Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Last Lap

The last week of Lent is usually when I feel like this:

I've realized that I entered the race out of shape and deluded about my real spiritual abilities, and that it's going to take that extra burst of energy just to make it to the finish line.

That's true this year, as well, even though, like the last few Lents, I came in with lowered expectations. Having taken the Lenten pummeling in my early years as a Christian when I tried to do too much, my hope the past few years has been to successfully fast within regulations on Ash Wednesday and to keep to my personal abstinence. 

I have to say, this has been both a successful Lent in terms of making it through the fast and really profiting from personal abstinence. Having been a Facebook addict for too long, I quit the social networking site for Lent with no Sunday exception. This followed last year's quitting of FB with a Sunday exception, and 2012's effort to use Facebook less. 

In really getting away from Facebook this year, I discovered in my heart what I already knew in my brain: Facebook is a huge timesuck. But, more than that, Facebook is also a huge soul-suck.

I wasn't off Facebook for a week before I started to realize that there were other, more profitable things to do than look at other people's cat pictures, pass around the latest political meme, or let everyone in my own, personal social micro-universe "like" whatever it was I had just done with my children.

The last part was the hardest. I admit that I was addicted to the "like". I wanted the approval of acquaintances, friends and family for whatever I posted and, given the number of "friends" on my list, I felt deflated whenever I couldn't garner ten or more likes. And, over time, that has been harder and harder to do. Between people dropping off of Facebook and those remaining setting up lists that I'm not on (I'm surmising based on what I see, responses I've gotten, and because I've done the same thing), the ability to get instant peer approval has significantly narrowed since I first got on Facebook in '09. 

That is probably the reason giving up social media was relatively easy this year. I admit to checking the pages of organizations I'm a member of that post their news exclusively on Facebook, and to slipping one Sunday in posting a picture that I took at a Trail Life USA Camporee my son and I went on. But, there was otherwise no looking for social satisfaction from Mike Zuckerberg's billion-dollar e-monster. 

Even though I did renew some old-school time-wasters like checking my email and blog stats too much, and playing an early iPod knock-off of Tetris, those could not possibly fill the void left by my FB departure. For one thing, my email has become mostly a channel for business transactions, notices from my kids' schools, and other non-social information. And, Tetris will only keep you occupied for so long. Also, you, my beloved readers, have been amazing in cooperating with God's grace by not commenting on any of my last ten posts. It has been, as Lent should be, a real electronic desert at Dulcius Ex Asperis

What did I do to fill the part of the void that was left? Well, I felt more creative and wrote more posts than I thought I would. Most of the last several posts came within 24 hours of my deciding that I was just going to let this blog fade. But, I never quite did that. I've had an overall impression since I started this blog back in December 2011 that God wants me to write this blog. Over time, I've also gathered that whatever reason He has for me writing it, having a large readership isn't a part of it. Perhaps, as the Indian lacrosse players in the marginally watchable 2012 movie Crooked Arrows found out, I'm supposed to play solely to entertain the Creator.

I also spent time with a very good Lenten meditation book, Lent and Easter: Wisdom from Pope John Paul II. Compiled by John V. Kruse, this book contains an excellent selection of the great pope's writings, along with complementary scripture quotations, and very well written and considered prayer and action sections. It is the first daily Lenten meditation book I will have made it all the way through since becoming Catholic. I think cutting out the insistent noise of FB and other social media made focusing in on this very profitable book of meditations possible.

Also, my prayer has been more consistent. Getting away from all of my "friends" I was able to focus on my enemiesthe people, both public and private, who are enemies of the Church, or personally make me angry or irritated. I've offered a rosary almost every day for them. I don't know if it has done them any good (although I suppose it has) but it has done a world of good for me. 

So, as I pray for that last burst of energy to sprint to the finish line, I'm thinking that, like other things Lent has helped me get out of my life permanently and improve myself both physically and spiritually, it is probably time to cashier Facebook. Being better able to focus on entertaining the Creator with this blog and delving more seriously into the prayer and spiritual life He desires for me will certainly be worth the sacrifice.

Happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Lily in the Field

This is a word portrait of someone I know. For an explanation of my occasional break into verse and vignette, see On Golden Field.

A flower amidst thorns, yet not a rose
A lily born among the wildflowers and brambles
She hides in dark petals
Anticipates a death that is not her own
And meets the world with her heart wounded
Rent open by others, then quickly thrust closed
She opens it still and looks out

For a world that should be hers
Although she’s never been there
For a love that was taken away by
Selfish desire.

Storm of spring passed
Yet unbroken by the hail, she rises anew
A flower awaiting the sun.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Jesus the Winnower

This post is adapted from a lecture I gave to the Knights of Columbus at St. Bernard Church in Tulsa tonight.

His winnowing fan is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Matthew 3:12 

Although we are surrounded by farmland that stretches for miles and miles outside of Tulsa, our modern methods of farming have kept many of us far from the metaphors and similes of the Bible. Most of us could get to a farm within 15 minutes from this church, but we would not be at home there. Unless we were raised on a farm, we would not, beyond the basics of gardening or preparing eggs or caught fish for a meal, have an understanding of the processes that go in to making sure that we are fed each day. A farm in the consciousness of most of us in this part of the country, in this part of our city, is a place where cows keep the grass in check until the foundation for a strip mall can be laid; for all we know, after this happens, the cows go on to their next job five miles further down the road and wait for the next developer to come in an endless cycle of cows and concrete.

Yet, if we have allowed ourselves to become attuned to the Bible by listening to the cycle of readings at Mass through the years and by paying attention to the weekly homily, or gone even further to become involved in good Bible studies, then we find ourselves using these phrases as if we were truly relying on the soil beneath our feet and the water in the ponds or creeks near our houses to directly provide our next meal. The Christian immersed in Scripture daily sows and reaps, is a branch of the vine, is seed that has fallen on good or rocky soil, is a sheep searching for the shepherd, is a fisher of men or a worker in the field. Countless times the work of farming, or catching or caring for animals that are destined to be food, is the canvas on which Jesus brings forth to his disciples in words the Kingdom of God.

As I was reflecting on this year’s journey through Lent, the metaphor of the wheat and the chaff came strongly and persistently to me. There are others: Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats; the wheat from the weeds; the trees that bear good fruit from those that do not. But, what strikes me about these is that they seem to be pictures of the end of time, the Day of Judgment when no one is able to doubt that Christ is King because it will no longer require the eyes of faith to see, but simply eyes. We will all see the ultimate reality that has been obscured to us by original sin. We will either be at Christ’s right hand or left, we will be saved or damned.

When John the Baptist tells the Pharisees and Sadducees, however, that the winnowing fan is in the hand of the Lord, he is alluding to the end of time, but also, in some sense, telling about a process that is happening in the present. The wheat will be gathered into the granary; the chaff will be burned in unquenchable fire; however, the winnowing fan is in his hand. The separation is going on right now.

For those of you who, like me, are used to buying your wheat processed into hamburger buns, cereals and pastas, it may help to reflect on the winnowing process as it was done until the age of modern farming. The kernel of the wheat, the good part of the plant that we eat, has to be separated from the outer covering which is light, insubstantial and not good for food. To separate them, they were scooped into a fan which in this case is a type of basket and thrown into the air. The lighter chaff would be blown away by the wind while the heavier kernels fell back into the fan. It didn’t happen in one throw, it took many throws to get the chaff out of the wheat. It was hard work.

When we bring it back from biblical metaphor, we sometimes can’t help but think how long it seems to have taken Jesus to separate the wheat from the chaff in our world and in our own lives. How long it seems to have taken our Lord to separate the sinners from the saints, the good from evil. It’s nearly 2,000 years on and he still is at his winnowing. Up goes the wheat and chaff, and down comes the wheat with a little less chaff, over and over again.

For me, this comparison seems to describe very well what we see in the world. We look out at one time in our lives at a world where evil and disorder seem to prevail, and then a few months, years or decades on the good and order seem to have won out. And, then, evil and disorder come back. In truth, they’ve never really fully gone away—the wheat and the remaining chaff having settled back into the fan. The wheat, those who keep and live the Faith, can and do get comfortable ignoring the chaff, those who embrace the evil. And, yet Jesus, the Winnower, isn’t satisfied. He is building a perfect kingdom in which evil cannot exist, he is making a loaf of bread that must only be made of the good grain. So, he tosses it all up again and our world goes into disarray. We are no longer able to rest in the fan making our accommodations with evil. The chaff is surrounding us in a thick cloud and we feel as though God has forsaken us and that evil cannot be defeated. But, unseen by us, the cloud is being dispersed in God’s wind. The chaff is being separated out.

Various philosophers and religions have ways of describing what seems to be the interplay of good and evil in the world. Georg Hegel in 19th Century Germany saw the conflict about him as the forces of history engaging in conflict followed by a temporary harmony followed by conflict again until such a time as humanity achieved civilization at the end of history. In the East, the philosophers see an unending battle of good and evil, equally matched. For me, though, the image of Salvation History as Jesus the Winnower throwing us up and down with firm but caring intent seems not only more likely but vastly to be preferred. There is a certain, loving finale.

Still, it is not just all of mankind that must be winnowed, but each individual as well. We must join with Christ to separate the wheat of our lives from the chaff of our lives. Just as we get comfortable with evil in our societies, we get comfortable with the chaff in our lives. And it doesn’t require a lengthy discussion to see that the wheat in our lives is the Faith we have and the good that we do. The chaff is the sin we commit as well as the sin we allow. It is failing to respond to the mercy of a loving God; failing to allow ourselves to be winnowed.

My brother knights, tonight, we have the opportunity to rid ourselves of the chaff in our lives, to recover the wheat and make the work of Christ the Winnower more complete. Out in the church, priests from around the diocese have come for our Lenten penance service. Let us go and present to them the chaff in our lives that needs to be separated from us and burned. May your Lent be fruitful and your Easter blessed.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Son of God

As I have noted in past posts, it is a rare occasion when I get to see a movie while it is still playing in the theaters that doesn't have princesses or talking animals in it. Today, I went to see Son of God, the movie adapted from parts of the History Channel series The Bible.

Having read the reviews, I wasn't expecting a very good movie. But, then, one has to be selective of movie reviewers when the topic is Jesus Christ or some aspect of Christianity. Although I read some fair secular reviews, it was more common for secular reviewers to make overblown criticisms of the writing, acting and production values in an effort to sink the movie without just coming out and saying, "We hate Christians and their movies."

However, I was also careful not to give too much credence to those in Christian quarters who are willing to give a good review to any movie with a Christian message. Good Christian art is good art and should be able to withstand earnest and honest criticism. Like Christian music where not every song is great, not every Christian movie is great either.

But, Son of God is very good. I really tried to see some of the points the critics were trying to make: the actor playing Jesus is too pretty; the CGI that recreated Jerusalem wasn't convincing; the movie is really "made for TV" and not movie-theater quality. However, none of these were true. Diogo Morgado, the actor who plays Christ, is a handsome guy, but there never has been an ugly Jesus in art. The computer-generated Jerusalem was better than a lot of CGI I've seen in other, bigger-budget productions. As for "made for TV", I think this movie is as movie-theater quality as anything I've seen in the cinema in my four decades of going to the theaters.

I was particularly impressed by the acting. Beyond finding out that Roma Downey really can act beyond what is required by schmaltz like Touched by an Angel, Greg Hicks, who played Pontius Pilate was extremely impressive. Pilate is a man whose role in Christ's death can be interpreted in different ways, but Hicks's rendering of him was very convincing. In fact, few of the actors delivered less than top-flight performances. One notable exception was Fraser Ayers who was not a very convincing Barabbas, but I think that may have been because of the way the part was written or the direction he received. He came across as too much the modern-day thug instead of the first-century revolutionary.

I wound up going to see this by myself because my wife and I weren't sure with the PG-13 rating (for violence) that we should take the kids. Sure, we want to them to know the Story, but in an age appropriate way. Having now seen it, I plan to take my 11-year-old son. We'll wait a few years to share it with my daughters. The violence was not graphic but it was intense. For example, during the scourging of Jesus, the view is from the front. You don't see the blows landing on his back, but then the camera pans around to show the bloody results.

The Gospel story is the greatest story ever told. And, Son of God is both a faithful and artistically very good rendering of it. It falls short of the high art of The Passion of the Christ, but that is good in its own way. While I won't feel comfortable sharing The Passion with my children until they are older teens, this is a movie that can be shared in families with children 11 or 12+ years. I recommend it for anyone looking for a stirring Lenten meditation on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Journey's End: James Bond in New York

All moderately entertaining things must come to an end. On March 7, 2009, almost exactly five years ago, I bought a copy of Casino Royale, the first of the fourteen James Bond books written by Ian Fleming, the character's creator. At the time, my children were still quite young, and I was taking some advice from my wife that the weightier books I was used to reading were going to be an ongoing frustration for me until the kids were older, and I really had time to read them. She suggested looking for some lighter reads.

It was the beginning of my extended, mid-20th Century travels with the most famous double-naught spy of the British Secret Service. Today, I finished the last of those original 14 books having also read all of the ones in between. Turning the last page on my Kindle edition of Octopussy and the Living Daylights, I left James Bond as I found him: on a secret mission in an encounter with a woman.

Throughout the series, I never had to deal with the vagaries of character development. James Bond was in Octopussy in 1966 the same James Bond he had been in Casino in 1953. Through Moonraker, Diamonds are Forever, From Russia with Love, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, and the rest, James Bond was a man with a license to kill, and he did when it was required of him by his country.

In between, he ate good food, drank liquor that one assumes was the best in its day (although the brand names now seem rather blue collar), and slept with the beautiful, needy women he encountered. He once got married, but was saved from his vows when his wife was killed within a few hours of their marriage. A good thing it was too. Marriage changes a man, and James Bond was successful both in novels and in the movies because he didn't change.

While unchanging, however, the James Bond of the books and the James Bond of the movies were different men. Although Ian Fleming made his character a worldly man of alcohol, tobacco and women, the movies made more of these than the books did. In fact, as mediocre as most of the books were (although Fleming's writing improved over the course of the series), it was even more painful to watch the movies of the same title. The stories were often substantially changed, or at times completely rewritten so as only to leave the original title. The sex was made sexier, and the playboy lifestyle more rich, at least as much as was allowed in movies at the times they were made.

Also, because most of the movies were made after Ian Fleming died, they were updated for the decade they were being produced in. Enemies and allies were changed; motivation and plot were updated to meet the geopolitical terrain of the time. And, you won't find the racial biases and views of women that Fleming wrote into his books. Instead you'll find the racial biases and views of women that the producers of the movies had in the '70s, '80s, '90s, and in the years since 2000.

To be fair, Fleming was probably ahead of the curve in racial attitudes for a man writing in the 1950's, but the modern reader is unlikely to get through the original James Bond without being either offended or amused, or both. I found them amusing because they were products of their time. I could remember some of the terms used by Fleming as narrator and Fleming as Bond as having been used by my grandparents. My amusement stemmed not from the terms themselves, but from the thought that people at one time actually used them without really thinking about them.

Beyond the people, the technology in use from cars to encryption brought back memories from my childhood in the late '60s and '70s before the digital revolutioneverything back then was so mechanical. Even the amazing devices of many of the early James Bond movies look primitive now. Those devices were, however, mostly an invention of the movies. The novels rarely had Bond in possession of high-tech gadgetry or weapons secreted in otherwise harmless objects.

Still, the novels were well enough written and suspenseful enough that they held my attention through fourteen of them. I didn't make a straight read-through of them. While, on occasion, I went through two at a time, I mostly picked them up when I wanted to read but not think too much. And, if you don't think too much, Fleming's James Bond novels can be good reads.

Sometime in the past five years, I was talking with a friend on Facebook about reading the series. One of his comments started off with "Most James Bond scholars think that...". I forget what the point was, but I do remember saying, "I can't believe there are scholars who would waste their time with James Bond." Popular though the novels were, they were pulp fiction, rarely going beyond 150 pages in length. On further reflection, though, given the state of universities in our country there probably are James Bond scholars. There just shouldn't be.

What there also should not be are the thirty or so James Bond novels written since the death of Fleming. I've seen some of them in stores. Judging solely by the thickness of some of them, they have totally broken with the spirit of the originals. With two to three times the original number of pages, they can't help but have extensive descriptions, plot and character development. Better to have left James Bond in New York where he was at the end of Octopussy. In fact, I will. On to other men of danger in other light reads.

A Note on Links

While writing an upcoming post, I went back to look at some posts from months past and saw some very blank, white, rectangular places where links to music videos used to be. Like many things that the Internet has spawned, YouTube was a lot of fun and quite useful until the owners decided they were going to try to make a profit. Now, legal videos are overloaded with advertising while those of questionable legality (the good ones) are given to suddenly disappearing.

I'm not proposing that the owners don't have a right to their works or to the control of them, just that it was a lot more fun for everyone else before they were very successful at doing so. None of the posts that had videos I (legally) linked to were of any lasting importance, and I'm not going to go back and refresh those links. Those posts were fun at the time, but not really meant for posterity. From bits they came and to bits they shall return...

However, in the future, I will avoid using videos in my posts unless they are my own videos or videos from a reliable and legal source.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Into Lent...

There was a time during my now twenty-five years as a Catholic that I considered myself to be spiritually and physically up to the challenge. I was absolutely certain (for no really good reason) that I could purge the evil in my life and attain perfection while still walking the earth. I thought it came down to denying the self and enduring the pain for long enough until I achieved my goal.

Lent seemed a time of extra focus for attaining this perfection. While fasting from food, the ultimate in Lenten commitment, was always beyond my ability, early on, I would make extra efforts to give up something that I really enjoyed like soda pop or alcohol. Neither of these were ever addictions but they were frequently things I used just to pass the time of earthly existence and which I reached for whenever I thought something was missing. And, neither were easy to give up, but they were benign affections when compared to the television and the Internetthe years I gave up those showed me where my heart had been and how comfortable it had gotten.

As the years went on, though, it seemed I wasn't getting stronger but weaker. At first, I attributed it to getting older and softer. But, recently, it came to me that I just see things about myself better than I did when I was younger. The younger me was able to excuse some major faults by either not looking at them, not fully assessing them, or just being blind to them. When I could see them, they always seemed to be something apart from me that I could, should I decide to, walk away from.

I think this view was a residual belief from my initial attraction on leaving my Unitarian roots to Buddhism. Not, the trendy kind of Buddhism, though, but the sort that seriously sits on a mountain, slowly annihilating the self to achieve the peace of nothingness in the eternal.

I never did make it to India or Tibet or find enlightenment on a rocky, snow-capped mountain. I did, however, make it to Europe and, despite a badly decayed Christian civilization, I became more and more aware that the West had its own men who were seeking eternity.

Still, I was full of pride and overestimation of my abilities. I thought of monks as those who achieved a level of mastery and then moved through the world at perfect peace. Not only is this not what monks really are, when I did find out that they struggled like everyone else but in a different venue, I slowly allowed that I would not be a good monk. 

I would later admit that I lacked the personal discipline to get beyond myself as the Christian monk is called to do, much less annihilate myself as the Buddhist seeks to do. I then went through stages of spiritual awakening that seemed like an interminable deflation. If I couldn't be a monk, perhaps I could be a diocesan priest. A brief encounter in seminary showed me otherwise. Various rigorous prayer regimens I tried to take up afterwards failed. Among other disciplines, I found that I cannot consistently pray five, or even three, of the hours of the Divine Office each day. 

Very recently, I thought I might be a good deacon and started the application process. This time, I had some support from others who saw this in me as well, but the time constraints of having a family which made my wife extremely reluctant provided a graceful exit from something I was starting to see as, perhaps, also not within my spiritual grasp. This one I haven't completely given up, but it will be a later date if it is to be. 

While I gave up on the idea of achieving perfection somewhere in the many years between considering the priesthood and considering the diaconate, my search for perfection still hounds me at times. Even when I want to give it up, it insistently returns to me, calling to me to come along further. Certainly, I have long since learnednot just in intellectual consent which I would have readily given early on, but also in my heartthat perfection without Christ is impossible. However, I'm more and more of the opinion that achieving spiritual perfection in Christ, while not impossible, is unlikely in this world.

I suppose that is because our life is really our very long Lenta period of preparation where we join with Christ to purge ourselves of what keeps us from Him; a time of piercing imperfection and deflation of the self when we learn that we are not God, and not even perfect as creatures contingent on his Being and Goodness.

This is not to say that this long Lent of life is without its spiritual gains. I now see, for instance, how intractable were my major faults when I was younger. How, and sometimes why, it has taken decades of slow progress to decrease them and why I couldn't have just walked away as I thought I should have been able to when I was younger. So, perhaps, I am really no weaker than I was, and perhaps the deflation has been one of removing from me what I was never called to, never created for in the first place; dismantling my image of myself in order to reveal my true self.

True disciples of Christ are conscious of their own weakness. For this reason they put all of their trust in the grace of God and they accept it with undivided hearts, convinced that without Him they can do nothing (See John 15:5). What characterizes them and distinguishes them from others is not their talents or natural gifts. It is their firm determination to proceed as followers of Jesus. May you be imitators of them as they were of Christ!

This quote is taken from a message that the soon to be Pope St. John Paul the Great gave at a World Youth Day in 2003. It is excerpted from Lent and Easter: Wisdom from Pope John Paul II  which I am using as a daily meditation during this latest liturgical Lent. I would add that it is the perfection of the undivided heart that not only accepts God's grace, but also sees it as necessary and necessarily gradual; the work of a lifetime, not a moment, that we must seek.

The latest in a long line of time-passers that keep me from focusing on Christ and the more important things in life is Facebook. I've given it up until Easter. I'm still not sitting on a rocky mountain top. Instead, my moments proceed amidst the cinder blocks of a middle school classroom and in the deteriorating upholstery of the family minivan. I will not achieve Enlightenment in this life, but I am sometimes given enlightened moments on the road to perfection.

May your Lent be blessed and fruitful.