Thursday, October 25, 2012

Maturing in Grace

"Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity" - Hebrews 6:1
***

Faith, Hope and Love are supernatural gifts.

They perfect our natures, but they come from God - from beyond nature.  They are graces.  And like all graces, we must cooperate with them for them to live and be effective in us.

Thus it may be easier for a person who is by nature trusting or credulous to accept the gift of Faith, but if he does nothing to cooperate with this Faith, to cultivate it or to bring it to bear through works, it will remain dormant within him.  "Faith without works is dead", and even the supernatural grace of Faith can turn to gullibility and religiosity if we don't work with it and work with God.

Likewise, if a man by his nature and his innate character is grateful and thankful, he has a wonderful soil in which God can plant the seed of Hope.  Once planted, if this man, like a good gardener, cultivates and cares for God's grace growing in the the muck of his own nature, this other-worldly gift of Hope can bear fruit twenty-fold, forty-fold and so on.  If not, he is left with the parody of Hope, which is mere optimism or a kind of shallow good humor.

But the greatest of these is Love.  And yet it's the gift we take most completely for granted. 

The nature that is most receptive to the gift of Love is affection; affectionate people can do much when their natures are perfected by this greatest of grace.  But I've known people who are very naturally affectionate and who, on a purely natural level, are quite "loving", but who don't seem to recognize the need for maturing in true love in order to perfect it. 

For instance, those of us who have teen-aged daughters know quite well that everyone's their "friend", from the most casual acquaintance on up (except the girls they hate that week).  The complexities and sacrifices of real friendship, the mixture of longing and self-giving that make up "philia", is something that texting and shopping at the mall together don't reveal.  Girls take time to mature into real friends, into developing the capacity to cooperate with God's gift of love in a mature way.

And of course, while people who are trusting, grateful and affectionate by nature cooperate most easily with the theological graces of Faith, Hope and Love, those of us who by nature are (like me) skeptical, angry and misogynistic have a rougher time of it.

But perhaps we curmudgeons get this compensation.  Perhaps we are more able to recognize the other-worldiness of these gifts; perhaps those of us whose natures are far less amiable to grace are at least more astonished by them and by what they can do in us and to us if and when we cooperate with them.

***

And what, more than anything, completes and perfects Faith, Hope and Love in our souls? 

Suffering.

Without the cross, instead of Faith, Hope and Love we are left with their undeveloped and immature counterparts - Gullibility, Pollyana-Optimism, and "Luv" or False-Friendship.

***

Dear Lord, please give us these graces, these three theological virtues, and help us to cooperate with them, to cultivate them, and prudently to develop them so that they may bring glory to God, salvation to souls, and the Gospel of Christ to the world.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Wreck of the Careless

Those who don't care don't care that they don't care.

Tonight, for the third time in our 23 year history of producing dinner theater shows, an actress has quit the day of the performance - this time an hour before we were scheduled to leave.

My red-haired daughter Kerry Jeanne O'Brien will be our emergency replacement, wearing Scarlett O'Hara's hoop skirt and reading from the script.  It's our only option, as we have 100 people waiting and the show must go on.

Say a little prayer for us please! 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Spiritual Food Poisoning

James Preece of Catholic and Loving It comments on my recent post, The Pattern, and affirms what I suggest, which is (to quote James), "The problem is that we haven't tried to fix the culture that enabled sex abuse, we've just made sex abuse a special case.

I encourage you to follow the link and read his very well-written article.  In it, he strikes upon an apt metaphor.

I don't think it would be fair to talk about a "culture of abuse", because I'm quite sure the majority of Catholics are not in favour of abuse and do not encourage or perpetrate abuse. What we are talking about is a culture which is favourable to abuse. It's like storing raw meat in a warm place. Warmth itself is not food poisoning, but it is better to keep food in the fridge.
 
Indeed, this bad spiritual food-hygiene leads to abuse of many varieties.  As in spoiled meat, the culture that springs up is a bacterial and a poisonous culture.

Preece describes this culture and hits upon the heart of the problem ...
 Looking at the definition of "abuse" we find that the word essentially means "misuse". That's why there are so many kinds of abuse such as verbal abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse and so on. We call it abuse when somebody misuses a person sexually but we also use the word in other ways, like "I let my daughter have access to the biscuit jar but she abused the privilege".

Clearly, the crimes are different. I am most definitely not suggesting that a little girl who steals biscuits commits the same crime as a grown man who rapes little girls. That would be ludicrous. I am simply observing that we use the same word for both instances because fundamentally we recognise that the same phenomena is at work: All abuse is essentially a misuse of power.

In the case of the Church, what we are dealing with a misuse of the power of those in a position of authority. 
From bitter personal experience I can tell you with certainty that this abuse of clerical power does not belong in the past tense. It belongs firmly in the present tense because it happens today with alarming regularity. It happens whenever a bishop or a priest takes it upon himself to use his clerical status as a magic ring that grants him the power to act with impunity.

So yes, that includes priests who rape children but it also includes priests that misuse their power in other ways. Priests who decide at their own whim to mislead people about the teaching of the Church or to commit acts of "liturgical abuse" such as modifying prayers to suit their own political agenda.
 
And yes, as Preece notes, sex abuse is far more horrific than liturgical abuse.  But the difference is in degree, not in kind.  Abuse of the liturgy, abuse of Catholic teaching and abuse of a child are all varying degrees of the same thing - the latter being the most obviously horrific.

It's all of the same kind because all of this abuse is abuse of power.  Preece continues ...

Once again, I am most definitely not suggesting that the priest who rapes a child commits the same crime as the priest who "merely" lies to one. What I am saying is this: Both men are abusing clerical power. Both men are protected by the same culture that protects and encourages priests who abuse their position of authority.
 
Things appear to be much worse in England, where James Preece is Catholic and somehow still "Loving It".  The bishops there appear to be emulating their Anglican counterparts - worshipping Indifferentism in all its aspects - the word meaning both "all religions are the same" and "I'm sure the hell indifferent to anything that's going on in my diocese". 

And on this side of the pond, we may have more "Devout Catholics" here and fewer Indifferent ones, but we are seeing a kind of Second Coming as envisaged by Yeats where "the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity" - and both the best and the worst seem to lack the one essential for Christian life - love - charity, caritas, care

Our friend the Unknown Poet sums it up this way in my previous post ...

We don't care, you see. That's what it comes down to.

We don't really care. If we cared, our churches would not be as ugly as shopping malls, as ugly as sin. If we cared our church hymns would not be contrived and hollow shells of narcissism-set-to-music. If we cared, babies wouldn't die in the womb. If we cared, we wouldn't have bad poems, bad songs, bad art. If we cared, bishops wouldn't turn a blind eye to liturgical abuse, to child abuse, to God-abuse.
 
We have all grown up in a culture that is a bacterial culture, a poisonous growth. 

It's time we stopped leaving the meat out.

The Poet Gets a Job and Winds Up in Prison

[Editor's note: As before, we have received another missive from the Poet.  He writes ... ]

Since I was broke (as I usually am - sweet Lady Poverty!) I had to put on a suit and go into work.

The janitor and I began drinking at 5:30 and spent the night singing and telling lies about the women we've loved.  When we ran out of cheap scotch, we moved on to cheap vodka, and then to the cleaning fluid, I think.  Though I can't be sure, as my mind is fuzzy and my head still hurts.

Some time before dawn, I began to recite my Ode to You.  You've never heard it.  I carry it around in my heart, and I keep changing the verses, for I can never get it right.  It pours out when my heart aches the hardest, flowing like blood from a wound that won't heal - like the wound that you gave me.  Well, His wounds didn't heal, did they?  His Father brought Him back from the dead, and yet He still had those dreadful wounds, even in that perfect body, that resurrected form.  He used them to settle the doubts of Thomas and to throw the apostle to his knees exclaiming, "My Lord and my God!"  He still has them in heaven, I'm certain of that.  They continue to bleed and the chalice at every Mass is filled with the blood that pours out, the blood his aching heart sheds for our sake, for us men, ungrateful, heedless.

We don't care, you see.  That's what it comes down to. 

We don't really care.  If we cared, our churches would not be as ugly as shopping malls, as ugly as sin.  If we cared our church hymns would not be contrived and hollow shells of narcissism-set-to-music.  If we cared, babies wouldn't die in the womb.  If we cared, we wouldn't have bad poems, bad songs, bad art.  If we cared, bishops wouldn't turn a blind eye to liturgical abuse, to child abuse, to God-abuse.

I've known all of that for a while - and I 've know that the word "care" comes from caritas, which is charity or love.   We don't care.  We have no caritas.  We have no love.  People tell me I shouldn't sing to you, that you don't care - that you simply don't care.  I know they're right.  But the song comes out on its own, sometimes a wail, sometimes a lamentation - always a song of a perfect love perfectly rejected.  For the wound still bleeds and the blood still flows, even in the coldness left by your passing, your passively passing, high and mighty in your carriage toward the palace, passing by, by-passing, with not a care in the world.  And I sit by, poor and muddy on the street, strumming my lost chords at you.

At any rate, when the Boss came in at 7:00 - why does he work so early and stay so late? - we had made an utter mess of things.  I should have pretended to be contrite and sorry, but I had composed a satiric ballad in mockery of the Boss and since the janitor appreciated it before he passed out, I thought the Old Man would too.  Well, he didn't.  One doesn't want to hear brilliantly biting verse at that hour of the morning, particularly when the lampoon is launched at one's self.  Or so the Boss implied when he walloped me.  And, frankly, I could have done better than to rhyme "suit" with "fruit".  The Old Man did not seem concerned with the rhyme or meter, at any rate.  It was the tone that offended him, or so it seemed. 

Anyway, he threw me into Worker's Prison.  The Cubicle, they call it.  I would stare out the window and finish the final chorus of my Ode to You, but all I can see is the cork board siding of the sterile divider.  There's not a window in this place - except the "Windows" on the computer.

Somewhere you sit in your palace - a place I seem to recall from a dream or from a previous life.  You have windows, but it's drafty.  I'm sure of that.  I'm sure it's cold in there, for a coldness seems to follow you and your train of courtiers and admirers and servants and staff.  Even the warmth of the blood that pours from me cannot change that. 

And so I turn to do a job I am shackled to.  I turn to give my waking life to making the Boss his fortune.  I turn to do carefully something I don't care for at all.  I turn to make the Old Man happy.

And the clock ticks its way to 5:00, to 6:00 (I'm working late tonight) and the only Window I see glows a cold and lifeless blue.  Blue screen of death, they call it. 

We got this right once, didn't we?  In another life, at another time.  When I was a better poet, and you were a better princess.

When not only God, but also you and I cared.

But if that world had ever been, it is no more.  Perhaps it was a dream, and I sit dreaming of a dream, fantasizing on a phantasm. 

Oh, well.  I put away the guitar. 

I go back to work.

To the droning buzz of the fluorescent light.  To the hum of the malfunctioning computer.  To the sound of a world without love.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Intimacy vs. Friendship

Back in my days with director Jiman H. Duncan, one of his "actor exercises" was to cultivate a kind of "intimacy" within the troupe.  At some point during each rehearsal, we would sit in a circle and share.  The goal was to share the deepest and most vulnerable parts of our emotions, to bear our souls in a kind of group therapy session so that we could be free with our emotions on stage.

I was about 19 or 20 at the time, and I thought that these were the most amazing encounters I had ever had.  The acting troupe grew very close and I thought these people were my best friends.  It was an intimacy that I relished.  I could be myself around them, and we grew to know each other almost as well as we knew our own families.

Then Duncan left for Boston and the truth came out. 

One of the actors tried to take over as director, and we suddenly spent all our time bickering and forming factions.  The troupe broke up and we never saw each other again.  It turns out that none of these people was my friend, except for Bill, and he had been my friend from outside of the troupe and away from rehearsals.

Does this mean the intimacy was false?  No, it means the intimacy was real and the friendship was false.

***

A few years later I had what I call my summer of "emphatic love".  I started dating a college student who was "sensitive".  She was a poet who had a thing for the writer Annie Dillard - Dillard being a naturalist lady-Thoreau, only less insightful and more bitchy - and she (my girlfriend) was also a kind of Hitler-youth, the first lover of Nietzsche I had ever known and very much like the Ayn Rand-ites who are with us today: she hungered for the superman, or at least for a devil-may-care Randian architect who would tear off his shirt and have his way with her.  In short, she was pretty messed up.  But so was I.  So we had something in common.

We became utterly emphatically and vehemently intimate - sexually, spiritually and psychologically. 

But we finally broke up and it became apparent that we never really liked each other.

The intimacy was real but the friendship was false.

***

Later, I had a long-lasting relationship with a very spiritually sensitive and intelligent young woman, who was not at all messed up, and our intimacy - which was never physical - was quite profound in other ways.

I made the mistake of thinking we were friends.  But when push came to shove and the chips were down, I learned the lesson once more - the intimacy was real but the friendship was false
For one thing, she bolted when things became inconvenient.  For another, she showed no interest whatsoever in exercising what I eventually saw was the most important element of the love of friends - sacrifice.  Florid language and spiritual communion were fine and dandy; the mess of being a friend in need when things "got real", when they were gritty and messy, was quite another.

***

And I'm sorry to say that when it comes to physical intimacy - i.e., fornication - I cannot recall the names of any but a few of the women I used and who used me - in those old days when I was a single atheist and it all seemed like fun - a kind of empty, hollow fun.  But fun.

***

And I've said before that all of the friends I had before my conversion I lost once I became Catholic and serious about it.  I was more "intimate" with some of these friends than with others - but they were all friends, in that we all cared for one another and were willing to put ourselves out for one another - to make sacrifices out of love.  That none of these friendships survived the Catholic Church does not mean that the friendships were false; but it does mean that they could not stand the strain of my becoming such an utterly different person.

***

And then there's my wife.

A woman who will tell me the truth even if she knows I'll scream at her for it.  A woman who sees right through me and who knows me better than anyone and who would simply die for me if I needed her to.  We are intimate; we are friends; I am blessed.

***

This is all so fantastic.  Do you see that?  This incredible gift of love - the love of friends, the love of spouses - this utterly supernatural thing that we abuse so often: it may accompany intimacy or it may not.  We may know our co-worker in the next cubicle "intimately", better than we know our children, but we may have no concern for him or her in the slightest.  We may know (in the biblical sense) the girl we're sleeping with this month, with whom we're sharing physical "intimacy", but we certainly don't want her staying until morning.  We may enter into an artificial or contrived "intimacy" with fellow actors or poets in rehearsal therapy sessions, or with fellow super-Catholics or lit majors who share our religious delights, but if we really don't give a crap about the other - well, then, it's just not friendship, and it's just not love.

What an amazing and intricate web this gift of life is!






The Pattern

You know, the sex scandal was typical.  I don't mean that priests typically molest kids and bishops typically let them get away with it.  What I mean is, the way the Church handled the sex scandal is the way they handle everything.

For example: below are all things I can vouch for in my twelve short years as a Catholic, though the names have been changed to protect the guilty - if any names are used.  Some of these events I was involved in; others happened to friends.

  • A teacher at a Catholic grade school handles a situation very poorly in class.  Mom and Dad complain to the principal.  The principal responds by circling the wagons, threatening the parents, and bullying them behind closed doors.  The parents complain to the pastor.  The pastor responds, "I have full confidence in Principal Raw-Knuckle.  This matter is entirely hers to handle as she sees fit."  The problem recurs and is not fixed.  The parents move their kids to another Catholic grade school,which is run by a principal who is even worse, and by a pastor who is even more hands off.  Eventually, the parents remove their children from the Catholic grade school system entirely (to save their faith, for one thing.  The best indicator of adult apostasy - twelve years of Catholic education).  A problem arises with a teacher at the public grade school (she was telling the kids in class to tell their parents to vote yes in the next election to allow embryonic stem cell research in our state).  The parents complain to the public school principal, who sincerely apologizes and promises that he will handle the situation with the teacher, and that the issue will not arise again.  "She should not be campaigning in class," he simply and plainly admits. The parents are treated professionally and courteously.  No threats, no circling the wagons, no bullying.  The problem does not recur.

  • In three separate cases, three different clergymen were known to behave erratically and dangerously.  One priest was known to have a married girlfriend and perhaps a boyfriend or two.  Another priest had a personality disorder that expressed itself in brutal treatment of many of his parishioners, and which included the establishment of bizarre rituals.  A third was exhibiting his unhealthy compulsions in public, advertising them for all to see.  In each case, the bishop was contacted.  In each case, the concerned parties were stonewalled and the clergy continue to remain active.  Did the archdiocese act behind the scenes?  Perhaps, but if so, nothing changed.

  • Sometimes the problem works in reverse, and it's not the "hierarchy" who drop the ball.  For instance: a bishop behaves badly enough to put the children of his diocese and his own priests at risk.  He spends millions of dollars he receives from Catholic parishes and schools to protect his reputation.  Many of the laity refuse to admit any error in his behavior or in his spending church and school money to shore himself up.  They verbally assault anyone who points to the facts and who suggests that things like this should not be tolerated.  The bishop continues to reign.

Why the Church runs things like this, I just don't know.  The worst examples are child abuse enabled and covered up.  But the examples above are just some of many that don't rise to that level. 

So it's not really about sexual deviance or the rigors of celibacy or bad vocations to the priesthood. 

It's about a systemic failure.

Maybe some of you have an explanation for this.  I certainly don't.




A Song of Sinfulness

A friend of mine has just relayed to me in depth the story of how he and his family were abused by the Church.  It's not a tale of sexual abuse, but it is a horror story nonetheless - an unimaginable assault by power hungry clergy and laity, complete with cover up by bishops and filled with a kind of spiritual darkness that makes you feel sick.  It has taken this family several years to begin to heal.  He has asked me not to spread his story around - at least not in the written form in which he has expressed it, but I can say this much - it rings quite true.  It is both rather funny and also the kind of thing that would make the pit of your stomach drop and your faith dry up.

And the villains in the piece are not the liberals.  The villains are the meticulous OCD sado-masochistic "conservatives", the Latin Mass crowd, who, God bless them, will probably end up in a lower pit of hell than the Stanford Nutting-type libs, who at least have the humanity left to enjoy their sins.

And it's all about sin.

I knew a young woman who was psychologically knocked about by a similar "Super-Catholic", who practically left her at the altar without a pang of compunction.  I know a certain blogger who dared to question the sanctity of a Catholic TV host and who soon learned that the Faith is far less important to most "Devout Catholics" than their politics and their own self-interest. 

And I myself have seen what happens when you invest your love and your work and your care and concern into Church related organizations and people who end up turning on you.  It's bad "stewardship of love" on the victim's part, certainly - but it's worse than that glib phrase indicates.  It's a heart-breaking-soul-crushing experience that can sink you.

And sexual abuse is that much worse.

But there's a salvation here.  It's something that dawned on me only yesterday when reading Macbeth.  And that is this ...

It's just sin.

It's just our sin and theirs.

This is why we have a Church to begin with and this is why we have so much need of Jesus Christ. 

We sin by putting our faith in princes or in the sons of men.  We sin by making the True God an idol or a shield or a pillow to suit our own fancy.  We sin when we turn against each other, when we deny the essence of love.  We sin all the time.

It hurts, but it's just sin. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

God and Macbeth

There is in all of reality an inherent quality that we deny at our peril.  Dorothy L. Sayers calls it "judgment".  It is what tragedy is all about.

Take Shakespeare's Macbeth. 

Of all of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, Macbeth pushes the limits furthest.  Hungry for power and security, he not only oversteps the moral law via murder, but he breaks the very bonds of nature in his devotion to sorcery, soothsaying and the preternatural.  Much of the play is about Lord and Lady Macbeth attempting to circumvent time itself, to make immediate that which is distant, to know the future in the present and to avoid all of the natural consequences of their acts. 

And they largely get what they desire - which is to say they enter a world that is something other than natural.  They lose the ability to sleep, to reason; they inherit the hallucinations of tortured conscience.  Toward the end, when Macbeth laments ...

I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

... he sees that the natural consequences of life - the ordinary judgment of a life naturally lived - are denied him.  He does not have the typical and natural benefits of an old man who has lived a full life.  He has instead inherited nothing but anxieties and torments.  He is in hell, a living hell.  Macbeth rebels against the elemental truths of existence, and in return nature itself rebels against him.  "'Tis unnatural," notes an Old Man earlier in the play, commenting on darkness at mid-day, owls eating hawks and horses running wild, "'Tis unnatural, even like the deed that's done."

"The deed that's done" is murder, regicide, the killing of a house guest, a kind of parricide, the breaking of the Commandments, and the breaking up of the natural order.  It is a deed that "murders sleep" and ensures barrenness and sterility for the killers, while promising fecundity at least to one of their victims.

***

And it's always amazed me the way this play is structured.  Mr. & Mrs. Macbeth - that charming couple - have arranged the murder of King Duncan and even of Banquo to give themselves a plausible "deniability".  The official explanation is that the children of the victims are to blame, and that seems reasonable enough.  But a switch occurs in the play almost naturally and unnoticeably.  Before you know it, everybody in Scotland knows Macbeth is guilty, and while publicly giving a nod to the Official Explanation, the rest of society knows darned good and well what's really going on.  Soon even the pretense ends and Macbeth is rather openly hated.

And eventually, almost naturally, a force is raised.  Or perhaps the forces are raised.  The consequential, judgment, the limits of the framework of being - these forces close in, and the Macbeths, by the nature of their sins, reap what they have sown.

But as this force is being raised, one scene has always stuck out for me like a sore thumb.  The play proceeds at a rapid clip until - clunk - we hit Act IV, Scene iii - Malcom and Macduff.  This odd scene seems out of place, particularly considering the flow of the action, until you realize that it's central to the theme.

***

In this scene, Macduff has gone to England to inspire Duncan's son Malcom, the rightful heir to the throne that Macbeth has usurped.  He has gone to inspire him to muster his courage and lead an invasion of Scotland to set right the time.  But Maclom seemingly won't be swayed.  Malcom tells Macduff that he's not the man for the job.  Malcom argues that he (Malcom) can't be king because of a number of personal shortcomings.

"I have far too much lust and desire nothing but sex," Malcom laments.

"There's plenty of women in Scotland who'll go along with you there," Macduff replies.

"I'm so greedy for money that I'll snatch lands and riches from everyone I can on the slightest pretext," Malcom avers.

"Well, we're a pretty rich country and you'll have plenty of time before you fully despoil us," Macduff retorts (a line which either Obama or Romney could use against each other in the next presidential debate).  "And anyway," he continues, "such vices will be overlooked, as long as they're mixed in with your virtues."

"But I have none!" exclaims Malcom.  He gets specific ...

the king-becoming graces,
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,
I have no relish of them, but abound
In the division of each several crime,
Acting it many ways. Nay, had I power, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.
"In other words, I'm just like Macbeth!"

And Macduff has heard enough.  He swears off Malcom and bemoans the sorry state of Scotland.  "O my breast, thy hope ends here!" Macduff exclaims.

"Wait a bit!  I was only testing you!" says Malcom.

And then a Doctor enters and starts talking about the holy king of England, who cures the sick with prayers and his sanctified touch.

With this strange virtue,
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
And sundry blessings hang about his throne,
That speak him full of grace.
Malcom explains.

And then Ross comes in and tells Macduff that Macbeth has killed his family and things pick up and get interesting again.

An odd little interlude, interrupting the action and frustrating the plot.  Right?

Well, no.  This interlude is central to the theme, and if played well could show the central theme of the play.

For if indeed Malcom were as wicked as he claims, and if indeed he lacked the virtues he lists (virtues which too easily go tripping over the tongue or the page, but which are all the essence of Christian life, and are the "king becoming graces"), he would indeed be another Macbeth.  But he is not.  Indeed, removing the pretence, Malcom reveals his true self ...

I am yet
Unknown to woman, [he's chaste] never was forsworn [he keeps his word],
Scarcely have coveted what was mine own [he's not greedy],
At no time broke my faith [he's loyal], would not betray
The devil to his fellow and delight
No less in truth than life [he's loyal and honest]: my first false speaking
Was this upon myself [if an actor plays this right, we can by now believe it]: what I am truly,
Is thine and my poor country's to command

And it is immediately after this that we hear tell - seemingly out of left field - of a saintly king of England, so holy that he has the gift of healing, so holy that his subjects "speak him full of grace".

The King of England, then, is a kind of Mary, "full of grace", an intercessor who passes on to his subjects the grace of God that heals them. 

How different both Maclom and the English King are from Macbeth!  How different from Queen Elizabeth and from the totalitarian mobsters of her court, who, like Macbeth, jumped the bounds of nature and brought a horrid judgment down upon their own fair land, by oppressing the Church and usurping Christ's own kingdom - and by denigrating her who is "full of grace" in the process.

***

For the play Macbeth is not the nihilistic jewel that modern critics claim.  The character Macbeth reaches a kind of nadir of nihilism, most profoundly and beautifully expressed in the "out brief candle" speech; but the play transcends the tragic hero's sins.  The play is about the effects of sin; and the inherent nature of being that surrounds and contains and corrects sin.  The play is about God.

Thus the play needs to show us Malcom, who pretends falsely to have the makings of a false king, but then truly reveals himself to have the makings of a true one; it needs to show us as well, in the doctor's and in Malcom's description, the offstage king, the king who heals his subjects, this Christ-like or at least Marian figure, who models for us the One True King in Whose way all other kings must tread.

For off this path, away from this Way, time itself leads "fools the way to dusty death" - and worse.  As the Macbeths show us, "the way to dusty death" is not the way they are on; they are on a far more terrifying way. 

They are on the high road to hell.

So the next time you're really tempted to sin and you think sin is no big deal - read Macbeth.

***

For my audio performance of Macbeth for the Ignatius Critical Edition Series, click here.



Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Dog's Life

Yesterday we had to put our dog Presley down.

Taken on my last walk with Presley, before he got sick.  The "rainbow bridge" is, significantly, in the background.

He was the sweetest and most loving dog I have ever had - very intelligent, tremendously loving.  Our family was blessed to have had nearly eleven years with him in our lives.

The great mystery of existence can be seen when you're with a dog as he dies.  He was happy to be with us, even at that last moment, even in pain and misery.  And he was loyal to the end.

The loyalty - the eternal trust and loyalty of a dog.  If we know a handful of friends or family members in our lives who can be as loyal out of love, we have been blessed indeed.  God must have made dogs, among other reasons, to model for us true devotion.

Oh!  And Presley could talk.  But he couldn't sing that well.

Here he is attempting to sing "How Much is that Doggie in the Window" on one of our O'Brien Family Singers annual CDs (this is an mp3 file and may take a while to load on your computer) ...

How Much is that Doggie in the Window - sung by Presley (with Karen and Colin)

The following year he did better as he sang about his favorite activity, Take a Walk on the Outside.  I tried to help him on this number, but son Colin did most of the work.  Again, be patient, as the file may take a while to load.

And finally, Presley joins the entire troupe on Family Song.

God bless our dog!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Quiet is Better than a Karaoke Party

My wife Karen has me read to her the daily Mass readings, followed by commentaries from two different books.  The one book, as I've pointed out earlier, sometimes has dreadful commentaries.  Today's was pretty bad, for example.  Taking "you knit me together in my mother's womb" from Psalm 139, the commentary has the reader imagine his own birthday party, with God stepping up to the microphone to tell the reader how good the reader is and how God thinks about him all the time and can't take His eyes off him and thinks he's just grand, and so forth.  Yes, I know, I'm thinking what you're thinking.  Why does God need a microphone?

The other book is not so bad.  But today it went a bit wrong.

Today's gospel is Martha and Mary, with Mary worshipping Our Lord at His feet and Martha doing all the grunt work in the kitchen.  When Martha complains, Jesus quite clearly tells her, "Don't be jealous.  Mary is doing the one thing necessary.  She has chosen the better way."

Now I have never heard a homily or even read a commentary that acknowledged this - that Mary has chosen the better way.  The commentary in the book today gets it wrong, too.  "No matter what you do, God values it!" was the message, which is true enough, but not the point of the gospel.

We are activists.  We think doing is better than praying, action better than contemplation, effort better than worship.  But we get things backwards. 

The contemplative life, the life of worshipping God in peace and quiet and looking at Him directly is superior to the active life.  Yes, they're both "pleasing to God" if done for His sake, but the one thing necessary is not action, but worship.  The work of the liturgy is superior to the work of the soup kitchen.  We don't want to hear that - even we "conservative" "Devout Catholics" - but the fact is - from the mouth of God - that the only thing necessary is to love and worship Him; for from that springs everything else. 

If we seek first the Kingdom, the rest will be added. 

And we seek the Kingdom in quiet and hidden ways, not at a noisy party that's all about us with God singing our praises at the microphone.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Forgiveness and Nakedness

I once had a guy physically assault me and try to kill me.  He broke three bones in my face.  It took me a long time to forgive him, but I did.  He never asked for forgiveness.  Most people don't.  But over a couple of years, I found the grace to let it go.  He was a disturbed fellow, and I provoked him, and much good came out of that one great act of evil.

I have more recently been hurt by a person who seemed to be a good friend.  Now this person has indeed asked for forgiveness -  but in a way that indicates a significant lack of appreciation for the depth of the wrong done and the hurt inflicted.  It would be like John Wilkes Booth saying to Mrs. Lincoln, "Gee, I'm sorry I ruined the play for you." 

"Well, John, you sure did that, but you did a lot more."

The guy who tried to kill me was never a friend. 

This other person was - or at least worked the situation so that my loyalty and my affection and my heart and soul were brought into play.  A physical assault is one thing.  A betrayal of the love of friendship is another.

So I struggle to forgive.  Yeah, the play was ruined - but so much more. 

And meanwhile, the meanness of the human heart in contrast with the greatness of the human heart astonishes me.  I have seen the Devout Catholic Emperor and he's wearing no clothes.  Not a stitch.  And at one time I was praising his outfit.  He convinced me it was real, and well-made at that.  But he's a sour, hateful old man who has pretended to wrap himself in the cloak of Christ.  Don't believe it.  He struts around naked, for he has disdain for the Real Garment.

And no, I'm not being judgmental.  I'm at fault here, too.  My sin here was caring more for the praise of men or for the comfort of false friendship than for the truth of God. 

"Am I trying to please men?  If I were still trying to please men I would not be a servant of Christ." - St. Paul, Letter to the Galatians 1:10. 

And when you strive to please men and not God, you'll always find that men return the favor by displeasing you. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Victory and Love

If we persist in love and persist in hope, carrying our crosses for that purpose, Victory is assured us.

This means that we can be Victorious in Sorrow, as was Our Lady.  The point is that we must continue to love and continue to hope, even when those we love and those for whom we hope disdain us and even despise us.  This way, even despite our sins and theirs, our love can redeem so much of what we do wrong and also redeem so much of what wrong is done to us.

This insight, a gift from God on this day, the Feast of Our Lady of Victory, has been a great blessing to me.  For the spiritual struggles of the last few months had convinced me that my sins and the sins of others tarnished even the good that I had been trying to do, and the love I had been trying to give.  Selfishness and narrow-mindedness, partisanship and meanness, uncircumcised hearts and closed minds seemed to prevail - and not only to prevail, but to define the ultimate truth of existence.

We are horrible, sinful creatures.  Most Christians are exactly like the rest of the world, only worse.   "Devout Catholics" can make devotions until they're blue in the face and turn on their neighbors or their brothers in Christ in a heartbeat.  We're all just fine, thank you, except where the rubber hits the road and where our faith is challenged, or our friendship is called into play, or our integrity is brought to bear.  Get in our way when it comes to the stuff we hoard and keep from Christ - push one of those buttons, and to hell with you.  We like to think, "Our fathers killed the prophets, but we would never do such if they were among us."  But Our Lord had some harsh words to say to people who thought like that. 

And so things are bleak.  Bleaker and meaner and nastier than we normally have the courage to admit. 

So where is the Victory? 

The Victory is in this. 

If you do things out of love - out of love of God and neighbor - then even failure, abandonment, even sin can not defeat you.

And know this: love is always rejected at some level.  Christ is always being crucified.  Real love is far too demanding and far too real for our taste; we opt for comfort and safety, for the lie that is Marty Haugen and not the truth that is the eternal song of sacrifice.  And the more we try to love authentically, the more we will be walking the Way of Sorrows.  That much is guaranteed.

He not only "never promised us a rose garden", he promised us just the opposite.  He promised us suffering and persecution.  The rose perhaps comes later; the thorns for sure come now. 

St. Mary of Victories / Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!

***

And now for our Feast Day ...



Basilica of Our Lady of Victory near Buffalo, New York.

St. Mary of Victories in downtown St. Louis, Missouri


 
Several weeks ago, the statue of St. Mary of Victories in St. Louis was vandalized.  Mary's head was cut off, stolen, and returned the following day, covered with satanic markings, and painted to look like a vampire whose mouth was dripping blood.  The police have classified this act as a hate crime and have (as I understand it) made an arrest.

But now the statue has been restored, and today, on the Feast of Our Lady of Victory, Fr. Brian Harrison of the Oblates of Wisdom, rededicated the restored statue (seen on the left).





Fr. Brian Harrison and the statue of St. Mary of Victories, restored after the satanic vandalism





Our Lady looks over a rough neighborhood.
The ceremony.

As Father Harrison said in his homily today, "Her victories are everywhere. Noticeable victories like Lepanto in 1571 and Peterwardein in 1716, both attributed to the Holy Rosary; the inexplicable withdrawal of the Soviets from Austria in 1955, after a campaign of people praying the Rosary - these are the big Victories. But in a moment we will celebrate the First Communion of one of our six-year-old members. This is a less publicized victory, but an example of the many Victories that Our Lady's intercession brings us - a small victory, but a victory nonetheless."

Amen. 

And may we always see these victories; may we always see the light.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Victory and Sorrow

 
 
 
Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Victory / Our Lady of the Rosary.
 
Part of the Litany that we've been praying for the novena to Our Lady of Victory includes the phrase "Victorious in your sorrows".  That's an odd phrase, for how can one be victorious in sorrow?  But she is.  This photo I took of our lady (above) is of a stained glass in St. Joseph's church in Imperial, Missouri.
 
And though this is a representation of her during the Hidden Life of Jesus (the whole window shows Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the carpenter's shop in Nazareth), nevertheless her face shows the sorrows to come.
 
In fact, there is a tantalizing hidden sadness that peeks through this image, like the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa.  There is a pity and a compassion that only comes from a fellow traveler who knows our woes and who has begun to suspect the hidden sufferings of God.
 
***
 
Speaking of God - He's been at work on me for the past two months.  Trials and sorrows in abundance, leading me to question my very orientation and leading me to re-evaluate even those closest to me.  The insidious selfishness of people and organizations that I had given much to and felt close to have been like thorns that I can not dig out. 
 
And today we are seeing our border collie Presley at the brink of death.
 
 
 
Good God, I love this dog!  Presley has been my intimate companion for nearly eleven years - my buddy.  I've known many dogs, but never have a I loved one the way I love him.  And he's apparently about to die.
 
Why do we do this?  He's only a dog.  The friends and co-workers who have hurt me of late - they're only people, sinners like me.  I went in with my eyes open.  Why love friends whose shortcomings you can see from a mile away?  Why give and suffer for organizations that treat you and everybody they deal with like crap?  Why grow to love a dumb animal that won't survive much past ten years?
 
But it seems that only Love unto Sorrow can make us Victorious.
 
 
 
 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Day I Said Yes to the Holy Spirit

Yes, he was the most important person in my life, but I had had enough of him.

You couldn't fake your way through a rehearsal with Jiman.  He was the most exacting and challenging director I had ever had.  He was the first person who showed me that acting required the engagement of the whole self - physical, spiritual, intellectual and emotional.  He was my mentor, but I was getting a bit tired of him.  After all, he was not the most balanced of men, and his psychological insight and charisma gave him the makings of a cult leader, a role he would have latched on to with gusto, particularly when it came to the attention the women in the cast gave him.  In fact, if we had been rehearsing in rural Guyana and not suburban Missouri, I have no doubt he would have been sleeping with all of us - at least with the ladies - and sooner or later we'd be drinking the Kool-Aid and worshipping little carved wooden mini-Jimans in our spare time.

And so, while he had brought me out of a particularly superficial and glib phase of my life, I, at age 18 or 19, was getting tired of the challenge - the constant demand to act on stage with my whole being.  It was disturbing and messy and anything but comfortable.

So I had made a decision.  I was recently out of high school and not particularly interested in college.  Someone had offered to train me to be a commodities broker.  I didn't know exactly what that meant - but I was told it would be a way to make money, and since I had good communication skills, a career in commodities exchange could be for me.  I was tired of my life going nowhere, of living in Hermit Hollow (a lakeside development in the Ozarks) with Mom and Dad, of pouring my heart and soul into non-paying productions with a director who was taking me into deep waters and rocking my little boat time and again - all for the sake of acting and drama!  I left a message on Jiman's message machine saying I was dropping out of the current production and I went for a walk under stars, as I loved to do.

My life would be manageable, I told myself.  I would sell commodities.  It would be commodious.  It would be comfortable and roomy.  It would be sane.  I would forget this disturbing and unsettling thing called the dramatic arts.  I would find a life for myself that made sense.  I would conform.  After all these years of bucking the system, I would give up.  I would give in.  I would conform.  I would be happy.

Commodities.  Commodious.  Comfort.  Conformity.

I got back in the house after midnight.  The phone was ringing.  Worried that it would wake my parents, I rushed to it and answered.  Jiman H. Duncan was on the other end. 

"What the hell is wrong with you?" he asked.  "You can't quit now."

"It's early in rehearsals.  You can replace me."

"But you have to do this.  This is who you are."

"I'm going to sell commodities."

He laughed.

I started crying.  I tried to stop.  I was suddenly weeping.  I didn't know why.

"This is all too much, Jiman.  I need a break."

"You need a breakthrough," he replied.  "And you're about to have it.  This production will be a spiritual and emotional and creative breakthrough for you."

"I want to sell commodities.  I want my life to make sense.  I want my life to be normal."  I knew as I said this, between sobs, that I couldn't possibly mean it.

"Your life will never be normal.  You have to do this.  You are called to do it."

But I did not want to be called.  I did not want to be called by Jiman H. Duncan on the telephone after midnight, and I did not want to be called to a life of pain and suffering - I did not want to acknowledge this profound and unendurable love; this love I felt and had to give.  I did not want to be called into deep waters.  I wanted to hoard and bury my talent.  I did not want to live hand to mouth for the sake of the Kingdom

I wanted my own little manageable world.

Is that so much to ask?

But I had met the Holy Spirit.

I, an atheist, had felt and known the presence of the Holy Spirit in rehearsals and in performance.  I didn't call Him that.  I didn't know He had a name.  I thought it was the Life Force, or something like that.  But I knew it was real.  I knew it had an intention, or to take the edge off, it had an "intentionality" as I called it.  I knew that without this Spirit, no matter how well my fellow actors and I prepared for our roles, no matter how well we knew our lines or practiced our parts, our performances would be dull, flat, lifeless, uninteresting. 

We couldn't make it happen on our own.  To be creative, we needed inspiration.  We could simply prepare for performance, and then when the curtain pulled back and the lights went up, we had to give up control and invite the Spirit in.  We had to abandon our preparation.   We had to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves.  We had to cooperate with this tangible and very real force that was not of our own making.

So much for my own little manageable world.  So much for comfort and commodities - down the commode!

"Alright," I said.  "I'll see you at rehearsal tomorrow night." 

"Thank you," I added, and hung up the phone.

I have had many reasons to doubt Jiman H. Duncan and his technique over the years, God rest his soul.  But he didn't let me go.  He didn't let me rest.  He didn't let me live a lie.

He called me.

And I turned from a world of management, comfort and conformity - and followed him.  Not Jiman H. Duncan.  I followed Him, the Holy Spirit of God. 

I was an atheist for twenty more years after that. 

But at that moment, I gave myself to a life of challenge, engagement, risk and dis-comfort

At that moment, I began, without knowing it, to give my life to God.

Me, Lori, Jiman H. Duncan, and a boy, Lake George, New York, 1984, about five years after the phone call described above.  Why am I wearing underwear beneath my trunks?  I never would have succeeded in the commodities exchange.

Anatomy of Betrayal

First, none of us has been betrayed the way Jesus was betrayed by Judas.  The slights we endure from friends, family, enemies and others can never quite measure up to that betrayal unto torture and death.

But Jesus suffers greater pains than we suffer so that He can redeem our suffering and our pain.

And what strikes me about Jesus and Judas is the kiss that betrays, and Our Lord's response to that kiss, "Friend, wherefore art thou come?"

Was Jesus being ironic here?  Judas is anything but a friend.  Why would Jesus call him that?  Was he being sarcastic, a smart-alec?  "Friend, wherefore art thou come with a gang of hoodlums behind you who will arrest and assault the man you point out to them with a false kiss?"

Well, to understand the pain of this moment, we must realize that this is not only an example of political opportunism and money-grubbing on the part of Judas, it is indeed something worse - the betrayal of one friend by another friend.  Judas was a close friend, an intimate of Jesus.  Of course, we can look back on the hints we're given about Judas all along - his greediness, his disdain for others - and we can say, "Well, Judas was false from the beginning.  He was never a true disciple, a true friend."

But if we begin judging the commitment of the apostles to Our Lord, we can't get very far.  Peter rebukes Him and denies Him.  Thomas doubts Him and Nathaniel sneers when he first hears tell of Him.  And yet they all followed Him, they were all - to some extent - His "friends".  In the moment of testing, they all failed in various ways - but they were all at least Our Lord's "intimates".

And in this day and age when we denegrate friendship, when we can't imagine "intimacy" without sex, when Shakespeare can't speak of the love of male friends without our assuming he means sodomy and mutual abuse, we forget what love of friends can be, we forget what intimacy really is. 

It can be a very high form of love.  Intimacy can exist without sex because it's intimacy that informs the marital act and gives it meaning.  Intimacy can exist between friends and not just lovers, for intimacy precedes and informs sexual activity, not vice-versa.  For intimacy is a form of love.

This is why intimate friends share everything.  They don't hold back.  They eat together, laugh together, see things the same way, open their hearts to one another. 

But life has a way of testing friendships and of putting even our best of intentions under a fire of proof, a crucible of purification. 

And when we find that our love fails in the hour of testing, in the Trial, we are crushed - either because we fail our friends, or our friends fail us.

Friends betray friends; man betrays God. 

It's an old old story; and it hurts God even more than it hurts us.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

12 in 12?


This is our 25th appearance in the post-season in franchise history, as I count it.

Will this year see World Series Win number 12 in 2012???

In Gratitude for Love

30 years ago yesterday, October 1, 1982, I first met a woman who was to become my wife Karen.

Karen in 1982.  She looks exactly the same today - except her red hair is mixed with just a touch of gray!
We have certainly had our ups and downs in that time.  But she has always been there for me, and I have always been there for her.  We would do anything for one another, or for our children.  We don't always get along, but our love is permanent and will abide for eternity.

How hard it is to describe something so simple and so real. 

This love, a love between two imperfect and sinful people, has become the backdrop of my life, the air I breathe, the ground upon which I walk.  How easy it is to take such a real thing for granted, as we do gravity or sunlight.  And yet without it we would live as we would without gravity or sunlight - with no support, and in darkness.

We both came into the Catholic Church at the same time twelve years ago; we have argued a lot but never separated.  We are opposites in every way.  She is always honest with me and I am always honest with her.  It is a happy marriage, but not a compatible one!  And yet we've never divorced or been divorced; this is our only and our lifelong marriage.

It is hard for me to imagine the pain of people who grow to love one another and then deliberately and sometimes glibly split apart.  I have lost close friends over the years - in fact I lost every single friend I had when I converted and became Catholic.  None of them chose to stay around, they hated the Church so much (as I used to).  This loss of all my friends was the only real price I paid to follow Christ.  A light exaction for a dear benefit - but a painful one.

And lately I have been astonished at the ease of betrayal that slips out of our hearts.  Even a good friend in Christ can desert another for convenience or in order to avoid inconvenience.  As to betraying Our Lord - hell, we'll do it for a lot less than thirty pieces of silver.  We'll do it for our political party, or for our sexual pleasure, or for something like scoring points in an internet debate.

But remember that not only did Jesus show us true love, He also endured every imaginable type of suffering - perhaps the hardest of which was not the physical scourging or crucifixion, but the betrayal, the abandonment, the desertion of friends. 

That, I suspect, hurt more than anything else that dark day, the day when the sun stopped shining and gravity itself revolted and shook the earth.

For the greatest of these is love.  And the worst of these is the rejection of love.

May we always remember how easy it is for us to continue to desert Him, and to desert one another.

And may we persevere in love, never taking it for granted.

God in the World

Sunset near Sunset Hills, Missouri - October 2, 2012

Presley and a rainbow

Double rainbow

This morning - a view of St. Joseph from the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, St. Joseph Parish, Imperial, MO



Smiley-face made at random by water dripping on my notebook - after last night's bath

Bad Literary Criticism and Excusing Sin

Which comes first, a bad philosophy that leads to sin, or our desire to excuse our sin by coming up with a bad philosophy to cover for it?

One thing is for certain - good art never springs from bad philosophy; neither does good literature.  And neither, it would seem, does good literary criticism.

In the past month or so, some readers of this blog have been eager to excuse child abuse by pointing to the obvious fact that adolescents have hormones, and that they can behave seductively, even toward adults.  This simple truth is then used to foment a bad philosophy - the notion that sexual maturity equals psychological maturity.  And this bad philosophy is then used to cover for adults who molest children as young as age 12.

Sick as this all is, it gets worse. 

The U.S. Supreme Court, that stellar institution that gave us abortion on demand, now grasps on to a thread of Bad Literary Criticism that connects to an appallingly bad philosophy, that ties in a nice little package the sexual exploitation of children.

Wonder why we need to redeem Shakespeare from this post-modern morass that makes him into whatever monster we see when we look in the mirror? 

Well, when Romeo and Juliet can be used to justify child pornography, you have your answer.

Joseph Pearce says this better than I, over at our Christian Shakespeare website.