In the history of the world, August 2014 is unique

In the history of the world, August 2014 is unique

Did you get the e-mail?

“The month of August 2014 includes five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays. This phenomenon occurs only once every 823 years. The Chinese call this ‘a pocketful of money.’ You will never witness this phenomenon again. The last time this happened was in 1191, and it won’t happen again until 2837.”

As it happens, that claim is patently false. The entire 2014 calendar year, August included, repeats itself in 2025. What’s more, a calendar month containing five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays is an almost annual occurrence. After this month, the next occurrence is May 2015.

This urban myth has bounced around the Internet for years. I don’t know why people make these things up, nor am I very interested. But why do people propagate these myths? Why do they click the “Forward” button, not the Trash icon? That interests me a lot.

The answer, I think, relates to our mortality. How many of you paused momentarily when you contemplated those disparate months? August 1191. August 2014. August 2837.

In my own case, I certainly stopped and pondered. I’m only alive for one of those months. And I’ll never live August 2014 again! I didn’t forward the e-mail on, but I cared enough to google its claims, and to write this column. Mortality matters.

On Ash Wednesday especially, Christians are encouraged to contemplate the inevitability of death. “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is expressed in public rituals and made explicit in Lent, but in fact Christians are invited to meditate on their mortality frequently, all year round.

It’s very natural I think — and common — to view death as an unmitigated catastrophe. Something to be avoided at all cost. Consider, for example, these words from Dr Atul Gawande, a world-class surgeon and writer:

“The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And, in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee — someone who knew how to fight for territory when he could and how to surrender when he couldn’t. Someone who understood that the damage is greatest if all you do is fight to the bitter end.”

These are wise words. I imagine they must resonate with each and every person, because Dr Gawande is speaking to something that transcends religion and culture. He is speaking to the human condition.

Dying is a mystery. Since we die only once, we have little or no experience to draw upon when death comes upon us in the first person. The experience is uncertain, and it’s mostly outside our control. It’s no wonder death, at an instinctive level, causes fear and anxiety.

Traditionally, people have dealt with the mystery of death through religion or spirituality. Ours is not a very religious age, nor even a literary age, but it is a scientific age, so we naturally turn to science. Yet as Dr Gawande observes, science has its limits. Science treats death as a problem to solve, not as a mystery to encounter, and even within these narrow parameters, science falls short.

I have not died, I have not nearly died, and I am not dying now. So perhaps I should ‘fall short’ myself. Part of me wants to lapse into a reverent silence, and cede the floor to others, whose death is much more imminent.

But the fact remains that every death is unique. Each of us must die our own death. None of us, therefore, is more qualified than others to speak, or less qualified. Flannery O’Connor — who was dying when she wrote this — describes dying as “a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow.” So I will persevere and finish what I started, in the hope and the prayer that I avoid platitudes.

It may well be natural to view death as a catastrophe, but Christians are called to be supernatural. To view death as a friend. On his deathbed, St Francis famously extolled “Sister Death,” and he is not alone among the saints. “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” St Paul wrote. “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”

Paul could write that because he knew Christ intimately, and to know God is to love God. The positive always trumps the negative. So it’s hardly surprising that Paul’s positive desire for one mystery — union with God — superseded and even overwhelmed his negative fear of another mystery — death.

But while Paul’s words are profoundly meaningful to him and to many believers, to others his words are trite. For some people, the mystery of God is even less knowable and more unknown than the mystery of death. What then? Maybe that’s why it’s good for us to contemplate our own death. When I become familiar with the mystery of my own mortality, maybe God reveals Himself.

The terminally ill seem to excel in their appreciation of the smallest details of life. If a person knew they would die in September, they would invariably savour August, with or without urban myths landing in their inbox. In the history of the world, August 2014 is unique for each and every one of us. But people facing death seem to know that better.

When a dying person contemplates death as an imminent reality, they’re contemplating life too, and life is enlarged. I’d go further. When a person of faith contemplates death as an imminent reality, they’re contemplating eternity too. And, just as life is enlarged, so too the mystery of eternity; the mystery of God.

This is how it seems to me now, when I am young and healthy. To labour O’Connor’s analogy, I’m still on the tarmac. The view, I’m sure, is different from the air, and different again in the great cities of Europe.

This article was originally published in Hamilton’s Spectator on 30 July 2014.

The shifting sands of the Catholic blogosphere

The shifting sands of the Catholic blogosphere

Diary of a Wimpy Catholic was once my daily go-to. I commonly referred to Max Lindenman as “everybody’s favourite blogger, or mine anyway.”

But I tuned out in recent times, and hadn’t given his blog another thought, until I received this news from a friend:

Max Lindenman has folded his tent – and thank God for that. His kind of clever teetering-on-the-edge of Catholicism is very very dangerous and it looks as though someone – perhaps his own conscience, has enlightened him.

When we look back, Max rarely wrote about Catholicism, but presented the weary scribe’s version, after the style of Graham Greene, but worse. At least you could pick up the glaring errors of Greene, but Max… in this day of relativism… harder.

Together with the addictive confession of one’s weaknesses and errors there has to be some words about God and the hope of achieving heaven, but Max didn’t do this.

Lest you think my friend is too harsh, here’s Max himself, largely agreeing with that assessment:

I’m not enough of a Catholic to blog about being a Catholic. At best, my faith is an on-again, off-again thing — nothing I can evangelize for with a straight face. This has been true, more or less, since I first started blogging here. Initially I tried to put my marginality to good use, by documenting it, along with its discontents. But, looking back, I see I rarely did them justice. Without consciously meaning to, I ended up playing coy, producing writing that now feels, in many spots, profoundly dishonest.

He speaks admiringly of a fellow blogger at the Patheos Catholic portal, whom he deems more honest in her struggles:

Calah already knows where she wants to go — the Catholic heaven – and she’s struggling against everything blocking her path. My version of honesty would sound very different. It would give more space to questions like “Do I really believe these thing?” and “Do I wish everyone believed them?” More importantly, my brand of honesty would leave room for a “No” to both of these questions.

Max’s last post reminds me of why I read his blog so voraciously. He is a masterful writer, and almost always thought-provoking. But his final confession also confirms why I tuned out eventually. He wasn’t completely candid. These days, I want simpler fare, and more critically, more honest fare.

Why? I think it’s part of “the Francis effect.”

Fr Ray Blake  expressed my thoughts exactly in his recent post, Where have all the bloggers gone?

The reign of Benedict produced a real flourish of ‘citizen journalists’, the net was alive with discussion on what the Pope was saying or doing and how it affected the life of our own local Church . . . Benedict stimulated thought, reflection and dialogue, an open and free intellectual environment. There was a solidity and certainty in Benedict’s teaching which made discussion possible and stimulated intellectual honesty, one knew where the Church and the Pope stood. Today we are in less certain times, the intellectual life of the Church is thwart with uncertainty.

The Catholic blogosphere “establishment” abounds with talented and faithful writers. They excel at analysing modern complexities and controversies with compelling hermeneutics which are rich in Catholic culture and supernatural outlook.

In the Benedictine age, I loved it. In the Franciscan age, not so much. The acrobatics sometimes performed by them when Pope Francis is “misquoted,” neither satisfies nor edifies. I remember one occasion — I can’t recall details now — in which many Catholic bloggers defended the indefensible, twisting the meaning of a quote attributed to Pope Francis which was fundamentally irreconcilable with Catholic doctrine. The next news cycle revealed the quote was bogus, leaving many Catholic bloggers with ultra-montane egg on their faces.

That was the moment my enthusiasm for blogs — both reading them and writing them — subsided. Again, Fr Blake has expressed my thoughts for me:

Most Catholics but especially clergy want to be loyal to the Pope in order to maintain the unity of the Church, today that loyalty is perhaps best expressed through silence.

The number of blogs I read these days is much smaller, and very different to my original favourites. Where once I valued beautiful prose and clarity of expression, now I look for unvarnished honesty and clarity of thought. Fr Ray Blake and Katrina Fernandez top the list.

I think Max is a bit hard on himself. He is more honest than many others, sometimes me included. I wish him well and continue to pray for him, and I applaud the integrity of his last post.

The Known Universe

Early in my seminary career, I worked at Kanabea Catholic Mission in Papua New Guinea’s highlands. Remote from any semblance of light pollution, the night sky was awesome to behold. I’d often lie on my back, gaze at the stars, and ponder eternity.

This video is the online equivalent.

The Known Universe takes viewers from the Himalayas through our atmosphere and the inky black of space to the afterglow of the Big Bang. Every star, planet, and quasar seen in the film is possible because of the world’s most complete four-dimensional map of the universe, the Digital Universe Atlas that is maintained and updated by astrophysicists at the American Museum of Natural History.

Imagining Heaven

Imagining Heaven

I’m pretty literal. I prefer prose to poetry, and to a lesser extent I prefer non-fiction to fiction.

Hence — like the apostles I might add! — our Lord’s parables often have me scratching my head.

Jesus said to the crowds, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which someone has found; he hides it again, goes off happy, sells everything he owns and buys the field.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls; when he finds one of great value he goes and sells everything he owns and buys it.’ (Mt 13:44-46)

What the heck does that mean? Scripture scholars wax lyrical about the kingdom being “now-and-not-yet,” “in the present but in the future,” yada yada yada. That’s true, but it’s also harder to make sense of than the parables themselves!

I like contemplating the saints. In the words of Pope St Gregory the Great, “Viva lectio est vita bonorum.” (My Latin isn’t great, but what I think that means is that when we read the lives of the saints, we read the Gospels, alive in a particular place and time. “The Living Word is the life of holiness.”)

The saints, it seems to me, thought about Heaven a lot. It’s the natural fruit of a deep and abiding love. A profound desire to be with God.

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:21-24)

St Paul might have coined those words, but I bet he wasn’t the first saint to think along these lines, much less the last.

It’s good for us to imagine Heaven — and to plan for it, like the guy who finds the treasure in the field, or the pearl of great price. Not in a self-pitying way, which despairs of life. But in an excited sort of way, like children counting down til Christmas, who are still doing the work of Christmas preparations in the meantime!

How does one imagine Heaven? “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived . . .” (1 Cor 2:9) That’s Paul again, quoting Isaiah. How can we imagine that? I’m asking a lot of questions right now, and not fielding many answers.

Here’s my advice: imagining Heaven is a great way to pray, which can foster a deeper desire for union with God. A deeper love for Jesus.

Sometimes when I’m driving long distances and I’m too tired to pray the Rosary — or I’ve prayed it already — I play this song again and again. It’s an oldie (1999), but a goodie.

The suicide of Europe

The suicide of Europe

This week, one hundred years ago, the Great Powers of Europe were hurtling towards a war which would eventually draw in the entire Western sphere.

We know it as the First World War, which may be a bit parochial, because the theatres of war were largely confined to three continents, though there’s no denying its impact was global. Pope Benedict XV called it “the suicide of civilised Europe,” which is a better appraisal.

The war changed Europe and the West forever, and not for the good. It gave rise not only to totalitarian communism, the Nazi Holocaust and the Second World War, but also to the hedonism of the 1920s and 1960s, and to the moral and spiritual decline which has afflicted western civilisation since 1914.

Catholic News Service has produced an excellent 20 minute documentary which examines the origins and the aftermath of the Great War, and what lessons we can draw from it 100 years later. As Mark Twain famously observed, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”

Are you Catholic? Then prove it!

This is pretty good. From the people at Outside da Box — an online video production company which specialises in youth ministry resources.

The friendship of Christ

The friendship of Christ

“Don’t neglect your spiritual reading,” one of the saints advises us. “Reading has made many saints.” (Straight from the horse’s mouth!)

I guess the most beneficial spiritual reading either inspires us to make new aspirations, or challenges us to renew existing ones. But every now and then, spiritual reading is astounding for its sheer resonance. “I could have written this!” I’ve occasionally thought to myself. “It’s like the fruit of my own prayer.”

Today was just such a moment, when I read a meditation by Robert Hugh Benson on divine friendship. It moved me very much. And since Benson’s work is in the public domain, I can reproduce it here.

(I especially like the third part. The frustration Benson describes is very honest, very like my own, and like yours too perhaps.)

It seems inconceivable at first sight that a relationship, which in any real manner can be called a friendship, should be possible between Christ and the soul. Adoration, dependence, obedience, service, and even imitation — all these things are imaginable; but until we remember that Jesus Christ took a human soul like our own — a soul liable to joy and to sorrow, open to the assaults of passion and temptation, a soul that actually did experience heaviness as well as ecstasy — the pains of obscurity as well as the joys of clear vision — until this becomes to us, from a dogmatic fact apprehended by faith, a vital fact perceived by experience, a full realisation of his friendship is out of the question.

For just as in the case of ordinary persons the plane of real friendship lies in the communion of the two souls, so it is between Christ and a man. His Soul is the point of contact between his divinity and our humanity. We receive his body with our lips; we prostrate our whole being before his divinity; but we embrace his soul with ours.

I. The beginnings of friendship

Human friendships usually take their rise in some small external detail. We catch a phrase, we hear an inflection of a voice, we notice the look of the eyes, or a movement in walking; and the tiny experience seems to us like an initiation into a new world. We take the little event as a symbol of a universe that lies behind; we think we have detected a soul exactly suited to our own, a temperament which either from its resemblance to our own, or from a harmonious dissimilarity, is precisely fitted to be our companion.

Then the process of friendship begins; we exhibit our own characteristics; we examine his: in point after point we find what we expected to find, and we verify our guesses; and he too, no less, follows the same method, until that point is reached (as it is reached in so many cases, though not, thank God! in all), either in a crisis, or after a trying period, when we discover either that we have been mistaken from the beginning, or that we have deceived the other, or that the process has run its course; the summer is come and gone, and that there are no more fruits to gather on either side.

Now the Divine Friendship — the consciousness, that is to say, that Christ desires our love and intimacy, and offers his own in return — usually begins in the same manner. It may be at the reception of some sacrament, such as we have received a thousand times before; or it may be as we kneel before the crib at Christmas, or follow our Lord along the way of the cross. We have done these things or performed those ceremonies dutifully and lovingly again and again; yet on this sudden day a new experience comes to us.

We understand, for example, for the first time that the Holy Child is stretching his arms from the straw, not merely to embrace the world, but to embrace our own soul in particular. We understand as we watch Jesus, bloodstained and weary, rising from his third fall, that he is asking our own very self in particular to help him with his burden. The glance of the divine eyes meets our own; there passes from him to us an emotion or a message that we had never before associated with our own relations with him.

The tiny event has happened! He has knocked at our door, and we have opened; he has called and we have answered. Henceforth, we think, he is ours and we are his. Here, at last, we tell ourselves, is the Friend for whom we have been looking so long: here is the Soul that perfectly understands our own; the one Personality which we can safely allow to dominate our own. Jesus Christ has leapt forward two thousand years, and is standing by our side; he has come down from the painting on the wall; he has risen from the straw in the manger — my Beloved is mine and I am his. . .

II. Now begins its process

The essence of a perfect friendship is that each friend reveals himself utterly to the other, flings aside his reserves, and shows himself for what he truly is.

The first step therefore in the Divine Friendship is the revelation by Jesus of himself. Up to this point in our spiritual life, however conscientious or dutiful that life may have been, there has been a predominant element of unreality.

It is true that we have obeyed, that we have striven to avoid sin, that we have received grace, forfeited it and recovered it, that we have acquired merit or lost it, that we have tried to do our duty, endeavoured to aspire and to love. All this is real, before God. But it has not been real to ourselves.

We have said prayers? Yes. But we have scarcely prayed. We have meditated — set the points before us, reflected, resolved and concluded — but the watch has been laid open before us to mark our progress, lest we should meditate too long.

But after this new and marvellous experience, all is changed. Jesus Christ begins to exhibit to us not merely the perfections of his past, but the glories of his presence. He begins to live before our eyes; he tears from himself the conventions with which our imaginations have clothed him; he lives, moves, speaks, acts, turns this way and that before our eyes. He begins to reveal secret after secret hidden in his own humanity.

We have known facts about him all our life; we have repeated the Catholic creed; we have assimilated all that theology can tell us. Now, however, we pass from knowledge about him, to knowledge of him. We begin to understand that “this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (Jn 17:3) Our God is becoming our Friend.

On the other side he demands from us what he himself offers. If he strips himself before our eyes, he claims that we should do the same. As our God he knows every fibre of the being which he has made; as our Saviour he knows every instant in the past in which we have swerved from his obedience: but, as our Friend, he waits for us to tell him.

It is tolerably true to say that the difference between our behaviour respectively to an acquaintance and to a friend, is that in the first case we seek to conceal ourselves, to present an agreeable or a convenient image of our own character, to use language as a disguise, to use conversation as we might use counters; and in the second case that we put aside conventions and makeshifts, and seek to express ourselves as we are, and not as we would have our friend to think us to be.

This then is required of us in the Divine Friendship. Up to now our Lord has been content with very little: he has accepted a tithe of our money, an hour of our time, a few thoughts and a few emotions, paid over to him in religious intercourse and worship. He has accepted those things instead of ourselves. Henceforth he demands that all such conventions should cease; that we should be entirely open and honest with him, that we should display ourselves as we really are — that we should lay aside, in a word, all those comparatively harmless make-believes and courtesies, and be utterly real.

And it is probably true to say that in practically every instance where a soul believes itself disillusioned or disappointed with the Divine Friendship, it is not that the soul has actually betrayed the Lord or outraged him or failed to rise to his demands in other matters; but that the soul has never truly treated him as a friend at all; the soul has not been courageous enough to comply with that absolutely necessary condition of all true friendship, namely, a complete and sincere straightforwardness with him.

It is far less injurious to friendship to say outright, “I cannot do this thing that is asked of me, because I am a coward,” than to find excellent reasons for not doing it.

III. The myriad course

Roughly speaking, then, this is the course which the Divine Friendship must take. We must consider later in detail the various events and incidents that characterize it. For it is an immense consolation to remember that there is not one such incident that has not been experienced by other souls before us. The Way of Divine Love has been trodden and retrodden already a thousand times. And it is useful, too, to reflect, before going further, that since this Friendship is one between two human souls, it will follow in a great degree the regular lines of all other friendships.

There are moments in it of bewildering bliss, at communion or in prayer — moments when it appears (as indeed it is) to be the one supreme experience of life; moments when the whole being is shaken and transfused with love, when the Sacred Heart is no longer merely an object for adoration, but a pulsating thing that beats against our own; when the Bridegroom’s arms are about us, and his kiss on our lips. . . .

There are periods too of tranquillity and steady warmth, of an affection at once strong and reasonable, of an esteem and an admiration satisfying to the will and the intellect, as well as to the sensitive or emotional parts of our nature.

And there are periods, too — months or years — of misery and dryness: times at which it seems as if we actually needed patience with our divine friend; cases in which he appears to treat us with coldness or disdain. There will actually be moments in which it needs all the loyalty we have not to cast him off as fickle and deceptive. There will be misunderstandings, darknesses, obscurities.

Yet, as time passes, and as we emerge through these crises one by one, we come more and more to verify that conviction with which we first embraced our Friend. For this is indeed the one Friendship in which final disappointment is impossible; and he the one Friend who cannot fail. This is the one Friendship for whose sake we cannot humiliate ourselves too much, cannot expose ourselves too much, cannot give too intimate confidences or offer too great sacrifices.

It is in the cause of this one Friend only, and of his Friendship, that the words of one of his intimates are completely justified:

“I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ.” (Phil 3:8)