“We can either act hopeless or we can make the best out of the life we have been given.”

All I can offer this week leading up to Thanksgiving is a link to a phenomenal and hopeful story about a Texas family and their triumphs over many tragedies; a story about faith, hope and love.

The beginning:

Compared with the glistening two-story mansions that surrounded it, the house looked like something from another time. It was only 2,180 square feet. Its redbrick exterior was crumbling, and its gutters were clogged with leaves. Faded, paint-chipped blinds sagged behind the front windows. Next to the concrete steps leading to the front door, a scraggly banana plant clung to life.

Built in 1950, it was one of the last of the original single-story homes on Northport Drive, in Dallas’s Preston Hollow neighborhood. The newer residents, almost all of them affluent baby boomers, had no idea who lived there. Over the years, they’d see an ambulance pull up to the front of the house, and they’d watch as paramedics carried out someone covered in a blanket. A few days later, they’d see the paramedics return to carry that person back inside. But they’d never learned who it was or what had happened. Some of the local kids were convinced that the house was haunted. They’d ride their bikes by the lot at dusk, daring one another to ring the doorbell or run across the unwatered lawn.

None of the neighbors knew that mailmen once delivered boxes of letters to the front door and that strangers left plates of food or envelopes stuffed with money. They didn’t know that high school kids, whenever they drove past the house, blew their horns, over and over. They didn’t know that a church youth group had stood on that front yard one afternoon, faced the house, and sung a hymn.

In fact, it wasn’t until the spring of last year that they learned that the little house used to be one of Dallas’s most famous residences, known throughout the city as the McClamrock house. It was the home of Ann McClamrock and her son John, the boy who could not move…

Please take the time to read the rest.

h/t Rod Dreher

In this season of Thanksgiving,  may we too always trust in God’s generous mercy and love, so as to honor and praise Him, now and forever. Amen

In Memoriam

The fire was harder to start than it should have been. A proud Eagle Scout, I was ashamed that it took multiple matches. Maybe these articles weren’t meant to burn. I had a batch of last year’s palm branches I needed to get rid of and two rosaries missing multiple beads.

One of the rosaries was a green plastic dime-a-dozen-type. Once the fire started I was impressed with how easily it flared up. Note to self: keep away from fire when one of those is in my pockets! If the first rosary was a dime-a-dozen, the second was priceless, which is really why I’d been putting this off. I kept hoping that by some miracle, I’d pick it up someday to find a rosary with full decades instead of 80 or 90 percent of each decade.

This old rosary of mine was tough to burn. It really won’t burn. I had to throw on more fuel in the form of small pieces of wood and sticks, but had to be careful – burning on a small patch of bare dirt in my backyard, I didn’t want a full-fledged bonfire.

As the flames turned the palms to ashes and the green plastic rosary into a pyrotechnic exhibition, they slowly worked at the worn wooden beads and loose string that bound my old rosary together. This rosary was one of two – both given as prizes in a high school catechism class half a lifetime ago. One to me, one to my sister. They were from Fatima, made with wood from Fatima and blessed by Saint John Paul II in Fatima. I carried mine with me for a few years until I accidentally left it at home over a college break. I called home and a miscommunication ensued between my sister and I – I told her I’d be back home in a couple weeks, so don’t send it back to me. She thought I said I’d be without a rosary for a couple weeks and she should send it, so she did.

When I got the envelope a few days later with the words “Fragile” inscribed on it, I knew exactly what it contained. When I held the envelope in my hands and heard what sounded like Chiclets inside, I knew the condition of my rosary. My sister felt bad enough about the situation that she gave me her matching rosary.

It was my favorite rosary; as if a single rosary can’t be replaced; as if all other rosaries prayed on other rosaries are any less well-prayed…

As the brown wood began to turn black, I remembered there was something about the wood of this rosary. I couldn’t quite remember – was it olive wood? No, that’s not it. Rose? From a rose bush in Fatima?  The air was calm and the smoke drifted lazily in my direction. It smells like roses; maybe it was it really rose wood, or…? Nah, don’t get crazy. Burning rosaries don’t smell like roses…do they?

There were other much more lucid memories: Of sleepless nights on trains across Europe, holding that rosary as I passed the hours. Of the funeral of a saint, for whom I’d prayed on that rosary the night he died. Of car trips with my future wife to the weddings of friends, praying with that rosary for their vocation and ours. Of nights of loneliness, doubt and fear, gripping that rosary tight as a child grips the hand of his mother.  Of tears shed while praying for then newly-deceased grandparents; of leading my extended family in prayer while holding that rosary at my great-grandfather’s wake. Of the rosary prayed the night before my wedding, before our rehearsal. Of restless nights holding a baby in one arm and that rosary in the other, while pacing or rocking back and forth until rest finally came. Of quiet afternoons in a quiet church in a small town, finding a few moments of peace. I’ve been through a lot with that rosary.

The black wood turned gray and I chuckled as I recalled the often-repeated exercise of being unable to find the rosary on my dresser. Invariably, I’d run downstairs to find it resting atop our washing machine, drying from its latest trip through the wash. After a few of these laundering experiences, the word “Fatima” on the back of transept of the cross and the Chi-Rho on the front of the cross, both painted in gold and faded from use, disappeared completely. Shortly thereafter the transept began to fall off during washing, but that was easily repaired with a drop of wood glue each time. It was a good trip through the wash when the cross came out intact!

Later, it seemed that a few of the decades got shorter as I prayed them. Counting the beads confirmed my suspicion. At first I tried compensating – remember this one is the short one! But more trips through the washing machine, more days in my pocket, more use… it became irreparable and I knew I had to retire this rosary.

So I put it away and reluctantly moved on to another rosary. This new one was a gift from a friend, who picked it up at the Irish shrine of Our Lady of Knock, it has porcelain beads and a metal chain. Its fragile. Its going to break. In fact, I’m waiting for it to break – its not my favorite… yet I won’t pray with another. But I still miss the familiar, finger-worn wood and the soft string of the rosary I couldn’t bring myself to burn and bury. Until now.

The calm air hinted at the coming of winter, the bare trees bore no more autumn colors, and the afternoon faded into a colorless dusk. I watched the wood turn from gray to white. The last of the red-orange flames retreated into the ashes, and the sweet smelling smoke drifted upward like incense in a more joyful liturgy.

Though it marked a significant chapter in my life, it was just a rosary made of wood and string, and now it was dust. Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. I wondered what fruits had been borne of the hours of prayers for myself and others, what unknown and countless blessings had been bestowed with that rosary, and what unknown and countless blessings will be granted with future rosaries.

I turned the dirt over where the small fire had been, burying the ashes in a spot where we had grown tomatoes earlier this year.

Come next spring, the ashes of that worn wooden rosary which had borne spiritual fruit will have become one with the ground where our earthen fruit grows.

When the Well Has Run Dry

It is well known that many of our greatest saints experienced times of spiritual dryness, where they felt no consolation from our Lord. This is common in every life, and I’ve heard it said that many souls never advance beyond the starting stages of the spiritual life because this kind of silence is so intimidating. it’s in these times that we can often fail to pray regularly, and our holy habit turns into a “sometimes” or an “almost never” sort of practice.

Even Therese of Lisieux experienced this in the convent. But through spiritual direction, she learned a simple prayer, “Jesus, I love you!” When she wasn’t “feeling” God or didn’t feel like praying, she would simply repeat this prayer, over and over, and “it never failed to inflame my soul once again.”

What a perfect prayer to say, when I have nothing to say.

Seasons of joy

I love thunderstorms. Especially at night. To watch the natural pyrotechnics light up the sky, illuminating the darkness in fierce bursts of light; to hear the roll of thunder, to feel it shake the ground; the first few minutes after the storm passes, as rain drops cease to drip from trees and branches, as the birds resume their songs, as all creation seems renewed… Thunderstorms, though dangerous at times, can be a a thing of beauty. Its been a summer on the upper Great Plains with very few of those.

A couple weeks ago I was driving to my weekly holy hour at o’dark thirty. It had begun raining in the middle of the night – a thunderstorm and the first one in a long time. We live on a hill where the Missouri River Valley meets the Heart River Valley and driving through town, we get a nice vantage of the West Dakota landscape to the southwest. As I watched the distant buttes and rolling hills flash on the skyline I realized that this, being October, was likely the last thunderstorm I’d see for the year.

Sentimental that I am, I was a little sad – we’d had so few thunderstorms in a relatively dry summer and now, no more. But that momentary sadness turned to joy. If I wasn’t up at that hour of the morning, I never would have been able to witness the natural beauty of the storm. I would’ve slept through it, unfazed. My initial thought was, “God must really love me, to let me see this last storm of the season!” The first thing I did in adoration that morning was to thank God for the thunderstorm.

One of the things that always struck me about some of the Saints, October’s Francis and Therese of Lisieux in particular, was their awe with nature and how they seemed to express this sense that it was there solely for their, an aid to lift their eyes to heaven. St. Francis’ brother Sun and Therese’s belief that snows were sent as particular blessing to her always seemed, well, odd and even childlike. But I was experiencing that same joy in a natural event and lifting my eyes heavenward to the Creator of the heavens and the earth in something as simple as a rainstorm. The Rocky Mountains? Sure. I get that, but a prairie rainstorm? Yes, even there too.

I was reminded of that joy yesterday when, as I prepared to leave for work in the morning, I glanced outside and saw it – snow. Already? A far cry from the thunderstorm earlier this month. It was a harbinger of things to come – sure the meteorologists promise us a warmer and drier winter courtesy of El Nino this year, but yesterday morning wasn’t warm or dry – it was cold, windy and snowing… in October.  Instead of cursing the wind and the snow, I knew there were three people in my house who would be filled with incredible joy at this event. So I told the kids to look outside and tell me what they saw on the deck.

They saw more than a dusting of snow. They saw winter: going skating, sledding, playing hockey, snowballs, bonfires, grandparents, and, of course, Christmas. All their morning activities came to a full stop as they ran from window to window to make sure it was really snow falling, blowing, and accumulating on the ground.  Their joy in this turn of the weather trickled over and filled me with joy. It snowed pretty much all day yesterday and at bed time the kids each thanked God for the snow that he sent in the day.

This morning I got up at o’dark thirty to head to adoration and was was greeted by snow – more snow. All I could think about was my children’s joy and gratitude in yesterday’s snow and I couldn’t help but smile thank the Lord for His snows.

Art Speaks: Sister Calling My Name

On October 16, I attended the opening night performance of Sister Calling My Name at Open Window Theatre. Here’s a quick look:

My wife and I have been season ticket holders for a while now, and we have always been impressed an touched by the deeply honest work that OWT does. In Sister Calling My Name, Jeremy Stanbary plays Michael, a recently-divorced professor of English whose life is fallen in ruins, both personally and professionally. In the midst of his despair, he receives a phone call from a Sister of Mercy at a care home in southern Minnesota. She is calling on behalf of Michael’s older sister, Lindsey, a developmentally-disabled adult, who has been estranged from Michael for eighteen years.

What follows is an absolute roller-coaster of emotion and grace as Michael grapples with his past. Despite his best efforts, Michael cannot keep his sister out. The paintings she is producing as part of her therapy are clearly an attempt to communicate with him. Even as Michael resists the overt attempts of the Sister of Mercy to engage him, the presence of his sibling, who is literally in the next room while he is visiting the group home, cannot be denied.

What I liked most about this play is that it is his sister’s art that calls Michael to conversion. Prayer, song, and scripture do not move him, but the sheer beauty of his sister’s paintings bring him to a moment of crisis, and grace enters in. By the last scene, there was not a dry eye in the house.

Watching this play, I could not help but think of Pope Francis’s “Way of Beauty” (more here). While many of us are not moved by appeals to truth (because, you know, your truth and my truth could be different, at least in postmodernism) or goodness (again, we may define it differently), beauty, once experienced, cannot be denied. Although the soul may have built up walls so that Truth and Goodness are ineffectual, Beauty seeps through the cracks and makes way for the other two. So it is with Michael in Sister Calling My Name.

Evil, Freedom, History

Recently I started reading volume ii of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth series. When discussing Jesus’ prediction that the Temple will be destroyed, he writes,

“In Jesus’ discourse, horror does not have the last word: the days are shortened and the elect are saved. God grants to evil and to evildoers a large measure of freedom–too large, we might think. Even so, history does not slip through His fingers.”

I love that last sentence. There are times when we see horror in the world and our faith is shaken. But God is just as present in our suffering as He is in our joy. He will never abandon us.



Praying to Find Out

The American author Joan Didion once wrote, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Since I first came across this sentiment in a personal essay writing class in college, it has comforted me. In both my work and my personal life, I do a lot of writing, and it is easy to get wrapped up in needing the perfect thing to say before pen touches paper or fingers touch keyboard. This is the essence of all writers’ block for me: lacking something perfect to write about, I will sometimes not write at all.

Didion’s statement goes against all that, of course. She clearly sees writing as a kind of discovery process, in which the very act of forming words and sentences clarifies what one is thinking or feeling. If you’ve been following the MFA blog regularly, you’ll notice that lately I’ve taken to writing weekly, even if it is short or half-formed. This is me, doing my best to adhere to Didion’s idea about writing.

This statement also applies to prayer, however. I still have moments where I avoid prayer because I “don’t have something perfect to say” to God. I’m solely wrapped up in the activities and worries of the world and stay away from speaking to Him because I’m worried I would be tongue-tied. However, if I were to truly see my prayer life as the principal way to deepen my relationship with God, I would run to prayer because “I pray entirely to find out what He is thinking, what He is looking at, what He sees and what it means, what He wants…and what fear.”

We do not need to come to God with something perfect to say, or anything at all. We can come with imperfect intentions or half-formed desires in our hearts. It all gets sorted out in five or ten minutes of quiet time spent with the Lord. This week, I’m seeking the courage to see my prayer as a time of discovery, a time to find out what He wants.

On (Paternal) Blessings

Its been quite a while since I last posted, my apologies!

A month ago, we celebrated what this blog’s founder refers to as No More Pagan Baby Day – that is, our youngest son was baptized.

I had no idea, but there are options for the rite of baptism, specifically when done outside of Mass. Attending a beautiful baptism earlier this summer, my wife and I were moved by the extraordinary form of the rite of baptism. Our priest, the diocesan liturgist, was more than willing to accommodate our request to have this rite of baptism used on the day of the sacrament.

The rite is incredibly simple and profoundly deep at the same time. There’s no room for the priest’s personality in the rite (i.e. no homily) but the traditional prayers strip the baptism down to nothing more than “Christ acting in his minister, the priest.” As our priest put it. The simplicity of the rite really put Father in persona Christi in a manner which was really moving for me.

Prior to the baptism, I would bless all our children (including the unbaptized newborn member) every night with holy water and I still do, and will continue to do so. But I must confess, part of me was wondering what was so profoundly different from the priest baptizing with holy water and my blessing with holy water.

A father can and should bless his children. We all share in Christ’s priesthood by virtue of of our own baptism. This is not a passive presence in salvation, but an active participation in salvation. However, us lay folk are limited in our priesthood. There are certain things we cannot do, and that’s just fine. I was reminded of my own limits and humbled, nearly to tears at a particular point in the baptism.

IAs the priest traced the sign of the cross upon the brow of my son he prayed, “Never dare, accursed fiend, to desecrate this seal of the holy cross which we imprint upon his brow. Through Christ Our Lord.”

Now that’s a prayer! THAT’s a blessing! I can trace the cross in holy water on my children’s foreheads – but that? That’s a prayer left for someone with some real authority – someone in persona Christi.

Every night now, as I trace that same cross on the brow of my children, I am reminded of that blessing. And I am reminded that I am limited in my paternal blessings, and for that, I am thankful because it gives me a chance to remember that Christ has blessed his Church with ministers, fathers, who can stand in His place and bring us to Him in our place.

Thank God for his priests, both lay and ordained!

Fidelity, Truth, and Charity

I love our Holy Father, and I love what he has to say. But sometimes I have a hard time sifting through the media’s portrayal of his actions in order to find out what is really going on. It seems like every time he is in the news, journalists of all types claim that he is somehow trying to drastically change divinely inspired church doctrine. I’ve found that the best place to go is directly to the source. Recently, he gave a homily at the opening Mass of the Family Synod and eloquently put into words his approach to living the Christian life. I highly recommend that you read the whole homily, it’s not too long, but I’ll say just a few words about it here.

We as humans tend to have a hard time with complexity. We want things to be black and white, either-or. Our dear Pope Francis refuses to be neatly categorized, and I love that about him. For as long as I’ve been a practicing Catholic, I have struggled with the balance between teaching the truth and loving my neighbor. Our society wants to tell me it’s impossible for me to love someone while at the same time disagreeing with their lifestyle. Holding steadfastly to principles is incompatible with being a caring person. But Pope Francis says it’s not so. And for some reason, even though he is reiterating what others have said before him, it seems that people are listening this time.

“In this extremely difficult social and marital context, the Church is called to carry out her mission in fidelity, truth and love. To carry out her mission in fidelity to her Master as a voice crying out in the desert… To carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions. The truth which protects individuals and humanity as a whole from the temptation of self-centredness and from turning fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds… To carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a “field hospital” with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.”

We are not called to teach the truth simply because it is right, but because it protects humans from self-centeredness and directs their gaze toward the other… and eventually the Other. But we can’t just stand on our soapbox and scream at people to see it our way, even when our hearts are aching with the inconsistencies and atrocities we see around us. We have to follow the example of Pope Francis, and of Jesus Himself, and walk with those who suffer, even if they do not know they are suffering! My personal goal for the upcoming Year of Mercy is to listen to the advice of Pope Francis and strive to courageously, faithfully live out the Gospel in truth and charity.