmares of a fire-breathing rabbit she dreamily dubbed “the dragon bunny” the next morning (and she’s never watched this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Therefore I urge caution when crossing the moor “in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted.”

After a day of dealing with her impatient husband and understandably growing irritated as she attempted to navigate me through the wooded hills and winding roads, I read a reminder  during Vespers that I needed to “Rejoice in hope, be patient under trial, persevere in prayer.” Message received, Lord, especially the part about patience under trial.

There were hairpin turns, “pigtail” bridges, and narrow roads high in elevation with no shoulders or guard rails to keep you from tumbling hundreds of feet should you fail to navigate a turn. We traveled more such roads on Wednesday as we drove through Keystone to the Crazy Horse monument (still in progress) and saw a dynamite blast clear more tonnage from the massive monument. While it seems this project is going on forever compared to the fourteen years it took to carve “the four heads”, it must be pointed out that those four figures would occupy the space on the side of the face of Chief Crazy Horse. Perspective is everything, no?

With my stomach in my throat I steered the family van and my loved ones along the scenic Needles Highway, climbing high above a mile in elevation at 5 to 10 miles per hour while not daring to look out my side window for fear of vertigo. While driving the Wildlife Loop through the park we saw more deer, burros and what my kids had been wanting desperately to see: buffalo. And did we see buffalo! Twice we were met by cars and motorcycles stopped along the two-lane blacktop as buffalo crossed from one side to the next. I have a picture of one massive beast crossing directly in front of my windshield. At the park gift shop my daughter begged to receive a stuffed buffalo which she immediately named “Buffy” and is sleeping with at this moment. I took a picture holding Buffy and wearing a massive buffalo had on my head (think Fred Flintstone’s water buffalo hat from his lodge meetings). I’m saving it for later use when my children need to be reminded how their parents exist to embarrass them.

As if they need to be reminded.

We paused along the Wildlife Loop to drive the narrow gravel road that wound itself around a peak that took us over 6,300 feet above sea level. I’m grateful for not meeting any vehicles driving up as it was a continuous turn to the left and I was hugging the middle and left lanes. To go too far to the right was to send us over an embankment hundreds and eventually thousands of feet in the air. I snapped a photo for Facebook that I’d meant to post as what might have been my “final view” in case the trip down met with disaster but didn’t as I thought it a bit dark humored.

Take three more steps and the drop is a lulu.

Take three more steps and the drop is a lulu.

We made it safely down the peak and drove to Rapid City for the Vigil Mass for the Feast of the Assumption at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. This may strike you odd that on vacation we would do such a thing. But as Fletcher Doyle wrote in this article it is important to me and my wife that we do not take a vacation from our faith as well as our jobs:

On this and other trips, my family realized the truly universal nature of the Church, which is everywhere, even in the middle of an Arizona desert. Regardless of the place or language, the readings and the prayers were the same as they were in our suburban parish, so we were all praying the Mass together. You get to give God thanks and praise, which is right and just, for being able to go on vacation. And you get to do so in some beautiful locations.

Thursday was a drive to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. I was going to tell you of the monument, our mile-plus hike around its base, and our observing up to two dozen daredevils climbing the sides of the edifice to its tabled peak. We drove back to the northern Hills, through Spearfish and Deadwood and Lead, and in the early evening took one of the most beautiful and scenic drives that exists in the United States through Spearfish Canyon. I’m not a good enough writer to describe what I saw, and I don’t have the photos available as yet. Waterfalls, cliffs, winding roads, sunset at the site where the final scene from Dances With Wolves was filmed, and the creek that carved it all still flowing with water so clear and clean you can see right through; each passing moment making me inquire in my own mind as to whether or not I could somehow convince the family to relocate to the region.

All of which brings me to the deer strolling before me Friday morning.

I was going to mention that I was driving away from Rapid City on August 16, 2013, just as I was as a passenger in my parent’s wagon on August 16, 1977. On that clear morning thirty-six years ago we had been driving for a full hour, listening to endless Elvis Presley songs on the radio, before a DJ broke in to deliver the reason for the marathon: Elvis had died. My dad drove on in silence while my mom silently wept.

I was going to tell you everything. I may still use photos taken with my camera and my phone. But today I’m back in the world after a Monday back in the office. Instead I’ll share a bit more tomorrow about the drive home and a few poignant realizations that came to mind during a ten hour drive along I-80 across Nebraska.

“See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, the sun, how they move in silence.” –Mother Teresa

(to be continued)

The Pledge: A Guest Writing Series

Last year I invited some friends of mine to participate in a group writing exercise to celebrate the Fourth of July. I’m placing all the links to the series in this single post so that I might have a more accessible “launching pad” into the series. I really enjoyed this one, as did the group of participants. More than a few of them have asked me when we’ll be having a go at another such exercise. While I’ve been too busy to think of anything during the year so far I do have an idea or two for the fall. But for now, I hope you enjoy the words of my friends. I surely do.

From the introduction:

I thought it might be fun to do something similar with the Pledge of Allegiance, something recited by so many of us in the classrooms of our youth. Not for the purposes of composing a dissertation on the origins and history of the Pledge. But instead to make this into a series of posts during the month of July after the 4th in which individual Americans from a cross section of our country told what it meant to them.

I divided the Pledge into twelve words or phrases. I then contacted eleven people that I know from different walks of life, faiths, political beliefs, etc., every one of them an American, and asked them to assist me in this series. Not all are professional writers, but that was not a qualification for participation in this little project. With short notice they all graciously agreed to participate and lend their talents. I gave them a few brief guidelines on what I was looking for but basically told them that there were no rules. I was looking for their own thoughts on their assigned word or phrase, not my own. My goals was that when all twelve posts are put together they will form a tapestry of their own that is somehow a reflection on where our Great American Experiment stands today, minus the rancor and divisions that our modern political reality seems to present to us. In short, I was looking for what unites us instead of what divides us.

May we always keep looking for such things.

The Pledge:

Seasons

I always become a little melancholy this time of year. Summer is turning to autumn which means the long winter lies ahead. Baseball season will soon be over (the Red Sox seem determined to end it early this year), and while we will have football to get us through half the winter, it will end in the numbing cold of late January leaving us several weeks before spring training and the boys of summer arrive once more.

But why be so blue? After all, it is among the prettiest times of year. Leaves are turning, there is a clean crispness in the air, and if one is lucky they can catch whiffs of hearth fires burning. I grew up knowing there were four seasons in a year, but really just believed in three: baseball season, football season and (to a lesser extent) basketball season. After becoming a Catholic I learned about another calendar: The Liturgical Year. And, in the Church’s liturgy, it’s the second round of Ordinary Time.

Turning to the sports calendar it’s playoff time and the World Series is on deck. Whether your team is alive or not it is the most exciting time of the baseball season. And the young college football season has kicked off, too. But one can’t ignore the specter of the winter that lies ahead.

Or that’s how I used to be. And that’s why I embraced the liturgical calendar so much. Sure, Ordinary Time sounds well…ordinary. But it’s anything but ordinary. It, and winter, is a time of preparation before the new year, Advent followed by Christmas, will soon arrive.

“We are an Easter people, and alleluia is our song.” – Pope John Paul II

Regarded as the “bleakest” of the seasons, winter serves essentially as the adagio of the calendar year. It stands in much the same place as does the Third Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. Far from being weak, it prepares us, through sorrow, for glory. I no longer find it to be so bleak.

Click to Enlarge

This second period of Ordinary Time (the first part of Ordinary Time is sandwiched between Christmas and Lent) focuses on the importance of the Christ event for the life of the believing community. It celebrates the presence of Christ’s Spirit in the members of his body and looks to the fulfillment of the kingdom that is to come. This period of Ordinary Time not only ends the Church’s liturgical year but also heralds in the new. It shares with Advent a deep concern for the final (The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell) nature of the Christ event and helps us to view all that happens to us with the eyes of faith. It is in this season that we look back (Pentecost), look around (the continuation of Christ’s mission on earth, the Sacraments, and grace), and look forward (the four last things). By using this approach to examine our lives during this period of Ordinary Time, we uncover a call to urgent living. We come face to face with our own mortality. Seeing that we have only one life to live and that we have no idea when our own final hour will come, a sense of urgency to live our life the best way we know how gradually arises in our hearts. It reminds us that where our treasure is, there also we will find our hearts. (Matthew 6:19-21).

This call is not a call to compulsive living. It does not mean busying ourselves with our work and leaving no time for our relationships with ourselves, others, and God. Living life with urgency does not mean fitting more and more into less and less increments of time. It asks us only to allow God to accompany us in our daily tasks. The call to urgency means that we take a good look inside our hearts and ask ourselves what matters most to us in life.

And here’s where at long last I’ll get to my point.

“Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together…” – Charles Dickens (Great Expectations)

While I can safely be accused of reflecting on events throughout the year, it is without a doubt during autumn that I do it the most. I don’t know why, but it’s always been that way. And even moreso since I became Catholic over eighteen years ago and began to follow the readings from Scripture at daily Mass. This year is shaping up to be no different. Every year on earth brings more exposure to saying goodbye it seems. I suppose this makes sense as I am getting older. Whether by indifference or due to death, the parting of ways is increasingly prevalent. We grow up, grow old and grow apart. The embers of friendship cool and grow cold, much as the temperatures do outside. Good friends are diagnosed with illnesses that are unpredictable at best.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.

T.S. Eliot, “East Coker” (The Four Quartets)

Facing this reality we may find ourselves reflecting upon our own lives. Of things we did do or should have done. I don’t do this to endlessly beat myself up, but this self-examination is important to assist one in accepting God’s grace, forgiving oneself (often the hardest person in the world to forgive) and moving forward with life. These are “lessons in humility” as Don Henley sang in “The Genie” in 2001 that help us to go forward and answer that call to urgent living that I mentioned earlier.

And the past comes back to smack you around
For all the things you thought you got for free
For the arrogance to think that you could somehow
Defy the laws of gravity
These are lessons in humility
Penitence for past offenses
Consequences, consequences

That is always the part no one likes to think about. Not just judgment from God or from others, but having to judge ourselves. It’s not often pretty, but in the end it bears fruit because we dare to look at that man or woman in the mirror with intensity and honesty.

“I should have gone to confession before driving class tonight. You never know the date or the hour,” my oldest son quipped this week, paraphrasing St. Matthew when describing the capabilities of the other person he was partnered with in his weekly driver’s education lesson on the streets of our town. Apparently she’s more than a little erratic.

Life is often erratic. It’s not all smooth sailing. In the end we make most of our own waves that crash into the boats of other lives and sometimes bounce back harder into our own. Or sometimes they happen for reasons not known to us, but we still have a choice as to how we’ll react to them.

This week I received an email from a dear friend of mine that confirmed she had been diagnosed with cancer. Without giving her away I will quote something she wrote because I found a deep strength within it:

I am past the panic and pity party. I really and truly have turned it all over to God. I have many wonderful friends and family that are praying. And so am I. … My heart and soul are in a better place. I do have cancer. I will have to have surgery. Anything beyond that isn’t certain. … Decisions to be made after we get all the data we need. Plus side, it is early…you can’t even feel the mass. Caught on mammogram. Make your wife stay current with hers. … Also on the plus side, I have some of the most amazing friends. Angels disguised as humans. Anyway, one can never ever get too many prayers so keep them flowing, please.

As Eliot continued in East Coker:

Old men ought to be explorers*
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

(*I would change the first line to read “Older men and women ought to be explorers.”)

My friend is an explorer. She is a prime example of one who is being still while still moving.

This represents one of the paradoxes of the liturgical calendar. For those of us who utilize it, our experience is, at one and the same time, both forward moving and cyclical, an image of an upward spiral. We are journeying upwards towards God through a series of cleansing, transformative and unitive experiences. We are reminded that our journey to God is not merely an individual venture, but one of an entire people: explorers finding their end in their beginning. And that’s nothing to be melancholy about.

*****

Note: There Is a Season: Living the Liturgical Year, by Dennis J. Billy and published by Liguori Publications was used while researching portions of this post.

“The Way” to good films

After this year I can no longer say emphatically that good movies are not made anymore. I’ve ranted and railed against Hollywood for the past few years about the dearth of great movies. Can you blame me? Endless sequels, comic book movies filled with noise and CGI, or stupid comedies involving mall cops or the Fokkers. The only movies I’ve gone to with any regularity and interest are the Narnia films, the Harry Potter series (which ended this year), or the occasional Pixar film with my younger children (Get Low, released a year ago, was very good). I got so desperate to see something a year ago that I went to my first action movie in ages. Yes…I went to The A-Team. For two hours I had my senses assaulted and tucked my intelligence away, but I admit I had a good time. It was mindless fun and I was familiar with the characters having grown up watching the original television series in the early 80s. But day-umm that movie was LOUD.*

*(I realize that I am beginning to resemble Abe Simpson in my mannerisms. I can assure you I enjoy a movie that’s well done, including action films. Most of the public I suspect goes to the theater to escape the drama of real life. I go to the theater seeking a little more.)

The past year, however, has seen the release of movies that are much, much better.

Sadly, nary a one of them came to a movie theater within 50 miles of me, some coming no nearer than an art house theater in Kansas City. If you missed them, you may want to catch them on DVD/Blu-Ray/Netflix. They are based upon true stories (The 5th Quarter, Of Gods and Men); real people (There Be Dragons, Life In A Day); or upon themes that transcend our every day lives and stretch the philosopher in all of us (The Tree of Life).

Of the following, I have the first two on DVD. So far I’ve only had time to watch Of Gods and Men. It is without a doubt one of the most poignant and beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. It is the anti-action film, which is probably why no one saw it. I plan to write more about it soon but I want to watch it at least one more time before I do. I’m very much anticipating the release of The Tree of Life on Oct. 11. Few movies have intrigued me more than this film by Terrence Malick.

Another that caught my eye was Life In A Day, which arrives on DVD on November 8. A unique film put together by Ridley Scott in partnership with YouTube, this film is a representation of what all of “us” were doing on one day, July 24, 2010. Judging from the reactions of those who saw it, especially the naysayers, I will have more to say about this film once I see it.

I await word of the DVD-release date for There Be Dragons, released in May 2011.

This leaves the final release for theaters this year: The Way. This film project is a labor of love between real life father and son Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. Tom (Sheen) is an American doctor who goes to France following the death of his adult son (Estevez), killed in the Pyrenees during a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, also known as the Way of St. James. Tom’s purpose is initially to retrieve his son’s body. However, in a combination of grief and homage to his son, Tom decides to walk the same ancient spiritual trail where his son died in order to understand his son better. While walking The Camino, Tom meets others from around the world (three in particular), all broken and looking for greater meaning in their lives.

During his travels, Tom discovers the meaning of one of the last things his son said (in a flashback) to his father: that there is a difference between “the life we live and the life we choose.”

Recently both men sat down with Tim Drake of The National Catholic Register for a brief interview and talked about the film and their faith.

Was it difficult to do a movie that looks favorably on God?
Emilio: It wasn’t, for me. For others, it was. When we pitched it to studio representatives, you could see their eyes glaze over. They’d say, “It’s about spirituality.” So we decided to shoot it digitally and independently. I believe this movie plays between Glenwood and Newark. Beverly Hills and New York can take a walk. Hollywood makes a lot of garbage. We know because we’ve been in some of it. There are less and less movies to go to — films without overt sexuality and language that won’t make me blush. We’re all tired of what’s coming out of Hollywood. Word of mouth will help this film make it.

What was the genesis of your reversion to the Catholic faith, Martin?
Martin: It began after my illness in the Philippines while filming Apocalypse Now. I began going to church because I was afraid of dying. Then I stopped going for a long time. My eyes were first reopened when I was in India filming Gandhi. Then, in 1981, while in Paris, I read the book The Brothers Karamazov. I had been given the book by director Terrence Malick. The book kept me up. After reading it, I went to see a priest and told him I wanted to come home. He looked at me with eyes that said, “This is what I do.” He told me to return the next day at 4pm, as he had a wedding at 4:30pm. He told me not to be late. I went to confession with him and wept. I came back to a Church that was very different. I left a Church of fear and returned to a Church of love.

What do you see as the film’s key message?
Emilio: We live in a culture that’s dominated by a media which tells us we need to be richer, thinner and prettier. What I love about this film is that these characters reach land’s end, and they are fine being who they are. They are imperfect and broken, but God loves them exactly as they are.

Martin: The genius of God is to dwell in the deepest recesses of our being. When we realize that we are loved and belong to this community and understand that we are truly loved exactly as we are, then we’ll discover fire the second time — only we’ll own the fire.

I guess I need to amend my original statement. After this year I can no longer say emphatically that good movies are not being made. They just aren’t shown in theaters anymore.