I had a wonderful English teacher my last year of a Catholic prep school in New York City. Father John Jones was a scholarly Jesuit who instructed me in the fine art of the metaphor.
Thanks to him I wrote a paper on Macbeth that was surfeited with blood-curdling images of daggers dripping all sorts of gore. Little did I realize that Xavier High School, the alma mater of Justice Antonin, Scalia, would provide my life with an apt metaphor that continues to inspire me.
Since Xavier was still a military school in 1958, we had to march in a parade every First Friday of the month from the school to the church down the block. That February our bored algebra teacher, a Jesuit scholastic, gave back the results of our rhythm test.
Since we met seven times a week, he dedicated a two classes to a subject he really enjoyed — music. I had scored the lowest grade in the class and he proceeded to make sport of me just before our march.
During the ensuing parade, I tried unsuccessfully to overcome my rhythm deficiency by anticipating the beat of the drum. The few spectators lining 16th Street in Manhattan were treated to two parades that afternoon — that of the Xavier regiment and that of my inner drummer.
My inability to keep in step with the official drummer has become a dominant metaphor in my intellectual life. While my thinking was in step with the culture 50 years ago, the cultural drumbeat has changed dramatically.
The official drummer now bangs a beat that has taken the country’s moral parade drastically to the left with abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, moral relativism and socialism.
Today I am as out of step with the cultural rhythms of our times as I was with our drummer that chilly Friday afternoon 58 years ago, and happily so.
The predominant factor in this new beat is a culture that has loosened its moorings from the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Our cultural icons are more representative of a culture that does not recognize God or holds any interest in Christian morality.
They effectively employ a peer pressure that is as important to adults as it is to high school or college students. It is what Newsweek once called the conventional wisdom, which is designed to determine, not only what we think, but how we think.
History, Voltaire wrote, is a pack of lies agreed upon. His enlightened cynicism clearly identifies our status quo. Today the general will tends to filter down from the image shapers, spin doctors and pollsters. As if in a huge Skinner Box, the American people are being subtlety conditioned to accept a distorted standard of belief that bears little resemblance to any objective reality.
Mainstream opinion shapers have composed a cultural rhythm for all Americans to march to. Each new note, whether on abortion rights, same-sex “marriage” or “man-made global warming,” is designed to further enhance the powers that tenaciously control the American consciousness.
The country’s custodians of truth are reminiscent of the baseball players in Mark Harris’ screenplay, Bang the Drum Slowly. They engaged in a card game called Tegwar, which was an acronym for the exciting game without any rules. The players simply made up their rules as the game progressed.
Of course the card game was a scam, designed to separate the adoring fans, who wanted to rub elbows with their baseball idols, from their money. America’s conventional wisdom is akin to Tegwar because it ignores the basic rules of civilization — namely, logic, morality, and truthfulness.
Truth for the conventionally wise Tegwar player is only what is useful. Objective standards and absolute and immutable moral principles have no place in their utilitarian wisdom.
Modern Tegwar players — in politics, government, business, law and even some clergy — change the rules to ideologically fit the situation. In a word they slowly bang a cultural drum that will eventually lead the American parade over a cliff of despair. Catholics and all Americans must skip their beat and march to that of their own inner drummer.
One of my fondest memories from my college days at Holy Cross was the annual spring intramurals. While there were a variety of events, the tug-of-war had the greatest impact on my memory. The contest pitted the most brawny and surliest behemoths of each class against each other in an exhausting display of sinewy prowess.
Another kind of tug-of-war surfaced a year after my 1965 graduation. While teaching a religion class at St. Henry’s High School in Charleston, Mo., I used the book The Gospel According to Peanuts as one of my textbooks. In one of the illustrations, poor Charlie Brown bemoaned the moral tug-of-war that was raging inside his heart.
I believe that Charles Schulz, the late cartoonist, had used his hapless character to express a deep point of Christian theology. Charlie Brown’s conscience was caught in the invisible vice between the things he wanted do and the things he should do. Schulz successfully underscored the never-ending tension that is a universal quality of our divided human nature.
Like Charlie Brown, our moral struggle forces us to focus on the disparity between what we should be and what we really are.
Instead of the brawny linebackers, tackles, and guards in college, this moral tug-of-war pits the world, the flesh and the devil on one side and Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the other.
However, this eternal contest is not a simple black-and-white struggle. While the presumption of victory is always on the side of the Holy Family, there is a grave warning implicit for people who follow Church teachings, devotions and pietistic rituals in the course of this struggle.
A tug-of-war can take a long time, and there are definite strategies that are not apparent to the unschooled eye. In one such strategy the secular team eases up, ever so lightly on the rope, so that complacency, self-satisfaction or pride catches the religious team off-guard.
Mother Teresa is a good example of this. As a young nun bursting with love and enthusiasm for the Lord, she prayed that God would let her share in Christ’s suffering so that she could be one with Him.
God heeded her fervent wishes but instead of the physical pains of Calvary He sent her the most agonizing mental struggles of Gethsemane that brought her to the brink of despair. God was not being cruel but recognized that His eager servant could be susceptible to the righteous pride of an enthusiast. Father Brian Kolodiejchuk’s 2007 book, Come Be My Light poignantly captured her soul-rendering tug-of-war.
The best way to soften the direct impact of our personal inner tug-of-war is to regard this struggle as one of the crosses we have to bear daily. We can accomplish this by walking the narrow vertical path between the lateral temptations of a secular world and the proud seductions of the interior life.
Both can be devastating to the unsuspecting soul. This salvific route forms a simple cross (+), a symbol of God’s love for us. We should also see this as a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate saving power of the Christian sign of contradiction to the world. With Christ as our helmsman how can any of us fail to navigate the rocky shoals of these worldly and spiritual temptations?
Octogenarian Harper Lee has unleashed a maelstrom of social unrest and intellectual confusion as contentious as the turmoil in the streets of Ferguson with the 55-year delayed release of her “first” book, Go Set a Watchman.
As a work of literature it stands in start contrast to her “second” book, To Kill a Mockingbird, released in 1962. The one is for serious adults while the second is for children. The first is to the second as Shakespeare is to Mary Poppins.
This should not be surprising to her readers. The narrator of To Kill…is Scout a precocious seven or eight year old. She sees things through the eyes of a child, idolizing her dad who was her knight in shinning armor, perfect in every way. His brave defense of accused rapist, the one-armed Negro Tom Robinson, amidst the abject hatred of his fellow citizens in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s makes him even more of a hero in her eyes.
To Set…is written in the third person though both Atticus and his brother Dr. Jack Finch serves as the voices of adult reason throughout the last half of the book.
Millions of adolescents and many adults have had the same iconic reverence for Atticus Finch ever since.
That’s why Go Tell… has set off such a furor. It was if in the darkest corners of her soul Ms. Lee and her publisher had conspired to undo 50 years of liberal pride and energy.
Her latest publication depicts Atticus, now disabled and in his early seventies as the avatar of racism and white supremacy. Virtually all the early book reviews mischaracterize him as a racist with an hypocritical heart.
To Set…is arguably the best book I have read in a very long time for its social and historical awareness. It gives clarity and voice to a large portion of this country that has been maligned for over a 100 years.
No Ms. Lee does not defend racial bigotry–a much more accurate and honest term than its bastard cousin, the politically charged racism. It explained how people could hold such prejudicial views in the context of their historical, social and cultural environs.
Their very use of the word racism, which did not exist until 1933, is an affront, analogous to a loaded gun pointed at the heat of a reasonable discussion. It signals that there is not other side of this issue that can even be mentioned in civilized company.
Racism is a potent weapon of self-righteous indignation that the American left has used for generations to silence debate and eliminate any criticism of their twisted social and racial policies.
To Set…is a broadside across their bow of their pride that hopefully will open up a fair and honest discussion of these issues without rancor or violence.
To Set…is a perfect title for what transpires in the book. She selected it from Isaiah 21:6. In whole it reads: Go Set a Watchman and listen to what he saith. As Atticus’ brother Dr. Jack Finch tells his niece Jean Louise (Scout’s adult name) that verse means to listen to your conscience or moral compass.
Scout’s conscience had been formed first by the Socratic education and aura of intellectual freedom that Atticus promoted at home. Her formative years as a young adult in New York City, the den of liberal change and moral reform completed her compass.
By contrast, Atticus’ Watchman comes from a legal background that was wedded to the moral virtues, not so much the American Revolution but the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights.
During one of their introspective and heated discussions they unveiled the keys to understanding Southern history as we plod into the 21st century in virtual blindness and ignorance of our past history and deep meaning.
Atticus underscores the “recent” the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka Kansas. This seminal decision legally sought to eliminate centuries of segregation in the South, starting with our schools.
This landmark decision was the proper moral but unfortunately it violated the Bill of Rights, which made it a bad precedent and an unwise decision.
The 10th Amendment, which nobody teaches or understands today, except maybe Bob Dole who carried an index card of it in his pocket for years, is also known as the Reserved Powers amendment.
It stated that any power not specifically delegated to the Federal Government was reserved for the states. Education was the most important of these powers and the Federal government had now taken it upon itself to tell all children to think like it does.
While segregation is blatantly immoral, the proper way to have changed it was through the amendment process. But that takes time and big government likes swift action when it comes to absorbing more power and control.
Another point of note is the tremendous pride Southerners have. They witnessed their entire civilization swept from the board of history during four years of bloody war and 12 years of “Deconstruction” that made them second-class citizens in their own states. And worse was that the North forced their social acceptance of their former slaves on them in such a self-righteous way that their only natural reaction was hatred and eventually violence.
Then the Northern Republicans sacrificed three million blacks on the altar of political expediency, leaving the bewildered, uneducated blacks at the less than tender mercies of the Klan and other hostile bigots.
For several generations after that the Northern Republicans waved the bloody shirt of rebellion, blaming the South for the war and all of its collateral damage. Now the heirs of these “radical Republicans” were waving the bloody chains of slavery in their faces.
Their natural reaction then as it had been after the Civil War was to fight back.
Brown was like a second Reconstruction and Atticus was, not the problem, but tried to be part of a solution— the soft landing of his community and maybe even the whole South in gradually accepting the demise of his cultural heritage and the nation changed.
What Atticus resented most was not that the simple black people he had lived with all of his life had suddenly erected barriers of emotional isolation to the white citizens of Maycomb, as his daughter painfully experiences but the modern carpetbaggers from the North–the NAACP and its horde of eager lawyers, who were ready to force immediate and radical change on a people who spent their lives in languor and slow-moving.
To his credit Atticus decried the violently bigotry of the Klan and other racial groups because he understood only too well what had made them that way.
He was never a racist! He was in fact more than a simply hero! He was a peacemaker. But he was also a legal and social realist, who recognized as Abraham Lincoln had in his own time that blacks were not his intellectual, social or even cultural equals.
His daughter was blind to this because as her Uncle Jack tells her, she lacked an understanding heart. She failed to see her dad’s basic humanity> Because of her idealism she could never think of her father as a person of flesh and blood.
She had blindly judged him and her state by a presentism that failed to see mitigating…not exculpatory circumstances that underscored the truth of a time and culture. Her own conscience had been tainted by the self-righteous promotion of the progressive ideas that emanated from the guillotine and mobs of Paris in the late 18th century.
Her conscience had failed her while Atticus’ made him a three-dimensional human being, unlike the cardboard icon in her childhood. Her father was not perfect. He was flawed as some of his principles were. But his adherence to his conscience and his ability to admit that all were equal before the law made him unique for his community and his times.
Thomas Paine, one of the forbears of the French Revolution, marched to the battle cry of To Make the World Anew. What Paine meant was to make human beings anew…that is without flaw, prejudice or humanity. That is the impossible liberal dream that has failed in Russia, China, Cuba and wherever man’s free will has been coerced into submission.
Unfortunately too many of the movers and shakers of our liberal society are blind watchmen such as Jean Louise. Just look at Ferguson and all the other similar communities around the nation.
Harper Lee has written a prescient book that is one for the ages. It speaks to all of us whose consciences have been blinded by bigotry, hatred, ideology and selfishness.
One of the great stories of my childhood was Washington Irving’s 1809 tale of the legendary “Rip Van Winkle,” the man who fell asleep for 20 years, only to awaken to a new world he scarcely recognized. I must have been asleep at the cultural wheel on Jan. 22, 1973 because the infamous Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which has accounted for the premature death of more than 55 million unborn children, flew right under my radar.
My first reckoning of the slaughter of the innocents did not occur until 12 years after that infamous decision. At a parish social after the 11 o’clock Mass, I noticed a tiny lapel pin on a friend’s jacket. When asked, he told me that his pin represented fully developed fetal feet at just 10 weeks of gestation. At that moment I saw no lightening bolts from the sky nor did I have anything as dramatic as a Pauline dismount. There was just this quiet moment of clarity that opened my eyes to the true meaning of abortion on demand.
I started reading everything I could on the subject. I got involved with the Archdiocesan Respect Life Movement in a myriad of different positions, including three stints as our parish co-coordinator. I wrote several letters to the editor. Some were published.
A short time later, I became a weekly radio talk show host. For 20 years I verbally waged the culture war on air with abortion my salient issue. The publication of my 1999 book, “Liberalism: Fatal Consequences” with abortion as its linchpin followed. In 2008 I wrote a one-act play about abortion, “A Perfect Choice,” which was produced the next year on a local stage. I have also been an advisor to the Vitae Foundation and a board member of Birthright of St. Louis for a dozen years. All this happened to me just because I asked about those tiny fetal feet.
The hardest part of this battle for me has been trying to understand why all Catholics are not equally troubled by the abortion horror as I am. Perhaps the slavery issue may answer my question. The record of Catholics during the days of slavery is not a stellar one. Most Catholics, especially those in the South, were indifferent to the plight of the slave, just as most are indifferent toward abortion today. Like their antebellum forebears, too many Catholics blame abortion abolitionists for disturbing the peaceful order of their society.
Perhaps it was the conservative temperament of most Catholics then not to rock the cultural boat since reforming the earth was unimportant when compared with spending eternity with God. Of course that kind of thinking would be totally unacceptable today on issues as diverse as racism, the minimum wage, nuclear war, the death penalty and even global warming.
I think the real trouble resides in the fact that Catholics today do not fear the establishment as much as they did in the 19th century because we have become an intricate part of the power establishment. Catholic attitudes today spring more from the toxic fumes of an anti-religious secularism then they do from Church teachings on human life.
Most of our Catholic senators and congressmen follow their political consciences instead of their moral consciences. Many go out of their way to embed and expand the abortion privilege instead of screaming in outrage for its speedy repeal. In effect Karl and now Saul are more important than Jesus.
A repeal or even a Constitutional amendment seem like pipe dreams. We have tried the courts, constitutional amendments, political persuasion and public debate for 42 years, and the left, supported by millions of federal dollars keeps up the assault on innocent life with a determined consistency that defies all the Christian virtues.
Granted prayer, sacrifice and the public witness of millions have saved many unborn lives. But abortion is still an intricate part of the social landscape. Only a loud public outrage can make a difference. It is not there because Catholics are not united enough to lead that outrage.
My personal prayer is that every Catholic will think about those tiny fetal feet, feel their power and be moved to do something as I was years ago. If that ever happens, abortion may disappear from this country just as slavery did 150 years ago.
I wanted to be English major in college until an adjunct History professor at Holy Cross enthralled me with his military exploits as a Marine tank commander in the Pacific Theater during World War II and Korea. His personal experiences within the broad context of Asian History, presented such a broad spectrum of heroes, philosophy, and human conflict that I spent the next nine years studying the discipline, collecting a pair of graduate degrees along the way.
Historical facts came easy in grad school. It was the different interpretations that made history difficult. Most historians were so awash in a sea of relativity that it made the past nearly unintelligible. Some stressed history as a study of heroic figures. Others saw it as materialistic determinism.
My personal definition focused on history as the story of man’s human nature in time. While its pages portrayed people in different milieus, there always was one essential constant. Man’s human nature never changed. It was likened to the philosopher Heraclitus’ flowing river, which was always changing while remaining the same river. Each historical era does things a bit differently but its people still maintain their inborn attraction to evil.
This explains why that in thousands of years of recorded history, only 22 years have been free of war, according to the late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Violence is and always will be an essential part of human nature. While no one is born rotten to the core, as the Calvinists would have us believe, man has never been the “angel” the French Philosophes, purported him to be.
The French reign of terror with its menacing guillotine disproves that idea during the last decade of the 18th century abrogated that idea. Men are more like what late historian Michael Shara called “killer angels,” capable of great love and charity but with a stark propensity for war and destruction.
Since the French Revolution, philosophers have attacked the Church’s teaching on man’s human nature with regard to sin. Its philosophical heirs, Marx, Darwin, and Freud denied the entire concept of original sin. A behavioral license to act without consequence has become their universal standard by which belief, morality and personal conduct is to be judged. It is this inherent philosophical conflict of the “City of God” versus the “City of Man” that is at the epicenter of the “culture war.”
Pope Benedict’s statement on Limbo and the “hope for unbaptized babies” has clouded the debate even further. It prompted the late University of Notre Dame Theology professor, Fr. Richard McBrien to opine, “if there is no limbo…it has to follow that “everyone is born in the state of grace.”
This reasoning leads to only one logical conclusion that baptism does not wash away the “stain,” of original sin and Christ’s death and Resurrection were unnecessary. Father McBrien’s interpretation marches in lockstep with the progressive fallout from the French Revolution, which has assumed an Immaculate Conception, which they ironically deny for the Blessed Mother, for every other human being who ever lived.
Progressives explain away the lingering question of evil with the same twisted logic of comedian Flip Wilson’s female character “Geraldine,” whose illicit behavior always prompted the response, “the devil made me do it!” This thinking is akin that of an ex-professional basketball player when arrested for drug possession said: “drugs ruined my life,” making made him the unwitting victim of his own sins.
What the left fails to understand is that we are all tarnished angels who have an inner yearning to revolt against the moral integrity of our being. Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton once opined that original sin was the one Catholic doctrine that never needed any proof. All one had to do “was read a newspaper…”or he might have added… a history book.
With apologies to Keanu Reeves and Ted Logan:
When I was in high school my parents wanted to send me on a European pilgrimage with the school. I shuttered at the prospect of flying over the Atlantic Ocean and visiting places where I could not speak the language. Regrettably, I did not go.
Several years later my wife won a drawing that rewarded both of us with a week in London. I made up every excuse in book–we did not have passports…it was too far and so on. The free trip prevailed and we spent a marvelous week that was punctuated by a stewardess strike that forced us to catch a plane from Gatwick, rather than Heathrow Airport.
That began a 30-years travelogue of memories that have enriched our lives greatly. Bill and Judy’s Excellent Adventures have seen us travel to at least two corners of the world. We have visited Ireland and England four times and Rome three times. We once took a tour that started on a bus in Marseilles, France and ended on a yacht in Malta.
As I wrote in my 50th Anniversary biography for Holy Cross this past year, thanks to my eventual willingness to chance world travel we have browsed the shops of Dublin, prayed in St. Peter’s Basilica and walked the sands of Normandy and the streets of Valletta. With Pavarotti’s voice echoing in the air, I (we) have stood on a deck below Stromboli as it belched hot embers on a quiet summer’s night.
It was during my first Tauck tour–Judy had already taken one to Germany, Austria and Switzerland–that I happened upon the idea of collecting souvenir lapel pins as part hobby and part memory aid to remind me where I had been and what I had seen.
The pins have become very personal to me and I now have–counting some memorable sporting events and local attractions (like an annual play-off and world series game in St. Louis) in excess of 600. I have pins from Monte Carlo, the Hearst Castle in St. Simon, California and the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.
I also have one from Monaco where we visited or actually stood on Grace Kelly’s grave inside their Cathedral. I have others from the French cities of Chenonceau, Dinan and Normadie’, as well as Italy’s Assisi, Venice and Siena. I have others from Yosemite, the Amish Country and Bubba Gump’s on Fisherman’s Wharf. I love my Corsica pin as well as the one from Sherwood Forest.
My favorite pin is the most personal one I have and it really was not part of these adventures. I had always promised myself that if the late Brooklyn Dodgers captain, Pee Wee Reese, the closest man I had to a hero as a child, was ever elected to the Cooperstown Hall of Fame I would go.
He was in 1984 and so I took my eight-year son, Matthew with me. Because of my baseball writings and teachings–in St. Louis I was known as The Baseball Professor–I was able to secure a press pass that put me right next to Hall of Fame sportswriter, Bob Broeg, a personal friend.
They gave us all a souvenir pin included the names of all the inductees. One woman offered me 100 dollars for it on the street.
On our most recent trip up the St. Lawrence River in one of those Dam Ships, we idly walked around the Canadian town of Sydney. Nova Scotia. Signs for an Art Fair caught the eye of my sister-in-law and the four of us traipsed in and around the streets to find it in the hall of a local church.
An elderly man–a bit older than me–was offering his collection of pins for sale. Most of them had been collected like I had in his various travels. There was an inherent sadness I recognized immediately. In a profound way he was “letting go” of his memories and maybe his life.
The pins were not as interesting as mine but I felt compelled to give one of them a “good home”. I asked him which was his favorite and without hesitation he pointed to an oval-shaped pin of a chicken hatching from the cocoon of its shell. He had bought it in Chicken, Alaska–a real place I had never heard of and had no desire to visit.
We had taken a cruise to Alaska and wandered around such metropolises as Skagway and Ketchikan. My brother-in-law and I met an ex-soldier, named Umberto in one of the bars we visited that scared me to death. He was living with the bar maid who was twice his age. Couldn’t wait to be rescued by our wives.
He asked me to read the small print under the egg. It read, I got laid in Chicken, Alaska. I hadn’t the courage to ask him why it was his favorite!
I had originally wanted to construct a neologism–calling this essay—a Pingrimage because like all human beings life is a continual search for truth and answers to questions that plague us while we still have breath.
Traveling to far off places can be a broading and educational experience because while people may dress and talk differently under their cultural skin they are all human beings, just like us trying to find our way in this life.
Were I to attach all my pins to a world map, they would configure just what marvelous parts of God’s vast universe I had seen. This is not only a geography statement but also one of ontology for me because it shows just how little we can do and see in the short time allotted to us on earth.
It is a sobering thought, pregnant with a universal significance. We must not waste a moment in anger, bitterness or despair. Our time belongs to us but we belong to God.
In his posthumous novel, You Can’t Going Home Again author Thomas Wolfe tells the story of George Webber, a fledgling author, who writes a book about his hometown of Libya Hill. The book is a best seller but the town is unhappy with Webber’s critical depiction of them. He receives many menacing letters and death threats.
Wolfe took the title from a conversation with writer Ella Winter, who remarked to Wolfe: Don’t you know you can’t go home again! Wolfe had already addressed a similar theme in his autobiographical first novel Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life in 1929. It was Wolfe’s first novel, and is considered an autobiographical American Bildungsroman.
You Can’t’s title is reinforced in the denouement of the novel in which Webber realizes You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…
Similarly the phrase you can’t go home again has entered American lexicon to mean that once you have left your country town or provincial backwater city for a sophisticated metropolis you cannot return to the narrow confines of your previous way of life. More generally any attempt to relive youthful memories will always fail.
For the last number of years I have tried to give lie to Wolfe’s theme by exploring the memories of my past life with the renewal of some old acquaintances, who have been most influential in my life. In throwing caution to wind, I was aware that I could suffer emotional rejection, withdrawal and the knowledge of some painful truths.
But as Socrates warned, the unexplored life is not worth living and at my age I needed to bathe in the sweetened waters of my memories in order to energize my present before cognizance fades from my mind. I am running, not from my life but for it.
Reunions are like microscopic homecomings. In the month of June my wife and I attended, not one but two of my 50-year reunions. The first one was more familiar to us since it was at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts where we have attended all their five-year reunions since the 25th in 1990.
Consequently it was simple to trace the subtle changes of each half-decade so that seeing many of my friends from those years was no great shock to me. The big disappointment was the fact that many could not or did not attend. This was a lost opportunity that I regret a great deal. Sixty-eight had perished over the years, including my dear roommate, Peter L. Lawrence who has been gone for nine years now. I still grieve over his loss
The Class published its 50th Anniversary yearbook that had a special section eulogizing the deceased in truth and dignity. It was a fine addition to one’s memory bank. The biggest disappointment was many of the living had not submitted any record of their lives this past half century, cheating us of contexting their memories with theirs.
On the other side of the equation, at least half-dozen friends came back whom I had not seen since graduation. There were only four other members of my high school class there. Sixteen of us had motored up from New York’s Xavier High School.
One of them brought has wife whom I had known at a Summer Sodality that we had both joined at Chaminade high school on Long Island during our college years. There was one high school friend whom I did not remember seeing since Xavier. His wife laughed at that thought. But I countered if she had any proof that he actually attended. Perhaps Jesuits had sequestered him for those four years.
Like most reunions the pace was frenetic but well oiled and things moved very smoothly. I especially enjoyed the class Mass on Saturday, officiated by our Father Paul Sughrue. His acolyte was his twin brother, Peter. Seeing them on the same altar gave me a warm glow that I will always treasure.
The refrain from one of the hymns provided me with a new prayer: Day by Day: Lord let me know you more clearly…love you more dearly…and follow you more nearly…
I did not miss the last statement’s Jesuitical nuance. It is reminiscent of St. Augustine’s prayer: Lord make me chaste…just not now!
It was my membership in the Holy Cross Sodality that caused the second reunion. While at Holy Cross, an energetic priest from Chicago, Father John Sullivan, who later became the Archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, spoke each and every year I was there. He was a representative of the Catholic Lay Extension over the years sent over 2000 laymen and women, mostly women to the mission dioceses in the country. I had been so impressed by Father Sullivan that I joined my senior year. It was arguably the most important decision in my life because as an ELV I was sent to Charleston, Missouri to teach at St. Henry’s High School and coach the basketball team. It was there I met my future wife.
I have been trying to let that reunion weekend in Deerfield, IL. sink in. Unlike Holy Cross it was a quick trip in and out. They had it so well-organized that we did not wear down. I was surprised that I did not know anyone there at all, save the women I had talked with over the phone. My wife knew more people than I did–one woman who had preceded me to Charleston. The two of them really hit it off so my shy little wife was fully occupied. I have no trouble meeting new people.
I was hoping to see the people from Missouri from our year—all women except for my roommate, Father Ernie Marquart, who has suffered from Rocky Mt. fever I believe. It totally wiped out his memories of our year. I saw him at a convent with a couple of the sisters we had worked with maybe 10-15 years ago and he did not remember me at all. I had even brought some photos from that year with me. I AM a hard person to forget. At Holy Cross I didn’t wear a nametag once!
The old pictures they displayed were fantastic! I found one of all the Missourians. Like the pictures of us in the newsletter they sent, we all looked so young, innocent and alive with the joys of the faith in 1965. I was hoping Barbara Berlsman would be there. She was a nurse, who had given me one of my favorite lines that I have used over the years–she had gone to a public school in Ohio that had nuns teaching there. I immediately quipped: so you went to a nun-Catholic school!
I had been unaware that they stopped the volunteer program in 1971–after just 10 years! Now they serve primarily as a conduit for funding that they use to support existing volunteer programs in 95 mission dioceses in the country.
During our 48 hours there I had occasion to think deeply as to why I had joined the organization. It dawned on me during one of the discussions that I had joined Extension because I was a Sodalist and they always stressed personal service. I also thought it would be a good way to get some teaching experience and serve the Church.
I also noticed that our group of about 150 had lost some of its internal spiritual and intellectual unity that was prevalent in 1965. I felt a bifurcation during some of the group’s general discussions that showed a wide variance of opinions on many different subjects.
This was to be expected since 50 years of life experiences had intervened, militating against the Ray Repp uplifting and emotive hymns we sang at Barat College during training, the emerging spirit of Vatican II, and the wonderful and joyful camaraderie, and the residual influence of Kennedy’s New Frontier. In 1965 we were a Catholic vanguard that was going to make the world a better place. Reality hit us all and hard—the Vietnam War, a fury of racial unrest, urban violence, political assassinations and just trying to find out where we belonged in this life—all took their toll.
During one of the public forums I stood up and said that because of Extension seven new people existed that would not be around had I not gone to Chicago in 1965. I am speaking of my three children and four grandchildren.
My exploration into my past is nearly complete. My journey serves as an elaborate metaphor of our pilgrimage on earth. Poets, dramatists, authors and essayists have written about this impulse for centuries. It is a universal urgency that cannot be denied, ignored or medicated out of one’s subconscious. It drives us, goads us and pursues us like British poet Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven.
Wolfe was metaphysically incorrect! We can go home, not to the environs of our early lives but to the place the Father has prepared for in Heaven.
The English language is rich in colorful and elaborate metaphors. New York City, “the Big Apple,” lends itself to such literary devices. For 30 years its “twin towers,” loomed powerfully over its financial district until symbolic acts of calculated destruction brought them crumbling down. Their 2014 replacement will never erase the horrible memory of that infamous sunny Tuesday morning in the heart of the financial district.
Most people don’t realize that New York has another pair of twin towers that are more notable as mirror images than they are for any generic similarities. Like two menacing cultural symbols at war with each other, they stand large and tall at opposite ends of New York’s historically fashionable 5th Avenue.
On 51th street is the newly refurbished St. Patrick’s Cathedral with its amazing Gothic spires that direct the eyes toward God in His heaven above. It stands erect and defiant in opposition to its traditional trinity of evils, the world, the flesh, and the devil. About five city blocks uptown is the eponymous “Trump Tower,” a gilded monument to the ego of one man, Donald Trump. While its tower reaches to the sky, its entire focus looks downward to the material accomplishments and possessions of its namesake.
The inside of St. Patrick’s is dark and mysterious, despite the thousands of picture-taking tourists who are too often indifferent to their presence in God’s House to notice. Despite the many distractions, one may still sit in silent adoration or just breathe in the aroma of the holy incense and expired candles.
In stark contrast, the Trump Tower is festooned in gold. Inside are thousand of picture-taking tourists, who walk aimlessly about its several kiosks and counters where they can buy Trump’s books on how to become enormously wealthy like “the Donald.” They can also dress for success with a rich assortment of Trump shirts, ties, belts, and watches. For their recreational hours, there are Trump games and tee shirts. Trump’s marbleized walls stare back with lavish pictures of him and his beautiful third wife. In the eatery on its lowest level, one can sip a latte, and listen to the cacophonous chatter of a diversity of unrecognizable languages and dialects, reminiscent of an older tower in Babel. The only thing missing is the golden calf.
Holocaust survivor and Catholic convert, Viktor Frankl anticipated this New York’s metaphoric standoff with his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning. It is essentially a reflection on the universal fact of man’s existential vacuum. This is the basic fact of our human nature that drives us on an endless search for our personal fulfillment. It is a matter of our choice as to what fills that empty feeling we often have.
Not to be outdone by New York City architecture, the Bible is also rich in metaphoric allusions. In God’s book, the heart is the vital center of human architecture. Matthew’s Gospel (6:21) tells us that where your heart is, there will be your treasure. The late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen often pointed out that the actual physical human heart appears to have a missing chunk.
Bishop Sheen, who is interred behind the main altar in St. Patrick’s, often preached that this piece belongs to God and we can only be whole when we rest our weary hearts in His love. In sharp contrast, the Trump Tower or the house of mammon rests on man’s insatiable need to possess things. While Trump watches and apparel may satisfy for a moment, they will never fill Father Frankl’s vacuum or make Sheen’s heart whole again.
The twin towers of God and man also symbolize an American culture that has lost its traditional sense of integration. Material things and the love of God no longer work in tandem for our salvific needs. Now they stand poised like two gladiators in a public arena. When the battle is finally over, only one tower will remain standing. My money is on St. Pat’s.
During a Men’s Bible Study years ago, one of the men in my group said he was reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. His religious’ curiosity got me to thinking about my own journey as a cradle Catholic.
I was born into a faith that has existed for nearly 2000 years. It has survived devastating attacks from within and from without. It has endured a history of bloody persecution in which thousands of its faithful were ripped apart by wild beasts, crucified, burned alive and thrown off high cliffs, drawn and quartered–all because they believed in the Divinity of the Christ. It has launched crusades and burned a few thousand heretics at the stake in defense of the faith. It is a religion that is filled with mystery, ceremony, pomp and high circumstance.
The Catholic Church also has its unique smells that excite and calm, music that raises the spirit and comforts the soul. Theologically it soars like the eagle as it tries to touch the hand of God. It can cure disease, ease suffering and prepare for the final moments of life. It is a church of over one billion people with as many different strains of thinking as a university library.
However being a faith of deep and high-minded ideas and ideals sometimes it confuses. Sometimes it frightens. For all its attendant holiness, its leaders sometimes seem caught in a whirling vortex of charity and unadulterated power that idly dismisses reason and moral logic in favor of pragmatic goals. Some of its popes have been saintly! Others have done the work of the devil. Most have been ambitious while others mediocre.
The Church is a very human institution— a living contradiction. I once asked a priest during a parish Christmas Mission if he had any advice for someone who had been born into the pre-Vatican Church but came to his full religious maturity during the initial reforms of the Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII. I do not think he answered my question nor did anyone understand my dilemma.
I am caught twixt and tween the old and new Catholic Church. There are many things about the old church of my youth, which is vastly different from my adult church, that I still relish. As a child, the many rules, moral laws and order of the faith were deeply ingrained in me by habited nuns and humorless priests. Along with the Baltimore Catechism they laid the foundation for my adult faith.
We all learned the dogmas of the faith by rote memory with a diligence and certitude that armed us to face the three major enemies, who competed for our immortal souls–the world, the flesh and the devil. To paraphrase TV’s Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday in the 1950s, we knew the facts. I doubt if the same could be said today.
The Church’s teachings on sexual morality were complicated. We were taught our bodies were the temples of the Holy Ghost yet they were also the snares of the devil. We were warned about improper touches to ourselves and others. Girls were taught to dress modestly—no long pants, though I do remember a few occasions when they wore Bermuda shorts.
Most dirty magazines of the day were, not what anyone would call pornographic, but more of the naturalist pulp magazines of nude sunbathers. It was over such a stack of weather-beaten magazines in the bushes of a local high school that a friend instructed me and another friend in the “facts of life.” Another time, a priest threatened me with eternal damnation for beating around the bush in the Confessional. I was 11 years old.
The rules did work. I have kept the faith all these years. I have avoided most of the near occasions of sins. After studying in Jesuit institutions for 11 year, I was able to rationalize those I couldn’t avoid. I have been faithfully married to the same woman for nearly 50 years and still look at women in the same positive way that I adopted in the weeds at Forest Hills high school. However the Church’s abject legalism did take a toll on my understanding of God’s divine mercy and the Agape reflection of His unlimited personality.
For most of my life I have been a habitual worrier who is relieved when things are over, instead of enjoying the joyful moments of my life. But the new church is much different. The church of love and forgiveness has replaced the church of law and order. In the Church of divine rules, I had tried to micromanage everything and had left nothing up to God.
But the freedoms of the modern church is the worst nightmare of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, in his classic The Brothers Karamazov who cursed God for making men with a free will. During Holy Hour I have learned to open my heart and soul so that my life is more open to His grace. I find this happens best when I listen to God in the silence of His presence.
I have learned to accept my body as it is and realize that it was made in the image and likeness of God and was not something dirty and offensive. However people still need honest and realistic rules—like the 10 Commandments and Jesus’ emphasis on loving all other human beings.
The modern ideas of relativism and secularism permeate our culture. These dangerous ideas have infiltrated church thinking on many levels. The modern church has in some respects thrown the Christ child out with the bath water. Scandal, indifference and moral confusion abound. I see many others who do not have the double grounding in the faith that I have. While the journey never gets easier, God’s presence in my life helps me stay on the right path more nearly.
The May issue years of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Game Day Magazine featured a nostalgic look at the old stadia in Brooklyn and New York I used to attend as a young fan. Every time I see a photo of the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field I am reminded of an incident that happened the team’s final season in Flatbush. Our grade school had provided tickets for several “patrol boys” for a game with the Cardinals. I sat in the upper deck with boyhood friend Eddie Smith.
Eddie was a mischievous lad who constantly pushed the envelope of civility. This chilly May afternoon he started throwing peanuts at the fans below us. To our horror a seedy looking usher with a clip bowtie, dangling from his open collar and a pencil thin mustache, emerged undetected out of the rafters and yanked poor Eddie by his coat collar. My last sight of Eddie was his pleading eyes as he was dragged backwards down the steep flight of bleacher steps.
Several years ago, while visiting him in his Long Island home, I reminded him of the incident. Little did I realize that his six-year old daughter was absorbing every detail of my story! I will never forget the tearful look on her face when she said, Daddy you threw peanuts?
These many years it has been hard for me to get her sad and puzzled face out of my mind. I had unintentionally crumbled her image of her dad as a model of sober perfection. By exposing his adolescent prank, I might have had stripped his poor little girl of her innocence way before her time.
It’s a different world today. The peanuts story is mild by comparison with what we are doing to our children today, especially our little girls. Thousands of parents cannot wait to shed their daughters’ innocence and usher them into a world, filled with the corrupt environs of a troop of seedy ushers, just waiting to drag their daughters down the winding stairs of despair.
We live in a culture that is hot-wired against purity and self-restraint. Many of our schools teach our kids the basic mechanics of reproduction without any concern for its moral, emotional and sociological aspects. Catholic girls seem no better than the rest of their peers. All this makes me wonder just has happened the past 60 years. Some will suggest the usual suspects, namely Vatican II or the failure of Catholic couples to heed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vita. My thoughts conjure up something much more sinister.
In the 1920s Antonio Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, remarked that Communism as an economic force was doomed to failure. He said too many Italians were tied to their culture, especially their Catholic faith. The way to defeat the West was by a long march through its Christian culture.
The best way to do this was through its women, the custodians of the culture. Since the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world is still a reliable truism, his plan was designed to lure future generations of young women away from their morality and religious faith by whatever means necessary.
While Gramsci died in prison, his ideas were embodied in the Frankfurt School, a Marxist research institute in Germany. Herbert Marcuse, its leading advocate and his associates eventually transplanted Gramsci’s ideas to American culture through its university system. One of his disciples, Betty Friedan, convinced millions of suburban housewives that they were wasting their lives. Her Feminist Mystique launched the feminist movement with its legacy of working mothers, feminist empowerment, abortion rights, and a hatred of patriarchy.
For three generations millions of American mothers, even many Catholic mothers, have weaned their daughters on a steady diet of prepubescent sexual freedom and distaste for the country’s religious and moral traditions. As a result fatherhood has lost its luster and has been relegated to the dusty archives with reruns of Leave it to Beaver and his sage dad, Ward Cleaver. The apocalypse may not yet be here, but one thing I can say with certainty, things are far worse than when Eddie Smith was tossing peanuts in Ebbets Field.