All posts by Daniel J. Heisey

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!”

Learning from Charlton Heston

The first half of 2017 has seen the publication of books about growing up.  They include:

Mark Batterson, Play the Man:  Becoming the Man God Created You to Be; William H. McRaven, Make Your Bed:  Little Things that Can Change Your Life and Maybe the World; Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult:  Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.  The authors are, respectively, a Protestant minister, a retired Admiral of the United States Navy, and a United States Senator.

As their titles and subtitles suggest, these books focus on self-discipline and self-respect.  As a genre, the theme goes back at least as far as Cicero’s De Officiis, “On Duties,” addressed to his son and discussing the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.  In the long line of such books from Cicero to Sasse, a slim volume from twenty years ago is worth re-reading, especially if one agrees with C. S. Lewis that Cicero “is the greatest bore . . . of all authors whether ancient or modern.”

In 1997 Charlton Heston (1923-2008) published To Be a Man:  Letters to My Grandson.

Heston’s grandson, John Alexander Clarke Heston, known simply as Jack Heston, was born and baptized in 1992, and like his father, Fraser Heston, he is now a film producer and director.  Jack Heston’s grandfather was an Oscar-winning actor, starring in now classic films such as The Agony and the Ecstasy, Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes, and The Ten Commandments.  He was also politically active, having marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., campaigned for Ronald Reagan, and served as president of the National Rifle Association.

In 1995, Charlton Heston published his memoirs, In the Arena, and in it he mentioned the birth and baptism of Jack Heston.  Nevertheless, that book contains primarily the story of Charlton, not Jack, Heston.  In all, Charlton Heston wrote four books, all autobiographical, revealing much about his life and opinions, but so far, Jack Heston remains a comparatively private man.

As a boy, though, he gave indications of a fine man in the making.  In To Be a Man, his grandfather recounted an earthquake that struck southern California during the night of 17 January, 1994.  Searching around his damaged house, Heston found his grandson sitting on a chair, his hands folded in his lap.  When Heston asked the boy what he was doing, Jack replied, “I’m behaving.”

In the foreword to To Be a Man, Charlton Heston wrote that the book is about “learning how to do your best and keep your promises, be fair, but never give up, . . . and above all, how to read, and some day grow into a good man.”  A tall order for a book of 127 pages, but Heston, having played Moses, included the Ten Commandments and quoted in full Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”  Generations of schoolchildren memorized that inspiring poem, and any two year-old who can keep his head in the rubble of an earthquake is ready for Kipling’s message.

As one would expect from an autobiographical book of advice from a man in his seventies, To Be a Man has numerous reflections on history.  When he wrote In the Arena, Heston said that although in school he liked learning history, as an actor he came to love it, researching the various historical characters he was hired to portray.  That preparation for those roles, wrote Heston, made him begin “to realize what I’m now convinced is true:  history is not only the most important subject; in the end it may be the only subject.”

Heston’s book of five letters to his grandson contains family history and its intersection with world history.  Heston’s maternal ancestors came from England to colonial Massachusetts in 1633, and 312 years later, Heston was serving as a staff sergeant in the United States Army Air Corps, anxiously perched in Alaska awaiting the imminent invasion of Japan, almost certain death averted only by the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For Heston, history and politics go together, and so in To Be a Man he offered pithy assessments of corrosive trends still with us twenty years after he wrote:  political correctness and waning masculinity.  A professional heavyweight boxer (charitably unnamed) who joined the United States Marines but then quit after three days because basic training was too hard received Heston’s astonished scorn.  Along those lines, Heston’s mind boggled at Williams College requiring straight male students to stand on street corners and declare that they are gay “so they’ll know what it feels like.”

Meanwhile, Heston wrote approvingly of his grandson’s karate lessons and the instructor insisting upon repetitive discipline, good manners, and good sportsmanship.  Very likely Jack Heston eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, learning proper use of firearms from his marksman grandfather.  The boy’s innate sense of justice came forth succinctly one day when his grandfather told him, “A couple of bad men tried to rob a bank near your school, but the police came and killed them.”  Jack Heston replied, “Good!”

Amidst the comments on history and politics, what emerges from To Be a Man is the importance of a God-fearing family.  As adults, Charlton and Fraser Heston were neighbors, and Jack Heston grew up with the increasingly rare blessing of three generations visiting each other on a regular basis.  Quite rightly, Charlton Heston observed, “Beyond any other measure, the best thing you can give your child is your time,” adding, “It doesn’t matter what you do,” such as “wash the car, hit tennis balls, shop for Mother’s Day, as long as you do it together.”

Near the end of the book, musing on Patrick Henry’s definition of honor as “a gift a man gives to himself,” Heston considered a man’s honor and self-respect in relation to his grandson.  “In another twenty years,” Heston wrote, “his generation will be running the whole shebang.”  Heston wondered what part his grandson would have in that future.

No pushy stage grandfather, Heston concluded it would be fine if Jack Heston found happiness living simply on the Heston family homestead in Michigan, “with a good and loving woman and a couple of kids he can teach the wilderness to, as I learned it from my dad, a long time ago, and explored with Jack’s dad.”  Wealth and fame don’t make a man, Heston is saying, a faithful family does.

Rod Stewart and Sub-creation

 

Between December, 2007, and June, 2017, Model Railroader magazine has featured rock and roll legend Rod Stewart.  Since December, 2010, those features have been cover stories, the magazine falling open at the centerfold to reveal stunning photographs of his model railroad.  In his autobiography, Rod (2012), he subtitled his chapter on model railroading “In which our hero owns up to a habit most shocking and time-consuming.”

As habits go, it is time-consuming, but not all that shocking.  Consider it in the context of what in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” J. R. R. Tolkien called “sub-creation.”  Tolkien referred to the Primary World, created by God, and a Secondary World, created by the author of a fairy story.  That sub-creator uses imagination to make a credible world of inner consistency, taking elements of the Primary World into the realm of fantasy.  “Fantasy is made out of the Primary World,” Tolkien said, “but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone, and wood which only the art of making can give.”

Here Tolkien purists could object, since Tolkien insisted that the imaginative work of sub-creation requires words; in painting, for example, said Tolkien, “the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy.”  Tolkien’s essay, though, must be read with caution:  In it he muttered against automobiles and other developments of modern life, including “railway-engineers,” meaning designers of trains and their rails, bridges, and stations.  Still, all such literary Neo-Luddites ignore the fact that their verbal creations (or sub-creations) will be published and distributed by means of modern technology.

It might be amusing to pine for the days when one’s writings were copied by hand onto parchment, but those days are gone forever, as dead as the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States.  They are as dead as the era of horses and buggies and steam locomotives.  To dream for their return joins the delusion that for a man to be authentically Catholic, he must affect a taste for whiskey and cigars.

Like any good historian, a model railroader studies the past, he doesn’t live in it.  (Nearly all model railroaders are men.)  Most model railroaders strive to create miniature versions of trains and towns in the era of steam and coal.  Rod Stewart’s model railroad, called the Grand Street and Three Rivers Railroad, aims for a time around 1945, when steam engines were phasing out and diesel engines were coming to the fore.

Stewart’s Grand Street and Three Rivers is in HO scale, meaning three millimeters equal one foot.  That scale is the most popular size for model railroads, and American companies such as Atlas and Bachmann produce model trains and buildings in HO scale.  Next in popularity is O scale, twice the size of HO scale; put another way, the H in HO scale refers to its being half the size of O.  The Lionel train set going in circles under a Christmas tree is in O scale.

For their sub-creating, however, avid model railroaders desire more complexity than a basic circle or oval.  Their layouts have multiple tracks, with bridges and tunnels, sidings and landscape, and even at a small scale like HO, model railroads necessarily occupy a lot of space.  For example, HO scale trains need a turning radius of eighteen inches.  According to the June, 2017, Model Railroader magazine, Stewart’s sub-creation is 23′ by 124′, covering much of the top floor of his house in Los Angeles.

While the name of his railroad is fictional, it runs through a setting meant to evoke a city in Pennsylvania.  To conjure such a scene, Stewart spends hours making model buildings suitable to the time and place.  Like many model railroaders, he improvises for realism, modifying or combining commercially available kits, a process known in the hobby as kitbashing.

Here again, the sub-creator’s sense of reality intervenes:  Heljan, Hornby, and Kibri are, respectively, Danish, British, and German companies making accurate scale models of trains and structures typical of railways and locations in their countries, but their products would be out of place in a model of an American city around 1945.  As Tolkien said of fairy stories, the sub-created, secondary world must be true within itself.  More appropriate for the self-contained little world Stewart works on would be model buildings made by American companies like Walthers and Woodland Scenics.

Needless to say, such a hobby calls for stability, and model railroaders tend to pride themselves on their carpentry skills and their ingenuity in constructing the framework to support their track, buildings, trees, and trains.  Making it all work takes electricity, in some cases snaking hundreds of feet of wire into elaborate configurations to operate the trains and to illuminate buildings and tiny street lights.  How to build and wire and otherwise outfit one’s model railroad is where monthly magazines like Model Railroader come in, and more recently, hobbyists have been helping one another through web sites and YouTube videos.

Prominent among the latter is jlwii2000, a channel by James Wright.  An officer in the United States Air Force, he reviews products relevant to model railroading and shows progress on his ongoing layout, his HO scale model railroad taking up a large part of his basement.  Since his job has frequent re-assignments, he has devised ways to make his sprawling sub-creation break down into sections and become relatively easily transportable.

As Wright, Stewart, and other married model railroaders will attest, this “habit most shocking and time-consuming” asks a lot of patience of spouses, although Stewart concedes that his wife welcomes some time to herself.  Mention of spouses alludes to another aspect of this hobby:  Its demographics are aging.  A point worthy of national news, on 11 February, 2016, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about the greying population of model railroaders.

One way to attract youngsters into the hobby involves a range of HO scale models based on a children’s television show, Thomas the Tank Engine.  From the make-believe island of Sodor and its talking trains whose good intentions nevertheless often “cause confusion and delay,” kids may someday grow up to model real, albeit defunct, railroads, like the Southern Pacific or the Pennsylvania.

They will find it a satisfying contemplative activity.  As Stewart wrote in Rod, “It’s pretty addictive—and totally absorbing.  The world disappears when I’m doing it.”  Tolkien would understand.

Manfred Honeck and Bruckner’s Eighth

It is fitting that a day in late April, 2017, marked by alternating sunshine and thunderstorms should see Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony in C Minor.  From the first shimmering notes to the final crescendo, it was a triumph.  The setting for this performance was the basilica of the Benedictine monastery of Saint Vincent Archabbey, outside Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  The superb acoustics of the archabbey’s church, completed in 1905, confirmed Honeck’s choice of this sacred venue for conducting the Symphony’s performance of Bruckner’s Eighth.

More so than in his other symphonies, Bruckner’s deep Catholic faith emerges in his Eighth.  Like Bruckner, Honeck is Austrian and a devout Catholic.  In June, 2008, National Catholic Register and in February, 2010, The New York Times ran features on Honeck and his faith.  The New York Times filled nearly an entire page about Honeck, in large part marveling that he prays right before conducting a concert and that any of the orchestra’s musicians who want to pray may join him.  In May, 2010, Saint Vincent College, operated by the Benedictine monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey, recognized Honeck’s commitment to faith and culture by conferring upon him an honorary doctorate.

According to notes that Honeck wrote for the Symphony’s April, 2017, program booklet, he has been familiar with Bruckner’s Eighth for more than thirty years.  As a young musician playing viola with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, he performed it both in Vienna and at Carnegie Hall, each time under the baton of the legendary Herbert von Karajan.  Karajan (1908-1989) had first conducted Bruckner’s Eighth in 1941 in Berlin, and his final performance of it, in November, 1988, with the Vienna Philharmonic, is available on CD from Deutsche Grammophon.

In his program notes for the April, 2017, performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Honeck recalled Karajan’s ability to summon forth from the orchestra a sound that was “imperial and pure.”  Honeck wrote that Karajan asked for “the softest pianissimos and the most powerful, loudest fortes.”  Honeck’s conducting follows that tradition, and the Pittsburgh Symphony responds, performing it, as he says, “in the right style, in the right way.”  Their fortes soared to fill every arch and vaulted ceiling of the Romanesque basilica at Saint Vincent, and their pianissimos were as gentle as a breath.

Honeck wrote that Bruckner’s Eighth is “a monumental piece” similar to “a natural phenomenon.”  Unlike Bruckner’s other symphonies, this one uses a harp, and despite its numerous fortes, cymbals occur only once.  For all the lush harmony of the strings and the glorious emphasis of the brass, it is the tympani, like an athletic heartbeat, bringing the Eighth most to life.  Afterwards the timpanist, Mike Kemp, appearing exhilarated and exhausted, told me that the Eighth “is a divine journey.”

Bruckner himself said “my Eighth is a mystery,” meaning that it has a mystical element.  Mystics can be caricatured as levitating oddities, but mystics are human, their spiritual lives, like anyone else’s, occurring alongside everyday life.  As Honeck observed, in Bruckner’s Eighth “we have every facet of human life and emotion.”  Some composers of the Romantic period show us within themselves; Bruckner, notably in his Eighth, shows us ourselves and beyond.

Bruckner, a bachelor of simple tastes and reticent disposition, seemed to many of his contemporaries just another rural man with a crew cut and a bow tie; sympathetic critics now see a musical genius of profound religious insight.  Bruckner’s musical vision saw the larger pattern connecting life’s daily details.  While a passerby might see the various carvings around a medieval cathedral, Bruckner saw that at base it forms a cross.

As with all Bruckner’s symphonies, except his Ninth, left unfinished at his death, the Eighth has four movements, ranging in length from sixteen to twenty-five minutes.  Despite spanning an hour and twenty minutes, the time by no means drags.  Bruckner, as Honeck wrote, “is the master of beating waves of sound over a long period.”  Honeck added, “And if you allow yourself into these waves and these sounds, you will never feel it to be long.”

At a few points in the first and third movements especially, Bruckner seems to transport us right to the edge of the Cloud of Unknowing, only to bring us crashing back to Earth.  That return to ground level gallops in most surprisingly with the beginning of the fourth movement.  Bruckner said it was to be “solemn, not fast,” and its martial quality refers to a ceremonial meeting in September, 1884, of the Austrian Emperor, the Russian Tsar, and the German Kaiser.  A major event at the time, its significance is now all but lost to history.  What Bruckner commemorated serves to remind the listener of the ideal, going back before the days of Charlemagne, that Christian kings ought to lead their people towards the heavenly court of the King of Kings.

Some critics and musicologists call Bruckner’s Eighth “the Apocalyptic,” although Bruckner never used that term to describe it.  Still, the symphony’s organ-like registration, its fugues and counterpoints evoke the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse, where different images occur to convey the same message:  seven angels, seven trumpets, seven seals.  Then, amidst lightning and hail, in the heavenly Temple appears the Ark of the Covenant; then we are shown a woman clothed with the sun and with the moon at her feet:  different ways to reveal the Virgin Mary in Heaven.  With its moments of sunbeams dappling through expansive alpine thundering, the light and the dark necessarily going together, Bruckner’s Eighth gives us glimpses into Heaven.

Like another great Catholic artist, J. R. R. Tolkien, Bruckner revised and re-wrote his compositions.  He began his Eighth in 1884 and revised it in 1887 and again in 1890.  Standard works of reference encourage the interpretation that Bruckner’s almost compulsive revising derived from insecurity about his work.  More likely, those repeated re-workings show an active mind driven to get it just right.

In 1892 the Vienna Philharmonic gave Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony its premiere.  Bruckner lived another four years, dying at home in Vienna at age seventy-two.  In 1957, his Eighth, slowly entering the repertoire, was first performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony.  In 2017 at Saint Vincent, Manfred Honeck’s masterful and intimate command of the 1890 revision roused some nine hundred people to offer a standing ovation lasting close to ten minutes.

History, Myth, and Opera

More than thirty years ago in History Today, Paul Preston wrote, “Opera and history are inextricably intertwined,” adding that, “It is as impossible to understand Verdi without a sense of the Risorgimento as it is to understand the Risorgimento without listening to early Verdi.”  Studying the nineteenth-century campaign for Italian unification without understanding the role played in it by the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) would be like studying the Second World War without appreciating that Allied morale owed much to Big Band music.

Analogies limping as they do, it takes three minutes to listen to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” but it takes a couple of hours to listen to an opera.  Along with an investment of time comes willingly suspending disbelief.  For most Americans of a certain age, their first and most enduring encounter with opera was on a Saturday morning, watching Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd parody Richard Wagner’s Ring in a Warner Brothers cartoon, What’s Opera, Doc? (1957).  Operatic emotional excess easily lends itself to mockery.

Even children, maybe especially children, see that musical hyperbole, not to mention women wearing helmets with horns, can come across as pretty silly.  After all, no one goes through life singing one’s inmost desires and despair, and needing to live in a chronic state of adolescent anxiety and self-centered drama seems to be the specialty of tiresome bores, such as lonely people who make an art of hypochondria.

In July, 2009, Charles Moore wrote in The Daily Telegraph, “opera can liberate the imagination,” explaining that in opera there is no “need to make a character individually convincing,” since “the situation is archetypal.”  Opera’s archetypes carry it into the realm of myth, and great historical personages and events are great because they sum up deeper, mythic importance.

Significant historical figures occur in opera, from Attila the Hun to Richard Nixon.  There is even an opera set in the time of the Desert Fathers, Thaïs (1893), about a fourth-century monk who seeks to convert the formerly wayward woman known to history as Saint Thaïs of Egypt.

Worth considering here is one of Verdi’s less famous works, Simon Boccanegra.  First performed in 1857, Verdi revised it in 1881, and it is the revised version that is most usually performed and recorded.  It had its American premiere in 1932 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  As Roger Parker wrote in Verdi and His Operas (2000), Simon Boccanegra “contains some of the mature Verdi’s greatest dramatic music,” making it “one of the composer’s most compelling creations.”

The historical basis for this opera is Simone Boccanegra, the first doge, or elected duke, of the Republic of Genoa.  He was elected in 1339, and after twenty-five stormy years, he died, most probably having been poisoned.  By profession he was a corsair, a kind of pirate, but the common people saw in him their best hope as threats loomed from European powers and Muslim forces.  Ordinary people turned to a dynamic tycoon prominent outside the stagnating political establishment.  From the moment of his election, however, he faced roaring opposition, some comfortably-situated people refusing to accept him as their doge.

Verdi’s adjustment of the fourteenth-century reality makes this now obscure populist into a man for all time.  The opera begins with a leader of the popular party persuading a local goldsmith that their only hope lies in backing the swashbuckling corsair.  Enter Boccanegra himself, soon to be confronted by Jacopo Fiesco, a nobleman deeply distraught.  His travail derives in part from Boccanegra being in love with Fiesco’s daughter, Maria.  Fiesco despises the low-born Boccanegra and can never forgive him for getting Maria with child.

Act One ends with Boccanegra’s election and Maria’s death.  Act Two begins twenty-five years later, with Boccanegra harried by opposition and intrigue.  A bright spot for him is discovering that his daughter, named Maria after her mother, survived infancy and has returned to Genoa.  Amidst political strife, father and daughter are reunited, and he sees ahead of them nothing but happiness, not least because she is going to marry Gabriele Adorno, a fine young gentleman of the city.

History and opera meet, alas, and the operatic Boccanegra is slipped a fatal dose of poison.  Tragedy dominates the genre of opera, but opera’s tragedy presents the fact we all face in real life:  If our highs get too high, our lows will be devastatingly low.  Moreover, all but the most optimistic or obtuse have an inner wariness when everything seems to be going along just fine.

Recent productions of Simon Boccanegra have been hit or miss.  In 2010 at the Royal Opera House in London, Plácido Domingo, then nearing seventy, fulfilled a lifelong ambition to portray Boccangera, but the role was written for a baritone, not a tenor.  Still, according to Andrew Clark’s review in Financial Times, “he brings more histrionic intensity to the part than any true baritone.”

In 1995 the Metropolitan Opera mounted a new production by Giancarlo del Monaco, a trendy rendition that fell far short of expectations.  As Joseph Volpe, former general manager of the Met, wrote in his memoirs, The Toughest Show on Earth (2006), “The Eurotrash impulse to make fun of traditional conventions reared its head in a confrontation between ax-wielding plebeians in black and sword-toting patricians in red.”

Opera can open itself to risk, such as an aging tenor taking on a role for a baritone.  However, opera cannot sustain tinkering with its inherent archetypal quality.  Maybe Shakespeare’s plays can best be done in modern dress, but opera needs no updating to reveal its timeless truths.  Set Simon Boccanegra in the 1300s, as Verdi intended, and audiences in each generation will see its contemporary relevance.

History, myth, and opera all have relevance for everyday life.  Opera in particular often seems to be the private reserve of an exclusive club, pompous men in white tie and tails and snooty matrons in tiaras.  Opera’s demotic appeal occurs in Jack Kerouac, actually and then fictionally, visiting Denver, Colorado, and attending a performance of Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio.  “I was so interested in the opera,” Kerouac wrote in On the Road, “that for a while I forgot the circumstances of my crazy life and got lost in the great mournful sounds of Beethoven and the rich Rembrandt tones of his story.”  It is a reaction any composer of operas would hope to inspire.

Lessons from Lazarus

Every three years the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is the well-known story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44).  Center stage stand his sisters, Martha and Mary, and since the late sixth century and the writings of Saint Gregory the Great, Christians have seen them as representing the active and the contemplative lives.  Over the millennia, less attention has gone to Lazarus, who makes his appearance briefly at the end of the story.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear (Sections 115-117) that just as there are two natures in Christ, fully human and fully divine, Scripture contains two senses, the literal and the spiritual, or to use other terms, the historical and the allegorical.  Thus, we may take as literal, historical fact that Jesus did raise Lazarus from the dead.  In a work of fiction, Lazarus would have a long speech describing the marvels of the afterlife.

However, in Saint Luke’s Gospel (16:19-31), Jesus uses the name of his reticent, respectable friend for a story about a scruffy beggar who hovers outside the front door of a wealthy man.  It is the only one of Jesus’ parables where one of the characters has a name.  The ironic contrast between the historical Lazarus of Bethany and the parable’s street person made the tale more memorable, and although the historical, resurrected Lazarus recounts nothing about what it was like being dead, Jesus reveals in that parable two other last things after death and judgment:  Either our selfishness sends us to eternal isolation in hellfire, or our self-emptying leads us to eternal association with saints like Abraham.

In terms of Lenten penance, it is useful to look at what the story of Lazarus teaches us about becoming better Christians.  For Benedictine monks, meditating on Lazarus can be part of the monastic vow of ongoing conversion.  In particular, Lazarus teaches us about becoming better men, better father figures, and better friends of Jesus.  If reflecting on Lazarus along those lines proves helpful to people outside the cloister, so much the better.

Monsignor Romano Guardini, in The Lord (1937), saw Lazarus as parallel to Saint Joseph.  Guardini observed that in the Gospel, both men are silent.  “There is something powerful in him,” Guardini said about Joseph, “a touch of that all-directing, quiet watchfulness of the Father in heaven.”

Silence takes hard work:  We keep, cultivate, and maintain it, and when noise, the absence of silence, intrudes, we refer to silence as having been broken.  Sometimes silence is mandatory, as during a written exam or during a monastic meal, but oftentimes more penitential than compulsory silence is obligatory conversation.

Saint Benedict was aware of the delusion that discussion is accomplishment.  Chapter 6 of the Benedictine Rule is all about restraining one’s desire to speak, reining in what is deep down an infantile need for attention, but such self-restraint must never be abused, hiding behind silence as an excuse for not challenging error and injustice, or wielding silence as a weapon to snub others.  Rather, outward silence reflects inner peace and the self-awareness that often it is best simply to listen.

Silent saints from the early first century may seem to be remote role models, so a contemporary hero may be more accessible.  In his autobiography, When Do I Start? (1997), Karl Malden wrote about making the movie Patton (1970), in which he played General Omar Bradley.  General Bradley served as a consultant to the film, and Malden worked closely with him to make sure he portrayed the great man accurately.

At one point they were going over the script, and Bradley noted a scene where Patton gets a blistering tongue-lashing from Bradley.  “Is it really necessary?” he asked Malden.  Malden asked what Bradley would do instead.  Bradley replied, “I’d just look him in the eye and quietly, with all the intensity I could muster, tell him exactly what I wanted him to do.  And he would do it.”

Malden asked why Patton would do what Bradley so quietly told him.  Bradley smiled and said, “Because I’ve got one more star on my shoulder than he has.”  Being a man involves learning to become serene and secure, having the quiet strength to know that, despite its dramatic appeal, when one is holding all the cards, it is childish weakness to fly into a narcissistic rage and lose one’s inner peace and self-control.

Along with the interior peace reflected in silence, Lazarus stands as a father figure.  Like Saint Joseph, he was the head of a household.  Disconcerting for our emulation, Joseph and Lazarus had unique domestic situations, but another modern personage can give us insight here, since human nature never changes.

Country singer Josh Turner has had hits with songs such as “Left Hand Man” and “Why Don’t We Just Dance,” robust and lyrical celebrations of a man’s love for his wife.  He has also expressed himself in prose, and in his book of spiritual reflections, Man Stuff (2014), he wrote about teaching his young sons to pay attention, not only to what he is telling them, but also to the everyday wonders around them.  “When you learn to pay attention to the simple things in life,” he wrote, “you get one step closer to paying attention to God’s will for you.”  Being a good father relies on inner silence and on quiet, masculine strength that never confuses confidence with arrogance.

In addition to being an exemplar of virtue, of manly character and fatherhood, Lazarus was a friend of Jesus.  Later in Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).  It sounds like not much of a friendship, one friend ordering the other one around.

Consider another scenario:  Someone of marginal acquaintance says to you something that is direct and crosses a boundary, a critical comment about getting your act together.  At once our reaction is, “You don’t know me well enough to talk to me like that!”  In contrast, a real friend can tell us, “You need to get squared away,” and we take it to heart.

Jesus commands Lazarus to come forth from the tomb.  Jesus commands him, and us, to come out of our charity-free zone of solitary confinement, our being all wrapped up in ourselves, our death in sin, since, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law” (CCC 1855).

A profound influence on Saint Benedict was John Cassian, who in his Conferences (2:11:12) said that by commanding us Jesus is calling us from a good thing, being His servant, to a better thing, being His friend.  Cassian noted that in our relationship with Christ, there are stages of development, a concept Saint Benedict summed up in the monastic vow of ongoing conversion.  Ordinarily, the grace for such steady conversion flows through the sacrament of penance, to which a religious must make frequent, at least weekly, recourse.

That penitential process of growing closer to the Lord can be measured in one’s maturing in virtue, in the good qualities of father figures like Joseph and Lazarus.  If we obey the command of Jesus, we come forth from self-absorbed and self-important entombment, sin that leads to everlasting death, and emerge into the light.  We come back to life, and true life is being with Christ.