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).

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?

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.

Friday Penance

One of the classic parts of Lent is not eating meat on Fridays – but why?

The practice of penitential days has a long and varied history. The words “penitential” and “penance” come from the same word as “repentance.” They indicate sorrow for sin, as well as a resolution for change. The practice of penance is ultimately about disconnecting from whatever is keeping us from authentically following Christ, healing the wounds that have been caused (to ourselves, to others, or to our relationship with God), and seeking to follow Christ more closely.

Different types of fasting have been practiced throughout the history of the Church and in different regions. The days chosen have mainly been Wednesdays (the traditional day of Judas’ decision to betray Jesus), Fridays (the day of the Crucifixion), and Saturdays/Vigils (in preparation for the feast day to come). Abstaining from “flesh meat” (the meat of warm-blooded animals) represents embracing a poorer meal, giving up luxury, and seeking to follow our spiritual vocation rather than just living for earthly things. Doing this publicly as a group gives us mutual support and a common witness to living our faith. It helps connect us with the poor and suffering. The Christian is called not to an easy life, but a great life. St Paul uses the image of an athlete training for competition (1 Corinthians 9:27). The path of penance helps to set us free from slavery to “the path of least resistance” and to embrace our true vocation!

As many remember, in the United States it used to be required to abstain from meat every Friday of the year. In 1966 a statement was issued by the National Conference of Bishops that removed this particular requirement (except for Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays). The goal of this was not to remove the spiritual significance of Friday. The Bishops saw that for many people the practice of abstaining from meat had lost its meaning. They encouraged creativity to find new ways to make Friday special – whether that meant giving up something that was more personally significant, engaging more fully in prayer/piety, or seeking opportunities for works of charity. Here is an excerpt from the 1966 statement:

Every Catholic Christian understands that the fast and abstinence regulations admit of change, unlike the commandments and precepts of that unchanging divine moral law which the Church must today and always defend as immutable. This said, we emphasize that our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence, except as noted above for Lent. We stress this so that no scrupulosity will enter into examinations of conscience, confessions, or personal decisions on this point… Friday, please God, will acquire among us other forms of penitential witness which may become as much a part of the devout way of life in the future as Friday abstinence from meat…

It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.

In summary, let it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance. Rather, let it be proved by the spirit in which we enter upon prayer and penance, not excluding fast and abstinence freely chosen, that these present decisions and recommendations of this conference of bishops will herald a new birth of loving faith and more profound penitential conversion, by both of which we become one with Christ, mature sons of God, and servants of God’s people.

(I highly recommend reading the full text here-

Sadly the hopes of this document were not realized, and most Catholics are unaware of what this instruction actually said beyond removing the old requirement. Instead of renewing our practice and developing new methods (or embracing the old methods with personal commitment rather than obligation), the special character of Friday was almost completely lost. Yet, it remains part of the current practice of the Church. The current Code of Canon Law for the universal Church states:

The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent. Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast. (canons 1250, 1251, and 1253)

What does this mean for us? It means that Friday is still called to be observed as a special day each week, even though the requirement to abstain from meat only applies during Lent in the United States. For other Fridays of the year we may freely choose what practice we will undertake, guided by the classic categories of Lent (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving/works of mercy).

By sharing this I don’t mean to just add another burden to your plate! Instead, I want to make this known because I see a deep wisdom in this. I have found in my own life the value of the weekly reminder to add a little more spiritual focus. It is good to have a plan for what we will do on Fridays, or for what intention we will offer our sacrifice. We all need spiritual discipline to really thrive at life and develop our faith.

Likewise, I think there is another important reminder in this text of canon law: we are preparing for a celebration! It points out that things are different on a solemnity. Fulton Sheen said that we can either practice a fast that leads to a feast, or a feast that leads to a headache! In other words, when we take the time for penitential days, the days of celebration have greater value. When we merely binge/indulge without structure, however, the true joy of the celebrations is lost. The end goal is to rejoice in the gift of salvation. For this reason, Sunday is never considered a day of fasting. Likewise, neither are Solemnities (first-class feast days), even when they fall on a Friday. An example of this is the Solemnity of St Joseph (March 19), which falls on a Friday this year – even though it is Lent, we are not required to abstain from meat (although prayer and works of mercy are still fitting!). As the book of Nehemiah says, “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10)


[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!

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 4

Merry Christmas! I write this in the midst of our celebration of the Christmas Octave. The manger scene is a fitting scene to consider for our final step of the classic “lectio divina” method of praying with Scripture- contemplation. Here we refer not to the human act of prayer, but God’s response. It may be a felt inspiration/guidance or not. However, with faith and hope we take time to listen for God in our prayer. Our goal is not only an interior monologue of our meditation and prayers – we seek a dialogue in which we encounter God’s voice. Just as the figures around the manger gaze in receptive adoration of the birth of the Christ child, let us remember to leave time for contemplation in our prayer to allow space for God to act!

Weekly notes from Facebook-

Monday: Silence can scare us, and drive us to want to fill up the space with noise or busy-ness. However, silence gives a space where relationship can grow and a gift can be received. Our prayerful time with Scripture should include not only reading, reflecting, and expressing our reflections in prayer, but also silence and open receptivity to God.

Tuesday: St Teresa of Avila, one of the master teachers on prayer, describes the difference between human cooperation in prayer (what we have been discussing in the first three steps) and God’s response. Here are some of her words on this topic from Way of Perfection (ch. 31): “I still want to describe this prayer of quiet to you in the way that I have heard it explained and as the Lord has been pleased to teach it to me. . . . This is a supernatural state and however hard we try, we cannot acquire it by ourselves. . . . The faculties are stilled and have no wish to move, for any movement they make seems to hinder the soul from loving God. They are not completely lost, however, since two of them are free and they can realize in whose presence they are. It is the will that is captive now. . . . The intellect tries to occupy itself with only one thing, and the memory has no desire to busy itself with more. They both see that this is the one thing necessary; anything else will cause them to be disturbed.”

Wednesday: Often we are tempted to rate our prayer as “good or bad” based on whether we feel a certain way at the end. While at times we do experience a sense of inspiration, this isn’t the only time that God is active. The response we “feel” can depend on many factors (what is going on in our life at the time, emotional state, etc). If we have spent the time seeking conversation with God (despite distractions), we can be confident that God is at work in our life to guide us by His grace!

Thursday: Yesterday I spoke of not trying to force a particular response in prayer and not to evaluate prayer just on our emotional response, but that doesn’t mean we should have low expectations! As we wait in joyful anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Christ tomorrow, it is good to remember that we should approach prayer with an expectant faith, confident God will be present and active in whatever situation we may be!

Friday: (no post on this topic, as it was Christmas day!)

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 3

The third step of Lectio Divina is prayer. This may sound strange, since isn’t this whole process about praying with the Scriptures? The distinction here is not just doing something in a prayerful manner (eg reading or reflection), but actually talking with God. In our first steps there is a danger of just staying trapped in our own mind or thoughts. Here we need to turn that interior monologue into a dialogue with God. After reading and reflecting on the Scripture passage, what do we want to say to God? What do we want to ask God? For whom or what do we want to pray or give thanks?

Monday: Our ability to make tasks “routine” is often a good thing (eg we don’t want to spend as much time thinking about how to tie our shoes now as we did when we first learned!). However, this can lead to struggle in prayer since we can become less engaged with our conversation with God as our words become habitual. This can happen with formulas of prayer (like the Our Father) or even with our own patterns of thought if we make use of personal prayers. So, let’s look at the types of things we say in prayer, and remember what they really mean! I will guide the reflections this week along the structure of the beginning of Mass, since this is something that has become “routine” for many of us!

Tuesday: We make the Sign of the Cross as we begin Mass, and usually at the beginning of our personal prayers. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on who we are and to Whom we are speaking: we are a baptized child of God and are speaking with the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! This connection of relationship is important to remember as we move from reflection on our Scripture reading into conversation with God.

Wednesday: After the Sign of the Cross comes the Penitential Rite, in which we ask pardon from God for failings “in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” Was there something in the Scripture passage that reminded us of a need to ask pardon? We can ask the Lord to give us the grace to learn from our faults. Honesty about failures helps to build a stronger relationship with God. And, although this is an important step, we remember that sorrow for sin is not the only step of prayer. Sometimes we might be tempted to skip saying sorry, but at other times we might be tempted to spend all of our time wallowing in our failures. Instead, we take the time to ask forgives so that we can clear the path to move forward.

Thursday: The Gloria comes after the Penitential Rite at Mass. Here we express our praise and thanksgiving to God in words that are drawn from the message of the angels to the Shepherds at Christmas. This is definitely the longest part of the opening rites to Mass, and I think that this is an important lesson. If we struggle with this prayer, the problem is probably not that the Gloria is too long and needs to be shortened, but that we need to grow in our awareness of gratitude and praise! After reading the passage of Scripture we we can speak with God about what ways it inspired us to give praise or thanks.

Friday: The final part of the introductory rites of Mass is the Opening Prayer or “Collect.” After having called to mind to Whom we are speaking in the Sign of the Cross, asked pardon for sins in the Penitential Rite, and given praise and thanks to God in the Gloria, we now “collect” together our prayers to ask God for what we need and for the needs of the world. What petitions come to our mind based on our meditation on the Scripture passage that we just read?