Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Lessons from Pride and Prejudice

Why did I marry my husband?

To quickly clarify, I pose the above question not in a spirit of exasperation, questioning the very fact that he and I entered into matrimony in the first place.  Quite the contrary!  Every day provides me additional reasons to confirm and strengthen my conviction that he is exactly the man to whom I want and need to be married.

So, why the inquiry?

I just finished reading Pride and Prejudice, by the renowned Jane Austen.  I hesitate to even venture writing this post because 1) it frankly embarrasses me that it took me until this point to actually read such a world-renowned, classical novel and 2) considering the breadth of analysis, critique, and research compiled on this famous narrative, what I could add seems barely adequate: what in heaven's name can I contribute?

But in any case, here I am and I will go ahead and give my humble perspective!

A plot synopsis seems hardly necessary since the story is so well-known and, should you find yourself ignorant of it, well--I just urge you to find the nearest copy and begin reading!  Thus, I'll jump right into my reflections.

Clearly, marriage is the matter of the hour in Pride and Prejudice.  Who desires marriage?  Who has the best prospects?  What's the most advantageous marriage?  As Austen's famous opening line reads:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

For a single young woman, especially one without a male sibling and whose father's estate would pass to another relative, marriage was the safest and most secure means of ensuring that one's material needs were to be met.  Thus for the Bennett sisters, the possibility of not marrying meant a real possibility of one day living in destitution.  

Ironically, today we face the exact opposite dilemma: many couples find that marrying would actually be financially disadvantageous!  How times have changed!

Then: marriage was the focus, the goal, the most important decision a young woman could make.  Now: what does marriage mean to today's young women?

Today, marriage rates are dropping.  Women--when they do marry--do so at a later age.  Thankfully, today's females don't have to rely on marriage to pull them out of possible impoverishment.  They have education and careers & excel in their fields.  

But I do wonder...as much as young girls are encouraged and driven to build careers and move up professional ladders, is not the desire to marry still lying deep in their hearts?  

I can't, of course, speak on behalf of my female peers, but, from personal experience, I did desire to advance in my education and career & took concrete steps to do so.  Yet, there was an ever-present yearning much more deeply rooted within me.  Ever since I was a little girl, I would dream of my wedding day and entering into a new life with my husband.  It was the very thing I hoped and prayed for the most--degrees and a career couldn't hold a torch to marriage.  

It intrigues me whether this desire to marry is still foremost in the hearts of most of today's young women, even though, societally, it's not as clearly dominant and pervasive a concern as it was in 19th century England.  I'm sure a sociologist would be able to provide the statistics!

In any event, marriage was in the forefront for the characters in Pride and Prejudice.  But what was the motivation?  Economics played a part, of course, but not exclusively.  When Mr. Collins offered Elizabeth his hand and, accordingly, a stable, secure future, Elizabeth adamantly would have nothing to do with it and was unhappy to hear her close friend, Charlotte, agreed to become his wife.

She had always felt that Charlotte's opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she had not supposed it to be possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. Charlotte the wife of Mr. Collins was a most humiliating picture! And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk in her esteem, was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen. 

In the myriad of relationships and marriages present in the novel, there are so many motivations at play: shame, passion, reason, pragmatism, love.  And depending on which factor was most dominate, one can safely presume to say which marriage would then enjoy the greatest degree of peacefulness, respect, and charity.

So I return again to my opening question: what was my motivation for marrying my husband?  I was obviously very much in love with him and was attracted to him--motivations of the heart.  

I also reasoned that he was intelligent, with a great education and quite capable--indications he would be a steady breadwinner for our future family.  Economics was definitely at play for me, just it was for the Bennet family.  I was wary of entering into marriage with someone who was burdened with massive debts and who additionally lacked a strong potential career (thus, for me, a scenario like debt from medical school could be rationalized, but debt without a promising career path would be a major obstacle).  

Marriage is about love and passion, yes, but it's also very sensible and pragmatic: it's about creating and raising a family together, which requires certain stability and financial security.

But more than any of these heart or head motivations was a spiritual motivation: the conviction that he, more than anyone else I had ever met, would help me become the person I am meant to be.  Beyond his physical or mental features, I was attracted to his soul and knew that he would be the best person to help me reach my ultimate destination, which is heaven.  I, for my part, wanted to do my very best to help him reach heaven, too.

When doing some research on this novel, I came across various reviews or comments from female readers concerning the book, which went along the lines of, "I wish I could meet my Mr. Darcy!"  Enter in swoons and romantic pining.  

But perhaps this isn't the best interpretation of the character.  While ultimately putting aside his pride and acting chivalrously & selflessly toward Elizabeth, the relationship between these two characters isn't a fairy-tale romance.  Mr. Darcy isn't Prince Charming; Elizabeth isn't a princess.  Love is present, clearly, but it's a love that chisels away at their respective faults--in other words, it's a love that makes them each better people.  It's a love that purifies, corrects, and grows slowly over time.  True love doesn't lead just to sunsets and roses...it leads to virtue.

She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her.  His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes.  It was a union that must have been to the advantage of both--by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.

As Darcy says to Elizabeth,

As a child, I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper.  I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit...Such I was from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth!  What do I not owe you!  You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous.  By you I was properly humbled.

To care so much about the other person to desire to change and improve...to become more worthy of him or her: that's romantic!  Love, slowly and steadily, spurns the character growth of these two individuals and then--by removing their respective pride and prejudice--forms the foundation of respect and honesty on which they can build their marriage.

I have one final reflection to add concerning Pride and Prejudice, one which fans can become quite impassioned about!  My first introduction to P & P was the 1995 BBC television series, followed by the more recent movie version in 2005.  Only after watching both of those did I read the book.  And I regret that.

One of the most refreshing and powerful aspects of reading a fictional novel is the gift of imagination: to create in your mind the appearance of the characters, the scenery the author describes, the expression and tone of the dialogue.  In reading Pride and Prejudice, I couldn't help but see Keira Knightley's face when I envisioned Elizabeth!  Surely, she has a very pretty face, but it's not exactly as much fun as when you can imagine a character for yourself...

In general, I much prefer reading a book first.  The movie versions of Pride and Prejudice certainly colored the novel for me and understandably removed any element of surprise!

Simultaneously though, I don't recommend not watching the movie versions of Pride and Prejudice.  They're great!  While the BBC version is certainly more faithful to Austen's writing, I must admit that I prefer the 2005 movie adaptation.  The aesthetic dimension of the music (seriously, just listen to the soundtrack...so beautiful!) and the powerful shots of the natural scenery are incredibly moving.  

Since 19th century England is a bit removed from our time, it was indeed helpful and beautiful to actually see what a typical dance at one of the eventful balls would have been like, or to visualize the dresses or elaborate homes of the wealthy.  

But again, take my advice: read the book first!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Lessons from Quo Vadis

"Their glances locked for a while--the one mild and curious, the other venomous and bitter--and no one in that vast gathering of people or within Caesar's brilliant retinue realized that the two most powerful rulers of mankind were looking at each other just then.  Nor did it even occur to anyone that one of them would soon be gone, vanished into darkness like a gory nightmare, while the other, the old man in the worn gray cloak of slaves and wanderers, would seize possession of the city and the world and hold them forever." 

The world's current tragedies, conflicts, and the moral issues that plague our own society are large, sobering, and serious.  While this is indeed the case, it doesn't negate the fact that--as many problems plague our world today--history tells us that we have come a long way.

I think it is absolutely imperative for someone to truly know his or her history because, in learning about our past, we come to understand our present and shape our future.

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz is a piece of outstanding historical fiction that takes place in Rome during the emperor Nero's reign, from approximately 54-68 AD.  Through incredible, seemingly eye-witness detail, Sienkiewicz's writing reminds one how dark, how truly dark, the world was before the Light came into it.

Living in a Christian civilization, there is so much that I at least take for granted.  Upon entering the world of the Roman empire under Nero's rule, suddenly everything was disturbingly different.  The violence, debauchery, lavishness, irrationality, baseness, and lust that characterize Nero's rule are unmatched to anything we might see here today in our nation.  

"Rome ruled mankind, but it was also its cesspool and its seeping ulcer.  It reeked of death and corpses.  Death's shadow lay over its decomposing life...All that passed for life in this capital of the earth seemed suddenly like some kind of mad processional for capering buffoons, a dance of mindless clowns, and a bloody orgy that had to end by its own excess." 

The darkness dimmed the Roman ideology, too.  The whole mindset and perspective of your average Roman was based on a foundation absolutely different from that of Christianity.  A quote from one of the main characters illustrates the dominate philosophy of pagan Rome:

"Fakery is in fashion.  The world lives by deceit and life is an illusion anyway, so what harm is there in cheating and being cheated?  The soul is also an illusion.  The only thing that counts is to be intelligent enough to distinguish between the illusions of pleasure and pain."

As the reader gradually comes to understand the basic characteristics of ancient Rome, one begins to comprehend what an absolutely foreign, unprecedented, and mind-boggling thing Christianity truly was at that time.

I remember wrestling with a hypothetical situation about a year ago.  I imagined myself before a vicious interrogator, who held our child hostage and threatened to end her life unless I rejected my faith.  What would I do, if I ever found myself in such a situation?    

A Christian woman martyred under Nero
Quo Vadis takes one among the very first Christian believers, Sts. Peter and Paul included.  The immensity of their task, the sheer daunting enormity of winning hearts and souls in such a dark lair of sin and evil is incredible.  And the consequences of their allegiance to Christ were deadly.

As I read, I couldn't help but think to myself: these are my brothers and sisters.  These people believe the same things that I believe today--the same Faith, the same Church.  And look...look at what they did!  And me: what am I doing?  

With astounding detail, Sienkiewicz relates the great burning of Rome, as if he had been standing there amongst the flames and devastation.  With the same vividness, he recounts Nero's ruthless and merciless punishment of the Christians, whom he blames for the destruction of the seat of the empire.

The Torches of Nero
Christians are devoured by wild animals obtained from all corners of the Roman world.  They are crucified.  They are set on flames as human torches, lighting up the streets of Rome.  Mothers and fathers clutch their children to their chests as they face imminent death.

"As if this were a signal, the pack hurled itself into the breech in dozens and tore into the Christians.  The gallery quieted down, stopped howling and watched the scene below with greater attention.  The quavering men's and women's voices still cried out their plaintive 'Pro Christo!  Pro Christo!' amid the snarls and growling, but the arena was now a heaving, tumbling mass of dogs and mutilated prey.  Blood stained the sand in streams.  The dogs fought each other for bits of human offal.  They tore bloody arms and legs out of each other's jaws.  The stench of blood and ordure filled the amphitheater.  The kneeling figures who were left soon vanished under the swarming mass."

I return to my hypothetical.  Would I have the same courage as these?  Would my gaze be on beyond this world?  Would I see, too, that life begins after death...that I don't exist for this world...that this death will bring about victory?  

I knew, years before I met my husband, that I would want our honeymoon to be in Rome.  It was always my dream to visit St. Peter's Basilica.  It worked out quite conveniently that my husband-to-be shared the same dream.  So, the day after our wedding, we took a plane to the eternal city.  

As I read Quo Vadis, I could picture so clearly the setting: the sunset that gilded all the buildings, the intense heat of a summer afternoon, the grandeur of it all.  

One of the greatest highlights of our honeymoon was a special tour we took of St. Peter's, which brought us below ground level to some ancient burial places that had been evacuated.  It was during this evacuation that the bones of St. Peter had been found--buried way below ground, exactly underneath where the main altar was later placed.  As the climax of the tour, we were able to see and pray before his bones.  Christ literally built His Church on the foundation that is the rock of St. Peter.

And it was none other than the blood of the martyrs--the blood that Caesar ordered shed to wipe-out the Christians--that was the seed of the Church.  

From simply a historical perspective, Quo Vadis is an incredible read.  Sienkiewicz meticulously researched the setting of his novel and it shows, from the proper names he uses to describe Roman culture to the geographical position of various places in the city.  To read his novel is truly to enter into the world of ancient Rome.  

On top of this is another motivation to pick up the book: enter into the greatest conversion that changed an empire and a world.  

Maybe, through this novel, you'll experience a deeper conversion yourself!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lessons from Brideshead

"Do you know last year, when I thought I was going to have a child, I'd decided to have it brought up a Catholic?  I hadn't thought about religion before; I haven't since; but just at that time, when I was waiting for the birth, I thought, 'That's one thing I can give her.  It doesn't seem to have done me much good, but my child shall have it.'  It was odd, wanting to give something one had lost oneself." 

Have you ever reflected back upon your life and, in retrospect, observed that the events and choices you've made--especially the difficult circumstances and the poor choices--weave together to create a path, a journey you never really anticipated, but in the end landed you in a destination so much more wonderful and joyful than what you had originally planned?

That line you marked on your life map, following you through your childhood, adolescence, adulthood and beyond, is the almost always imperceptible line of grace.  

It's the mark of Divine Providence upon the canvas of your life.  

And, with the eyes of faith, it creates the most stunning image...especially considering it has been formed using the poor, broken, and frail tools of fallen humanity.

The classic English novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a novel that follows the Flyte family during the 1920's and into the time immediately preceding World War II.  It contains many characters, but the main protagonist is none other than Divine Providence and through the drama of their lives, it is grace that ultimately draws the characters.


The novel centers around Charles Ryder, an only child raised by a distant, widowed father.  Charles is a painter and an agnostic.  His life seems to truly begin when he commences his studies at Oxford and meets Sebastian Flyte, who hails from an extremely rich and very (somewhat dysfunctional) Catholic family.  

Through Sebastian and the friendship that they share, Charles first begins to understand love.  

"In the event, that Easter vacation formed a short stretch of level road in the precipitous descent of which Jasper warned me.  Descent or ascent?  It seems to me that I grew younger daily with each adult habit that I acquired.  I had lived a lonely childhood and a boyhood straitened by war and overshadowed by bereavement; to the hard bachelordom of English adolescence, the premature dignity and authority of the school system, I had added a sad and grim strain of my own.  Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liquers and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence...I could tell him [Jasper, Charles's cousin], too, that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom." (p. 45)

Sebastian, quite reluctantly, introduces Charles to the rest of his family: his pious and controlling mother (who is separated from his father), his distant older brother Brideshead, his ravishingly beautiful sister Julia, and Cordelia, the youngest child who is very zealous in her beliefs.

Charles stays at the grandiose Flyte estate, Brideshead, during holidays and breaks and gradually enters into the inner life of the family.  One of Waugh's greatest strengths in his novel, in my humble opinion, is the way in which he presents this family.  His characters are so very real.  Each one is broken, troubled, prodigal in one way or another.  In other words, they are just like all of us. 

And while it is clear that they are Catholic, it is simultaneously apparent that their faith is far from perfect.  In fact, it is--at times--a bit comical.  Consider, for instance, the following passage that begins with a conversation between Cordelia and Charles.

"D'you know, if you weren't an agnostic, I should ask you for five shillings to buy a black god-daughter?" 

"Nothing will surprise me about your religion."

"It's a new thing a missionary priest started last term.  You send five bob to some nuns in Africa and they christen a baby and name her after you.  I've got six black Cordelias already.  Isn't it lovely?"

When Brideshead and Sebastian returned, Cordelia was sent to bed.  Brideshead began again on our discussion.

"Of course, you are right really," he said.  "You take art as an means not as an end.  That is strict theology, but it's unusual to find an agnostic believing it."

"Cordelia has promised to pray for me," I said.

"She made a novena for her pig," said Sebastian.

"You know all this is very puzzling to me," I said.

"I think we're causing scandal," said Brideshead.  


Yes, they are not perfect and their faith is flawed--at times, almost nonexistent.  But grace is working through their lives, as inapparent as it might seem.  In a passage in which she relates a famous quote from G.K. Chesterton, Cordelia remarks to Charles,

"Anyhow, the family hasn't been very constant, have they?  There's him gone and Sebastian gone and Julia gone.  But God won't let them go for long, you know.  I wonder if you remember the story Mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk...Father Brown said something like 'I caught him' (the thief) 'with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.'" 

And a twitch upon the thread does indeed occur.  For Charles, it happens gradually, through an ascent in love.  Love was first awakened in his heart through a brotherly love for Sebastian.  But then that love gradually gave way to a deeper, stronger love: a romantic love for Julia.  

But these loves, while certainly good, are only reflections of the greatest good, the deepest and most powerful love: the love that is Love Itself.

This is my favorite passage from the novel and in it, Charles first begins to wonder if his feelings for Julia are a means, not an ends--that perhaps they are meant to beckon him onto something greater.

"It's frightening," Julia once said, "to think how completely you have forgotten Sebastian."

"He was the forerunner."

"That's what you said in the storm.  I've thought since: perhaps I am only a forerunner, too."

Perhaps, I thought, while her words still hung in the air between us like a wisp of tobacco smoke--a thought to fade and vanish like smoke without a trace--perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of a shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.

While the themes of faith and the activity of grace are present throughout the novel, Waugh presents Divine Providence as it typically is in our own lives: working quietly, unassumingly, gradually chiseling away here and there at the hard marble of our sinfulness, slowly and methodically operating through daily events, even through one's transgressions and lapses in judgment.  

In fact, Divine Providence works so imperceptibly in the book that, without the lens of faith, one might miss it altogether...in which case, reading the novel still would be no waste: it's a wonderful step back into a time very unfamiliar to us today, a period of decadence and lavishness that the wealthiest members of society enjoyed to the fullest.  

And that's the brilliancy of it: Waugh writes a book about faith, but unless one is really looking for it, you might not even realize his intention.  

There is no "Saint Paul" moment of conversion.  But the call to conversion is there and it is heard only faintly, as though an echo at first, and gradually the door of the heart is opened to the one who stands patiently knocking.

Waugh is a brilliant, poetic author in his choice of diction and the plot he weaves is engaging, humorous, and so very relatable in many ways.  The ending, by many standards, may not be considered "happily ever after."

But I suppose that all depends on one's understanding of happiness. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Just the Two...Three...Four of Us

It seems like most individuals and families have a special summer spot.

As a child, my favorite summer location was our grandmother's camp, located on a lake in the Berkshires.  

Later childhood, when our family bought a pool, it was our backyard where I spent hours swimming and balancing on top of our whale float.  

In college and afterward, it was the elementary school playground down the road where I would watch the sunset dip past the rolling hills--the spot where Chris would later propose to me.

Summer has always been my favorite season, by far, and perhaps it was because of these meaningful locations.  

The past couple of years, since our Mary entered our lives, we didn't really have a summer destination of choice...until this year!  Our special family summer spot is the local town beach.

Though I grew up five minutes from here, I never actually visited this particular beach (perhaps because my parents live in a different town from us, despite the close proximity).  So when Chris, Mary, and I visited Snyder's Lake, it was a new experience for all three of us.  And all three of us absolutely loved it.

Only ten minutes from our house, it's the perfect spot to go right after Sunday morning Mass.  At that time, the beach is just about empty.  The water is pristinely clear, the picnic tables where we have our lunch perfectly shaded by tall pine trees, and the slides at the playground wonderfully fast for a toddler.

That was my destination yesterday.  Chris was occupied that morning, so it was just the girls.  Mary and I packed our bags, donned our swimsuits, lathered on the sunscreen, and hit the beach.

The two of us couldn't have asked for a better morning.

I took Mary into the deep water where we swam together, her arms clasped around my neck.  The water was wonderfully cool in the hot sunshine.  Then we worked diligently with our shovels and pails to create a sand "birthday cake," complete with stick candles.  After one more dip in the water, we walked hand-in-hand to our usual picnic table, where we shared some leftover pizza and split a banana.

It was such a special morning for us, mother and daughter.  I always spend a good amount of time with Mary, but most of it is occupied with things to do--chores, cooking, gardening, errands.  But yesterday was just being together: laughing, playing, chatting.  

I think it hit me when I was holding her in the water, encouraging her to kick: things won't be like this next summer.  Even more: things won't be like this come October.

I immediately felt guilty for thinking this.  Of course, of course, of course I am supremely grateful and excited and happy for our baby boy on the way.  I cannot wait to see his face and to know which features of his come from Chris or from me.  I want to smell that singular newborn baby scent, to touch those little fingers and toes, to baby-wear and nurse once again.

But amidst all these desires and emotions was the realization that a big change is coming to our household and the relationships we know now will indeed be altered: changed for the good, but changed nevertheless.

It's so easy for me to give Mary my full attention now--to take her places we can explore together, to read her a story at her request, to have her cuddle in my arms each night and each morning before leaving bed.  And we've enjoyed so many precious times together, such as yesterday morning at Snyder's Lake, times in which we have developed such a beautiful, loving bond.

As much as I sincerely welcome the change in the form of a new family member, part of me was feeling the loss of a family of three.  

It brought to my mind the time before Mary's birth.  

I knew that the "honeymoon" phase of our marriage was going to come to a grinding halt with her entrance into the world.  I similarly felt the loss of what Chris and I had enjoyed, just the two of us.  I was concerned that the closeness and special moments we had shared as newlyweds would soon disappear.  No longer could we walk hand-in-hand as we always had: now there was a diaper bag and carseat to carry.

As I reflected upon all of this, I realized that, yes indeed, Chris and my relationship was changed by Mary's birth; it was changed for the better.  

Could we spend peaceful, uninterrupted hours gazing into each other's eyes?  Talk whenever one of us needed to?  Plan a romantic evening at a moment's notice?

No.  But when we did gaze into each other's eyes, it was with a deeper understanding of the other.  When we did talk, it was to share the excitement of our child, the incarnation of our married love.  And those moments of conversation were so much more treasured and valued, never taken for granted as they once were before Mary's birth.  As for the spark of romance, seeing Chris not only as my husband, but as the father of our child, only increased my esteem for him and deepened my love and attraction.

Our Lord says, "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12: 24).

When Chris and I welcomed Mary into our family, something did die: there was no longer two.  "Two" alone had died; we were now three.  

But that death brought forth so much life, so much love--much more than Chris and I ever could have produced on our own, without Mary.  Mary helped us to love in ways we never knew before.  And while there are times I miss those newlywed moments, I would never exchange them for even a moment spent with Mary.

And so last night this is how I reassured myself.  Yes, something in my relationship with Mary will die when our baby boy arrives on the scene.  No longer can I give her my undivided attention and the times when we can spend together--just mother and daughter--will be much fewer.  And that will be sad and an adjustment, to be certain.

But our baby boy will give her something I never, ever could give her, as hard as I might try.  He will teach her even more how to love: that love isn't receiving, but giving of oneself.  That there is someone beside her who needs our attention and care.  He will teach her selflessness and responsibility; no longer is she the neediest member of the family.  Now she, with us, will need to care for our little boy.

This is what love does.  Love is never content to be as is--it must always grow.  

So the love of husband and wife doesn't rest between the two of them, gazing upon each other.  That love shifts from each other to the new life produced from their self-giving union of one flesh. 

And then love isn't content simply to gaze upon the eldest child as he or she grows from newborn to baby to toddler to child.  It brings forth another incarnation of marital love, another little soul to raise and to care for.  

Together, these relationships of giving and receiving, teach the family about the deepest meaning of love, revealing He who is Love itself.

When our little boy arrives outside the womb, he will change our family.  He will help each one of us give a little more selflessly, to love a little more generously.  In that way, we will sanctify each other and bring each other closer to our true homeland that is heaven.  

It will be a challenge, as is all change.  And I will have to be very cognizant about passing the newborn off to Chris to still give Mary some special mother-daughter time--time I will be in need of, too.  

But, as Blessed (soon-to-be Saint!) Pope John Paul II said, the greatest thing that parents can give their child is another sibling.  I thank God for giving this gift--the gift of our baby-in-the-womb--to our family, and to Mary.

Last night, as I kissed her goodnight, Mary said, "I had fun playing at the beach with you."  It will always be a precious memory to me, too...and--God-willing--how many more memories lie ahead for the four of us!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Lessons from the Scarlet Pimpernel

This week we celebrate our nation's independence, which was secured through the American Revolution.

But not all revolutions are cause to celebrate and not all have such happy endings.

"...that seething, bloody Revolution which was overthrowing a monarchy, attacking a religion, destroying a society, in order to try and rebuild upon the ashes of tradition a new Utopia, of which a few men dreamed, but which none had the power to establish."

It's France in 1792.  The French Revolution is in full-swing and will soon develop into the Reign of Terror, a period from 1793-1794 in which the radical, secular republic became more and more militaristic and authoritarian.  

In an effort to rid France of all traces of traditional aristocracy, anyone with relation to an aristocratic family of old was subject to the guillotine.  Bloodline alone made one guilty of a deadly crime.

In the name of "liberty, equality, and fraternity," somewhere between 16,000 and 40,000 people were killed, including as many as 2,000 priests--in an effort to de-Christianize the nation.

This is the setting of the fast-paced page-turner The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy.  

A scarlet pimpernel is a small flower native to Britain.  It is also the alias adopted by a daring, crafty, and courageous Brit who, with his small comrade of devoted followers, helps those condemned to the guillotine to escape.

The central question of the novel is: Who is the Scarlet Pimpernel?  Who is this brave hero?  As one of the main characters quaintly puts it:

"We seek him here, we seek him there.  Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.  Is he in heaven?--Is he in hell?  That demmed, elusive Pimpernel."

A scarlet pimpernel
I will be very careful not to disclose the big reveal.  But it seems the shadowy figure of this gallant man and his enigmatic identity point to one of the main themes running through the novel: blindness.

It is indeed a blindness that leads a nation to condemn thousands of citizens--"guilty" only of their birth name--to death in the name of freedom.  But the blindness is even deeper: this bloodbath became a kind of sport and a crowd gathered daily for the great fun of watching the aristocrats sent to death.

"And daily, hourly, the hideous instrument of torture claimed its many victims--old men, young women, tiny children, even until the day when it would finally demand the head of a King and of a beautiful young Queen.  But this was as it should be: were not the people now the rulers of France?"

It is a blindness, too, to believe that man can be perfectly free by eliminating traditional authority.  In this world, man will never be fully free--man's freedom is naturally limited due to original sin and no amount of revolution or bloodshed will be able to overthrow those bonds.  

As Pope Pius VI wrote at the time of the French Revolution, "...what could be more insane than to establish among men this unbridled reason..."

It is the blindness that we are all prone to, due to our pride and prejudices, that allows the Scarlet Pimpernel to be successful.  Often his disguises are so unassuming and disparate to the popular notion of "hero," that he goes undetected by the authorities of the French Revolution...and even to those closest to him.

I highly recommend this book!  It was a short read and has history, romance, suspense, and action, all packed into one.

In recognizing the blindness rampant in the leaders of the French Revolution, as well as the main characters who fail to see the Scarlet Pimpernel right before them, one is compelled to examine the areas and relationships in one's own life that might need the light of truth.

...And it is a sobering reminder that, while our dear United States was founded on principles of inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must always safeguard and protect the precious freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights--especially in the current times when certain, pivotal freedoms are in danger: the right to life for all, especially the unborn and the elderly, and religious freedom.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Essence of God

This past Saturday I was blessed to attend two talks by the prominent Catholic theologian Dr. Scott Hahn, professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and well-known convert to Catholicism.

I'd like to share with you my notes from these two talks, as I have some friends who were unable to attend in person...and because it helps me process what he presented when I review my notes once again!

So just to reiterate: I am simply reiterating!  The below theological insights belong exclusively to the gifted Dr. Hahn; I am merely passing them along for your benefit!

Dr. Hahn's talk focused on the very nature of God.  What is the essence of God?  Who is God?  How do you even begin to define or explain God's nature?

The answer is the highest of all the mysteries of faith: the mystery of the Trinity--one God in three divine persons.  The Trinity is a mystery that goes beyond human logic and reason. However, it is not opposed to logic and reason.

Consider the natural world.  There are natural mysteries.  Take, for example, light.  What is light?  What is the essence or nature of light?  It's a mystery!

So as there are natural mysteries, so there are supernatural mysteries--the greatest of these being the mystery of the Trinity.

Blessed Pope John Paul II told the faithful that we must discover God for who He is.  Instead of always asking God for things (something I need to work on!), we should be praying: God, help me to know you!

The dogma of the Blessed Trinity sheds some light on this and helps us understand a little clearer who God is.  

Because God is one in three, we know that the essence of God is not solitude.  

Given that, what could we say is the very essence of God?  Any guesses?

Dr. Hahn's response: family.  The essence of God, of the Holy Trinity, is family.

God has fatherhood.  God has sonship.  And God has the central part of the family, which is interpersonal love--so much so, in fact, that it is the third divine person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit.

God is a family.  God is definitional family.

All earthly families, by contrast, are shadows or figures of the true, perfect family that is God.  Chris, Mary, and I are like a family; God is a family.

"But wait," some might protest.  Fatherhood is earthly and finite.  Same with sonship.  Isn't it blasphemous to attribute to God these human titles and relationships?

Well, consider this, Dr. Hahn encourages.  God is omniscient, or all-knowing.  We humans know, too, just not perfectly.  God is omnipotent, or all-powerful.  God delegates some of this power, to a much lesser extent, to us humans.  God is also omnibenevolent, or all-loving.  We love, just not perfectly.  So, working analogously, God's fatherhood is perfect and we humans share in this fatherhood, though imperfectly.

It's amazing to think how radical and extreme a change Jesus launched in world religion when He called God, "Abba" or, "Daddy."  And yet, God is the perfect Father.  He is "our Father."

Dr. Hahn then related an experience he had while at Mass one Sunday morning.  There was a religious sister who began Mass (right there you know there's trouble brewing) by praying the Sign of the Cross.  However, instead of praying in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, she said, "In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier."

Well, these titles are okay.  They are accurate.  But these names describe what God does, not who God is.  The purpose of Mass is to worship God and we worship Him for who He is--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The word "Father" is more than just a noun; it is a verb.  The Father is eternally generating.  The Son is eternally begotten and is forever returning everything back that the Father has bestowed upon Him.  The Son images the Father by returning the same gift of life and love given to Him--the gift of life and love, which is the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Hahn then spent some time reflecting on those names that describe what God does: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Let's take "Creator" first.  In Genesis 1:26 God says, "Let us make man in our image."  (Note the plural use of "us" and "our"!)  And how was it that God made man in "our image?"  As male and female.

Remember: God is not solitude.  So when He made man in the image and likeness of God, He made man as a family--as man and woman, husband and wife.

The primordial image of God is this marital convenant.  Just as God is one in three, in marriage two become one.  And that one flesh union of husband and wife brings forth a third person, a child, who is the incarnation of their marital love.  

It's amazing to consider that the essence of God as family unveils the mystery of marital love.  This one line was perhaps what struck me most during Dr. Hahn's talk: "There is nothing I can do with my body that makes me more like God than by renewing the covenant of marital love."  

In other words, every time husband and wife join together as one flesh, they are doing with their bodies the act that makes them most like God.  

And if that's true, if the sexual act is the act that makes husband and wife most like God, then it's clear how holy and sacred that physical action truly is.  By extension, we can sadly state in all honesty that this holy act is frequently desecrated in our culture and society.

So what about "Redeemer?"

Dr. Hahn made a striking contrast that illuminated a frequent misunderstanding about Christ's redemption (one, I must admit, I have fallen to as well).  He stated that Christ didn't just "buy us back."  It was something more than just broken laws and forgiving the sin committed from those transgressions.

Here are two short examples revealing the difference, excellently narrated by Dr. Hahn.

Let's say we have a prisoner in jail.  He is suffering from a severe illness, sentenced to a life-term, and is millions of dollars in debt.  One day the mayor of town approaches him and says that he is pardoned of his crime and is set free.  

This is good, of course, but doesn't change the fact that the gentleman is still sick and is hardly free due to his crippling debt.  The man is technically forgiven and he is released from prison, but this isn't necessarily the best-case scenario for him.

On the other hand, let's say the mayor comes to the prisoner with this announcement: the man is pardoned of his crime and when he leaves the prison, there will be a doctor waiting for him who has a healing remedy that will cure his illness.  Furthermore, the mayor has paid all his outstanding debts.  Lastly, there will be a limo awaiting the prisoner, which will transport him to the mayor's own house where the prisoner will now live, as the mayor has adopted him as his very son.

Jesus indeed paid our debt, a debt He did not owe.  But He did more than this: He gave us a spirit of love to heal us and to bring us home.  He made us part of His family.  We weren't merely brought out of hell, the eternal prison; we were brought home.

Finally, the Sanctifier.  How does the Holy Spirit sanctify, or make holy?  Through the Catholic Church.  To be apart from the Church is to apart from the family of God.  

This family is most evident at Mass.  Every time we gather for Mass as a family, heaven comes to earth.  The Holy Spirit unites us as one in the Eucharist, which is a share in Christ's own sonship.  Through Baptism and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of the Father.

When we call a priest "father," we are reminded that fatherhood isn't--at its core--earthly.  Fatherhood is spiritual, is heavenly.  The priests who give their life in service to the Church are truly "breadwinners": they give us the supersubstantial bread that is the Eucharist.

Dr. Hahn concluded his talk on the Trinity by relating an experience with one of his newborn children and how, one night while rocking his son, he was overwhelmed with the love he had for this child of his.  

It's a feeling to which, if you are a parent, I'm sure you can relate.  I, too, remember nursing and rocking Mary and being astounded by the depth and power of love I had for this child, who was so powerless and so needy.

Analogously, that's what we are in the arms of our Father.  The love that we can have, as parents for our children, is just a mere shadow of the love the perfect Father has for His children.  

It's humbling and astounding.  And it's the kind of thought that makes a prayer rise out from one's soul: "God, help me to know who you are."