This week I am on retreat at the beautiful Kenthurst Study Centre. This is where Pope Benedict rested and prayed prior to Sydney’s World Youth Day. Kenthurst is one of my favourite places in all the world.

In view of today’s Gospel, a retreat is apropros don’t you think?

When Jesus received the news of John’s death he withdrew by boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves.

Of course, in our Lord’s case, it was not to be. A large crowd follows, and work ensues. But while the miraculous events that follow deserve thorough treatment, I think the line just quoted is also worth considering.

Our Lord was grieving. We can easily imagine him praying for his cousin during his months of imprisonment, and now the worst has happened and John the Baptist is dead. Deep grief must have afflicted a good number of the apostles also. Some of them had been disciples of John the Baptist. They owed him their faith. They owe him their contact with Jesus!

Now add fear to their grief. John had been hugely popular with the people — he spoke with authority, and his holiness was renowned. But it wasn’t enough to protect him, and now he is dead. If this could happen to John, what would happen to Jesus? If the apostles are not afraid by this, I bet they were at least anxious!

So the Lord calls for a retreat.

Remember that, when life gets the better of you. There’s nothing wrong with calling time out occasionally. If you need to get away, get away. Our Lord took self-care seriously. So must his disciples.

Then there’s the matter of the annual retreat. This is mandated for clergy, but the Church exhorts everyone to make an annual retreat. It’s good for the soul, and the body, and especially in our frenetic age, it’s good for the mind.

But most of all, it’s good for our Lord. He wants to spend time alone with you. Why don’t you oblige him?

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 2 August 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.