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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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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.

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Meeting Adjourned: Keeping the Faith After the Retreat

Those among my readers who consider themselves to be more sophisticated than I will not want to read today’s blog post.  Those of you who are more aware of your own mortality and utter dependence upon Divine Providence however, please stick with me.  For hopefully you will see a bit of yourselves in what I am about to describe, and you will see how we are, all of us, in the same boat when it comes to trying to keep focused on the horizon rather than on the waves that may toss us about.

Over the past few months I have been fortunate enough to attend the monthly Evening of Recollection for Men at the Catholic Information Center, here in the Nation’s Capital. And during that time it has inevitably happened that, soon after this monthly meeting, I suffer an absolutely horrible day.  This is not an exaggeration, by any means: quite literally, the next day I have some terrible thing happen at work or at home, or I suffer from some very painful physical ailment, or I receive some terrible news about someone I care about, or I have a combination of all of these things and more.

If you have never attended one of these recollection evenings – which by the way are held for the ladies as well – the format is rather like that of a brief spiritual retreat from the everyday world.  The attendees gather in the chapel and listen to one of the priests give a reflection, on some spiritual topic which will hopefully prove helpful to those in attendance.  Then private confession is available for those who wish to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation; alternatively one may simply engage in an examination of conscience led by one of the leaders.  Then the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, and this is followed by a second spiritual reflection by one of the priests, often continuing on a related track from the theme explored earlier, followed by benediction.

The reason I like these monthly gatherings is that an evening spent like this, at the start of the work week, is wonderfully refreshing to the soul.  I like to get there early if I can, and do some spiritual reading in the chapel before the Evening starts or during the quiet bits.  I usually take notes during the two reflections if I find them helpful, to transcribe and reflect on later.  And of course it is just a good thing in and of itself to sit in a quiet chapel in the presence of God, gradually forgetting things like deadlines, appointments, bills, and so on, in the company of other professional men who know all of these things and more – mortgages, children, serious illnesses, etc.

Strange to say, over the past several months whenever I have attended these Evenings, the very next day is absolutely rotten, pock-marked by all manner of things.  It seems that I leave the mini-retreat all refreshed and renewed, walking on a cloud, and yet something goes horribly pear-shaped within the next 12 hours.  In fact at this point, it has become so predictable as to be almost tragi-comic.

The return to the material world of course is part of the cause of this.  The spiritual and psychological “high” or sense of satisfaction one has after a good retreat, even a short one, is rather like the runner’s “high”, when the body is surging with endorphins, mixed with that peaceful and sated feeling after a really good Thanksgiving dinner which leads to falling asleep in front of the fireplace.  At any time there is nothing like a good confession for taking the weight off of your shoulders and feeling as though you have been picked up and cleaned of all of the muck that has been slowing you down.  However surrounding that with adoration, benediction, and these lengthy, insightful reflections just makes for a very fine experience spent in the presence of God with other men of faith.

And therein, I think, is what is going on, and why the next day, at least for me, is so inevitably awful.

Human beings are susceptible to evil, thanks to our fallen nature.  All of the supposed sophistication which each successive generation of human beings claims to have over preceding generations is really nonsense, for we merely replace one set of societal ills with another, scoffing at the backwardness of our forbearers while not realizing our own myopia about the outcomes of our justifications of disordered acts.  We simply enjoy doing things that are wrong, and then finding ways to justify our behavior through various means – political, editorial, legal, personal, you name it.  If a man likes to do something which will ultimately condemn him, unless he keeps making efforts to reform his life and contain himself, he will manage to find a way to justify doing whatever it is that gives him temporary pleasure, at the cost of his eternal soul.

Hell is very busy making converts on Earth, perhaps now more so than ever, when the popularity of ignorance has never been more widely taught and disseminated to such great effect.  Yet one of the things which Hell does not like is when individuals begin to believe that there may be more, and better, to come from this God person they hear of, if they stick with Him.  And so sometimes Hell likes to send us unexpected problems, or remind us of messes that are piling up, or throw some illness or pain our way, to try to turn us inward and distract us from looking to what lies beyond this existence.

If you do not believe this sort of thing can happen, you need to go back and read your Scripture, and the Lives of the Saints, for this sort of things happens all the time, with disturbing frequency.  Some of the saints were actively pursued by evil, and some of the great sinners were those who seemed unable to shut their ears to the calls of evil despite the best efforts of those around them.  In fact the really sad stories we read are the ones about people who did not take these attacks seriously, to the point of not even recognizing that they were giving in to the wishes of the infernal, rather than following the Will of the Eternal.

The solution is to open your eyes, of course.  If you recognize what is going on, when you are attacked and things go badly, you can and will experience the emotions of grief or anger or anxiety.  You can mourn and complain and feel rotten, and I do not think it unfair to allow anyone to do that, as they need to.  But once that time passes, then the strength that can be drawn from an Evening of Recollection, or confession, or just a quiet ten minutes spent in prayer, makes the believer pick himself up and keep going, as best he can.

It is difficult to remain focused on who and what actually matters, and I for one need to get better at it.  Yet there is no other choice available to us, in the end.  Either we do the best we can now, to do good in this world so as to prepare for the next, or we follow the path of materialism and nihilism to no purpose whatsoever.  I know which choice I intend to make.

See you at the next monthly Evening of Recollection. :-)

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Giving Back Your Sunday

If you are reading this piece shortly after it was published, gentle reader, it is late Sunday afternoon on the East Coast of the United States, well before sundown. For this scrivener Sunday evening has been, for many years, the worst time of the week: worse than Monday morning, or Wednesdays, or the like, because it marks the end of a relaxing hiatus. This unpleasant feeling does not arise when I am on vacation, for after about a week I am very ready to go back to normal, unlike people who wish they could be on vacation permanently, or for months at a time. I like to have work to do, projects to complete, and a full schedule of events during the week, just so long as I have my Sundays for God, rest, and time with family or a very few close friends.

This idea of Sunday night as the worst night of the week is apparently quite a common phenomenon, according to many psychologists. Clearly many of us find ways to deal with this, otherwise the entire mechanism of commerce, government, education, and so on would grind to a halt. Yet yesterday afternoon’s experience made me consider whether the way to approach the phenomenon is to change the way that one looks at the question of returning to normal, and whether there is a better way of dealing with the understandable shift in emotions that occurs at these points.

Although technically it will not be summer in the Nation’s Capital for ten days yet, this weekend has brought the hottest temperatures of the year so far, easily reaching above 90 F.  Yesterday I made the decision to visit my barber in the afternoon, rather than in the cooler hours of the early morning, so that I could stop in for confession afterwards at a nearby church.  For my non-Catholic readers who are unfamiliar with the origins of this sacrament, you can read a good summary here.

When it gets very, very hot, as it has been for the past two days, there is nothing like going into a church and sitting down to compose and collect yourself in an examination of conscience, which is what Catholics do before we go into the confessional with the priest.  The symbolism and sensory experience of stepping off of a hot city street, full of noise, unpleasant odors, and so on, and into a space that is cool, dark, and quiet, is really a tonic for the body and soul.  All of the day’s annoyances, grand or petty as they may be, seem to drop away from you within a few minutes of sitting there, quietly, in God’s presence.

As part of my penance, Father J. told me to go sit quietly for ten minutes in the church, put myself in God’s Presence, and then to try to recall all of the people who had shown me kindness, encouragement, or done something nice for me in passing over the course of the previous week.  It took longer than ten minutes, I assure you, and no doubt I did not remember everyone. However I thought of things large and small: a beautiful e-mail I had received from two of my siblings; a long phone call from a distant friend; a kind word from an acquaintance in social media.

While waiting my turn for confession, I took the photo which appears below, and posted it online. A follower of mine later commented that she could sit in the same spot all day long very contentedly, which was amusing because at the time I was sitting there in that tranquil, cool spot, I thought the same.  Just sitting there brought to mind Psalm 84, which begins, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts,” and continues later, “better one day in your courts, than a thousand elsewhere.”

The reality of course, is that for most of us this is not a possibility. Few of us are called to the religious life, and even fewer will be able to spend their earthly lives in near-perpetual contemplation of God. For many people the appeal of visiting the religious orders who live in community, or watching films like “Into Great Silence”, is the notion of being able to step away from the world and into God’s Presence on a permanent basis. Yet if you are holding on to this romantic notion of the religious life, where all of the cares and foibles of human beings are completely done away with, you need to let go: putting on a habit does not mean that you are immune from being petty, or mean-spirited, or short-tempered, etc.  It does mean however that they work on it more than those of us in the lay community, who can simply move away from or ignore people we do not get along with.

Those in religious life usually have more time to pray than the laity do, and physically reside in a place where they can take themselves away from the surrounding noise of life into a church or chapel at any hour of the day. They can spend time with God in a place designed to worship Him, and in refreshing their souls in His Courts, as the Psalmist writes so joyfully and with such relief. The laity are generally not so fortunate: most of us are not going to be in the position of Lady Marchmain, with a magnificent chapel inside our own home, to which we can retreat whenever we like and do the same.

However that time spent in the stillness of the local church made me think about whether the solution to the “Sunday night blues”, if we are to put it that way, is not in trying to distract yourself with what is on television, or in staying out late with other people, or the like, even though these things may not necessarily be bad in themselves. Perhaps the way to address the issue is to simply stop, as sundown nears, and use that time for good.

If we pass those remaining minutes of daylight quietly with God, so that the night to come – whether it is spent alone or in company – will already be a transition into the next day, rather than clinging onto the past, I suspect we will hear more of what He has to say to us. It may not be possible to head back to church to be able to do so, as much as it might be nice to sit in God’s House  while the sun goes down, but that does not mean we cannot find some place in our home or neighborhood to do nearly the same thing.

Whether you go to your room and close the door, or go sit outside in a quiet spot in your yard or in a park, you can still choose to say, “I am giving this back to You, to say thanks,” rather than clinging to every last moment of the break you have been given. That may prove to be the best way to mark that transition from one part of the week to the next, for those of us are not in religious life. And for my part, I certainly intend to give it a try!


Afternoon in Holy Trinity Church, Georgetown

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Notes From A Small Town

Rather than write one, cohesive blog post this Sunday morning, I thought it might be a good idea just to share a few ideas, which you might find interesting or helpful. For my American readers we still have this Sunday and all day tomorrow left in this holiday weekend.   Remember that the reason we have this holiday is to recall those who have given their lives in service to this country, to preserve our freedoms and way of life – and who in many cases gave their lives to help people spread all over the globe.  We are truly blessed to have benefited from their sacrifice, and the sacrifices their families made for all of us.

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My birthday was a couple of weeks ago, but as this is a holiday weekend in the United States it was the first time most of us could all get home to my parents’ to celebrate it together. Among the many thoughtful, useful, and fun gifts I received, one of my brothers got me a rather thick, heavy, scholarly book about the development of the film industry in all its aspects – everything from technical methods employed in lighting to concepts in editing such as continuity. Of course by scholarly, I mean it is a volume with lots of text and footnotes, in a smallish font so as to squeeze in as much information as possible, and there is not a huge amount of accompanying pictures or illustrations.

The giver expressed some concern that he was not entirely sure if it might prove too specialist a read, but as I explained this is exactly the sort of thing I like.  It is easy to lose yourself in this sort of book, even if it takes longer to make your way through than would a more accessible text. Not only do you learn a great deal, but it is absorbing and requiring of your concentration, so that you need to pay attention to it if you are going to get through it.  Thus, it provides the proverbial “hours of entertainment”.

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As my parents recently had high-speed WiFi installed at the house, this was the first weekend I have been home to visit where I did not have to reduce my computer time to when the one in my Dad’s office was free.  At first I mourned the idea that I would now be able to keep up with all of my normal internet activities here in the small town where I grew up, but instead it has actually turned out to be great in several, unexpected ways.  I have been able to write blog posts uninterrupted, for example, and do some other, work-related writing that I need to do.   I also managed to appear on SQPN’s “Catholic Weekend” show from here, using my youngest brother’s bedroom on the top floor as the recording studio least likely to have any interruptions.

And while I am not a baseball fan, I managed to spend last evening with my family all watching baseball on television while I sat on the couch with them and did my usual writing, research, and so on, and yet still being able to interact with them.  I was able to be a part of what was going on, without having to put work aside, or not appear on the show, or go to another room because I could be on the computer at last if everyone else was watching baseball.  Perhaps the lesson to take away from this is that technology is wonderful, but you have to make an effort sometimes to figure out how it might bring you together, rather than isolate you.

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Although I live in Washington, and I only manage to come home to visit every 6-8 weeks, give or take, over the past couple of years I have befriended one of the local parish priests here.  I usually check to see what mass he is going to be saying while I am in town and attend that one if I can.  He has been marvelous for confession in the past, we email back and forth periodically, and he strikes me as a very gentle, thoughtful pastor of his flock.  This weekend I wanted to go to confession and also have some time for spiritual direction if he was willing to just listen to me talk about some ideas and issues I am wrestling with, and he agreed to block off additional time for me before the scheduled Saturday afternoon confessions were to begin.

So yesterday afternoon we got to sit and talk for about an hour on where I have been, and where I am going.  A number of interesting commonalities came to light which I had not been aware of, such as the fact that he is a fellow alumnus of Notre Dame.  He was also a lawyer and practiced law for a few years before entering seminary.

For those of you who know the wonderful feeling you get from making a good confession, and particularly when you are able to do so after a really solid discussion with a good-hearted priest, there really is nothing else like it.  Yet what came out of this as well was that Father had the chance to tell me of examples in his own life as a parish priest that have parallels in how I live as a lay professional.  He explained how he looks at these situations and tries to handle them.

It was great hearing Father’s perspective, and how he could relate it to my own experiences, because he clearly had listened to what I had told him.  He talked about what fit for me, based on who I am and where I am now, as the individual sitting in the chair across from him.  And we spoke an equal amount of the time, going back and forth and taking turns to speak, rather than it all being lop-sided, and that was terrific as well.

So if you are Catholic, and it has been awhile since you have been to confession, or even if you go reasonably regularly, consider making an appointment to spend some time face to face talking about things in a way that is unhurried. Find a priest whose personality fits with yours, and let him know you just want to talk for an hour or half an hour, and see how it goes.  It may do you a world of good.

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