All posts by Daniel J. Heisey

Seeking Jesus with Greeks

The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in Cycle B is according to Saint John (12:20-33), and it contains sayings by Jesus that preachers from the days of the Church Fathers until the present have found important for their homilies.  There is Jesus saying that unless a grain of wheat dies in the soil, it cannot live again; later on, Jesus says that when He is raised up, He will draw everyone to Himself.

In the late seventh and early eighth centuries, this text from Saint John, evoking John 3:14-15, had special significance for the Venerable Bede and his brother Benedictines of the abbey of Saint Paul’s, Jarrow.  In his history of the abbots of his monastery, Bede recorded that their founder abbot, Benedict Biscop, returning from his fifth trip to Rome, brought back books and paintings.  While the books were for the monastic library, the paintings were for the church.

Those paintings were in pairs, one depicting a scene from the Old Testament, the other depicting a corresponding scene from the New Testament.  One pair, said Bede, was of the brazen serpent raised on a pole, its parallel being Jesus raised on the Cross.  Thus, the visual arts adorning their abbey’s church reinforced for those monks what they had learned from reading Saint Augustine:  “The New Testament is hidden in the Old, the Old is made manifest in the New.”

It is an exegetical approach the Church still maintains as not only valid, but essential.  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 117, it states, “We can acquire a more profound understanding of [biblical] events by recognizing their significance in Christ.”  As for these signs and symbols, commentators like to point out that the serpent and the lion are the only animals in the Bible that stand both for Christ and for Satan, since evil is not a separate creation, but a perversion of the good.

In a monastic context, this passage from Saint John’s Gospel offers a rich source for meditation upon a monastic commitment to seek Christ, and in so doing, to seek God’s grace for pursuing the monastic vow of ongoing conversion.  What follows are suggestions for how to begin that sort of meditation upon this part of the holy Gospel.  If these remarks can help someone who lives outside the walls of a monastery, so much the better.

At the start of this text, Saint John said that at Passover some Greeks were in Jerusalem, and they asked Philip if they could see Jesus.  Church Fathers such as Saint Cyril of Alexandria and Saint Augustine of Hippo took these Greeks to have been Gentiles, since the word used by Saint John, Hellenes, refers simply to Greeks, not to Hellenistai (as in Acts 6:1), Hellenized Jews.  In the twentieth century, this nuance was understood by Scripture scholars such as William Barclay and Raymond Brown.

These Greeks are part of a pattern that occurs elsewhere in the Gospel.  Saint Matthew recounted how Wise Men from the East, Magi, that is to say, Gentiles, sought out the Christ child.  Like the Greeks in this passage from Saint John’s Gospel, they had to ask someone else to show them where Jesus is.  When we seek Jesus, we need the help of others.  In that search, God’s mysterious providence can use either a saint like Philip or a sinner like Herod.

It is worth noticing that these Greeks who approached Philip, like the Magi before them, were on a spiritual journey seeking Jesus.  Lost sheep notwithstanding, Jesus was not out searching for them.  Whether as a baby in a cradle or as an adult in the Temple, Jesus was the fixed point to which they must go.

Here what Saint John related connects with one of the most disturbing scenes in the Gospel.  According to Saint Mark (1:30-45), after a leper in Galilee had come to Jesus for healing, and Jesus healed him, Jesus could not come to where people lived:  “But he [the healed leper] went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to Him from every quarter.”

It is chilling to consider that all our chattering about Jesus keeps Him from coming to people.  After all, a lot of times when we are so eager to talk about what Jesus has done for us, it is really yet another way for us to talk about ourselves.  A lesson comes from Philip.  When the Greeks asked him to see Jesus, he took them to Andrew, who then took them to Jesus.  It was a role Andrew had played before, taking his brother, Simon Peter, to meet Jesus.

Those Greeks were not seeking Philip or Andrew, they were seeking Jesus.  Both Philip and Andrew were wise enough to know that their role was as a guide or an usher, or like a butler answering the door.  No one makes vows to seek Philip or Andrew or us; a Christian’s vow is to seek Christ.  Our own testimony is best kept in silence as we lead others to our Lord.

By the grace of God, though, our inadvertent, self-absorbed blocking of Jesus from going to other people does not stop them from seeking Him.  When the Greeks that Saint John recorded do meet Jesus, He tells them, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  If any one serves me, he must follow me; . . . if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.”

When our seeking finally brings us to Jesus, His message to us is not a bear hug and the exclamation, “Dude, welcome to my awesome ministry!”  Instead, Jesus cuts right to the heart of our quest:  Get over yourself, and follow me, which means becoming God’s servant, like a butler answering the door.

There we encounter true Lenten austerity and asceticism.  Forty days in the wilderness of Lent, a long desert sojourn seeking Jesus, leads us to the fixed point where He is raised up, raised up first by us men in torture and death on a cross, then raised up by the Father from the death that by our sins we rightly deserve.

Seventy Years Calling Northside 777

Before joining in March, 1941, as a private in the United States Army Air Corps, James Stewart had made his name in Hollywood with several wholesome films, his name becoming a byword for the amiable and earnest young man who shows what is really important in life.  After two years training stateside and then two years flying twenty bombing missions over National Socialist Germany, Stewart, by then a highly decorated colonel, celebrated the end of the war, joined what eventually became the Air Force Reserve, and returned to Hollywood.

Before long, director Frank Capra asked Stewart to star in what would be Stewart’s first film since the war, and 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life was right in line with heart-warming pre-war fare by Capra and Stewart, their award-winning You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  By then, however, Stewart was almost forty and wanted to try more dramatic roles.

His chance came in 1947, making Call Northside 777.  It began a new phase of his career, showing a tougher, darker side; soon would follow suspense films with Alfred Hitchcock and Westerns with John Wayne.  Stewart would still make light-hearted motion pictures, such as Harvey and Bell, Book, and Candle, but he would also star in more serious films, such as Anatomy of a Murder and Strategic Air Command.  Stark and taut, Call Northside 777, directed by Henry Hathaway, has become a classic in the genre of film noir.

In February, 1948, Call Northside 777 had its theatrical release.  Along with Stewart, it starred Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte.  In the days before television, movies were abridged for radio, and in December, 1949, Stewart reprised his role in a half-hour adaptation for a weekly radio program, Screen Directors’ Playhouse.  In that version, Stewart was joined by radio greats William Conrad and Paul Frees.

As Hathaway had done in The House on 92nd Street (1945), here he based his film on actual events and used what was called a “documentary style,” with voice-over narration and filming on location.  The House on 92nd Street starred Lloyd Nolan and depicted an FBI investigation of a Nazi spy ring operating from an otherwise respectable townhouse in New York City.  Call Northside 777 presented a slightly fictional version of the case of Joseph M. Majczek, a young man arrested in December, 1932, in Chicago and convicted for shooting and killing William D. Lundy, an off-duty policeman.

The catalyst for Call Northside 777 came in October, 1944, from a small advertisement placed in a newspaper, the Chicago Daily Times:  “$5,000 reward for killers of Officer Lundy on Dec. 9, 1932.  Call GRO 1758, 12-7 p. m.”  An editor at the paper saw the advertisement and assigned a reporter, James McGuire, to look into it.  Deeply skeptical of any convict’s claim to be innocent, let alone a convicted cop killer, McGuire grudgingly investigated, and what he found made him doubt his skepticism.

Identified by witnesses and tripped up by inconsistencies in his own testimony, twenty-one year-old Joe Majczek had been sentenced to ninety-nine years in state prison, and with his consent, his wife divorced him and remarried so that their son would grow up in a stable family.  All the while, Joe Majczek’s mother, Tillie, knew she had raised her son better and that he could not have killed a man.

In its issue of 27 August, 1945, Time magazine featured the story.  Here was an intriguing case from a notoriously corrupt city, where a son of Polish immigrants had his life ruined by police eager to catch the man who had gunned down one of their own.  Now, his widowed mother was offering a reward, saved from money she earned scrubbing floors for eleven years, and a tenacious reporter was seeking to clear the prisoner’s name.

In the film, along with the telephone number, the names changed, so that, for example, Joe Majczek became Frank Wiecek, and James McGuire became P. J. McNeal.  Without giving too much away, let it suffice to say that what got Wiecek released from prison was not so much new evidence as old evidence seen in a new way.

In its review of the film, Time magazine said, “the players try to be as true to life as the living city.”  Bosley Crowther, in his review for The New York Times, called the film “a slick piece of modern melodrama” that “combines a suspenseful mystery story with a vivid, realistic pictorial style.”

Urban realism is central to making this movie mark a development in Stewart’s career.  Jonathan Coe, in his Jimmy Stewart:  A Wonderful Life (1994), noted the film’s “dingy realism and low-life characters.”  The police offices and the state penitentiary, the smoke-filled bars and dirty alleys of Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods were all a far cry from the glossy Wall Street office of You Can’t Take It with You or the small-town coziness of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life.

One aspect of the film meant to give it greater verisimilitude was casting Leonarde Keeler, inventor of the polygraph, to portray himself and give Wiecek a lie detector test.  The only time the machine indicated Wiecek was lying was when Keeler asked him if he was married, and Wiecek said no.  “He’s a Catholic,” Keeler later explained to McNeal, “and he still thinks he’s married, and he feels within himself that he’s married.”

In his recent biography of Henry Hathaway, Harold N. Pomainville pointed out a more subtle aspect of the film’s realism.  By using authentic locations associated with the Majczek case, Chicago itself became one of the film’s characters.  Moreover, according to Pomainville, Hathaway, a pioneer in what today is called docudrama, urged Stewart to move beyond where he felt comfortable as an actor, coaching him to control his characteristic stammer by using the authoritative voice he had developed as a commanding officer.

Like Stewart, Hathaway was a patriotic man, and the unlikely resolution of Majczek’s story proved again for both men how the United States stands distinct from a lot of other nations.  Call Northside 777 is about family and faith, law and justice, and it is also about Americans at their best.  “It’s a big thing when a sovereign state admits an error,” McNeal told Wiecek, and he added, “Remember this:  there aren’t many governments in the world that would do it.”

G.K. Chesterton as a Pivotal Player

When someone asks where to begin reading G. K. Chesterton, it is like asking which door to go in along the Strand.  For just as the Strand offers entry to the Savoy Hotel and Twining’s tea shop, King’s College London and Nicholson’s Coal Hole, so does Chesterton admit of any number of approaches.  There is Chesterton the poet; Chesterton the novelist; Chesterton the newspaper columnist; Chesterton the biographer of Thomas Aquinas and Charles Dickens, Francis of Assisi and Geoffrey Chaucer; Chesterton the autobiographer; Chesterton the master of the detective short story, all featuring his amateur sleuth, Father Brown.

In 2016, Bishop Robert Barron included Chesterton in his DVD series, Catholicism:  The Pivotal Players, those players including Michelangelo and Saints Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena.  Heady company for a son and grandson of London real estate agents, not to mention a convert to Catholicism, but for Barron, Chesterton, witty and exuberantly argumentative, was an outstanding evangelist.  As such, Chesterton has changed the lives of countless Christians, Protestant and Catholic.  Two examples will suffice.

Around 1926, C. S. Lewis read Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, a dense and robust presentation of the Catholic view of history.  Chesterton’s book rebuts H. G. Wells’s secular and commercially successful book, The Outline of History (1920).  Lewis credited Chesterton’s work with helping him see the truth of the Christian message.

In 1954, while filming a theatrical movie based on some of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, Alec Guinness began his conversion to Catholicism.  Between takes outdoors in Paris, Guinness, as Father Brown, was still in costume, a black cassock and a saturno, when a French boy of around seven or eight came up to him, took him by the hand, and chattered merrily away.  Guinness said nothing, his French being not the best.  Then as suddenly as he had appeared, the boy let go of Guinness’s hand and, with a joyous “Bon soir, mon père!,” darted off and disappeared through an opening in a hedge.  Thirty-one years later, Guinness wrote in his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, “I reflected that a Church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming and creepy as so often made out.”

Both Lewis and Guinness responded to Chesterton’s delight in paradox, his belief that seeing things upside down is really seeing them the right way up.  For Lewis it came through a book that contrasted what twentieth-century people thought they knew about the Cave Man with what Scripture reveals about a Man who was born in a cave.  For Guinness, it came while portraying how a man of faith uses reason to solve crimes, and a little child was the one who led him.

As Robert Barron pointed out in Pivotal Players, Chesterton was a character, a vintage English eccentric.  Absent-minded if not self-absorbed, Chesterton’s quirks and foibles kept his wife and his secretaries busy in his wake.  His brain worked in unexpected ways, his clever turns of phrase being eminently memorable, such as his quip, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”

Still, eighty-some years after his death, Chesterton remains a controversial figure, although Barron downplayed this aspect.  Even now, Chesterton raises hackles, not least for his public comments about Jews that provoked strong criticism even in an age less sensitive about anti-Semitism than is ours.  Meanwhile, Chesterton’s nebulous economic theory of Distributism, what in What’s Wrong with the World (1910) he called everyone having “three acres and a cow,” failed to consider, among other practical points, the limits of acreage and the limitless state control needed to redistribute it.

Nevertheless, Pope Pius XI dubbed Chesterton a Defender of the Faith, and some of Chesterton’s admirers hope for his canonization.  Oddly enough, Barron made no mention of this question.  As Chesterton himself would say, there are two ways of looking at the matter.  In Thomistic fashion, let us take the negative case first.

Melanie McDonagh, writing in The Spectator (24 August, 2013), argued against Chesterton’s possible canonization, citing his embarrassing anti-Semitism and his mostly topical and often polemical journalism, writings now best forgotten.  She concluded by saying, “I’m as sure he’s in heaven as I’m sure anyone is; I just don’t think the Church should canonize him, because it’s a public act, the making of an exemplar.”

Moreover, there is the question of Chesterton’s lifestyle.  For all the Church’s emphasis on the spiritual importance of self-denial, expansive girth, having various causes, has not been an impediment to canonization.  Unfortunately, Chesterton’s gargantuan self-indulgence reinforces a common Catholic error, that in order to distinguish Catholicism from puritanical Protestantism, authentic Catholics must engage all their senses, even to the point of acts of addiction and self-harm.  Chesterton thus becomes an excuse today for Catholic men daily to consume beef and beer and cigars, not for their own sake, but as tokens of traditionalism.  As McDonagh said about Chesterton’s dated polemics, he should not become a formal exemplar alongside even the portly likes of Saints Thomas Aquinas and John XXIII.

Sed contra:  Monsignor Ronald Knox, preaching in 1936 at a Requiem Mass offered for Chesterton at Westminster Cathedral, observed:  “Chesterton moved, though with the personal simplicity of a child, in a world of apocalyptic images; he saw his religion everywhere; it mattered furiously to him.”  Likewise, James Parker, writing in The Atlantic (August, 2015), argued for Chesterton’s canonization, “Because Chesterton, in his jolly way, was a militant,” meaning that he was “[A] blaster of the superstitions of modernity, a toppler of the idols of materialism.”

To return to the Strand:  It connects Trafalgar Square, with its evocations of British patriotism, such as Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery, with Fleet Street, once synonymous with British journalism, Chesterton’s bread and butter.  The Strand also connects sites along Trafalgar Square, such as Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, a church named for a Roman soldier in Gaul who became a Christian saint, with streets veering off Fleet Street, notably streets with the names Whitefriars and Carmelite, recalling the great city’s monastic heritage.  At his best, Chesterton performs the same function as the Strand, connecting the national with the international, the sacred and the secular, because for him what connected them all across so many centuries was his beloved Catholic Church.

Raymond Chandler and Medical Ethics

The Strand Magazine has appeared with a previously unpublished short story, “It’s All Right—He Only Died,” by Raymond Chandler.  Chandler (1888-1959) is best known for creating Philip Marlowe, a private detective in Los Angeles, California.  Marlowe featured in seven novels, published between 1939 and 1953; an eighth novel was unfinished at Chandler’s death, his estate in 1988 hiring Robert B. Parker to complete it.

Chandler wrote this short story sometime between 1956 and 1958, when he was thinking about writing a non-fiction book about doctors, and until recently it sat undiscovered in files of Chandler’s papers at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford.  Unlike Chandler’s other fiction, it offers no mystery or detective work.  It is about a grubby-looking man who reeks of whiskey; he has been hit by a truck and has been taken to a local private hospital.  There, the admitting nurse and doctor turn up their noses at what they assume is a drunken drifter, his pockets empty, and fob him off on the county hospital.  There the man dies, and it turns out he had $4,000 hidden in his belt.

Chandler added an Author’s Note to the story, and in it he underscored the ethical questions that his story addressed.  To Chandler, the doctor in his story is a disgrace, violating his Hippocratic Oath.  “Why should a doctor in such circumstances be better than other men?” he asked, replying, “The answer is simply, that if he isn’t, he is not a doctor.”

The editors of The Strand Magazine asked Sarah Trott, author of a recent book on Chandler, to add a further note about the story.  Trott pointed out that until 1956, Chandler was a British subject and that in the last years of his life he traveled a few times to London.  For her, the story’s context is Chandler’s awareness of Britain’s National Health Service, begun in 1948.

In its issue of 24 November, 2017, The New York Times ran an article about this short story.  Written by Matthew Haag and entitled “A Prescient Rebuke of Health Care System,” it concurred with Trott, saying, “Chandler, who had spent about two decades in England, had become acutely familiar with how the health system in the United States compared with public care in Europe.”

Despite the timing of this short story’s publication, it needs to be seen not as a voice from the grave regarding current debates about the federal government’s role in health insurance, but as part of Chandler’s larger focus.  Although this story by Chandler stands outside his detective fiction, it fits into his over-riding concern for chivalry and integrity and the ethical choices made by people holding positions of trust and responsibility, whether policemen, businessmen, or medical professionals.

In Chandler’s novels a recurring character type is the corrupt medical doctor.  In Farewell, My Lovely (1940), Dr. Amthor’s medical skills include crystal balls and hypnosis as he works for a ring of jewel thieves.  In The Lady in the Lake (1943), there is Dr. Almore, described by one character as “one of those doctors who runs around all night with a case of loaded hypodermic needles, keeping the local fast set from having pink elephants for breakfast.”  In The Little Sister (1949), Dr. Lagardie is on the payroll of gangsters, first in Cleveland, Ohio, then in Los Angeles.  In The Long Goodbye (1953), Marlowe encounters Dr. Verringer, who runs a private clinic for wealthy alcoholics, much of his profits going to support his loopy boyfriend’s own drug habit.

As Trott and Haag noted, Chandler was familiar with England, but neither writer explained why for much of Chandler’s life he held a British passport.  Born in Chicago to an American father and an Irish mother, Chandler’s father was an abusive alcoholic who abandoned his family.  Chandler’s mother took the boy to suburban London so he could live nearer her family and receive a classical education.  In 1907 he became a naturalized British subject and applied for a junior post in the Admiralty.  After a year there, he tried journalism, and by 1912 he was back in the United States.  Thus, his almost two decades in England were long before the establishment of socialized medicine.

When the First World War began, he enlisted in the Canadian Army and saw combat in France.  After the war, he married and became an executive with an oil company in southern California.  Like other veterans of that war, he sought solace in excessive alcohol and extra-marital sex; after losing his job for drinking, he turned to writing crime fiction.  His personality, strong, complex, and old-fashioned, comes forth most clearly, however, in his vast correspondence.

Early in Frank MacShane’s edition of Chandler’s letters, published in 1981, is one dated 17 October, 1939, in which Chandler wrote, “I like a conservative atmosphere, a sense of the past, I like everything that Americans of past generations used to go and look for in Europe.”  On 14 September, 1949, he wrote, “Sometimes I wonder what my politics would be if I lived in England,” and he explained, “Can’t imagine myself voting for socialism now that its nasty bureaucratic soul has been revealed.”  For Chandler, voting Conservative meant voting “against,” reminding him of the 1948 American presidential election, to him a Hobson’s choice between two politicians, neither one Chandler believed “has any business in the White House.”

On 21 December, 1950, he wrote to his American agent, Carl Brandt, that a novel need not reveal the author’s views of, for example, President Harry Truman or the United Nations, adding, “I have a low opinion of both.”  On 27 February, 1951, Chandler wrote to his British publisher, Hamish Hamilton, “Of course I don’t like socialism, although a modified form of it is inevitable everywhere,” adding, “I think a bunch of bureaucrats can abuse the power of money as much as a bunch of Wall Street bankers, and far less competently.”  Aware that wealth can be confiscated exactly once, Chandler wrote, “Socialism so far has existed on the fat of the class it is trying to impoverish,” and he asked, “What happens when the fat is all used up?”

If one must bring Raymond Chandler into contemporary cultural concerns, his outlook would be more in line with that of the Earl of Grantham on Downton Abbey than with the worldview of Senator Bernie Sanders.

Bede for Christmas

Imagine a Roman Catholic priest, a Benedictine monk in his early sixties with a sense that he is not long for this world.  He has visited one of his former students, a diocesan priest, recently settled into his post as bishop of a major city some seventy miles south of the monastery.  Back home, the old priest-professor writes a letter to the new bishop to offer some farewell thoughts on the current state of the Church in their region.

His concerns include the sorry facts that the lay faithful are not attending Mass regularly, monasteries have become lax, and priests are so poorly educated that they cannot say even the Lord’s Prayer in Latin.  Moreover, there simply are not enough priests.  The bishop really ought to do something about these problems.

The letter was written in late 734, and its author was an Anglo-Saxon man we know as Saint Bede the Venerable, or usually the Venerable Bede.  He lived from around 673 to 735, and from age seven he was either a student at a monastic school in northeastern England or was a monk of that monastery and as such taught in his old school.  Best known today for An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he was in his own day renowned as a Scripture scholar.  He wrote several biblical commentaries, and he compiled in two volumes fifty of his homilies on the Gospels.

Just as Bede’s letter to his new bishop has a familiar ring to it, his homilies have messages for Christians today.  Bede’s fifty homilies are available in English translation, quoted below, two paperback volumes by Lawrence T. Martin and David Hurst.  Four of those homilies are for Christmas, and another one is for the Octave Day of Christmas.

One of Bede’s Christmas homilies is for Christmas Eve, his text being Matthew 1:18-25.  His other three Christmas homilies are on Luke 2:1-13, Luke 2:15-20, and John 1:1-14; for the Octave Day he preached on Luke 2:21.  Here we will consider the second one for Christmas Day, on Saint Luke’s account of the shepherds visiting the Christ child.  In these homilies Bede made similar points, so very likely they were not delivered to the same congregation all in the same year.

By the early 700s, when Bede was preaching, the Church had developed much of her teaching, and Bede inherited a long tradition of biblical scholarship.  He learned that just as Christ has two natures, fully human and fully divine, so does Scripture have two senses, literal and spiritual.  It is an insight the Church still believes and teaches, as one can find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Number 115.

Accordingly, Bede began each homily by looking at the literal or historical sense of the Gospel text, and then he went deeper and expounded upon the spiritual sense.  When preaching on the shepherds going to see the newborn son of Mary, Bede accepted as historical fact that one night outside Bethlehem angels appeared to shepherds.

However, on that aspect of the text he spent only a few lines.  Rather than belabor a point, Bede guided his hearers beyond the dry outer layer, what he elsewhere compared to the crust of bread, into the richer core of the biblical narrative.  From the basic history he entered another level of meaning, and that spiritual sense took him further into the sacred mysteries of his faith, making for Bede the spiritual sense also a mystical sense.

“Mystically,” he explained, “these shepherds represent teachers of flocks, and also directors of the souls of the faithful.”  Bede noted that the angels appeared to the shepherds at night, and the darkness of night stands as a symbol for the “dangers and temptations” against which spiritual shepherds are always guarding themselves and their flocks.  Bede also pointed out that shepherds are pastors and that the shepherds near Bethlehem went to see the Good Shepherd, who would after His resurrection command the man Bede called “the supreme shepherd,” Saint Peter, “If you love me, feed my lambs,” (Jn 21:16-17), meaning, “Strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32).

Lest his hearers think that by equating shepherds with pastors Bede was addressing only his fellow priests, he told them, “It is not only bishops, presbyters, deacons, and even those who govern monasteries, who are to be understood to be pastors, but also all the faithful, who keep watch over the little ones of their house, . . . insofar as they preside with solicitous watchfulness over their own house.”

Bede added that the lay faithful, whose pastoral role derives from their parental responsibilities, are joined also by the lay brothers of his monastery.  “Every single one of you, brothers,” Bede told them, “who is believed to live as a private person holds the office of pastor, and feeds a spiritual flock, and keeps watch by night over it, if, gathering a multitude of good acts and pure thoughts to himself, he tries to govern them with just control, to nourish them with the heavenly pastures of the Scriptures, and by vigilant shrewdness to keep them safe against the snares of evil spirits.”

It was a point made also by one of the great saints of the twentieth century, Monsignor Josemaría Escrivá.  In his spiritual classic, The Way (1939), he wrote, “You have the obligation to sanctify yourself.  Yes, even you.  Who thinks this is the exclusive concern of priests and religious?  To everyone, without exception, our Lord said:  ‘Be perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect’ [Mt 5:48].”  From his writings as a whole, it is clear that for Saint Josemaría, sanctifying oneself means being open to and working with God’s grace.

This understanding of sanctification and pastoral service being open to all Christians occurs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Number 1546.  There it is explained in the context of baptism giving a believer a share in Christ’s priestly ministry.  All participate in Christ’s servant leadership to the extent that their calling enables them.

As he did in other homilies, Bede presented to his hearers a practical example in the Virgin Mary.  The historical shepherds went away rejoicing after seeing the baby Jesus.  Her joy and her sorrow came from seeing Him from crib to Cross.  In the silence of her heart, she pondered the mysteries about her son, bringing them forth when it best served others.

Odo of Bayeux and the Warrior’s Soul

Five images survive of Bishop Odo of Bayeux (c. 1030-1097), three occurring on the Bayeux Tapestry, two on his episcopal seal.  To be precise, the seal itself has gone missing, but a nineteenth-century drawing of it survives.  The first image on the Tapestry shows him giving the blessing at a chicken dinner; the second has him seated at the right hand of the Duke of Normandy; the third depicts him at the Battle of Hastings.  On the seal, the obverse shows him on horseback with a sword in his right hand, while the reverse shows him wearing vestments and holding a crozier in his left hand.

The third image on the Tapestry is the most eye-catching, a representation that today seems incongruous:  A bishop in chain mail and helmet, riding a horse into battle; his right hand wields a wooden club.  The Latin caption above him reads, Hic Odo ep[iscopu]s baculu[m] tenens confortat pueros, “Here Bishop Odo, holding a club, rallies the boys.”

While once or twice in Church history a bishop may have been reputed to seem bellicose, it is hard to recall many wearing armor, brandishing a club, and roaring onto the field of battle.  While one must see Odo in the context of his times, he is best understood as an example of military chaplaincy.  Civilians can exhibit inhumanity, wrote Joseph Conrad, but “There is nothing incompatible between humanity and a warrior’s soul.”

Two contemporary chroniclers, William of Poitiers and Orderic Vitalis, recorded Odo’s checkered career.  Odo was the son of Herluin de Conteville and Herleva de Falaise; through his mother Odo was half-brother to William, Duke of Normandy and future conqueror and king of England.  In 1049, William, two years into his reign as duke, appointed Odo Bishop of Bayeux.  After the Conquest in October, 1066, William made Odo the Earl of Kent, a rank he held for twenty-one years.

As a temporal ruler, Odo’s single-minded governance of his vast estates led to legal controversy and unpopularity.  Worse, in 1082 William arrested and tried Odo for sedition:  With the mutual depositions declared upon each other by Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV, Odo sought to resolve the scandalous chaos by recruiting William’s knights and claiming the papacy for himself.  As Marc Morris summed it up in The Norman Conquest (2012), “A man of God, a man of the world, Odo was also clearly a man of war.”

In the eleventh century it was common for dukes and kings to appoint bishops.  Popes before and after the Benedictine Gregory VII worked to reform that procedure, insisting that only the Pope could name bishops.  Odo came from a political family, and he shared the cultural ideals of fighting men such as his half-brother.  Yet he also shared their Catholic faith, and he bridged two domains, the court and the Church.  At Hastings, certainly, he filled a role we would recognize as military chaplain.

In his contribution to The Sword of the Lord (2004), a collection of twelve essays about military chaplains through the centuries, Michael McCormick wrote, “As combat loomed, early medieval chaplains sought to maintain the morale of their fighters and seized the moment to accomplish their broader mission of pastoral care.”  Odo’s role boosting morale during the battle received commemoration on the Bayeux Tapestry, but his wider pastoral role requires imaginative reconstruction.  “Before battle,” McCormick wrote, “the chaplains and their flock staged spectacular and participatory liturgical services, including special votive Masses.”  Odo the club-wielding bishop on horseback was also Odo the pastor, offering Mass for his men before they went to risk their lives.

In an insight born of practical experience, Terry Schappert, in his television series Warriors (2009), noted that on the night before the Battle of Agincourt (1415), about the only sound to be heard in the English and French camps was from men confessing their sins to priests.  A master sergeant in the United States Army, Schappert served in the Gulf War and the Iraq War.

Mention of current wars against Muslim forces in the Middle East brings us back to Odo’s time.  In 1095, at a council at Clermont, Pope Urban II, formerly prior of the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, unveiled in a homily a new idea that combined several old ideas.  In order to defend Christians in the Holy Land and to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim occupation, Pope Urban proposed a penitential pilgrimage for knights, whereby if they fulfilled their vows as armed penitent pilgrims to Jerusalem, they would receive a plenary indulgence, complete forgiveness of all their sins and the temporal punishment resulting from those sins.

This proposal has become known as the First Crusade.  Among the first to take the vow for this new form of penance was Odo of Bayeux; more than most of us, he knew he had much publicly to repent.  With other Norman nobles dedicated to this new cause, he set out for Jerusalem, but early in 1097, after a brief illness, he died at Palermo, Sicily.  Since he died before he could fulfill his vow, under the terms of Pope Urban’s plan, Odo received a plenary indulgence.

For dreamers of co-existence, it is a stretch to see Odo the Club-wielder being in Heaven.  As Pope Urban understood, however, Heaven is not only for people who enjoy the peace and comfort secured by others standing ready to fight.  From Saint Cornelius the Centurion to the Swiss Guard, the Church has had room for Christians in uniform, not least when the enemy’s flag is blazoned with a prophet’s sword.

Modern perspective comes from another American warrior, Chris Kyle (1974-2013).  In his memoir, American Sniper (2012), he recounted an attack in Ramadi that took a heavy toll on his unit.  Afterwards, he and his brothers in arms became subdued and introspective.  “I spent a lot of time praying to God,” Kyle remembered, adding, “I find some comfort in faith, and I found it in those days after my friends had been shot up.”  Along with prayer, he spent time reading the Bible.  “With all hell breaking loose around me,” he said, “it felt better to know I was part of something bigger.”

Being part of something bigger, being deployed in a just cause, defending one’s fellow Christians and countrymen:  Therein lies the key to Odo of Bayeux and men like him throughout the ages.

Luther, Newman, and Conversion

To the delight of philatelists and dismay of traditionalists, word was the Vatican’s post office would issue a stamp to commemorate Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of his Ninety-five Theses.  On that day in October, 1517, when he nailed up his now famous Theses, Luther began securing a place in history, but needless to say, a Vatican postage stamp highlighting his schism could make some people believe that there is suddenly ice skating in Hell.

For converts from Protestantism to Catholicism, Luther remains an unavoidable name in the background, a kind of ancestor:  He began the break that their conversions are small steps in repairing.  For someone whose Protestantism was outside Lutheranism, Luther looms as an odious and ominous figure; a fat, arrogant Scripture scholar who raged against anyone who was not open to his way of being inflexible.

With providential quirkiness, October marks not only the split between Luther and Rome, but also one of the more famous conversions to Catholicism.  More than 300 years after Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, John Henry Newman, an Anglican clergyman who taught and preached at Oxford, sought out a Catholic priest and was received into full communion with Rome.  Two years later Newman was ordained to the Catholic priesthood, and thirty-four years later he was made a cardinal.

“After October, 1845,” wrote Henry Chadwick, “Newman was never in doubt that his decision for conversion was correct,” and yet Newman “quickly discovered that the path of a convert can be uncomfortable, even miserable.”  Amidst his frustrations as a Catholic, Newman remained a prolific spiritual writer.  His prose tends to Victorian heaviness, the soporific lull of sunlight through gauze curtains in a widowed aunt’s parlor on a warm Sunday afternoon.  When his writings are not suggesting a prim and tedious author, they are challenging the reader to consider just how much more converting, how much growing closer to Christ, one must face.

Between 1834 and 1842, Newman preached in the university church at Oxford, the result being eight volumes entitled Parochial and Plain Sermons.  Still admired by Protestants and Catholics alike, those sermons pulled no punches.

In one entitled “The Religion of the Day,” Newman described English Christianity as having become genteel:  “Everything is bright and cheerful.  Religion is pleasant and easy; benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal, are the first sins.  Austerity is an absurdity; even firmness is looked on with an unfriendly, suspicious eye.”

Such shallowness developed, Newman explained, because Scripture’s wrath of God was dismissed as an anthropomorphism, but God’s love was not.  Heavenly glory was to be enjoyed here on Earth, so Christ dying on the Cross seemed like a gauche and outdated metaphor.  It was a faith of being nice, a polite piety reflected in Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.”

Other Protestants in Newman’s day and later had hymnals that flexed with more robust lyrics.  While those sterner Protestants’ churches had no crucifixes, their hymns left no doubt about what happened on Calvary.  “There is a fountain filled with blood,” began a hymn by William Cowper, “drawn from Emmanuel’s veins/And sinners plunged beneath that flood/Lose all their guilty stains.”

With Newman’s lukewarm Anglicans, though, those more hardy Protestants shared reverence for the King James Version of the Bible, with its poetic glimpses of a wild, primeval world:  “Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps” (Dt 32:33); “He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn” (Ps 29:6).

When a Protestant converts to Catholicism, it is often because of what Newman put so succinctly in the Introduction to his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845):  “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”  Study of the Church Fathers, such as Newman undertook, can lead one to see that their Church was the Church that Christ founded when He gave the keys of the Kingdom to Peter.  From those keys, through the days of Clement of Rome and Gregory the Great, the historical trail takes one through to the present day and to an old man in a white cassock on a balcony in Rome.

By tracing the path from Peter’s keys to Peter’s successor, one encounters a variety of characters.  One sees a saint like Pope Leo the Great stare down Attila the Hun, and one hears a sensualist like Pope Leo X, who eventually excommunicated Luther, blurt out, “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!”

That continuity carries a price, namely meeting unpleasant people, such as anti-Semites and pedophiles; throughout Church history, they turn up with disturbing regularity.  There are also tiresomely well-meaning people who insist that being a good Catholic means sharing their love of Baroque art or the music of the Saint Louis Jesuits, or who think that just a little more conversion will make one give up preferring The Federalist Papers to the Berrigan brothers, Joseph Conrad to Flannery O’Connor.

Along the way, one must leave behind a lot that is congenial and familiar.  Gone is the fountain filled with blood, gone are the unicorns.  Still, amidst the resulting drabness, what counts, Newman would say, is that vital continuity.  Its vitality means change as well as continuity, since all living things change, but even that change occurs within an established pattern.  Apple trees grow and mature (change) but end up producing apples, not artichokes.

Owen Chadwick, older brother of Henry, quoted above, said that Newman’s outlook on life could be summed up, “expect change because change cannot but happen to society, but see that the change grows out of and conserves the best of the past.”  He added that this perspective “was the thought of Edmund Burke, and thereafter of all sane and moderate conservatives.”

Sanity and moderation are not words historians consistently apply to Luther, but they fit Newman at his best.  (At his worst, he could be, like many scholars, prickly and pedantic.)  Whatever their respective inner steadiness, both men were deft and sinewy poets, Luther writing about God as our “mighty fortress,” and Newman about “that flesh and blood/Which did in Adam fail,/Should strive afresh against the foe,/Should strive and should prevail.”

One hundred twenty years after his death, the Catholic Church beatified Newman, and ironists await the day when Vatican postal meters will mark Luther cancelled.

Pseudonyms and Masculinity

A trend on various web sites is to use pseudonyms.  It is a literary custom with a considerable pedigree:  In the eighteenth century, for example, British and American newspaper essayists believed that they needed to use evocative pseudonyms drawn from classical antiquity, such as Cato or Publius, to shield themselves from political and legal recrimination.  Those verbally masked writers were challenging encroachments of royal authority and arguing for a controversial new constitution.

Today, anyone in the English-speaking world may choose to write a letter to the editor or put something on a web site without fear of ending up in the Tower of London or being put in the stocks, such as one sees in Colonial Williamsburg.  However, danger of unemployment seems to lie in an unguarded e-mail or Facebook post.  There is a cartoon image of a miserable-looking man, and the caption says, “And then I hit ‘Reply All’.”

Still, even without such repercussions, there could be awkward or inconvenient results, whether at work or within one’s social circle.  Sometimes after a voluntary public statement, a worse fate than unemployment is ostracism.  Until that blog post where you came out as a conservative Catholic, everyone in your wife’s weekly latte-klatch thought you were a normal guy.

All the same, some web sites where pseudonyms seem to be in vogue put an emphasis not only on reclaiming what it means to be Catholic, but also on what it means to be a man.  That manly emphasis is what makes hiding behind a pseudonym at best paradoxical.  If one wants to fight the good fight, if one wants men to be men, to be meat and potatoes masculine role models maybe even ready for martyrdom, one ought to have the, shall we say, masculine attributes to put one’s own name to a few hundred well-chosen words.  After all, what would the Maccabees say?

Happy Birthday, Bob Newhart

In three television films between 2004 and 2008, Bob Newhart played Judson, the director of an unusual urban library.  The fictional Metropolitan Public Library contains secret chambers holding priceless artifacts, such as the Ark of the Covenant and King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur.  To carry on the work of the library, Judson hires a young scholar, a highly-strung and socially awkward bachelor, but at one point the young man rebels, in large part because the secret nature of his often life-threatening assignments keeps him from having a girlfriend for more than a few months.

To console the young man and help him put things into perspective, a smiling Judson tells him, “Think of yourself as a celibate monk.”

Needless to say, the thirty-two year-old librarian rejects that advice.  For all their comedy, the films tap into the public’s perennial fascination with the supernatural and the biblical.  The films center around Judson sending the young librarian off to seek out for the library’s collection three fabled wonders of the world:  the Spear of Destiny, King Solomon’s Mines, and the Judas Chalice.  All three quests have the bad guys hot on his heels, and Judson appears magically at just the right times.

By the time of the three TV movies where he played Judson the wizard librarian, Newhart, born on 5 September, 1929, had long established his name in stand-up comedy as a master of deadpan delivery.  In 1960, he recorded six of his brief comedic monologues, and The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart became the first comedy album to go to number one on the Billboard charts.  In 1961 it won the Grammy Awards’ Album of the Year.  Other albums and other honors followed, as well as film roles and two long-running television series bearing his name.

Newhart’s dry, often cerebral, humor derives from events of everyday life, notably as experienced by Americans in middle-class, usually suburban, jobs.  Among the more famous of his routines are “Abe Lincoln v. Madison Avenue,” “Bus Drivers School,” and “King Kong.”  That last named portrays a new night watchman having to call his boss for advice on how to deal with a giant gorilla climbing up the side of the building.  After all, the training manual never covered that problem.

The world of the unexpected perils of people in offices was one Newhart knew well.  He grew up in an Irish Catholic family of six in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where his father was part owner of a plumbing and heating supply business.  One of Newhart’s three sisters became a nun and taught in a Catholic high school.

After graduating from Saint Ignatius College Prep, Bob Newhart studied business management and accounting at Loyola University, and after serving in the U. S. Army, he worked as an accountant for several major corporations with offices in Chicago, such as Glidden.  He has always maintained that those companies failed to appreciate his special approach to accounting, which he summed up in three words:  “That’s close enough.”

In public, Newhart’s old friend, the late Don Rickles, called Newhart, “the stammering idiot from Chicago.”  In contrast with Newhart’s quiet style that avoids cruelty and vulgarity, Rickles’ brash brand of humor depended upon raunchy insult and crass exaggeration, and to have the desired effect of surprise, humor in general must carefully balance distortion with remaining recognizably accurate to what is agreed upon as objective reality.  Newhart does stammer and hails from outside Chicago; however, like all comedians, he is exceptionally perceptive and quick-witted, even brilliant.

As have other prominent men who dealt with stammering, such as Winston Churchill and James Stewart, Newhart found ways to incorporate his stammer into his public speaking.  Someone with a stammer learns early on that the stammer is going to occur at least here and there, so it is best to develop ways to harness it.  Several of Newhart’s comedy routines involve him carrying on imaginary conversations on the telephone, a device that someone who stammers can face with fear and loathing.  Newhart’s humorous use of it shows a stammerer that the telephone can be mastered.

Since he is a performer, some critics have thought Newhart’s stammer was simply part of the act.  One producer, ever nervous about time constraints, asked Newhart to cut out the stammer; it was taking too much time.  “No,” Newhart countered, finding humor easier than a detailed explanation of the phenomenon, “that stammer bought me a house in Beverly Hills.”

In his memoir, I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! (2006), Newhart combined the texts of some of his more famous monologues with humorous anecdotes from his own life.  When reading it, though, it helps to be able to hear in one’s mind Newhart’s unique, often halting delivery.  It is possible that someone who has never heard Newhart’s routines or seen his television shows would find the book less than amusing.

Fortunately, his comedy albums continue to be available commercially and on-line, so new audiences will find a fresh, if reserved, source for a much-needed laugh, and a new generation of people with stammers will find a new hero, seeing once more that they are not alone struggling with words.  For Newhart’s nearly sixty years of laughs and inspiration, five days into every September we should honor this national treasure, maybe even by using the telephone.

Patrick O’Brian on Land

Supposedly people are drawn to fiction that fills a need in their lives, so that lonely women read romance novels, and, as Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey observed in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), “dull men in offices read detective stories.”  Exceptions occur, so that men who have traveled a lot and who enjoy firearms tend to prefer adventure stories, from Treasure Island (1883) to King Solomon’s Mines (1885).  In that line is Patrick O’Brian’s The Road to Samarcand (1954).

O’Brian (1914-2000) is best known for his popular series of twenty sea-faring novels featuring Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.  Published between 1969 and 1999, they have fiercely loyal fans, and in 2003 the series inspired a theatrical film, Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe.  The movie won two Academy Awards, and the books earned O’Brian the status of Commander of the Order of the British Empire, conferred by Queen Elizabeth II.  These stories abound in complex characters, vivid descriptions, and minute and accurate details; all the same, the dialogue and arcana of nautical life during the early 1800s leave some readers bewildered and bored.

For those of us who want to like O’Brian’s sea stories but can’t finish one, The Road to Samarcand comes to the rescue.  Unfortunately, that tale set on dry land remains relatively unknown:  O’Brian’s obituary in The Daily Telegraph made no mention of it, and his obituary in The Economist simply said, “Several pre-Aubrey novels sank without a trace.”  For a re-issue of this pre-Aubrey novel, Kirkus Reviews (15 May, 2007) said of it, “A likable if far-fetched jaunt, O’Brian lacks the mastery of his material which he will show in the Aubrey/Maturin series.”

Without debating what adventure story is not far-fetched, or whether far-fetchedness necessarily makes an adventure story likable, it is safe to say that O’Brian’s The Road to Samarcand stands ready for someone whose desert island library would include John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.  As with those far-fetched adventures, this one has pursuers and pursued, and as with Treasure Island, it features a teenage boy with the unlikely daring and maturity of Joe and Frank Hardy.  Like King Solomon’s Mines, it recounts an improbable trek across terrain that for most of us seems as mythical as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Oddly enough, the road to Samarcand begins in the China Seas, where our heroes are sailing their schooner, the Wanderer.  Our heroes are Derrick, orphan son of American missionaries; Terence Sullivan, his maternal uncle and master of the Wanderer; Sandy Ross, a Scottish friend of Sullivan and business partner; Olaf Svenssen, a Swedish crewman; Li Han, the ship’s Chinese cook.  Worth mentioning is Derrick’s faithful half-mastiff, Chang.  Once on land, having survived a typhoon, they meet up as arranged in Tchao-King with Professor Ayrton, Derrick’s father’s cousin and an archaeologist from Oxford.

On ship, the discussion had been what to do about Derrick’s education, whether to send him to school in England, Scotland, or the United States.  His preference, to stay on board and learn to become a master mariner, was vetoed, and even Li Han argued for the boy being sent to school, telling him, “Why, in time you might be an official and never do anything for remainder of earthly existence.  You could grow long fingernails, and become obese and dignified.”  Silently, Derrick took into account that his friend admired not only Confucius, but also President William McKinley.

Enter the rumpled and tweedy Professor Ayrton to offer a compromise:  School after an archaeological journey to Samarcand.  Along the way, the professor would teach Derrick ancient Greek while keeping an eye out for ruins and what were then called Oriental antiquities.  Despite the professor’s gift for languages, his pedantic approach to learning American slang casts doubt on his grasp of reality.

Sullivan and Ross decide to accompany them, uneasy with the professor’s seeming obliviousness to the dangers, whether geographical or political.  When Sullivan offers to teach Ayrton how to shoot, the professor dismisses the idea, saying that surely along the way there will always be someone who can shoot game for food.

Shooting something for dinner being the least of their worries looming ahead, the Wanderer goes into dry dock, and Olaf, Li Han, and Chang round out the party.  Joined by Chingiz, a young Mongol nobleman known to Sullivan and who saves Derrick’s life, they set out from the city they knew as Peking, eventually traversing the old Silk Road that from the days before the Roman Empire connected East and West.

A born storyteller, O’Brian knew well the old rule for writers of fiction:  Always keep your hero in trouble.  At every turn the expedition encounters unpredictable hazards, from being entrusted with rare Chinese carved jade tablets to contending with rival warlords, and as they enter the snowy mountains, ever lurking is the threat of Yeti.

Keenly aware of the century’s most pernicious scourges, state socialism and militant Islam, O’Brian confronted his heroes with Soviet troops zealous to advance international Communism, and the carved jade tablets must be guarded from Muslim iconoclasts.  As Ayrton explains, since “there is an element of religious fanaticism in their attack, they may, if victorious, go so far as to destroy” the ancient jades, “many of which, I am glad to say, are graven images, and anathema to these bigots.”

Of course, a reader with sensitivities refined sixty years after O’Brian wrote could indict the book for its own kind of bigotry.  Someone trained in North Atlantic suburban comfort to be perpetually offended and aggrieved, where daring to disagree brands one a hater, might be triggered by an all-male cast of characters, not to mention pipe tobacco and guns.  Those readers are advised to avoid this book and to seek therapy from R. Lee Ermey.

Page-turning adventure, however far-fetched, puts O’Brian’s story in a long literary tradition that extends from Homer’s Odyssey to the Travels of Marco Polo, from stories by Rudyard Kipling to the cartoon exploits of Jonny Quest.  This unsung predecessor to O’Brian’s acclaimed chronicles of Aubrey and Maturin shares their cliff-hanging suspense as well as their belief in friendship, loyalty, and pressing on, come what may.  A rainy day, some Darjeeling, and being transported through a book onto the road to Samarcand:  As Li Han would say, “What felicity!”