Phone Booth Friday: Making Heroic Choices

For the past few years I’ve had the privilege of calling Mike Gannon my friend. I had the good fortune to meet him via social media, and although we’ve only had the chance to meet in person a couple of times since, the first time we did he gave me a terrific gift: a book surveying Superman’s comic book adventures in the 1970’s.  Not everyone “gets” why I find the superhero genre fun and informative, but Mike certainly does.

During that time Mike has been trying to find his way in the world, after having faced a number of challenges in his life.  Fortunately, he seems to have hit upon the right path, as he explains in this post detailing his arrival at this next, momentous point.  For tomorrow, Mike is joining the Discalced Carmelite Friars, more popularly known as the Carmelites, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  During his initial period there, known as the “Postulancy”, he will not have access to social media, and so I wanted to take this moment while I still can, to wish him well as he takes a truly heroic step this Phone Booth Friday.

I think the perception among many non-Catholics, and perhaps among some Catholics as well, is that joining a religious order and going off to live in a monastery or convent is a decision to run away from the world.  Yet ask anyone who actually knows men and women who make this kind of choice, and you will be quickly corrected of that misconception.  To spend your days trying to draw closer to God in prayer and in a life of service to Him and others, whether that be within the walls of an enclosure or out and about in the world performing selfless acts, is to strip away all of the things that distract us from a singular fate shared by all human beings, regardless of their race or creed.

All of this “stuff”, in the material world that surrounds us, is useless if it’s not something that brings us closer to God.  Christ tells us repeatedly in the Gospels that although it is not impossible, it is very difficult for the materially rich to enter the Kingdom of God, if they are weighed down and burdened by their material possessions and concerns. No matter how successful you may become in your chosen profession, or how many awards, investments, cars, homes, and other indications of status you may have, at the end of the day you will be forced to relinquish all of it, and go and meet your Maker.  Hopefully you will do so peacefully, in your own bed at home and after a long, full life unmarked by loss, illness, or pain.  For most however, that reckoning will occur under less pleasant circumstances.

In choosing to strip away the things that could stand as obstacles in the way to his love of God and following his Faith, Mike is making a truly heroic decision, although I daresay he would not categorize it as such.  The plain and scratchy robe of the Carmelite friar does not have the sheen and protective qualities of a superhero suit.  And yet at the same time, it’s more beautiful and more real than any suit of futuristic materials that Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark could come up with.

What will happen in the coming weeks and months for Mike I do not know.  My hope is that the Carmel will be everything he wanted and more.  He will be working that out as he goes, and he needs our prayers and support as he does so.  The choice to stop living for oneself, and start living for God and others, is not easy.

Saving kittens stuck in trees or planets from annihilation is all very well in superhero fiction. These stories remind us of the virtue of heroic selflessness, and putting oneself at risk in order to help others, by saving them from material distress.  Yet through his pursuit of the religious life, Mike hopes to do something even more important, albeit in a humble, prayerful way, by trying to save souls.  I wish him Godspeed in his journey, and ask my readers to please keep him in your prayers.

With Mike Gannon (L) and Channing Dale (C) and "Superman in the '70's" book

With Mike Gannon (L) and Channing Dale (C) and “Superman in the ’70’s” book

 

An Invincible Woman

Somehow it seems fitting that today is not only the birthday of Friedrich Nietzsche, but it’s also the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila.

Nietzsche, of course, not only proclaimed that “God is dead”, but he also gave us the concept of the “Übermensch” or “Superman”.  In his book, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – which, if you ever studied advanced German, you probably had to struggle through at one point – the Superman was a kind of new human, brought about through a rejection of Christian hope in the next life.  The materialism espoused by Nietzsche sought a perfection of the physical and mental capabilities of human beings in this life, since he believed that there was no afterlife to follow, and that whatever creator-god there may once have been, he had faded away leaving only a cloud of dust, like the remains of a supernova.

In creating the post-religious superman as a goal for mankind to strive toward, Nietzsche laid the groundwork for all sorts of monstrosities, from eugenics to Nazism. In fact, when the comic book character of the same name was first conceived back in the 1930’s by two Jewish kids in Cleveland, he was actually a super-villain, along the lines of the materialist, amoral ideas of Nietzsche then being championed by Hitler, et al.  It was only later that Superman was changed to become an anti-Nazi champion and the world’s biggest goody-two-shoes.

St. Teresa of Ávila was probably just about as opposite a thinker to Nietzsche as you can get. A woman whose childhood piety was muffled in young adulthood as she was drawn to seek the material pleasures of this world, she later rejected those comforts in order to draw herself and others closer to God through her life of prayer, her many writings, and her work.  She also gave us something far better than the concept of the Superman: an encapsulation of her thinking which today is referred to as “St. Teresa’s Bookmark”, so called because it was found written on a prayer card which she kept in her breviary, the book of daily prayers centered around the Psalms still used to this day in the Church.

ST. TERESA’S BOOKMARK

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve shared this counsel of St. Teresa’s with others, particularly non-Catholics who have never heard of it, and there’s always a positive reaction.  It’s really a reflection of what Christ told His listeners in the Sermon on the Mount (St. Matthew 6:25-34) about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It’s also a reflection of St. Paul’s exhortation in his Letter to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

We all have choices to make in this life. We can conform ourselves to this world, saying that this is all there is, as Nietzsche did, so let’s all have a good time.  I can then put on the rather tight tights and the cool (if admittedly pointless) cape, and go around pretending that I’m invincible, but in the end suffering and death are my kryptonite just as they are yours.  Sooner or later I’ll be made painfully aware of the fact that I’m not invincible after all, and material satisfaction is just as much a passing fantasy as leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

If however we choose to see this life as a kind of training ground for the life to come, as St. Teresa did, then we can find meaning even in our suffering.  She demonstrated how invincibility comes not through a reliance on material ends, but rather through spiritual means.  If the goal becomes obtaining eternal life in Heaven, and not the finite, ultimately futile effort to conquer the world rather than ourselves, then we realize that there, at last, lies the permanence we are seeking.

This only happens, as St. Teresa came to understand, through the surrender of our will to God.   “Christ does not force our will,” she observed. “He takes only what we give him. But he does not give himself entirely until he sees that we yield ourselves entirely to him.”

On her Feast Day then, let’s try to exercise that real superpower, by making the same choice to show our invincibility through our surrender.

"The Holy Spirit Appearing to St Teresa of Avila" by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)  Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam

“The Holy Spirit Appearing to St. Teresa of Ávila” by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam

 

“Something Other Than God”: Jennifer Fulwiler at the CIC

In a dynamic, engaging presentation last night, blogger, author, and radio host Jennifer Fulwiler gave a powerful presentation on her journey from atheism to Christianity.  While using the framework of her book, Something Other Than God, which chronicles her conversion, Ms. Fulwiler also managed to touch on a wide range of subjects, from the cultural differences between the Texas Bible Belt and the East Coast, to raising children in a culture which is increasingly hostile to Christianity.  Along the way, the attendees at the Catholic Information Center here in DC were given much to laugh about, and much to think about, over the course of the evening.

It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of atheism that Ms. Fulwiler grew up with.  She noted that when she was little, her father used to read books by Carl Sagan to her, alongside the more typical Nancy Drew stories, and she recalled being a 4th grader and hiding all of the Bibles in a bookstore in the “Fiction” section.  Her atheism was so intrinsically a part of who she was, that as an undergraduate she transferred from Texas A&M to the University of Texas at Austin, because she couldn’t stand the highly Christian environment of the former.

Ms. Fulwiler took the time to speak about the “new” atheism, without lingering upon it too much, since this was her story rather than theirs.  She did however make a very salient point, which is that even though a lot of the new atheism is based upon a shallow understanding or even misunderstanding of the teachings of Christianity, Dawkins, et al., had done one thing well: they were great at marketing and branding.  For young people in particular, being a new atheist can be a way of signaling to others that, “I’m smart,” and wanting to fit in with a group of one’s peers.

I could relate to her childhood fascination with the study of fossils, and her desire to be a paleontologist, something which I, too, experienced.  But whereas I saw the fossils as evidence of the wonder of God’s Creation, Ms. Fulwiler saw them as depressing shadows of herself.  If she was no different from one of these long-dead animals, who would exist, have a series of chemical reactions, and then disappear, then what was the point?  Her book develops her thought process from this nadir.

One key point which I suspect may of us in the Gen X/Gen Y crowd related to during Ms. Fulwiler’s presentation was the theme of the shallowness of not only many people’s understanding of their faith – whether that faith be Christianity or atheism – but also her critique of the American education system our generation grew up in.  Our grasp of subjects is only supposed to be deep enough for the purposes of regurgitation, rather than developing the ability to think and reason, and for the achievement of test score results.  As a result, when in college she began to counter the arguments of Christians with questions like, “If God exists, why then is there suffering?” feeling rather smug and an original thinker for doing so, she was completely unaware of the fact that people of Faith have been attempting to address these questions in philosophy for over 5,000 years.

In eventually coming to believe in God, Ms. Fulwiler pointed to the realization she experienced that atheism did not have the lexicon to explain the human experience, particularly after her first child was born.  This triggered a willingness to give prayer a go, to start reading the Bible, and to engage in conversation online with atheists and theists alike, as she searched for answers to her questions.  It just so happened that those whom she engaged with online who had the answers that made the most sense to her, in countering the arguments of her fellow atheists, were the Catholics.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, I was particularly struck by one concept which Ms. Fulwiler has put into practice.  She noted that when you are trying to make God and the Sacraments the central theme of your life, you tend to live very differently from those who do not, even fellow Catholics who are not quite there yet; there may be parishes full of Catholics, but there are Catholics and there are Catholics.  To that end, particularly in the present malaise, she noted that it was very hard to constantly be swimming upstream against the culture, and the importance of periodically trying to take a break and just be around other devout Catholics who are also trying their best – not to debate theology or the like, but to form communities and enjoy each other’s company.  This is something which she herself has done on rather a large scale for Catholic women, as you can read about on the site for the Edel Gathering.

On a personal note, it was also great to finally meet Ms. Fulwiler, after having been “Tweeps” (Twitter friends) for some time.  She was just as gracious and smart in person as I expected she would be.  I’m looking forward to reading her book, and for those of you who may get the chance to hear her speak in your area, do go: you will not disappointed.  And be sure to check out her new weekly radio show, over on the Catholic Channel at Sirius XM.

Jennifer Fulwiler