Voters’ Guide!

As we adults prepare to exercise the responsibility of voting, we must keep the following people in mind:

  1. The innocent and defenseless unborn children who have no rights. Abortionists slaughter them with impunity, by the thousands, every day.
  2. All our children, who deserve to grow up in a society where the law preserves the bond of marriage between parents.
  3. The potential victims of the immigration enforcement called for by Messrs. Trump and Cruz.

Re: #3…  We cannot imagine that any genuine justice lies in a specious attempt to distinguish “legal” from “illegal” immigration. From the point-of-view of the immigrant, the “legal” immigration of three, four, five, or six generations ago differs in no way from the “illegal” immigration of the past two generations. What changed was the arbitrary stipulations of American immigration statutes.

voting-boothDid our undocumented neighbors have the option of coming to America legally, but failed to exercise that option, through their own blameworthy fault?  Hardly.

We have to start with the fact that our neighbors are our neighbors.  Can any decent person support the proposal that the government remove some of my neighbors by force, for no good reason? No.

In fact, even now Trump’s and Cruz’s ideas have the effect of terrorizing whole families. If we have any decency and Christian love, we will rush to declare that we ourselves have no share whatsoever in such cruel nonsense.

…Now, we pastors do not have the duty to tell anyone how to vote. But as a shepherd of souls I say to you, dear reader:

We must think of 1. the innocent and defenseless unborn babies, of 2. all children, who have the right to a home with mother and father, and of 3. our undocumented neighbors who have no legal rights.

If we vote without thinking of these brothers and sisters, who have no vote, we will face a rigorous judgment for our negligence, when the Day of the Lord comes.

Orchard “But”


“Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it.”

The gardener says these words at the end of the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree (which we hear at Sunday Mass this week).

In my mind, what the gardener says here harmonizes with another sentence in the Gospel, as if these two sentences were two musical motifs in a great symphony…

“Sir, leave the barren tree one more year.”  To whom does the gardener say this?  Who is the “sir?”  Also, what’s an “orchard?”  What’s the difference between an orchard and “the woods?”

Someone planted an orchard.  An “orchard” means:  trees growing according to a plan, for a purpose.  The trees in an orchard stand where they are by design.

So this “sir” of “Sir, leave it for this year also” is the mastermind.  He planted the orchard in the first place.  Therefore, he has a right to make judgments.  He measures the situation as it stands according the plan he laid out originally.  And he says, “I have sought fruit from this fig tree and found none.  Cut it down.”

Gas by Edward Hopper

Rightly does he say this!  Fig trees ought to bear figs.  Just like chewing gum ought to be chewy.  Just like unleaded gas pumps at a gas station ought to give you unleaded gas–and not diesel, or a Slurpee.

Likewise, human beings ought to do good and avoid evil.  What else have we been put on this earth for?  For me to neglect to do good, or to choose to do evil, or both—that makes as much sense as wrapping up a rock and calling it chewing gum.  Or putting Diet Coke in the big underground tank below the gas station where the unleaded fuel belongs.

The one who planted the garden says:  Fig trees, bear fruit!  Human beings:  Worship your Maker.  Love your neighbor.  Speak truth.  Honor who you came from.  Don’t kill, cheat, or steal.  Don’t be lustful or materialistic.

The cosmos we inhabit is not some kind of wild woods that just grew up haphazardly with no purpose.  This is an orchard, planted according to the design of Someone infinitely wiser and more provident than we are.

All that said, let’s listen to the gardener.  “Sir,” says the gardener, “I see your point.  This fig tree appears to be a failure.  Indeed, we find no figs here, as we ought to find.  But…”

But.  If we really think about it, this is an amazing But.  In this parable, someone speaks up to the One Who knows all and governs all.  This gardener stands before the tribunal of absolute Truth and Justice, and the gardener has the temerity to say, “Yes, but…”

Yes, but…  How about a little more time?  How about another chance?  How about cutting a brother some slack?  How about we don’t give up just yet?  How about the possibility that things really could change for the better?

Now, a good orchard must have standards.  For anyone to act as if it just doesn’t matter whether or not a fig tree bears any figs…what good would that do, to pretend it doesn’t matter?  Of course it matters.  It matters whether or not fig trees bear figs and whether or not human beings do good.

But.  Someone spoke up and said:  Maybe, if given another chance, this tree could do better.  Maybe, if people only knew how to do good and avoid evil…maybe they could learn what love really is…maybe they could understand better why they exist…

This gardener has the tenderness of a grandparent, a tutor, and a coach, all rolled into one.  He obviously thinks nothing of extra work.  This gardener must already work tirelessly all day, every day, in this orchard—watering, weeding, pruning, raking mulch.

When the master says, ‘Cut down that tree,’ the gardener knows this is a fair and reasonable judgment.  But he himself—the gardener—doesn’t want to judge.  Not yet; not now.  Instead, he thinks:  I can see some potential in this tree, desiccated and leafless as it may appear.  I see potential.  Let’s withhold judgment.  Let’s try to sympathize with this poor tree instead.

Father forgive them Passion of the ChristDo good; avoid evil.  Love and worship God.  Love your neighbor.  Do not gossip.  Do not insult people.  Do unto others as you would have them do to you.  Give to the poor.  Keep the Sabbath.  Anchor your mind in God alone.

The rules guide us to what is best for us.  If we suffer because we disobey them, we have only ourselves to blame.  We know better.

But!  There is a but!  We are weak.  We get confused.  We listen to bad advice sometimes.  We watch the wrong t.v. shows.  We get ourselves emotionally worked-up about something, and we make a bad decision.  Then we’re too cowardly to admit the truth, even to ourselves.

Were the Roman centurions in first-century Jerusalem of a different species from us?  Were the people gathered in the courtyard outside Pilate’s tribunal a different kind of human being than we are?

They thought they had it right.  But they were utterly confused, utterly wrong, utterly obtuse.  They took Christ for a blasphemer, a revolutionary, an evil-doer.  They convinced themselves that they acted to protect peace, to protect the nation, to protect true religion.  And they crucified the innocent Lamb of God.

As He died, He said, “Father, forgive them.  They know not what they do.  Give them another chance.”

Egg Stand, Anniversary, Williams Ephs, and America

VMFA egg stand

Granted, the desire to spend an hour in a museum, gazing at 18th- and 19th-century English silver table settings, qualifies as a highly unusual mood.  But if such a mood never overcomes you, when will you ever encounter an egg stand like this one?

I experienced just such a mood yesterday afternoon, during a brief sojourn in Richmond.  The Gans Collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts also includes this exquisite chalice from the 15th century:

VMFA chalice

…Speaking of lifting up the cup of salvation and calling on the name of the Lord:  fifteen years ago yesterday, St. John Paul II, Pope Francis, a lot of other people, and I all took part in Holy Mass at St. Peter’s Square together.


We Washington seminarians had traveled with new-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s consistory pilgrims.

John Paul created Jorge Bergoglio a Cardinal at the same consistory.

I think it’s safe to say that, on that day, only the Lord knew how new-Cardinal Bergoglio would one day become Pope Francis.

Ad multos annos, Holy Father!

…A tempest has erupted in the teapot of one of my alma maters.  Williams College rescinded a speaking invitation, and the campus free-speech fighters of the world find themselves up in arms.

The speaker has published his canceled talk on-line.  The man may very well be a hate-filled bigot.  But the talk he has published does not give evidence of that, and it raises questions that I myself have often wondered about.

What does “being American” mean?  Derbyshire eliminates the possibility that American identity arises solely from agreement about particular ideas.  He shows that even the Founders did not envision it that way.  They believed in common English ancestry among American “patriots” (even though that belief was, in fact, inaccurate.)

In my own personal reflections on the question, I have come to the conclusion that the only genuinely distinguishing factor we can use for “American” is the land itself.  If we live in the United States of America, if we exercise our social nature as human beings on this particular expanse of earth, then we are Americans.  (And, of course, we owe each other–everyone with whom we share our beloved land–respect, good will, and mutual support.)

If you have been reading this little weblog a long time, you know that one of my “issues” is:  I don’t find much use in ideas like Church/state separation and the First-Amendment religion clause.

I think the early-21st-century “crisis of identity” is far too profound for such ideas.  The dream of “American freedom of religion,” when removed from the far-deeper foundation of belonging to the Christian Church, does not have any content.

I think the dream of American freedom and individual autonomy has become a dangerous chimera, in fact.  Imagining that I can serve as an ultimate authority on moral and religious matters only cuts me off from the basic elements of human identity.  Because I belong–to a family, to the family of God–I can know how to live a decent life.  Without that belonging, I’m lost.  And that belonging comes at the price of my autonomy–there is no way to get around that.

I don’t know if Donald Trump is a Christian or not.  I don’t consider it any of my business.  (I continue to think that his immigration-policy proposals fall well beneath the loving kindness that Christian solidarity with our neighbors demands.)

Also, I certainly do not consider it any of my business to judge whether or not Pope Francis should accuse Mr. Trump of neglecting Christianity.

But this much I will say:  The idea that no one has the right to declare whether or not I am a Christian, other than me:  that idea sounds like the dream of “American religious freedom.”  Thank God it isn’t true.

No prelate should lightly proclaim that any individual abides outside the flock of Christ.  But: a world in which no shepherd has the authority to make such a declaration is a world of hopeless isolation.  It is a world in which the one “identity” we all need–redeemed children of God–has been lost.  Because we become redeemed children of God precisely by becoming members of His Church.  The only known means of divine adoption is:  Holy Baptism, according to the rite of the Church.

This is a fact I think we have to face:  To be the Americans we want and need to be–that is, loving and responsible social animals in our beloved land–we need to belong to the Church first.  And belonging to the Church means that we submit to authority.  We submit to authority precisely in matters that pertain to my most-intimate relationship with my Creator.

Which means that the late-20th-century American ideal of individual religious self-determination is simply impossible.

The Desperate Son


[also available in Spanish]

“This is my chosen Son.”  –Thus spake the Almighty, about our beloved carpenter of Nazareth, the most-famous Jew of all time.

A month and a half ago, we discussed the mystery of all the events in Christ’s life.

We take two things as givens—two facts, which we cannot comprehend, but which we nonetheless believe with absolute certainty.  1.  God became man, Jesus.  2.  The one true God is three divine Persons:  Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

Two dogmas:  Inc… and Tri…  The Scriptures drip with these two dogmas like a piece of French toast, ready to go on the griddle, drips with egg.  We hold the dogmas of Trinity and Incarnation as the foundation of everything we know.

Your servant on Mt. Tabor (’08)

‘People, here is my beloved Son.’  This statement sounded in the heavens, like thunder, perhaps.  Or like a mighty gust of wind.  I have stood on Mt. Tabor a couple times.  The wind can blow there with a vengeance.

God generally stays way above the level of human chat.  But, in this decisive moment of the Transfiguration, He spoke.  In thunder, or wind, or both, or in some other way.  He made Himself understood by human ears and little human minds.  ‘This is my Son, in Whom I take my delight.’

God’s eternal, divine delight—delight which endures like the most-ancient mountainsides, but which laughs with no less jollity because of that.  The eternal Father rests in an eternal state of thoroughly animated, sober inebriation—everlasting jolly contemplation of His chosen Son.  Nothing can disturb the peace; nothing can lessen the excitement of God the Father, as He gazes with love at God the Son, Jesus, the sandal-wearing Galilean.

A door open on eternity, the Father loving the Son.  And who are we?  Who are we to try to peer through that door?  Let’s remember one thing from last Sunday.  Then we can try to resolve the question.

Last Sunday we read:  “Jesus ate nothing for forty days, and He was hungry.”

Now, we can give up Snickers Bars for Lent, or drinking wine, or playing video games—it’s all good.  The Lord rewards every little sacrifice we make for Him.  But, if we really want to keep Holy Lent, we have to do something other than just a nifty little appropriate penance.  We have to contemplate those words, long and hard.  “He was hungry.”

Recently I had the privilege of encountering someone who had just had sudden heavy-duty brain surgery.  He could not talk.  He could not hold his head up.  He vomited everything they tried to get down his gullet.  He could not use his hands.  His head hurt as if there were no other reality on the face of the earth.

Forty days of fasting had gotten Christ to a physical state like that.

Continue reading “The Desperate Son”

Trollope, Petards, and Providence

In my middle age, I have come to love reading Anthony Trollope novels.

Trollope’s characters all have one thing in common:  They wander through life in a fundamentally hapless manner.  Sometimes, they have grand plans, and the plans never get realized.  Sometimes they have delusions of grandeur about their own sterling qualities, and they never live up to those delusions.  They fill their minds with pure visions of what life will be like, and it never works out that way.

Anthony TrollopeNow, this does not mean that Trollope novels depress the reader.  To the contrary.  As we all know, nothing is more truly funny than comparing the schemes and plans of man, the delusions and airy castles in the sky, with the pure reality that dwells in the mind of God.

God does not hand us scorpions and stones for breakfast.  That is a motto to live by.  The Almighty simply doesn’t hand us scorpions and stones for breakfast.

Let’s try to remember this—that God is in charge, and not us; that He is much better, and smarter, and kinder to us than we are to ourselves.  Let’s try to remember all that, and pray, instead of scheming too hard about what is to come.

Then we too will smile in the end, even when we manage to hoist ourselves by our own petards.  We will smile right along with our heavenly Father at the fact that we are a fundamentally hapless and comical race, we human beings.

Those Whom the Lord Prefers

When Pharaoh refused to allow the Israelites to go and offer sacrifice to the Lord, Moses promised that the angel of death would descend on the firstborn of the Egyptians.  But among the Israelites, not a dog would bark.  “Thus you will see how God distinguishes between Egypt and Israel.”

Meanwhile we readAt the judgment, the people of Nineveh will rise and condemn this generation of Israelites.

imelda_marcosSo:  God distinguishes, yes; He has a preference.  But based on what?  He can, after all, raise up children to Abraham from the very stones.

The “sign of Jonah” gives us the answer.

The Egyptians had some serious pagan pride.  “You Jews want to go into the wilderness and practice another religion, other than ours?  What do you mean?  We have it all going on!  Look at how good-looking we are, especially Pharaoh.  We are practically divine ourselves!”

On the other hand, Jonah preached to the Ninevites:  “Remember, man, that you are dust.  You will return to dust.  You will return to dust as sure as snow will melt when the temperature rises above 32 degrees.”  Hearing this reasonableness, the Ninevites repented.  They said, “Lord, you are the Almighty God!  We are dust and ashes.  Have mercy on us and spare us!”

God prefers people who repent.  It’s that simple.

If I might, let’s meditate on it like this:  If Christ came solely to save me, He would have to suffer every bit as much as He actually did suffer.  He suffered then for everyone, including Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and Osama bin Laden, all of whom could have been saved if they repented at the last minute.

Christ would have to suffer every bit as much, even if I myself were the only sinner ever.  I might, in some dark corner of my soul, coddle myself with this kind of half-thought:  “You know, if Jesus Christ were suffering only to atone for my sins, it wouldn’t be as bad.  He probably would just have to endure a headcold.  Just a headcold, with constant sneezing for like two weeks.  Or maybe just being put on hold by Appalachian Power Company for 25 minutes or so.  Then all my sins would be atoned for, if the Son of God endured those things for me…”

Negative, sir.  Not true.  Because the need for Christ’s sacrifice has not arisen primarily from the proliferation of human sins, or from their relative gravity.  Certainly, human sins have proliferated alarmingly, with plenty of grave ones.

But that, actually, pales in significance compared to another factor:  The dignity of the One we have offended by each and every one of our sins.  Every time I have acted in a thoughtless manner–every time I have harbored an unworthy thought!–I have offended the infinitely kind and good God.  I have offended Someone Who makes Mother Theresa look like Imelda Marcos by comparison.

But:  This is who the Lord prefers!  The people who say to Christ crucified:  “Yes, Lord.  I myself have nailed You to Your Holy Cross by my own negligence and nonsense.  I myself brought Your bitter Passion on You!  Have mercy on me.  Forgive me.  By Your cross and resurrection, give me a fresh start, Lord.  I am nothing; You are everything!”

Return of the Native and Travels with my Aunt

Re: books to read on an airplane…

Thomas Hardy can lay down a description of his heroine when he wants to:

Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman. Had it been possible for the earth and mankind to be entirely in her grasp for a while, she had handled the distaff, the spindle, and the shears at her own free will, few in the world would have noticed the change of government. There would have been the same inequality of lot, the same heaping up of favours here, of contumely there…

…To see her hair was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow—it closed over her forehead like nightfall extinguishing the western glow…

She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries… Assuming that the souls of men and women were visible essences, you could fancy the colour of Eustacia’s soul to be flamelike. The sparks from it that rose into her dark pupils gave the same impression…

Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnight; her moods recalled lotus-eaters and the march in Athalie; her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light, and with a slight rearrangement of her hair, her general figure might have stood for that of either of the higher female deities. The new moon behind her head, an old helmet upon it, a diadem of accidental dewdrops round her brow, would have been adjuncts sufficient to strike the note of Artemis, Athena, or Hera respectively, with as close an approximation to the antique as that which passes muster on many respected canvases.

…the shady splendour of her beauty was the real surface of the sad and stifled warmth within her. A true Tartarean dignity sat upon her brow, and not factitiously or with marks of constraint, for it had grown in her with years.

But The Return of the Native does not deliver on the the promise of these paragraphs. A grim business all around, this novel.  Don’t bother.

Instead take a romp with Graham Greene. (Who knew he could make you laugh out loud?)

Before she was Violet, Maggie Smith played Aunt Augusta in the movie version of Travels with My Aunt.

Maggie Smith Travels with My Aunt

People in the airport looked at me funny as I read this passage of Travels with My Aunt:

My aunt took another sausage and ordered another Guinness. ‘They all wanted to know about the church in Potters Bar.  “And to think,” one said, “we have to leave our doggies at home when we go to St Ethelburga’s. My dog is as good a Christian as the vicar is with his raffles and his tea-fights.”‘

…My aunt put down her glass and asked the woman behind the bar, ‘Did you ever hear of the doggies’ church?’

…‘Didn’t the police interfere or something?’

‘They tried to make out that he had no right to the title of Rev. But we pointed out that it stood for Revered and not Reverend in our church, and we didn’t belong to the established. They couldn’t touch us, we were breakaways like Wesley, and we had all the dog-owners of Brighton and Hove behind us–they even came over from as far as Hastings. The police tried to get us once under the Blasphemy Act, but nobody could find any blasphemy in our services. They were very, very solemn. Curran wanted to start the churching of bitches after the puppies came, but I said that was going too far–even the Church of England had abandoned churching. Then there was the question of marrying divorced couples–I thought it would treble our income, but there it was Curran who stood firm. “We don’t recognize divorce,” he said, and he was quite right–it would have sullied the sentiment.’


Black-History-Month Photo

MLK booked in Montgomery 1958

Charles Moore took this picture of Dr. King in the police station in Montgomery, Alabama, in September of 1958.  They were booking Dr. King for loitering on the courthouse steps.  He had refused to “move on” when ordered to do so.  He was trying to get in to hear the trial of his associate pastor.

The photograph was taken for the Alabama Advertiser and published in Life magazine.  I found the picture in a folio of Civil-Rights-Movement news photos that someone gave me.  It is my new favorite photograph of all time.  It is hard for me to imagine that anyone could ever have the serendipity and skill to take a photograph more evocative than this.

Together on Ash Wednesday

Pope Francis ashesLent brings us together.  Ash Wednesday brings us together.

Not that the Church doesn’t always come together.  Church means ‘coming together,’ after all.  The Lord brings us together in church year-round.

But we know that Ash Wednesday and Lent bring us together more.  Because:  If there’s a single day of the year that marks us as Christians–a single most important day of them all–then, of course, that day is…

And honest Christians know we need forty days of special effort to prepare.  Forty days to “get it together” for the Holy Day of days, the day that represents eternal life.

So Ash Wednesday has brought us together, because all together we know we have to work for six weeks on getting it together.

How?  Let’s listen to the Holy Father…

For all of us, then, the season of Lent in this Jubilee Year is a favorable time to overcome our existential alienation by listening to God’s word and by practicing the works of mercy. In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited; in the spiritual works of mercy — counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer — we touch more directly our own sinfulness.

The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated. By touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in the suffering, sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need.

Feeding, clothing, sheltering, visiting, counseling, instructing, forgiving, admonishing, and praying for each other–because we sinners need the help that comes from touching the flesh of the crucified Christ.  Which is only as far away as the person closest to us who suffers.


required:  no meat; only one full meal

good:  going to Mass and receiving ashes

Another Dispatch from Near “the Border”

One thing that the cities of Phoenix and Roanoke have in common is:  Breathtaking mountain vistas can sneak up on you in any nook or cranny of town.  Like when you’re ambling through South Mountain Park…


Another thing:  This place is a bona fide desert.  I cannot get used to the dry air and all the dust.

How the eastern boys in the Confederate Arizona company must have suffered.  Chapped hands, chapped lips, sneezing constantly.  We Easterners need more ambient moisture.

Yesterday I got to assist at Holy Mass at the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, on the road south of Tucson towards Nogales.

San Xavier del Bac

(Just about 300 miles due west, in fact, from where our Holy Father will make his final stop, during his visit to Mexico next week.)

Fr. Eusebio Kino founded the mission.  He came from Germany to evangelize in territory held by the Spanish crown.  He made a map of all the little hamlets on all the woebegone waterways of the Sonoran desert.

Eusebio Kino map

A certain borderline does not, of course, appear on this map.  The land itself offers no natural feature here that would divide one nation from another.

We Catholics stand for law and order, of course.  But we have to reflect on this question, when we consider all the election-year issues:  Is it morally incumbent on a Mexican person to respect the border between the states of Arizona and Sonora, or Texas and Chihuahua?

I’m not going to comment right now on whether the Civil War constituted a “war of northern aggression.”  But there was certainly a war of northern aggression fifteen years earlier.  The Mexican-American War.

The saints who evangelized New Spain never knew an “Arizona” border, or a Texas border.  The sacred deposit of the Catholic faith does not include the American doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

I myself refuse to use the term “illegal.” Not because of dainty political correctness.  But because the term is, in and of itself, fundamentally unsound.

The whole business could have gone the other way in 1847.  Then the whiteys in this desert would be the “illegals.”

The humane thing now is:  path to citizenship.  Our neighbors who have to live a shadow existence without “papers” deserve all the rights the rest of us have.  And we owe them our thoughts when we vote, right alongside the innocent and defenseless unborn, who likewise do not have the legal protections they should have.