Thursday, December 22, 2011

Like I Mean It

I know a non-Catholic who has been exposed to the Catholic faith pretty heavily for years, but who still has no interest in becoming a Catholic. When asked why he answers, “Because Catholic worship is so boring. It looks like there is no feeling, they are just going through the motions.”

The typical response to this would be an explanation of the liturgy, and how worship is an action of faith and will, feelings are secondary and accidental. This would be a true response, but let’s take a look at it from another angle for a second. Truth be told, most of the times when I go to Sunday Mass, if I pay attention to the people around me it doesn’t often look as if they are especially interested in what they are doing. Hardly anyone sings, the responses are mumbled, someone is picking his fingernails over there, someone else is playing peek-a-boo with the toddler in the seat in front of her. Before and after Mass the church often sounds like a meeting hall, to the irritation of those who have the desire to pray, but lack the focus to ignore the noise. Then, when I look at myself (because, after all, what am I doing watching everyone else) I find I am doing all of those things (except playing peek-a-boo.)

Granted that I am not a charismatic, and don’t very much value emotional thrills, yet still I can’t help but think that if we stopped and thought, really thought what we were doing, it ought to make a difference in how we act at Mass. I should be worshipping like I mean it. That difference ought to be noticeable. I think of the worship of cloistered nuns or even the discipline of Buddhist monks. I doubt anyone watching Zen monks meditating (which is not even worship) would be inclined to doubt the sincerity, whatever their thoughts about the theology of it.

But then, this is really only a part of the question. If you are a person that God Himself invites to His table, if you are the person who has received Jesus in the Eucharist, that really ought to mean something for the rest of your life. And yet so many of us act as if we were just killing time at Mass, and only really come alive outside the church. Instead it should be the other way around. The protestant who comes to Mass might not recognize the depth and passion of a beautiful liturgy, and almost certainly will not recognize the Sacramental reality that takes place regardless of how beautiful or how sloppy the liturgy is. It is quite fair for them to complain about a “Lack of feeling” at Mass, but the witness of the rest of our lives should be an answer to them. Worship does not end when we leave church. The hidden interior joy we receive at Mass (sometimes whether we know it or not) should slowly bubble its way to the surface over the course of the day and the week, until it overflows in a good life, lived with excellence and fun and style. We should live every day as if Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

Because as it turns out, He did.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Hawaiian Pizza

This weekend I am visiting my cousins who live in Virginia, on my way north to NY for Christmas. Now, I always make pizza for them when I visit. I really love making pizza, but I seldom make it anymore. I never make it for myself. It is a lot of work, even though I enjoy it, and it just doesn’t make sense to me to go through all that trouble without someone to share it with. I’d just as soon order out, even though it is nothing like the same quality.

At any rate, on Saturday morning I went to 0830 Mass, and I was still thinking about what kind of pizza I was going to make. I wanted to do something new and adventurous that I had never tried before. One of my cousins had suggested Hawaiian pizza, but I’ve never really liked the Hawaiian pizzas I have tried from dominos and Papa Johns. I knew I was going to make a veggie-sausage stir fry pizza, and a deep dish, and I was thinking I wanted to redo a bruschetta pizza I had made once before, but for the fourth pizza I still had no ideas.

Then out of the heavens came an inspiration from the patron saint of pizza. There was a beam of light, and choral soprano chords going on, and it hit me: Christmas Hawaiian pizza! There was skepticism when I explained the idea, but it was an inspiration and I was not to be deterred. As it turned out I was vindicated by the results. The pizza was delicious, voted awesome by all partakers. It was probably Grandpa who gave me the idea. And now I am going to share it all with you, gratis.

First I made the dough. It was just a typical unspiced pizza dough, except that I added a couple of teaspoons of honey with the yeast as an activator, and I put in a little extra yeast. The result was a fluffy, smooth, gorgeous dough that I half spread before letting it rise so that when it rose it covered almost half the pan, lessening the work I needed to do to spread the dough. The magic in this pizza was mostly in the toppings.

After spreading the dough I topped it with a generous layer of red sauce. I used cheese flavored spaghetti sauce, not pizza sauce. I think spaghetti sauce has a better texture to it than most off the shelf pizza sauces. On top of that I sprinkled almost a whole can of pineapple tidbits (I actually did not sprinkle them personally. A friend of mine did the sprinkling.) After that I added the ham. I bought a slice of boneless ham, ready to eat, cured in salt. About half of it went into the deep dish pizza, but the other half I prepped for this Christmas Hawaiian pizza. I diced it up really small, less than quarter inch cubes, and put it in a small bowl. On top of it I poured a generous spoonful of cinnamon, and about the same amount of powdered cloves, and then a few ounces of warmed honey. I stirred them all up together until the ham was thoroughly coated and then spread that on the pizza. After that a generous layer of mozzarella and baked at 475 for twenty minutes.

Bon Appetit.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Shadow Flower

You dwell so much in shadow; at times it seems
As if there is no hope, no peace, no strength.
And days and nights grind on in weary length,
Grueling days, and nights of restless dreams.
For rent and gas, utilities and counseling fees,
You last from one hard-earned check to the next,
No friends close by, not even a friendly text,
Living on Zoloft and lonely mac & cheese.

But in God’s eyes your soul is so much more,
A flower unseen that blooms in shadows dim
Seen only by Him and those who see like Him.
Instead of petals bright, your scent is your allure.
Flower of the King, sought out by scent alone
Hidden deep in shade, but healing balm
For those who seek you out. A quiet calm
Is growing in your heart right now unknown.

And through all time and space your heart is one
With all who suffer: future, present, past;
From the first tear ever shed, until the last,
With all who have endured the ache and done
What was required of them, again and again.
The dogged strength that falls back in the pit
And stubbornly from the mud, refuses to quit,
This silent solidarity of hidden pain.

You shadow flowers. Flowers of greasy smears
Of tiny fingers on dirty window glass
Looking out on fields of human trash
Too ignorant to see the need for tears.
Wretches toiling in the bowels of diamond pits,
Drop short-lived flowers of sweat, which bloom in dust
And are trampled underfoot. Flowers of rust
And soot and ash, in haunted chimneys at Auschwitz.

Each flower is precious. All are saved and drawn
Together into crimson teardrop flowers
On Gethsemane’s hallowed ground, the darkest hours
Of all the shadow children. He has gone
Where none of us can go, to be with you.
But in mystery most subtle, He also calls
You sufferers to join Him, as He breaks the walls
And cries, “Behold, all things I make anew.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Greatness of a Lady

“She had that great femininity which demanded of her lover what her lover demanded of himself.”

I read this sentence last week in Charles Williams’ “The Figure of Beatrice,” and have been savoring it ever since. He wrote it of Dante’s oft-commented-on beloved, as she appears in the “Divine Comedy”, of which, I confess, I have read only the Inferno, and that only in high school. Despite my limited acquaintance with the heroine of which he spoke, or perhaps because of it, this sentence spoke to me. It called to me, and I swear verily resonated in my chest, like a basso profundo echo of a high, clear note heard afar off. It seemed to me that there, all in a sentence, was a beautiful expression of the heart of femininity at its highest, at least as it appears to me. It seems to be a reversal of the curse of Genesis 3:16, specifically where it says, “You shall desire after your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

I saw the movie, “Ladder 49” once, a long time ago. I liked it. It made me want to be a firefighter, even though I had been in the army for several years. The character of the firefighter played by Joaquin Phoenix was one that I could relate to. He lived to go into burning buildings and rescue people, and it was this quality of courage and reckless compassion that attracted his wife to him in the first half of the movie. By the second half of the movie she was tired of it, to the point that she wanted him to quit the Fire Department. More interesting still, I was watching the movie in the company of other soldiers, most of whom were married and they all said the same thing, “That’s how it is. When you first meet them they think it’s the most awesome thing in the world that you’re a soldier, but then once you’re married they hate it, and they are always scheming to keep you at home.”

A soldier I know, who graduated the course with me, joined up to go Special Forces with his wife’s blessing. As he got further into the course, though, and she realized what it really meant she began to be less and less thrilled with it. Now she hates it, and it is a continual source of tension between them. She hates it and resists it, so much so that I’ve heard her cut him down in public, telling him he’s not smart enough to make it as a medic, or she wouldn’t trust him if she were injured.

I listen, and I hear what she is saying. All of these women face the same trial, namely that their men are not wholly theirs. Each one has a mission that he feels is his, and he is committed to it even at the risk of his life. She, for her part, is worried sick that one day she’ll get that knock on the door and then she will be all alone with the children. Women tend to commit so completely. They want to belong completely to one man and one family, and even a hint that it might all come to an end is truly terrifying. I listen well enough to hear that fear, and I give it a good deal of weight. It is just as real and just as valid as the man’s need to fight fire, or deploy overseas, or whatever great thing he feels he must do.

But today we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of the great Marian Holy Days of the Catholic Church, and I thought about this in connection with Mary. As Adam ruined betrayed and ruined masculinity by his weakness in the garden, so Eve betrayed and sabotaged femininity. Jesus came to restore the whole human race by obeying where Adam had disobeyed, but He chose to act through a human woman, and in so doing He allowed Mary to be the first and best example of redeemed femininity. Two episodes in particular came to my mind as pivotal moments in this redemption. First, obviously, the annunciation was the pivotal moment of human cooperation with Divine salvation. Mary blindly said her fiat, her “May it be” to the Will of God, without knowing what it would entail. This was the undoing of Eve’s disobedience, a choice made in the dark. Neither Eve nor Mary knew what was at stake. The issue was simply trust. Eve did not, Mary did.

But the second pivotal episode was both a little more obscure, and to my mind a little more relevant to the Charles Williams quote that started this whole train of thought. It comes from John 2:4-5. At the wedding feast at Cana Jesus says to His Mother, “Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.” She does not reply to Him directly, or if she does it is not recorded. Instead she simply tells the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.”

Nothing in John’s gospel is arbitrary or aside. He does not do character development. Every word and saying is full of meaning, significant on many levels and this is no exception, but I find it more mysterious than most of his writing. I have heard a lot of different interpretations of it, most concerned with showing that Jesus was not really being disrespectful to His mother. A few of the Catholic ones use it as an example of how powerful Mary is, and how Jesus will do anything she asks of Him. The most interesting one I ever read was by Fulton Sheen, in which he speculated that what Jesus was really saying was that if He did this and manifested His power He would be setting out on a path from which there was no turning back, and it could only end with His crucifixion.

I suppose on some level there is truth to all of them, but today the idea of Fulton Sheen’s took on a reality in my mind that is convincing in its beauty and elegance. I am convinced that when Jesus said that to her, she knew what was at stake. He was giving her a chance… to do what? To hold Him back? To keep Him for herself? To say, “No, not you my Son. You know what the world will do to you. I just want you to be safe.” Could she have said this? Yes. Just as she could have said “No” to the angel at Nazareth thirty years earlier, she could have said “No” at Cana. The choice God gave her was real, to be the Mother of His Son, or to refuse. Salvation really did come about as the result of a fallible human being’s “Yes” to God. I think Cana was something similar, but more immediate. Now she was faced with an actual human being. She knew Him and loved Him. He was her son. She had born Him in her womb, nursed Him at her breast, held him while He learned to walk, taught Him, fed Him, clothed Him. He was truly flesh of her flesh. In all the years they had lived together they must have talked of His mission, and she knew the prophecy of Simeon concerning her beloved Son. Faced with that kind of choice, a daughter of Eve would have grasped after the one she loved. What kind of grace must have been poured out upon her, to enable her to exercise her redeemed femininity, that high and noble love which demanded of Jesus what He demanded of Himself!

This is that “Great Femininity” that Dante envisioned, that can look on the best of her man’s masculinity, and affirm it even when it takes him away from her. She does not seek to smooth every obstacle out of his path, she does not encourage him to take the safe, easy path. When he loses faith in himself and feels like giving up she gently affirms her faith in the best part of him. You can see it in the men who have wives that support them unconditionally. No matter what setbacks or failures he runs into at work or among his peers, his wife’s support and loyalty outweigh them all. He can conquer the world. I know a man who is a full time volunteer in a Catholic Men’s ministry, who lives entirely on whatever donations he can get. He is able to do this because his wife supports him. She believes in him and his mission so much that she and his children willingly live from donation to donation to enable him to do what he is called to do.

That is the power of this “Great Femininity.” You can see it in the man who is blessed by it. He will answer God’s call, whatever it is, and he will persevere. Such men will change the world, because of the women who love them.

Saturday, December 3, 2011



For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:5-6

The phrase “Jealous God,” is one of those knee jerk phrases, and this is one of those knee jerk verses. Automatically it puts a sour taste in the mouth of modern Americans. We have a problem with God being jealous, and we have a problem with God punishing children for the sins of the parents. How can a loving, merciful God punish an innocent child for an infraction of His cosmic preferences that he did not even commit? How can this be the action even of a just God? And yet, the people who hate this verse tend to hate it on face value without considering the context, and in this instance I am not talking of the context within Scriptures. I am talking about the context of real life. People who hate this verse (myself included, since I wrestled with it a bit at one point in my life) hate it without pausing to think about what this would look like in the world we live in.

In life, actions have consequences. This is how God designed the universe. When I act, that act ripples outward and outward, both in the results I expect and in the unintended consequences. There is no way human wisdom and foresight can predict all the consequences of an action, or a series of actions, or a life.

So what does that verse look like in real life?

A week ago, my maternal Grandfather died. He was 74 years old. He was born in 1937 in a state mental institution. His maternal grandfather was committed to the violent ward of a state mental institution following a head injury that left him with a complete and dangerous personality change. His mother had suffered a mental breakdown following some months after her divorce and was also committed to a state mental institution. There is no way of knowing at this point who his biological father was, but Grandpa was born in that institution about eight months after her commitment, and immediately turned over to state custody. Before he was 18 months old he had been scalded with boiling water and struck by a car. He never knew his biological parents, and was never adopted, though he eventually spent his childhood and youth with a single foster family. On face value it would seem that Grandpa was dealt a bad hand right from the get-go. The choices of his parents and their parents had consequences in his life, real consequences that really hurt him. That is real life. Our bad choices hurt people who come after us.

But, fast forward 74 years to the day of his death. Grandpa died, beloved of his family, a faithful member of the church, wise, at peace, ready. He served in the Air Force during the Cold War, he remained a faithful Catholic, married in the Church, raised his children in the faith, designed and built electronics, made furniture, fixed cars, followed the fortunes of our nation through good and bad, with prayer and work right up to the end. His 8 children, 42 grandchildren, and 7 great-grandchildren are all souls that would not have existed otherwise. The life of faith, family and country are our life blood. We have soldiers and sailors, artists and business men, actors and students, movie makers, activists, entrepreneurs, farmers, mechanics, designers, husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, teenagers, children, and babies.

Think about that for a second. In some ways he was dealt a bad hand. In fact, if Grandpa were conceived under similar circumstances today, there is a large segment of the population who would consider it an act of mercy to abort him. He was reaping the consequences of the choices of those who came before him, but God was also working. Grandpa was put in good foster homes, and allowed to grow up in one home for his whole childhood. He took what he was given, and he made his own choices, and now we reap the benefits of those choices.

That is what I see when I read that verse from Exodus. God is not sitting up in heaven trying to keep bad things going for three or four generations. He doesn’t need to. Bad things keep going by themselves. That is not a threat of vengeance, but a promise of mercy. It is only because of God’s intervention that the consequences are limited to those few generations. On the other hand, no one can know, no one can even begin to imagine the good that will come from one life lived well. God longs to pour out blessings, good things, life to the full, if only we would cooperate. A life lived with faith is an open door. Through that door God is allowed into the world, and runs riot with good things for everyone, until other doors, closed and shut by selfishness or ignorance or fear, stop Him.

Mercy is the fundamental reality, or to put it another way, Love is all there is. Live that reality, and let God into the world. You have no idea what will come of it, but it will be good. It will be greater than you can possibly imagine.