Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Practice of the Presence of God (RR)

by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection

Started and Finished: 15 November 2007

"How can you read stuff like this?" asked my youngest daughter as she handed me the copy of Practice she'd found for me. I didn't reply. Nor did I bother reminding her she'd only just finished her own epic two year sojourn with the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible. I knew she was only teasing me.

The Practice of the Presence of God is a book you have to be open to. Without the requisite receptivity, its pearls of wisdom would be wasted. But with the right frame of mind and heart, it is the perfect book.

Perfect in that while it can be read in one hour; mastery of its central concept requires a lifetime. Well, at least for this soul. And a very long lifetime at that. And I write that without the least trace of humility, remorse or even chagrin--as a simple statement of fact. Indeed, growth in virtue does require total commitment and extended preparation time.

Our humble author, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, assures us that his own journey along this path toward 'practicing the presence of God' took him many years as well. So, despair should not deter one's efforts.

I like that the word 'practice' is used in the title, and indeed throughout the book, because it recognizes the fallibility in human nature. We will have to creep, crawl, stumble and fall many times in this effort before we will ever be able to actually walk in God's presence. That is Brother Lawrence's goal -- and presumably the goal of any self-professed Christian: to actually walk hand-in-hand with Our LORD. In the meantime, He carries us.

Brother Lawrence and his solitary legacy bear much in common with Father De Caussade and his work, discussed in an earlier post.

Both men were post-Reformation, French religious, from rather obscure backgrounds, who left us one primary work of spiritual insight comprised of meditations and letters collected postmortem. Few hard facts can be substantiated about either man -- even such basic information as definitive dates of birth and death, although we do know approximate dates. Both were extremely humble men who -- given their own preference -- would have lived quiet lives far away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of society; but they were not given that chance. God had need of their services and so He called these two holy men out from their peaceful solitude to minister to their neighbors.

Brother Lawrence lived and worked most of his life at the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites on the rue de Vaugirard in Paris, where he spent many years working in the kitchen. He died in 1691 at around 80 years of age. A year later his Abbot collected what could be found from Brother Lawrence's letters, spiritual writings and recorded conversations, put them together and this comprises what we know today as The Practice of the Presence of God.

Unfortunately, upon publication, Practice became associated with the controversy of the day, the heresy then causing so much bitter debate, Quietism. Although it is beyond the scope of this article and the abilities of this writer to discuss the theological aspects of Quietism, it is important to understand that one tenet of this heresy bore a similarity to Brother Lawrence's principle theses, complete abandonment to the will of God, and therefore was used by advocates of the Quietist heresy to justify their position. As it would be some years before this struggle could be resolved, especially in France, Practice suffered the taint of guilt by association -- albeit a slim association at best -- and fell into disfavor in the country of its birth. Fortunately for us, our book was picked up by other Christian denominations and carried to other countries where it has spread around the world. Since its initial printing, Practice has been always been available in one form or another and now can even be found in many versions on-line.

The first section of the book consists of four dated conversations where Brother Lawrence describes what it is that led him to the realization that pursuing the 'Practice of the Presence of God' was the best way, indeed the only way, to follow Christ. These are not conversations as most Americans today would categorize conversations, but more like a Shakespearean soliloquy, with the little monk giving his thoughts on how he came to know that putting God first, last, and always, was the only way to live. And really that is Practice in a nutshell. I could stop writing here and you would have the book. Except that as simple as it is write -- or say -- such words, anyone who has really tried to live them knows, it is not that easy.

In the next section of the book, we are given sixteen of Brother Lawrence's letters--mostly written to a nun, but also one to a priest and several to a lay woman. All of these further elucidate how one is to advance along the path toward our ultimate goal, full and total communion with God. The book concludes with a group of Brother Lawrence's maxims.

What Brother Lawrence teaches through Practice is that no matter where we are, or what we are doing, we can and should be in God's presence at all times. But how to achieve this state, you may well ask? Although he answers this question in many different ways throughout the book, probably the most clear-cut answer lies here:

"Having found different methods of going to God and different practices to attain the spiritual life in several books, I decided that they would serve more to hinder than to facilitate me in what I was seeking--which was nothing other than a means to be wholly God's. This made me decide to give all to gain all; so after having given all to God in satisfaction for my sins, I began to live as if there were no one in the world but Him and me." (p73)

On the surface, such an approach sounds very simplistic, or even selfish. However, the same day I read those words of Brother Lawrence, I read almost the exact same idea expressed by another Carmelite from 200 years earlier. In describing the transforming union that a soul undergoes when it finally achieves oneness with God, St. John of the Cross writes, "And here lies the remarkable delight of this awakening: the soul knows creatures through God and not God through creatures." (p189, Fire Within, Thomas Dubay, S.M.)

Indeed the life of Brother Lawrence is testimony to his writings; his single-minded concern for God, far from leading him away from love of people, brought him closer to them. Only through a greater love of God, can we ever hope for a fuller love of all of His creation.

My first recorded acquaintance with Practice was May of 2004--at least according to the little bookmark card maintained inside the front cover of my ragged paperback copy. Recently I read and listened to the book again. I wish I could say that reading Practice was enough, or even writing about it. But they aren't. It takes much more than that. Nevertheless, I shall continue to do both, because I see great wisdom in this little book and at least reading it keeps the idea foremost in my mind.

'I must know, love and serve God in this world that I may gain the happiness of heaven.' (Baltimore Catechism)

But even more than that, to be happy in this life, Brother Lawrence tells us is only possible with God as our one and only purpose, end and goal.


"That all things are possible to him who believes, more so to him who hopes [still more to him who loves], and most of all to him who perseveres in the practice of these three virtues. That the end we ought to propose for ourselves in this life is to become the most perfect adorers of God we possibly can, as we hope to be His perfect adorers through all eternity."

~~Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection from "The Practice of the Presence of God"

Friday, November 23, 2007

Hotel Rwanda

Started: 6 November 2007
Finished: 12 November 2007

What were you doing between April and July 1994? Do you remember that almost one million Rwandans were murdered in just about 100 days during that time period in history?

I'm ashamed to say that when I started to read Hotel Rwanda I had only the vaguest memories of this African tragedy. I knew it occurred when my children were small and my political attentions at an all-time low, but still . . . Then I thought back and recalled that 1993-1994 was also the year we lived in a rented house while we were building our so-called 'dream' house. And in June of '94, the house was finished and we moved in. Yes, the world situation was the last thing on my mind at that time.

Not that I could have done much about the tragedy unfolding in Rwanda had I been paying attention. But I can't help wondering, what was Bill Clinton's excuse? He certainly knew what was going on and he was in a position to have mitigated the worst impact of the genocide.

However, Hotel Rwanda isn't about all the people and countries who did not respond to the plight of the Tutsis, but about one man who did--the 'Oscar Schindler of Africa' some people have called him. That man was Paul Rusesabagina and this is his story.

In 1994, Paul was the hotel manager of the Belgian-owned luxury hotel, the Mille Collines in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Through his courage and cunning he was able to save 1,268 people from almost certain death.

This book is not a narrative of the tragedy--there are a number listed in an appendix--nor a biography about Paul, but the official companion book to the movie made and directed by Terry George. It includes essays on the history of the genocide, the complete screenplay and many photographs from the movie of the same name.

In 1994, Rwanda was the most densely populated African country on the continent--and 51% of the population had the HIV virus; life expectancy was only 39 years. But to really understand what happened during those three and a half terrible months of 1994, we have to go farther back in Rwanda's complex and largely unrecorded history.

Prior to the late 1800s Rwanda didn't even exist as a political entity per se, but was just the land inhabited by two different ethnic groups: the wealthy land and livestock owning Tutsis and the more numerous, Hutus.

With the German defeat in World War I, the Belgians took over Rwanda and began to use the existing Tutsi monarchy to control the population and exploit the institutional differences between the two native groups--granting favored status to the Tutsis and relegating the Hutus to a subservient place within society.

When this situation led to huge tensions and inefficiency, the Belgians tried to rectify the problem with reforms but the Tutsis resisted. So the Belgians turned on their former allies and encouraged a Hutu rebellion which succeeded in 1959. The Belgians themselves were ousted when the Hutu majority declared independence in 1962.

But getting rid of the Belgians didn't resolve conflicts between the two groups of Rwandans; over the ensuing years, rampant corruption, a military coup in '73 and the dictatorship of Major General Habyarimana only further inflamed existing animosities.

On the way home from peace talks which marked the end of a four year civil war and solidified the Arusha Accords promising democratic reforms, General Habyarimana and the President of Burundi were assassinated in a plane crash by members of their own parties. Their deaths were subsequently blamed on the Tutsis and that same night a pre-planned systematic execution of all high-ranking Tutsis and moderate Hutus began.

From there the insanity spread like wildfire, primarily led by roaming groups of highly organized military Hutus known as the Interahamwe. As I mentioned initially, almost a million people were killed in a little over three months and most were killed with machete. Three million fled the country causing the world's greatest refugee crisis and leading to wars in neighboring countries, further bloodshed and the eventual re-migration of most of the original emigres.

And what did the United Nations do during those critical three months? Reduce its peace-keeping presence from 2,500 to 270. Wait a minute. Did I read that right? Was that a reduction in peace-keeping troops? Huh?!

While Tutsi men, women and children begged to be shot rather than left to the not-so-tender mercies of their Hutu, machete-wielding, fellow countrymen, the UN soldiers and remaining Westerners boarded all available aircraft and 'got out of Dodge', so to speak. In all fairness, there were many individual acts of protest, tears, and disbelief on the part of the departing Europeans and other UN representatives who were not all eager and willing to just abandon the poor victims to their fate. However, with the exception of Paul and the mini-fortress he created at Mille Collines, few acts of heroism had any substantive effect in terms of actual lives saved.

So what made Paul Rusesabagina so special? Nothing outwardly, that is for sure. He knew the value of fine wines, good cigars and even better connections. He was a hard worker. He was a husband and a father. Perhaps therein was the secret. His wife was Tutsi; he was Hutu--by Rwandan standards, a mixed marriage.

But whatever motivated Paul, he was willing to trade every favor, commodity and scrap of money he could lay his hands on for a human life. And he did. By the end of the three months, his hotel residents were reduced to drinking swimming pool water--but they were alive.

I have requested the OKC Metropolitan Library System purchase this film. Although I was mistaken on an earlier post as to the availabilty of an item, this time I am quite sure that we do not have this movie on hand, either in DVD or VHS format. Given the magnitude of the travesty, the failure of nations to respond and the heroism demonstrated by one courageous soul, this is a story which needs to be told . . . and seen . . . and spread . . . and shared . . . as often and as widely as possible.

One doesn't encounter men of character like Paul Ruseabagina very often. May God bless him for his fortitude, his persistence in the face of great adversity and most of all for his love. I take my hat off to him.

Monday, November 19, 2007

I made it to Arlington

A long-time military friend who lost his wife to cancer several years back always has a hard time with Veterans Day* because it's her birthday.

Sadly, many American adults today don't know the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

I wish I'd had this short film (below) to watch and song to listen to on Veterans Day--even if it is more appropriate to Memorial Day.

Actually it's good any day . . . because we're free Americans every day of the year thanks to the men and women resting here. Rest in peace you heroes and heroines! I am very thankful for your sacrifice! As a former service member myself, I often wondered if I'd be called upon to give what you did. You have not only my undying gratitude, but also my most heartfelt admiration and respect. I remember walking among the crosses, stars and stones on my family's trip to Washington a few years back. We sat on the steps and watched the complete changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier several times through even though my children were still quite young. We were all fascinated and inspired.

On this day in 1863, President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Arlington Cemetery lies on land which used to belong to General Robert E. Lee. November is a month which Americans dedicate to giving thanks and Catholics commit to remembering those who have gone on to the next life.

God bless all of you and God bless America!

* Veterans Day is an American holiday honoring military veterans. Both a federal holiday and a state holiday in all states, it is celebrated on the same day as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in other parts of the world, falling on November 11, the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. (Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 with the German signing of the Armistice.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Happy 100th Birthday Oklahoma, The Sooner State!

Although I'd like to take credit for having written the following, I did not and therefore, I will not. However, I do like all the interesting information presented herein about our great state and I reprint it here with my heartiest best wishes for a very Happy Birthday to our Great State on its 100th birthday!

'If someone mentions California, what do you think of? Hollywood, L.A., crowded freeways, beaches and Arnold Schwarzenneger? California, of course, is so much more than that. How about Maine? I think of cold weather, people with funny accents and lobsters. What if someone brings up Idaho. Does it bring to mind potatoes?

When people hear the name of our state, it seems the first thing that comes to mind is not Oklahoma, but "Oklahoma!" The 1943 musical, the first for Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, is the first thing most people in America think of when they hear about the Sooner State. Having people associate our state with a beloved musical is certainly better than some alternatives, like rednecks and tornadoes, but it certainly isn't representative of today's Oklahoma.

"Oklahoma!" is a delight. The story of cowboys and farmers finding love in Oklahoma territory features classic music and ground-breaking choreography, including the dream ballet illustrating Laurey's difficulty in choosing a suitor between cowboy Curley and farmhand Jud Fry. It also gave us our state song, which never fails to bring Oklahomans to their feet, which can prove a bit unnerving for performers in touring versions of the show who, during stops in Oklahoma, must deal with a standing ovation before the final curtain comes down.

"Oklahoma!" is a classic of American musical theater and deserves its place in the pantheon of enduring entertainment treasures. It is not, however, an accurate indication of where our state has been, is today and is going.

Oklahoma is not only the home of Ado Annie and Aunt Eller but of the aerosol can. That wonder of the age was invented in Bartlesville. Oklahoma City is the home of the parking meter, while the shopping cart was born in Ardmore. The electric guitar also was invented in Oklahoma, by a Beggs' musician named Bob Dunn. The first "Yield" sign was installed in Tulsa.

The state has more man-made lakes than any other state, which give us more than a million surface-acres of water and 2,000 more miles of shoreline than the Atlantic and Gulf coasts combined. The Sooner State has produced more astronauts than any other state in the union. Owen Garriott is a hometown Enid boy, of course, while Tom Stafford is from Weatherford, Shannon Lucid from Oklahoma City, William Pogue from Okemah and the late Gordon Cooper from Shawnee. Oklahoma is home to Amateur Softball Association, Sonic restaurants and more F4 and F5 tornadoes than any other state.

Oklahoma is the third-largest gas-producing state in the nation and ranks fourth in the production of wheat, cattle and calves, fifth in the production of pecans, sixth in peanuts and eighth in peaches. The state's colors are neither the crimson and cream of the University of Oklahoma nor the orange and black of Oklahoma State but green and white. The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes Oklahoma as having the most diverse terrain of any state in the nation. The state, according to EPA, boasts 11 distinct ecoregions, one of only four states to have more than 10.
Oklahomans practice 73 major religions. The largest is the Southern Baptist Convention, with nearly 1,600 church and more than 960,000 members. Oklahoma gave birth to Dick Tracy (cartoonist Chester Gould is a native of Pawnee) and Donald Duck (Clarence "Ducky" Nash, the original voice of Walt Disney's Donald, grew up in Watonga).

Oklahomans have survived the Dust Bowl, any number of killer tornadoes, the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and various oil booms and busts. Oklahoma is populated by people who are caring, giving, hard-working, patriotic and fiercely independent. Oklahoma is a good place to live, work and play. The challenge in this, our centennial year, is to make the rest of America aware of what Oklahoma has to offer.'

Happy 100th Birthday Oklahoma! God bless you and God bless America!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Life is not the way it's supposed to be. It's the way it is.

I spent the week before my daughter's June wedding running last-minute trips to the caterer, florist, tuxedo shop, and the church about forty miles away. As happy as I was that Patsy was marrying a good Christian young man, I felt laden with responsibilities as I watched my budget dwindle . . . so many details, so many bills, and so little time. My son Jack was away at college, but he said he would be there to walk his younger sister down the aisle, taking the place of his dad who had died a few years before. He teased Patsy, saying he'd wanted to give her away since she was about three years old!

To save money, I gathered blossoms from several friends who had large magnolia trees. Their luscious, creamy-white blooms and slick green leaves would make beautiful arrangements against the rich dark wood inside the church.

After the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding, we banked the podium area and choir loft with magnolias. As we left just before midnight, I felt tired but satisfied this would be the best wedding any bride had ever had! The music, the ceremony, the reception - and especially the flowers - would be remembered for years.

The big day arrived - the busiest day of my life - and while her bridesmaids helped Patsy to dress, her fiancee Tim, walked with me to the sanctuary to do a final check. When we opened the door and felt a rush of hot air, I almost fainted; and then I saw them - all the beautiful white flowers were black. Funeral black. An electrical storm during the night had knocked out the air conditioning system, and on that hot summer day, the flowers had wilted and died.

I panicked, knowing I didn't have time to drive back to our hometown, gather more flowers, and return in time for the wedding.

Tim turned to me. "Edna, can you get more flowers? I'll throw away these dead ones and put fresh flowers in these arrangements."

I mumbled, "Sure," as he be-bopped down the hall to put on his cuff links.

Alone in the large sanctuary, I looked up at the dark wooden beams in the arched ceiling. "Lord," I prayed, "please help me. I don't know anyone in this town. Help me find someone willing to give me flowers - in a hurry!" I scurried out praying for four things: the blessing of white magnolias, courage to find them in an unfamiliar yard, safety from any dog that may bite my leg, and a nice person who would not get out a shotgun when I asked to cut his tree to shreds.

As I left the church, I saw magnolia trees in the distance. I approached a house . . . no dog in sight. I knocked on the door and an older man answered. So far so good . . . no shotgun. When I stated my plea the man beamed, "I'd be happy to!"

He climbed a stepladder and cut large boughs and handed them down to me. Minutes later, as I lifted the last armload into my car trunk, I said, "Sir, you've made the mother of a bride happy today."

"No, Ma'am," he said. "You don't understand what's happening here."

"What?" I asked."You see, my wife of sixty-seven years died on Monday. On Tuesday I received friends at the funeral home, and on Wednesday . . . He paused. I saw tears welling up in his eyes. "On Wednesday I buried her." He looked away. "On Thursday most of my out-of-town relatives went back home, and on Friday - yesterday - my children left.

I nodded."This morning," he continued, "I was sitting in my den crying out loud. I miss her so much. For the last sixteen years, as her health got worse, she needed me. But now nobody needs me. This morning I cried, 'Who needs an eighty-six-year-old wore-out man? Nobody! I began to cry louder. 'Nobody needs me!' About that time, you knocked, and said, "Sir, I need you."

I stood with my mouth open. He asked, "Are you an angel? The way the light shone around your head into my dark living room . . . "

I assured him I was no angel. He smiled. "Do you know what I was thinking when I handed you those magnolias?"


"I decided I'm needed. My flowers are needed. Why, I might have a flower ministry! I could give them to everyone! Some caskets at the funeral home have no flowers. People need flowers at times like that and I have lots of them. They're all over the backyard! I can give them to hospitals, churches - all sorts of places. You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to serve the Lord until the day He calls me home!"

I drove back to the church, filled with wonder. On Patsy's wedding day, if anyone had asked me to encourage someone who was hurting, I would have said, "Forget it! It's my only daughter's wedding, for goodness' sake! There is no way I can minister to anyone today."

But God found a way. Through dead flowers."

Life is not the way it's supposed to be. It's the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.

I don't know who wrote that story, but I love it. I love it because recently someone needed me and let me help them through a difficult time. It was such a privilege, such a gift--it helped heal me. Angels come in many forms, shapes and sizes. Thanks be to God!

Monday, November 12, 2007

seeing for the first time

Today I had my first surgery to remove a cataract from my left eye. I still have one on my right eye, which supposedly isn't very bad. These aren't the types of cataracts due to age, but are the fast-growing variety which sometimes occur in younger people usually as a result of steroid use--something I have never taken.

Looking through my left eye for the first time today--although painful--was really a treat. The world was bright and new-washed. Whites were white and everything shone with a glow I can't remember seeing in so long! It was so pretty! For contrast, I would close my left eye and compare the same view with what I could see with my right eye--the eye with the less-severe cataract. WOW! What a difference!

Although this picture example doesn't do it justice, it does give some idea of the change I am already seeing--only I'd add a yellowing/browning filter to the picture on the right as well. The lighthouse example is way more bright than what I am really seeing out of my right eye. And my left eye was the really bad one. I can't even imagine . . . now . . . how dark the world was that I have been seeing for so long! And how long I wonder? And how has that unnaturally darkened physical view of the world affected my overall view of the world? I will probably never know...

My next surgery is scheduled for the 26th of this month. Not really looking forward to the pain aspect . . . but to be able to see! To be able to see clearly this beautiful world! What a blessing!
P.S. Update on 13 November . . . seeing 20/20 out of my left eye for the first time since fourth grade!!!!! Wahoo!!!!!!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Simone Weil

"The man who has known pure joy, if only for a moment... is the only man for whom affliction is something devastating... But, after all, for him it is no punishment; it is God holding his hand and pressing rather hard. For, if he remains constant, what he will discover buried deep under the sound of his own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God."

~~ Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Life is Beautiful -- A Movie Review

My daughters don't cry at movies; they bring me kleenex. And the really strange thing is--to me at least--this isn't a sad movie. It is one of the funniest, the most genuinely happy, movies I've seen in a long, long time. Which, when I think about it some more, may be why they did cry.

Life is Beautiful isn't a new film. It's been around for almost ten years but it's new for our family. I discovered it in reading a review for the movie, Bella, which has just come out. The review claimed that Bella was the best thing since Life is Beautiful and Hotel Rwanda. So I decided to check those out. So far so good. (The book about the making of Hotel Rwanda is also good...thus far.)

Life is Beautiful can be compared to Children of Heaven, an Iranian-made film from roughly the same time-period, if by any chance you have seen it. There is something very sweet and pure about both of those movies--something you don't often see.

Life tells the story of a Jewish Italian waiter who lives by a philosophy of life so unsullied and childlike, it reminds one of Christ's injunction to be 'as innocent as doves'. From the Douay-Rheims version it reads: 'Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves.' Matt 10:16

And indeed, the characters in the story are dealing with wolves, the Nazis during World War II. At times it does seem as if the waiter is just naive, guileless and maybe even brainless too. He not only has his wits, however, he has a capacity for discernment, a higher wisdom...which only comes from above. And let me reassure you, this is not your ordinary war film. In fact, it isn't even a war film, per se. It manages to tell a story during wartime without ever really getting dark. I cannot say often enough how happy and truly sublime this film experience is.

This movie is about Life and what a extraordinary gift it is. See it! The movie, I mean. As for Life, well, "L'Chayim!"

P.S. I forgot to mention this is an Italian film actually and it's called, La Vita è bella. Isn't that delicious in itself?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Church of the Holy Trinity, Fátima, Portugal

. . . the 'rest of the story' . . .

Now that I've painted a picture of Heaven-on-earth and sweetness and light, let me turn you around and focus your attention on what lays in the other direction--just across the square from the lovely Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary.

Please look at the attached photos before you read any further. Especially the first one on the right. You have to see this cross to believe it. The bent wrought iron is supposed to represent the crucified Christ--but I can't bring myself to call it a crucifix. It seems to make a mockery of a real crucifix. Although I did cut off the top portion of it in my photo; trust me, you aren't missing a thing. It is as hideous as it looks. It stands outside the Church of the Holy Trinity, which was dedicated on the morning of the 90th Anniversary celebrations.

I will keep this article blessedly short by letting my pictures of the modern structure speak for themselves. (I wanted to write modern 'monstrosity', but refrained.)

There are no kneelers, stained glass or Communion rail. More simply, there is no beauty in this church. There is one statue of Our Lady.

The church seats 9000, but the seats aren't even secured properly. Every time someone moves, the whole section of seats--the 'pew', I suppose you could call it--shifts. The workmanship is very shoddy. In fact, the church wasn't finished, but they went ahead with the dedication anyway.

We were more or less 'forced' to attend Mass there on Sunday, the 14th of October, because all Masses in the Basilica were cancelled. Linda and I were sitting in the Basilica waiting for 9 a.m. Mass to begin when they made the announcement (in Portuguese) and the people started getting up to leave. We, of course, didn't know what had been said, but we figured it out soon enough.

According to a dear friend who is much more knowledgeable about such things than me, the design of this church violates the Church's Book of Directives on architectural design. I wouldn't know about that--although I will be reading up on it in the near future.

What I do know is that it is ugly.

Here is an article which tries to give a fair and balanced assessment about the church, but even so has many errors. Still it was the only article I could find which provided this much factual information on the church. Everyone seems strangely silent on the whole subject of this church. Even our guide would only say that architectural tastes change over time.

I -- respectfully -- beg to disagree. They may change . . . but not that much!

Monday, November 5, 2007

"All human suffering is an act of repentance."

"The Keys of the Kingdom" by A. J. Cronin

Started: 27 September 2007
Finished: 23 October 2007

Tears filled my eyes when I read that quote -- flying somewhere over Europe -- which I put in the title line. I prayed silently that it may be true. 'Dear God, please let it be the case! Let us be able to repent for our sins through what we suffer. Then human pain and misery will not be such a mystery and a seeming waste.'

I watched the sublimely exquisite movie, starring Gregory Peck, made from this book some years back. In it, he plays the gentle, unambitious, and frequently-misunderstood Scottish priest, Francis Chisholm. Well...perhaps to call Father Chisholm 'unambitious' is misleading; he does have his desires and goals, the same as any human being. He just doesn't have the usual ones for a priest. Not that he doesn't want to win souls to Christ. He does. But that's just it--that is his sole aspiration. He is not concerned with: rising in the Church, making money or influential friends, nor even converting at any cost, but only in genuinely changing minds and hearts. Therefore, he is constantly at odds with the world around him--even with those from inside his own Church.

But to speak of the movie again; it was delightful as I remember. I haven't watched it recently. Now that I've finished the book, I must watch it again. As I recall it, however, it is nowhere so complete as the book of course. Books, by their very nature, can go into so much more detail than movies--although movies have their place as well.

The Keys to the Kingdom is achingly beautiful, packed with lines like the one above which just pierce the heart with their Truth and Wisdom. I read the quote above to several individuals on my recent pilgrimage and it struck them as it did me. To put the quote in context makes it even more poignant. Fr. Chisholm's childhood best friend, Dr. Willie Tulloch, has journeyed from Scotland to China to visit, only to find the land in the midst of the plague. Dr. Tulloch, although raised in a devout Catholic home like his friend, Francis, has grown up to be an agnostic--or perhaps an atheist--it's not really clear. In any event, near the end of weeks working side-by-side, treating hundreds of Chinese with the plague, Willie finally succumbs and lays dying in Francis' arms. Here is their conversation.

(Willie) '..."ye'll write the old man and tell him that his son died game. Funny . . . I still can't believe in God."

"Does that matter now?" What was he saying? Francis did not know. He was crying and in the stupid humiliation of his weakness, the words came from him in blind confusion. "He believes in you."

"Don't delude yourself . . . I'm not repentant."

"All human suffering is an act of repentance."

There was a silence. The priest said no more. Weakly, Tulloch reached out his hand and let it fall on Francis' arm.

"Man I've never loved you so much as I do now . . . for not trying to bully me into heaven. You see-" His lids dropped wearily...'

There are many other quotes by and about the good priest which I'd like to share with you; here are just a sampling. Fr. Chisholm says to the gardener, after he complains all his plantings are lost and he must begin all over again. 'That is life . . . to begin again when everything is lost.'

Another time he writes in his journal, 'But the joy of knowing that to one person at least one is dear . . . indispensable . . . ' Yes! I can agree, that is Joy!

And this after he had been captured by bandits, held hostage, tortured and had his leg broken, 'Clumsily, a stiff ungainly figure, he knelt down, and begged God to judge him less by his deeds than by his intention.'

Keys is such a superb story--elegant in its exemplification of the simple. It will wrap itself around your heart, touch places deep inside and stay with you long after you close the cover. If all priests were like Fr. Chisholm, there would have been no need for the Reformation. He truly carried the love of Christ wherever he went.

God bless you!


Sunday, November 4, 2007

Celebration of the 90th Anniversary of Our Lady's Final Appearance at Fátima -- 13 October 2007

I can still see the endless procession of priests dressed all in white; I had never seen so many priests together in one place. They were of every shape, size, height, color, age, demeanor and apparent piety. They wore every type of vestment from the most plain, to the most ornate. Most were bare-headed, a few bald; others wore protective head covering to shield their eyes, head and/or neck from the fierce sunshine that day. As they moved north in two lines toward the the Basilica of the Rosary, the sun on their right, many held books, their hands or other articles aloft in an attempt to provide some shade. Most were singing. For the life of me, I cannot remember the songs. I don't think I sang; I was too busy taking pictures and trying to see all could see. I'm not even sure if I offer this as an excuse, an apology, a confession or a simple statement. But I do know I was so supremely happy to be there, so excited in fact, I remember wondering if this is what Eternal Processions would be like...just a little...except that we wouldn't have to be bothered with photographic equipment and we could focus on the angelic choir.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Since my return, I have started -- and discarded or even saved to 'draft' -- numerous paragraphs on this day of days. My family tells me to just start the middle if necessary. It seems good advice. It isn't a question of not wanting to write about the pilgrimage so much as how to do so and wanting to get it right. I had a boss once when I explained a similar difficulty in writing our base disaster preparedness plan who answered me, "Just do it. Don't worry, I'll tell you everything you do wrong!" He did. I trust you will do me the same honor. It really is an honor, when our fellow pilgrims on this earthly journey give us gentle corrections.

Nevertheless, I do know that He qualifies the called rather than the other way around, so I beg His mercy and forbearance in this task. I also ask you my brothers and sisters in faith to be patient with me, but also honest. If I get my facts wrong, please speak up! I will consider it a great compliment if you notice and correct any errors you may detect in my writing. That way we will all learn and benefit. Our group was in Fátima for a very short time and already the memories begin to fade.

My second disclaimer has to do with a physical limitation which is becoming increasingly problematic--my eyesight. Before I left on my trip, I knew I needed new glasses and not just a little. However, I thought my eyes had changed really fast and my glasses' lenses were badly scratched; I never dreamed it could be anything else. But a trip to the eye doc the day after I got back showed I have cataracts on both eyes--a pretty severe one on the left eye too. Surgery is scheduled for the 12th of November. That said, I'm currently typing everything at 150% and still missing mistakes. Perhaps I should delay the writing of this...except then some of my other liabilities might kick memory loss and procrastination! So best to press on while I still can. In any event, please bear these shortcomings in mind as you read this narrative.

The 13th of October 2007 dawned beautifully. Designer Weather is what I thought of calling it, if you'll forgive the pun: bright blue sky, sunny, light breeze, not too hot or too cold. Our guide, Gloria, told us that we were indeed blessed with the weather as it is usually cold and rainy on October the 13th in Fátima, as indeed it was on Mary's final appearance back in 1917.

Our group of pilgrims set out with our guide, just after breakfast, for the site of the procession and Mass -- a 5 minute walk from our hotel; a hotel, I might add, with rooms which did not include clocks, but did contain crucifixes.

You've probably all seen the pictures--at least I hope you have--(in videos or DVDs) of the statue of Our Lady being carried high on a bed of roses. A huge crowd of people gathered in front of a white cathedral with a single tall spire--with a broad sweep of numerous columns coming out from either side of the basilica, like welcoming arms, or so I've always thought. At night, the church is still radiant and the sight is especially beautiful with all the pilgrims' candles filling the colonnade with light.

When we arrived in the large open area (2) in front of the Basilica (3) it looked just like it does in pictures. (I have attached a map so as to be able to refer to specific places throughout my writing.) Sorry, perhaps, that sounds a bit naive, but important places and people--when you finally get to see them in real life--don't always live up to expectation; often they look differently than you thought they would, sometimes smaller or disappointingly disproportionate. All I can say is that the vast sweeping area in front of the Basilica where the crowd gathers, waits and hears Mass, looked exactly like I thought it would. I was not disappointed; I was enchanted--by the view in front of me. I shall save what I saw behind me for another time.

For reference sake, the Basilica faces south, and even though it was still early (Mass wasn't scheduled to begin until 10) the large "square" -- which was actually rectangular in shape -- was already filling up. We gathered round Gloria while she explained the basic story of Fátima. Where we were standing was the land known as the Cova de Iria, a spacious square twice as large as St. Peter's in Rome. The Basilica of the Rosary, as it is called, was begun in 1928 just after the apparitions were approved and received its title in 1954 from His Holiness, Pope Pius XII. It has fifteen altars corresponding to the fifteen decades of the Rosary in honor of Our Lady who here declared: "I am the Lady of the Rosary."

A side note. I asked our guide what title they gave to the special statue of Mary carried aloft through all the processions. I expected her to answer, 'Our Lady of Fátima', because that is how I -- as an outsider, a foreigner to Portugal -- had always thought of this particular statue of Mary. However, Gloria answered me, "We call her 'Our Lady of the Rosary' as she asked us to call her." That is not to be confused with another popular picture of Mary which many others more commonly associate with the title, 'Our Lady of the Rosary'. It is a picture of Mary with Jesus in her lap and Sts. Dominic and Catherine kneeling on either side of her. The same seems to be the case for the Basilica. Many people, travel brochures and other written documents refer to the holy church as the Basilica and/or Shrine of Our Lady of Fátima. No doubt this is for convenience' sake, but it is not, technically and spiritually speaking, correct. For the rest of this article, however, I shall simply refer to Our Lady as such, Our Lady. She goes by many titles, but she is His Mother and ours.

Since I don't want to assume anyone's knowledge or familiarity with the Fátima apparitions, here is a brief recapitulation of the history of the basic events from 1917 from the official website. A guided meditation to all the places we were able to visit -- and even a few we didn't get to -- can be found here.

After Gloria gave us a basic explanation of where we were standing, the day's events and the information we needed to proceed, we had our group photo taken. While these relatively brief events were taking place, the colonnade rapidly filled up. Whereas when we had arrived you could walk freely from one side to the other, now large blocks of people occupied areas on either side of two clearly marked lines which marked off a strip roughly wide enough for 3 or 4 cars.

I was still getting used to my under-the-clothes money carrier as this was my first real day of the trip. We had arrived in Lisbon airport yesterday and been whisked onto our bus, then to our hotel, where we had dinner, showered and dropped into bed exhausted after 2 days straight of traveling. So when I pulled the money carrier out to access something (an extra roll of film or lip balm) and I managed to spill part of the contents on the ground, I suppose it wasn't too surprising. I looked around quickly, found my room key, a credit card and a few coins. As I was about to leave, I felt a light touch on my arm. A young woman held out a fifty Euro note to me and gestured to the ground. She pointed to my waist and I understood immediately that I had also dropped the money, but because it was only paper, I hadn't heard it drop. It probably fluttered. She or her companions must have seen me drop the money when I spilled my waist purse.

It was a moment of Grace for me I can tell you. I only brought a little over 100 Euros on the entire trip. To have lost such a sum of money -- and on the first day -- would have put a serious damper on the rest of my trip. I was aghast. Here I was trying to be so careful--hiding my money under my clothes and what did I do, but throw it on the ground for trash?! I humbly and tearfully thanked her. I also said a prayer for her. Members of my group saw it and were all amazed at what happened. But when I thought about it some more, I wasn't so surprised--just deeply and profoundly grateful. God watches over fools and children and I am both. He touched me at that moment through the honesty and kindness of a stranger. It wouldn't be the last time on the trip. But the feeling that it was a grace-filled day seemed confirmed and I carried that sense with me the rest of the day.

At this point I realized I'd made a slight mistake in not getting myself some water; it was getting warm, crowded and my throat and mouth were already dry. And this wasn't the US of A with a vending machine around every corner, fast food or even water I could drink out of the faucet. I needed to find someplace that sold bottled water.

So I set off on my own in search of a place that sold water. I was swimming upstream at this point, as the crowds were all headed towards the Basilica and I was going back into Fátima village proper. I passed dozens of places that sold rosaries and other trinkets, but unlike American vendors, European stores are highly specialized. So a place that sells tourist items will not carry water. I needed to find a cafe, a grocery store or a kiosk. Unfortunately I didn't remember seeing any on the walk from out hotel. Time was running out. Could I find any water? Could I find my way back? Could I find my group again in this crowd? I felt panic begin inside me. Why had I set off on this fool's errand on my own? I found one cafe, but the lines stretched outside into the street. The outside tables were covered with uncleared dirty dishes. Not a good sign. I prayed, "Mary, I'm here! Help me find some water and make it back again to my group." Do not panic, cath. Remember where you are and who is watching over you. Think about the miraculous save you just had with your money.

On to another street. More rosary stores. Over to the street we had walked up from our hotel. Good! I wasn't lost! Aha! A kiosk! And! They had water! Success! I bought my water and nothing ever tasted so sweet! It wasn't even cold, but it was delicious.

I made it back in plenty of time. They were just beginning the rosary. The square was packed by now, yet the crowd had a gentle feel. Was it my imagination? No, I don't think it was. It was a quiet crowd, not silent by any means, but still soft and very different from any crowds I have ever experienced before or since. And it was a gentle crowd. I have had plenty of opportunities during subsequent days to experience crowds of a totally opposite manner and demeanor.

Later, the procession began. It began at the Chapel of Apparitions (1) -- at the very heart of the Sanctuary. This was the first edifice constructed in the Cova da Iria, at the place of Our Lady's Apparitions. The exact spot is marked by a marble pillar on which the Statue of Our Lady is placed. The procession proceeded south toward the other end of the 'square' and then made two left turns which brought the whole procession heading straight toward the Basilica. This also brings my story right back to where I began my article--with the parade of the priests.

Unfortunately, I was somewhat buried in the crowd and consequently do not have the best pictures--not that my camera or photographic abilities would have produced quality images even so. You will have to rely on my verbal descriptions, the poor photos I do have and your own spiritual imaginations to provide your mental pictures of the event--which may be for best anyway. There is at least one picture which I really like; the photo above shows the priests as they were arriving at the Basilica and also gives a perspective on the crowd. However, I was most blessed in getting a beautifully clear view of Our Lady as she passed by!

Since my return people have asked me about our Masses overseas. We went to Mass everyday and although almost 1/2 of our celebrations weren't in English, I did not find that to be the impediment I thought it might be. In fact, it was just the opposite. The Mass was all the more beautiful for experiencing its diversity as celebrated by different people in different countries. I loved hearing all the languages and trying to recognize the prayers. At Fátima, most of the Mass was in Portuguese with the Opening, Closing Prayers and the Gospel in multiple languages: French, Spanish, German, Polish, Russian and English at least. Those were just the languages I recognized. Some prayers, of course, were said and sung in Latin.

The distribution of Holy Communion had me puzzled and more than a little concerned. My husband, having a Logistics background, always talks about the difficulties inherent in getting an item, or a product, from Point A to Point B, so I've learned to look at big events with an eye to logistical problem-solving. It did seem well nigh impossible--despite the almost infinite number of priests--to distribute Communion to a crowd of these proportions. (Lest you think me a total heathen, I did not spend the entire Mass worrying about this problem.)

As I recall, most of my thoughts were thankful ones, simple gratitude to God for letting me be there! And I remembered to pull out my list of people who asked me to pray for them. There were also many private prayers of my own, especially of thanksgiving for all my many blessings. I kept coming back to that one cental thought, however, "I am here!" You cannot imagine how long I have wanted to come to Fátima--and to be there on this special day. It was a dream-come-true for me.

When it did come time for Holy Communion, a young priest seemed to appear out of nowhere almost right in front of us. People started to move en mass toward him. As this was my first experience of line-less Communion, I was horrified. (By the end of 2 weeks of this, I was more adept at milling forward.) How does one ever get there? And once there, how does one ever find ones way 'back'--wherever 'back' is? Since one doesn't have a pew or a seat nor can you leave anything you own to mark/designate your place on a piece of concrete, how does this work? It seemed a terribly muddled mess to me. You can probably tell by now that I like things to be organized and orderly. I spent 13 years in the military. This chaos seemed very...well...un-Catholic to me. I'm used to the way we do things at home. Everything has to be spelled out, written down, neat, orderly and precise. But of course, things don't have to be that way at all, do they? Not with God.

As it turned out, once I finally started to move forward, a man let me in and then when it came time to try to move back after receiving Our Lord, a lady held her hand out, in effect clearing a path for me. A lesson, I thought. Just get started, cath, and help will come!

After Mass was over, Linda and I went back to our room to wash our faces, eat a light lunch, put on more sunscreen (for me!) and head out for the rest of the day. I wanted to find the Confessionals to take advantage of the plenary indulgence which had been granted to pilgrims who also attended Mass and prayed the Rosary that day at Fátima. By the time we got there, the lines weren't very long. I got a very sweet Irish priest.

We walked around the Basilica, took pictures of the stations, observed the people throwing candles and other larger objects into the fire pit, which is just to the left of the capelinha (chapel) as you face it. Then we moved up the hill to visit the new church which I want write about in another reflection. We took many more pictures, saw as much as we possibly could, then raced back to do some quick shopping, have dinner and return for the evening's candlelight rosary and procession.

The evening rosary was conducted in a similiar format as was the daytime rosary with different languages being used for each 1/2 decade. Linda was prepared this time as she had purchased a chair during our shopping excursion. The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of candles lit up the entire square bright enough for pictures even with my camera. When Our Lady made her appearance the crowd cheered and everyone grabbed their camp stools and whatever and joined the more informal procession up the opposite side of the colonnade from the morning's; then again back down the center. It was an awesome sight!

Eventually Linda and I couldn't keep our eyes open and had to call it a day.

All in all, a most memorable and full day--a day I will never forget. Thanks be to God!

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

Started: 1 November 2007
Finished: 2 November 2007

It seems appropriate, although it was not intentional, I began this book on the Feast of All Saints and ended it on the Feast of All Souls. I wish I could explain why it is so perfect, but to fully appreciate that you'll just have to read the book.

This is a profound and simple work of juvenile fiction . . . well it is classified as juvenile anyway, although I'm skeptical that it really is juvenile. Ageless would be more like it.

My younger sister recommended and I tried to get it through our Metropolitan Library System. Amazingly they don't have it, so I bought a copy yesterday and couldn't put it down from the very first page.

Of course they aren't really pajamas; they are the prison garb of Auschwitz Concentration Camp inmates.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is the poignant story of two little nine year old boys, both born on the same day and living on opposite sides of a barbed wire fence which separates two very different worlds. One boy cannot get out; the other boy's father runs the camp. But when they meet at the fence, they are just little boys -- lonely and seeking a special friend in a big world they do not understand. As I read the story, I was nine again too.

I can't promise you a happy story, but then given the topic, you probably don't expect one. And anyway, we don't just read for pleasure. We also read to be moved--to have our heart enlarged by empathizing with what others have had to experience who have gone on before us. Burdens shared are burdens lightened? But mostly I just believe empathy is an enriching emotion.

I will be filling out a form to request our Library System get this book. It is soon to be made into a motion picture, so I suppose I could save myself the trouble, but some things are worth doing just because they're the right thing to do.

Read it! Thanks L'il Sis for the tip!

PS I do so love to admit when I make a mistake! The OKC Metropolitan Library System did have this book! It was my error in looking it up which led me to the conclusion that they did not carry this book. When I went to request they order this book, they 'found' it for me and I am currently enjoying a nice slice of humble pie. Tasty! (10 November 2007)