Friday, April 23, 2010

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Make Space For God

Do you believe in the Communion of Saints? I mean really believe in it? Believe that the Saints, with a capital ‘S’ actually communicate with us? Think we are worth their time and trouble? I do. I'm convinced of it in fact.

Today is the Feast Day of St. Anselm. Today I finally got around to watching a video a colleague gave me weeks ago. It has to do with Communion and he shows it to our parish's parent's First Sacrament's class every year. After he gave it to me, I misplaced it. I didn't worry about it too much until he asked me for it back this past Sunday; then I panicked. Oh no! Where was it?!

Time to call on one of my favorite patrons, St. Anthony. Having been born on dear St. Anthony of Padua's Feast Day, I feel especially close to this saint and Doctor of the Church who is also affectionately known by many Catholics as the "finder of lost articles." He found the tape called, Sent Forth, and I watched it.

On the tape was this amazing quote from St. Anselm which seemed to be a message from the great saint himself on his feast day. It comes from his famous work, the Proslogion, and is used in the Office of Readings for Friday of the first week of Advent. Here it is:

“Insignificant man, rise up! Flee your preoccupations for a little while. Hide yourself for a time from your turbulent thoughts. Cast aside, now, your heavy responsibilities and put off your burdensome business. Make a little space free for God; and rest for a little time in him.

Enter the inner chamber of your mind; shut out all thoughts. Keep only thought of God, and thoughts that can aid you in seeking him. Close your door and seek him. Speak now, my whole heart! Speak now to God, saying, I seek your face; your face, Lord, will I seek.

And come you now, O Lord my God, teach my heart where and how it may seek you, where and how it may find you.

Lord, if you are not here, where shall I seek you when you are absent? But if you are everywhere, why do I not see you present? Truly you dwell in unapproachable light. But where is unapproachable light, or how shall I come to it? Or who shall lead me to that light and into it, that I may see you in it? Again, by what signs, under what form, shall I seek you? I have never seen you, O Lord, my God; I do not know your face.

What, O most high Lord, shall this man do, an exile far from you? What shall your servant do, anxious in his love of you, and cast out far from your presence? He is breathless with desire to see you, and your face is too far from him. He longs to come to you, and your dwelling-place is inaccessible. He is eager to find you, but does not know where. He desires to seek you, and does not know your face.

Lord, you are my God, and you are my Lord, and never have I seen you. You have made me and renewed me, you have given me all the good things that I have, and I have not yet met you. I was created to see you, and I have not yet done the thing for which I was made.

And as for you, Lord, how long? How long, O Lord, do you forget us; how long do you turn your face from us? When will you look upon us, and hear us? When will you enlighten our eyes, and show us your face? When will you restore yourself to us?

Look upon us, Lord; hear us, enlighten us, reveal yourself to us. Restore yourself to us, that it may be well with us, yourself, without whom it is so ill with us. Pity our toilings and strivings toward you since we can do nothing without you.

Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me when I seek you, for I cannot seek you unless you teach me, nor find you unless you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you by loving you and love you in the act of finding you.”

Happy Feast Day St. Anselm! Thanks for the message!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cosmas or the Love of God

Usually the best books come from writers writing from their own personal experience. Usually religious vocations manifest themselves; if they don’t, the presumption is there never was one.

But what about the layman—grandfather and businessman—who writes a flawless classic on the monastic life? If I hadn’t just spilled the beans and you’d read Pierre De Calan’s Cosmas or the Love of God without reading my review or the book’s introduction, I promise, you’d think it had been written by someone who’d devoted his life to the Cistercian tradition. That the author was neither a Trappist, nor a priest, nor even a member of any religious order will surprise most readers, when you think about it—which you won’t do often as you're reading the book, I suspect.

So incredible books can come from those writing about subjects which presumably they have not experienced. Cosmas or the Love of God is a retrospective story about a young man who feels called to the Trappist way of life, enters the abbey and immediately begins to encounter problems. However, unlike most cases where pride or some other obvious sin or character defect make it easy for his superiors to send Cosmas on his way with the assurances that he was wrong, he does not in fact have a vocation, this case defies simple disposition. There's something else going on here, but what?

If books can be written under unusual circumstances by those we don’t normally expect to write on certain subjects, can’t vocations manifest themselves in ways not seen before? With God as Author, isn’t the realm of possibility bigger than we may have suspected?

Here is how the wise Father Abbot, Dom Philippe puts it near the end of the book:

“The vocation of a Bach or a Mozart seems to be beyond all question because of the wonderful music they produced. But in the sight of God, have they any more value than that of any other musician, without their talent and grace, who has heard the inner call and tried to answer it until death? Those who suffer from this gap between their aspirations and their attainments—and whom we cruelly call failures—are perhaps less deceived about their talent than we imagine. But in their eyes the sense of inadequacy, of getting nowhere, and their failures, do not relieve them of the responsibility to keep on trying, unweariedly though in vain ... Has not this kind of fidelity, sustained neither by dispositions nor success, an altogether special value—provided it really is fidelity to an inner voice and is not merely the result of pride or obstinacy? . . . Once more God reminds us that he knows infinitely more than we do … that he knows better than we do the way by which each one of us can find peace.” (pp.224-227)

A thoughtful and thought-provoking read—Cosmas or the Love of God is a quiet afternoon’s meditation on life and how to live well. A good gift for a young person discerning vocation!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Edge of Sadness

My second installment in this trilogy devoted to Books About Priests, is Edwin O'Connor's, The Edge of Sadness. Even the title should warn you that this book is not for everyone. But if you are the type of reader who enjoys psychological mysteries, then I think you will find this study of the priesthood fascinating.

The Edge of Sadness is 646 pages of mostly thought and dialogue which spans the relatively brief time span of six months, occasionally taking retrospective forays back into the lifetime friendship of two middle-aged priests who grew up together.

The main character, Father Hugh Kennedy, a recovering alcoholic, is the pastor of the down-and-out—and going nowhere—Old St. Paul's, a conglomerate parish which has seen better days and probably won't see them again. Father John Carmody, son of the infamous Charlie Carmody, one of the most hated Irish business shysters of his generation is the type-A pastor of a type-A parish, St. Raymond's, a place which functioned much like a hospital emergency room—as did many a big Eastern city Catholic parish of the 1960's era—that is, always running, often at top speed, and never closing its doors.

But the parishes only provide a backdrop for the story which really centers on Father Hugh and his relationship with the Carmody family: Charlie, the formidable patriarch; Hugh's best friend, John; Helen, his married sister and her family; Dan, the other brother who never could get his act together and Mary, Charlie’s caretaker and housekeeper.

The overarching mystery of the novel is why does Charlie—who never does anything to no avail—suddenly decide to start calling on Father Hugh, reminiscing about his so-called friendship with Hugh's long-dead father, who in fact knew Charlie for exactly what he was, a shrewd and self-motivated businessman who never did an unselfish act in his life? What is Charlie's game now? Even his own children are at a loss to explain his seemingly motiveless nostalgia. But as the story unfolds and we go deeper and deeper into the Carmody family, we sense the damage old Charlie has been wreaking, not only on his four adult children but on ‘friends’, clients, business associates and the city as a whole.

Not that I did it, but if you’re one of those who do, even reading the last page and/or chapter won’t ‘solve’ the mystery, although it is solved, I promise. For all its length and leisurely pace, The Edge of Sadness is one of the most satisfying books I have read in a long time, also one of the most insightful and thought-provoking. The vocation of the priesthood is viewed from the inside, without glamour or sentiment but as Real Life, sometimes happy and enjoyable, other times as living on ‘the edge of sadness’. But then what life isn’t?

Here are some additional links to book reviews I've written during this Year For Priests: The Diary of a Country Priest, Silence, Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau, and Love In A Fearful Land. They are all books about priests; the first two are fiction and the last two are biographies.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Three Books About Priests

With the Catholic priesthood under attack—yet again—I am going to devote my next three posts to three classic stories about priests. The first two deal with priests living in the world, so to speak. The last will address the monastic life and the whole issue/question of ‘vocation’, i.e., whether or not a person is called to a life of celibacy, poverty and obedience.

In the canonization process of the Roman Catholic Church, the ‘Promoter of the Faith’ popularly known as the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ is the priest whose job it is to argue against whoever has been proposed for sainthood. Morris West’s The Devil's Advocate takes place in late 1950’s or pre-Vatican II era, Calabria, Italy, the ‘toe of the boot’ for those not so familiar with Italian geography. During this time of apparent calm in Church history—the uneasy quiet before the storm unleashed by the many misunderstandings which grew out of the Second Vatican Council—the tiny hamlet town of Gemello Minore a-top a twin peaked mountain in one of the poorest areas of Southern Italy seems an unlikely place for a saint or miracles, but then God has a habit of using the most ordinary people and places to do the most extraordinary things.

Our devil’s advocate is dying and has been summoned by Rome for one last assignment. In the 1977 West German film version of the book—which I’ve only been able to read about but haven’t been able to obtain—the British actor, John Mills plays the terminal padre. In fact, Monsignor Blaise Meredith is a British Roman Catholic priest living in Rome and working as auditor to the Sacred Congregation of Rites, personal assistant to the prefect himself. Here West describes very poignantly how his protagonist, Meredith learns and reacts, in true stoic Anglo fashion, the news of his impending death: ‘He had been twenty years a priest, vowed to the affirmation that life was transient imperfection, the earth a pale symbol of the maker, the soul an immortal in mortal clay beating itself weary for release into the ambient arms of the Almighty. Now that his own release was promised, the date of deliverance set, why could he not accept it—if not with joy, at least with confidence?’ (pp.7-8)

From the Monsignor, we move to the village of Gemello Minore and its cast of characters: the dead martyr himself, the bishop who has proposed his ‘cause’, the local priest and his ‘housekeeper’, the Jewish doctor who has struggled for acceptance and understanding, the “saint’s” mistress and bastard teenage son, the aging heiress and her uneasy alliance with a rogue artist.

As Meredith proceeds with his investigation, each person must come to terms with secrets or disclosures which he or she might rather not—some like wounds long in need of dressing, others more like being led from darkness into bright sunshine—initially painful, but ultimately healing.

An engrossing read from start to finish both in terms of characterizations as well as a snapshot in time. I wouldn’t classify this as an exciting book, but rather as a thoughtful one; the plot is negligible and yet almost non-essential. However, what The Devil’s Advocate lacks in speed, it more than compensates for in depth and beauty.

Highly recommended as a fitting tribute to the priesthood for this Year For Priests.