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 formed.org, 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!

The Muppet Christmas Carol

[Week 4 of the “Imagination in Action” reflection series, Theme this week: Almsgiving]

I don’t think there is a movie that I have watched as often in my adult life as The Muppet Christmas Carol. More than ten years ago it became a tradition in my family to watch it every Christmas, and I always look forward to it! I think it is the best version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale. The songs and humor bring out the joy of the story, but the acting of Michael Caine and the narration of Gonzo (surprisingly) supply a real gravity to the serious aspects. In the end, it’s hard to imagine someone watching this movie without being drawn into the joy of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s conversion to love expressed in charity to his neighbor.

It gives a powerful image of the classic idea of almsgiving. We mainly use this word in terms of giving money, but it’s origin/etymology is even wider. It comes from the Old English aelmysse, connected ultimately with the Greek word eleēmosunē (“compassion”) from the root word eleos (“mercy”). This is the same root as the Spanish word “limosnas” and the “Kyrie eleison” that we say at Mass (“Lord, have mercy”). So, in this way, “almsgiving” invites us to all of the works of mercy, which are usually grouped as seven corporal works (caring for the body – such as giving food, shelter, clothing, or caring for the sick) and seven spiritual works (caring for the spirit – such as comforting, counseling, or teaching).

Almsgiving is most often spoken of as one of the three practices of Lent (along with prayer and fasting). St Peter Chrysologus speaks of the connection between these three in one of his sermons: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them… if you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing… Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to the earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit. When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering… You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.”

Scrooge first appears in the story as one who represents this “dried up fasting.” He lives a cold, austere life in which his wealth bears no fruit. He takes life from others (figuratively if not literally), and seems to have no true relationship with God or any other human being. After his encounter with the three ghosts, though, he is transformed. Scrooge begins to radiate love. He is experiencing the truth of the Gospel that the harvest is abundant when mercy is scattered – the paradox that Christ’s love on the Cross pours out new life.

Some people surely do struggle with greed in the way that Scrooge does, but I think for most there are different obstacles to mercy. It is not that someone is unwilling, but maybe feels unable to do more when faced with all of the challenges of their personal life. Or, perhaps we do not know where to begin in the light of all of the needs out there. Perhaps we have been burned by a scam or other situation that makes us hesitant to try again.

Where do we begin? We can begin through prayer by asking, “Lord, who can I reach out to today/this week?” Here we can discern a corporal or spiritual work of mercy that is within our capability. Another question may be: “who can I connect with to help practice love of neighbor in my life?” A group or organization can often accomplish more than we are able to alone. As a pastor, I would like to develop ways that my parishes can strengthen their outreach and coordinate the many good things already happening.

The details are perhaps staggering, but let us keep the vision of Christ’s love in front of our eyes to inspire us for the future. May He keep the fires burning in our imagination to inspire us when the way is difficult. I’d like to end with some words from Scrooge’s closing song in The Muppet Christmas Carol: “With an open heart that is wide awake, I do make this promise: Every breath I take, Will be used now to sing your praise, And to beg you to share my days, With a loving guarantee, that even if we part- I will hold you close with a thankful heart.”


[Week 3 of the “Imagination in Action” series. Theme this week: Fasting]

GK Chesterton is one of my favorite authors, although at times he can be a difficult author to read! He loves clever turns of phrase, paradoxes, and indirect references. However, contained within this complex writing style is tremendous insight. One of his stories that I think represents all of these aspects is “Manalive.” It tells the strange tale of Innocent Smith, who arrives at an English boarding house with a great gust of wind and brings chaos in his wake. He seems to be a madman, and in the second part of the book is placed on trial. In the end, they conclude that his seemingly insane antics were actually designed to bring sanity to life. The title of the story describes what he wanted to be: a man alive, not merely one going through the motions.

A key example of this would be the charge raised against him that he had abandoned his home. It is later revealed that he left precisely to get back to it with a proper appreciation. In one of his conversations Innocent says, “My pilgrimage is not yet accomplished… I have become a pilgrim to cure myself of being an exile.” An exile is one who is separated from one’s homeland. He had realized that he had begun to take everything for granted, and felt that this separated him from seeing what was really there. Going on a pilgrimage, in contrast to being exiled, is a deliberate choice to leave home in search of some goal. It is an ascetical practice, embracing simplicity and sacrifice, rather than a vacation. By taking up this pilgrimage Innocent Smith was able to return home with new eyes, and a new awareness of gratitude and wonder at what he found.

In the spiritual life we can become enslaved to things (sinful or not) that separate us from what is essential. We get drawn to distraction, which leads to apathy about important things. The classic temptations of pleasure, power, possessions, or popularity can become false gods in our life. They provide unstable foundations that can trap us in vicious cycles of seeking more and more, while they often depend on circumstances that can change without our control. Fasting is a powerful tool to break these bonds. It involves developing the ability to say “no” to what is less important so that we can say “yes” to what is more important. The power behind fasting in the Christian sense is the grace of God, rather than trying to rely on willpower alone. In this way it opens us to prayer when we encounter our weakness, and to establish a clearer way of seeing the world. It helps to set us free from selfishness by giving us companionship with Christ and all those who suffer, and so gives an invitation to deepened charity. Fasting likewise opens up avenues of wonder and thanksgiving at the blessings we do have.

While Manalive’s example of leaving on a trip around the world is probably not the correct choice for us (setting aside our responsibilities like a student giving up homework for Lent!), I think it does paint a powerful picture of what place “fasting” can have in the spiritual life. The paradoxes of GK Chesterton are rooted in Christ’s words about the Cross – what seems to be a path to death is in fact a path to life. By embracing the path of the spiritual life, we are led by the grace of God to being men and women fully alive.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

[Week 2 of the “Imagination in Action” reflection series. Theme this week: Prayer]

“The Slow Regard of Silent Things” by Patrick Rothfuss is admittedly a strange short story. He himself begins the foreword by writing, “You might not want to buy this book.” It is a poetic, bittersweet tale written from the perspective of a young woman (Auri) who lives by herself in a forgotten and ruined set of rooms beneath a university (this story is set in the same world as his book “The Name of the Wind”). Although I agree with his assessment that this book is an odd one, I am very thankful that I came across it! I believe it paints a powerful picture of the practice of contemplative prayer.

For many people I think prayer comes across like a burden. Living a life dedicated to prayer sounds about as interesting as living a life dedicated to completing homework assignments. We undertake the task because we believe it can bring some benefit, but we don’t find the experience pleasant or life-giving. I think it is fair to acknowledge that there is indeed an aspect of what the desert fathers saw as “the spiritual combat” in prayer, particularly in prayers of petition. It is not always easy and requires discipline. However, this is far from the only aspect of prayer, and it is not the end goal. The end goal of prayer is union with God. Prayer draws out expressions of petition and contrition, but should also draw us to thanksgiving and praise. Prayer can give illumination to the mind and fire to the heart. It can become the lifeblood of our day when we realize its deeper potential.

I see a vision of this in Rothfuss’ short story. Auri has been led to live in this desolate place by some past tragedy (the exact details are only hinted at). Rather than finding mere isolation she has encountered a mission: setting the ruins in order. She has come to appreciate the “slow regard of silent things.” She describes this mission as being someone that “tended to the proper turning of the world.” For example, in the story she finds a gear from a broken machine and dedicates herself to finding its right place. She likewise seeks to discern how to arrange the things in her room and whether objects are for her use or to save for gifts. In all of this we begin to get the sense that this is not just the manifestation of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, but that Auri really has the ability to see the significance of things that others miss. Her patient dedication to observing the world has given her a clarity about life that few possess. The Spanish translation of this story calls it “La Música del Silencio” (“The Music of Silence”) – something Auri can hear that others cannot. She gains strength by working with the nature of the world rather than trying to force it to conform to her whims.

In this way, I think the story paints a picture of contemplative prayer. Her life in many ways is like that of a religious sister in a convent. However, this life isn’t limited only to one who has a similar amount of time available. It isn’t just a matter of the quantity of time we can dedicate to prayer (which may be much more limited in our own circumstances), but of the quality of our prayer time. It concerns carving out some space (whenever and however we are able) to allow this transformation to take place. There are many aids to entering into this experience – e.g. praying in the Liturgy, with Scripture, Eucharistic Adoration, the rosary, listening to music, or looking at religious artwork. Our goal is to discern how to apply it to our circumstances.

How can we re-imagine the way that we view prayer in our life? How can we re-imagine our parish as a better school for prayer? Prayer is something that we should look forward to with hope, instead of dread. May the Lord bless us in our own efforts to practice this “slow regard,” and to encounter the grace prepared within!

The Monsters and the Critics

[Week 1 of the “Imagination in Action” reflection series. Introduction to the series.]

JRR Tolkien is best known for writing The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. However, his main career was not as an author – this was a sort of side-hobby for him. Instead, he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon language (aka Old English) at Oxford. Beowulf (an epic Old English poem) was a key area of study for him. It tells the tale of a hero named Beowulf that arrives to save a kingdom from the attacks of a demonic creature named Grendel (and Grendel’s mother), and then at the end of his life must also defend against an attack by a dragon. Beowulf slays the dragon, but dies of his wounds.

Tolkien gave a famous lecture on this story, which was later published as an essay called “The Monster and the Critics.” Here Tolkien responded to critics that complained that the story of Beowulf was too simplistic for an epic. Rather than the grand travels of something like the Odyssey by Homer, it only talked about a couple of battles against monsters. In response to this critique Tolkien argued that by limiting its scope it actually widened its applicability. He wrote that, “It glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts.” The monsters could be seen to represent the struggles of the beginning and end of life, and hinted at the supernatural aspect of faith. Putting the “monsters” in the forefront of the story was a deliberate choice based on what the author wanted to convey.

This connects with a general principle that Tolkien believed about ancient myths/legends. In one of his letters he wrote, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made up of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode.” He is not saying that Bilbo Baggins or Beowulf existed historically, but that their stories tell true things about our world. Some of these truths might be obscured by the complexity of life. By setting the stories in a fictional world, an author can help us to see our world in a different light. Tolkien sought to follow this ancient pattern of myth and legend in the way that he wrote the Lord of the Rings. He wanted a story that highlighted many of the real struggles of life through the “sub-creation” of an alternate reality.

My appreciation for Tolkien has only grown as I’ve read these other works of his that explain his vision and philosophy of “myth.” It sparks my imagination to enjoy stories both in themselves and in the ways they illuminate reality. It also explains why certain stories, very simple in themselves, can have such a powerful impact on us. And, ultimately, I think it helps us to understand why the Word was made Flesh, and lived among us. The life of Christ brings together all of these glimpses at truth in the actual course of human events, and invites us to see our life in this larger dimension.