December 08, 2006

Week in Review

The film "Stranger than Fiction" is about death and I realized anew after seeing it how unbelievably hard to accept death even for Christians. Let alone to volunteer for it as this fictional character did, or as Jesus did.

Part of the thing that I think I sometimes missed when I was younger was how Jesus avoided escaping despite having the means to escape. He could’ve avoided the Cross. Or the Incarnation itself. (I used to imagine a conference between the Trinity: “Someone’s gotta go down there…Who’s it gonna be?” says the Father, and the Son volunteers.) I've always been overly fond of a means of escape. I imagined that if I did something wrong, I’d jump bail and flee to another country. (I was surprised in my youth by the seeming nobility of criminals: they so infrequently jumped the bail their loved ones had put up.) I couldn’t understand the concept of suicide because I thought when I was young, “why don’t they just run away?”. I’d tied the impulse of suicide not to self, but to others. I couldn’t imagine a circumstance where one’s own self, and not other people, was the source of problems.

The gospels speak a lot of inescapability. Jesus prays to the Father that this cup might pass, but it doesn’t. He couldn’t escape it. The means of death was telling -- is there an instrument more binding than a crucifixion, in which you are literally nailed to wood while slowly dying? Even in His birth, “swaddling” clothes are often depicted in Eastern iconography as being tightly bound. We say that within our tabernacles Jesus willingly imprisons Himself.

Thursday night was a godsend. I decided to go to the Immaculate Conception Mass on the eve before, rather than the day of, Dec. 8. The music was spectacular: “Immaculate Mary”, a beautiful solo of “Ave Maria” at the offertory, and “Hail Holy Queen”. For years I’d been going to noon Mass on Dec. 8th at St. Pat’s and it’s always musically uninspired, being as it is a workday noon Mass and thus sans choirs or singers. But I always have a preference for the actual feast day though the night of the actual day we always celebrate my wife's birthday. But not this time, and I got there early and prayed the indulgenced Poor Clare’s Adoration prayer, said every hour of every day by the cloistered nuns in Portsmouth, Ohio.

Grandma almost died this week. At 95 I really thought this was her time since even the experienced hostice workers were saying that her organs were failing. I had romantic notions that she’d die on Dec. 9th – the same day as both her husband and Fulton J. Sheen, the latter whom I’d been praying to so much lately for her situation. Grandma prays for only two modest things: to die before her beloved 94-year old cousin Fr. Jim (so that he can attend her funeral) and to die before she runs out of money and has to go to a Medicaid-supported facility. It seemed her prayers were being answered this week but Mom called tonite and said she made a remarkable recovery.

Work was a joy this week, where joy is defined by its lack. I didn’t have much to do – first time in quite some time – and I was surprised how quickly the days passed despite that lack. When I had brain-numbing work to do I listened to Willie Cunningham on WLW via Internet streaming or Ave Maria radio. Bought a couple things I’d wanted for a long, long time: the first volume of the Liturgy of the Hours, and, even more so, the famous 1962 Roman Missale. Giddy, me, at the prospect of holding that old war horse and praying those antique prayers and seeing the Victorian-era illustrations that rend your heart. The leather-bound missale, published by the euphoniously-named Baronius press, has that same glowing association in memory that “Strange but True Baseball Stories” held in 1973 and “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” held in 1985. A good trend I suppose, a "trading up", though service to neighbor seems a far more accurate leading indicator of one’s spiritual temperature.

Jesus said not to let the anxieties of this world distract us from Him and yet I seem to violate this every ten minutes or so. For example, I read of a Christian blogger saying that he “no longer thinks of swimming the Tiber” and began to conjure up responses of varying usefulness (mostly approaching zero) even though no response was called or asked for. Thomas really opened my eyes to the fact that being theologically and historically well-read is no guarantee of becoming Catholic, notwithstanding Newman’s line that to become deeply immersed in history is to to cease being Protestant. He seems to have that combination of keen intelligence and ecclesiastical rootlessness – a combination I imagined was an engraved invitation from the Mother Kirche. And yet there he is in his rootlessness and I’m struck yet again by how elusive unity is and how so much depends on God, not intelligence or anything else.

AO wanted to talk about the train wreck that C. is participating in and it felt close to gossip. I sense that if we made it a rule to pray for someone as much as we talked about them we’d pray a lot more and talk a lot less. Economically AO believes as you sow as you should reap but as Christians we hope that we reap what we did not sow since salvation is impossible without God. So our economic system is to some extent the opposite of our spiritual system; we rely completely on God’s welfare while eschewing the idea of persistent governmental welfare, though St. Paul said that if you don’t work you don’t eat so it’s not counter-Scriptural. But part of what bothers me about my wife's niece's situation is its very predictability. She got pregnant in October, met another guy in November and quit her job, moved into his mother's garage. Married him last week. He's 18, she's 21. It seems you might be successful in America at least in earthly terms if you’re smart or you’re ambitious, but if you’re neither than you seem doomed to a life of stress and poverty. And what if you had non-churchgoing high-school educated parents who acrimoniously divorce – what chance do the children have? Slim? And yet the first reaction is that it seems a lack of human dignity that we should be so predictable. Predictability suggests a lack of free will and part of our dignity is our free will, much as we might disparage it. Isn't the phrase "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" a denial of our free will? Of course it is a truth of the faith that we are fallen, that our free will is far more limited than our first parent's and is then additionally limited by our immediate parents.

Update: Steven emails a much better take on our "predictability" and free will:
I would say rather the predicatbility is the accumulation of circumstance and probability and that we are so much alike that we can know within limits what the likely reaction is. That's why we're always so pleased and gratified by someone who "beats the odds." I think I'd look at it as demonstrating the perfect equality of humankind. We're predictable because no matter what the outer accidents the inner processes and spiritual realities are the same...I wonder if what you are observing isn't a kind of "spiritual law?" That is, if you break certain "rules" or ways of being, they carry with them certain consequences.

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