He was always careful that the bruises wouldn’t show. He’d learned that over the years with her. Once, early on, he’d been careless and he noticed her sister staring at the purplish fingerprints he’d left on her upper arm. A joke about her clumsiness and his having to catch her before she fell and the sister forgot what she’d seen. By now, her “clumsiness” was well-known to their family and friends and it came in handy when he’d needed it to. But he was careful now. When they’d first met, she’d been so sweet and always did what she could to please him and make him happy. She was quiet and respectful. She didn’t talk back to him or question his authority as her husband. If he wanted a meal, she stopped what she was doing and cooked for him. If he needed a backrub, she gave him one. Nothing that he wanted was too small for her total attention. And that’s the way he wanted it, the way he wanted her. She started causing problems when he lost his job. His stupid boss never understood him, and one day he just couldn’t take it anymore. He stormed out of the mill in a rage and never looked back. She told him not to worry, that she could get a job and help pay the bills until he was back on his feet. “Back on his feet?” Did she think it was his fault he’d lost his job? She didn’t understand anything at all. But he let her take that job at the dry cleaners, while he looked around for something worthy of his talents. That job of hers was the biggest problem of all, thinking back. She loved it more than she loved him. Always going in early, staying late, volunteering to work on her day off. He knew what was really going on, though. It was her and that boss of hers. Of course, she denied it, but he knew. He could tell. So he had to keep her in line. She made him so mad. It was really her fault that he hit her. Any husband would do the same thing. Right?
28 Mar 2012 1 Comment
25 Mar 2012 Leave a comment
He lives alone and likes it that way. He enjoys cooking elaborate meals for himself from the the food in his well-stocked pantry. Nothing gives him more happiness than a roaring fire in his cozy den, a good book to read and a pipe full of his favorite tobacco. He entertains rarely but when he does, he’s an excellent and thoughtful host to his friends and family. He leads a very quiet and a very ordinary life. He was sure that’s how his life would always be. But he was wrong. He was about to be called to play a role in a great story — one that would involve risking his life for his friends and fighting against all odds for the triumph of good over evil.
Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, Hobbiton, The Shire, is very much like you and me. Content, happy and in so many ways unaware of his gifts and his calling. He’s middle-aged, prosperous, and content. But his creator, J.R.R. Tolkien, has made him for greater things. Our creator has made us for greater things, too. He calls us to enter into a life with Him and to leave the things and the ways of our comfortable lives behind us. Like Bilbo, our adventure is one that challenges us to abandon what we’ve known and to enter into a new life, for His purpose. There’s a lot of researched scholarship which is devoted to understanding Tolkien’s Catholic imagining of Middle Earth and all the creatures that fill it. But literary criticism isn’t my strength. Like Bilbo, I’m just your average, home-loving hobbit — minus the hairy feet. Like Bilbo, though I’ve been called to a great journey that is still unfolding and I think, in many ways, his story is my story, too. And maybe it’s yours as well.
Bilbo found his calling when he left his cozy hobbit-hole and stepped out into the wide world with his band of friends. But merely leaving the Shire and its comforts behind him didn’t transfigure Bilbo into his truest self. It was the journey, with all its discomforts and dangers that revealed to him his purpose. And this revelation wasn’t instantaneous and it didn’t immediately transform him from hobbit to hero. He had setbacks and failings — many of them — and often longed for nothing else but the comfort and larder of his den back home. But Bilbo persevered. He kept going. He drew strength from his circle of friends, in all their gifts and weaknesses. He learned what he could do and what he needed help with. And Bilbo wasn’t afraid to ask for help. He relied on dwarves and elves and men and eagles in equal measure. And he relied on Gandalf, always there in a pinch to keep him on the road. The road itself is a main character in Tolkien’s story. He shows us how our lives are most-fully revealed when we step outside our comfort zones and follow a greater purpose.
We learn from Bilbo that there is good that is worth fighting for, no matter how evil the world around us may seem at times. We see the allure of evil and how it can both entice and enslave us. Even his friends the dwarves became victims of their own greed for the dragon’s spoils. Possessing all that gold and silver becomes the end in itself for them. They fight and bicker and turn away from Bilbo. This is how evil can divide us one from the other, by its worldly attractiveness and temporary beauty, or prestige or power.. It would be easy to see Bilbo as a kind of “everyman saint” and Gandalf as the Christ-figure, leading him to redemption. I’ll stop short of that here. What I will suggest is that in a culture of Twilight and The Hunger Games, Tolkien’s writings can offer your ‘tweens (and yourself) an imaginative and exciting world rich in Christian values and symbolism. They’ll see friends working and sacrificing together for a common good. They’ll find acts of charity and valor and moral courage. In Tolkien’s world there is objective truth and absolute evil with no moral relativism. Suffering is never wanton or useless, but is always embraced by heroes as a way of working out their salvation which, in turn, brings about a right ordering of their larger world. In Bilbo, we can see ourselves on our own Christian journey, only better. And with hairy feet.
“There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”
—Gandalf describing Bilbo, The Hobbit, Chapter 1
21 Mar 2012 Leave a comment
In the middle of this political season we seem to be continually confronted with messages labeled either “liberal” or “conservative.” It’s red state versus blue state, small government versus big government, cutting spending versus raising taxes, ad infinitum. And this kind of polarization goes beyond politics into our larger lives as well. We’re either Apple or PC, Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic. After a while it all seems a bit futile. Whatever truth may lie in the message of one group or another tends to get lost in the back and forth of competing talking points. Discourse becomes mere noise. When that happens, all but the most committed partisans tend to tune things out. At least I do.
Unfortunately today this same kind of polarizing rhetoric occurs
within the Church as well. It used to be that Catholics were either
“practicing” or “fallen away.” You either went to Mass every Sunday
and received the Sacraments or you didn’t. If you were “in” it meant
that you accepted the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops
and tried, with God’s grace, to live out the teachings of the Church
as best you could. You were either all in and a committed believer or
you were out of the fold. Today, things are much more complicated and
nuanced. Following the various reforms of Vatican II, parish life has
changed in form and practice more than once. Many times these changes happened as a result of a particular pastor’s liturgical interests or style. In many dioceses, clear pastoral leadership on the
implementation of the Council reforms took years to coalesce into
solid, practical norms. In some cases, this is still a work in
progress. Over the decades, our differences have followed the secular
trends of liberal/conservative, progressive/traditional, or however
else you choose to characterize us.
For outsiders looking in, like the vast majority of mainstream media
types, these differences are hard to understand. The world finds it
very puzzling to imagine a Church that would include so many disparate
groups. They stare at us and point and write their opinions of what’s
“wrong” with the Catholic Church. But mostly they want to tell us
what we need to do to “fix” it. What this means really is that they
want us to become a Catholic Church they can be comfortable with.
Recently, a group took out an ad in the New York Times urging
“liberal” Catholics to leave the Church. It’s a rather odd obsession
if you think about it since, as we say here in the South: they don’t
have a dog in this fight.
But the Catholic Church is a mother who loves and embraces all her
children. We are, after all, the church of the Big Tent. As the
Irish writer James Joyce penned about us: “Here comes everybody!”
Benedictines, Jesuits, Carmelites, Opus Dei and everybody in-between.
We enjoy Mass in Latin and we celebrate charismatic healing Masses,
too. We chant. We dance. We pray in silence. We pray in tongues.
The truth of our faith can have many different expressions. Yet at
the Eucharistic table of our Lord, all of us gather in worship and
adoration as one Body of Christ. This oneness is the strength of our
Church and is something every Catholic must defend and protect. When
we let the world define us, we become more like the world and less
like the spotless Bride of Christ. We need to be telling our own
story, not allowing the world to tell it for us. Pope Benedict XVI
knows this well and his teaching on media and evangelization leads us
to embrace and exploit the resources of the digital age as the means
of our storytelling. When we are the ones telling our story, we
reflect the various threads and patterns of our faith that are woven
together by Christ into the living tapestry of the Catholic Church.
The vigorous and courageous pastoral leadership of our Bishops is a
critical part of this storytelling and many are emerging to lead us
through this next chapter of the Catholic Church in America. None of
us can afford to stand on the sidelines at this critical time in our
long history. Our religious freedom is much more important than the
labels we apply to one another. So if someone asks you if you’re a
“liberal” Catholic or a “conservative” Catholic, there can be only one
response: “I am a Roman Catholic.”
“The Bishops speak for the Catholic and Apostolic faith, and those who
hold that faith gather around them.”
—Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago
18 Mar 2012 2 Comments
14 Mar 2012 2 Comments
–St. Jose Maria Escriva,The Way, 825
13 Mar 2012 Leave a comment
12 Mar 2012 Leave a comment
On Sunday, July 20, 1969 at 3:17 EST, two men first set foot on the surface of the moon. Neil Armstrong famously took that “giant leap
for mankind,” followed shortly by his partner, Buzz Aldrin. The third member of their crew, Michael Collins, orbited above them in the
command module. After landing, Aldrin opened a tiny package he’d brought with him from his church back home and consumed what wasinside. He read the Scripture, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me will bring forth much fruit” (John 15:5). The package he’d brought with him had contained a tiny silver chalice, a vial of wine, and a communion wafer. As Aldrin later wrote, “In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup…the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there were the communion elements.” While Aldrin’s bread and wine weren’t the Catholic communion of Christ’s Body and Blood, his faith in God’s word and his reverence for the idea of communion with God in that historic moment reflect our human need to connect with our Creator. In his own way, Buzz Aldrin was bringing a sense of the Church to the new world of the moon.
But the Lord’s Church exists in community. Jesus taught us to “love
one another” as He loves us (John 13:34-35). He wants us to bring the
Good News of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In St. Matthew’s
Gospel, Jesus spoke to His disciples about this very thing:
“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in
the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and
teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”(Matthew
28:19-20). This is called “The Great Commission.” From the days of
the Apostles, the Catholic Church has sent out missionaries to every
corner of the world. Many of Christ’s Twelve were martyred for their
faith in foreign lands including India, Russia, and Armenia. In the
centuries that followed, the Church and Her religious orders ventured
to wherever there were people. St. Augustine of Canterbury took the
Gospel to England and St. Patrick traveled to Ireland. St. Francis
Xavier preached and taught throughout Asia and Fr. Matteo Ricci took
Catholicism to 16th century China. In our own country, Blessed
Junipero Serra established the churches along California’s famous
“mission trail.” From Her beginning, the work of the Church has been
to pour out the love of Christ to a lost and hurting world. In that
pouring out, we make connections with one another and create
relationships. Love exists in relationship, not in a vacuum.
Sometimes our missionaries met a martyr’s death. Even today, being
Catholic in many of the world’s countries can bring about repression,
persecution and death. Despite the dangers, the “Great Commission” of
Christ goes on.
We are all called to be examples of Christ to the people in our lives. God doesn’t lead most of us to the foreign mission fields, but rather
to the neighborhoods and communities in which we live and work.
Living our faith in our own country today can be difficult. If we
stand up for our beliefs as Catholic Christians we can experience the
“little martyrdoms” of losing face and losing friends. It takes
courage in our culture to say: “I believe in the Real Presence of
Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. I believe in celibacy for single
people and in chastity for all people. I believe that marriage is a
sacrament of God and that it is created by Him to join one man and one
woman together in a lifelong commitment of love and mutual respect. I
believe in the sanctity of human life from conception until natural
death. I believe abortion is murder. I believe that artificial
contraception is inherently evil.” These beliefs are counter-cultural
in the same way that Jesus is counter-cultural. We see our Catholic
faith being attacked, ridiculed and marginalized in the media every
day. The world just doesn’t “get” Catholicism. And I think this
means we’re doing something right.
So when you’re feeling discouraged by all the attacks on Christianity,
get into your fighting stance: in a pew, on your knees, before our
Lord and Savior. Pray that you’ll have the heart and courage to be a
worthy servant in today’s mission fields of work and community and
social media. Pray also that our Bishops will have the courage of the
Apostles to fearlessly proclaim the Gospel of Christ and to shepherd
His flock as He would have them do. And love. Love one another and
care for one another: the poor, the immigrants, the sick, the widow
and orphan, the imprisoned, the unborn and the lonely. When we love
as Christ loves, we unleash the power of God’s grace which can soften
the hardest of hearts. Every lost soul is a mission field.
“In this world, you will have trouble. But take courage, I have
conquered the world.” —(John 16:33)