The Claverings

Young man falls for his cousin-in-law’s beautiful younger sister. She jilts him and marries for money. Young man goes racing down the wrong career path, but along the way he finds just the right woman. Then his first love returns, a rich widow, offering him everything. A crisis ensues.

The Claverings TrollopeThe entire plot of this perfectly constructed Anthony-Trollope novel turns on this one moment: The protagonist lied in bed at home, laid up with a wicked cold. His mother offers him some advice. He takes it.

…Where does the joy of reading a Trollope novel truly lie? In the comic relief, perhaps? The Claverings has one of the funniest chapters I have ever read. A hapless, ill-educated, blue-blooded boy, cousin to the protagonist, seeks help in his love suit. From a cheap Franco-Polish con-woman, whom he believes to be a Russian spy.

Does the joy come from Trollope’s withering, righteous indictment of all the inhumane cruelty doled out by the heartless oligarchs he manages to capture perfectly? Hugh Clavering strides through the pages of this novel as one of the most believably loathesome villains I have ever encountered, the Victorian drawing-room equivalent of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Does Sir Hugh receive his just desserts in the end? I won’t spoil the novel for you. But we learn a lesson in boatsmanship: don’t go fishing off the coast of Norway in a small craft.

Maybe the deepest joy of a Trollope novel comes from the relentless struggle for honesty waged by the good guys. Henry Clavering faces an enticement to falseness–which he comes by perfectly honestly. The way all the other characters react to his predicament gives us a grand tour of all our predilections to judge our neighbor.

For my money, though, the most amazing thing about this novel is the character of Julia Brabazon. And the Way of the Cross she follows to reach a state of self-possessed kindness by the story’s end.

Now, I can’t say that I wished The Claverings had kept going longer than it does. The plot is not easy on the nerves. None of the characters sits with you like a relaxing companion (as some of the denizens of Trollope’s Barsetshire chronicles manage to do).

But every single page of The Claverings is worth reading. Reading them all both delighted and instructed this particular reader. Of all the things a person can find himself addicted to, Trollope novels have got to be one of the most thoroughly healthy options.

Signs of Divine Power on US 220

[Homily of your unworthy servant, saying goodbye to my beloved parishes of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Joseph]

If you have a sharp memory, you may recall that our three-year cycle for Sunday gospel readings has one special late-summertime twist.

The years when we read from St. Mark’s gospel at Sunday Mass are called Year… B. St. Mark had a unique virtue in his gospel writing, namely brevity. His gospel doesn’t quite fill a whole year’s worth of Sundays.

So, during Year B, from late July to the end of August, we take a detour from Mark to John. We read one of the longer chapters of the New Testament. The chapter about the Bread of Life, come down from heaven; about ‘he who eats My flesh and drinks My blood will live forever;’ the chapter that concludes with St. Peter humbly declaring to Christ, “Leave You, Lord? To whom shall we go?”

Christ in Capernaum

Christ in Capernaum

Right. John 6. It all starts with the Feeding of the 5,000. Then the chapter continues for four more Sunday Masses

It’s my favorite interlude in the three-year cycle of readings. It presents the wonderful opportunity to reflect on the most-famous miracle of Christ, and then segue into His Presence with us in the Holy Mass. These five weeks stand wide open, like an invitation from the Lord to preach a little series of homilies. Today would be the day to start the series. Except…

My best friend in high-school and I competed with each other in many things. Grades. Sports. But the thing we competed about most was: which of us loved his mother more. Maybe that sounds totally cheesy, but it’s true. Then, when we were 22, Eric lost his mother to cancer.

Brave, eloquent man that he is, he got up to speak at her funeral. The scene seared itself into my memory forever: The picture of him standing there by himself in the front of the dinghy synagogue. The sound of his strong voice, valiantly mastering itself. He said, “Anyone who knows me knows that for me to be standing here like this… is destroying me.”

That was a lot worse than a transfer from one parish to another, to be sure. But standing here, having to say goodbye… If you know me, you know that this is kinda destroying me.

We read in the Holy Gospels how the Lord Jesus promised that miraculous signs would accompany the ministry of the Apostles. The Apostles then proceeded to work miracles, as we read in the New Testament.

Recently I had an argument with a brother Christian about the continuation of the apostolic ministry in the Church. The Apostles, of course, chose successors for themselves, to carry on their mission. An unbroken succession extends from St. Peter and the original Apostles to the pope and bishops of today.

This is a hard fact to argue with. But my Protestant friend disputed the legitimacy of what we Catholics call the ‘apostolic succession’ on these grounds: I don’t see the miracles. He said that he doesn’t see the pope and bishops accomplishing miraculous healings, or handling snakes, or drinking poison and not dying.

silver roanoke starNow, if he checked the list of promised signs in the New Testament, he might find that the biggest one is: speaking in all the tongues of the earth. And the Catholic Church, frumpy as She may be, does have the only claim, among all human institutions, to that. Does anyone speak all the languages of the earth? Yes, the Catholic Church does. No one else can say that.

But let’s leave that aside. Let’s stay more local.

What I really wanted to say to my friend is: You don’t see miraculous signs in the Church? Well, then, you don’t see what I see, man. You haven’t had the privileged point-of-view that I have had these past four years.

The miraculous sign of people, in an age of isolation, coming together. The miraculous sign of brother- and sister-Christians, in an age of selfishness, thinking of others first and making real sacrifices for them. The miraculous sign of the up-and-coming generation, in an age of relativism and self-indulgence, striving to find God’s truth and live by it.

The miraculous sign of good, competent, talented people, putting up with a feckless dweeb of a pastor, co-operating with him in spite of how impossible he is. And making beautiful things happen under this roof, week in and week out, in spite of the cluelessness of the guy in charge.

These are signs of divine power. You, my dear faithful people, have been working them for as long as I have known you. No doubt you will continue to work them, for the glory of God.

I’ll shut up now. If any good has come from my babblings up here, may the glory be God’s. I came here because Jesus Christ, speaking through Bishop, sent me here. And now the Lord, speaking through Bishop, is sending me to Roanoke. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

To Jesus Christ, Son of God and son of Mary, the divine Lamb, the Crucified, the Victor over death, the fountainhead of life and love, the Alpha, the Omega, the Name above every other name, the King of kings and Lord of lords; our brother, our Redeemer; the Heart of our hearts: to Him be glory and praise, in the Church on earth and in heaven, now and forever.

Ten-Commandments Marker

(Today at Holy Mass, while we read our way through Exodus, we come upon the Ten Commandments! Also: we read the Parable of the Sower.)

For some years now, we have endured the spectacle of public disputes about Ten Commandments sculptures. Judges or state legislatures or governors put them up; other judges or appellate panels or officials demand that they come down.

moses_ten_commandmentsLord Jesus declared that some seed falls on good soil, where its roots can grow deep. It sprouts, grows, and yields abundantly. Meanwhile, some seed falls on rocks or poor soil. Either it doesn’t sprout at all, or it lives only a short time and bears no fruit.

I am all for people having the opportunity to read and meditate on the Ten Commandments whenever and wherever possible. Anyone who lets more than a week go by without meditating on the divine Law is asking for trouble on Judgment Day, to be sure.

But the Lord didn’t inscribe the Ten Commandments in stone in the first place for us simply to chisel them endlessly, over and over again, on other stones. No, He gave them to us on stone to remind us that He had written them in our hearts, back in the Garden of Eden—but we did not obey them.

Christ has taught us how to obey them. “Thou shalt have Ten-Commandment sculptures in front of thy capitols and courthouses.” That’s not one of the Ten Commandments.

But “Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for justice”—that comes from the mouth of the One Who wrote the Ten Commandments in the first place.

The best “memorial” of the Ten Commandments is a humble, God-fearing person who actually tries to live by the Sermon on the Mount.

Via Negativa, Faith through Hearing

The mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven… (Matthew 13:11)

Here’s a mystery for you: We come equipped with our five senses. By them, we attain knowledge. Mosquitoes, water, leaves on the trees, chicken-salad sandwiches, other people, etc… We know about all these because we have five senses by which to perceive their existence.

It’s impossible to imagine knowing anything other than what we perceive through our five senses, and then analyze. Granted, things like 2 + 2 = 4 are abstract knowledge, which does not require seeing or hearing or tasting or feeling or touching anything. But it is impossible to imagine that we could know that 2 + 2 = 4 without having first seen two apples, and then two more apples, and counted four apples. Or two Legos, or two baseball cards, or what have you.

earSo, the mystery: We have knowledge because we have five senses. But the one thing we exist in order to know cannot be perceived by the five senses, under any circumstances that we know of.

God brought us into being so as to know Him and, by knowing Him, love Him. But God we cannot see, smell, hear, touch, or taste. Everything that we see, smell, hear, touch, or taste is less than God. Because everything we can perceive is something that God made, like He made us.

(Remember, the most-important idea ever: there are two basic categories. The Creator and the created.)

Feel me? Maybe not. This is called via negativa—acknowledging to ourselves that the one thing truly worth knowing is the very thing we absolutely, positively do not know.

That said, the via negativa is not the only via. There’s another via, by which we can, in fact, know God somewhat, during our pilgrim lives.

The unknowable God became man and dwelt among us. The tidings of His life have reached us, by word of mouth.

So, while sight, smell, taste, and touch still have to follow via negativa very strictly; while we still have to say to ourselves that our chicken-salad sandwiches, no matter how delicious they may be, are not God; while we still have to exercise great discipline in this area, we do, in fact, have one sense that can give us solid knowledge of God: hearing.

When we believe what we have heard from the Apostles, then we truly know God. (And, just to clarify, reading counts as hearing, not seeing. Reading is like a secondary way of hearing.)

To put it in a nutshell: what we read in Scripture and the Catechism gives us knowledge of the one thing truly worth knowing, God Himself.

Mary Magdalen’s Reward

Wasn’t as hot the first Easter morning as today. But that doesn’t mean that Mary Magdalen’s huffing and puffing to the tomb of Christ involved only easy-going comfort for her. We can imagine that she underwent some strife and strain in order to arrive. She probably endured no less strife and strain than the ancient Israelites did, when they made their way across the desert, following Moses to the Promised Land. But Mary never grumbled hopelessly like they did.

Mary Magdalen suffered discomfort. She suffered anguish, too, when she found Christ’s body missing. But Mary had something which the ancient complainers didn’t have. She was personally in love with God. She was in love with Jesus Christ–not in some unworthy, prurient way; not with a marrying kind of love. Her loved burned all the more because the Lord’s celibacy shone before her like a wall of brass.

resurrection magdalenMary knew the wall of brass would never come down. But she had found in Christ the very love that had eluded her through her earlier life. Namely, a love that saw her fully, beautiful as she was, but asked for nothing. Nothing, that is, other than seeing her truly be herself, seeing her come into her own. Lord Jesus loved Mary that way. And, in return, Mary was grateful–probably more grateful than any woman ever has been, for Christ’s pure love.

So Mary didn’t complain when she encountered her difficulties. She didn’t panic, either. She just kept looking. Where is He? Where have you laid Him, o gardener?

Mary’s perseverance, of course, found its reward. But the reward she received teaches us exactly what her type of devotion can expect, in this pilgrim life. Hopefully, we aspire to have her kind of loving devotion. So let’s reckon with the reward we can expect.

“Stop holding on to me.” No comfort in this world.

“Go to my brothers.” You have work to do.

If we love the Lord like St. Mary Magdalen–which means loving the one Who truly loves us for who we are, loves us with no self-interest of His own, but just because He appreciates how beautiful we can become–if we let Him love us like that, then we won’t really want any comfort in this earthly life anyway. We will long only for the reward of seeing God in the next life. For the time being, we will strain and strive to do His will. His divine gaze upon us, seeing us become all He made us to be: that will be comfort enough for us.

Trollope Quote for the Summer-Reading-List Young People

My new favorite person ever, Anthony TrollopeMen and women say that they will read, and think so–those, I mean, who have acquired no habit of reading–believing the work to be, of all works, the easiest. It may be work, they think, but of all works it must be the easiest of achievement. Given the absolute faculty of reading, the task of going through the pages of a book must be, of all tasks, the most certainly within the grasp of the man or woman who attempts it.

Alas! no; if the habit be not there, of all tasks it is the most difficult. If a man have not acquired the habit of reading till he be old, he shall sooner in his old age learn to make shoes than learn the adequate use of a book. And worse again–under such circumstances the making of shoes shall be more pleasant to him than the reading of a book. Let those who are not old, who are still young, ponder this well.

The Claverings, chapter 45

Psalm 23 for Summer Vacation

Corona beach

At Sunday Mass: Twenty-third Psalm, everyone’s favorite. The Lord spreads a table for us, giving us repose near restful waters, refreshing our souls. Sounds like just what we want for summertime. A real vacation from all our worries and cares.

In the first reading, the prophet condemns the evil pseudo-shepherds. They had failed to lead the sheep to the peaceful pastures. Instead, the sheep trembled with aimless fear, because no one guided them. They grew exhausted and listless, neither resting nor fully alive. Like workaholics, or people who watch too much tv, or spend too much time playing videogames.

Perhaps we can attest to this: without a divine Shepherd guiding us, we human sheep do not find true rest. We cannot find refreshment. We wind up frazzled and spent, or we slip into self-destructive idleness.

Now, speaking of tired but restless: some of us over-exert ourselves physically. But the physical side is actually the least of our worries. Nervous mental exhaustion poses the greater problem.

We are, after all, primarily spiritual creatures. Intelligence distinguishes us from all the other hairy mammals running around the earth. We have ample minds, hungry for stimulation. But, left to our own devices, we don’t seem to know how to bring these minds of ours in for a truly refreshing rest.

sheepFor intelligent, reflective creatures, ‘rest’ fundamentally means: A quiet conscience. A soul prepared to meet the ultimate Judge. When nothing inside me accuses me of evil, then I can find peace and quiet. But if my conscience troubles me, then even two weeks on the white-sand beach of a Corona ad will not really refresh me.

The divine Shepherd leads us to interior repose, by guiding us down the path of harmony with truth. That’s the thing about a human conscience: truth is our only real rest. There’s only so much lying to itself that a conscience can do. No matter how many lies a conscience may tell itself, it always pays itself back–with strange, self-inflicted punishment.

I haven’t put in an honest day’s work for my employer, so my guilt-ridden soul fills itself with anxiety about something else, or gets angry over nothing, or loses its ability to enjoy simple pleasures.

Or: I lied to my spouse about something, so now I can’t concentrate at work, or pay attention to the friend I’m talking to, or the game I’m trying to watch.

As Gertrude puts it in Hamlet, reflecting on her guilt-ridden anxiety, “Each toy seems Prologue to some great amiss. So full of artless jealousy is guilt. It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.”

The Truth, therefore, is our best friend, when it comes to actually getting some rest. And Christ the divine Shepherd leads us to all truth, if only we stay within earshot of Him.

Give God His due. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Repent, and believe. Pray morning, noon, and night.

Simple enough, really—humbly obeying the Son of God. Not easy, to be sure, but not complicated, either—provided that we simply listen and obey. The peace of a tranquil Christian conscience does not require rocket science. It requires something much more rarefied, something much more sublime: Taking a vacation from my own ego, my own pride.

In our pride, we convince ourselves that… It’s all up to me! Or: My sins are so evil God could never forgive them! Or: praying and studying religion don’t matter anywhere near as much as all my other stupendous enterprises!

jacobi branagh christieDo we really want a good, relaxing summer vacation? Then let’s turn humbly to God and take a vacation from our own nonsense

Let’s give the divine Shepherd a chance to lead us to some real rest for our souls. Let’s purify ourselves with a good, thorough summer Confession. Let’s open our ears more to the Shepherd’s soothing voice, by giving more time to prayer. Let’s spend some extra time studying the faith, so that He can nourish us with the food of his truth.

[Now we get into matters of local interest in Rocky Mount/Martinsville] Speaking of vacations, pretty soon you will have a nice, permanent vacation from the tall nerd who has bored you to distraction for these past four years.

Next week I will have a few things to say by way of a goodbye. But let me say now that these past four years have been the happiest of my life. No priest could ever hope for a parish full of people more kind, more generous, more truly faithful. You have been so much kinder to me, and more patient with me, than I have deserved. In your kindness and patience, you have taught me more about the good Lord than I can really fathom.

Thank you very much for being so good to me.

Our Invitation to Planned-Parenthood Doctors

Come to me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

Nothing can get quite so exhausting as moral indignation. Last week, some good people here got morally indignant that someone had surreptitiously taped and publicized a few things some of us said, without our consent. For my part, I couldn’t work up the energy to get morally indignant. After all, I have a solemn duty as a priest to watch what I say. I am obliged to do all I can to say things that are both true and appropriately discreet.

The great thing is when a person can rest fully in the truth. Then, if we must object to someone’s immoral act, we don’t get exhausted doing so.

Genuinely Catholic morality never invades someone else’s space. It is simply a matter of bearing witness to truth, so as to help others have the peace of living in it.

Now, we Christians love our Lady, and we venerate her beautiful womb. We love to meditate on baby Jesus in Mary’s womb, and on His birth in Bethlehem. That one baby, and His birth, give hope and meaning to the conception and births of all babies. Again, nothing could give our souls more real rest than meditating quietly and lovingly on the infant life of the Savior, in the womb and new-born.

Maybe you have seen the now-famous “sting” video of Dr. Nucatola of Planned Parenthood. I watched it, and nearly lost my cookies. And I’ve read some attempts at a defense.

Of course, there really is nowhere for a person trying to defend the morality of abortion to rest. The idea that the heart, lungs, liver, and legs of one person, namely the baby, can legitimately be donated to science (much less sold for profit) by another person, with a clear conscience, as if nothing but good were being done here—manifestly impossible. The mother doesn’t have two hearts, four lungs, two livers, and four legs.

So, let’s declare to the world: Dear tired, weary, exhausted souls, who run and run, trying to find a peaceful place to stand, while claiming that abortion is okay; we invite you, dear brothers and sisters: Come, live in the truth!

Someday, all those little babies, dismembered by the likes of Dr. Nucatola, will rise. They will judge us. Not with words, and not with fire and brimstone. But with the simple light in their eyes. Their very standing up, on the face of the earth, will judge us to the quick, on the great and final Day.

So: Let’s all stand on their side! Let’s stand together, on their side. On the side of the innocent and defenseless unborn, a soul can find rest, in the truth.

Falafel, Faith, and Mystical Fraternity

No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal Him. (Matthew 11:27)

The bush burned, but the flame did not consume it. Moses grasped immediately: I am looking at something divine. I think we can understand the burning bush as a symbol of: the other human being. Any other human being. Any human being with whom I come into contact.

Amsterdam FalafelshopAll of us have mysterious, practically unfathomable depths. I know that, within me, mysteries dwell. Ugly ones, and beautiful. The same goes for every other burning bush of a human soul.

I was reading a little essay by an interesting college-educated young man. He wanted to see “how the other half lived,” so to speak. So he got a job at a falafel joint not far from where I grew up.

Problem is, the young man could never quite relate to his Honduran co-workers as fellow human beings. To him, they simply represented a “class.” The young man was stuck in his own vision of the world, in which two fundamentally different species dwell, namely 1) Privileged white boys like himself, and 2) Other. So he gave up his experiment and concluded that the class divide cannot be bridged.

I give the young man credit for his honesty. What did he lack? What could have given him real success in his endeavor to get to know a fellow human being, a fellow human being who speaks Spanish and makes his living frying falafel? The young man never went down the one avenue that really does lead into another person’s soul: God. Revealed by Christ.

Our Holy Father Pope Francis practices a particular kind of spiritual life: the mysticism of the other person. He wrote in Evangelii Gaudium:

The only way is to learn how to encounter others with the right attitude, learning to find Jesus in the faces of others…a mystical fraternity, a contemplative fraternity. It is a fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbor, of finding God in every human being. (91-92)

God will unfold the mystery of Himself before me, if I let Him move me to love my fellow human being, as a true brother or sister, to be loved as I love myself. Faith in the infinite mystery of God is the key. Faith in the eternal, mutual gaze of love that the Father and the Son exchange, the Holy Spirit.

Truly knowing another person, and truly knowing God, then, go together. If I want to know God, I must let Him meet me in my neighbor. And if I want to know my neighbor, I must abandon myself to the full, mysterious reality of the person who God made that neighbor to be. Which means simultaneously abandoning myself to the full, mysterious reality of who God made me to be.

Precious Blood Here and Now

Everybody know that, during July, the Church reflects especially on the Precious Blood of Christ? Each month of the year has a theme for reflection. July is the month of the Precious Blood.

If I might, I would like to draw a stark contrast between two ways of understanding the world. I don’t intend to be divisive or un-ecumenical. But I think we might profit spiritually by meditating on this contrast.

First, let’s take note of this fact: human beings occupy the world in one way: locally. A human being always occupies a particular place. We may have a ‘globalized’ economy; we may have the world-wide web; we may have Facebook friends in other time zones. But no human being ever has, or ever will, exist in the world without being in a particular place. One particular town, or city, or borough, or farmhouse, or shack, or hut: one place.

tabernacleSo the contrast is this: Everyone, without exception, stands, or sits, or reclines, somewhere. Among all the billions of people, occupying all their particular locations, some of those people believe themselves to be near the Precious Blood of Christ, which brings salvation; some don’t.

And I don’t mean theoretically near, or “spiritually” near His Blood. I mean physically near, as in, “Right now, I stand approximately seven feet away from the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the tabernacle.” Or: “In a few minutes, I will actually hold a chalice full of the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ in my hands.”

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