Thursday, September 21, 2017

Picking Dandelions


I wrote this for the local paper a couple of weeks ago.  In rereading it, I decided it should go here too.

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Two coinciding events have served as points of reflection for me over the last couple of weeks.  First, at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, we have nearly finished a project in which we have replaced our pews and flooring.  Both were necessary simply from the perspective of standard building maintenance.  Both were desirable inasmuch as these new pews and flooring are more beautiful than what we had previously.  Second, I presided over a wedding at the parish of St. John Cantius in Chicago.  I do not exaggerate to suggest that it is one of the most beautiful churches I have seen on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.  The building, completed in 1889, is the fruit of the sacrifice and dedication of Polish immigrants.  Upon arrival in Chicago, before building their own homes or schools, they built their church.  As typical in the baroque style, the Church is filled with arches, magnificent stained glass, and a gorgeous high altar.  The main aisle is wood inlaid with various Christian symbols.  Thick wooden doors separate the nave from the vestibule.  Everything is covered in gold.

Why?  Is such grandeur necessary?  Should it be done?  These are, in part, questions about which Catholics and various groups of Protestants have disagreed for centuries.  To my mind, however, beauty is an essential element in Christian worship.  The Polish immigrants who built St. John Cantius and the Catholics who helped refloor our Church here in Martin did not do so because a vain and avenging God demanded as much.  Rather, moved by the knowledge that God gave his life for the sake of man’s salvation, and inspired by his infinite love and mercy, these people desired to offer something in return.  They wanted to give something back to God as a demonstration of their own love and gratitude for him.  They knew, of course, that no human construction would ever be enough to repay the debt of gratitude owed to the Lord.  But they gave anyway, acknowledging that when we live lives in which all good things come to us as gift, we must give in return.

This sentiment should motivate our worship each day.  The way we dress, the way we speak, the way we sing, even our attentiveness to the Scriptures and to the sermon are ways in which we offer a little back to the Lord.  It is not as though we are doing any of these things to earn his love.  They are, instead, responses to his love.  At issue is not whether God will love or accept us.  Of course he will!  He will love us even if we don’t dress well, if we don’t sing, or if we don’t participate.  At stake is what we do in response to God’s love.  An analogy helps demonstrate my point:

A small child will bring a bouquet of freshly picked and slightly crushed dandelions to his mother as a spontaneous response to the love he receives from her.  His mother’s life is little improved by a gift of a fistful of weeds, but she recognizes the love that motivates the gesture.  The child fulfills a need of his own to reciprocate the love he receives from his mother.  The mother loves him no less if he doesn’t bring her flowers, but she does appreciate the gesture.  With God it is the same.  Psalm 116 asks, “How can I make a return to the Lord for all he done for me?”  In short, we can give nothing that is commensurate with what we have received.  But that should not stop us from trying. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Merry Christmas 2016



January 2017

Greetings,

It is not without cause that those closest to me accused me of “scroogishness” this Christmas.  Convention dictates that a Christmas Letter be joyful and hopeful and glad.  It is, I suspect, because of this encumbrance that I have found writing this letter to be onerous this year.  As I complete my annual retrospective, the moments that stand out are mostly sad.  Our community has buried more than our share of people in the last twelve months.  A dear friend of mine, only a year older than me, died suddenlyleaving her toddler daughter without a mother.  Another friend’s father and a respected teacher from my high school days also died unexpectedly.  Regular notices of people diagnosed with serious illness have punctuated our community’s grief.  Short days, unnecessarily cold weeks, and frustratingly frequent snows have left me feeling little Christmas cheer.  Indeed, it was only as Christmas drew to its conclusion and the season of Ordinary Time commenced that the ageless proclamation that God Is Made Man began to peel away the spiritual cataracts that had perpetuated my dimness of soul. 

We hear each year, “The people who dwell in darkness have seen a great light.”  That light, Jesus Christ, tiny and innocent, lived and died and lives again.  Because he lives, death has no power here.  Sickness has no power.  The light always defeats the darkness.  Thus, even as I sit writing and twilight lingers, I realize that darkness arrives a half hour later than it did just a few weeks ago.  The year was not so bad.  I caught some nice trout, and almost caught an extraordinary one (He would probably have been the biggest I have ever caught.  He broke my line just as I brought him to net).  I talked myself into buying a dog, and then promptly talked myself out of it.  I spent a weekend in Georgia.  I witnessed the weddings of beautiful, happy couples.  I blessed the farms and ranches of extraordinarily good and kind people.  Rain came regularly and the grass was green well into the summer.  It was nearly Thanksgiving before it finally snowed.  I am sponsor to not just one, but to two exceptional young men preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. I have not hit a deer yet.  My people are kind.  My parishes are solvent.  Things could be much worse.

God does not require that we pretend all is well if all is not well.  He does, however, call us to seek him where he may be found.  2016, in a number of obvious ways, was bleak and hard.  To see God sometimes required that we squint.  But there were plenty of moments of light.  Therefore, I resolve, in 2017, to try to dwell in the light.  One source of that light is God’s love as I experience it through you.  Thank you for all you do for me.  Thank you for your kind and thoughtful sentiments this season.  I am deeply grateful.  Know of my continued prayers that 2017 will be a year filled with light, and that you will receive all of God’s richest blessings.


In Christ,
 Fr. Tyler

Friday, December 23, 2016

Do Not Go Gentle

Brown Trout - Rapid Creek - Summer 2016
When, I wonder, did I become mortal.

I recollect, even from my youth, an abiding jealousy for the integrity of my frame.  There was little to merit the risk of injury and pain.  These threats were sufficient inspiration to avoid work or sport.  I did, however, really ever think that  I might die.  As with nearly all those still in the flower of youth, death was not real.  Even when it lurked near, as it did when I rolled my grandfather's old Ford pickup, or when I rolled my own Oldsmobile a few years later, I cannot recall that I took the possibility of death seriously.  When a seventh grade peer died of cancer, it was sad, but it never occurred to me that such a fate might as easily have been my own.  Pain was possible; death was not.  

Even now, the word fear fails to capture my attitude toward my own ultimate dissolution.  I think of my death often; death will eventually come for me.  I may rage against it.  I might cleverly delay it.  But death will win.  It is in this sense of resignation, I think, that one first becomes truly mortal.

Mortality insists that I concede that I am also finite.  Rage though I may, time will ravage me, men will ignore me, loved ones will not love me, my own strength or will shall fail me, my body shall betray me, and mortality will steal what is precious to me.  The sun sets.  The sun also rises.  There is nothing new under the sun.  

It is surely the inevitability of this inescapable entropy that adjures me to resist while yet I might.  Is this the allure of fly fishing?  Perhaps I am like a fish upon a line handled by the Master Angler.  Perhaps I, like so many trout unlucky enough to be fooled by my own abecedarian  flailing of the line, might shake my head, flee across the current, leap into the air, and throw the hook.  Or perhaps the hook will remain.  The Master Angler will play me, giving slack here and increasing drag there until, in his providence, I lay gasping in his net.

Give me, O Master Angler, plenty of line.  Let me strain against it.  Let me leap among those you have given to me to love.  May their love for me be the cutbank toward which I flee when strange shadows threaten above.  Keep me out of the dangerous entangling willows.  Should I break the line, do not quit for the day.  Cast for me once again.  And, should you bring me to net, if it be your will, Master Angler, release me as often as you might.  But keep a fly in your box you know I will bite.

                

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Unexamined Life


The AIDS epidemic of the 1990s inspired the musical Rent from which the world came to learn that there are 525,600 minutes in a year, which are apparently measured in midnights, in sunsets, in daybreaks,  in cups of coffee, and other such jolly tripe.  My experience suggests that 525,600 minutes are measured in miles driven, tanks of gas purchased, diet cokes consumed, meetings planned, meetings cancelled due to poor attendance, television shows on Netflix, and disappointments.  A blog is interesting to read and interesting to write so long as there is something sufficient to merit the effort.  I'm not sure when things became uninteresting, or if they did, but I find it hard to write anything of depth these days.  My muse has either died of neglect, or, like a cat that one stops feeding, has gone to find sustenance at some other person's house.  How did I arrive here?

Chapter 1: In Which The Intrepid Author Waxes Dark and Philosophical 

"The unexamined life," Socrates insists, "is not worth living." Of course, for him, the examined life led to death anyway, so perhaps the examined life isn't so great either. In either case, it seems inescapable that life is dull when one walks through it never asking, "Why do I do what I do, believe what I believe, and choose what I choose? Why am I here?" Boredom is the fruit of an unexamined life, because one fails to discover what one truly wants and thus seeks meaning and pleasure in things that ultimately dissatisfy. Of course, for many, living the examined life leads to angst and nihilism, which is like boredom, except with more self-mutilation. But at least people living the examined life are interesting. They break up the humdrum, mundane, all too regular existence of those who live the unexamined life. Mine, I fear, has become an unexamined life.

Minor seminary, of course, required self-examination.  In all charity, I've never met a group of more self-absorbed naval-gazers than seminarians.  It is their job.  They are asked to question their motives for coming to the seminary, what God wants of them, and how they know he wants it.  This interior investigation takes tremendous psychic, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional effort.  Every little flaw, real or perceived, could become a formation issue - something that would ultimately prevent ordination.  It is the work of major seminary to draw a man to the point where such introspection becomes an external offering of self to Christ and his bride, the Church, through the priesthood.  For many men, at least those who never advance to ordination, it comes as a shock to discover that most other lifestyles neither encourage nor tolerate introspection to this degree.  I recollect bemusedly listening to a former seminarian relate that one of his friends (also a former seminarian), had needed to explain to him that after leaving the seminary, one no longer experiences "formation issues".

The first few years of priesthood likewise lent themselves to examination.  First, there was still an element of formation that occurred so long as I was under the watchful eye of the pastor.  His critiques required me to look carefully at myself.  Second, almost everything was new, shiny, and endowed with infinite significance.  Every act of ministry placed me one step closer to my final goal of having saved the world.  I was changing lives.  I did not yet believe that if people change, they do so only slowly, and sometimes not for the better.  Before becoming convinced of this idea, I wanted to record each moment as a monument to my success.

The process of saving the world leaves one feeling very much as though he is needed.  It feels good to be needed.  Codependency, it has been suggested to me, is dysfunctional.  I suspect that it is, but it is often rewarded in Church work.  The more one is needed, the more industrious he becomes, and thus all the more needed.  Industry takes time and energy.  It leaves little room for examining one's life.  One relies on assumptions, previous experience, platitudes, and a handful of really good homilies from the last time these readings came around.  It is astonishing how long one can get away with employing only these tools.  These tools, however, are rather expensive.  They come at the cost of disappointment and self-doubt.  The one who uses them feels cheap, a cheater, a fraud.  There is, however, a ready remedy for disillusionment; one just needs to become more needed. And to become more industrious. And to examine one's life even less.  And to become even more disappointed.  As surely as carbon becomes diamond under pressure, disappointment becomes blaming, blaming becomes resentment, resentment becomes anger, and anger becomes apathy.  Apathy is the opposite of love; apathy is a killer of muses.

Chapter 2: In Which The Intrepid Author Explores Other Causes For His Authorial Malaise

I like writing.  I like playing with words.  I like nitpicking over whether this or that sentence is just right.  I like deleting whole paragraphs and starting over.  I like beginning a piece with one idea in mind and discovering by the end that I have said something else.  Six hundred word articles in a small town paper, monthly columns for the parish bulletin, the occasional snarky email, and infrequent blog posts inspired by debilitated, pale muses, however, leave me longing for something more.  I am a fan of the short story.  So often they have grabbed me by the soul and shaken me.  I want to write a story.  I grow weary of essays, exhortations, and expositions.  I want, by means of brief narrative, to crystallize the human experience with wisdom, wit, sincerity and singularity.  I want to write a story like Hemingway, or O'Connor, or Bradbury.  But what I write seems insipid, cliche, and immature.  My style is wrong for the genre; the vocabulary is vapid, the arc of the story too brief, and the moral too obvious.  The written word is never so unruly as when I try to write a story.  So I haven't tried for a while.  The blog and my own self-examination suffer as a result.

Chapter 3: In Which The Intrepid Author Complains About His Stuff

I have too much stuff.  Too many books.  Too many devices.  Too many fishing magazines.  Too much mail.  Too many clothes.  Too much comfort.  Too much time during which no one demands anything of me. (It is a paradox, not hypocrisy, that I can complain in a single post of having both too much and too little time.  The experience merits a post of its own.)  Distractions of one's own choosing are hell on introspection.  Distractions - stuff - seem mostly to lend themselves to silent speculation and frustration about why they are ultimately so dissatisfying, and what other distraction might be more satisfying.  Stuff is not helpful to writing.

Chapter 4: In Which The Intrepid Author Bemoans The Absence of Other Philosophy Majors

Very few people talk about ideas.  They talk about people.  They talk about events.  They do not talk about beauty, truth, goodness, or happiness.  If they talk about themselves, it is only in the most superficial of terms.  Conversations dare no vulnerability, push no boundaries, never risk that one party or the other might be wrong, and resultantly incite no intimacy.  A conversation should reveal the self.  It seldom does.  Most conversations cannot even initiate the process of basic self-revelation because the person speaking has never asked who or what he is.  Talk of the weather, the kids, sports, politics, news, cows, crops, work, school, hook-ups, break-ups, vacations, medications, plans for Thanksgiving, plans for Christmas, plans for summer, who is pregnant, and who recently died can all pass the time.  They do little by way of eliciting truth, goodness, and beauty.  They do little to draw the mind and heart to God.  They do little to inspire self-examination.  Sometimes I ache for these conversations.

Chapter 5: In Which The Intrepid Author Recognizes Glimmers of Hope

And here I sit writing.  I have not written, nor really even thought, so honestly for a long time.  It all started as I refereed a dispute between two college boys, one a convicted Catholic, the other a resentful Catholic who calls himself an atheist.  Their their argument descended (ascended?) into a lengthy conversation about the nature of beauty and whether or not life is objectively meaningful.  At the end, I thought, "I need to read. And I need to write."  Writing leads to self-examination.  And, since I am trying to quit smoking (I've been tobacco free for seven days today), I need to do something to distract my fidgety hands, and craving-addled mind.  So, herein I offer an examination.  I doubt it has the enduring value of Plato's Apology.  It will not shatter the history of Western Thought as did Descartes and his Meditations.  But, it is something.  Something is better than nothing.  And even a shallowly examined life must be more worth living than a life altogether unexamined. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Apologizing for Beauty

Around the turn of the year, I was asked if I would be willing to respond to a letter submitted to the Black Hills State University Student Newspaper.  The author suggested that the Church, if she actually listened to the message of the Gospel and if she were sincere about caring for the poor, would sell all of her treasures.  The author likewise employed the tired canards about Jesus living the life of an Essene, and the Church's complicity in the Nazi atrocities toward the Jews.  I was happy to respond.  In the end, neither letter was published.  But I, luckily, have a blog.  


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When the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered Deacon Lawrence to surrender the riches of the Church as tribute in A.D. 258, Lawrence arrived before the emperor at the appointed time with a parade of Rome’s poor and suffering, insisting these were the riches of the Church.  Though he was summarily roasted to death atop a metal gridiron, he was right.  The Church is rich, but not materially wealthy.  Founded by Christ and comprised of saints and sinners, nobles and paupers, scholars and knaves, pragmatists and dreamers, the Church has provided the world with advances in art, science, medicine, law, education, and nearly every facet of Western Civilization.  None of these advances is the patrimony of a single person or entity.  They belong to the human race.  It is, therefore, misguided to suggest that what belongs to humankind should be sold to anyone for the sake of providing relief to the poor and suffering.

Christians believe the poor deserve to witness the great accomplishments of human creativity.  There is no fee to see Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica.  Have the poor no right to experience such beauty?  And what of those poor who live far from the cultural treasures of Europe?  Do the poor in South America, or Africa, or Appalachia have no right to see, without cost, the handiwork of great artists in the stained glass that decorates their churches, in the vestments worn by their priests, or in the sacred vessels from which even the poor receive Holy Communion?  Do only the rich have the right to surround themselves with beautiful things?

To sell the “riches of the Church” provides only a temporary solution to the problems of hunger, poverty, and homelessness.  Surely money raised by the sale of art and such would amass a vast sum by which to provide rice and clean water for a period of time, but what happens after the money and rice have both been consumed?  What will be sold next?  Luckily, the Catholic Church is on the forefront of the effort to assist in such situations, distributing millions of dollars’ worth of aid annually to those in most need throughout the world.  Could individual Christians give more generously?  Certainly.  Does their failure to do so demand the sale of the human patrimony to individual collectors?  Certainly not.

Allegations of Church alliances with Nazis and associations between Jesus and fanatical Jewish sects always garner attention, but they bear little resemblance to fact.  It is fact, however, that the Catholic Church protected thousands of Jews during the Shoah and worked tirelessly, albeit secretly, to remove Hitler from power.  It is also true that in his entire ministry, Jesus never alleviated the material poverty of a single person.  Moreover, he went to his death wearing an expensive garment woven without a seam, and before that he allowed himself to be anointed with costly oil by a repentant woman in spite of his betrayer’s suggestion that such expensive items could be sold and the proceeds given to the poor.

It is appropriate and necessary to place the best mankind can offer at the service of the worship of God.  Art, vestments, buildings, and all manner of these “riches” give due honor to God and they acknowledge and revere the dignity of all whose eyes are permitted to fall upon them.  Christians and all people have an obligation to care for the poor, and failure to do so is a serious sin.  But to suggest that this feat is best accomplished by selling what rightly belongs to the whole human family is as misguided as were Judas, Valerian, and all those who have claimed the same from the Church’s foundation.