Spy Wednesday: There’s No Place Like Hell

In the classic 1900 children’s book and 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz”, there’s a lot of rubbish.

For example, the Wizard tells the Tin Man, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”  Really? Christ was jeered all the way to his execution on Calvary by crowds of people who, only a few days earlier, were crying out how much they loved him.  What an utter failure He must have been.

Or then there’s Dorothy’s “lesson”, which she learns after getting bumped on the head.  “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” she vows, “I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”  What sort of lesson is that? Enjoy suffocating in the Dust Bowl, Dorothy.

Frank L. Baum, author of the “Oz” books, abandoned Christianity in 1892 to join a sect known as the “Theosophical Society”.  Originally founded for the purpose of studying the occult, it expanded to become one of those mutual admiration societies, where people with more money than sense sit around congratulating themselves on how much more enlightened they are than the rest of us.  Among other things, it mixed the study of dead religions with universalism, racial theories, cosmic evolutionary potential, and so on.

I say all of this because we are at Spy Wednesday of Holy Week, when Judas strikes his bargain to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.  We know this is coming, because Judas has been listening to the bad voices in his head for a while now.  The next night, at the Last Supper, we learn from the Gospel of St. John that instead of changing his mind at the last minute while he still could, Judas allowed Satan to enter into his thoughts and actions, and he went off to arrange Jesus’ betrayal that evening.  We also know that Satan hung around long enough to persuade Judas to commit suicide over what he had done, instead of seeking forgiveness.

In his magnificent series of panels “Four Visions of the Hereafter” in the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, the great Hieronymus Bosch depicted scenes of what happens after we die.  Two of the paintings deal with Heaven, and the other two with Hell.  In the latter, I’ve always thought that the demons dragging the souls of the damned to their eternal punishment are reminiscent of the Flying Monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz”.  The difference of course, for Christians, is that unlike Baum’s characters, these fellows are all too real, as Judas found out.  And for that matter, so is the place where they reside, which is where they want us to end up.

With the Easter Triduum beginning tomorrow, you still have time to get to confession. Many dioceses, such as here in the Nation’s Capital, will have confessions tonight through programs like The Light Is On For You.  Check with your local chancery, or call your parish priest to make an appointment.

And for pity’s sake, don’t listen to those trying to tell you that Hell is just an old, scary story, like something Frank Baum might have dreamed up for one of his fairy tales.  Ignore such talk, even if those doing the talking have a bunch of impressive-sounding letters after their name or – even worse – are sporting clerical garb.  Such people are not going to be accountable to you, when it turns out they were wrong.  Because in the end, there’s no place like Hell – and we really, REALLY don’t want to end up there.

Detail of "Hell" by Hieronymous Bosch (1500) Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Detail of “Hell” by Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1486)
Palazzo Grimani, Venice

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Tuesday of Holy Week: Give Us Your Lattes, Please!

Today over at the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage (FLPH) site, we have our next guest post from author, scripture scholar, and well-known Catholic television and radio host Mike Aquilina, explaining how to go about developing a richer, more fulfilled prayer life: it’s full of terrific ideas that are worth taking to heart.

This is the third in a series of terrific posts, which we’ve asked Catholic writers to donate in aid of establishing a permanent Franciscan hermitage up in Maine.  If you missed the great pieces we had last week from Teresa Tomeo and Shane Kapler, you’ll find those as well as future guest posts archived under the “Guest Posts” tab on the FLPH site.  While you’re there, be sure to check out Brother Rex’ daily thoughts and reflections under the “Inspirations” tab, or ask him to remember your special intentions under the “Prayer Requests” form.  He has been thrilled with all the people asking him to pray on their behalf or on behalf of those whom they know need a constancy of prayer before God.  You can also follow all of this on Twitter and on Facebook.

We were looking at some of the FLPH site stats yesterday, and nearly 25,000 people have already visited the FLPH since we started this campaign and Brother Rex was on EWTN last week.  This is tremendous, and we’re really grateful for all of the visits and messages of support!  From a practical standpoint, if each one of those visitors had donated $2.00, we would have met our startup fundraising goal on this campaign! Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that yet, and some recent news from Maine is a little troublesome.

So I’m now going to add a little note of urgency, and ask if you can, to please make a little act of self-sacrifice this Holy Week.

Brother Rex is currently living his life of prayer in a small rental property up in Portland.  It’s looking increasingly likely that sometime within the next couple of months, the place is going to be sold out from under him.  We’ve also just learnt that the parish rectory he was hoping to be able to stay at temporarily, to do some couch surfing if the sale of his current, temporary hermitage went through, is now no longer available.

Where do you come in?

Well if you’ve got a little house up in Maine to donate, or some lottery winnings just sitting around gathering dust at the bank waiting for a good project to donate to, we’d love to hear from you.  However barring that, during this season of self-sacrifice and seeking humility in imitation of Christ, I’m going to shift a bit to a more mendicant, Franciscan position.  Which quite frankly, is rather unusual for me given my Dominican tendencies, but needs must.

Could you consider giving up a latte this Holy Week, and sharing what you would have spent on that temporary caffeine high, with someone who will be praying for you and your intentions in gratitude for the rest of his life?

That’s not such a terrible Lenten give-up, it seems to me, particularly since we all have to fast on Good Friday anyway.  Of course, if you want to donate a latte a week, or a month, that would be swell too. On the FLPH site, you can click to donate by PayPal, or find out where to send a check.

We would be really grateful for your support, and please keep us in your prayers!

Detail of "Errand Boy Drinking Coffee" by Christian Krohg (1885) Göteborg Art Museum, Norway

Detail of “Errand Boy Drinking Coffee” by Christian Krohg (1885)
Göteborg Art Museum, Norway

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Monday of Holy Week: Following the Right Path

What sort of path are you on right now, as we begin Holy Week?

Yesterday’s Passion reading at Sunday Mass came from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  In St. Matthew’s account, after Jesus is arrested and brought before the chief priests and the elders, He does not respond to their questions and accusations, until the High Priest Caiphas orders Him to answer under oath before God.  In other words, if he but had the humility to know it, Caiphas is ordering God to swear by Himself.

This type of oath, in which God swears by Himself, occurs in a few places in Scripture.  For example, fed up with the selfishness of the Jewish people, God makes the oath, “I swear by Myself” via the prophet Jeremiah, that they will be punished if they do not turn away from their path of unrepentant sin and paganism.  When they choose not to listen, Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed.  The Jews are quite literally taken off their path, and forcibly marched off down another: that to exile in Babylon.

When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac – which of course is paralleled in the Father’s sacrifice of the Son in the Gospels – Abraham humbly and, one suspects, a bit sorrowfully, takes the path up into the mountains in order to do God’s Will.  When he is about to act and kill his son, God stops the sacrifice, and forms His covenant with Abraham.  “I swear by Myself,” God promises, that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, or the sands on the seashore, and be a blessing for the whole world.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Caiphas is so intent on protecting his position, that he doesn’t want to hear anything that will make him have to change the path he is on.  He tears his clothes when Jesus tells him the truth, because he is not willing to humble himself, let alone be obedient.  The signs pointing to Jesus as the Messiah have been before Caiphas for years, both in the prophecies from Scripture and in the words and deeds of Jesus Himself.  Yet Caiphas has fallen so far off the path of seeking God’s Will in his life, that if he was truly open to considering the possibility that this was the Messiah, he would have been a bit more careful with his words.  For clearly, having God swear by Himself is not something to be taken lightly.

Holy Week is the perfect time to follow the signposts in your life leading you back onto the path of humble obedience to the Will of God.  After all, this is the path Christ Himself trod, and what we as Christians are called to imitate.  And the best way that you can do that this week, is by following the signs to your local church’s confessional.  I’ll be in line there myself, and afterwards, we can all go get back on the right path together.

IMG_20140324_115529

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Superheroines on the Streets of London

Regular readers know that I like to play the role of a superhero in social media, and sometimes write about the cultural significance of these mythical figures in our society.  Yet however much I enjoy sporting the big red cape, in real life heroes often take a very different form from those of literature, film, and our imaginations.  You’re about to learn about some real-life superheroines in London…who just so happen to wear a religious habit.

At a two-day conference held at the Vatican this week, Pope Francis and other attendees heard reports about an innovative effort to combat human trafficking.  Since January of this year, a group of nuns from the Madrid-based religious order known as the Adoratrices – formally, “The Handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity” – have been going out on patrol with police officers in Central London, to help rescue women forced into prostitution through human trafficking.  The project has proven so successful, that it will eventually be expanded throughout London, and other cities are looking to copy it.

Previously, getting these prostitutes to trust the police had proven to be an impossible task.  In many cases, because they anticipated reprisals if they reported having been sold into sex slavery, raped, or abused, they would say nothing.  Others feared being sent back to their countries of origin, to families or acquaintances who had sold them into slavery in the first place.

The nuns who ride along with the police and talk to these women are able to provide a motherly level of care, which many of them respond to in a way that they could not with a police officer.  With the help of the Adoratrices, the police are able to go after the criminals who put the women in these situations, while the nuns take the victims in and shelter them, so that they cannot be “got at”.  Later they can be returned to their home countries, or apply for asylum.  As Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland explained at the conference, “If they go to stay with religious women, they find the peace and tranquillity they need while going through the horrors of testifying in court.”

In effect, these nuns are making themselves targets for the criminals engaged in these activities.  Someone who has no compunction about kidnapping, raping, and selling a 15-year old into prostitution is probably not going to find it difficult to have a nun threatened, beaten, or permanently silenced.  Unlike the police, nuns are neither armed with weapons, nor can they call for backup, if they find themselves in a dangerous situation, but they go out and do this work anyway.

I think there’s a three-fold lesson to take away from this story.  We should support efforts like this when we are asked to help, because most of us, frankly, would not want to be doing what these sisters are doing.  We should also be inspired to take a look at our own lives, and see whether there is something, however small, that we could be doing on behalf of someone else whom we know is in a bad way or having a difficult time.  And finally, we should always remember to adjust our expectations of what a hero really looks like, rather than selling people short.  Because oftentimes, true heroism comes from where you might least expect it.

St. María Micaela of the Blessed Sacrament (1809-1865) Foundress of the Adoratrices

St. María Micaela of the Blessed Sacrament (1809-1865)
Foundress of the Adoratrices

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Latest Guest Post for FLPH from Author Shane Kapler

In the second of our ongoing series of guests posts in aid of Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, today author and speaker Shane Kapler has donated a terrific piece about daily prayer, “When You Can’t Make It To Daily Mass, Pray Like JMJ”, in which he reflects on the prayer life of a Jewish family like that of Jesus’ time.  We’re really grateful for his contribution, and hope that you’ll not only take the opportunity to read it, but also that after dropping by the FLPH site you might prayerfully consider a donation toward establishing a permanent hermitage for Brother Rex and his successors.  For those of you who missed Brother Rex’s appearance on EWTN this Monday, the video is now archived on EWTN’s YouTube Channel for you to watch anytime.

Getting back to Shane’s piece, it’s true that many of us find it impossible to get to daily Mass.  Catholics are not required to go to Mass every day, of course, but most of us do know that we’re missing something.  I can say that when I have had time in my life to make it there, it’s always been a great source of strength.

In his piece, Shane asks what the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph might have practiced in their prayer life at home.  He describes the development of the Jewish practice of pausing several times a day for prayer, and how the Early Church continued this tradition and expanded upon it.  In the life and rhythm of the Church today, this pausing takes place in the praying of the Divine Office, which the clergy, religious, and many lay people pray throughout the day.  For those of us who have less time available, using shorter, modified versions such as that provided in “Magnifcat” magazine are a possible alternative.

For those of you who are run so ragged that even a simplified version of the Divine Office is not possible, you have a wonderful solution that will take no more than a couple of minutes out of each day, and requires little more than a bit of memorization on your part: The Angelus.  Those of you who went to Catholic school, as I did, probably stopped and prayed it before you went to lunch.  Prayed three times a day, at 6am, noon, and 6pm, it is a short way to begin and end the work day, as well as for taking a moment in the middle of your day to reflect on God’s Incarnation as Man, and what that means for your salvation.  If you’re lucky, as we are here in Washington, many churches still ring the bells for the Angelus to remind you to make these prayers.

However you go about it, Shane’s call to take the time to pause during the day is really a great one.  We can’t all get to daily Mass, and God knows that.  What we can all do however, is make it a priority to pause to glorify God, thank Him, and remember that we are not made for this world, but for the next.  If we do so, not only can we build a better relationship with Him, but it can help put everything from road rage to jammed copiers to kids who won’t eat their lunch into better perspective.

"The Angelus" by Jean-François Millet Musée d'Orsay, Paris

“The Angelus” by Jean-François Millet
Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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Nine Inch Nails and the Attraction of Nothingness

This past Saturday evening, as happens from time to time, I returned home from a late night of pub karaoke feeling pretty wired.  I sang three songs that evening, and was still somewhat jittery from the experience.  Those of my readers who have done any performing or public speaking know that there can be a kind of shakiness and high-alert feeling you carry around with you, even an hour or two after you’ve stepped out of the spotlight.

Because I was very much awake, I turned on the television to find something to watch until I felt ready to go to bed. I happened upon “Austin City Limits”, the PBS show featuring live concert performances from Texas’ capital of weird, and a performance by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.  Much to my surprise, I sat down and watched the whole thing from start to finish.  I came away strangely impressed by what I heard, but glad that I have been able to choose a different way to confront the deeply human concern we all share over nothingness.

Back in high school, when Nine Inch Nails – or “NIN” – first became popular, I was never attracted to their music.  NIN was a very different sort of group from the metal hair bands and pop-rap acts of that time, even though they went on tour with Guns N’ Roses, of all people.  My musical choices tended to be less on the full-out-sensory-assault end of the spectrum, where acts like NIN tended to congregate, and more on what the British refer to as the “shoe-gazing” end of things.  So when I sat down to watch this concert, I had no clue what to expect.

For starters, I was blown away by how engaging the band was.  NIN frontman Trent Reznor – who looks better now at nearly 50 than I remember him ever looking in his 20′s – is a dynamic, charismatic performer, reminding me of a more techie, introspective version of punk legend Henry Rollins.  His bandmates and back-up singers were, like him, all intense, focused musicians: and they had to be.

The music itself was unbelievably complex.  There was hardly anything melodic about it, even when there were actual choruses.  There were unexpected rhythm/volume/pitch changes, and unusual combinations of harmony and dissonance.  This was combined with a lyricism which, while unfortunately often scarred by profanity, expressed a very deep understanding of very human things: pain, loss, etc.

In a brief interview, Reznor commented that the band’s new album, from which the concert took its material, was probably the closest he had ever come to creating a musical composition based fully on dreams and stream-of-consciousness thinking.  That certainly came across during the show, particularly in its semi-conscious waking and nightmarish moments.  However there was also something else going on.

There is an underlying tension in all of mankind regarding the fundamental question of meaning versus nothingness.  How you choose to answer that question is going to have a significant impact on how you treat yourself, other people, and the world you live in.  And this debate, this exploration of whether there is any meaning out there, is something Reznor and his band tapped into rather powerfully in this performance.

To their credit, if one can move past the regrettable language and imagery in some of their lyrics, NIN do so in an almost contemplative way.  Despite the level of sheer noise they can achieve, particularly when expressing anger and frustration, this is not a toe-tapping kind of music, but rather something demanding that the listener actively engage his brain.  Is it pleasant? Well frankly, no: it’s decidedly unpleasant. But is it real? Oh, very much so.

This kind of creative exploration is in fact as old as mankind itself.  Look at the Book of Job or some of the Psalms, study the black paintings of Goya, or read the work of Virginia Woolf or Charles Baudelaire [N.B. whose birthday is today.]  Throughout human history, you’ll find men and women staring into the abyss, and not finding it easy to avert their eyes from the possibility that there may very well be no meaning to all of “this” around us.

I see and understand what Reznor, et al., are trying to say.  And quite frankly, I respect them for saying it.  Here, there is no papering over the hard things in life with a shallow, feckless sort of veneer, as so often occurs in contemporary culture.

Where we part ways, however, is that I am a Christian, and a Catholic one at that. So even as I witness, and at times experience first-hand, the kind of painful emotions which Reznor describes in his music, I choose to find hope and meaning in such suffering.  Rather than simply pointless, cruel occurrences, these are opportunities for me to come to understand Christ better, and hopefully draw closer to Him.

That doesn’t mean I always succeed, of course.  I can complain and moan and…well yes, swear….about perceived slights, abuses, or injustice, when I give in to such feelings.  However I hope that, over time, I’m getting at least a tiny bit better at accepting these things, even if I am very far indeed from perfection.

That being said, one has to give credit where credit is due.  I wouldn’t recommend picking up the new NIN album to listen to in the car on the way to work, any more than I would recommend you purchase a print of “Saturn Devouring His Children” by Goya to hang over the dining room table.  However the fact that a rock music concert caused me to pause, listen, and reflect, is something which for me, does not happen very often at all. And in the end I’m actually rather grateful I had that opportunity.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS'  "Austin City Limits"

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS’ “Austin City Limits”

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On Hermits, Friends, and Marmots

I have to say, Brother Rex was terrific on EWTN last night! It was great to see and hear him, not only being thoughtful and serious, but also being very, very funny. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much watching a Catholic TV show.  If you were not able to catch his appearance on “The Journey Home” with host Marcus Grodi, the episode will be archived to EWTN’s YouTube page sometime in the next few days.  You can also download the audio podcast for free through iTunes.

Thanks to Marcus Grodi, we’ve even come up with a mascot animal – the marmot – for this project as a result: but in order to understand that, you’ll have to watch the episode of course!

Today we’ve kicked off our guest blogging campaign on the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage site, with a great piece on developing a deeper theology for women by Catholic author, speaker, and talk show host Teresa Tomeo.  We’re truly grateful that she’s sharing her time and talent with us, and with all of you, and thank her for this contribution. Teresa’s is the first in a series of posts we’ll be featuring on the site, every Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks, to help draw attention to the work we’re trying to do to get this hermitage established.  These posts will be in addition to Brother Rex’s own brief reflections which he posts on the site during the day.

I also want to thank both my dear friend Catholic new media “diva” Lisa Hendey and writer and commentator Mark Shea for the wonderful pieces about FLPH which they each posted to Patheos yesterday.  You can read Lisa’s post here, and Mark’s post here.  Two more hugely talented, gracious people in the Catholic media community, lending a hand in this effort: we’re really blessed!

I hope you’ll continue to keep the FLPH effort to establish a permanent hermitage in your prayers, gentle reader, since above all that is the most important thing we can do.  And again, if you feel inclined to donate or know someone who may be interested in doing so, please pass the link to FLPH along to them.  It’s not often these days that one gets to help establish an actual hermitage, so this is really a unique opportunity to help someone live out his vocation in a life of prayer on behalf of all of us.

Thanks very much for your support!

The Marmot

The Marmot

 

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