Thursday, September 30, 2010


About a week ago I had the opportunity to address a number of young mothers about the vocation to motherhood.  Among other things, I described the beauty and holiness of living their lives sacrificing for the good of their children, recognizing that the future in which they invest so much is a future over which they have no control.

It occurred to me yesterday, after a conversation with a pregnant mother that this phenomenon is most especially pronounced during pregnancy itself.  A woman is given a life to protect, and yet, even though she might do all of the right things, she has little control over the outcome of the pregnancy.  There is nothing she can do to ensure that she will carry the baby to term, and that it will be born healthy.  She must simply abandon the pregnancy and the baby entrusted to her to God's care.

As a result of this, the mother must hand over her entire pregnancy to God, and adopt a deep trust in his goodness, love, and providence.  There is something we can all learn from this fact.  We are all called to live, as it were, like pregnant women, trusting in God and hoping in his goodness.  

This is just one more thing that we all learn from our mothers.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Life That Mattered

Charles de Foucauld, a failure by any worldly standard, died faithful to that to which he had been called.
"When you have done all you have been commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do." Luke 17:10

It was my great pleasure to celebrate the Sunday Masses in Ft. Pierre over the weekend.  I have been there several times previously as a priest, and I was there on a number of occasions as a seminarians.  Over the course of these visits, I have come to know a particular couple relatively well.  Like a feral cat that is tamed by the regular ministrations of a kindly old woman, these two have wooed me into a quiet comfort in their presence.  I had not expected this, as they have some rather vehement convictions which they are ready to share with whomever is around to listen.  I don't necessarily disagree with their convictions, but I am sometimes intimidated by the fervor with which they hold them.  Regardless, as I say, I have grown rather fond of them.

On Saturday evening, I was invited to join them for dinner.  While in their home, they told me that the husband is suffering from pancreatic cancer.  It is terminal, though it remains unclear exactly how long he will abide in this earthly dwelling among the Church Militant.  As we talked, he spent a great deal of time thinking aloud about how God would choose to use him in these final days or weeks or months.  That conversations drew me into reflection about our desire to lead meaningful lives.

All of us, I think, want our lives to be important.  All of us want to die believing that we did something significant, and that the world is better because we were in it.  It is not uncommon, as I talk with the elderly and the lonely, that they spend a great deal of time talking about who they once were and what they used to do.  I am often saddened as I leave to realize that the duration of the conversation has been an exercise in finding significance.  "Was I important?" they all seem to ask.

There are lots of ways to answer this question.  From the worldly view, most of us are relatively inconsequential.  Few of us will be elected to office.  Few of us will be famous, and few of us will have someone who visits our grave more than two or three generations from now.  To desire to be important in this way is decidedly contrary to a Christian outlook on life.  It is for this reason that it is essential that we approach life asking ,"What is God asking me to do?"

A priest at St. Paul Seminary preached powerfully one day as the year was nearing its end and as seminarians were undergoing annual evaluations.  He commented that while all of us are naturally inclined to worry that we might be asked to leave formation, it would be worth while to remember that our goal is to accomplish that which God has called us to.  He pointedly asked, "What if God has brought you to the seminary only because your presence here was essential in preparing the man next to you to become a priest?  What if, having accomplished the missions for which he called you here, he permits that you would be asked to leave?  Should this be the case, who are you to complain?"

This is where the question of the significance of my life can really take on new meaning, because it suggests that as long as I have done what God has called me to do, I have lived a worthwhile life  My life has been important.  I have left the world different and better.  And I may never, in this life, know how.

In the end, we must all come to recognize that I serve God not mostly because of what I get out of it, but because he is God and I am not, and as a result of this fact, I owe him my humble obedience.  The paradox of it is that I find, in doing what I am asked only because I am asked to do so, that I am rewarded with peace and joy.  From these, perhaps we will arrive at the conclusion that while we may have only been unprofitable servants, doing only what we were obliged to do, we have merited the most significant kind of life - an eternal one spent in the loving embrace of the master. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Wishy-Washy Thoughts on Tarantino

"Kill Bill -- Vol. 1" (Miramax), opens with the old proverb, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." After sitting through the flick's 90 minutes of unabated carnage, one would agree a more fitting maxim would have read, "This movie is a dish best not served."

So write the cinema reviewers for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.  To a great extent, I guess I agree with them.  The films of Quentin Tarantino are filled with gratuitous violence, crude language, and other very graphic imagery from time to time.  These are certainly not films for children, nor, perhaps, as the USCCB reviews suggest, for anyone else.  I think that those who write these reviews, however, sometimes miss the forest for the trees.

Both volumes of "Kill Bill" are graphically violent (decapitations, rape, blood-spurting limbs, etc . . .).  Some people watch the films because they find such violence entertaining.  Perhaps Tarantino himself finds such violence entertaining.  Nevertheless, to entirely dismiss the films as so much trash because of the violence is to overlook a deeply important allegory.  The film critics write in their review of the second volume, "Catholic viewers should not be blinded to the fact that, despite its hip veneer, the film's underlying theme of revenge is incompatible with the Christian understanding of justice and forgiveness."  I think they are dead wrong.  These two films, viewed as a whole, are demonstrative of what happens to the soul of a person who fails to forgive.  The main character of the films, in a desire for revenge, is willing to destroy almost anything that stands in her way.  The desire for revenge has so blinded her that she seems unable to see what she is destroying around her as she hacks, chops, and shoots her way toward her goal.  Yet, how often have each of us, in a desire for revenge, done similar things?  How often have we done serious damage to our relationships with others just to get one up on an opponent?  How often have we trampled the dignity of another to gain an advantage over another person?  It seems to me that Tarantino's violence gives a visual representation of what happens to us and to others when we refuse to forgive.  Don't get my wrong; Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films are sickeningly bloody.  Nevertheless, I suggest that we need to have a look at what our unwillingness to forgive does in our lives and the lives of others.  The result of our own spiritual violence is perhaps less visibly horrifying, but no less destructive, and no less sinful.

I am not sure that we should watch "Kill Bill."  As with St. Ignatius when he read his books about heroes and victories in war, these films left me feeling unsettled.  Likewise, they also made me a little more sensitive to people who confess a refusal to forgive.  Tarantino captures with incredibly graphic imagery, what I cannot accomplish with words alone.  Tarantino's films explore the utter ugliness of sin and the complete emptiness one experiences when one finally attains one's vengeance.  The reviewers of "Kill Bill" are wrong.  The films' treatment of revenge and the true consequences thereof are deeply consonant with the "Christian understanding of justice and forgiveness."

I am not saying that everyone should rush out and rent these films.  I am saying, though, that  when one decides to avoid "Kill Bill," one should do so because the graphic nature of the violence can be very disturbing.  One should be careful to conclude, however, that the films teach no Christian moral.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Spiritual Warts

Stay sober and alert.  Your opponent, the Devil, is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, solid in your faith. 1 Peter 5:8-9

The Evil One's ways are insidious and terrifyingly subtle.  After weeks of wreaking havoc in my life, I only finally caught him at it today.

If my mother is to be trusted (and I think she is), it has not been unnoticed that I have been uncharacteristically quiet on this blog.  She threatened to stop reading if I didn't start writing more often.  She was right; I have been lax about keeping this place up-to-date.  Unfortunately, the discipline of writing about which I spoke when I first undertook this project, for some time, has been a burden more than a source of insight and consolation.  I have found it difficult to find anything of substance to inspire me to lay pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, as the case may be).  This malaise, however, was not characteristic of the blog alone.  I could feel it creeping through most of the facets of my life.  Bedtime became later and later, and getting up time responded accordingly.  I often couldn't think of anything nice to say, and still felt it necessary to say something anyway.  Temptations to a whole variety of sins were constant, and my constitution weak.  Something was clearly amiss, but I hadn't really figured out what it was.  "Keep your boundaries, seek balance in life, and find someone to talk to," I advised myself.*

 It is said that to remove a wart, one must draw out the core.  Treatments that don't do this will work for a while, but the wart will eventually return.  So it is with a spiritual problem.  Treatments that address only the surface will likely not be lasting.  So it has been with me.  Finally, today, it became clear what was happening and I feel like I can address the issue head on.

It began this way.  After a very stressful meeting with a variety of people at the school, I was taken aside by a priest whose opinion matters a great deal to me.  Among other things, he suggested that my personality was often off-putting to people, that I was intimidating to many, that I was disrespectful to some, and that I had perhaps irreparably damaged a number of relationships with certain people with whom I had believed myself to be making great progress.  I was initially grateful for the frankness of the conversation, but undeniably hurt.  Intellectually, I understood everything he had said and found at least some of it to be accurate.  It was in this moment, though, that the Tempter found a crack through which he could mount a powerful assault.  As I pondered this conversation, he whispered disastrous lies to me, and I bought them, hook, line, and sinker.

"The Transfiguration" - Raphael (Luke 9:28-36)

John Eldridge describes the various stages through which a man must progress and be initiated in order to truly become a man.  He also acknowledges that much of this initiation must be done by God himself, because human fathers, like all of creation, still suffer the effects of original sin.  A human father, however, plays a role in cultivating the seed bed in which God the father might plant and harvest.  Unfortunately, many fathers these days are ill equipped to do even this with much skill.  As a result, almost all men, to one degree or another, labor to know that they are good enough.  Eldridge summarizes this entire phenomenon by proposing two questions a man asks himself: 1) Do I delight my father?  2) Do I have what it takes?

It is crucial for all men to receive an affirmative answer to these questions.  Without such affirmation, a man is likely wander through life looking for any substitute that will, even for a brief moment, affirm him in his masculinity.  For many men, this substitute takes the form of a desire to control and the carrying of a facade that a man presents to the world.  This facade is often so convincing that the man believes it about himself.  Thus, for a man, one of Satan's most wicked tricks is to slip in when the facade is cracked and to create a facade of his own.  When something occurs to threaten the facade (like a frank conversation with someone), the man realizes that there is some part of himself that is not being entirely truthful.  As a result, he casts about seeking some indication and validation of who he really is.  The Accuser wastes no opportunity to suggest to the man the "truth" of who he is.  As a result, a man who believes himself to be in control, self-possessed, and a gallant warrior for some cause is easily convinced that he is a loser, a weakling, a liar and a coward who cannot control himself, and who does not have what it takes.  The second step of the Evil One's strategy is to then provide temptation to sins by which a man can affirm within himself the lies the Evil One has been telling.  These sins become the mortar that holds the new edifice together, and without some practice in seeing these evil designs, a man will eventually have allowed Satan to establish a fortress within his soul.  I had such a fortress once.  Satan longs to reestablish it.  Over the past few weeks, I allowed him to begin building.
"St. Michael the Archangel" - Tadolini

So today, it finally occurred to me that I had allowed myself to be convinced that I was not beloved, and that I did not have what it takes.  I had entered into a pattern of sinfulness that reaffirmed these beliefs.  These things all came together on I90 between New Underwood and Rapid City as I returned from the ranch.  Instead of going right to the Cathedral, I drove out to Piedmont, found Fr. Ray Diesch, and made a good confession.  Tonight I prayed better than I have prayed in a long time.  I feel fresh, alive, and happy.  I am the beloved of my father.  I do have what it takes. 

St. Michael the Archangel, pray for me.

* I am currently without a Spiritual Director, and have been for some time, as Fr. Kroll who previously directed me has moved on to bigger and better things.  This is a very bad situation for a priest to find himself in.  I am without only because I have been consistently reassured by the Chancery that "the Bishop is working on bringing someone in to replace Fr. Kroll.  Just be patient."  The last few weeks of his tenure here were understandably hectic and certain things were to inevitably fall through the cracks.  It appears that Fr. Kroll's replacement is one of them.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day

A lady on the local news this evening remarked that Labor Day is a family day.

I decided to take some time off starting on Friday.  That day I spent mostly in bed catching up on sleep and resting.  I joined my father for lunch and a trip to Menards where he needed to purchase wood pellets for the stove at home on the ranch.  I went to a high school soccer game that evening, and then went to spend the night with my next younger brother in Custer.*  The next morning, we left (relatively) early for a day of fishing, between the two of us, we caught enough trout and perch to feed the family. but we threw them all back.  One needn't eat too many fish in a summer.

After collecting an ice cream cake with an image of the Grim Reaper to celebrate Mom's birthday, we met the rest of the family at the ranch.  My sister-in-law had gone to Wasta to collect wild plums.  Sunday afternoon was spent turing them into jelly.  My grandmother came out from Sturgis to join the fun.  All in all, in there were five adults, two kids, two cats, and two dogs in the house as well as a guest living in the unheated, unlit small shed with a bed we refer to as the granny shack.**

As always, time with my brothers and nephews (and a niece in utero) reminds me that, though I love them all, there are many benefits to celibacy.  Among them is the experience of silence.  In truth, I was not entirely disappointed when, shortly after lunch today, the grandkids, the grandma, and my brother and sister-in-law headed back to town.  They had things to finish before returning to work and school tomorrow.

I, on the other hand, will be remaining one more day.  On Wednesday, I will return to the real world, and will hit the ground running.  Middle School formation begins that evening.  It won't be long before I begin wondering if it isn't time to take a vacation again.  Luckily, the ranch is close to Rapid City and I can come here often.

I have never given much consideration to labor day or its meaning.  Most often it has been just one more day when I have to work while the rest of the country rests.  Perhaps the lady interviewed for the news is correct, though.  For us, this year anyway, Labor Day was a day for family.

* All of this very nearly came to nought when Fr, Mike's plane was delayed on the way back from Spokane.  It appeared that i would have to take a wedding for him as well as several other things.  It was a blessed surprise when he called me Friday night to tell me that he was taxiing to the gate in Rapid City.

** The granny shack is so named because my parents have mutually threatened, since the building's creation, to require their respective mothers-in-law to live in the shack whenever visiting the ranch.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Happy 50th

Todays marks the 50th anniversary of my mother's birth.  With all due respect, fifty years seems like a very long time, a full half century, in fact.  In her lifetime, deeply important events have happened: Vietnam, the Cuban Missal Crisis, the Kennedy Assassinations, the fall of Communism, the election of JPII, Watergate, the Challenger, NAFTA, the map of the human genome, etc . . .  There is a surreal quality in recognizing that so many of these events, significant to me only as historical occurrences, were taking place as she learned to walk, to talk, to ride a bicycle, as she began school, as she met my father, and as she became my mother.  There is a way, I suppose, in which all of us sort of assume that the world revolves around us.  As a result, as I write this, I am sort of struck by the fact that even though she has spent the better part of her life as my mother, she had a life before.  I have a hard time trying to see her as anything other than Mom.

On this occasion, there is a great deal that I wish I could write, but somehow none of the words seem proper.  I wish there were a funny story or even a serious one that would make the point.  Such a story won't come to mind.  Perhaps on another day when there are fewer grandchildren and fewer dogs in the house, I will be able to revisit this topic.  For now, however, Happy Birthday, Mom.  I love you.