Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Random Thoughts from the Desert

“Invocabit me, et ego exaudiam cum: eripiam cum, et glorificabo cum: longitude die rum adimplebo cum.”

“He shall cry to me, and I will hear him: I will deliver him, and I will glorify him: I will fill him with length of days.”

+    +    +

This past Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent, we heard the Gospel account of Our Lord heading out into the desert for forty days. The traditional form of the Mass for that day begins with the Introit citing a verse from Psalm 90(91), and the Tract between the readings elaborates upon the same. In its verses, we are reminded to trust in God.

During the First World War, the American soldiers of the 91st Infantry Brigade were given the text of this Psalm by their commander to recite before going into battle. They fought at Chateau Thierry, at Belle Wood, at the Argonne. Other units suffered casualties of up to ninety percent, but they suffered not one!

There are other accounts of the power of this Psalm, and other conflicts where it was used; by the British at Dunkirk during the Second World War, and by the Allied forces in Korea. Peggy Joyce Ruth writes:

Note that this verse in Psalm 91:4 declares God's faithfulness to us as both a shield and a bulwark in a double-layered analogy. The passage uses two military symbols of fortification and protection. God is our bulwark, our tower -- our wall of protection in a collective sense -- and He is also our shield -- a very individualized defense. This verse indicates double protection.

Man, by his very nature, is not a solitary creature. He is nurtured by the presence, the company of others. Left alone in solitude for too long, he will either prepare himself to be tormented by his own personal demons, or he will give in to their exploiting his weaknesses.

+    +    +

I remember the years after my divorce, a period of roughly a decade (from about 1993 to 2003) that I have always referred to, as would Dorothy Day in her biography, as "The Long Loneliness." My day job was a tense environment in those days, as the old status quo in a dysfunctional government agency resisted the challenge of a younger and racially diverse generation of middle managers. The one who led our staff was a decorated war veteran, with a penchant for alcohol as self-medication, and behavior towards employees that would be most aptly considered sadist and sociopathic. He could be very charming, especially toward women. Most alcoholics learn to pull that off. It's how they get by.

I'm afraid I got the worst of it. I would be ridiculed throughout the day, every day. The staff, moral weaklings that all of them were, would be cowed into joining him. I would be handed extra assignments a few days before a vacation. I was physically ill from a gastrointestinal condition for several years during that time. At its zenith, I was prescribed Seroquel, a potent antipsychotic medication. In small doses, it treats those with the hiccups; in larger ones, those who hear voices. I was somewhere in between.

On a good day, this psychopath never spoke to me at all. For that matter, neither did anyone else. Except for matters strictly professional, I would go for days, for weeks, maybe longer, without speaking to anyone. Then I would go home to an empty basement studio apartment, with no local friends to call (or at least none who returned calls). When I wasn't going home to Cincinnati six times a year, I would call my friends from there every night. I'd run up two hundred dollars in long distance calls, in the days before direct dialing with cell phones was anywhere near as common as today.

There was no recourse. The employees union could not accept a change to its narrative, that a white employee was subject to mistreatment by a black supervisor. They would often take his side in what was obviously against regulations in the federal workplace. Upper management was indifferent to the point of being clueless, such was the level of incompetence at the time.

Eventually, the nightmare ended. The man became enough of an embarrassment to other managers -- those poseurs were even more afraid of him than I was -- and I saw an opportunity to call them all on it. (The 25th of November, 1998. I have marked the day, and remember it to this day.) The man was removed from his position over our staff, and his fellows wasted no time pretending it never happened. Life became easier after that, both on the job and at home. I found a way off that island of isolation, and I was able to make a home, to bloom where I was planted, albeit five hundred miles from the place I once called home. It took that long and took that trial, the facing of demons, the wrestling with ghosts from the past.

I eventually got off Seroquel, but there are other medications I have to take, possibly for the rest of my life.

“Then the Devil left Him: and behold angels came, and ministered to Him.” (Matt:4:11)

+    +    +

Christ Himself was surely so clad in armor, as he fled to the desert to be tempted by the Evil One. Even as He was the Son of God, He possessed a human nature, one that bore witness to us in its being tested.

I could write a book about that episode in my career. Someday it will be written, but not at present. The demons that all of us face, even as "no man is an island," we must face them alone, but not really alone. The One who faced them for us has shown us how. He trusted in the Father, and so must we. That bulwark, that tower, that shield, one that is there all along.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

“C’mon, take me to the Mardi Gras ...”

“... where the people sing and play / Where the dancing is elite / And there's music in the street / Both night and day.”

There goes "Rhymin' Simon," in a live recording of his 1973 hit on Columbia Records. Meanwhile, this being the last day of merriment before the Great Fast (aka Lent), I am reminded of another Mardi Gras from so many years ago ...

Babes in Boyland

... and so it goes.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Candlemas Day
(or, why Punxatawney Phil is a Catholic)

“When the days
were completed
for their purification
according to the law of Moses,
Mary and Joseph took Jesus
up to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord,
just as it is written
in the law of the Lord,
Every male that
opens the womb
shall be consecrated
to the Lord,
and to offer the sacrifice
of a pair of turtledoves
or two young pigeons,
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.”

(Luke 2:22-24)

Today, both the Eastern and Western churches observe the Feast of the Purification of Mary (known as "Candlemas" in the West), exactly forty days after Christmas. In the Catholic tradition, the Christmas Cycle officially ends with this day, and preparation for Lent can begin, which includes the "Carnival" season in much of South America. But today, and throughout the world, the faithful will process in and around their churches bearing lighted candles, which are blessed for the coming year.

The origin of this feast is described in detail, in this excerpt from the classic work of Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB, entitled The Liturgical Year.

The mystery of today's ceremony has frequently been explained by liturgists, dating from the 7th century. According to Ivo of Chartres, the wax, which is formed from the juice of flowers by the bee, always considered as the emblem of virginity, signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine Infant, who diminished not, either by His conception or His birth, the spotless purity of His Blessed Mother. The same holy bishop would have us see, in the flame of our Candle, a symbol of Jesus who came to enlighten our darkness. St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on the same mystery, bids us consider three things in the blessed Candle: the wax, the wick, and the flame. The wax, he says, which is the production of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the wick, which is within, is His Soul; the flame, which burns on top, is His divinity.

Some years ago, Duncan Maxwell Anderson of HMS Blog described certain customs of the season, as well as suggestions for family celebrations. Included are some fun facts about the real origins of Groundhog Day:

In Catholic Europe, they say that if Candlemas is clear and bright, there will be six more weeks of winter. In Germany, this idea became, "If the bear comes out and sees his shadow, he will grumpily go back into his cave, and winter will last another six weeks."

Then this feat of prediction was ascribed to German badgers.

And since badgers are not found in the eastern U.S., German immigrants to this country were obliged to depend for meteorological guidance on a species of marmot called by the Indians 'weejak' or woodchuck, also called ... the groundhog.

Today, if Punxatawney Phil sticks his nose out, you tell me if he isn't carrying a candle-holder. He's Catholic, you know.

You just can't argue with reasoning like that, don't you think?

Or don't you?