Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Becoming an Ark of the Covenant: On Attending Daily Mass

While I have taken a break from making regular posts on Dulcius Ex Asperis until December, I continue to give talks at my church as the lecturer for the Knights of Columbus. I've posted my most recent one on a separate page for those interested.

Monday, September 8, 2014

An Autumn Recess

Dulcius Ex Asperis will be on break through the fall. Having written this blog fairly consistently for the past two years and eight months, I've decided to spend some time looking at other social media avenues of expression, re-evaluating my mission as a writer, and refocusing my goals. I plan to do this without going to meetings or watching PowerPoint presentations, so it may take awhile. I appreciate your past readership and hope you will join me again in the future.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Nine Days in August

Heeding the call of our bishop, my family and I abstained from meat for the nine days leading up to the Feast of Assumption. The abstinence was part of a novena that we joined asking Our Lady's intercession that the Black Mass that satanists from New York are planning to hold in Oklahoma City (one diocese over) be canceled. The event is scheduled for September 21st in the Oklahoma City Civic Center.

The public authorities won't cancel it, mumbling the usual First Amendment niceties. While it's probably the case that a federal judge would order them to allow it, it would still be refreshing to see a public official have the guts to make them go get a court order. But, we live in a society where the First Amendment has become carte blanche to say or do anything and force others to go along with it. To the good, though, it's just exactly times like these when we realize our help is in the Lord and not men. It is He to whom we should be calling.

And, so, that's what the five of us did. Even though nine days is more than the total number of abstinence days in Lent, I initially thought it would be easier than it was. My wife and older daughter who both live mostly on meat, found it particularly tough. For my son and younger daughter, it didn't take near the toll. They are more carbohydrate oriented in their daily diet. For me, abstaining from meat is not such a big deal, but I was feeling it around Day 4. To make sure that I was doing some good abstaining, I made sure to avoid more than basic fish (no shrimp, crab, lobster, etc.), and I gave up alcohol. More than meat, I look forward to that glass of wine or cocktail at the end of the day. I felt that about Day 3.

We joined in the prayers of the novena and it helped my younger daughter finally get the "Hail Mary" down. We'd been working on it for awhile, but now she says it perfectly. My older daughter memorized the Fatima prayer, "Oh, my Jesus...", while my son perfected the Memorare. It was not only a great time for family prayer, it was a great time for memorizing all the really great prayers. I'm still working on the Holy Spirit prayer, though. We may need another novena for that.

The novena itself worked in well with my current practice of praying a Rosary each day for my enemies, the enemies of Christ, and the enemies of His Church. As I've said in previous posts, I think this is something that had been lacking in my own prayer life and is still lacking in the prayer life of many Christians. Christ told us to pray for our enemies, but we don't, at least not regularly. The novena also fit in well with our usual night prayers. It made them a little longer, but it was all to the good.

While I'm still praying for its cancellation, this event, like all the bad in the world, offers us an excellent opportunity for advancement in holiness, both for ourselves and for our nation. In Paul's Letter to the Romans, he told them and us that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. Like the Roman Empire, the American Empire is setting itself up to be swept away in a flood of grace.

So, as the evil and ignorami make their plans for Oklahoma City, let's offer our prayers that the Holy Spirit will wash over them and change their hearts. In the end, by bringing their evil into view and sending us to prayer, they will have brought these graces on themselves. And, given that they could have otherwise gone unnoticed and avoided our prayer for a lifetime, it's a good thing too.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What World is This? and Other Stories

I've always been a fan of good short stories. While I have read numerous novels and novellas through the years, some of the most powerful experiences in my own reading have come from the shortest works of fiction. A good short story like "A Retrieved Reformation" by O.Henry, or Jack London's "To Build a Fire" can stick with me in ways that novels frequently don't.

That's why I was cautiously enthusiastic when I received an email from Tuscany Press announcing their new collection of short stories, What World Is This? and Other Stories. I say I was cautiously enthusiastic because I've been involved in or observing new Catholic fiction for over a decade now, and found many of the writers, and all of the publishers, of Catholic fiction to be underwhelming.

With writers I've pushed my way through a significant amount of detritus to find a few gems. With publishers, the dominant type for those not publishing their own work has been low-end presses that don't have the wherewithal to market, or even edit, the works they sell. Short stories have come and gone in various anthologies from the same low-end publishers, or in short-lived literary journals that, if they had readers at all, drew them from the same people who were sending in submissions.

Perhaps, all of that is about to change.

At some point, I signed up for an email list, or liked something on Facebook that got me on the marketing list for Tuscany Press, a publisher of Catholic fiction in both short story and novel form. I let some of their notices go by. I'm usually pretty busy during the school year. However, in April or May, I received the notice that the anthology from their annual Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction had been released, and I gambled on an electronic copy.

I started the book at the beginning of the summer and spent the hot months reading each story one at a time. Sometimes, I read it late at night with a glass of wine before bed. Other times, I sat on the dock at the lake and read a story while waiting for my brother-in-law to come around with the boat. At still other times, I sat on the patio on a cool and rainy day with Kindle in hand. I skipped around, but in the end read all of the stories.

I enjoyed them all. It is not exaggeration or over-generous reviewing to say that every one of the stories is well written and, as a group, worth the price I paid. Each in its own way took me into the world lived in by Catholics. From Belfast, Northern Ireland to Chimbote, Peru to middle America, the authors dug in to what it means to be Catholic and to live Catholic lives. From the woman undergoing an accounting of her possessions just prior to a divorce after 30 years of marriage, to an abused woman recovering from alcoholism and still searching with all her heart for the father whom she never knew, to a priest hearing his most mysterious confession, the short stories in this anthology rarely blink at the real problems of real-world people.

It is a maxim of most of the Catholic writing crowd these days that Catholic fiction should be Catholic without being didactic. In other words, it should be Catholic in its essence and ethos, but not club you over the head with a homily. It should also not insult your intelligence with schmaltz. It should be good fiction in its own right.

The stories of What World Is This? succeed at being both Catholic and good fiction. The only criticism I have is that, this being a compilation of the works of prize winners, the publisher gave first prize to the weakest of the stories and led with that story in the anthology. The story "What World Is This" from which the book derives its name was written by Gloria Whelan who won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2000, and who has had a successful run as a minor author in American literature. Having read the stories of this anthology, it seems she was given the Tuscany Prize mostly for having won previous awards, and so that they could put her name on the cover of the book.

While still a good story, there are better ones among the four that only garnered "honorable mention." Still, it's hard to fault the publisher for going with what will sell. And, if a thousand dollars in prize money is all it costs to put the name of an author with an established audience on the cover, the rest of us who hope for a Catholic literary revival should marvel that someone was smart enough to do that. Indeed, when you check the website and see that a man with an MBA is the publisher, it can't help but cause the more realistic to let out a sigh of relief. Catholic fiction has needed someone who knows marketing and how to raise capital for at least as long as I've been following it. If you're wondering why there's a robust Protestant fiction and music industry, it's because they've long had guys like this. If  you're wondering why Catholic fiction may only now be on the verge of gaining the tiniest bit of notice, it's because we haven't.

The barest of artistic qualms aside, What World Is This? deserves to be widely read and to gain a place on the central shelves in your home library. Indeed, I plan to buy a hard copy to do just that. And, while I haven't read them yet, just checking out the Tuscany Press website makes me think I could be reading good Catholic fiction for summers to come.


A postscript:

In my last post, I begged off of an original writing with an excerpt from Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis De Sales. I then promised an original short story within a matter of days. It has not come to pass. However, I was not lying. I was just overly optimistic.

I hold myself to a certain standard in my writing. Frequently, my way of determining whether a story is ready to be published is to let my wife read what I have written and tell me what she thinks. As a woman who is a serious, major league reader, she's not able to let errors or gaps go by without letting me know. And, I take her opinion seriously. Of the story I intended to publish, I asked her simply, "Is it ready for prime time?" She said, reluctantly, that no, it wasn't. So, I've put it aside to let in develop some more. When I am able to add what it needs, I'll bring it out again and eventually publish it here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Same as it ever was (An excerpt from Introduction to the Devout Life)

In addition to my duties as lecturer for the Knights of Columbus council at my church, I am also the faithful pilot for the Knights' fourth degree assembly. As lecturer, I write an original talk each month which I subsequently publish on this blog. As the faithful pilot, I am charged with choosing a reading to share with my fellow Sir Knights. While I don't normally reproduce those here, I think this one is worth sharing under the theme of "the more things change, the more the stay the same." And, it will give you something worthwhile to read as I finish up a short story I plan to publish here in the next few days.

This is from Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva in the early 17th Century. I have made modern some of the language and divided it into shorter paragraphs to make it easier to read.

We must Disregard the Criticisms of the Children of this World (Part 4, Ch. 1).
As soon as your worldly people perceive that you aim at leading a devout life, they will let loose endless shafts of mockery and misrepresentation upon you.The most malicious will attribute your change to hypocrisy, trickery, or bigotry. They will say that the world has turned upon you and you have turned to God only because you have failed in the world. Your friends will raise a host of objections which they consider very prudent and charitable. They will tell you that you are growing depressed; that you will lose your worldly reputation, make yourself unacceptable to the world, grow old before your time, ruin your material prosperity. They will tell you that in the world you must live as the world does; that you can be saved without all this fuss; and much more of the like nature.

My daughter, all this is babbling and foolish talk. These people have no real regard either for your bodily health or your material prosperity. The Savior has said, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. But because you are not of the world, because I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.” 

We have all seen men, and women too, pass the whole night, even several in succession, playing at chess or cards. Is there any more dismal, unwholesome thing than that? But the world has not a word to say against it, and their friends are nowise troubled. But give up an hour to meditation, or get up rather earlier than usual to prepare for Holy Communion, and they will send for the doctor to cure you of hypochondria or jaundice! 

People spend every night for a month dancing, and no one will complain of being the worse; but if they keep the one watch of Christmas Eve, we shall hear of endless colds and maladies the next day! Is it not as plain as possible that the world is an unjust judge; indulgent and kindly to its own children, harsh and uncharitable to the children of God?  We cannot stand well with the world save by renouncing God's approval. It is not possible to satisfy the world’s unreasonable demands: 

“John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say he has a devil. The Son of Man is come eating and drinking, and you say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a drunk, the friend of publicans and sinners.” Even so, my child, if we give in to the world, and laugh, dance, and play as it does, it will act as though it is scandalized at our behavior; if we refuse to do so, it will accuse us of being hypocritical or morbid. If we dress well, it will attribute it to some evil plan that we have; if we go in plain attire, it will accuse us of being cheap and stingy. 

Our cheerfulness will be called dissipation and our mortification dullness. Ever casting its evil eye upon us, nothing we can do will please it. It exaggerates our failings and publishes them abroad as sins. It represents our venial sins as mortal, and our sins of weakness int sins of malice. Saint Paul says that charity is kind, but the world is unkind. Charity thinks no evil, but the world thinks evil of every one, and if it cannot find fault with our actions, it is sure at least to impute bad motives to them. Whether the sheep be black or white, horned or not, the wolf will devour them if he can.  

Do what we will, the world must wage war upon us. If we spend any length of time in confession, it will speculate on what we have so much to say about. If we are brief, it will suggest that we are keeping back something. It spies out our every act, and at the most trifling angry word, sets us down as unable to get along with anyone. Attention to business is avarice, meekness mere silliness.  As for the anger of the Children of the World, it is called being blunt, their avarice, economy, their mean deeds, honorable. There are always spiders at hand to spoil the honeybee’s comb.

Let us leave the blind world to make as much noise as it may—like a cat molesting the songbirds of day. Let us be firm in our ways, unchangeable in our resolutions, and perseverance will be the test of our self-surrender to God and deliberate choice of the devout life.

The planets and a wandering comet shine with much the same brightness. But the comet’s is a passing blaze, which does not linger long, while the planets cease not to display their brightness. Even so hypocrisy and real goodness have much outward resemblance. One, though, is easily known from the other, inasmuch as hypocrisy is short-lived, and disperses like a mist, while real goodness is firm and abiding. There is no surer groundwork for the beginnings of a devout life than the endurance of misrepresentation and calumny, since thereby we escape the danger of vainglory and pride, which are like the midwives of Egypt, who were bidden by Pharaoh to kill the male children born to Israel directly after their birth. 

We are crucified to the world, and the world must be as crucified to us. It esteems us as fools, let us esteem it as mad.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

On Fighting and Building the Temple

On Tuesday, I gave my monthly lecture to the Knights of Columbus at St. Bernard's Church in Tulsa. This post is adapted from that talk.

Brother Knights,
First, tonight, I want to look back in thanksgiving for the Supreme Court decision yesterday that established the right of conscience in the Obamacare health care regime. The victory of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties whose owners are Baptists and Mennonites, respectively, shows the power of God’s people when we put aside our seemingly intractable differences and unite in prayer.

While there remain many flaws in this legislation and its interpretation by President Obama and the federal bureaucrats in charge of implementing it, most egregious to Christians were the efforts of bureaucrats at the direction of the president to entrench both birth control and abortion as not only rights of those who want them but as financial obligations of those who find them, correctly, to be morally repugnant.

Evil, as we have seen over and over again, and very clearly in this episode, will not simply let you acquiesce in its existence, but instead demands that you join it. Thus it was when Jesus refused Satan in the desert and was later crucified by the power of the World. So, also, has it been for every martyr whether in the Roman Empire, the Nazi Reich or Soviet Union. There can never be a truce. Evil wants you to join or be destroyed.

And, so, we must win or lose. If it seems we are in stalemate or have fought the Enemy to a draw, we are, in reality, either about to win the battlefield or be crushed upon it. While we forget this in our day of modern states and constitutions, Peter reminded the early Church, and yet reminds us still to, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour…”

We have not directly felt the persecution that has seen the martyrdom of Christians in our own time in countries around the world. Neither have we, for many decades, felt the persecution that our Catholic forebears in this country did. But, that does not mean we live in a country that is Christian or even hospitable to Christianity. Certainly, parts of our country are more in opposition to open faith and belief than others, and we are fortunate to live in a state and region where open faith is not shunned.

Still, our entire country is reaping the harvest we started sowing long ago but with fervor in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties when we marginalized religion first for free love and later for Wall Street’s version of free enterprise.

We live among pagans. They may call themselves Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or frequently, even Catholics, but they do not share our faith. And, more and more, they don’t call themselves any of these things because they don’t need the cover of a sham social Christianity anymore. They don’t mind calling themselves pagans or wiccans or atheists because these are now marks of honor instead of reasons for disdain in our government, the media, universities and the business world. They also don’t mind being openly vicious or trampling upon those who allow them to or who can’t stop them.

The cases of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga brought us a momentary victory, a brief respite. But, if like me, you’ve been praying for the enemies of Christ and his Church, now is not the time to stop. Keep praying. Keep fighting. However, also remember, that Christianity is not at its strongest when we pray and fight. It finds its greatest strength instead when we pray and convert those who are enemies into friends and brothers in Christ—when we reach out to them in the love of Christ and draw them into that Great Love which our Savior longs to pour out upon a receptive and responsive humanity.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have never fought my way to a friendship nor brought a sister to Our Lord by arguing with her. Quite the contrary, I have probably driven more people from Christ when I crouched as one in a machine gun nest with my books of the decrees of the Church councils or my pre-selected verses from Scripture. In fact, I can only remember one time bringing a man into the Church having engaged in the apologetics popular among Catholics today.

Others I have helped come into the Church did not come because I convinced them I was the bearer of ultimate Truth. They came because they had relationships with Catholics or because they were drawn to the example shown by Catholics both great and ordinary. If I had a part in it, it wasn’t because I gave a speech, it was because I kept quiet and journeyed with them, answering questions for sure, but mostly just giving them someone to go with to the House of the Lord.

A few years ago, I sponsored a man who was coming into the Church because of his wife and kids. He had faith, but he wasn’t steeped in Catholic thought. And, he didn’t get steeped in it coming through our RCIA program either. Although we have a very good RCIA program, he worked long hours to support his family and frequently slept through the classes. When he woke up, I would tell him it was OK, that he hadn’t missed much and that I understood. It was probably my finest moment in Catholic evangelization. I understood him and offered him what he needed to keep going. He was reading the materials and he asked some questions, but mostly he just needed someone to understand the pressure he was under and to be there.

It’s not that we never have to fight or that we should not be fully formed in the truths of our Faith both in apologetics and otherwise. There are times when we need to be able to give an explanation of what we believe to those either friendly or hostile. However, we need to know when to fight and when to be less defensive and let God draw people to the Church through us. I think that is what Pope Francis has been trying to tell us this past year or so. Because, while we can, and sometimes must, fight and hold our ground, only rarely can we, simultaneously, fight and bring people over to our side.

Over the past week or so, I’ve been reading through the First Book of Kings. I noticed that the daily Mass readings were coming from the Second Book of Kings and thought I’d place the readings in context and do some further reading starting with the first book. First Kings recounts the death of King David and the reign of his son, King Solomon, over Israel nearly ten centuries before Christ. It is Solomon who builds the temple in Jerusalem for the first time. He begins during a time of peace. David, having fought to establish his kingdom, was not allowed, despite his great desire, to build the temple. David had blood on his hands from many wars, the Lord said, and thus would not build God's house. Also, at war, Israel was not in a position to marshal or expend the time and resources needed to build the temple.

Solomon, however, became king during a time of peace and was not guilty of his father’s transgressions. It was given to him to build the temple for the Ark of the Covenant which carried the tablets given to Moses. And, he built a splendid temple. It would not be possible to do justice to this temple in the space of a few sentences, so let it suffice to say that it was large and that no expense was spared. The finest stones were cut and cedars of Lebanon imported to build this temple. Giant olivewood statues of cherubim stood over the altar. Intricate carvings of palm trees and flowers in cypress covered the walls. And, all of it, floors, ceilings, walls and statues were overlaid in gold. From the description in Kings, the first temple would have made St. Peter’s Basilica look poor by comparison.

It was, of course, to give glory to God and it was built as God prescribed. But, it was meant to be a home for God’s people; to attract them to the Lord, for them to dwell with and in his covenant  It was glorious in the way people of the time saw glory—material wealth that reflected the unending bounty and power of God. However, it also went beyond wealth and power to attend to the more mundane needs of the people. When Solomon stood before the altar in the presence of the people to ask the Lord to dwell among them, he asked that when the people turned to Him in His temple that the Lord would hear their prayers; that when they were sick they would be healed; that when there was drought or famine that God would send rain and food; that when defeated because they turned from the Lord, He would bring them back; and that when they sinned and turned to the Lord in repentance that they would find forgiveness.

In a foreshadowing of the New Covenant of Christ, though, the temple was not just for the Jews  In his plea to the Lord, Solomon said “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of thy people Israel, comes from a far country for thy name’s sake (for they shall hear of thy great name, and thy mighty hand, and of thy outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to thee; in order that all the peoples of the earth may know thy name and fear thee, as do thy people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by thy name.”

The temple would eventually be destroyed and the Jews led captive into Babylon. It would not be rebuilt until second century before Christ only to be destroyed by the Romans in the year of Our Lord 70. By, then, though, the new temple had been built by Christthe new temple of his body of which we are the building stones. However great and fabulous the first temple or even the second, how much more so the third built with the people of God, with kings and queens, craftsmen and laborers, paupers and slaves, men and women, the young and the old—each more valuable than all of the gold in Solomon’s temple.

Yet, as the temple of God, we still serve the same purpose. In Solomon’s time the people looked to the temple for healing, to be fed, to be brought back from the defeats they suffered in trying to live life without God, for forgiveness and mercy.  Foreign to God because of their sin or foreign because they were not yet of God’s people, they came. No one had come because David conquered. They came because God offered through Solomon the things that every human person and every human heart needs. Healing, feeding, forgiveness, mercy.  They were offered by Solomon and then by his descendant Jesus, the Messiah, in even greater measure.

The history of the Catholic Church is a history of building hospitals, feeding the poor, standing with the marginalized, granting mercy and forgiveness to both friend and foe. But, it has also been a history of military campaigns, political power struggles, and the elevation of appearances over the welfare of the weak and powerless. To those who really pay attention to the story of Israel and Christ’s Church, the New Israel, it really is no surprise that we were stronger and held in higher esteem and drew more converts when Mother Teresa served the poorest of the poor in Calcutta than when the pope sat enthroned over the papal states that once stretched across central Italy; that the nuns and priests who served those suffering in the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in the 19th Century at the cost of their own lives gained more converts than the military leaders of the Crusades.

And, for us today, I think you’ll find that while a fight is necessary every now again, we will be much stronger building up the temple through healing, feeding, forgiveness and mercy than we ever will be sitting in a court room with even the best of lawyers. Satan fears us more when we feed the hungry than when we file a legal brief. Let’s savor our victory but get back to building the temple.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Cheers for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga

After what seemed like an epic string of losses for religious freedom, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties pulled out a win at the Supreme Court today. In a split (but good enough) 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that corporations that are closely held by families or small groups have religious freedom and thus cannot be required to provide contraceptives or abortifacients to their employees through company insurance plans mandated under Obamacare.

The constitutional question seemed obvious from the beginning, but obviousness and the plain text of the Constitution or an act of Congress don't necessarily work in your favor when you go to the Supreme Court. Sometimes, they just get it wrong. Sometimes, you get betrayed by craven justices who know better but have given their vote over to political or personal concerns.

So, how refreshing it is when the obvious and just win. Sweeter still, neither Hobby Lobby nor Conestoga are owned by Catholics. The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, is Baptist, while the owners of Conestoga are Mennonites. The major media, who are largely the propaganda wing of the Democratic Party, weren't able to pit Christians against each other by claiming this was only a Catholic issue as they did in the early days of the abortion debate. 

Even better, though, American Christians who take the Faith seriously were able to clearly see the consequences of not standing together and united behind the companies and their owners. They couldn't divide us, and we didn't divide ourselves. That, of itself, is reason for optimism for the future of religious liberty.

Beyond religious liberty, however, there is also a secular principle that indirectly won out. And, that is the principle that when you have a business, it is not the government's business. While the government must have a reasonable regulatory regime to prevent businesses from harming their employees or the public, it does not follow that the government should be able to dictate the details of how or why you run your business and what you must use the profits for.

That, for President Obama, was the true fight and the true loss. It is his view and that of the Left that your business is whatever the government leaves to you after it has taken what it wants. With the federal budget beyond carrying another massive social program, the Democrats looked to mandating that private business owners finance health care in the way Democrats wanted it delivered (including pretending that contraception and abortion are actually health care). If it worked, the Democrats would take credit for giving the people something that the Democrats didn't have to pay for even as stewards of the government treasury.

The federal treasury would then have, in effect, been stretched to include the bank accounts of every business in America. And, of course, you couldn't object on religious grounds even if you were an order of nuns or a Christian book publisher, because what you were giving them wasn't really yours to begin with. If the government owns it all or can claim it all as its own at any time, it's not yours to present an objection as to how it is used. You are simply an agent running a government enterprise.

Fortunately, a majority of justices put that strategy in check. It's your business and you can run it according to your moral principles. Cheers for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga!

In the archives:
Hobby Lobby and the Boycott that Isn't
Pray for Hobby Lobby