Saturday, February 28, 2009

Woodward: What Are You Reading For Lent?

Lenten reading should be unpleasant at some level -- edifying yet disturbing. Otherwise, where's the penitential value in it? Lent may be the one time of the year when Catholics can most profitably seek out a bit of the fire-and-brimstone sermonizing that we associate more usually with Protestantism. (Way back in high school I read "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and I can still picture that poor little spider dangling over the flaming pit.)

Fortunately, almost any Catholic treatise on sin hits home enough with me to be very unpleasant indeed, and therefore a good choice for Lenten reading. In years past, I used to read St. John Fisher's Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, in which he assembles a long list of spiritual failings for which we should examine ourselves and repent. I recognized myself on just about every page. This year, I'm reading Fr. Luis de Granada's Guia de Pecadores (Sinners' Guide). I first came across his name in conjunction with my reading about St. Teresa of Avila, who admired him and recommended his writings to the nuns in her charge. Sixteenth-century Spanish Dominicans took sin pretty seriously, and I'm finding Fr. Luis to be a very healthful antidote to the spirit of an age that has psychologized and self-affirmed itself right out of any recognition of sin.

What are you reading for Lent? If you'd like to recommend something, leave a comment. And if you're looking for suggestions yourself, here's an interesting list of patristic writings suitable to the season. It even offers a Lenten Reading "Lite" option if you want to sort of ease into it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Woodward: Archbishop Dolan

Oh yes, the newly designated Archbishop of New York is genial and charming and all. But the New York Times can see past that act.

"It was 2003, and [the Rev. David Cooper] had opined to a reporter that women should be ordained. Faraway bishops rumbled about censure. Then he picked up the telephone and heard the baritone of Milwaukee’s archbishop, Timothy Michael Dolan. Father Cooper immediately offered to resign.

No, no, the archbishop replied, we just need to repair the damage. 'He was very pastoral and caring,' Father Cooper recalled.

And how was it resolved? 'Oh, I agreed to recant,' he said. 'He effectively silenced me.'"

Well, maybe not all that "effectively." Fr. Cooper still seems quite capable of giving interviews to the New York Times.

Woodward: St. Polycarp

Today is his feast day, in the new calendar.

Polycarp is a fascinating figure in both history and legend. The legend part concerns his martyrdom. As the story is told, he was to be burned at the stake during a persecution of Christians in Smyrna, where he was bishop. The flames around the stake surrounded him but could not be made to come close enough to burn him. At that, the Roman soldiers stabbed him with a dagger, but the blood that flowed from the wound put out the fire and he had to be stabbed a second time before he died. It's one of those stories that should be true, whether it is or not, because the old man apparently made an exemplary martyr. When given one last chance to renounce his allegiance to Christ and light an incense offering to the emperor, Polycarp had replied: "Eighty-six years have I served Him, and he has done me no harm. How then can I curse my King that saved me. Bring forth what thou wilt."

The history part, in its own way, is just as inspiring. Polycarp, whose life and writings are well documented, was instructed in the faith by...(wait for it)...

...St. John the Apostle.

So it happens that we have these words of advice from a man who knew a man who knew Jesus:

For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and stedfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you, and which, being followed by hope, and preceded by love towards God, and Christ, and our neighbour, "is the mother of us all." For if any one be inwardly possessed of these graces, he hath fulfilled the command of righteousness, since he that hath love is far from all sin.

He certainly sounds like a student of St. John, doesn't he?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Woodward: Indulgences

Ever since the New York Times announced last week that the Catholic Church was "reintroducing" indulgences, and helpfully explained that an indulgence is something that "reduces purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years," I've been waiting -- and waiting -- for some prominent Church representative to step forward and point out that an indulgence does no such thing. But when a succinct and accurate explanation of indulgences finally did appear online, it came not from the Bishops' Conference or a noted theologian at one of the great Catholic universities, but from (mirabile dictu)....

...Slate Magazine!

Beginning with the central truth that purgatory must be understood without reference to place and time, Slate's "Explainer" -- Nina Shen Rastogi -- goes on to provide a perfectly clear explanation of those curious time-period labels that used to attach to partial indulgences. No such temporal values are assigned to indulgences any more, but (as Ms. Rastogi puts it):

"An older version of the Enchiridion, known as the Raccolta, did assign lengths of time for each indulgenced act. Reciting seven Gloria Patris and one Ave Maria in a single day, for example, would grant you "an indulgence of 100 days." That didn't mean, however, that the penitent would get 100 days knocked off his purgatorial stay. A 100-day indulgence just earns you the equivalent of 100 days of earthly penance. (In the early and medieval church, penances were extremely arduous; a sinner might be sentenced to years of nothing but bread and water or months of wearing sackcloth.)"

Now that wasn't so hard, was it? The New York Times story pre-emptively excuses itself by claiming that indulgences are "one of the most complicated [Catholic] traditions to explain." That's especially true, I suppose, if you're the New York Times.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Woodward: Signs of Life

Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
arboribusque comae;
mutat terra vices et decrescentia ripas
flumina praetereunt.

--Horace, Odes, IV.7

Makes you think of baseball, doesn't it?

Oh, I know, there was no such thing as spring training when Horace wrote those lines over 2000 years ago. And yet that famous -- maybe the most famous -- Horatian ode perfectly captures the mixture of hope and doom with which many of us fans regard the unofficial opening of the baseball season.

Horace's point, you see, is that spring is traditionally viewed as a season of new birth, of revived aspirations, of life resurrected out of death -- and yet (there's always an "and yet" with Horace) we know that those flowers now pushing their way up through the still-half-frozen earth are destined to wither and die someday, just as last spring's flowers did, just as next spring's flowers will. Just as last spring's hopes for a reliable pitching rotation withered and died, just as next year's hopes will. Only a genius like Horace could spoil a party so beautifully.

Spring training begins today, for pitchers and catchers at least. "The snows have fled away and earth goes through its changes." And we baseball fans -- at least those of us in Dallas -- are free to mark the day either as a new beginning, or as another installment of the same old thing.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Woodward: Children and Happy Marriages

Among this week's earth-shattering scientific breakthroughs is the announcement of a new study (free New York Times registration required) conducted by two UC Berkeley researchers on the way in which children affect the marital happiness of their parents. The history of such research has tended to document a decline in marital contentment as children come along. But (to quote the Times story):

"...most studies finding a large drop in marital quality after childbirth do not consider the very different routes that couples travel toward parenthood.

Some couples plan the conception and discuss how they want to conduct their relationship after the baby is born. Others disagree about whether or when to conceive, with one partner giving in for the sake of the relationship. And sometimes, both partners are ambivalent.

The [researchers] found that the average drop in marital satisfaction was almost entirely accounted for by the couples who slid into being parents, disagreed over it or were ambivalent about it. Couples who planned or equally welcomed the conception were likely to maintain or even increase their marital satisfaction after the child was born."

In other words, among those couples who are likeliest to remain happy -- or become even happier -- upon the birth of children would be couples whose marriage is predicated upon a Catholic understanding of what marriage is -- "a partnership of the whole of its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring" (CCC 1601). Marriage understood on those terms, of course, would more or less guarantee that children are "equally welcomed" by both husband and wife.

It's almost as if that's the way things were meant to be, no?


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Vehige: Baseball's Last Best Hope

When Barry Bonds "broke" Hank Aaron's home-run record, I said that the only person who could salvage the second greatest sports record is Alex Rodriguez. Unfortunately, we can't rely on him anymore.

Is there anyone in whom we can place our hope?

In fact, there is. And if these numbers hold up, it appears that he'd break A-Rod's numbers anyway. 

So let's all say a prayer that baseball's Last Best Hope remains healthy . . . and clean.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Woodward: First Friday

I came into the Catholic Church as an adult. Part of the process of "settling in" as a Catholic convert is confronting the dizzying array of popular devotions in which Holy Mother Church has indulged her children over the centuries. A new convert is free, of course, to choose none of them (although that hardly seems consistent with an honest effort to get into the spirit of things.)

The upside of adult conversion in this regard is that you're not obligated to some obscure devotion your well-meaning parents stuck you with -- monthly novenas to St. Digitus, the patron saint of ingrown toenails -- and which you can't, in adulthood, abandon without betraying in some sense both God and your mother. The downside is the challenge of (1) picking a popular devotion that speaks powerfully to you individually and (2) practicing it faithfully without the disciplinary advantage of a lifetime of "being made to say your prayers."

Over time as a Catholic, I have been drawn to devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It seems to me that the Incarnation, in a sense that I'm not enough of a theologian to understand properly, actually changed the nature of God's love for us. (Please, no comments explaining in detail which 7th-century heresy this makes me complicit in -- I'm still working this out for myself, okay?) What I mean is that, until God became man, God could not love me with a human love -- the way a human parent loves a child, the way a man loves a woman, the way a friend loves a friend. Of course, I want to be loved by God in whatever way God wants to love me. But I also want to be loved by God -- and anybody else -- in a way I can fully understand and reciprocate. I can't fully understand divine love. (I can't fully understand divine anything. And that's how I do understand the concept of the "fear of God" -- love, justice, providence, whatever, beyond the ability of a human being to comprehend. If that's not "fearful," nothing is.)

Jesus, as God and man, loves me with a divine love -- the same Love out of which God created the world. But he also loves me, specifically by virtue of the Incarnation, with a human love. Is there, in all the New Testament, a more earth-shaking and heaven-rending verse than John 15:15?

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

It is the nature of human beings to respond with unique intensity to human love, and making that kind of response possible is one of the gifts God has given us in the person of Jesus Christ. I went to First Friday Mass today, in devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in devotion to God's human love for us. If I am ever to understand God's infinite love for me, I need all the help I can be given. And on First Fridays, I thank the God who has given me all the help I need.

Here is Pope John Paul II, saying much more precisely and expressively (surprise, surprise) what I'm trying to say.

By faith we know that at a determined moment in history, "the Word of God was made flesh and came to dwell in our midst." From that moment God had begun to love with a human Heart, a Heart truly capable of beating in an intense, tender, and impassioned way. The Heart of Jesus has truly experienced sentiments of joy before the splendors of nature, at the candor of infants, at the sight of a chaste young man, sentiments of friendship toward his apostles, Lazarus, his disciples, sentiments of compassion for the sick, the poor, so many people tested by strife, loneliness, and sin, sentiments of indignation toward the vendors in the temple, toward hypocrites; sentiments of anguish before the prospect of suffering and the mystery of death. There is no authentic human emotion that the Heart of Jesus did not experience. Today we pause in adoring prayer before this Heart in which the Eternal Word wished to experience directly our misery, "who did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness." From the infinite power proper to God, the Heart of Christ did not retain anything except the unarmed power of the love that forgives. And in the radical loneliness of the cross he allowed himself to be pierced with the lance of the centurion, so that from the open wound might flow out upon the filth of the world the inexhaustible torrent of a mercy that washes, purifies, and renews.

--Homily at the Polyclinic of the Agostino Gemelli University Hospital, June 28, 1984

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Woodward: "Evidence" Isn't What It Used To Be

A. N. Wilson, a subtle thinker and graceful writer -- or is it the other way around? -- has a review in the Times Literary Supplement of a new biography of G. K. Chesterton. Wilson seems to have written the review mainly as an opportunity to voice his opinion that all of Chesterton's best writing was done before he became Catholic -- a judgment also frequently rendered by non-Catholic Englishmen, and with roughly equal merit, on the literary career of John Henry Newman. One is free to hold such an opinion of either man, I suppose, although it helps in doing so if one also holds the opinion that the Catholic religion necessarily robs its adherents of their intellectual and artistic faculties.

Be that as it may, in the course of paying Chesterton a series of backhanded compliments, Wilson also says this:

When I was writing my Life of Belloc, Malcolm Muggeridge told me that GK’s schoolfriend E. C. Bentley (he of the clerihew) suspected Chesterton of being a repressed homosexual. Bentley had once complained to Muggeridge, a colleague on the Daily Telegraph, of GK’s capacity for hero-worship (embarrassingly evident in his friendship with Belloc) and of his tendency to be a clinging companion. I did not make much of the observation in my book – though it now seems to me persuasive.

That's all. Someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew Chesterton reports that the second someone told the first someone that the third someone "suspected Chesterton of being a repressed homosexual." Not of being homosexual, mind you, but of being a "repressed" homosexual, which, I think it's safe to say, is much more difficult to spot. (Otherwise, what's the point of being "repressed"?) You might be tempted to doubt this story, or even to believe that A. N. Wilson has no business peddling third-hand suspicions about G. K. Chesterton's sexual proclivities. But that would be to disregard the fact that Wilson -- for reasons he chooses to keep to himself -- now finds the suspicions "persuasive."

Any questions?

The general bad faith in which this review is written could not be more graphically exemplified than in this sentence, where Wilson embarrassingly but tellingly misquotes Chesterton:

Chesterton’s observation about angels – that they can fly because they carry so little weight – applies to his own writings.

That, of course, is not what Chesterton said about angels. In Chapter Seven of Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote:

Modern investigators of miraculous history have solemnly admitted that a characteristic of the great saints is their power of "levitation." They might go further; a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.

If A. N. Wilson doesn't see the difference between that passage and his clueless paraphrase of it, he should probably write about something other than G. K. Chesterton.

Woodward: Happy Birthday, Hank

Anybody old enough to remember April 8, 1974...

...must feel just a little bit older today (as I do) to note that it is Hank Aaron's 75th birthday.