…or do they?

Today I dropped by Charleston’s newest Catholic church, St. Clare of Assisi on Daniel Island.

Here’s a history of the construction and progress photos.

It’s across the road from the Catholic high school, so I presume the students will be spending a lot of time here.

Source of the interior elements:

Father West and a member of the design team immediately flew to visit the massive 120-year-old Mount Alvernia Motherhouse of the Sisters of Saint Francis who, at one time, operated the largest health care system in western Pennsylvania. 

The parish acquired an ornate marble altar and reredos (a high altar), 14 beautiful Stations of the Cross, statues of the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and St. Clare, and the windows. 

The windows were crafted by the renowned Franz Mayer Studio in Munich, Germany, considered the finest artisans of ecclesiastical stained glass in the world. 

Miraculously, the shape and size of the windows were within inches of the new church’s original design plan, and one of them depicts St. Clare herself.  “Some would call that a coincidence. We call it divine providence,” Father West said.

The Mass of Dedication for the new church was celebrated by the Bishop of Charleston, Jacques Fabre-Jeune, and Father West. 

Among the people who filled the 850-seat church that day were six retired nuns from the Sisters of St. Francis, invited to see the new church with its windows and other relics from their former convent. 

I’ve no doubt there will be nitpickers, and I do yearn for more color in these churches, but really, as I told my young adult son as we were walking around…thirty years ago, they were not building ne churches like this and it would have been considered some violation of the Faith if anyone had suggested that they do so.

Pendulums do swing, y’all.

The parish’s prayer:

O glorious Saint Clare of Assisi, guided by the Spirit
and with zeal for the Faith, you sacrificed comfort for the cloister,
wealth for well-being, and privilege for poverty.
Inspired by your fervent love of Jesus and the Holy Eucharist,
we humbly seek your intercession before our Lord,
that we who have been chosen to build the Kingdom of God
may construct for Him a house of worship that reflects His divine glory
and our gratitude for His infinite goodness to us all.
Dear saint of God, ​help us to see the immense importance of this project
as a testimony to our love of God and as our duty to lead others to Him,
so that our families, our community and our world, for generations to come,
may live in the splendors of eternity with Him and all the saints. ​​Amen.

Friday Random

I’m not in a writing space, but will be again soon.

A few notes:

Son #2 released a new novel this week. It’s called Colonial Nightmare – and in it, George Washington fights….but not the British.

When George Washington was 21 years old, he went on a dangerous mission into the wilds of the Ohio River Valley to deliver a message from the Virginia colonial governor to a French military base, Fort Le Boeuf, a message to prevent war between England and France. The journey was harrowing and dangerous as Washington, joined by frontiersman Christopher Gist and Iroquois leader Tanacharison, also called the Half-King, braved the bitter cold of an unforgiving winter.

Washington wrote of his journey as a report to the governor, but he gave an incomplete portrait of the goings on of his journey, for he was attacked. He was attacked by something he could not explain. Something not of the New World but of the Old. Something that had preyed upon innocent for centuries. Something that scared him so much that he refused to report it to anyone.

A couple of graduation/commencement related links:

Dan McInerny – an open letter to recent graduates:

One way of describing the education you have just completed at Christendom College is to describe it as an effort to make you unfit for the modern world.

By “modern world” I mean the world insofar as it is no friend of Christ; the world insofar as it has rejected the notion of any reality that transcends physical nature; the world insofar as it strives to master and control nature via technological prowess; the world insofar as it is devoted to power and prestige and money and sensuality—and consequently, the world as it is filled with anxiety, ignobility, ugliness, and banality, and sin.

It is a short-sighted view of education, and of life, to seek to make one fit for such a base and ephemeral world.

So, in the spirit of your Christendom education, let us continue to take the long-sighted view. The view that sees both education and the adventure of our lives as grounded in transcendent realities, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, especially as those realities are found most perfectly in God.

An important part of this long-sighted view is to love the world you are not fit for, and to love it passionately. To love it enough to want to evangelize it, so as to “restore all things in Christ.”

To love the world effectively, however, one must cultivate an interior life and a set of habits able to resist the incessant cries of the world of the world to conform to it.

A million things might be said here. But, as I have been your professor of philosophy, I am going to play the part of your professor one last time and suggest three habits of mind to help keep you unfit for the modern world. These are contemplative habits—which of course are not solely intellectual, but which always involve the appropriate disposition of the heart.


Dr. Glenn Arbery of Wyoming Catholic College with excerpts from his annual address to seniors:

WCC often describes itself as counter-cultural. We are very different from so-called mainstream universities because of our technology policy; we are part of a small group of sister institutions in our rejection of woke ideology, including its assumptions about human nature and its agenda to destroy the traditional family. As we draw closer to the ceremony of departure that we call commencement, I am led to reflect again on the effect of all the converging disciplines and experiences on the souls of these graduates—that is, on the very form of who they are. We are realistic about contemporary culture, but also realistic about what it means to participate in the living continuance of the tradition that these seniors have experienced in these four years.

What does tradition mean in this sense? The word might suggest a museum of old ideas where each piece must be dusted off and treated with dutiful reverence; it might suggest mere repetition of past attitudes. But over a century ago, T.S. Eliot made it clear that tradition is the source of creativity and the wellspring of culture. When you give yourself to one of the great books of the tradition, it is not like entering archaeological ruins and trying to imagine what used to be there. Far from it. It is not something past, but an encounter of minds in the living moment. Reading these texts is not a glimpse of unreachable truth, but a participation in the live weaving of the image or exchange.

Patroklos has fallen, you have no armor, and so, prompted by the goddess, you stand outside the wall and the ditch that surround the Achaian ships, and Athene kindles such a great flame from your rage that it blazes up from your head into the dying day and she amplifies your shout so much that twelve Trojans die in the panic of their horses. Or you argue with Socrates just as Thrasymachus or Glaucon might do. Or you read St. Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”—the same sentence that St. Thomas Aquinas read, or Dante, or St. Therese, or John Henry Cardinal Newman, speaking of tradition. Or you hear in class one of your classmates read Lear’s speech to Cordelia:

Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies.

It says something about tradition that these very lines are the ones that John Milton read or John Keats or Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Pope John Paul II.

In other words, in an education like this one, we are not talking about tradition as the acquisition of monuments, but as a permanence gathered from moments of participation capable of being lived and lived again and then passed on to be taken up yet again by generations yet to come, with our own additions and our own achievements of greatness.

Literary adaptations at Cannes

Katy Carl on modern “Catholic” fiction – and what that means.

(It’s a response to this)

Claire Coffey on “Selling Friends”

In fact, if you start looking, the move from straightforward friendships of utility (common to realtors, salesmen, writers, professionals of all stripes) toward a commodification of friendship itself pops up more and more. It is the engine that drives all the parasocial professions, where posters, podcasters, content creators of all kinds can make a living from creating cultural products – many of them very good – but also from managing their own clout and their audience’s desire for access to it. The parasocial professions clustering around the intersection of the gym-bro and dilettante personal-finance industries may be as paradigmatically a masculine example of the phenomenon as MLMs are paradigmatically feminine. Many men must have bought obviously worthless NFTs from their preferred weightlifting-stoicism-raw egg-supplement social media personalities, not because they had any considered belief in their value, but because it was a pledge of membership in the männerbund of their influencer-warlord. Surely wealth, power, “legacy-building” would flow from proximity to him just as the spoils of war were once distributed among the rank and file of a steppe khanate. He is the ring-giver; the booty he provides takes the form of creatine supplements. And though you have to pay for them, they are probably on sale.

The aspirational personal branding that enables friendship to be bought and sold as a product is a natural aspect of the every-man-for-himself, attention-driven world of the side-hustle and the independent creative. But professional nine-to-fivers should be wary about feeling too smug about what’s happening in the economy’s digital Ringling Brothers’ circus tents. There is virtually no white-collar job that remains immune to the friendship-of-utility-to-friendship-as-commodity shift, the downward spiral from imperfect to grotesque. Indeed, LinkedIn, the internet’s ground zero for professional development and networking, is to salaried workers what Instagram or Twitter is to the hustlers: a medium on which to build a personal brand through incessant self-narration. To be successful on LinkedIn, it is not enough to maintain an updated résumé and a sufficiently pleasant profile picture. Nor is LinkedIn merely the online equivalent of a Rolodex, a way to organize and maintain contact with your various professional connections. You must stake out your claim to attention and followers by developing your personal voice, unique insights, uplifting content. You must post about your #Passion, your #Inspiration, your #KeysToSuccess. You must set yourself apart from the crowd by outlining The One Mistake Most Executives Don’t Know They’re Making. You must be sure to salute others for their career milestones. You must frame your comings and goings from one job to another as intentional steps on the road to greatness, like the MLM mom who describes each sale as #LegacyBuilding. Above all you must present a version of yourself with no aims in life, no thoughts, no frames of reference that do not ultimately bear upon Key Performance Indicators and the rewards that follow from meeting them. From a man, you must become a Thought Leader.

Related, from me.

Heart of Love

June is the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

In a time and culture in which hardly any of us understand what love actually is, in which we seem to be surrounded by dehumanizing hate and horrifying violence as well as public discourse characterized by contempt and judgment, a daily prayer (you can find some here) focused simply on love might just have surprising power.

O Heart of love, I put all my trust in Thee; for I fear all things from my own weakness, but I hope for all things from Thy goodness. 

In a time and culture in which human beings hear, from the moment that they can understand words, that they will be valued for their abilities, their achievements and their appearance, to hear the Good News that no, this is not so, that a Heart pours out love for us just because we are can mean the difference between life and death.

In a church culture which often reflects contemporary values that emphasize achievement and self-actualization and fulfillment by doing the Next Big Amazing Thing in Your Very Big Amazing Life, a daily prayer centered on opening ourselves to sharing the love pouring forth from the heart of Jesus in ordinary ways might provide a welcome refocus as we get our bearings for summer.

Here are the pages on the Sacred Heart from The Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. 

Click on each image for a larger version.

More about the book – and the others in the series – here. 

Here’s some love from that Sacred Heart poured out in the world, right here, right now.

Anywhere, everywhere, all the time.

Today’s his feast. I always remember Justin Martyr because he was the first of the Fathers of the Church that I really read, back at the University of Tennessee in a class on the history of Christianity. It was in reading Justin I first grasped the continuity of the apostolic Church with Christ and then forward to the present.

You can access his writings here.

Pope Emeritus B16, from 2007:

Overall, the figure and work of Justin mark the ancient Church’s forceful option for philosophy, for reason, rather than for the religion of the pagans. With the pagan religion, in fact, the early Christians strenuously rejected every compromise. They held it to be idolatry, at the cost of being accused for this reason of “impiety” and “atheism”.

Justin in particular, especially in his first Apology, mercilessly criticized the pagan religion and its myths, which he considered to be diabolically misleading on the path of truth.

Philosophy, on the other hand, represented the privileged area of the encounter between paganism, Judaism and Christianity, precisely at the level of the criticism of pagan religion and its false myths. “Our philosophy…”: this is how another apologist, Bishop Melito of Sardis, a contemporary of Justin, came to define the new religion in a more explicit way (Ap. Hist. Eccl.4, 26, 7).

In fact, the pagan religion did not follow the ways of the Logos, but clung to myth, even if Greek philosophy recognized that mythology was devoid of consistency with the truth.

Therefore, the decline of the pagan religion was inevitable: it was a logical consequence of the detachment of religion – reduced to an artificial collection of ceremonies, conventions and customs – from the truth of being.

Justin, and with him other apologists, adopted the clear stance taken by the Christian faith for the God of the philosophers against the false gods of the pagan religion.

It was the choice of the truth of being against the myth of custom. Several decades after Justin, Tertullian defined the same option of Christians with a lapidary sentence that still applies: “Dominus noster Christus veritatem se, non consuetudinem, cognominavit – Christ has said that he is truth not fashion” (De Virgin. Vel. 1, 1).

It should be noted in this regard that the term consuetudo, used here by Tertullian in reference to the pagan religion, can be translated into modern languages with the expressions: “cultural fashion”, “current fads”.

In a time like ours, marked by relativism in the discussion on values and on religion – as well as in interreligious dialogue – this is a lesson that should not be forgotten.

To this end, I suggest to you once again – and thus I conclude – the last words of the mysterious old man whom Justin the Philosopher met on the seashore: “Pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and his Christ have imparted wisdom” (Dial. 7: 3).

Years ago, Our Sunday Visitor produced a volume collecting Pope Benedict’s General Audience talks on the Fathers, and I wrote a study guide. You can access it here – feel free to use as you wish. Since the talks are all online for free at the Vatican website, it would be very easy to design a parish discussion group using those talks and the study guide – which you are free to print off, if you like.

What a concept – a Catholic adult education program that doesn’t charge a fee for participation!

(Here’s the link to the pdf for the study guide for B16’s talks on the apostles)

Below are the reflection questions on Justin Martyr, among others. Click on them for larger versions.

It’s the Feast of the Visitation.

As with any feast, today gives layers and layers for our contemplation – John’s recognition of Jesus – the first person to recognize Jesus was an unborn child, remember – to Mary’s hymn of praise, giving glory to God and celebrating that His ways are not at all the world’s ways.

From my book, Mary and the Christian Life:

For Mary, life has changed. You might even say it’s turned upside down. Elizabeth’s world is a bit different too, weighted by an unexpected, unlikely, growing baby boy. In that small village in the hill country of Judah, the two women met, embraced, shared their good news, marveled, and wondered what it all could mean.

Then, like faithful women everywhere, past and present, they praised God…..

…..Being with Elizabeth inspires Mary. All of these things she’d been mulling over, the amazing news she’d received come together at last through Elizabeth’s response to her. The same is often the case with us. Our news—good or bad—takes on another shade of meaning when it’s affirmed by the presence of someone who shares that experience. What we’ve been thinking about can’t be contained any longer; and so, like Mary in the presence of her once-barren cousin with a baby leaping in her womb, as David leaping before the ark on the way to Jerusalem, we exult.

When we are part of something astonishing and new, we know that we’re in the middle of something bigger than ourselves, something miraculous and true, and this is what Mary expresses. We can almost hear the words tumbling out of her in that way of chanting and singing so typical of ancient prayer. In her soul, in what is happening to her, in her small, humble self, God is magnified. He looms large and powerful because the promise is finally being fulfilled.

What promise?

The ancient promise of redemption: of healing of a broken world; of mercy flowing; of the poor, those who know that their lives depend on God, being rewarded; and the haughty, proud, and rich, who think they need nothing except their own powers, being sent away.

The world, damaged by sin so that it values power and domination, is saved and set right by the small, the unnoticed, and even the despised. Mary, in awe that she’s a part of this, praises God.

Of course!


Mary’s Magnificat might help us think about our own prayer lives.

What is that like? What is it like for you to pray? What does God hear on his end of things?

Jesus tells us over and over to bring all of our needs to God. No matter how small our request, no matter how small we think of ourselves, like the widow coming before the judge, the neigh-bor needing help in the middle of the night, Jesus tells us to bring him all, whenever we feel so moved and however often we need.

But he also gave us a commandment. A first commandment. A greatest commandment: to love the Lord your God with all your heart.

What is love if it is not expressed? In our prayers of praise and gratitude, we live in obedience to the greatest commandment. After all, how authentic would we judge the affection of another from whom we only heard requests and needs?

To praise, to thank, to bless. This is at the heart of prayer. If you look at traditional Jewish and Christian prayer, you will find some very interesting and perhaps startling things. You’ll find that traditionally, Jews and Christians throughout history haven’t conceptualized prayer primarily as “making stuff up in your head and spilling it out to God.”

No, when the ancient spiritual writers thought and wrote about prayer, they were thinking first of all of praise—of what we as creatures owe the Creator every day. Both Jews and, follow-ing in their stead, Christians divided the day into hours marked by prayer that were always sung, chanted, or spoken aloud, and that were overwhelmingly prayers of praise. All of creation grew, moved, and breathed in gratitude for its existence, and we join in the song.

Look carefully at Mary’s prayer. For what is she praising God? Satisfying her needs, making her personally “happy,” or fixing her problems?

Not really. It seems as if she is praising and thanking God for his power and his mercy and that she, his handmaid, is playing a role in his plan of redemption, of shaking the world out of its self-satisfaction and self-reliance, turning that world radically, like the poor, back to dependence on God.

Mary sings that her soul “magnifies” the Lord. In the words of Joseph Ratzinger, to magnify the Lord means

not to want to magnify ourselves, our own name, our own ego; not to spread ourselves and take up more space, but to give him room so that he may be more present in the world. It means to become more truly what we are: not a self-enclosed monad that displays nothing but itself, but God’s image. It means to get free of the dust and soot that obscures and begrimes the transparency of the image and to become truly human by pointing exclusively to him.

Our spiritual lives, our lives with God, really are journeys. Like Mary, we travel along the road, trying to piece it all together. We’ve not yet reached our destination. Our prayer reflects that when it is small, self-referential, anxious, crabby, and resentful that life is not going according to our plan and that the world is not making us happy. Mary’s prayer teaches us another way. It points to the destination: a joyful spirit that understands, no matter how small we seem, that God has put us here for a reason. In that fact and in our efforts to let God love the world in our daily choices and encounters, God is magnified. In the midst of the cosmic drama of passionate love, our hearts are joined to Mary, and we praise.

From the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories.

Recall the structure: Stories organized according to when they are normally heard in Sunday Mass during the liturgical year. Each story is retold, and each ends with a tie-in to some aspect of Catholic faith or practice, a reflection question and a prayer.

Parenting and indeed, just living, is hard. We are not made to do it alone, to go solo, to do everything ourselves, despite what American individualism preaches. Why is it that human children are born so much more helpless than other newly-birthed creatures? My imaginative spiritual take is that this indicates an important aspect of human nature: our Creator intends for us to learn what we need to learn from other human beings – from their touch, their voice, their smiling faces. Our social nature is built into the way we must learn if we are to mature properly. We can’t avoid it.

So it is with just living and especially living in families and well, communities. Years ago, as a young parent, it was reading Germaine Greer’s stimulating mess of a book Sex and Destiny that blew up the ideal of the atomized, independent, self-sufficient nuclear family for me: traditional societies just did not have the expectations of the singularity of parents that we have – it did, indeed take a village, and that was good.

And what does this have to do with the feast of the Visitation?

The encounter between Mary and Elizabeth is celebrated, rightly, as a model of women reaching out, assisting, and encouraging each other. But, as with everything else, it’s also an opportunity to pause and discern. It’s a tiny thing really.

In contemplating and applying the dynamic of the Visitation into our lives, are we focused on what we can give or what we want to receive?

A lot of that Visitation-parent-helping-parent energy is articulated these days in the concept of that village. A true and worthy ideal, but as everything else, susceptible to manipulation, selfishness and narcissism.

Are we about – I’m building the village as I reach out, bearing Christ, to help parents (and others!) who are struggling, drowning, and desperately need help.

or is it – I’m building the village so I can find someone to do the family and home stuff I don’t want to do so I can do my own thing which is a helluva lot more fun amiright ladies?

Moms (always moms…) are encouraged: Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Don’t think you need to do it on your own!

But perhaps more in line with a spirit of discipleship would be, while granting that first point, to emphasize: Don’t be afraid to offer help.

In this life, ideally, we’re not too selfish or proud to acknowledge our moment in either spot when life calls for it – we give and we receive.

We welcome the visitor who’s come to lend a hand and we race to visit, bearing good news.

No matter where we are, though, keeping the great things the Almighty has done for us at the center, fundamentally energized less by our own needs and wants than by that sacrificial – sacrificial – love we bear within us.

Discipleship doesn’t center ourselves and our “dreams.” It centers God, then neighbor.

From a poem by Thomas Merton, “The Quickening of John the Baptist:”

It’s a marvelous poem, drawing a connection between John recognizing Christ from deep in the dark of Elizabeth’s womb, to contemplatives past and present, who likewise live in a sort of darkness and silence waiting:

Her salutation
Sings in the stone valley like a Charterhouse bell:
And the unborn saint John
Wakes in his mother’s body,
Bounds with the echoes of discovery.

Sing in your cell, small anchorite!
How did you see her in the eyeless dark?
What secret syllable
Woke your young faith to the mad truth
That an unborn baby could be washed in the Spirit of God?
Oh burning joy!

What seas of life were planted by that voice!
With what new sense
Did your wise heart receive her Sacrament,
And know her cloistered Christ?

You need no eloquence, wild bairn,
Exulting in your hermitage.
Your ecstasy is your apostolate,
For whom to kick is contemplata tradere.
Your joy is the vocation of Mother Church’s hidden children –
Those who by vow lie buried in the cloister or the hermitage;
The speechless Trappist, or the grey, granite Carthusian,
The quiet Carmelite, the barefoot Clare, Planted in the night of
contemplation, Sealed in the dark and waiting to be born.

Today’s the memorial of St. Joan of Arc.  Here are the first and last pages from the entry on her  from The Loyola Kids Book of Saints. 

(Clicking on each page will bring up a larger, readable version.)


Clip from Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. My film-buff older-son-with-a-new-novel-coming-out’s #1 favorite film of all.


Today’s the memorial of St. Augustine of Canterbury, evangelizer of England and the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

We can talk about legends, but we won’t. We’ll adopt influencer and life coach lingo instead, and talk about pivoting.

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And this will end up being more about Gregory the Great than Augustine, so sorry.

The question, naturally, is evangelization. We know little about what actually happened on the ground in England at this time, and most of what we know comes from the histories of the Venerable Bede (whose memorial was earlier this week) and the letters of Pope Gregory the Great.

Specifically, in England, the first assumption was that of course about pagan shrines: Augustine and his missionaries would suppress, destroy and in general wipe them out. Gregory indicated as much in an initial communication to England. But a month later, he…pivoted. Rather dramatically, too.

From his letter to Abbot Mellitus, who had left Rome and was on his way to join Augustine – the pope clearly expected for the letter to reach Mellitus on the way:

Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.

Further, since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice, they should receive some solemnity in exchange. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on the feast of the martyrs whose relics are preserved in them, build themselves huts around their one-time temples and celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated.

Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones.

For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds…. Mention this to our brother the bishop, that he may dispose of the matter as he sees fit according to the conditions of time and place.

Why? Who knows, really. But influential in understanding why is a 1970 lecture/article by historian R. A. Markus who wrote, admittedly speculating:

(Originally, this was mostly a single paragraph. I’ve broken it up for ease of reading. Sorry Professor Markus)

We need only visualize the Pope in June 601, up to now almost entirely ignorant of conditions in Britain, receiving Augustine’s messengers in Rome. Overjoyed by their reports of his success, he dispatches a further band of missionaries under Abbot Mellitus’s command. At the same time, he has heard about the slow headway the mission is making in England; perhaps the king has not put his weight behind its work as much as a king should? At any rate, a little exhortation to this and can do no harm, and Gregory had a whole pile of precedents in his own correspondence for writing to him in the vein he now adopted.

The first thought to come into his mind was to apply, once again. the customary missionary methods deployed on previous occasions, the mission backed by coercive power. With their brief framed in these terms, Mellitus and his men depart, with every appearance of haste, within the month.

… The Pope had little information, and the little took some time to sink in. Did he perceive its implications as soon as Mellitus was gone? Gregory took pause to think, and he had second thoughts: perhaps he had not quite understood the reports about the king’s reluctance: perhaps his admonitions to the king had been somewhat unrealistic? If such were his thoughts—and we can only conjecture this—they were undoubtedly right.

We know, as Bede knew, the entrenched strength of English paganism which forced the Kentish king to proceed with tact and caution and prevented him from taking the path of coercion;’ we know, as Bede knew, the tenacity of the old religion shown in its resurgence in Kent and Essex on the death of King Aethelberlitt. It is not impossible that in the weeks after Mellitus’s departure the realities of this situation gradually dawned on Gregory.

He had after all, as he himself says in his letter. ‘thought long and deeply’ on the matter. And if my conjecture is the right reconstruction of his thought during that month, then we need not be surprised by his change of mind and his urgent, dramatic dispatch, of the letter containing his second thoughts to Mellitus, now on his way, somewhere in Gaul. ..

Here was a real turning point in the development of papal missionary strategy. The settled, almost unquestioned policy of reliance on coercion by the secular authorities suddenly, under the pressure and the demands of a new situation, gave way to quite another conception.

More than a century later, writing within a milieu in which Bede’s work was well known, Bishop Daniel of Winchester gave advice to Boniface, then labouring among the Germans: argue with them, he said, ‘ without insulting or irritating them, but gently and with great tact’.’ Here was a man who, though remote from the missionary situation, had learnt the lesson which the consciousness of a new situation had forced upon Gregory.

Listen. Observe. Let go of assumptions. And just remember…

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Source. Randomly pulled from the totally unsurprising wealth of “Pivot” sermon – sorry, “message” – series graphics out there.

This past week, I read Jonathan Rosen’s devastating piece on his childhood friend Michael Laudor, who murdered his girlfriend, Caroline Costello in 1998. Laudor, brilliant and schizophrenic, had received various forms of treatment for his illness and remains institutionalized today.

Rosen’s account of the specifics of Laudor’s life are sobering and arresting. His reasons for writing the piece are not primarily about the specifics of the case, though, in some sort of True Crime style, but to ask questions about the treatment of mental illness, past, present and future.

In doing so, he has to explore the history of this struggle in the United States: from asylums to outpatient treatment dependent on medication and community services, civil liberties questions, and finally, the inarguable failure of the whole system in our present day.

As I read the piece, I was (not surprisingly, for me) reminded of the conversations and arguments Catholics are constantly having about the Church, especially as that conversation relates to the recent past (Vatican II, etc) and the present day – and by implication, the future.

If you read Rosen’s piece, you might be struck by the same aspect that struck me: his clear-headedness and intellectual generosity about why people and institutions made decisions in the past and the unintended consequences those decisions might have had.

The title of Rosen’s book on the matter is an apt expression of his approach: The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions. “The best minds” = Laudor, who was brilliant, as well as the way that we define those working on our social problems: the best minds are on it.

As Rosen takes on the issue, there is no sense of inevitability or insistence that the best solution to the care and treatment of the mentally ill must have been either faultless or mendacious in the past and so of course everything happening since was either a betrayal or fulfilment of that inevitable fixed point.

So in short, he explains that, yes, those who instituted asylums thought they were helping, and those who broke down the asylums thought they were, too – Rosen makes clear something I had not thought about before – that those who sought to de-institutionalize the mentally ill and their treatment were basing their stance on faith in pharmaceuticals, for in the 50’s and 60’s it seemed as though that were the future of treatment and indeed, institutionalization would be unnecessary – and now it’s clear that this was flawed, as was the particular balance struck between individual civil liberties and social safety.

It’s actually remarkable, I think, how Rosen is able to run through this history and confront the challenges of the present in this way: refusing to sanctify any one solution or moment, giving all players a voice without assuming motives, and being honest about successes, failures, missteps and consequences.

Yes, Rosen is dealing with human institutions and efforts without the complication of believing that the “Spirit” is guiding one direction or another, a complication which seems to result in divinizing every decision and choice you support in church matters, although a quick study of church history should give us pause there. Nonetheless, it’s good read, mostly because of the tragic human stories at the heart of it and the vexing social issue that we have so much difficulty addressing, but also because of Rosen’s discussion of the issue and what it reflects about conversations and arguments about our own once and future church.

The door

The Cultural Tutor is a marvelous site (and Twitter feed – here in its raw form and organized thematically here) offering a weekly digest designed to educate and provoke thought. It’s called the Areopagus. I do want to emphasize that in this era of multiplying subscriptions, it’s free. God bless him.

Every edition contains information on: a piece of music, an historical figure, a work of art, an architectural masterpiece, an element of rhetoric and a piece of writing – as well as musings both from the author and reader contributors on various questions.

In the latest edition, his architectural masterpiece is a door – a simple door in the medieval church of his childhood.

I’m highlighting it because he articulates so well so much of what I try to say in this space: the value of history – which is essentially the value of communion with other human beings – and the power of structures to embody this communion. The essential place, really, of structures, in communicating meaning and drawing us together, past and present.

So, a short elegy on this door. I suppose what struck me first, and most lastingly, was its age. That this simple stone doorway was almost one thousand years old — and that parts of it, or at least some of the supporting masonry, was Saxon and therefore even older — seemed almost impossible. Here I found a surprising but direct link to the distant Middle Ages. For this was not a history book, not a set of facts or dates, but a real thing in the real world, open to the sky and the rain, placed there by some mason a millennium ago, a mason who carefully cut and aligned the stones of the arch, stacked and mortared its jambs, and perhaps delighted in carving its chevrons. The Middle Ages came to life. But then I wondered at all the things this door must have seen; all the people who had passed beneath or even briefly gazed at it, or run their hands over its masonry. So many lives, so many moments, all forever lost to the passage of time, suddenly apparent to me…

….Second to its age was the ordinariness of this little door. It was attended by neither pomp nor fanfare and it was paid attention by nobody. Though museums are wonderful places, by sealing objects off in glass cases and explaining them with informational plaques they can render “history” too distant a thing, and even make it dead to us. Not here. This thousand year-old doorway was not behind a rope or pane of glass; it was simply… there. I could touch those ancient stones and examine their forms and faults up close. It was like any other normal object in our daily lives – a car, a phone, a chair, a plate – which we treat with no special veneration and do not have explained to us by plaques. This history was not dead. It was alive, and present, in the real world, beneath the skies, crumbling slowly away, but somehow more meaningful and powerful and instructive by that very fact than if it had been cordoned off and sanitised in a museum….

…I share all this with you not out of sentimentality (I hope) but rather because it summarises some of what I consider to be important truths about architecture. First of all that architecture is not about the great and famous buildings of the world but the ordinary; the buildings in which we live and work, by which we pass every day and whose shapes and forms direct our lives, whether we like it or not. And, secondly, that architecture has immense expressive power and is no less an art form than painting, music, poetry, literature, or sculpture. And that it is unique among these art forms because it lives more in the real world than any of them; it ages and wears, it is used and abused, it is worshipped and forgotten. And that architecture is a proverbial history book of just as much use, if not more, than literal history books. Architecture might just be the truest book of civilisation.

I spent much of yesterday reading this book, which means I spent much of yesterday wondering…how did she?….and feeling thoroughly inadequate.

Isabella Bird (1831-1904) was an Englishwoman who was the child of an Anglican curate, was educated at home, had health challenges as a child and young woman…and then spent most of her adult life traveling the world.

Here’s the list of her books at Gutenberg.

In 1873 – so at the age of 41 – on the way from Hawaii to England, she made her way from San Francisco to Colorado, where she spent a few months exploring, mostly on her own on horseback in the late fall and early winter. A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is the account of that time, told through letters to her sister. The book was a sensation and, according to this, an important factor in making Bird the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society.


So remember: mostly on horseback, mostly alone, in the late fall and early winter. So, snow.

Of course, she wasn’t going about this blind. The area was wild, but settled, and she was given guidance, direction and the locations of places she could stop – and during this era, every person who lived in any kind of shelter along these trails and roads was expected to receive travelers.

Nonetheless. It’s a fascinating account of:

  • Colorado territory during the era
  • Other areas of the West – most of which she doesn’t think much of, with the exception of the area around Truckee, California. She has particular disdain for the towns of Wyoming, although she doesn’t have much love for Colorado’s settlements, either. But Wyoming, to Bird = the worst.
  • How people lived and survived during the time in this area and the variety of settlers: Civil War veterans, English folk, Germans, many people who’d come from the East for their health, particularly consumptive patients, and indigenous peoples.

Speaking of the last, Bird, like most Europeans visiting the United States in the 19th century, is direct and harsh in her observations of how Americans treated subjugated populations, here the Native Americans. She often alludes to the damage of hunting the buffalo to extinction, the conflicts over land that always end to the native peoples’ disadvantage, and the corruption of the agencies charged with dealing with the issue:

The Indian Agency has been a sink of fraud and corruption; it is said that barely thirty per cent of the allowance ever reaches those for whom it is voted; and the complaints of shoddy blankets, damaged flour, and worthless firearms are universal. “To get rid of the Injuns” is the phrase used everywhere. Even their “reservations” do not escape seizure practically; for if gold “breaks out” on them they are “rushed,” and their possessors are either compelled to accept land farther west or are shot off and driven off. One of the surest agents in their destruction is vitriolized whisky. An attempt has recently been made to cleanse the Augean stable of the Indian Department, but it has met with signal failure, the usual result in America of every effort to purify the official atmosphere. Americans specially love superlatives. The phrases “biggest in the world,” “finest in the world,” are on all lips. Unless President Hayes is a strong man they will soon come to boast that their government is composed of the “biggest scoundrels” in the world.

  • The perspective and experience of a woman in the late 19th century.

In regard to the last point: I hate to break it to you, but the history of women is not a history of “housewives” (in the contemporary sense) tending to the hearth while the men worked “outside the home” until Liberation Day arrived a few decades ago. With the exception of the leisured classes, everyone worked, all the time, somewhere. Until the Industrial Revolution and continuing in areas less directly impacted by it, “work” was an organic activity that certainly had a gendered component, related to childbearing and tending as well as physical strength, but was on the whole just…life. And it (work) was demanding, no matter who you were. It was not to a woman’s advantage to be a delicate flower.

Which is all to say that Bird’s presence and way on this journey was not received as a revolutionary violation of gender norms. If anyone warned her not to embark on a particular path it was because, well, there was probably a blizzard coming, Ma’am…and not because she was a woman. In fact, during her lengthy stay in Estes Park, she was regularly asked to help with cattle round-ups and such because of her skill – this 40+ year old Englishwoman, riding, as she put it, in her “Hawaiian riding costume” out there in the mountains.

Her ascent (with three companions) of Longs Peak:

SCALING, not climbing, is the correct term for this last ascent. It took one hour to accomplish 500 feet, pausing for breath every minute or two. The only foothold was in narrow cracks or on minute projections on the granite. To get a toe in these cracks, or here and there on a scarcely obvious projection, while crawling on hands and knees, all the while tortured with thirst and gasping and struggling for breath, this was the climb; but at last the Peak was won. A grand, well-defined mountain top it is, a nearly level acre of boulders, with precipitous sides all round, the one we came up being the only accessible one.

It was not possible to remain long. One of the young men was seriously alarmed by bleeding from the lungs, and the intense dryness of the day and the rarefication of the air, at a height of nearly 15,000 feet, made respiration very painful. There is always water on the Peak, but it was frozen as hard as a rock, and the sucking of ice and snow increases thirst. We all suffered severely from the want of water, and the gasping for breath made our mouths and tongues so dry that articulation was difficult, and the speech of all unnatural.

From the summit were seen in unrivalled combination all the views which had rejoiced our eyes during the ascent. It was something at last to stand upon the storm-rent crown of this lonely sentinel of the Rocky Range, on one of the mightiest of the vertebrae of the backbone of the North American continent, and to see the waters start for both oceans. Uplifted above love and hate and storms of passion, calm amidst the eternal silences, fanned by zephyrs and bathed in living blue, peace rested for that one bright day on the Peak, as if it were some region

Where falls not rain, or hail, or any snow,
Or ever wind blows loudly.

We placed our names, with the date of ascent, in a tin within a crevice, and descended to the Ledge, sitting on the smooth granite, getting our feet into cracks and against projections, and letting ourselves down by our hands, “Jim” going before me, so that I might steady my feet against his powerful shoulders. I was no longer giddy, and faced the precipice of 3,500 feet without a shiver. Repassing the Ledge and Lift, we accomplished the descent through 1,500 feet of ice and snow, with many falls and bruises, but no worse mishap, and there separated, the young men taking the steepest but most direct way to the “Notch,” with the intention of getting ready for the march home, and “Jim” and I taking what he thought the safer route for me—a descent over boulders for 2,000 feet, and then a tremendous ascent to the “Notch.” I had various falls, and once hung by my frock, which caught on a rock, and “Jim” severed it with his hunting knife, upon which I fell into a crevice full of soft snow. We were driven lower down the mountains than he had intended by impassable tracts of ice, and the ascent was tremendous. For the last 200 feet the boulders were of enormous size, and the steepness fearful. Sometimes I drew myself up on hands and knees, sometimes crawled; sometimes “Jim” pulled me up by my arms or a lariat, and sometimes I stood on his shoulders, or he made steps for me of his feet and hands, but at six we stood on the “Notch” in the splendor of the sinking sun, all color deepening, all peaks glorifying, all shadows purpling, all peril past.

“Jim” had parted with his brusquerie when we parted from the students, and was gentle and considerate beyond anything, though I knew that he must be grievously disappointed, both in my courage and strength. Water was an object of earnest desire. My tongue rattled in my mouth, and I could hardly articulate. It is good for one’s sympathies to have for once a severe experience of thirst. Truly, there was

Water, water, everywhere,
But not a drop to drink.

Three times its apparent gleam deceived even the mountaineer’s practiced eye, but we found only a foot of “glare ice.” At last, in a deep hole, he succeeded in breaking the ice, and by putting one’s arm far down one could scoop up a little water in one’s hand, but it was tormentingly insufficient. With great difficulty and much assistance I recrossed the “Lava Beds,” was carried to the horse and lifted upon him, and when we reached the camping ground I was lifted off him, and laid on the ground wrapped up in blankets, a humiliating termination of a great exploit. The horses were saddled, and the young men were all ready to start, but “Jim” quietly said, “Now, gentlemen, I want a good night’s rest, and we shan’t stir from here to-night.” I believe they were really glad to have it so, as one of them was quite “finished.” I retired to my arbor, wrapped myself in a roll of blankets, and was soon asleep.

When I woke, the moon was high shining through the silvery branches, whitening the bald Peak above, and glittering on the great abyss of snow behind, and pine logs were blazing like a bonfire in the cold still air. My feet were so icy cold that I could not sleep again, and getting some blankets to sit in, and making a roll of them for my back, I sat for two hours by the camp-fire. It was weird and gloriously beautiful. The students were asleep not far off in their blankets with their feet towards the fire. “Ring” lay on one side of me with his fine head on my arm, and his master sat smoking, with the fire lighting up the handsome side of his face, and except for the tones of our voices, and an occasional crackle and splutter as a pine knot blazed up, there was no sound on the mountain side. The beloved stars of my far-off home were overhead, the Plough and Pole Star, with their steady light; the glittering Pleiades, looking larger than I ever saw them, and “Orion’s studded belt” shining gloriously. Once only some wild animals prowled near the camp, when “Ring,” with one bound, disappeared from my side; and the horses, which were picketed by the stream, broke their lariats, stampeded, and came rushing wildly towards the fire, and it was fully half an hour before they were caught and quiet was restored. “Jim,” or Mr. Nugent, as I always scrupulously called him, told stories of his early youth, and of a great sorrow which had led him to embark on a lawless and desperate life. His voice trembled, and tears rolled down his cheek. Was it semi-conscious acting, I wondered, or was his dark soul really stirred to its depths by the silence, the beauty, and the memories of youth?

We reached Estes Park at noon of the following day. A more successful ascent of the Peak was never made, and I would not now exchange my memories of its perfect beauty and extraordinary sublimity for any other experience of mountaineering in any part of the world. Yesterday snow fell on the summit, and it will be inaccessible for eight months to come.

This is only a glimpse. It’s a delightful, fascinating read.

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