Tuesday, February 28, 2012

O'Conner for Lent - Part one

Flannery's Bird - KJW

One of my Lenten observances this year is to read all the stories of Flannery O’Conner. I’m about five stories into the collection.  The Geranium and The Barber, her first two stories, follow each other in the collection for a reason.  Both stories confront the same spiritual problem from different angles. 
In The Geranium, Dudley is transplanted from his boarding house in the deep south to his daughter’s tenement apartment in New York. The story follows Dudley as he confronts is unease with city life, then suffers a sense of physical and mental shock when he discovers that blacks and whites live in the same building. He has a near stroke after being helped up the stairs by his black neighbor.
Flannery O'Connor

In The Barber, Rayber is incensed that his barber and all of his cronies in the barber shop are staunch supporters of a segregationist candidate for governor. Since he is a college professor, he is confident he can articulate his support for the other candidate and argue the barber down. The problem is that he can’t seem to verbalize his thoughts. He leaves the barber shop humiliated, telling them that he will be back with a convincing argument to vote for the opponent. Over the next couple of weeks, in drafts a lengthy speech in support of his candidate. 
On the way to the barbershop for his next haircut, he passes by the feed store. In the window, is a display of automatic chicken killers. The sign in the window proclaims, “So Timid Persons Can Kill Their Own Foul!”. Not taking the hint, Rayber continues on his way to the barbershop. 
The professor is geared up to blast them with his finely honed speech, but the first few minutes of the conversation with the barber is all smalltalk. He finally broaches the subject himself and launches into the first sentence of his speech. The barber and his pals are not even listening.
Rayber turns beet faced, pushes the barber onto the adjacent chair and runs from the shop with lather still dripping from his chin.
The spiritual problem is the same for both men. When we view others through the lens of race, political ideology or religion etc., we place scales on our eyes. We no longer see those others as our neighbors, we see them as enemies. The professor, even though his views are easier to defend, is guilty of the same treatment of his neighbor as is Dudley in the geranium. Neither man can see through their prejudices to recognize the people on the other side of them.
How do you embrace what you know to be right while showing love for those who disagree? It’s one of the mysteries of Christian life.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

The Lenten List

  1. Give up alcohol
  2. Eat Better (It's complicated)
  3. Attend Mass at least 4 times a week
  4. Read all the Flannery O'Conner short stories

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ready for Lent - Parched, by Heather King


"My own life was a mystery to me"
                                               Heather King, Parched

I have spent time in recent weeks reflecting on Heather Kings’s 2005 memoir Parched.  I’m gearing up for Lent and giving up alcohol is on my short list of Lenten observances this year.
The book chronicles Ms King’s life as a drunk and her eventual recovery.  The stories in her book provide plenty of reasons to lay the bottle down for six weeks and remind me that there is a price to be paid even for casual drinking. 
Letting go of the habit for forty days will help me re-assess the role drinking plays in my life and the extent to which it may interfere with my relationships with others and with God. 
But Parched is a great Lenten reflection not because it is about giving up drinking, it’s really about giving up everything. 
From her first beer in ninth grade and over the following twenty years her whole life centered around alcohol. As she describes it...
 "A normal person would regard the next two decades of my life, scratch his or her head and say, “Why’d you do that? Why didn’t you just stop?” But already I couldn’t have stopped. I didn’t know that by taking that first drink I had surrendered my free will: the thing that distinguishes me from an animal”
For Heather King, to stop drinking was not a matter of giving up one thing, it required giving up the entire life she had cultivated over the previous two decades. It also required the grace of God.
Toward the end of the book, King recounts how she was set up by her family. She was picked up at her apartment in Boston by her younger brother under the pretense they were going to a family gathering to celebrate her father’s birthday. She arrives to find her family sitting in a circle with an intervention counselor, a pitcher of lemonade, a litany of examples of how her drinking had hurt them and a plane ticket.
A few days later her family put her on a plane to Minnesota where they had booked her for a thirty day stay in a treatment facility. Her life, such as it had been,was now over.
A cynic might say that she did not recover through the grace of God, but through the intervention of her family. If a loving family isn’t a grace from God, what is? 

And what is a Lenten sacrifice if not an invitation to grace?

While we're on the subject of drinking, Merle Haggard, John Lee Hooker, The Louvin Brothers, George Jones and others are featured on my short Spotify playlist,
Songs by for and About Drunks.  

Spring Comes to Our Street

After a few weeks of cold, gloomy weather, the sun came out this morning and the you get the sense that Spring may be here soon.

The sun is out on our block

And on our porch
Pear Blossoms

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Is Bob Dylan Channeling Bishop Sheen?

Bob Dylan Channels Bishop SheenThe real Bishop Sheen

When I saw Bob Dylan performing Blind Willie McTell on TV a few weeks ago, I was struck with the increasing formality of his body language. The first time I saw him, about 8 years ago, he conveyed very little physically (or verbally, for that matter). 
By the Fall of 2009, he had loosened up considerably. He now actually faces his audience from time to time and employs dramatic gestures on a handful of songs. Ballad of a Thin Man, Forgetful Heart and Cold Irons Bound most notable among them. 
In the last year or so, his gestures seem to have grown more ritualistic. The hitching of his left leg while rocking at his keyboard, the clutching at the hem of his coat and the grabbing of his lapels (no jacket required) are now standard components of his live performance. 
Watching his performance of Blind Willie McTell, I was taken aback by how much he comes across like a musical version of Bishop Fulton Sheen. After reviewing one of the late Bishop’s Life is Worth Living episodes I was able to draw a few comparisons.

Both are flamboyant in dress and gesture.

Sheen was a rock star among bishops, Dylan a bishop among rock stars (Ok, that’s a reach, Dylan is more a successor to Paul than to Peter.) 

Bishop Sheen’s series ran for years on end, Bob’s tour is said to be never ending. 

Both have been praised by Pope John Paul II for their bodies of work.

Bishop Sheen used popular culture to illustrate scripture, Dylan uses scripture to illuminate popular culture (Doubt that? Listen to Blowin' in the Wind or All Along the Watchtower)

Father Robert Barron comments on All Along the Watchtower

Decades after his "Christian period" God continues to lurk in Dylan's music. Huck's Tune from the soundtrack of Lucky You is superficially about love and poker, but hints at something deeper.

All the merry little elves can go hang themselvesMy faith is as cold as can beI'm stacked high to the roof and I'm not without proofIf you don't believe me, come see.
                                             - Bob Dylan, Huck's Tune

On his album Together Through Life, This Dream of You and Forgetful Heart both describe a longing that is both romantic and spiritual at the same time.

From a cheerless room in a curtained gloomI saw a star from heaven fallI turned and looked again but it was goneAll I have and all I knowIs this dream of youWhich keeps me living on
                                         - Bob Dylan, This Dream of You

Forgetful heart
We loved with all the love that life can give
What can I say
Without you it's so hard to live
Can't take much more
Why can't we love like we did before
Forgetful heart
Like a walking shadow in my brain
All night long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed forevermore
If indeed there ever was a door

                                     - Bob Dylan, Forgetful Heart

You can listen to these and a few other recent Bob Dylan songs on the Spotify playlist Dylan Songs More People Should Hear.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Valentine's Day - When I get to it

Valentine cookies on the 16th? We do what we can.

Gastrointestinal flu, colds and Bible study all conspired to delay the much anticipated baking of Valentine heart cookies with the grandkids until Thursday. I made a feeble attempt to compensate Tuesday morning by picking up a few heart shaped sugar cookies at Whole Foods. Liam declared them to be "The worst Valentine cookies he had ever tasted". Fortunately, these cookies, decorated by Lily, Max and me were given enthusiastic reviews.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ready for Lent - Magnificat Lenten Companion for iPhone

First, a tip of the hat to CatholicMom for letting us know the app is out there.

Part of your Lenten observance may be to attend Mass more often, engage in morning or evening prayer or read from scripture on a daily basis. If any of these are in your Lenten plans, you may want to download this Lenten Companion from the publishers of Magnificat.

The application faithfuly replicates the feel of the periodical in a form that is ultra portable and easy to navigate with a single thumb. There is a page for every day of Lent with sections for morning and evening prayer, daily Mass and a daily Lenten Meditation.

If you are a subscriber to Magnificat, you will appreciate the guide as a compact and portable compliment to the magazine. If you are not familier with Magnificat, you will find it to be a great introduction.

The Magnificat Lenten Companion is available from the iPhone App Store and sells for 99 cents.

For more information, go to the Magnificat web site

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ready for Lent - simplifying THE SOUL

Paula Huston’s book, simplifying THE SOUL Lenten Practices to Renew your Spirit is an excellent resource for developing a deeper appreciation of Lenten practice and offers practical suggestions for every day of the season. I will comment on some of these over the next few weeks.

To be honest, three paragraphs in, I was expecting to dislike the book. Learning that this advice was going to come from a monastic based in Big Sur, I was concerned that the tone of the book would be too precious and the spiritual exercises too lofty for someone as crusty as myself. My fears were unfounded. Her book is down to earth, practical and entertaining. If you are someone who, like me, spent most of your life looking at Lent as a time to “give something up”, the book will challenge you to expand your notion of Lenten observance.
She starts by urging us to doing some physical and mental housecleaning prior to Lent, then divides the weeks of Lent into themes that focus on money, body, mind, schedule, relationships and prayer.
Some daily exercises are easy. Give to a charity, walking  instead of driving to the store, going for a walk while saying the Rosary. Others are challenging. Apologize to someone who is angry with you, turn off your cell phone for a day, pray the Divine Office (easy for some perhaps, but not for me!). 
The book’s humble approach challenges us to give many of her suggestions a try. As she provides a meditation on each practice, examples from her own life are not stories of mastery, but stories of failure, frustration and eventual growth.  
 One of her recommendations is  going to morning Mass on a week day.  I started attending morning Mass daily as part of my Lenten observance three years ago. It is a practice that stuck. I still go to 6:45 Mass most mornings and it has had an impact on my life. My work life was not overly pleasant at that time, so the immediate benefit was that I was no longer getting up to go to work in the morning, I was getting up to go to Mass. My frustration level decreased dramatically.
Her final pre-Lenten suggestion is to set up a quiet place for prayer and meditation. We took this one to heart long before I finished the book. 
The house we thought would be our empty nest is often teeming with grandchildren and dogs. Finding a quiet place to read or pray can be a challenge. This weekend, we screened off the disused, decidedly un-private deck outside our bedroom to serve as this space.

The quiet place

              ( Yes, that is an ashtray on the table. I do some of my best meditation with a cigar in hand) 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Eric Metaxas - National Prayer Breakfast - February 2, 2012

A powerful and entertaining speech. A heroic (yet civil) challenge to the President's war on religious life in America.

Welcome to The Surly Temple

This blog was inspired by a recent re-reading of “A Temple of the Holy Spirit” by Flannery O’Conner. 

The principal character in this story, “The Child”, is a twelve year old girl, who comes to the realization that she was meant to become a saint. That posed a slight problem.

“ She would have to become a saint because that was the occupation that contained everything you could know; and yet she knew she would never be a saint. She did not steal or murder but she was a born liar and slothful and she sassed her mother and was deliberately ugly to almost everybody. She was eaten up also with the sin of pride, the worst one. 
…. She could could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her real quick.” 

The Child’s moronic visiting cousins mock the nuns at their convent school for asserting that their bodies were temples of the Holy Spirit. The Child however, knew this to be true and was overwhelmed at the prospect.

The child’s dilemma is our dilemma as well. How do you live the modern life of faith? How can I be called to sainthood? I am cranky, impatient, sarcastic and cynical. None of these were covered in the beatitudes, so I guess I have some things to figure out. I intend to use these pages to help me do that. If like me, you lean more to umbrage and outrage than to humility and contemplation, you may wish to tag along.

Hat Tip to Word on Fire for their recent review of Temple of the Holy Spirit