Sunday, February 26, 2017

5th Sunday of St. Joseph

Flight to Egypt, Giotto, 14th c.

Joys and Sorrows - II

[Fifth Sorrow and Joy]

Having at last found a place for themselves in Bethlehem, the Holy Family received the unexpected homage of the Magi with their precious gifts for the divine Child. But when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying, "Arise, and take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and remain there until I tell thee. For Herod will seek the child to destroy him." (Matt 2:13)

Joseph's great joy at the visit of the Magi did not last long. He had to abandon his new-found home and business to flee to a foreign land. Herod wanted to kill the Child. Joseph's joy was changed to dread. Once again, God was testing him. Joy and sorrow are never far from one another in souls that love God.

[Sixth Sorrow and Joy]

But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, and take the child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead." (Matt 2:19)

... At first, he [Joseph] thought they would be going to Judaea, most probably to Bethlehem. Once again on this occasion God did not spare his faithful servant anxiety and difficulty. On their way out of Egypt Josph learned that Archelaus, Herod's wicked son, had assumed the throne in Judaea. Joseph guarded too great a treasure to expose it to this sort of danger. He was afraid to go there. While reflecting on what would be best for Jesus, Joseph was told in a dream to continue onward to Galilee. We take note that Jesus is always at the centre of Jospeh's concerns. Upon their arrival in Nazareth, the Holy Family renewed their acquaintance with relatives and old friends. At long last, this family could settle into a home.

[Seventh Sorrow and Joy]

In this final sorrow and joy we contemplate the time when Jesus was lost, and found in the Temple...

Perhaps worst of all was the apparent silence of God. She, the Virgin, was the Father's favourite daughter. He, Joseph, had been chosen to care for the two of them, and he too had experienced God's intervention in human affairs ... How is it that on this occasion there was no one to advise him? How, after two days of crying out to heaven, of incessant searching and with ever-mounting anxiety for the child, could God remain deaf to his supplication and his suffering? (F. Suarez, Joseph of Nazareth) ...

On the third day, when every possibility had been exhausted, suddenly they found Jesus. We can only imagine the wave of joy which must have swept over Mary and Joseph when they discovered him.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Lenten Reading: The Big List of Fiction

This is a huge list to be sure. But it has some of the most thought provoking books I know which can both entertain and inspire. It ranges from science fiction to mystery to Uncle Tom's Cabin. I ran this last year, but have tweaked it.

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods.
I've been jaded by the plethora of recent apocalyptic novels but this one is different. Perhaps the highest tribute I can give this novel is that when I finished I didn't want to read another book. To do so would sully what I'd just read before I'd finished thinking about it, as well as be unfair to anything that followed because it wouldn't be able to compare.

My full review is here. We also discussed this book in Episode 110 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Or, since Lent is only 40 days, at least the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. I was was blown away by how much the audio experience added to my understanding of the richness and depth of the story. Admittedly, it was also greatly helped by The Tolkien Professor's class sessions on this book. You will be hard put to find a better primer on sacrifice, redemption, and many other key lessons for Christian life. I think this may be the best book ever written. And you could do worse than to read The Hobbit for starters.

Joseph R's review is the best I've read if you'd like a more complete look at the novel.

Scott and I were joined by Seth Wilson in a two-part discussion of this novel at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast: part 1, part 2.

Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
The "Others" live among us, an ancient race of humans with supernatural powers who swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. Night Watch is three stories, each is told by former file clerk Anton, a Light Other who is now getting field experience in keeping the treaty between the Light and the Dark.

The way the three stories all look at Light and Dark, treaties and compromises, and even what it means to be unyielding on one side or the other ... is all not only a good story but food for thought about our own lives. My full review is here. A Good Story discussion is at episode 57.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
A bedraggled, galley ship survivor, despite his best efforts to the contrary, finds himself in the middle of royal intrigue. If that weren't enough, he is also pulled into the the affairs of the divine as a result and this complicates his life as one might imagine. This is a land of various gods and strong, dark magic. It is, however, also a land where free will matters in the outcome of events.

Will Duquette calls this "theological science fiction" and I agree. The way that free will is intertwined with what the gods desire, as well as what is "right," is fascinating and a good way to examine our own motives the next time we turn away from what God may be asking of us. My full review is here.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Harry is an incredible Christ-figure as I discovered when I reread the series recently. Of course, this only works for those who have read the series before.

For more depth and as accompanying materials, readers may want to listen to Episode 26 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast where Scott Danielson and I discuss the book and the entire series from a Catholic point of view.

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
This extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life centers on Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman who leaves her life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community. That's the official description but it doesn't begin to cover the richly woven tapestry Godden weaves with nuanced personalities, mysteries to solve so that the order may continue, Philippa's internal struggles, and much more.

Again, Joseph R. has a wonderful review of the book.  Episode 97 at A Good Story is Hard to Find.

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden
Another Godden book about a completely different order of nuns. This is an inspiring tale of conversion and redemption told in flashback sequence. We meet Lise when she is being released from prison where she has served her term for murder. She is going to join an order that ministers to those on the fringes of society.

Through Lise's thoughts, we watch her go from being a young WWII staffer in Paris, become seduced by a man who has a brothel and eventually turns her into a prostitute where later on she becomes the manager. The reasons behind the murder become clear as the threads come together again in the people around Lise in current time. My full review is here.

The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis
These books seem an interesting blend of fiction and nonfiction to me. Lewis's imagination is vivid and fascinating. His tendency to have characters speechify leans to the nonfiction side. Taken as a meditative read, they would be very good for Lent, I'd think.

Out of the Silent Planet: Dr. Ransom is kidnapped by two men who take him to Mars as a sacrifice to the natives. Ransom learns of their plot and escapes only to find, as the blurb says, a planet enchanting in its difference from Earth and instructive in its similarity." Lewis was fantastically inventive about what the planet and living beings were like. I didn't know he had it in him.

Perelandra: This book is so different from Out of the Silent Planet and yet we see C.S. Lewis's vivid and inspiring imagination just as clearly. I am simply blown away by his vision of creation on Venus. For me at one point, close to the end, I kept thinking that these are almost glimpses of the sort of creativity and inspiration that we will see in Heaven. Amazing insights as to battling evil, the dance of God's creation and plan, and our part in it.

That Hideous Strength: I couldn't read it fast enough. Consequently this was a 24-hour book for me. It is a testament to Lewis's imagination and writing skill as to how different all three of the books are in this trilogy, while simultaneously all carrying out the same basic theme. No wonder J.R.R. Tolkien loved them. This book left me striving to be a better person, to be truer to myself, as did the other two. Not many other books really leave one feeling that way.

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
This historical fiction tells of Andrea Orsini, who is one of Cesare Borgia's most trusted political manipulators during the Italian Renaissance. This is a swashbuckler that simultaneously shows Andrea's transition of a human heart from greed to love, selfishness to sacrifice, and power grubbing to nobility.

Discussed in episode 13 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simenson
Major Pettigrew is living a quiet life in the village of Edgecombe St. Mary when the news that his brother has suddenly died comes and sends him into a (very quiet) tailspin. It sparks a sudden friendship with Mrs. Ali who has also lost her husband. Both are struggling quietly with relatives who selfishly want to force them to behave differently.

This is a brilliantly told tale in which no character is perfect but also no character is without a nuanced personality, which means no one is all bad either. It's a gentle tale of love, second chances, and self realization.

Eifelheim by Michael J. Flynn
Imagine that in the 14th century a little village in the depths of the Black Forest has an alien space ship crash nearby. The aliens look like giant grasshoppers. Naturally, many of the local peasants think they are demons. Others, however, especially the village priest who was educated in Paris, take into consideration what makes a creature "a man." In other words, what constitutes a soul and therefore makes it incumbent upon us to treat aliens as we would wish to be treated? Flynn does an excellent job of recreating the 14th century mindset so this is not simply a story told with modern sensibilities in a long ago setting.

Discussed in episode 7 of A Good Story is Hard to Find.

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
A real page-turner which many think they know because the cultural references are so embedded in our society. However, if you haven't read this book then you don't know it at all. First and foremost, Uncle Tom actually is a Christ-figure, a living saint. No wonder he is misunderstood by so many.

Stowe does a good job showing many different attitudes toward slavery and how people excused themselves under the flimsiest of excuses. What is unexpected is how well she examines the varying levels of Christianity proclaimed and threaded solidly throughout the story.

I read this aloud on my Forgotten Classics podcast with commentary. Yes, that's how much I love it.

Dracula by Bram Stoker
We all think of this as a classic horror story but there is much more to it. Look below the surface and you find a classic tale of unselfishness and doing God's will in order to rid the world of a monster who is a perversion of Christ.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Lenten Reading: The Big List of Nonfiction

Two years ago I read The Lord by Romano Guardini during Lent and it was transformative. Last year I read several small devotional style books which were good though not transformative.

This year I'm going to read Meditations on Vatican Art. I'm not sure where I first heard of this but the previews on Amazon look wonderful. Here's the description.
Deepen your relationship with God as you reflect on art from the Vatican collections and pray the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises with this exquisite collection of art, contemplation, and prayer. The book follows the four categories of the Ignatian Exercises: 1) Creation, 2) Sin, 3) Jesus Christ, and 4) Resurrection.

Each day of prayer includes: Vatican Art image with a poetic overview and short descriptive background information about the art, Scripture passage, Reflection on the art image and scripture passage, Concluding prayer, Reflective questions
    If you're still trying to figure out what to read, here's a big list of spiritual books I have found rewarding.

    7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness
    7 Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness

    by Eric Metaxas
    The stories of seven men who lived their lives in ways we can admire. Or women, depending on which book you read. Each contains short biographies of a diverse group of people that pack in a lot of information . Each story turns on the fact that they surrendered themselves to God and sacrificed themselves in some way for the greater good.

    The men range from George Washington to Jackie Robinson to Chuck Colson. Women range from Joan of Arc to Rosa Parks to Mother Teresa. Plus some in each group that you probably haven't heard of.

    Metaxas isn't heavy handed but he doesn't shy away from occasionally raising points that encourage the reader to look deeper within his (or her) own heart. I found each very inspirational. My review of 7 Men is here.

    Jesus: A Pilgrimage by Fr. James Martin
    Martin's goal is to help us consider our answer to Christ's question to his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"

    This means we must consider what it means to be "fully human and fully divine." Martin does a very good job of presenting a lot of contextual information for understanding Jesus' life and ministry through this lens. As we travel through the gospels, so to speak, he intertwines the various stops (recruiting the disciples, healing demoniacs, etc.) with his own pilgrimage to Israel.

    He then stops to place everything in the context of our own lives and is extremely generous in sharing his own life changing experiences, whether flattering or not. I especially appreciate Martin's openness in sharing the spiritual experiences he had, most notably that in the Church of the Resurrection.

    My review here. Scott Danielson and I discussed this on A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast, episode 83.

    The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion and Media by Marshall McLuhan
    It's by "the medium is the message" Marshall McLuhan who happened to be a devout Catholic convert. McLuhan wrote these pieces 40 years ago and was obviously prescient about the burgeoning electronic age. What he's saying could not ring truer. McLuhan also writes clearly and directly about the Catholic Church being "not an intellectual institution. It's a superhuman institution."

    Mind you, I'm not saying that I grasped all of it or that I fully understood the things I DID grasp. So it is good as a reality check also. I ain't as smart as I thought I was. Definitely a book that can be read and reread with great profit.

    The Last Monk of Tibhirine by Freddy Derwahl
    This is the story of the Cirstercian monk Jean-Pierre Schumacher, the last surviving member of a monastic community which was kidnapped and killed in Algeria in 1996. This is the community whose story was told in the movie Of Gods and Men.

    This book lends itself to reflection about our own faith and how we respect that of others while remaining true to our own. A wonderful, meditative work.

    My review here.

    A Song For Nagasaki by Fr. Paul Glynn
    The biography of Takashi Nagai, a young Catholic Japanese doctor who lived through the bombing of Nagasaki and became an inspiration for spiritual healing for his people. Paul Glynn combines vivid descriptions, character insights, and just enough Japanese history so that we have context.

    As a result I wound up admiring the Japanese people even more than I did already. I never realized how many of the Japanese ideals combine with saintly living, especially as seen through Takashi Nagai's eventful life.

    My review here.

    The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai
    Among the wounded on the day they dropped the bomb on Nagasaki was a young doctor who, though sick himself cared for the sick and dying. Written when he too lay dying of leukemia, The Bells of Nagasaki is the account of his experience.

    It is deeply moving story of faith under extraordinary conditions.

    My review is here.

    The Smile of a Ragpicker by Fr. Paul Glynn
    Satoko Kitahara came from a wealthy home and encountered the Catholic faith when she wandered into a church one day and saw a statue of Mary. As a convert, she lived her faith so completely that she remains a well known heroine for Japanese of all religious persuasions. Striving to follow Christ fully she wound up becoming the "Mary of Ants Town," living with with the destitute in a shanty town in a public park where subsistence living came from ragpicking. One might call Satoko Kitahara the "Mother Teresa" of Tokyo to get an idea of the depth of her Christian example.

    On a personal level I cannot stress enough the effect this gentle saintly girl's story continues to have on me. I won't go into details here but her honesty in her spiritual journey, her complete faith and dedication, and her love of Mary affected me deeply. In fact, an example of her selflessness came to mind just the other day and strengthened me greatly in a particular circumstance. My review is here.

    When the Carpenter Was King by Maria von Trapp
    Unable to answer questions from her children about what Jesus ate for breakfast, von Trapp began asking priests and collecting books to find out about daily life for the Holy Family. She then wrote this account which, although simple, I find strangely riveting. It is just brushed slightly with the fiction brush, being largely a historical "you are there" book to bring us into what life was like for a faithful Jewish family back then. This book is out of print but luckily available on Kindle which is where I found it.  My full review here.

    To Whom Shall We Go? by Archbishop Timothy Dolan
    In To Whom Shall We Go, we are reminded of all St. Peter's strengths, weaknesses, joys, and sorrows. In short, we are shown his humanity as he follows Jesus in the Gospels and Dolan points out how our own natures are reflected in therein as well.

    This is a simply fantastic book and I say that as a person who has never been particularly interested in St. Peter.

    I reread it recently and it was the perfect preparation for a Lenten mindset. My review here.

    Lectio Divina books by Stephen J. Binz
    I can't express how much I love these books, but this review for his Advent and Christmas book will give you an idea. Stephen Binz is a passionate advocate of Lectio Divina, the ancient practice of studying and praying using Scripture.

    The point of lectio divina is to personally encounter God and that is something I can relate to very well since I can't count the number of times I have had "aha!" moments of connection when I'm reading. Actually, that's what this big list is all about, right?

    He's got a book for Lent and one for Easter. See all of them at Word Among Us's page.

    Night of the Confessor by Tomas Halik
    Night of the Confessor is rich and deep, with somehow simple ideas. Just when the author says something that I have a knee-jerk reaction of "that's not how faith works" he goes further and deeper so that I understand the reasons behind the surface statement ... and usually agree.

    This is thoughtful and thought provoking writing which I read slowly so it would sink in. It greatly enriched my internal life.

    A fuller review is here with a lengthy excerpt.

    Gospel of Mark, The (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) by Mary Healy
    This is a really great commentary. Healy combines a lot of the information that I have in a variety of other commentaries (both Catholic and Protestant), but then pulls it all together with additional observations that make it very accessible while still being scholarly.

    Healy is excellent at putting the scripture in context, whether in reference to the context of people of the time, to other scripture, or for our own lives. Sometimes I was enlightened by the factual information which gave me new insights into the text. Sometimes it was from the material for reflection. However, it was a rare day that I failed coming away with an insight that I pondered the rest of the day. My review is here.

    Another Catholic Commentary series book I'm finding very rewarding is Revelation by Peter  S. Williamson. If you literally want to go apocalyptic and have it be inspirational, this is where you go.

    To Know Christ Jesus by Frank Sheed
    Sheed looks at Jesus' life by weaving together all four Gospels. He also takes into consideration the times in which Jesus lived, how the people then would have interpreted Christ's teachings and witness, links to the Old Testament, teachings of the Chruch Fathers, archaeology, and more.

    The goal of all this is to give us a richer, deeper understanding of Jesus since to know the Father you must know the Son ... and there is nowhere better to meet him than through the Gospels.

    Contemplating the Trinity: The Path to Abundant Christian Life by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
    He was the preacher to the papal household for Pope John Paul II and continued in that capacity for Pope Benedict XVI, at least for a while. I always have found his writing and homilies to be both easy to understand and inspirational.

    This book to be the same sort as The Interior Castle in that reading a few paragraphs a day lets the message sink in each day. I read this during Lent a few years ago and it was wonderful.

    The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux
    The classic autobiography by the youngest Doctor of the Church. I struggled with reading this book until finding Robert Edmonson's translation, which was be less sacchrine and more real-life than others I read.

    If this book doesn't appeal, consider one of the many others written by different saints and then ask their intercession while you read. Make Lent a walk through the desert with a saintly guide holding your hand.

    The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor
    This collection of letters is larded with advice to fellow writers and answers to those who asked her about the Catholic faith. It is full of nuggets of wisdom that make the reader stop and think about their own faith and how they witness to it in everyday life.

      Any of Robert Alter's translations of scripture, with commentary.
      Anyone who has read one of Robert Alter's translations of scripture knows that he is scrupulous in adhering to the original text while communicating to modern readers so that they feel and hear the language as the Hebrews did. His commentary puts the text in context so that we understand the full meaning just as ancient listeners would have. The overall effect is a translation that can have you noticing characters and events in a completely new way that can move you closer to God.

      Happy Catholic for Lent

      There are two other books that could make good Lenten reading:

      Happy Catholic - my book! In either softcover or Kindle / Nook format.

      Lord, Open My Heart (this is only available as an ebook now, but is I wrote it specifically for Lenten meditation)

      Lent Begins Next Week. Let's Enter in the Right Spirit

      What will convince the world, and - infinitely more importantly - what will convince us of the validity of our faith and all the truth she professes is not comfort, not the statement that "this will make me happy," but the witness of those being happy when they have nothing but their faith. The rich, old, country club preacher saying grace is not much to rally around. But what hope there is in finding out that there is tremendous grace after a day without eating! What affirmation it is to learn that no, we do not believe because we are comfortable, we believe because it is true! To have the grace to praise God in our suffering!

      Plus it's badass. There's just no other way to put it. What else can you call a Church that specifically sets aside 40 days for it's followers to make their own lives difficult? It's as if the government mandated that, for the month of May, alarm clocks were to be replaced with getting punched in the face, for the sole purpose that it would make you stronger, and appreciate alarm clocks more. The Church looks at her children and does not say 'how cute' - she says 'shape up'. "Oh you're rich, happy and full? Well for no other reason than that it will make you stronger, be poor, in pain and hungry." Aaaaaw snap. Where there is no pain, the Church requires it. Run that one over to the humanists, see what they think.
      Now that's what I call the spirit of a Christian soldier marching onward into Lent. Maybe even running headlong.

      "... the witness of those being happy when they have nothing but their faith."

      That's just the inspiration I need to make me think seriously about my Lenten penance ... and embrace it!

      What! Lent Begins Next Week?

      I've gotten so used to the idea that Lent begins late this year that somehow it got programmed into my brain as if it would never begin.

      While that is a lovely dream for those who, like me, do not look forward eagerly to Lent (I've got a lot of friends who do, believe it or not), it is not reality. I need that return to reality, to grounding myself in who I am and who God is and how to clear away the debris in my soul so I can get closer.

      All that is to say that, as usual, I've got lists of suggestions for reading, listening, and movies which will begin rolling out today. Some may look familiar. There is a certain advantage, after all, in having been blogging since 2004. But I do go through and tweak them ... and familiarity is not a bad thing. Sometimes we need to revisit the same old thing so that we can see something new in it.

      Wednesday, February 22, 2017

      Genesis Notes: A Stumble and a Son

      GENESIS 20 & 21
      Abraham plays the same old "Sarah is my sister" trick when he comes up against Abimelech. Sometimes we just can't help giving in to our worst instincts and despite Abraham's closeness to God, he is no different that we are in that quality. I always wondered what charms a 90-year-old woman had to make every man want to take her away. This makes it a little easier to understand.
      ... The average age span of that day was about 120-130 years; at the age of 90, Sarah would have been at the stage of her life equivalent to a 40-50 year old woman today.
      I also like the fact that although Abimelech was innocent of any known wrong-doing he is told to go to Abraham and ask him for healing prayers. Not only does this show Abimelech just how close Abraham is to God but it shows us the power of prayer.

      Sarai Is Taken to Pharaoh's Palace by James Tissot.
      Think about what we have observed up to this point in Abraham's life concerning prayer. It is really most remarkable. We have seen that God answered his prayers for mercy on Lot's behalf. This was a prayer he prayed out of righteous love of justice and love for his kinsman. We have seen that God showed mercy and favor to Hagar and Ishmael through the intercession of Abraham, even though the unfortunate circumstances that required prayer were due to Abraham's departure from God's plan for him. Now, in these chapters, we have seen God withhold His healing from a gravely ill man until he did what was right (restore Sarah) and had Abraham, the one who wronged him, pray for him. What can we make of all this?

      The best way to understand what Abraham's life shows us about prayer is to remember a thought from the previous lesson. Recall that when God revealed His plan to judge Sodom to Abraham, it was Abraham's human voice that defended the justice and goodness of God against the appearance of something otherwise. That was a sign to us that when God chose Abraham and made a covenant with him, it was the beginning of the Great Reversal for His enemy, Satan. Why? Never again would human voices fail to defend the character of God, as Adam did in Eden. The life of God in men (which is "grace") will enable them to be His presence within the fallen creation. Flesh and blood will thwart and eventually, in the Incarnation, destroy the power of the devil, just as God promised in Gen. 3:15.

      What was it that Adam didn't do in Eden? He didn't pray for help from God. He did not lift his voice to object to the serpent's attack on God's character, and he did not cry out for guidance about what to do next. What would that prayer, had he prayed it, have done? It would have preserved his supernatural grace, the likeness of God that was his as a gift. Instead, he lost it. He was still in God's image but not in His likeness. Abraham, as we have seen, prays. He asks God to act, and the details of his story in Genesis show very clearly that his prayers loose God's power and mercy. Even when he is weak and culpable, his prayers are efficacious. This is an astounding statement about prayer. As the Catechism says, "Prayer restores man to God's likeness and enables him to share in the power of God's love that saves the multitude." (2572) Just as the lack of prayer led to the loss of God's likeness in man, the action of prayer is the first step to its restoration.

      When we get to the New Testament, we can hardly fathom the power of the prayers of the New Covenant family of God. What we see here in Genesis of the way in which God uses the prayers of Abraham as His instruments for unleashing His power, love, and goodness on fallen human creatures is only a shadow of what lies ahead. If we have been baptized into Christ, we share in that special relationship between the Father and the Son. Therefore Jesus says, "Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." (Luke 11:9-10)

      Once it sinks into our minds and hearts that prayer makes us like God and that, because He wants to vanquish His enemy through human beings, He uses our prayers to pour out His blessings on all mankind, we should comprehend why St. Paul says, in 1 Thess. 5:17, to "pray without ceasing." Amen!

      Until going through this study I had never considered how deeply Abraham probably loved Ishmael. He would have been terribly grieved to cast him off and Ishmael would have been stunned to have his heretofore loving father cast him and his mother out. Why would Sarah have insisted on such actions?
      ... Isaac would have been perhaps 2 or 3 years old when he was weaned. At the feast given to celebrate his weaning, Sarah observed Ishmael (who would have been about 16-17 years old) "playing" with Isaac. St. Paul, in Gal. 4:28-31, says that this was not innocent child's play but "persecution." The implication is that Ishmael was mocking or taunting Isaac about becoming a "big boy" but not being as important as a firstborn son, as Ishmael was. This was the traditional Jewish understanding of this episode.
      All quotes from Genesis, Part II: God and His Family. This series first ran in 2004 and 2005. I'm refreshing it as I go. For links to the whole study, go to the Genesis Index. For more about the resources used, go here.

      Tuesday, February 21, 2017

      Worth a Thousand Words: Caique Oarsman

      Caique Oarsman, Anders Zorn, 1886
      I can feel the air and sun and spray. Ocean vacation anyone?

      Lagniappe: My hands were made for blessing, but not my feet

      "Lord, if I have been a worthy servant to You, grant me one small favor. Let me at least hit him with this candle. After all, Lord, what is a candle?"

      "No," replied Christ. "Your hands were made for blessing."

      Don Camillo sighed wearily. He genuflected and left the altar. As he turned to make a final sign of the cross, he found himself exactly behind Peppone, who still knelt at the altar rail and appeared absorbed in prayer.

      "Lord," groaned Don Camillo, clasping his hands and looking up at the crucifix, "my hands were made for blessing, but not my feet."

      "There's something in that," replied Christ, "but, I warn you, just one."

      The kick landed like a thunderbolt. Peppone didn't bat an eye. After a minute he got up and sighed.

      "I've been expecting that for the past ten minutes," he remarked casually. "I feel better now."
      Giovanni Guareschi, The Little World of Don Camillo
      This is one of my favorite passages so naturally it is included in Scott's and my discussion of the book on our podcast. But for those who might not listen, here it is in good old print.

      Julie and Scott are ready to start breaking candles over heads. And then, Christ spoke ...

      "Just one," he said. "Just one." We're discussing The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovannino Guareschi at A Good Story is Hard to Find.

      Monday, February 20, 2017

      Benedict, Jeremiah, or Gregory: Options for Living the Catholic Life

      The "Benedict Option" is a phrase you might hear a lot in the near future. It was first coined by Rod Dreher several years ago, referring to “pioneering forms of dropping out of a barbaric mainstream culture that has grown hostile to our fundamental values.” And now he's got a book coming out which, as is Dreher's way, is controversial. So I thought I'd mention it ... along with my two cents, of course!

      St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order,
      Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129
      The Benedict referred to by Dreher is St. Benedict of Nursia who founded many monasteries and whose rule for living monastic  life is still the foundation of many monasteries today. The Benedictine monasteries are often credited with preserving Christianity, culture, and knowledge during the Middle Ages. Not surprisingly, St. Benedict is often called the father of western monasticism.

      When he originally coined the phrase, Dreher wrote about literal flight from modern society. Many (including me) rolled their eyes. This is not the Christian way. What was that last command Jesus had for his followers?
      He said to them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. (Mark 16:15)
      These followers had something so good and true that they were on fire to share it with the world. The Benedictine monks weren't running away when they built their monasteries. They were spread all over because they were taking the gospel, the good news of Christ, to the ends of the earth. The fact that they took medicine, farming, engineering, art, and more with them was just because that's how they lived. And also how they made life better for those they went to help.

      I forgot all about the Benedict Option until the Wall Street Journal ran an article about Christian creating their own small communities. It mentioned Dreher's term and that he'd written a book about it which is coming out next month.

      I took to the internet to refresh my memory and discovered that Dreher had expanded his concept when questioned about the problem of isolationism as a Christian lifestyle.
      If all the churches did what they were supposed to do, we wouldn’t need the Ben Op. Thing is, they don’t. The term “Benedict Option” symbolizes a historically conscious, antimodernist return to roots, an undertaking that occurs with the awareness that Christians have to cultivate a sense of separation, of living as what Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon call “resident aliens” in a “Christian colony,” in order to be faithful to our calling.
      ("If churches did what they were supposed to do." If the government just did what it was supposed to do. If the school did what it was supposed to do. And then there's my next door neighbor. And so on and so forth. Ok, let's ignore that attitude and move on.)

      First of all — the church is made up of the people. Therefore, if we all just did what we were supposed to do — I'll say it — we might not have this big mess right now. But we didn't, so here we are. Now, how do we live as Christians in a fallen world? (Not so sure what is new about all this, by the way.)

      I found Dreher's expanded FAQ unclear and somewhat muddled largely because, I think, that's part of the problem with living as a Christian anyway. You can't nail down a lot of things especially when it comes to how we become better, more devout Christians. However, what I've gleaned is that he wants us living intentional lives devoted to Christ, prayer, and others. With a Church that supports, teaches, and defends authentic faith.

      Well, duh. That is how every serious Christian I know is living their lives already. Certainly every serious Catholic. And I know a lotta them. Again, I'm not sure what is so new about this.

      It would be nice if more Christians did that. And knew their faith better. And so forth. Who's going to teach them? Oh, the church. That is to say — us. One more time, not sure what is so new about this. Read the Acts of the Apostles. This is the continual struggle. And it is almost always in a hostile environment from the secular world.

      Musing over the matter this weekend I realized that our parish could be considered a direct descendent of those Benedictine monasteries in a lot of ways. It isn't perfect, because what in this world is, but it is a shining beacon in so many ways, beginning with the marriage enrichment retreat I was helping with while I was musing.

      Twice a year, we invest considerable time, effort, and money into helping enrich marriages. We do it for the couples. But it also overflows into the church and the world, because marriages are the cornerstone of society. Which overflows into the children, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances of those who attend. It's how you change a society with moral decay — which is much how the 1st century Christians did it, come to think of it.

      I can list many more of our parish's good works which include facilitating not only personal relationship with Jesus but the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I won't subject you to the laundry list but you get the point. And there are plenty of other good parishes and churches around who are doing the same thing, beginning with the gospel women's prayer breakfast that was rocking the conference room next to ours on Saturday.

      We all have to do our parts, but everything I read about Dreher's concept always left me with a sense of turning inward or retreating.

      Gregory the Great dictating the Gregorian Chants
      That's when I came across other commentary on the Benedict Option. Lots of other commentary. Most interesting to me were the other options people came up with. Because it is all about models of living, right?

      My favorite is the Gregorian option. To be fair, it's kind of how I roll already. But these are all worth reading and pondering.
      • The Benedict Option: What Does It Really Mean? — briefly explains main points of Benedictine Rule for the modern world, from a Benedictine monk

      • What Would Jeremiah Do? — lessons from Jeremiah and the Babylonian exile for modern life in a hostile environment. "The piety that God encourages, therefore, can be practiced by ordinary people living ordinary lives under difficult circumstances. God enjoins the captives not only to live in Babylon, but also to live in partnership with Babylon. Without assimilating, they are to lay down roots, multiply, and contribute to the good of the greater society."

      • The Benedict Option or the Gregorian Option? — Take the bull by the horns, charge into that morally bankrupt void and claim it for Christ. Who knows? You might wind up with a new calendar, musical form, or economic model ... and change the world.

      • The Other Benedict Option — Bad Catholic comments and holds up the example of the other Benedict, Pope Benedict XVI

      • Strangers in a Strange Land by Charles J. Chaput — Chaput wrote one of my favorite books about Catholicism and politics in America (Render Unto Caesar). This one will be out soon and I can't wait. A vivid critique of American life today and a guide to how Christians―and particularly Catholics--can live their faith vigorously, and even with hope, in a post-Christian public square.

      Sunday, February 19, 2017

      4th Sunday of St. Joseph

      Presentation at the Temple by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1342

      Joys and Sorrows - I

      To think about the life of Saint Joseph is to discover a life full of joys and sorrows. the Lord teaches us through the life of the Holy Patriarch that true happiness is never far from the Cross. If we bear that suffering and trial with supernatural spirit, we will soon be rewarded with clarity and peace. With Christ at our side, sorrows turn into joys.
      [First Sorrow and Joy]
      When Mary his mother had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. (Matt 1:18) Joseph ... loved Mary with a pure and deep human love. Yet he felt obliged by his upright conscience to follow the Mosaic law in this regrettable situation. In order to protect Mary from public shame, Joseph decided to put her aside privately. This was a most painful test for both Joseph and Mary.

      Just as his sorrow was great, so was Joseph's joy immeasurable when at last he was shown the ways of God's Providence ...

      We can learn from Joseph's first sorrow and joy that the Lord will always enlighten those who seek him with a clean heart. God's light can shine through the most perplexing situations imaginable. 
      [Second Sorrow and Joy]
      And it came to pass while they were there, that the days for her to be delivered were fulfilled. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger... (Luke 2:6-7)

      We can imagine Joseph going from door to door in search of shelter and hospitality for his pregnant wife ... What must this terrible experience have been like for Saint Joseph? What were his feelings at the sight of his weary wife, her clothing travel-stained and every feature proclaiming her utter exhaustion? ...

      All of this anxiety and suffering was quickly forgotten from the moment Mary held the Son of God in her arms. Saint Joseph realized that the Son of God was now his son as well. He kissed and worshipped him...

      This alternating sorrow and joy should teach us that serving God is worth the effort, even though we will encounter difficulties, and perhaps poverty and pain.

      [Third Sorrow and Joy]
      And when eight days were fulfilled for his circumcision, his name was called Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Luke 2:21) ... The actual ceremony was sometimes performed by the father.

      ... The name Jesus means Savior; it had been chosen by God himself and communicated through the message of the angel ... It was the desire of the Holy Trinity that the Son should commence his salvific mission on earth in suffering. It would seem fitting that Joseph was the one to inaugurate the mystery of the Redemption by shedding the first drops of his Son's holy blood. This blood would yield its full effect in the awful context of the Passion. The Child who cried upon the receipt of his name had thereupon begun his work of salvation.

      Saint Joseph ... was well versed in the Scriptures and he knew, if only in an imperfect way, that there would come a day when his Son would have to shed his blood even to the last drop. Joseph was filled with joy to carry the child in his arms and call him Jesus ...

      [Fourth Sorrow and Joy]
      And when the days of her purification were fulfilled according to the Law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (Luke 2:22) ... When Joseph heard the prophecy of Simeon, surely a sword must have pierced his heart as well.

      On that day in the Temple Joseph and Mary were given a more profound insight into the mystery of the Redemption which their Son would bring to completion. Saint Joseph was now able to understand a little better. He made this suffering his own...

      Alongside this pain there was, of course, the joy of the impending universal redemption.