Monday, January 26, 2015

I Agree with Pope Francis! Lord of the Word is a Must-Read

Writing at Crux yesterday, John Allen suggested that Pope Francis is driven by a “sense of urgency,” and Allen thinks he knows why. During his recent airborne press conference, the Pope advised listeners to read Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel Lord of the World, a dystopian vision of a near future in which the Catholic Church has been marginalized and a charismatic, secular world ruler is taking hold

We’re not talking Oprah’s Book Club here. When the Pope recommends a book, it’s striking news that Catholics might well heed.

Trying to read between the lines, Allen notes that Lord of the World displays a “keen sense that the world is reaching a turning point and there’s not much time left to set things right.” This, Allen writes, may explain why the Pope has such an accelerated travel schedule over the coming year: not that the Pope thinks his life may be coming to a close but that civilization itself may be nearing a “turning point.”

I read Lord of the World nearly four years ago when I saw that it was recommended by some of the smart folks of Communion and Liberation. At that time, I posted a review at Goodreads, which is still there. This is what I wrote:

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Catholic Gift of Western Civilization

I have always felt drawn to the middle ages. As a schoolboy I learned about a classical age, a Renaissance, and a vast dark millennium in between; but all along I suspected that life between the fifth century and the fifteenth must have had some interest—even if only for all those knights and plagues and crusades and stuff. Maybe it was the “darkness” itself that appealed to my young mind.

Now that I am a Catholic, of course, I recognize what filled that thousand year “void.” It was Catholic culture knitting Western civilization back together again after the fall of Rome, then standing fast against a new barbarian invasion storming Europe via the Iberian peninsula and Asia Minor. (That would be Islam.)

As I plan my pilgrimage to Montreal and study the medieval origins of Christian pilgrimage, I find myself plunged finally into the study of medieval Catholic Europe. Like McDonald’s, I’m lovin’ it.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

“Boyhood”: Life Is Just Like This

Some movies offer answers. “The Theory of Everything” taught me something about love and marriage, as “Zero Dark Thirty” said something to me about faith and perseverance.

Other movies ask questions, stopping short of final answers. These movies can be unsettling; but if they ask the right questions, in the right way, they can stay with you longest.

I only saw “Boyhood” two hours ago, but I’m guessing it stays with me a long time.

Three Catholic Friends

In his new book Miracles, Eric Metaxas describes miracles that have happened to people he knows personally. I am not sure that this approach works as science but it is compelling as testimony.

An e-mail received this morning prompted me to think of a companion volume I could write called Friends. Such a book would describe Catholic people I have met since being received into the Church seven years ago. For those who think Catholicism is medieval and therefore unnecessary, such a book might not be convincing, but it could open a few eyes.

My friends are central to my experience of the Church. Asked if and how I know Christ and where and when I meet Him, I would say that, first of all, I meet Him in the faces of my “church friends.” Let me write briefly about three of them. I will use their real first names, no aliases needed.

Friday, January 23, 2015

“Birdman” is Earthbound

Thursday was the peak of a week of discernment. After thirty months work on a book that may never be published, I spent the past few days in blogging silence, pondering what’s next. Last night when I watched “Birdman,” about an artist redirecting his life, I expected to fly.

Instead, I was unmoved.

I loved “Biutiful,” the last film by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. And I was wowed by the “Birdman” trailer, which shows Michael Keaton as a washed-up Hollywood star trying to make a comeback on Broadway while working out his relationship with an adult daughter (I have two). The trailer showed off mystical experiences, a big finish, and the pop licks you hear on trailers but never on the soundtrack. This time it was The Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”

Yes! I thought. A movie for me!

What a disappointment.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Word for the Day: New

We live suspended between old and new, past and future. Today’s readings point this out in a vivid way at a time in my life when I am shifting my focus forward.

In Hebrews (5:1–10) comes the high priest and his act of propitiation, a word I looked up when reading The Scarlet Letter about thirty-five years ago. No surprise there. The Scarlet Letter is all about Puritan guilt, the weight of the past, and our essential brokenness as human beings. Guilty for all this, we propitiate our God. We mollify Him, we make it up to Him, we beg His forgiveness. We propitiate.

The Gospel reading (Mark 2:18–22) shifts the focus forward. We are in the presence of the Bridegroom, so we do not fast, a kind of propitiation. We have new cloth, and we don’t sew it onto old cloth. We have new wine and need a new wineskin.

I often get value out of the short reflection offered in Living with Christ, which I use for my daily readings. Today’s reflection is by Patricia Livingston. I found it useful:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Week in Review: Go in Peace, Gulliver

I recognize that this blog is not the norm in Catholic blogs, if “Witness” is a Catholic blog. For one thing, I don’t go in for politics, not most of the time. Generally, I am writing about my experience as a meat-and-potatoes Catholic man, working out his salvation one day at a time, one post at a time.

Even the rare “political” post linked to the previous paragraph, about certain comments of Cardinal Burke, had a personal point. It celebrated my female friends in the Church, who are dear to me.

The highly personal nature of some posts may annoy or offend some readers. It may even make you squirm. That’s all part of the deal, I think. This, I am saying, is what it is to be a Catholic man today, at least for this one Catholic man. Not always easy to live. Seldom easy to write about.

But my experience is all I have to offer. I am not a priest or theologian, any more than I am a political commentator.

So when I look back over the posts of the past week, or any week, I see my life. For example, this week:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

“The Imitation Game” Might Have Been More Enigmatic

I imagine that gay icon is the last thing Alan Turing would have wanted to end being, but that is what “The Imitation Game” ends making him.

NOTE: This review contains spoilers if you don’t know much about the life of Alan Turing.

Benedict Cumberbatch, star of TV’s “Sherlock,” is brilliant as the British mathematician, Nazi code–breaker, and grandfather of the thing we now call the computer; and director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore (working from a book by Andrew Hodges) create an affecting triptych of Turing’s life.

In the left panel of the triptych is Turing’s experience as a lonely boy at a British boarding school who sends coded messages to his first love, another boy named Christopher; in the broad center are the war years, when Turing headed up a unit charged with breaking the Nazi code known as Enigma, a feat that may have shortened the war by as many as four years; and on the right is the 1952 booking of Turing for gross indecency, or homosexual acts.

A Biased History of Pilgrimage

I have been wishing this week that I could perform a Vulcan mind meld with Eric Metaxas and Jonathan Sumption. Metaxas’s new book Miracles is thrilling to the committed Christian like myself, but it takes a lot for granted, as the subtitle suggests: What They Are, How They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life. 

Metaxas lays out the case for miracles in the first half of the book, then describes real-life miracles that have occurred to people he has known. While Miracles is inspirational and quite convincing to me, I wish Metaxas showed a touch of Jonathan Sumption’s skepticism and scholarship.

Sumption’s subtitle for a book on miracles probably would be They Don’t Happen, So Forget About It. 

I am reading Sumption because he wrote a definitive work on a subject I am intensely interested in—The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God. Published in 1975, it was reissued in 2003, proof that it has held up to scrutiny. It has more than one hundred pages of end matter. Sixty-seven pages of footnotes cite sources mostly in Latin and French. This is real scholarship, but scholarship with a beef.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Forgiveness: Not So Fast

Since before I can remember I have said the Lord’s Prayer. Taught me by parents I thought would live forever, The Lord’s Prayer seemed eternal and unchanging. Then when I was ten it changed.

My family began attending Episcopal services instead of Congregational, and I no longer asked and offered forgiveness of debts and debtors. Now I had to wrap my tongue around the word trespasses and the ungainly phrase those who trespass against us.

As a young Christian, I never thought much about the difference between debts and trespasses—one an unpaid bill, the other a boundary violation. In fact, I never thought much about this part of the Lord’s Prayer at all. By saying Forgive us our debts or trespasses or whatever, I only figured I was striking a sort of level bargain with God: