Tassel of the Cloak

Whatever happened to Shelly Pennefather

Villanova University has one of the best college basketball programs in the country.  Between the men and women's programs, 21 national championships have been won.  Many of the players have gone on to play in the NBA and WNBA.  The individual with the most points (2,408) in Villanova basketball history is Shelly Pennefather, who played from 1983-1987.  In 1987 she won the Wade Trophy, given to the best women's college basketball player.  She played professionally for a few years in Japan, as the WNBA did not yet exist, earning nearly half a million dollars in today's standard.  And then she disappeared.  "Whatever happened to Shelly Pennefather" read a recent headline. 

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God's Gate

The most famous tower in the Old Testament is Babel, meaning "God's gate." It was man's attempt to reach God on his own ability.  This failed.  But there is another tower that can help us reach God, and that is the Tower of David—Mary.

The tower of David is a reference to Mary's physical beauty, her strength, security, steadfastness, and inaccessible womanhood.  Vigilance and ascent are other attributes of a tower.  We need to be vigilant in the spiritual life; on the lookout for pitfalls and sins that will lead us away from God and make us fall back into ourselves and, ultimately, into Hell.  We are, instead, to ascend upwards to God.  We cannot do this on our own, but only through the assistance of the Blessed Mother.  The Tower of David rises high into the Jerusalem sky. 

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dit dit dit DAH

Among Beethoven's masterful innovations to music was making the final movement of a symphony as strong, if not stronger, than the first movement.  In the prior Baroque and Classical periods, the opening of the symphony was the tour de force and each movement slowly subsided in energy and ingenuity.  Most everyone is familiar with the first movement of Beethoven's 5th, in particular the motif dit dit dit DAH.  Following the tradition, Beethoven designed the opening to captivate the listener, to draw him in.  But listen to the fourth and final movement of the Symphony no.5 in C Minor (which happens to be one of my favorite pieces in all classical music).  People did not walk out of Beethoven's music hall ready for bed.  They were exhilarated. 

Is this not an analogy for the Catholic life?  Our baptism is the captivating opening movement.  We are drawn in.  The crescendo is initiated.  And just as that famous motif repeats throughout Beethoven's fifth symphony, the promptings of grace inaugurated at baptism resonate through our life, bringing us peace and joy.  At last, Catholics do not end their lives with a whimper, fading off into oblivion like the final movements of the earlier musical epochs.  No, we end triumphantly.  We are carried off to the ever-expanding Trinity from whence we came.  Our life lived in baptism and through the sacraments on this earth continues on into the next, now glorified.  The end of the Catholic life is even greater than the beginning, an ode to joy. 

Pin Cushion Priest

Someone once told me the large colorful robe I was wearing at Mass, called the chasuble, made me look like a giant silk pin cushion.  One of the nicest compliments I have been paid, I must admit.  It is part of our lives as priests to be tools, and dispensable ones at that. 

First, a tool.  The priest at Mass offers up sacrifice through Jesus to the Father.  When I offer those prayers, you stick your prayers and intentions to me, the pin cushion.  That sacrifice becomes more plentiful and pleasing the more pins, or prayers, you stick in me.  It is not James Wallace's sacrifice, but the parish’s sacrifice in Christ. 

Which leads me to my second characteristic: dispensability.  The Sacramentary, or the book that contains the Eucharist Prayer from which the priest recites, reads, “we pray for Pope N. and Bishop N.”  'N' is an indication to insert the current names.  As important as the pope and the cardinal are, they come and go, hence their names are not written permanently.  If the Archbishop of Chicago and the Holy Father are spare parts that can be replaced, then even more so with me!  Eventually, another pin cushion will come after me and offer your sacrifice to God Almighty.  I will go to another parish and do the same.  It is your offerings that make the sacrifice unique and pleasing to the Father, an authentic Catholic Mass at Saint Juliana Parish. 

So, please, have intentions and throw them at me when you see the pin cushion raise his hands behind the altar.  It is a great privilege to be a “pin-cushion priest.”

God is a Fan of Us

Fans, a few years back, voted as the most memorable moment in Major League Baseball history Cal Ripken Jr. on September 6, 1995 breaking Lou Gehrig's streak with his 2,131st consecutive game played.  In the age of SportsCenter where the only highlights seem to be of the mammoth home run or a winning play from Game 7, this vote is a fascinating one indeed.  Fans appreciated endurance more than entertainment.

Forgive me for the trite connection, but God is a fan of us.  If he were to vote for the most memorable moment(s) in our spiritual life, I bet it would be us going to Mass week in and week out.  Whether we were busy or feeling ready, we went.  And we may have had a great experience during Mass or we may have fallen asleep, just like Ripken had great and horrible games during the streak.  But, like the Iron Man, we returned next Sunday.  God appreciates our commitment to him more than the results.  Commitment, achieved through the will, is a reflection of love.  The beauty of the spiritual life is that love for God need not be flashy.  In fact, it can be rather dull.  Commitment to the ordinary is extraordinary.

Fans, perhaps subconsciously, acknowledged Ripken's willpower because they were awed by his genuine love for a game.  I cannot think of a better occasion to make a memorable moment, an act of profound love, than routinely attending Mass in Ordinary Time.  I hope our streak never ends.

The House of Gold

California has the fifth largest economy in the world, a prosperity that can be traced back to the gold rush of 1848.  Prior to the discovery of golf, California was a barely populated territory annexed by the United States as a result of the Mexican-American War.  Thousands would migrate to the area, towns founded, a transcontinental railroad built, and a new society established.  The influx of the metal aided the dormant American economy and many professions, beyond that of mining, profited.  The admission of California as a state, shortly thereafter, was part of the 1850 Compromise that hastened the Civil War.

All this because of gold.

Gold is the most precious, beautiful, prized, sought after, incorruptible, durable metal there is.  When Solomon built the temple to God in Jerusalem in 953 BC, it was considered the most precious edifice in the world.  We read that "there was nothing in the temple that was not covered with gold" (1 Kings 6:22).  The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus provides this inventory: twenty thousand golden tables, a hundred thousand golden vials, eighty thousand golden dishes and twenty thousand golden censers.  Only was this splendor worthy of God.

It is fitting, thus, that Mary should be called "the House of Gold." She is the most precious, highly sought after, standard-setting, durable person there is, after her son.  Her soul, like gold, is refined, pure, and incorruptible (see the connection to the Assumption).  The way Solomon's temple was filled with gold objects, so is Mary's soul filled with graces.  The way the 49ers sacrificed everything to mine for gold, saints have labored for Mary.  And the way gold led to the transformation of America, so too has Mary, the House of Gold, transformed the Church and countless souls.

 

The Concord Hymn

During the Revolutionary War, George Washington ordered all American soldiers to attend religious services and decreed "a public whipping" for any man who disturbed services.  It is said that on the eve of the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 that the Minutemen kept themselves occupied and calm by singing and chanting the psalms from the Old Testament.  In fact, half a century later, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would famously rhyme about the role of God in the battle in his "Concord Hymn" (1837):  

O Thou, that made these heroes dare

To die, and leave their children free

Bid Time and Nature gently spare

The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Washington was a great believer in both God and his providence.  He once said this, in response to New England ministers who had complained that there was no explicit reference to Jesus Christ in the Constitution: "The path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction."

Washington's Secretary of State and drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, had a bit more complicated religious background.  Nevertheless, when Congress was attempting to design the official "Seal of the United States", Jefferson offered a suggestion.  His drawing depicted the Israelites wandering in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt.  Somehow Jefferson saw God's hand in guiding the American people.  Interestingly, Benjamin Franklin also offered a religious design: the scene of Moses leading the Israelites through the parted Red Sea waters.  Neither of these submissions were chosen and, ultimately, the eagle, pyramid, and eye were used for the great seal, as seen on the one dollar bill.  The eye did, however, represent God's providence and the motto, "In God We Trust" is on our currency still to this day.

Two Hearts United

Sacred Heart of Jesus - Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh, Wisconsin

One of the more unique depictions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus can be found at the Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  The statue is of Jesus sitting down with his arm wrapped around a small boy.  The boy, clearly in distress, rests his head on our Lord's shoulder.  Jesus' entire attention is on the child.  He is not thinking about anything else.  He is like a good parent completely present to his child who is upset about something.  The child finds comfort in being able to simply be with someone who offers unconditional love.  Jesus does not need to say or do anything.  The boy is not asking for anything.  The two hearts—one taking in, the other offering out--are united.

Jesus desires us to be like children (see Matthew 18:3). He tells the apostles to let the children come unto him (see Matthew 19:14).  Children are completely dependent and vulnerable and authentic.  When we acknowledge our pain and open ourselves to God, the Sacred Heart begins to beat.  Christ pours his love and comfort out upon us.  Our heart communes with his--this is the essence of mystery of the Sacred Heart.

We are called to take our sorrow and nothingness to the Lord and sit with him, surrounded by his love.  We can trust that Jesus will be attuned to us. Whatever wound we bear will be silently healed.

There is a second part, then, to this Sacred Heart image. We are called to be like Christ and offer that love and comfort to another.  Whether we are parents or not, the challenge is for us to focus our complete attention, in love and desire, upon those before us.  We can be an alter Christus.

 

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien was a devout Catholic. He said on one occasion the Lord of the Rings is "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." Lord of the Rings, while not an allegory, like C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia (Tolkien was instrumental in Lewis' conversion from atheism to Christianity, by the way) is simply meant to make us feel Catholic.

The hobbits are innocent.  Only Frodo, who is celibate, can carry the ring. He is assisted by the Lady Galadriel and other strong women who are inspired, in Tolkien's mind, by the Blessed Mother.  (Tolkien had a great devotion to the Virgin Mary—he had part of the Litany of Loreto memorized and even translated it into his created language.) And Frodo is fed on his journey by lembas, the special elven bread that does not have much taste but is sustaining.  Yes, the Eucharist!   

Tolkien had a great love for the Eucharist.  A priest, Fr. Francis Morgan, took care of JRR and his brother after they orphaned at an early age.  JRR served Mass and participated in the 40 Hours Devotion, which involves adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  And, towards the end of his life, Tolkien wrote this to his son Christopher:

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament ... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth ... which every man's heart desires.

Not just Christopher, but Tolkien's oldest son, John, took to himself his father's love of the Eucharist.  John became a Catholic priest and celebrated daily that which directed JRR's life and was the guiding light for middle earth.

Morse and Marconi

The first electric communication ever dispatched read, "What Hath God Wrought."  It was tapped out by Samuel Morse on May 24, 1844.  He was sitting amidst an audience in the United States Supreme Court building.  The message was delivered within moments to Baltimore. 

Morse obtained the passage from Numbers 23:23. The Scriptural context is the story of Balaam, a pagan prophet sent to curse the Israelites. When Balaam sees the people he is so impressed he instead blesses them.  He prophesies that this people will not die out but will spring up like a lion and people will say of them, "Behold, what hath God wrought!"

Morse, the inventor of the single-wire telegraph system, had seen the transformation of the United States in the first half of the 19th Century, arguably the greatest period of growth and progress in our nation's history.  The US expanded from shore to shore and had revolutions on a communications, market, transportation, and religious level, all of which inaugurated new systems that are, in many ways, still in place in our nation.  Morse saw God at work, and the leading figures of the country in the chambers of the Supreme Court that day would not have disagreed. Communications technology led to the cohesion of the expansive land.  Yes, the Civil War would shortly ensue, but the outcome of that war addressed our core wound (slavery) and eventually united the nation further.  God was at work not just in America, but in technology.

A century later, Guglielmo Marconi, the Novel Prize winner and inventor of mobile devices, echoed Morse's sentiments when he said, "I declare with pride that I am a believer. I believe in the power of prayer. I believe in it not only as a believing Catholic but as a scientist."

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is the last of the ancient church Fathers.  He founded the Abbey of Clairvaux and was renowned both for his own personal sanctity and for his theological and spiritual writings.  He also is called the "Troubadour of Mary," as he had an incredibly deep devotion to the Blessed Mother.

A monk who lived before Bernard, named Radbertus, once wrote this: "Mary is your sister." Bernard read this and must have pondered the relationship with his own sister, Humbeline, in his contemplation and exposition of Mary.

Bernard loved his little sister, Humbeline, though for a while he was disappointed in her.  Married to a wealthy nobleman of Lorraine, it was said Humbeline "was more notable for dancing than devotion." Bernard refused to see her until she changed.  One day he wrote a simple note to her: "Remember our mother's virtue." 

So moved by this comment, Humbeline persuaded her husband, Guy de Marcy, to let her become a nun. She entered the convent, was elected abbess, and lived a great life of prayer and penance.  In fact, when her sisters thought her self-denial and asceticism too extreme, she responded, "That is all very well for you, my sisters, who have been serving God in religion all your lives. But I have lived so long in the world and of the world that no penance can be too much for me."

Humbeline's four brothers were all incredibly proud of their sister. None was prouder than Bernard, who held his little sister, eventually canonized a saint, as she died in his arms.

Brothers have a fatherly care for their sisters and take great pride in them.  A sister can prompt an individual to holiness.  Saint Humbeline did for Bernard, as Mary, our little sister, can for us.

 

The Cedar of Lebanon

The Cedar of Lebanon is the most referenced tree in the Bible. It is considered "the first tree" (1 Kings 4:33).  Cedars are strong, durable, fragrant, tall, and graceful.  Where gold was not used in Solomon's Temple, cedar was instead used. Solomon also built his personal chariot out of the noble wood. Eagles built their nests on the tops of cedar trees.  The tree's roots dig deep into the soil, reaching the water bed.  Hence the psalmist's wisdom: "the cedar tree is planted by God" (Psalm 104:16).  The container of water used to purify leprosy was also made of cedar.  The aromatic resin of the cedar was used for embalming, as it is resistant to decay, and also used to repel snakes.  We could go on. 

In the middle ages, the "Cedar Tree" or "The Cedar of Lebanon" became a well-known epithet for Mary.  Her roots tap deep down into Christ, and she can withstand anything, like the branches of the cedar endure all seasons.  Mary is the cedrus exaltata (exalted cedar).

There is one more quality of cedar I must mention.  The wood is absorbent.  Water will not build up on the wood itself and mildew or mold will not form.  Yet, it will retain humidity.

If you know me well, you can guess where I am going with this.  Because of the particular qualities of this softwood, cedar is used to build humidors for cigars.  Cedar will prevent the cigar from drying out. 

And so I have been able to achieve something I have been wanting to do for quite some time: connect the Virgin Mary with smoking cigars!  A relationship with the 'Cedar of Lebanon' will assist our relationship with Christ and make us strong, graceful and relaxed individuals.

The Lily of the Valley

"The Lily of the Valley" is an epithet for the Blessed Virgin.  In simply describing this May flower we can see a few attributes of Mary. 

The lily, with its white petals, symbolizes purity.  The Easter Lily's flower, atop the straight stem (honesty), is in the shape of a trumpet, pointing up to heaven, as if it is announcing the good news of the Resurrection.  But it is also in an open position, able to receive the gifts and love of God.  Inside the flower are seven gold (in some cases, red) seeds.  The seven sacraments and gifts of the Holy Spirit come from God.  And in connection to purity, the red seeds symbolize the fire of love for God that burns within the virgin's heart.  The Blessed Virgin is no shrinking violet.  She is a burning bush.

The posture of lily of the valley species is slightly different.  The bell-shaped flower on the wilted stem points to the ground, symbolizing a teardrop and the virtue of humility.  Mary, in saying "I am the handmaid of the Lord," has no ounce of pride.

The lily is the first of the spring flowers to bloom, sprouting from the cold earth around March 25th (the Annunciation).  These hardy and fragrant perennials grow abundantly, rapidly and in any environment, be it a valley, plain, manicured garden or a wild field.  Wherever they be, they beautify the landscape.  Hosea, prophesying the growth of Israel, said, "he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon" (Hosea 14:5).

"Consider the lily of the fields," Jesus himself told us. "Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these" (Matthew 6:28-29).  We should consider Mary, the Lily of the Valley and greatest flower of all.

Notre Dame and the Pieta

From the homily on Good Friday

Michelangelo's pietà—the image of Mary holding her dead son at the foot of the cross—was perhaps the most famous depiction of the subject until this past week.  Now, I argue, it is the pietà underneath the high altar of Notre Dame in Paris.  Two images of the sculpture just after the monumental fire stand out.  One is of three French firefighters looking into the smoke-filled nave of the church.  The statue can barely be seen, other than the brilliant gold cross above Mary.  The other image is of the statue with a pile of charred rubble before it.

Yes, the pietà at Notre-Dame de Paris is a symbol of resilience, just like the cathedral itself.  The 800-year-old church survived the Black Plague, the 100 Years War, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Hitler, who wanted to burn it.  But Notre Dame is something more, which is why this fire made the front page of every town's newspaper in the world.  A church is, fundamentally, our gift of worship and praise to God.  Sure, we celebrate community and even the sacraments in a church, and we are inspired by the art, the preaching and the music.  But a church building is not about us.  It is about God.  The cross is God's gift to us.  Our gift in reciprocation is a church.  And Notre Dame—the most beautiful church in the world—is the best we as a human race can give. 

And it burned.  It is up for us now, individually, to give as a gift to God our hearts.  Lay your burned heart before Christ when you venerate the cross, and your gift will be greater than Notre Dame.