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

 

Holy Land, Holy Headache

This past Saturday I had the chance to attend the first annual Holy Land Festival at the Franciscan Monastery here in D.C.  In the hour and a half I was there, before I had to retreat into the coolness of the somewhat distant Basilica, I saw hundreds of people gathering to speak with the vendors and representatives of various organizations working in the Holy Land.  Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, it was great to note such a good turnout for a first event.

Ironically, while standing in line for food I overheard two old ladies behind me, complaining about the somewhat disorganized nature of the food area. “I don’t know why this is so haphazard,” said one to the other. “You’d think that after so many years, they would get this food line right by now.”  Unless she was a time traveler of course, this complaint seemed rather bizarre under the circumstances.  Perhaps the stifling summer heat had made these ladies testy, but the petulance seemed so out-of-place with the peaceful and pleasant gathering of many different types of people together, to learn and share their experiences and prayers for peace in the Holy Land with one another.

Of course the truth is that, given the peace and good will which one experienced at the Festival, it’s hard to reconcile that with what we read in the news of late.  Israel and Palestine’s ongoing attempts to try to obliterate each other through the application of their respective interpretations of lex talionis are, frankly, tiresome and headache-inducing.  And as a result, conflict fatigue may well lead those of us who are not directly involved, into the temptation of simply allowing the two sides to just tear each other to bits and be done with it.

Except that to do so would be a failure on two fronts.

First, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we have to look at all of those involved in the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land as our brothers and sisters, because that’s what Christians do.  Christians don’t get to play favorites with non-Christians when it comes to loving your brother, saying that you prefer Jews, or Muslims, or Zoroastrians, or secularists.  So yes, that means you have to love ALL of them, folks on the left and folks on the right, not just the ones whom you happen to agree with, or have fewer problems with, politically or theologically speaking.

Second, we have to remember that for whatever reason He chose it, God particularly loves this part of the universe He created.  God chose to become incarnate here, of all the places He could have picked from on the planet.  He grew up in a dusty little village, in a place which was considered so obscure a backwater as to be mocked even by one of Jesus’ later disciples (“But Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ ” St. John 1:46)

He did not select somewhere more geographically grandiose, such as the epic vastness of the Russian steppe, or the verdant luxuriance of the Amazon rainforest.  He did not appear among a people who had been contentedly insular and stable for millennia, like the pre-Revolutionary Chinese, nor among a people known for habits of analytical detachment and personal reserve, like the Scandinavians.  No, he picked this place, and this great mixing bowl of hot-headed peoples and clashing cultures, which for thousands of years have been unable to get along with one another.

Tomorrow, July 16th, is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patroness of the Carmelite Order.  Mount Carmel is of course in the Holy Land, and well-known as a sacred spot for communicating between Heaven and Earth long before the monks arrived, as evidenced by the Prophet Elijah’s frequent retreat there from the dangers of Jezebel and the priests of Baal.  The date itself has personal significance for me, individually speaking, but historically, July 16, 1944 was a date of great importance.  It’s the date of the first atomic bomb explosion at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.  Ultimately that discovery led to the end of World War II, but at a horrific cost, one which still haunts our planet as we worry about dirty bombs, rogue missiles, and mutually assured destruction.  It’s a concern that grows ever greater in this part of the world, among the known and emerging nuclear powers.

We have an opportunity here, on the eve of this Feast in honor of Christ’s Mother.  Christians should be reflecting on what each of us is doing individually, to pray for peace in the Holy Land, as well as in trying to defuse tensions among the groups involved in the fighting, which have only lead to a never-ending cycle of hatred.  Clearly finger-pointing, recriminations, and reprisals get the parties involved nowhere.  Perhaps it’s time for all of us to drop to our knees, instead of dropping bombs or, in the case of those of us outside the conflict zone, sweeping generalizations and condemnations, and turn this persistent headache over to God.

"View of Haifa and Mount Carmel" by I.C. Stadler (1801)

“View of Haifa and Mount Carmel” by I.C. Stadler (1801)