Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” (a 2012 novel by Robin Sloan) came to me just at the right time – and for that I thank my godmother! I had been looking for a new audiobook and received the recommendation just before Holy Week. The book itself is a lot of fun – a fictional story about a set of adventures by a character named Clay Jannon. Clay works in the modern-day California tech industry, but ends up taking a job at the titular bookstore. It has a very small selection of normal books up front, and then a massive set of secret shelves behind. Only an eccentric group of patrons are allowed access to this back section, and their study demands 24-hour access. Clay naturally begins to look into this mystery, and a rollicking adventure ensues. 

While the tone of this book is a bit irreverent (probably a PG-13 rating), it gets into deeper themes that I think were particularly striking during Holy Week. I’d like to share two reflections on it. The first will avoid spoilers, while the second does contain some spoilers to the conclusion (I’ll put a warning before you get to that point!).

First point: Early on, Mr Penumbra explains that the secret section is for those who are committed to “reading deeply.” This was striking since during Holy Week I try to spend extra time in “lectio divina,” which refers to the prayerful reading of the Sacred Scripture. The goal in this practice is not to get through as much Scripture as possible, but to get as much out of Scripture as possible. It involves reflection, conversation with God, and openness to the voice of God speaking within us.

“Reading deeply” can also apply by analogy to what we hear or see. The challenge is not to let words simply go in one ear and out the other, but to let them take root and bear fruit. Holy Week includes many of the greatest liturgies of the year – Palm Sunday, the Chrism Mass, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday. At times our mind can be in a million places, and rather than “praying deeply,” we are just counting down the minutes until we are done. If we do this we miss out on the particular grace that the sacraments have to draw us into the mystery of redemption. Thus, “reading deeply” was a perfect piece of advice for Holy Week!

[Warning – spoilers to follow!]

Second point: The second relevant theme of the book was immortality. The readers who Clay meets at Mr Penumbra’s bookstore are seeking some hidden secret of eternal life in the “Codex Vitae” (ie, “book of life”) of the founder of their order. They believe information is encoded in the writing that will point to some key insight from medieval alchemy. Likewise, Clay’s friends in the tech world are seeking immortality through virtual reality and AI. Both groups are trying to overcome the limits of this life. They want more than a temporary reality that eventually fades away. Sloan points out a more satisfying solution than the two above, but he stops short of really asking the religious question. Is our desire for life in abundance ultimately hopeless, or are there any foundations for a hope that does not disappoint? Once again, this point is brought home powerfully in the liturgies of Holy Week. I’ll end with this reflection from the Scriptures-

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time. In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of [your] faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:3-9)

The Upside Down

[Note: this post has very mild spoilers for the first season of Stranger Things]

I’m currently watching the newest season of Stranger Things on Netflix (Season 4), which reminded me of something I had thought about posting back when the first season aired. In the first season a lot of the mystery centers upon something called “the Upside Down.” What is it, and what threat does it pose? It proves to be a sort of parallel dimension to earth, with everything twisted in a dark direction (hence the name). The objects of this world appear dark, corroded, and suffused with a sinister miasma. It is cold and largely devoid of life, leaving those that find their way there isolated and alone. What life they do encounter is monstrous and desires to consume them, body and soul. These monsters stalk along right next to us in this life, hidden from sight but hunting for a place to break through and attack. The Upside Down is a terrifying place!

What struck me about this is how it actually gives us an insight into heaven, although in an inverted way. Heaven is often thought of as far away and unconnected to this life. However, this is not what our faith teaches. St Paul quotes a poem to describe our connection to God: “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Heaven right now is a spiritual existence – meaning non-material and therefore not visible, yet one that permeates this reality. We often picture it as geographically located above us (the words “heaven” or “cielo” point to the sky), but in fact this is just an analogy used as a crutch to help us imagine it.

Heaven can be seen as the complete right-ordering of this world, “the Right-side Up” in contrast to “the Upside Down.” It is a place of light and warmth. It is a place of communion with God and the angels/saints. These are not monsters seeking to destroy us, but helpers close at hand to lend aid. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, we are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (12:1).

One place that we experience this in a particular way is in the celebration of the Mass – which in the Eastern Church is often called “the Divine Liturgy.” Here we enter into the proximity of earth and heaven in a way that strongly echoes an inverse of the Upside Down. We have the chance to encounter a break-through of grace into this world and a foretaste of the good things to come.

Spending time in the “Right-side Up” (whether during Mass or in personal prayer) can also help us to see this world more clearly. GK Chesterton invokes a similar image in writing about the life of St Francis of Assisi. St Francis had been drawn during his conversion process to spend some time living in a cave and dedicated to prayer/reflection. Chesterton describes him as coming out of the cave “walking on his hands,” seeing the world upside down. The things he used to trust in (eg wealth) he now sees as precarious. For example, a large castle might seem sturdy and trustworthy, but when viewed upside down it seems to be hanging and likely to fall. In contrast, the things that Francis used to doubt (faith and charity) seem to be the most secure things.

The band Mumford and Sons actually incorporated this Chesterton quote into their song “The Cave,” expressing it this way: “So come out of your cave walking on your hands, and see the world hanging upside down. You can understand dependence when you know the Maker’s land.” A glimpse of heaven (the Right-side Up, the “Maker’s Land”) helps us to better see this world. It helps us to understand the closeness of God, even when we do not perceive it. Likewise, it helps us to better grasp the Communion of Saints. To quote the opening prayer from the recent feast of Corpus Christi, may this meditation help us – especially in the Mass – to “experience in ourselves the fruits of [our] redemption,” and the closeness of the Kingdom!

Moon Knight, Loneliness, and its Opposite

[This first section contains only very minor spoilers for Moon Knight, I’ll warn when we move to the spoiler-heavy section!]

The recent “Moon Knight” Marvel television series begins with an excerpt from the song “A Man Without Love” by Engelbert Humperdinck. It fittingly takes a moment to play the first part that references “Moonlight,” and then jumps to the chorus as the main character awakens: “Every day I wake up, then I start to break up. Lonely is a man without love.”

I thought it was fitting to write a short reflection on this theme as we celebrate Trinity Sunday! The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God in three Persons, and we are created in the image and likeness of this triune God. God, therefore, is a communion of Persons, which points to the fact that we are created for communion with God and for community. Loneliness seems to be an inverse illustration of this truth, as its painfulness highlights that something essential is lacking. The amount of fellowship desired may vary by personality, but faith and practice show that at our root we are social creatures. On this point, I first want to spend a little time exploring the concept of loneliness (including in the context of marriage/celibacy), and then briefly apply these concepts to the plot of Moon Knight.

Interestingly enough, the above-mentioned song doesn’t describe loneliness as the mere absence of people. It says, “Lonely is a man without love.” The presence of others can in fact heighten the experience of loneliness if a person doesn’t feel a sense of love or connection. A person may feel alone at a party, in class, or at work – despite the presence of many people around them. A lack of authentic community in many cases can be what pushes a person to seek out unhealthy sources of connection/coping (e.g., toxic people, selfishness, addiction).

On the other hand, a person that has a sense of love may be able to endure physical separation from others as a peaceful solitude instead of painful isolation. Silence forms a space for reflection and rest rather than a reason for fear and escape.

Often I encounter the assumption that celibacy (i.e., not marrying to embrace a religious vocation) necessarily leads to loneliness. However, as mentioned above, I think this is a misunderstanding of the cause of loneliness. This is not to say that loneliness never enters in or that it doesn’t present challenges in some ways. Yet, marriage is not an automatic way to avoid loneliness either. At times married couples experience a break down in relationship such that they feel as if they are strangers living in the same building. They may glide along on the natural proximity of life or on physical intimacy without developing a more profound bond. Circumstances may change, and their foundations seem to fall away.

Therefore, in whatever state of life – married, single, celibate – relationship proves to be something that must be actively fostered rather than something to be taken for granted and assumed to naturally develop. CS Lewis gives a helpful articulation of four types of love – family, friendship, romantic, and spiritual. Each of these has its unique forms of expression, but each is a pathway to the community for which we were made. Divine love (Lewis uses the word “agape”) provides a foundation that gives a basis to deepen and support the other relationships in our life.

Celibacy does involve the sacrifice of a particular type of closeness and intimacy. However, it does not mean the loss of profound relationships. From my own experience I can testify that it is a path to joy and meaning. Something is set aside, but something is also gained. There is a freedom to delve into the spiritual life and to connect with families/friends across a broad range that isn’t possible with the particular commitment of marriage. There is a capacity for solidarity with the struggles of those who for whatever reason never married or are widows/widowers, and a chance for additional service to others. Celibacy and marriage are complementary vocations rather than in competition. Marriage reminds us of the call to love, and celibacy shows that this love must move beyond merely the physical in order to grow and be sustained. If each vocation offers a challenge, they also offer opportunities to live our calling to divine love.

[Spoiler warning! This is where my comments switch back to Moon Knight. This will spoil major plot points of the show]

It’s no accident that Moon Knight begins by invoking the concept of loneliness. The show explores the impact of this in many different ways.

The first striking realization is that the main character is dealing with some sort of split-personality syndrome. What is driving this? Ultimately it is revealed that the situation developed out of a breakdown in family life. The main character was accidentally responsible for the death of his brother, and this caused his mother to effectively reject him. The split in personality developed to deal with the pain of losing this love. There is an interesting parallel with the Trinity here as you see the same dynamic of multiple persons, but it is one that grows out of trauma. It is connection outside of the self that can bring healing.

A second aspect of the main character is that he has undertaken service to the spirit of Khonshu, an Egyptian deity bent on punishing evildoers (reminder, this is a show based on a comic book!). At first this seems noble, but later it proves to be toxic in its own way. Khonshu is manipulative of him, and able to prey on the character’s wounds and guilt to get him to do what he wants. When someone makes an idol of a relationship (here this happens both literally and figuratively!) then they open the way to disillusionment, addiction, use, or abuse.

Last, we learn that one of the split personalities has married. In the course of the show the wife realizes how much has been hidden from her and how little she really knows her husband. The bond helps alleviate the main character’s pain in some way, but is not a healthy relationship and needs healing as well.

I won’t reveal the ending of the series or to what extent these tensions are resolved. They highlight something important, though, and I hope these reflections may be helpful in pondering this aspect of the human condition. When we experience the pain of loneliness we are tempted to run away in the quickest way possible, often in unhealthy ways. Yet, love grows to maturity by letting the grace of God, family, friends, or a spouse sustain us in the moments that we struggle. St Augustine wrote, “[God], you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This restlessness/loneliness is an invitation to develop connections, deepen bonds, and seek more established foundations to our life. Those who have experienced the fruits of this process can make the words of the steward at the wedding feast of Cana their own: “You have saved the good wine until now” (John 2:10).

Back to blogging – 5th anniversary!

Well, it has been a little over a year, but I’m ready to get back to blogging. I started this page for Pentecost of 2017 as a way to expand my digital outreach. This format gives me a chance to dig more deeply into topics that I am preaching about, as well as a place to put down other thoughts I may want to share. With the sudden passing of my father last May and the busy school year that followed I have drifted away from taking the time to write. Even before that my writing had been sporadic, and so I thank everyone that has stuck with me!

Lately I’ve again been feeling the desire to share some thoughts on things that I’ve been reading/watching (in line with the “Imagination in Action” reflections I had been posting last Lent/Easter). A large inspiration for this blog (including the quote on the sidebar that gives an explanation of the word “lore”) is the writing of JRR Tolkien. In one of his letters, he wrote: “After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode.” My next series of posts will be centered on looking at ways that some modern stories can help us to see the world with new eyes. This power of imagination lets us conceive of new ways of seeing our present world, and I hope inspires us to live with a renewed purpose and clarity. May God bless all that read these reflections, and please pray for me as well!

A Canticle for Leibowitz

[Week 10 of the Imagination in Action reflection series. Theme this week: the Teaching of the Apostles]

What will the world look like in 600 years? Walter Miller approaches not only this question in “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” but also what the world will look like 600 years after that… and 600 years after that! Originally published in 1959, this novel is drawn from three short stories he had written for a sci-fi magazine. Taken together they give a speculative view to the future that has deep resonance with the past.

Miller’s story is set in a post-apocalyptic society brought about by nuclear war. Beyond the destruction caused by the bombs themselves, this had led to a strong backlash against all technology. During a period called “the Simplification” books were destroyed and scientists hunted down as criminals. One scientist – Isaac Leibowitz – had found refuge in a Cistercian monastery (a Catholic religious order developed from the Rule of St Benedict). He ultimately chose to enter the monastery and dedicate himself to the preservation of knowledge, becoming a “booklegger.” Leibowitz eventually founded the Albertian Order to continue this mission.

The first section of “A Canticle for Leibowtiz” picks up 600 years after this backstory. It is now the 26th century and the world is still largely in chaos. The Albertian Order continues its work of preserving knowledge. They have stored up not only religious knowledge, but all the aspects of scientific and artistic knowledge that they could as well. The next section jumps forward 600 years to 3174 AD. A new Renaissance has broken out with the re-invention of electricity drawn from the Albertian Order’s knowledge. Finally, the novel concludes with a section set in the year 3781 AD in which the world is once again on the brink of nuclear war (I’ll stop the recap here to avoid spoiling the ending!). Utilizing this structure allows Miller to look at the way some things change and others stay the same, with a dazzling scope of action.

Miller’s choice of structure was hardly random. The author had participated in the World War II battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. This mountain in Italy held a monastery founded by St Benedict in 529 AD. It was not in use during the time of the battle, and was destroyed because it was suspected of providing cover for Axis troops. The battle was a traumatic experience for Miller and inspired the plot of the Canticle. He sought to draw a parallel with the life of the abbey in the three sections of the book. Benedict had founded this monastery during the decline of the Roman Empire, and the monastic tradition stood as a strong barrier to the loss of knowledge during the “Dark Age” of the barbarians. The printing press was not invented until the 1400’s, and so a large reason that we have much of the knowledge of antiquity that we do is on account of monks copying texts by hand. As in the novel, in this way the Church preserved both theological texts and the classical works that formed the foundation of the renewal brought by organizations such as the University of Paris, the Dominicans, and the Franciscans in the 13th century. From here was sparked the Renaissance and the development to the modern period, which had led to World War II and the Cold War in the time during which Miller wrote his book.

These parallels direct us to reflect on cycles of history. What do we learn from the past, and what does this knowledge get us? War had shown Miller the way that advanced knowledge did not necessarily lead to a better society. However, he did not see the answer in the type of “simplification” he portrays in the novel (seeking to destroy the past), but by trying to return to the sources of knowledge for insight on how to build a better world. Miller had been drawn to become a Catholic after his experience in the battle of Monte Cassino. Although the Church is often portrayed as an opponent to knowledge, he had seen that this is not truly borne out in a study of history. He saw the positive commitment to the preservation of wisdom in the monks of St Benedict, as well as theologians such as St Albert the Great (a Dominican master of theology and the natural sciences, and the source of the name of the Order that Leibowitz founds in the novel). In fact, the Church sees both faith and human reason as avenues provided by God to reach truth (St John Paul II used the image of the two wings that lead a bird to flight). They enlighten one another, and only come in conflict when one is distorted in contrast to the other.

For this reason, I think study actually proves to be a key aspect of the spiritual life. Faith is not an enemy to the life of the mind. Although “study” may give the sense of boring “book learning,” this is a reductive view of the term. Instead, I think it is best to see it as taking time to place ourselves in contact with the gift of wisdom present in the thought of others. The Holy Spirit speaks in a unique way in the inspired Scriptures, but we believe has not abandoned us after that! Christ desired that the Gospel would continue to be present to us throughout time, and if this were dependent upon the teaching of the human members of the Church alone we would be in serious trouble! The Holy Spirit is the breath of the Body of Christ (the Church) and continues to provide life to the Church’s voice. When we turn to the writings of the Church and the saints we have the chance to encounter the Holy Spirit at work. Spiritual study provides fuel to the mind and heart so that the fire of our love can continue to burn. I have certainly found this true in my own life – it sparks reflection, deepened prayer, and new inspiration for action.

We have more opportunities than ever to encounter the living tradition of knowledge. This type of “spiritual reading” can take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, or watching a video series. A great parish resource we use is, filled with a large range of different media options. How can we in our own lives make time for this type of study, and through it give the Holy Spirit room to speak?

The Stormlight Archive

[Week 9 of the Imagination in Action reflection series. Theme this week: the Eucharist]

The Stormlight Archive is a series of books within Brandon Sanderson’s “Cosmere” universe, an epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, or The Kingkiller Chronicle. It is a genre of writing I have really enjoyed since junior high/high school, and I find Sanderson’s work to be some of the best developed that I have read. I highly recommend it if this type of writing is of interest to you! I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, since part of what I like in the series is the gradual revelation of the backstory and powers.

What I want to highlight is a moment in which one of the characters is able to unite the three “realms” of the Cosmere (physical, mental, and spiritual). A “perpendicularity” is created in which the real world of thought as well as the divine power in the spiritual realm are made present to people of flesh and blood. This unleashes a great source of strength and transformation.

Looking at this from the perspective of a priest, it reminds me of the classic description of the celebration of the Mass/Eucharist as uniting the three elements of the Church: those on earth, souls in purgatory, and those in heaven (God, angels, and saints). Likewise, it reminds me of the way that in the Upper Room we have the connection of the Last Supper (with its reference to the Cross), the Resurrection appearance of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Understanding the way that these aspects are connected is essential to realizing what is really happening when we celebrate Mass.

From the beginning we see the Apostles continue the celebration of the Last Supper, often referred to as celebrating the “breaking of the bread” in the Acts of the Apostles. At times the Scriptures speak of fellowship meals, but here is another type of celebration that is more than this. A study of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, the appearance on the road to Emmaus, or the writings of early Christians like St Justin Martyr show the difference. It is a sacrament – an outward sign instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church to give grace. It makes present the power of the Cross, the Resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We become partakers with the celebration of the “wedding feast of the Lamb” going on in heaven (as described in the book of Revelation). Likewise, it unites us with the celebration of the Mass throughout the world. In a sense there is just “one” Mass that we all enter into when present at an individual celebration – a collection of timeless moments condensed into time.

While in the Stormlight Archive the uniting of realms is something spectacular that no one can miss, this is not necessarily the case for us! Sometimes Mass is a transcendent moment, but other times we find ourselves tired, bored, or distracted. Perhaps the preaching is not great or something goes wrong with the music. A child is misbehaving or the heating is not right and we are shivering/sweating and can’t focus. For this reason I think it is important to continue to return to a remembrance of what lies under the surface. Underneath all of the human elements is what Christ entrusted to us – His perfect act of love for God and humanity; the offer of divine grace in our need; communion with God and the threefold Church. As imperfect as our participation may seem, we unite it with Christ’s prayer so that it transcends our limitations. It is a great thing to compose our own personal prayer or song in praise of the Lord, but nothing can rival offering the very celebration He asked for in the Last Supper (“do this in memory of me”). A perfect gift is based on the desire of the one receiving the gift rather than the one giving the gift. Therefore there is nothing better to offer to God on the Lord’s day than this!

The transcendent nature of this celebration is both a consolation and a challenge in this time of pandemic. It is a consolation because it means it is more than a local human celebration, and so we can join in spiritually even when unable to participate in person. A “spiritual Communion” is the practice of uniting our heart and soul to a celebration of the Mass when something impedes us from the opportunity to attend (or if we are able to attend but have a reason we are not able to receive Communion at that time). Watching a celebration on tv or online can help us to enter in more fully. If that doesn’t work, we can come up with other ways to do the best we can. This is one part of the challenge the pandemic presents – creativity in how to stay connected spiritually when separated physically. The other aspect of the challenge is discovering ways for as many to celebrate safely in person as possible. Keeping in mind the centrality of this sacrament invites us to put our imagination into action and seek anew the grace God desires to give!

Avengers: Endgame

[Week 8 of the Imagination in Action reflection series. Theme this week: Fellowship/Community]

I think it is highly significant that Avengers: Endgame (the epic sequel to Avengers: Infinity War) was released April 26, 2019. This was the weekend of Divine Mercy Sunday, and I see mercy as one of its major themes. Although I do not think this connection was intentional, I want to look at how the movie portrays two different approaches to mercy, and hence two different approaches to society. Warning: major spoilers if you still haven’t seen these movies!

The main villain of Infinity War/Endgame is Thanos, a powerful being that is seeking the Infinity Stones. With these he hopes to gain the power to destroy half of all life in the galaxy so that the other half can thrive. He is noble and articulate, and sees this as a sacrifice that he has to make for those that are not strong enough to do so. His approach resonated with some who saw this as a logical solution to overpopulation. Thanos expected to watch the sun rise on a grateful universe after he accomplished his goal. Wasn’t it a mercy to remove so much competition for resources?

I think this way of thinking illustrates what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death” in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”). The culture of death is rooted in a vision of others as competitors/enemies, and leads to the destruction or exploitation of the weak by the strong. John Paul contrasts it with the “culture of life,” which is rooted in respecting the dignity of others and building up resources for those in need. Thanos’ name derives from the Greek word for “death,” and he embodies it well. For example, he never even addresses the possibility of using his great power to double the resources of the universe rather than destroy half of the life. He seems to have the same blind spot as Malthus – an 18th century English writer that predicted an upcoming famine due to lack of resources. Malthus could not see the possibilities of improved farming techniques and other changes that would be able to provide for the future needs of the people. What seemed logical to him in fact failed to account for the creative power present within society.

Mercy, then, has a positive meaning in a culture of life (rather than just “mercy killing”). Here it indicates the readiness to give of oneself to provide for those in need. We see this type of mercy in the Avengers, who do not “trade lives” of others for their own benefit, but are willing to give of themselves to protect others. In the end, it is their effort at restoring what Thanos had destroyed that creates the “grateful universe” he had hoped to create.

This positive sense of “mercy” is essential to building true community (what the New Testament calls “koinonia,” authentic fellowship). Without it, other people become threats. John Paul II saw the fruit of the culture of death in exploitation, abortion, euthanasia, and “structures of sin.” Divine mercy, however, encounters us with saving and transforming grace, and then impels us to bring this new life into the world. It challenges us to build up life rather than destroying it. We find here the logic of the Resurrection, in which life appears where death was expected. What we may see as an impossible situation in fact has avenues of hope that have not been imagined.

The early Christians are described as devoting themselves to this type of fellowship (Acts 2:42). They allowed grace to transform not just their individual life, but their family and “church” life as well. From there, they sought to extend this new life into the world through works of mercy. Embracing the culture of life is as challenging as changing the world, but as easy as thinking about the way we are living today. The Gospel invites us to turn away from the limited thinking of death and to embrace the possibilities of life. Here we will find that fellowship that makes us whole.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

[Week 7 of the Imagination in Action reflection series. Theme this week: True Faith]

Is magic real? If so, what is its truest expression? These questions stand at the heart of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.” The story is set in the 1800’s in an alternate history of England in which magic once existed. It follows various scholars of magic as they seek to reawaken the practice. I found this book fascinating, and in large measure because of the reflection that it offers on living faith. (Note: there is also a miniseries adaptation available on Netflix. It is not bad, but varies in a number of ways from the book and loses some of my favorite parts).

The first two paragraphs of the book provide a good context for how we can make a parallel with faith:

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused on leaf to tremble upon a tree, made on emote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

After this, the chapter describes how one of the meetings was disrupted by the question of why they never practiced magic, and the many excuses offered by the members of the society. They saw practicing what they studied as undignified and beneath their social station. Here we can see a parallel with the strength that faith once possessed in England, and the way that many of the “gentleman-theologians” of the 1800s had continued to study faith, but merely as something historically interesting, and not a living part of their life. Modifying the questions I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we can first ask “Is faith real?” Then, “What does its true expression look like in our lives?”

Is faith real?

I think many people discount faith because they think of it in terms of “blind faith.” I dislike this phrase because I do not think it is accurate to Christian belief. “Blind faith” implies believing something without evidence, and can easily lead into unhealthy or destructive expressions of belief. Although it is true that faith ultimately requires a step of belief, we do not make this step “blind” but can look at motives of credibility (reasons to believe). We might look at the predictions of Christ in the Old Testament (existing long before Jesus walked the earth) or accounts of His miracles. But, I think the most compelling is to look at the Resurrection and the transformation of the Apostles.

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then why does Christianity exist? Some religions were the development of folk myths that did not face any particular challenge from the surrounding culture (eg the belief in the Greek gods). We can look at other religions that were accompanied by gains in wealth, military power, or public prestige in their early years. While it is true that after the time of Emperor Constantine Christianity became publicly accepted and there was the temptation to profess faith simply for its worldly benefits, this was almost 300 years after the time of Christ and cannot explain the origins of Christianity. The early followers of Christ had to embrace serious public difficulties in accepting the faith.

We have many writings from the first century of Christianity (many overlapping with the life of the Apostles) that we can look at – St Polycarp of Smyrna, St Ignatius of Antioch, St Irenaeus of Lyons, St Justin Martyr, or the letter of the Roman Governor Pliny to Emperor Trajan (to give a few examples). So, it is not credible to say that the account of Christ’s life was manufactured hundreds of years after His lifetime when there was no means of knowing the truth.

Most of all, I think we have to look at the transformation of the Apostles. St John Chrysostom points out that we have to wonder why they were afraid to follow Jesus while He lived (running away at the time of the crucifixion), but were bold to profess Him after His death. Why suffer and die for something you knew was a lie? Likewise, the claim that they all had the exact same hallucination and all held firm to it to the end seems hard to believe. These could have been disproven in the early years by presenting the body of Jesus still in the tomb. I think the most credible explanation is that they did encounter the risen Christ, and this was the source of their transformation. Therefore, we are not asked to accept a “blind faith,” but one that rests on solid witness.

What does faith’s true expression look like in our lives?

This leads us to our next question in regards to true faith: its lived experience. Returning to “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell,” we see that even if some of the magicians believed that magic actually had existed, it had no impact in their life. They felt more pressure to follow the social conventions of their time than what they studied. This is likewise a great challenge to us today. The obstacle to faith in many people may not be historical questions about the Resurrection, but the poor witness that we as Christians sometimes give. St James writes in the Bible that, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). True faith is built upon confidence in the words of Christ, and it is expressed in allowing transformation in our life. Too often we hold back in fear from letting go of the worldly promises for happiness: power, popularity, possessions, or pleasure. We see the good fruit of faith in the lives of saints and holy people we know, but aren’t ready (or sure) how to follow them.

I don’t write this to discourage anyone in their faith, but for encouragement to embrace the season of Easter. The transformation of the lives of the Apostles is not described as happening in a single day. Instead, Jesus spends forty days with them until the Ascension, strengthening them in their new-found faith. He then instructs them to spend nine days in prayer before receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (the fiftieth day). It is at this point that we see them sent forth to begin preaching.

So, if our assessment of our life of faith right now leaves us feeling down, let us remember that Easter is not a single day. It is a season that stretches across those same fifty days that the Apostles experienced. It is a time to ask the Lord to give us strength and confidence, as well as a deeper outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is difficult to do alone, and so I am going to change the focus of my reflections leading up to Pentecost. During Lent I looked mainly at our personal spiritual life. During Easter I will look at the mission of a parish and how connection with our parish helps to nourish this transformation of faith. God bless!

A Tale of Two Cities

[Week 6 of the “Imagination in Action” reflection series. Theme this week: true Charity]

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This famous line begins the book “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. The introduction continues: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The story is set during the French Revolution, and Dickens characterized the time period in this way because he saw the way that it highlighted many of the best and worst parts of human nature. It was “the best of times” because it was a time of great hope. The people of France hoped to cast off the injustices of the old regime and establish one of greater peace and parity. However, it was also “the worst of times” because the Revolution devolved into what came to be known as “The Reign of Terror.” The guillotine had been invented as an efficient way to execute the enemies of the revolution, and these executions began with the leaders of the old regime. Over time, though, the executions became more and more capricious, based instead on the personal hatreds of those in power. For example, many religious sisters were killed merely for wanted to pray in their convents, reflecting the bigotry against religion of those in power. In the end, a number of the earlier leaders of the revolution were themselves killed as the tide turned against them. What resulted was not a renewed free society, but a renewed empire under Napoleon.

Nevertheless, Dickens ends the story with a tremendous seed of hope: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” These words are placed on the lips of a character who is laying down his life for another (I’ll avoid names for limited spoilers). The character who is laying down his life is not laying it down for a close friend, but for the man that has been a particular object of his envy and frustration. The character has seen this other man succeed everywhere he has failed, and in a sense has every reason to want him dead. However, he choses to save this other man, and the reflection before his death ends with the powerful words, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

(On a side note, some may recognize that these words are read at the funeral for Bruce Wayne at the end of “The Dark Knight Rises.” The story is based on “A Tale of Two Cities” – with Bane encouraging a revolution in Gotham that he says will mean the end of the injustice of the rich, but in fact is part of his plan to ultimately destroy Gotham)

What we find at the end of this story, then, is the triumph of true charity. “Charity” comes from the Latin word “caritas,” and means more than just giving aid to those in need. The theological virtue of charity is the perfect, infinite love of God poured forth into the hearts of human beings by grace. In seeking true charity, we seek to love God and neighbor as God has loved us. Charity inspires and perfects the love of family, friends, and spouses. In charity we seek the true good of our neighbor, through thick and thin. A profound reflection can be found in First Corinthians, Chapter 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

True charity is more than the emotion of love, which grows and fades. It is a firm choice of faithfulness to another. We see its ultimate expression in Christ on the Cross. He is not there because it is convenient, comfortable, popular, or for His own benefit. No, Christ is there to give His life for every one of us, and to show the perfect love between the Father and Son. He embodies what is expressed in the wedding vows, loving us “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” Holy Week can aptly be described in the words that began this post: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We saw all the ugliness of human hatred and sin, and all the perfection of the love of God.

In the end, true charity is the path to true community. “A Tale of Two Cities” highlights the way that a desire for justice without a foundation in true love of neighbor corrupted the great expectations of the French Revolution. It ends, though, with the confidence that the desires of the human heart are not impossible. May we always turn to Christ as the model of true charity, and its source in our life.


[Week 5 of the “Imagination in Action” series. Topic this week: the theological virtue of hope]

One of my favorite movies as a kid was “Rudy.” It is based on the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger and his quest to make the Notre Dame football team. His first major challenge was even getting accepted to the University of Notre Dame. He struggled with school (he was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia) and came from a working-class family without a history of attending college. The second major challenge was his small size and lack of the physical gifts that normally were needed to play football at the college level (let alone at Notre Dame!). He persevered through these obstacles to become a Notre Dame student, make the football team as a walk-on, and eventually play 27 seconds in the final home game of his senior year. He was able to sack the quarterback on his last play (his only career stat). This led to him being carried off the field, the first time this had been done for a Notre Dame player. While some of the aspects of the movie were played up for dramatic effect, all of the parts I mentioned here are true, and make the movie that much more inspirational!

This film is an iconic example of hope in my mind. One of its famous lines is, “Having dreams is what makes life tolerable.” Hope motivates us to look to the future and not give up in the midst of trial. However, I think this concept of “hope” can be seen in two different ways. On the one hand, it could just be seen from the human perspective – a sort of “wishful thinking.” Hope could merely be the decision to look with optimism at a situation and see the glass “half full,” as they say.

The Christian sense of hope as a theological virtue, on the other hand, is built on a different foundation. The Catechism teaches, “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (paragraph 1817). It goes on to add, “Hope is the ‘sure and steadfast anchor of the soul . . . that enters . . . where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.'” (paragraph 1820, quoting Hebrews 6:19-20). In other words, the virtue of hope is not grounded in our own ability, but in confidence in God’s grace. It is the “anchor” that holds us steady in the midst of the tide and the storms of life. It counteracts the great temptations of discouragement and despair, that can kill the “dream” within us and lead us to settle for less.

Even though the movie “Rudy” doesn’t draw out this divine dimension directly, the connection with Notre Dame provides a strong backdrop of faith. It is one of the most well-known Catholic universities in the country, and its name is French for “Our Lady” (named after the virgin Mary). There are many connections between the movie and faith in my own experience, as well. My mother grew up in South Bend (where Notre Dame is located) and I associate it with the witness of faith from her and my grandparents. Bishop Jenky (the bishop of Peoria) spent much of his priesthood at Notre Dame and is a member of the Holy Cross order that founded the university. One of my classmates in seminary even had the real-life father of Rudy as his Confirmation sponsor! (Rudy’s dad was a member of his parish and agreed to do this for students on the condition that they didn’t mention the movie… apparently he didn’t like the way it portrayed him!). Looking back years later, it is also fitting that Sean Astin portrayed both Rudy and Samwise Gamgee (the Hobbit in Lord of the Rings that especially exemplifies hope).

In the end, true hope is a life-giving power that finds its foundation in something beyond human optimism. It is living our life grounded with confidence in the power of God, even when we cannot see the way forward clearly. Let us set our sights on the greatness of our calling (both here and hereafter), and never lose the gift of hope!