Friday, August 30, 2013
No, the doom of which I speak is nothing so great, nothing so eternal. I speak of nothing more than the end of Western Civilization. One doesn't have to be a historian to recognize that all civilizations, all cultures, eventually come to an end. Some end quietly and seem just to wither away, slowly decaying over time. The example of the Roman Empire immediately comes to mind. And others disappear almost overnight, as happened to the kingdoms of the ancient Hebrews, Israel and Judah, although each certainly planted and nourished the seeds of its own destruction.
In the case of our own civilization, the forces of decay have been working for quite some time. Some trace their origin to Marxism, some to the Enlightenment, some to the Reformation, and some, inexplicably, blame the Catholic Church. Indeed, a few months ago, during a conversation with a local minister (I will not reveal his denomination) I was told that the authoritarian, undemocratic ways of the Catholic Church were the cause of much of the misery that afflicts the West. I thought this conclusion of his especially remarkable since, only moments before, he had referred to "the irrelevance of Catholicism" in today's world. He made these comments as we chatted over a glass of punch at a social gathering celebrating the ecumenical nature of a local charity. I was proud of my restrained response -- unjustifiably so since I was seething with internal resentment.
The cause of our decay, it seems to me, is simple: as a culture we have lost our faith. We are, indeed, a culture absent the cult that gives it life. And so, as a culture lacking its animating spirit, we seem to be well along the path to cultural doom. Our Christian faith, especially as it was lived within the Catholic Church, gave rise to so many of the institutions and values that made our culture as great as it was. The loss of this faith is, therefore, reflected in those institutions which we see degenerating all around us today. Lacking faith, their guiding principle becomes one of mere expedience and their foundations begin to crumble. It's evident throughout the culture. As a society we no longer love God and neighbor; rather we simply love ourselves.
A medical profession that once promised to do no harm now willingly destroys those who have become socially inconvenient. And this same profession can, without embarrassment, declare perversion as just another form of normalcy.
No longer do the majority of the people accept their own sovereignty. No longer do they believe it is they who govern, that our government is a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." And so for the sake of their personal and economic security they have ceded the very core of their freedoms to others. They demand ever more from a government increasingly isolated from the people it claims to represent and serve. We see the ramifications of this in the stratospheric levels of debt piled up on the backs of our children, grandchildren and those yet unborn. It will get only worse.
Socialism, communism, fascism...all the failed authoritarian isms of the past have one thing in common: they despise Christianity and have tried mightily to destroy it. Although their failure in this is inevitable, they continue to attract those who prefer power over the good of others. Rejecting the idea of violent revolution, since one never knows where that might lead, government leaders in the West prefer to expand their power more subtly and move toward authoritarian rule under the guise of enhancing security and equality, all abetted by a people who no longer nurture the roots of their freedoms.
The family is disappearing as marriage has become either an option or a perversion. Couples who marry do so later and limit the size of their families. And as our population ages we create a potential demographic conflict in which a declining population of young, working people will eventually rebel and refuse to accept the burden of taking care of the aged.
I see no human exit strategy from this downward spiral. Fortunately with God all things are possible. After all, as Abraham discovered, just ten good men will lead God to spare an unjust society. We must all become Abrahams and plead with our just and merciful God for the future of Western Civilization. We've certainly messed it up. Let's ask Him to fix it.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
64% of Men Want Women to Pay Half on Dates. Just further proof of the feminization of the American male. What a pack of wimps!
Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Pro-Life. Dr. Alveda King, the niece of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, stated that her uncle was definitely pro-life. In her words:
“It’s not so much about labels — liberal, conservative and all of that. But he was someone who lived and gave his life to help all humanity. And so that definitely would include conception until natural death. And he would want everyone to be able to live — to have food, to have somewhere to sleep, and to have a job. You know, all of those things are very important. But, he would really support the best quality of life and that is conception to natural death.”
She then went on to say: “How can the dream survive if we murder our children?”
The Real War on Women. Why is it that the left hates women who support traditional values? Indeed, some liberals hate them so much they publicly call for them to be violently raped...and apparently get away with it. Case in point: Huffington Post contributor Pascal Robert did exactly that when he called for the rape of Dana Loesch, conservative activist, radio host, wife and mom. He then included her in a bizarre sexual fantasy which he described far too explicitly. The response from the Huffington Post? You guessed it. Nada.
Duck Dynasty Sweeps the Cable Ratings. Okay I'm a closet viewer and fan of this A&E Network show. I just love these guys and their family. Heck, I'd grow a big bushy beard if Dear Diane wouldn't set it on fire.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
We actually had several other reasons to make this trip. Back in November 1968 Dear Diane and I spent our one-night honeymoon in a Holiday Inn located on this very beach. In those days there were only a few modest hotels here and I believe only the Holiday Inn was open at that time of year. I can remember leaving the wedding reception at Naval Air Station Pensacola's Mustin Beach Officers' Club and asking my new bride, "Well, which way shall we go, east or west?" She simply smiled and said, "Let's go to Panama City. I'm sure we can find a nice hotel there. And while we're there we can also stop and visit with my Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dewey." (Her aunt and uncle had been unable to attend the wedding.) And so I headed east and drove to Panama City Beach. The wedding was on Saturday morning, the honeymoon on Saturday night, and on Sunday we drove back to Pensacola. We had no choice. Diane had to return to teaching her high schoolers on Monday morning, and that evening I had to fly my final instrument check before finishing up Navy pilot training. Looking back on it, I can say only that it was all very wonderful. We were young and excited about the life we saw before us. That was 45 years ago. See the photo below. There we are, young and happy, leaving the church.
And so, it is good to return and spend a few days here, even though all is so changed. But there's an even more ancient family connection to Panama City Beach. In 1950 and 1951 my family spent much of a year living here on this beach. My father was an Army officer stationed at then-Camp Rucker in Dothan, Alabama. He decided to rent a cottage for the family here, spend the work-week in Dothan, and spend the weekends with us. The backdoor of our little two-bedroom cottage opened right on the beach and, believe me, the livin' was easy. My brother, Jeff, and I attended Drummond Park School (which has since been renamed) and thoroughly enjoyed our backyard of sand and water. In the photo below I'm the little guy standing, wearing my favorite cowboy shirt and watching the older boys as they dug a hole in the sand. Jeff, four years older, is second from right.
I can recall much of that year, but everything is now gone. The little beachfront cottages (visible in the background of the above photo) with their sandy floors and space heaters and primitive kitchens have been replaced by towering condos and hotels. The miles of empty beaches littered with fascinating gifts from the sea now play host to thousands of sun screen-coated tourists sipping tropical drinks from the hotel bar. Our landlady, Mrs. Andrews, who made us a huge batch of the most wonderful hush puppies every week went to her well-deserved reward decades ago. I can't recall the names of any of the local kids on the school bus who laughed at our Yankee accents (I had to fight my way to respect and friendship). And thankfully the chain gangs that moved noisily past our house almost every afternoon have disappeared. But I feel specially blessed to have experienced that year, which was so very different from our family life in Connecticut and suburban New York. Panama City Beach in 1950 is an America that no longer exists, and for some reason that saddens me. It would seem Thomas Wolfe was right.
Tomorrow we'll drive along the coast to Pensacola, and there we'll pray at the graveside of Diane's parents and take a 95-year-old family friend out to lunch.
Monday, August 26, 2013
"An institute run with such knavish imbecility that if it were not the work of God it would not last a fortnight."
The fact that it has lasted 2,000 years largely unchanged is a wonder.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
Salvation is not something we can give ourselves. It is pure gift.
It is especially wonderful to realize that God's mercy means salvation is not reserved for the mystics; it's offered to everyone. It is God's grace, a gift from Jesus, through the Holy Spirit that saves. Our interior prayer life is important in that it helps us become vessels for that gift, but it's not necessary for salvation.
Religion, then, doesn't save. Only Jesus Christ saves. Jesus is God's gift of Himself to us. Our Christian faith is not a religion, but a revelation. It's not something we have devised to lead us to God; rather it's a gift from God through which He reveals to us the Way and the Truth and the Life.
Pax et bonum. Being is certainly good.
The gulf between God, the eternal Creator of all, and man, the creature, is so objectively great it is beyond our understanding or imagining. But Jesus Christ is the Bridge. He is the One who spans the gulf between God and man. To be this Bridge Jesus had to become one of us and yet remain God as well. This had to be. It had to be because God is Love and only such an act could show us the depth of God's love. What a wonderful mystery this is!
All who are saved are saved through Jesus Christ. Every Jew, every Muslim, every Hindu, every Buddhist who is ultimately saved -- and, yes, millions upon millions of these will be saved -- is saved only through Jesus Christ. The Law doesn't save. The Five Pillars of Islam don't save. Yoga doesn't save. Nirvana isn't salvation. All who are saved are saved because Jesus Christ, the Word of God, came into the world. Through His infinite love, He not only saves those who know Him and believe in Him, but He also saves those people of good will who do not know him. To believe otherwise is to place human limits on God's mercy.
We need the Church -- the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church -- because without it we would distort God's gift of faith through human error. We need the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit just as Jesus promised, to keep us from error and on the path God wants for us, to help us accept the gift of salvation.
When Isaiah proclaimed that remarkable prophecy we just heard in our first reading, the Jews of his time must have been shocked. From the time of Abraham they’d seen themselves as God’s Chosen People…and indeed they were. But for what purpose were they chosen?
Because of their unique status, they saw salvation as something only a few would experience, namely them. God’s heavenly banquet would be for a select few. Then they hear Isaiah, a prophet claiming to speak for God Himself, telling them something very different.
Isaiah describes a holy gathering where people of every nation of the world enter God’s house. All are invited by God; all are brought into His presence; all worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and to all of them He reveals His glory. Not only that, but speaking for God Himself, Isaiah says, “Some of these I will take as priests and Levites.”
And so, here in the depths of this Old Testament prophecy, we find Jesus Christ present; for it is Jesus who will make a new priesthood, derived not from genealogy, but from faith. It will be a priesthood that ministers to the Gentiles, that takes the Word of God to the world, a priesthood founded by Christ Himself and made present through the apostles. Isaiah is preparing God’s people to accept the truth of salvation, that God desires it for all, Jew and Gentile – a desire later fulfilled by Jesus when He instructs the apostles to announce the Good News:
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always…” [Mt 28:19-20]
Yes, this is the new heaven and new earth that Isaiah speaks about later in this same prophecy. And how it must have shaken those who heard it, who no doubt asked, if only to themselves, “Is salvation really for all these people?”
Hundreds of years later, this same question is posed to Jesus in today’s Gospel passage: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” [Lk 13:23]
Why did this unnamed person ask it? Is he simply asking, “Hey, Jesus, what are the odds I’ll win this salvation lottery of yours?” Or maybe, as a Jew he thought he had an inside track on salvation: he knew the Law, obeyed the rules, did all he was supposed to do as a sign of his justification. When you think of it this way, you can almost hear the complacency in the question, can’t you? Or maybe he was complacent because he knew Jesus…that as a disciple he thought he had an inside track...had walked by Jesus’ side as He taught in the streets...had shared meals with Him. Wouldn’t this be enough?
Whatever his reasons, I’m sure he was surprised when he didn’t get a simple Yes or No answer. It was really the wrong question. How many will be saved isn’t the important thing. The important question, the one you and I should really be concerned about is: “How can we be saved?” And this is the question Jesus answers.
Thankfully, God’s ways are so very different from ours. His judgment and His mercy are perfect But they are so different that we always question.
Some years ago, at a vigil service for a parishioner, his wife spoke to me about him. “He rarely went to Mass,” she said. “He fought in two wars, and encountered unspeakable things. He saw a lot of death, some of it he caused himself. I think he spent a lifetime trying unsuccessfully to come to grips with it all. I know he hadn’t gone to confession in years.” And then she asked me, “How will God judge him?”
It’s really the same question, isn’t it: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” It’s seems to be a question we never cease asking.
About a dozen years ago, I worked for a high-tech firm in New England. One morning a young co-worker, knowing I was deacon, asked if she could speak with me privately. She began to talk about her older brother. He was her hero, a bright, talented, seemingly happy young man who could do no wrong in her eyes. He had a good job with a major public relations firm, and even talked about starting his own business one day soon. He seemed to be doing so well.
And then for reasons she simply could not understand he turned to hard drugs. He became addicted. Within months he had lost his job and had even been arrested in some drug buying sting operation. Then tragically, the week before, he died of an overdose, which they suspect was intentional.
“He was always so good, so kind, so helpful to everyone,” she said. And then she asked, “Will Mark spend eternity in hell?” Once again we hear it: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
How I answered isn’t important. How Jesus answered is. For He took this simple question and used it to teach us about salvation.
Yes, the door is narrow and we can’t pin our hopes on the mere fact that we’re paid-up church-going people. And those words “depart from me” [Lk 13:27] are a stark and chilling reminder that the stakes are high. But God in His mercy calls us…again, and again, and again. Only He knows what’s in the human heart. And we can’t ignore what we heard in today’s 2nd reading from Hebrews: “…do not disdain the discipline of the Lord…for whom He disciplines, He loves” [Heb 12:5-6]. It’s no coincidence that the word discipline has its origins in the word disciple.
We don’t fully understand this mystery of salvation, a salvation not limited by law, ritual, or our own expectations of who will or won’t be saved. Salvation is a gift from a God whose love is so expansive it includes the entire human family. Our God respects our freedom, takes our decisions seriously, and accepts the consequences of our decisions, even when we choose to reject Him. And this same loving God, whose heart overflows with mercy and forgiveness, always offers His us His healing grace. But we must still do our part.
But we mustn’t be too quick to condemn ourselves, and we certainly shouldn’t condemn others. When we’re conscious of and upset about the things we’re getting wrong, we can count ourselves among the 'last' of Luke's Gospel and that’s when we have a chance. That’s when we’re more likely to accept help, help from others, and God’s help and forgiveness.
You and I are far from perfect but when the time comes I hope we’ll be pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in God’s presence…and perhaps also surprised by the others we’ll meet there, just as they’ll be surprised to see us.
We might well encounter that man, plagued by his memories of all those battlefields, who spent a life wrestling with his conscience and with God. Or the young man who in his last moments might well have turned to His Savior in repentance and thankfulness for the offer of salvation.
Yes, brothers and sisters, the stakes are high, and the last thing we want to hear from God is, “Depart from me” [Lk 13:27]. How much better to hear Him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant…Come, share your master’s joy” [Mt 25:23].
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Conscription remained the law of the land for another decade and the draft was eventually stopped by President Nixon in January of 1973. By that time I had spent four years at the Naval Academy and had been a commissioned officer in the U. S. Navy for almost six years. Although it might be hard for me and my contemporaries to believe, as a nation we have now had a professional, all-volunteer military for forty years.
All of this came to mind when I recently heard a senior officer make what was quite likely an off-hand comment by saying, "I do what my Commander-in-Chief tells me." Although I suspect it was taken out of context, it still bothered me, reminiscent of the "I was only following orders" excuse used in the past to rationalize some rather horrendous behavior by other, more authoritarian governments. It also led me to ask myself some questions I don't feel particularly competent to answer. But I believe they are questions our nation must ask itself and at least try to answer. For example:
Can an increasingly centralized federal government, one that has usurped many of the powers previously reserved to the states and local communities, more easily command the unquestioned loyalty of the military? Will we ever get to the point where our military leadership is more beholden to the Commander-in-Chief than to the Constitution it is sworn to uphold?
And then I asked myself another question: Does the presence of a professional, all-volunteer military eventually create a gap in both values and understanding between the citizenry and the armed forces? After 40 years, does this gap already exist? Can it lead to the kind of isolation that might cause the professional soldier to feel a degree of disdain toward civilians who do not share the values of the warrior? Would the reinstatement of the draft alter this? I recall a joke told to me by a retired Marine friend that's germane to these questions.
The young lieutenant turned to the gunnery sergeant and said, "Gunny, there's a base open house on Saturday and our platoon has been assigned to assist with crowd control. I'm putting you in charge of keeping visitors out of unauthorized areas."Perhaps I'm wrong, but I doubt that this joke would have been around when we still had the draft.
"That could be a problem, sir. Are these visitors all civilians?"
"Yes, of course. Why's that a problem?"
"Well, sir, how do I get the word to them? From what I understand, civilians don't have squad leaders."
"Thus the fundamental weakness of the New Kingdom in Egypt was revealed in its ultimate consequences. The combination of the ancient theocratic culture with the warrior state of the Bronze Age proved a failure because no organic union of the two was possible. The military class remained external to the civilization which it defended, as a parasitic growth with no roots in the life of the nation" [The Age of the Gods, p. 300].Will we ever get that far? I doubt it. The New Kingdom of Egypt and the American Republic are very different, culturally and politically. But since it's inevitable that our society will eventually go the way of all its predecessors, one can only wonder about the cause.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Throughout most of my life, I've lived in a reasonably civil society, a society grounded in Judeo-Christian religious values and guided by its imperfect understanding of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. The vast majority of Americans understood and accepted this. One could even state this belief publicly without much fear of contradiction or ridicule. This is no longer true. Indeed, our civil society has given way to a most uncivil society guided only by an unholy alliance of pragmatism and narcissism. The rule of relativism has created a society in which anything, or almost anything, goes. In the prophetic words of the great G. K. Chesterton, "When men choose not to believe in God, they do not therefore believe in nothing, they become capable of believing in anything."
The fragility of our civilization has become apparent. The world's barbarians are at the gate and we, unlike those who came before us, seem oblivious to the fact. While we sacrifice the lives of many of the best among us in a "war on terror" -- or as the current administration prefers to call it: a war on "man-caused disasters" -- we ignore the cultural disintegration taking place all around us. We experience a national trauma when 20 young children are savagely murdered in their classroom, but we celebrate as freedom the far greater but equally savage slaughter of 50 million innocent children in the womb...and we apparently do not see the connection between the two. Today I read of three young men, all in their teens, who shot and killed a young jogger. After their arrest one of them told the police that they were bored and decided to kill someone. Yes, once they believe in nothing, they will believe in anything.
As a nation our response to all the chaos is to attack the symptoms. We "stop and frisk." We build up our swat teams and turn our police forces into small (and some not so small) armies. We take real-time video of everything and everybody. We send drones into our skies to watch ourselves living our lives below. We allow strangers at airports to treat us with disdain, to violate our persons, and to do virtually anything they want...all because of our cowardice.
We worry so much about our security and safety that we willingly allow a government on steroids to trample on our freedoms. As one of our parishioners said to me the other day, "I don't really care what the government does so long as it keeps the terrorists away." I hope he does not awaken one morning and discover there is little difference between the two.
Ben Stein, a man I have long admired even though I do not always agree with him, addressed the NSA's invasions of privacy in his latest online diary entry by writing:
My wife said it well tonight. “I have nothing to hide,” she said. “I’m not afraid of the NSA.”
I actually am nowhere near the person Big Wifey is, but I am not afraid of the NSA either. I am very afraid of the terrorists. It’s that simple.Yes, Mr. Stein, it is that simple: we have become a nation of cowards. At least you are honest about your cowardice. Most are not. As a nation we have shown ourselves to be far more concerned with our personal safety than with the loss of our liberty. I wore the uniform of this nation for almost 30 years and willingly placed myself in harm's way. My brother, father and grandfather did the same. And I believe I can honestly say that each of us would have given his life for this nation, for the Constitution we were sworn to defend, and for the freedoms it guarantees for all of us. Now I'm the only one left, but believe me, I have never considered my life as important as those freedoms.
This is why I am so disturbed to hear Americans, when asked about the NSA's intrusive spying, say, "If you've got nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about." Hanging on the wall in front of me is a framed but dirty and slightly tattered armband. It contains a roughly sewn Star of David with "Sachsenhausen" stenciled beneath it. A Jewish friend gave it to me because it caused him too much pain. It had belonged to his great uncle who had survived several camps and managed to stay alive until he was liberated. I keep it on my wall to remind me of what humanity is capable of, to remind me of the existence of original sin. The people forced to wear such armbands in such horrible places as Sachsenhausen also believed they had nothing to hide, nothing to worry about.They were wrong.
The solution to the problem we face is not to be found in the symptoms. It's buried deep within the cause. We are a nation that has rejected its Judeo-Christian roots. We have ceased to live our faith, to preach it openly, to pray in the public square. Too many today have turned their backs on God not realizing that the only road to salvation for this nation is to turn back to God.
Sunday, August 11, 2013
Sometimes life just gets too busy, so busy I don't have time to think seriously about anything other than the practicalities of daily living. That's not good. We humans need to do those things that separate us from other creatures. We need to love and pray and think. And I really hadn't done much thinking lately. I believe I simply needed to step away from the unnecessary distractions and think about some of the things that have been roaming about in my aging brain. There was a need to take hold of them and pin them down. Whenever I get this way, I usually reach for a book, just to get me thinking. More often than not, it's a book I've already read, a little comfort food for the brain.
For example, about a week ago I was asked to conduct a committal service at the National Cemetery in Bushnell, Florida. This happens frequently since our parish is not far from the cemetery and we deacons are more than willing to assist more distant parishes by conducting these services for them.
I always include a brief homily during committals. After all, the committal is the final rite of the funeral, the time when family and friends say their public goodbyes to their loved one. It's really a very special time for most families. They need words of comfort and hope.
As a sat down to write my brief homily, Flannery O'Connor came to mind and I reached for a book of her letters, The Habit of Being (1979). It's a thick book of over 600 pages, but after a moment's searching I found the letter I was looking for. O'Connor, who suffered her entire adult life from lupus, the disease that would ultimately take her life at age 39, wrote these words to a friend:
"I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place...and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies." [p. 163]
I included this excerpt in my homily and suggested that their mother would have known exactly what O'Connor meant by the mercy of illness. This woman they loved so much had given them the example of one who had recognized this mercy of God in her long illness and had accepted it with joy. How blessed they are as a family to have had such a wonderful mother and grandmother, someone to show them the way.
We all need people like this in our lives.
This evening I decided to begin another book I've read many times before, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. We'll see what this moral philosopher of another time and place has to teach me today.