Sunday, April 26, 2015

Dawson on Newman: Just the Thing to Give Me Courage

John Henry Newman, central figure in the Oxford Movement, is a compelling character, a brilliant Catholic convert in a British society that found such creatures horrid. But fully understanding Newman and Oxford amid the complexities of English church and government affairs in the 1830s and 1840s has been difficult for me, an American living 175 years too late.

To understand Oxford, you need to understand something about High Church and Low Church, not to mention Broad Church or the meaning of latitudinarian. You need to get around the fact that liberal and evangelical meant different things in nineteenth-century England than they do in twenty-first America. You need to have some understanding of the situation in both Ireland and Parliament in Newman’s day. In other words, it would be best to be a Brit conversant with your own history.

And then there’s this: Newman and his contemporaries wrote in a high, elegant manner that can make a lazy brain hurt. You have to bring your A game to reading him. At least I do.

Anyway, wasn’t Oxford an event of momentary interest, one that launched the future Cardinal Newman into his conversion while giving impetus to present-day Anglo-Catholicism, but also an event with little relevance to our religious lives today?

Not true. Christopher Dawson’s The Spirit of the Oxford Movement has changed the way I think about all of the above. For anyone desiring a better understanding of Newman and Oxford, this is a great place to start or, in my case, restart.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy: Dazzled by Brilliance

Like C. S. Lewis, I am a convert, and I have an affection for him because we have this precious identifier in common.

He was an English public school graduate, I the American equivalent, a preppie. Each of us was too smart for his own good, although Lewis’s smarts were to mine as diamond is to coal.

It doesn’t matter to me that he converted to “mere” Christianity and that I am a Catholic. I identify with many of his conversion experiences, including this one:

My conversion involved as yet no belief in a future life. . . . There are men, far better men than I, who have made immortality almost the central doctrine of their religion; but for my own part I have never seen how a preoccupation with that subject at the outset could fail to corrupt the whole thing. . . . God was to be obeyed because he was God.

I did not convert to make a bet like Pascal’s. I did not bargain on the afterlife. Catholic life was full enough just as it was and still is.

I identify too with the very moment Lewis crossed over, recalled in a famous passage:

Friday, April 17, 2015

"Ghosts" at BAM: No Longer My Cup of Nihilism

I know what I would have made of the current production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music if I had seen this production 40 years ago.

I was a young actor who knew Ibsen as a key to the canon: one of the first “great” modern playwrights you had to read. I would have overlooked Ibsen’s anti-clerical jokes and nihilistic outlook. I would have admired the feminism and fine performances, and I would have stood with everyone else during the standing ovation.

Instead, last night, no longer a young actor, an old Catholic instead, I sat on my hands.

I felt sad over a New York audience wildly cheering a play in which—

Thursday, April 9, 2015

My Changing Road

The disciples walking to Emmaus were prevented from recognizing Christ by their own eyes. I know what that’s like.

Since November I have been walking toward Montreal in my mind—planning a 400-mile pilgrimage to begin May 1. On the way, I have had a number of surprising experiences and encounters, the meaning of which nearly escaped me.

I began participating in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises before Thanksgiving. The 22-week course for lay people ends in late April.

Over the holidays, I was counseled by a spiritual director to apply for a master’s program in ministry, and I did so. Awaiting acceptance, I am hoping to begin classes as early as June.

The unexpected path of my own memoir—fictionalized on my blog in January–February instead of published on paper—led me to reconsider the direction of my writing. I began prospecting for memoir clients and now have one in hand with a second in the offing.

And then quite unexpectedly, about eight weeks ago, I was offered an opportunity to teach an adult ed course on memoir: “Reading Others, Writing Yours.” I realized that this would take a lot of preparation.

While these developments were occurring I kept “walking” toward Montreal as though my pilgrimage were divinely ordained.

Paddy Fermor’s Glimpse of God

It is always striking to read of a non-believer whose heart was moved unaccountably by a sudden experience of Christianity. It happened when Thoreau entered Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal. It happened to Henry Adams all his life, especially when writing about Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.*

It happened to postmodern hero/martyr David Foster Wallace, as well. As the biography by D. T. Max notes, Wallace twice flirted with Catholicism and twice backed off.

None of these writers could overcome his skepticism.

The greatest English travel writer of his generation, Patrick Leigh “Paddy” Fermor, decided to stop off at a Benedictine Abbey to get some writing done in the early 1950s—and it happened to him too. Fermor tells the story in A Time to Keep Silence, most recently reissued in 2007 with an introduction by religious historian Karen Armstrong.

Given the book as gift in 2009, I have only just read it.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Why Joan of Arc? Why Me?

I imagine that every Catholic has a favorite saint. The ongoing Crux “Saints Madness 2015” seems to prove it. That competition, modeled on the NCAA basketball tournament, has reached the finals, and it’s neck-and-neck, or halo-and-halo, between Sts. Peter and Francis.

My favorite saint is Joan of Arc who, incidentally, was bounced in the Round of 32 by St. Michael. How is that even fair? An archangel against a peasant girl? But a bigger question dogs me today: Why Joan of Arc? Why me? Why is she my favorite?

I have just finished Helen Castor’s excellent new book on Joan—which I ordered from Blackwell’s in England so that I could read it before it was issued in the USA. Over at Goodreads I gave the book 5 stars and wrote, “If you want a single, short, but comprehensive book on Joan of Arc, this is the gold standard.”

What struck me while reading was nothing that Castor did (more on that at Goodreads) but what I did. A slow reader, I bombed through 250 pages in two days. I couldn’t put it down. And I already know the story. It is the fifth or six book on Joan that I’ve read, not to mention the three movies I’ve seen.

What was that about? Why Joan of Arc? Why me?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

History Proves It: God Sets Us Straight

Passover 30 AD was not exactly the best night of Peter’s life.

Set aside his boo-boo of lopping off the ear of the soldier in the Garden—quickly corrected by Jesus, who told Pete to put his sword away. Set aside, too, the three denials before the crowing of the cock.

Turn the clock back a few hours and you’ll see: The whole night was a cock-up where The Rock was concerned.

Here it was, Jesus’s last meal with his closest followers, they were all gathered in the Upper Room, Jesus was fixing to wash Peter’s feet, and Peter wouldn’t let  him.

Then when Jesus insisted that he must wash his feet or Peter would lose his “inheritance,” Peter demanded an all-over bath instead!

Earth to Peter! This is the Lord!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Turning Toward Montreal

When I first posted about my planned 425-mile walk from my home to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, it was with the enthusiasm that I usually bring to new things.

Beginning five months ago, I drew up a route and preliminary plans, to start on May 1, Feast of St. Joseph the Worker; I read some books on pilgrimage and St. André Bessette, who inspired the Oratory; then I let it all lie. The winter was too cold and icy to even think of such a long walk.

In the past several weeks the reality of my pilgrimage has been slapping me in the face—alone, on a path of my own devising, through Massachusetts, wild New Hampshire and Vermont, and the French-speaking eastern townships of Quebec. Without the preexisting infrastructure of hostels, restaurants, and cafés found all along the Camino de Santiago.

Did I mention alone? I will be alone.

No one else that I know of is planning to walk—or has walked—the Camino de Montreal. People ask if anyone is going with me, and I answer, “Are you volunteering?” So far, no one has said yes.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mark Knopfler’s “Tracker”: Guitar Poems, None Finer

If all you know of Mark Knopfler is Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing,” the “Money for Nothing” video, and the theme song from “Local Hero,” you haven’t been listening for twenty or thirty years.

“Tracker,” just released, is Knopfler’s eighth solo album since Dire Straits broke up for good and all in 1995; and I have spent much of the past three days with it.

I own all of Knopfler’s albums—they’re all I buy on CD anymore—and I treasure each. Knopfler’s listed #27 among Rolling Stone’s all-time greatest guitarists, but that’s a joke. Factor in the poetry and Mark Knopfler is in a universe all his own.

I would love to claim Knopfler as a fellow Catholic, but I can’t, or if he is one, he isn’t saying. His songs are good ones for Holy Week, though. They might as well be subtitled the Broken Body of Christ.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

“Do You Believe?”: Yes

If you sit through “Do You Believe?”—now playing at a multiplex near you but not for long—you may ask yourself, as I did, what was the difference between that well-made independent film and hundreds of other affecting, character-driven stories that pass for what are known these days as indie hits. 

“Do You Believe?” artfully weaves a dozen life stories in a compelling chain of circumstance with enough recognizable faces to make you think you’ve seen another good “little” Hollywood movie.