Tassel of the Cloak

She Dies Out of Love

First Holy Communion is received around this time of year by second graders, and it is inspiring to hear stories of saintly First Communicants.  For example, we have that of Blessed Imelda Lambertini from the 1300s.  The age to receive First Communion back then was twelve.  Imelda was nine.  She begged to receive the Eucharist, and though she prayed daily with the nuns in the nearby church and exhibited an understanding of the sacrament, she was denied.  One night, on the eve of the Feast of the Ascension, the young girl was praying in the chapel after Mass.  The nuns present smelled roses and saw a bright light.  Suddenly, a consecrated host floated in the air and hovered above the girl.  The priest was immediately summoned and, placing a paten underneath the host, he gave Imelda her First Communion.  The girl proceeded to enter into an intense, ecstatic prayer.  Her First Communion was her last.  When the nuns lifted her up, she was dead.  Imelda was known to have said in the past when arguing her cause, "Tell me, can anyone receive Jesus into his heart and not die?"  She died out of love.

Saint Gemma Galgani was born in the late 19th Century.  The seven-year-old begged her pastor to give her communion.  He finally relented, saying, "there was no alternative but to admit her to holy Communion; otherwise we will see her die of grief."  He had learned from Imelda's case.  Gemma received her communion and would treat each communion until her death eighteen years later at age twenty-five as if it was her first and last.  "Oh, what precious moments are those at Holy Communion!" she said. "Communion is happiness that seems to me cannot be equaled even by the beatitude of the saints and angels."

Neurogenesis, Prayer, Resurrection

The recent advancements in the field of neurobiology are a fascinating compliment to prayer and the Resurrection.  The firing of neurons in the brain determines our feeling or reaction to an event.   For example, if we were embarrassed in front of the entire class when we were in 6th grade about answering a question incorrectly, when we are in a situation where we have to perform in front of an audience, we may be anxious or we may shut down.  This is because of the neurocircuitry in our brain.

We need not, however, be enslaved by our core wounds. It is possible for us to change these negative neural firing patterns, hence changing our internal state in the midst of an experience.  The key is awareness, which is also called interoception.  If we are attuned to our thoughts and feelings, and open to acknowledging the past, we can change.  When we simply notice we grow agitated in a particular scenario, or are consoled by something else, we create new neurons, as well as neural firing patterns.  Myelin, which is a coating around the neuron that allows the electrical pulse to pass to the next neuron, is also enhanced.  With more myelin, we can catch ourselves more quickly in an experience and not fall into the default state of anxiety, accusation, shame or whatever else is negative inside us.  This whole process of re-creation is named neurogenesis.  We could also label it conversion or healing. Something new is created from something old.  Neurogenesis happens, fundamentally, in prayer.

Prayer is the best opportunity to sit in this awareness with Jesus, the Divine Physician.  We lift our history and our emotions to the Lord, and he will literally rewire our brains.  Then, we will be fully alive—sons and daughters of the Resurrection.  

Adauctus - the added man

We do not know much about the life of Saint Felix, other than he was martyred in the year 303 during the persecution of Emperor Diocletian.  The shrewd administrator forced all Christians to turn in their Bible and other sacred texts to be burned.  Felix refused and was ordered to be beheaded. The story has it that a man observed Felix on his way to the spot of execution in Carthage and was so inspired that he yelled out that he too was a Christian.  The man was quickly enchained next to Felix and beheaded alongside him.  No one ever discovered the martyr's real name, so he was called "Adauctus," which means "the added man."  Saints Felix and Adauctus share a feast day.

There have been other Adauctuses throughout the history of the church.  The latest was a West African named Matthew.  He was taken hostage by ISIS in February 2015 alongside 21 Egyptian Christians, construction workers on a job site in Libya.  Though he may not have been Christian, Matthew refused to be separated and had his throat slit along with the others.  He is listed as one of the 'Coptic Martyrs of Libya.' 

Speaking of Libya, who could forget the first Adauctus, Simon of Cyrene?  Cyrene was a Greek town in Libya.  Simon had either lived there or his ancestors had come from that part of Northern Africa.  Returning from the fields to Jerusalem, he happened upon Christ carrying his cross.  For whatever reason, Simon was singled out from the crowd to help.  He may have been unwilling at first, but he made the way of the cross alongside Christ.  To literally help Christ redeem the world by carrying the cross—is there no more saintly action possible?

Let us listen (audire) for our chance to be the next Saint Adauctus.

 

God is Beauty

One of the ways we encounter God is beauty.  Our hearts can be elevated to the transcendent when we see a stunning mountain landscape, gaze upon a priceless work of art, or hear a magnificent piece of music.  Encountering beautiful people (not physically, but on the level of the soul) can also inspire us. It happened in the case of Malcolm Muggeridge, a British journalist who described himself as a "religious maniac without a religion." While working as a producer for BBC he came across Mother Teresa and, after researching her story, interviewed her.  He was mainly responsible for introducing this future saint to the world, thanks to his 1968 documentary "Something Beautiful for God."  The documentary covered the heroic lives of the Missionaries of Charity, who served the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta.  Muggeridge then wrote a book about Mother Teresa.  Author Robert Spitzer writes about the impact of the woman on the 'avowed atheist',

It was at once the beauty of [Mother Teresa's] actions toward the poor, the beauty of her genuine love for them, the beauty of seeing Christ in them, the beauty of her defiance when Muggeridge tried to suggest that it didn't make much difference amid the sea of poverty in India, the beauty in her eyes, and the beauty of her spiritual discipline.

Mother Teresa prompted Muggeridge to become Catholic.  He wrote, "it is impossible to be with her, to listen to her, to observe what she is doing and how she is doing it, without being in some degree converted." The formally-socialist reporter became a defender of Humanae Vitae, opposed abortion, and produced documentaries on prayer.  He titled his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time.

May our simple holiness spur the conversion of those around us.

 

The Prodigal Son

This posture of the prodigal son in prayer, from John Macallan Swan's 1888 painting, is one no person should be ashamed to make.  It is a posture of authenticity.  The boy is in "dire need" (Lk 14:14). He has hit 'rock bottom.'  Does he suppress his agony?  No.  He admits his life has become unmanageable and enters into the depths of the abyss.  He bundles his darkness, shame, and uncertainty into a little gift the outline of his fists, and lifts that gift to God.  He cannot see it, as he raises his meagre offering in trusting torment, but the Father delights.  A heavenly light shines on the prodigal son's exposed back.  In the desolate, early spring landscape, flowers have bloomed.  There is beauty in the vulnerability.

The prodigal son "comes to his senses." He makes the decision, in the words of the Third Step, "to turn his will and his life over to the care of God."  He does not know how his story will end, but he trusts God.  There is no greater experience of love than remaining with the Father in pain.  This sets him on the path to awakening—to resurrection.  He will journey home.

It was only because the prodigal son entered into the fullness of pain in prayer that he could be healed.  We might not have 'watershed moments' on the level of the prodigal son or a recovering alcoholic, but there are experiences of darkness we all face.  The choice is to suppress the situation or embrace it.  When we embrace it, we turn it over to God.  He will accept our gift.  What exactly he will choose to do with it and make of it, we are not sure.  It turned out well in the prodigal son's case.

 

The Edge of Sadness

The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1962.  Set in a New England town, it is a story of priesthood and an Irish-American family scenario with which most people could probably resonate.

Father Hugh Kennedy is the protagonist of the story.  He and his best friend, Father John Carmody, are middle-aged pastors.  They battle their demons of darkness, both related to their fathers.  Kennedy slipped into alcoholism after his father's slow and painful death, and Carmody a general misanthropy stemming from his father's challenging nature that meant a difficult upbringing.  You might already be thinking, 'This sounds depressing. Why would I read this?' Because it is a beautiful story that provides profound psychological insights.

Kennedy realizes that a genuine prayer life was non-existent in his active life as a young priest.   He was not tapped into the "continuing current of love," as he describes it.  Kennedy says:

What the priest may not see is that he stands in some danger of losing himself in the strangely engrossing business of simply 'being busy'; gradually he may find that he is rather uncomfortable whenever he is not 'being busy.' 

The problems of priesthood are not all that dissimilar from the married or single life.  The heart of a priest's identity is his love of God.  Everything else in his ministry comes second.  If he falls away from his heart, his life will begin to disintegrate.  Likewise, if a married couple falls away from the essence of their love and is swept up into the current of 'busyness', their relationship will deteriorate. 

The story is hopeful, for Kennedy is able to re-center himself in God and persevere in the priesthood.  If we find ourselves on the edge of sadness, may we do likewise.

 

Create Your Own Prayer

It can be beneficial, every now and again, to create your own blessing or prayer.  We do not always need to rotely recite the ones provided by the Church.  Creating your own prayer, which is certainly a valid thing to do, puts you in the company of the Trinity.  God, of course, is a creator and a ‘blesser’.  If we are called to be like God, then we can create our prayers.

Here is an example of someone's created prayer.  Maybe it can inspire you.  It is "A Blessing for March's Saints" by Andrew Greeley:

May you dance a reel for St. Paddy's sake

And toast the many united in one

May St. Joseph guard you as soon as you wake

And safely lead you home when day is done

From Aquinas may you learn wisdom and truth

And from Gregory tradition's faithful way

May Casimir teach you courage and hope

And Gabriel surprise you each new day

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Or, "A Blessing for March Seventeenth" by the same:

May it be a grand day for all of you

Be ye Irish or as Patrick as you'd like to be

May your jars be limited to just a few

May you revel in God's great diversity

In a land where Moslem, Protestant, Catholic, Jew

Enjoy a constitutional variety

Modestly raise a quiet cry and hue

To give thanks for peaceful ethnicity

And praise for pluralism's brightest jewel

Drink joyous toasts, in all sobriety

To the one from many ‘neath red, white and blue

And may God bless you this glorious day

The Father who holds the world together

The Son who walked among us

And the spirit who makes each of us unique

Death Comes For the Archbishop

Death Comes For the Archbishop is one of my favorite novels.  It was written in 1927 by Willa Cather, and it tells the story of a young priest, Father Jean Marie Latour, who is made bishop of the 'New Mexico Territory' in the 1850s.  We hear about Latour's encounters with the rebellious local clergy, his travels on horseback through harsh terrain and storms and so forth, his dealings with the Indian population, and much else.  The story is captivating, the descriptions of nature are beautiful, and the witness of the missionary priest is inspiring.

Allow me to provide a little sample.  The story appears to end just as it is beginning.  The bishop is lost in the desert and has run out of water.  We read:

The traveler dismounted, drew from his pocket a much-worn book, and baring his head, knelt at the foot of the cruciform tree.

Under his buckskin riding-coat he wore a black vest and the cravat and collar of a churchman. A young priest, at his devotions; and a priest in a thousand, one knew at a glance. His bowed head was not that of an ordinary man,--it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence. His brow as open, generous, reflective, his features handsome and somewhat severe. There was a singular elegance about the hands below the fringed cuffs of the buckskin jacket. Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth--brave, sensitive, courteous. His manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished. He had a kind of courtesy towards himself, towards his beasts, toward the juniper tree before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.

The book, while a joy to read, has a melancholic tenor.  It affirms the statement that the priesthood, and Catholicism in general, is hauntingly beautiful

 

Ruth Pfau

Ruth Pfau was a German medical student. Inspired by a concentration camp survivor who dedicated her life to promoting forgiveness, Ruth converted to Catholicism.  In 1957, she joined the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary, a medical missionary order.  In 1960 she visited a leper colony in Karachi, Pakistan.  Struck by the site of the inhabitants, she made the decision to remain in Pakistan and serve the lepers.  "Not all of us can prevent a war," she said, "but most of us can help ease sufferings of the body and the soul."

Ruth would go on to treat over 50,000 patients over the next 35 years. Her work in Pakistan was finally over when, in 1996, the World Health Organization declared leprosy in Pakistan to be 'under control.'  Ruth did not ease into retirement, however. She migrated on to Afghanistan, where she tended to victims of land mines and other disabilities.  "Leading a life committed to service does protect the soul from wounds," she wrote. "These are the workings of God." 

When Ruth Pfau at last passed to her eternal reward in 2017, she was given a state funeral and hailed as a national hero in Pakistan. 

There are parallels we can make between this modern-day Ruth and the Ruth of the Bible.  When Ruth's husband dies and her mother-in-law Naomi returns to Bethlehem, Ruth accompanies her, though the land is foreign to her.  Ruth will literally labor in the field, alongside men, to provide for Naomi.  The owner, Boaz, notices Ruth and her virtue, and marries her.  They will be the great-grandparents of King David, and the ancestors of Christ himself. 

The name 'Ruth' means 'companion.'  These Ruths, like the Blessed Mother who inspired them, brought God's comfort to many souls. 

Till We Have Faces

C.S. Lewis' fairy tale, which would be his last novel, Till We Have Faces, has a brilliant discourse towards the climax.  The main character, Orual, is confronting the gods, whom she feels have gravely wronged her.  She at last comes to the realization why she feels abandoned: 

I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

Orual understands the issue lies not so much with God, but with herself.  She has not allowed herself to have a specific face for the gods to engage with.  She has hidden herself.  She has not owned her true identity, with all of its blessings and pains.  She has forced herself to be almost anonymous, and so it is no fault of the gods that they cannot help her. 

This is a crucial reality to grasp when it comes to pain and suffering in our lives.  If we want to make some sense out of suffering, and particularly to have God speak to us and comfort us, we need to give ourselves a face.  If we do not acknowledge our specific pain, and resulting anger with God, we are faceless.  But if we do, then we are a real person and God can love us.  It is the same reason why a husband and wife must articulate to one another why they are hurt.

Meister Eckhart wrote, "To get at the core of God at his greatest, one must first get into the core of himself at his least." We, in a way, are the key to opening the door to God.

Thank You, President Washington

The Constitutional Convention got off to a slow start in May 1787.  Having met already for a week, on Sunday, May 20th, the group decided not to work, but instead to attend a religious service.  Interestingly, they decided on a Catholic Mass.  There were no Catholics present in the group (the Catholic delegate, Daniel Carroll, from Maryland, had not yet arrived in Philadelphia).  Besides, Philadelphia held the country's largest Episcopalian church and, this same week, the city was hosting a national convention for the Presbyterian church.

Catholics, up to this point in the American colonies and the young American nation, had been overtly persecuted.  Catholics were forbidden from voting or holding public office.  John Jay, who would go on to become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, procured a law in New York maintaining the ban on Catholic participation in politics.  In Massachusetts, it was a capital offense for a priest to preach or celebrate Mass publicly.  

When asked why they attended Mass, George Mason, a Protestant, wrote: "it was more out of Compliment than Religion, and more out of Curiosity than Compliment." Ah, the curiosity of Catholicism! Something that still draws people today.

Mason went on to describe what the experience was like: "While I was pleased with the Air of Solemnity so generally diffused through the Church, I was somewhat disgusted with the frequent tinkling of a little bell, which put me in mind of the drawing up of the curtain for a puppet-shew."  I guess the altar bells are not for everyone!

Nonetheless, the experience was powerful that enough George Washington led a group of Protestants the following Sunday once again to Catholic Mass at St. Mary's Parish in downtown Philadelphia.  His message was clear: bigotry against Catholicism would no longer stand.  Thank you, President Washington.

Three Stairways to Christ

The Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883 and designed by John Roebling, is a cable-suspension bridge.  There are two towers connected by horizontal cables.  The cable lines run to the land, ending at an anchorage. Emanating down from the horizontal cables are vertical cables that hold up the deck bridge.  Weight transfers from the cables to the towers, which is then transferred down to the ground.  In the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, two large pine boxes, called caissons, were floated down the East River.  When the limestone towers began to be constructed on top of the caissons, they sank until they reached the bottom of the river.  Workers were able to enter into these boxes to dig into the bedrock to allow the caissons to sink even further and form a solid foundation.  They were then filled with brick and concrete.  Everything rests, essentially, on these two pillars.

An interesting aside: vaulted chambers were built into the ramped anchorages at the ends of the bridge.  Situated within limestone and maintaining a perfect temperature of 60 degrees, these vaults became perfect wine cellars.  In fact, the city rented these cellars out to liquor vendors.  On the Manhattan-side entry into one of the vaults was a shrine to the Blessed Mother with a statue of Mary.  It was called the Blue Grotto.

Saint Catherine of Siena was no stranger to bridges.  She invoked the bridge as an image of Christ.  Our Lord is the span between heaven and earth, and the soul must traverse Christ to reach God. There are three stairways on this Christ-bridge.  One stairway is our detachment from sin, the second is the practice of the virtues, and the third is the loving union with God.  May we marvel at Christ, just as we do the Brooklyn Bridge.

Running the Race

At the start of the 20th Century, less than one percent of the population practiced any sporting activity.  Sport was used only as a form of military training or as a pastime for the upper class.  To increase participation in sports for the health of society, and help promote the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympics, called upon the Vatican for an endorsement.  Pope Pius X readily agreed.  "All right," responded the Pope to an audience, "if it is impossible to understand that this can be done, then I myself will do exercise in front of everyone so that they may see that, if the Pope can do it, anyone can do it."

Over a century later the vast majority of the population exercises.  Pope Francis, the present Roman Pontiff, had this to say in audience: 

In rugby one runs towards a goal. This word, which is so beautiful and so important, makes us think about life, because all our lives lead towards a goal. This search is tiring, and requires commitment and struggle, but the important thing is not to run alone. To arrive at the goal we need to run together, the ball is passed from hand to hand, and we advance together, until we reach the goal. And then we celebrate!

Sports are not only good for our health—Saint Paul spoke of "running the race" (1 Cor 9:24) and the need to present our bodies "as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God" (Rom 12:1)—there are also moral and spiritual lessons sports instill, as Francis suggests. So, when enjoying the Super Bowl, perhaps we can be grateful to the Church to whom we owe, in part, its popularity.

 

Father Emil Kapaun

Father Emil Kapaun quickly enrolled as military chaplain following his ordination in 1940.  After serving in WWII, he found himself in Korea as a Captain with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army.  When his group was overrun by the Chinese on November 2, 1950, Kapaun ran from foxhole to foxhole, lifting men out so they could retreat, giving Last Rites to others who had been mortally wounded, hearing confessions over gunfire, and, in several cases, dragging men to safety at the casualty collection point.  He ran back and forth across 'no-man's land' and at last determined to stay behind with the wounded men who could not be transported.  He used his preaching skills to negotiate the removal of a few more soldiers and was finally forced to a POW camp, though not before stepping in front of Sergeant First Class Herbert Miller, who was about to be executed by a Chinese soldier.  Miller was spared and Father Kapaun began the 87-mile death march to prison.

Kapaun carried men on his back during the march and when the depleted group arrived, the chaplain did not rest, but set about building fires, purifying drinking water, obtaining scraps of food, and tending to the sick and dying.  He rallied the whole group, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to pray the rosary together.  He prayed individually with men, baptizing a few into the Catholic faith, and gave homilies to the group.  The Chinese guards ordered him to stop and, when he refused, he was stripped naked and forced to stand on a block of ice for several hours.  Worn down, he was left to die alone, which he did on May 23, 1951.  His body was thrown into a mass grave.  This Medal of Honor recipient is an icon of the priesthood and hero in the Catholic Church and United States.