Friday, May 22, 2015

The Seven Deadly Sins: A Guide for Newlyweds

The seven deadly sins are an old-fashioned notion, kept current in our culture mostly by popular entertainment. “Se7en” (1995) was a heck of a thriller, if not exactly a moral lesson. 

But Wednesday night I had a chance to see just how (damn) relevant the seven deadly sins can be. I attended a men’s faith group. The leader is getting married next month, and he asked advice of the other men around the table, most of us married, some for many years.

He brought a list of questions and potential problems for the married man, none greater than lust. In fact, it may not surprise you that we spent at least half of our time talking about the pitfalls of lust and its manifestations, including infidelity, pornography, masturbation. Yeah, we talked about bachelor parties. Probably too much.

But after one man in the group confessed that he had been unfaithful to his wife, another said, “I’ve never been unfaithful, but alcohol just about wrecked my marriage. Along with the anger I expressed. Alcohol’s not lust. I guess it’s gluttony.”

“And there’s the anger,” a third man added.

Already we had three of the seven. By the end of the night we had covered each of them, without naming the seven deadly sins as such.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Norman Maclean and My Final Twenty Years

Norman Maclean, great teacher of Shakespeare, devoted lover of Montana, and author of just two books, one posthumous, lived to be 87. I know that I may not be so lucky.

My father’s father lived to be 83. As my father approached his 83rd birthday, he speculated on his chances of outliving Granddad Bull, but he did not do so. The week Dad turned 83, he was diagnosed with metastasized melanoma and died within four months.

I am twenty years younger than the age at which both my father and grandfather died, and you can do the math. Because of my family history, I don’t think it is unreasonable for me to speculate that I might not live so long as Norman Maclean, who has become something of a hero to me, in a way that even my father was not. It seems quite sensible, in fact, to speculate that I too will fail to outlive my father and die by the age of 83.

These could be my last twenty years.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Robert Hugh Benson and Me

Sunday, for Mother’s Day, I double-dipped. After attending a Catholic mass with my wife, she and I accompanied my mother to a service at the Episcopal Church where Mom worships, where Dad is buried, and where I briefly felt the call of the priesthood as a fourteen-year-old acolyte.

Monday I finished Robert Hugh Benson’s memoir Confessions of a Convert. The two experiences are related.

Like me, Benson (1871–1914) was a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Unlike my father, Benson’s dad was the Archbishop of Canterbury. So while my conversion in 2008 rattled nary a teacup, Benson’s in 1903 was a scandal on the order of John Henry Newman’s defection in the 1840s. Formerly an Anglican priest himself, Benson was ordained a Catholic priest in 1904.

His book is a clear-headed, easy-to-follow account of his path to Rome. There are experiences in Benson’s memoir with which I identify deeply, others I never shared. Here are a few points of comparison:

Monday, May 11, 2015

MAM Journal: Can’t Wait to Get Started

Two weeks from now I begin study in the Master of Arts in Ministry program at the Theological Institute for the New Evangelization. Now doesn’t that sound grand!

A grand title for a fundamental mission: to educate lay Catholics to offer service from knowledgeable faith. That mission statement is my own. The official language is a bit more involved:

The Master of Arts in Ministry program at the Theological Institute of St. John’s Seminary is an accredited professional degree that promotes an integrated lay formation, assists participants in living out their baptismal dignity, and equips them for service in the public work of the Church.

However you phrase it, this program represents for me the realization of a long-time dream. I vividly remember dreaming this dream.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Reading More, Writing Less

I have been reading so much lately that I’ve had little time to write. The evidence is in the column at left where my “Currently Reading” list is magically imported from the only social networking site I use much these days, Goodreads.

I really am reading six books at once, in different formats at different times of day for different sound reasons. That doesn’t make all six of them sound choices.

The Year of Magical Thinking, for example. Not a great choice. I am listening to the audio version of Joan Didion’s memoir for the same reason I am reading the ink-and-paper version of U. S. Grant’s. I am preparing to teach a fall adult ed course with Beacon Hill Seminars which I am calling “Memoirs: Reading Others, Writing Yours.” So before my students read excerpts from seven or eight good memoirs, I am reading (mostly re-reading) twenty or thirty.

Monday, April 27, 2015

My Favorite Memoirist? It Surprises Even Me

Preparing to teach a seven-week adult ed course in the fall semester on Memoirs: Reading Others, Writing Yours, I am now reading memoirs by the handful.

I have begun by going back to some of the memoirs I have loved most, including One Boy’s Boston by Samuel Eliot Morison, The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, and About Alice by Calvin Trillin.

And I have made a surprising discovery.

There is one figure—a memoirist and much more—whom I find the most compelling all-time, hands down, and his identity surprises even me. For one thing, he was a general, and I was never in the military.

To learn his identity (sorry, it’s not Samuel Eliot Morison, the admiral in the picture), you will have to click here and read my latest post at the Memoirs Unlimited blog.

Because otherwise, how will you ever know—or read my other blog?

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.