If the thought has ever popped into your mind of reading some of those old Catholic Classics you've heard about but never quite gotten around to, have I got some good news for you!
Popular Catholic publishing house, Ascension Press, has just introduced a new podcast called "Catholic Classics." Hosted by two Dominican friars, Fr. Gregory Pine and Fr. Jacob Bertrand Janczyk, the podcast does just what its title says - it takes a work considered to be a classic of Catholic literature and walks you through it, step-by-step, page-by-page, in daily 20-to-30-minute segments.
The podcast kicked off on October 24, 2022, with the first book, Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales, and is currently only on day 8, which means there's still time to tune in and read along. Also, every podcast is recorded, so you can go back and relisten at your convenience. The entire podcast for this book will run for 43 days. Just imagine! Reading through a tremendous book like Intro to the Devout Life in only 43 days, guided by two Dominicans. This is like taking a college course, in terms of quality, but without the research papers, pop quizzes or any of those nasty finals, and let's not even mention the typical cost of a college class.
Although it is true that works considered Catholic Classics are not easy reads, they are certainly formative ones. These are the books to spend time with. They will form your soul, challenge your conscience, and strengthen your Catholic thinking-muscle. You can travel with a master guide, in this case St. Francis De Sales, and hear and learn from him the insights he followed that brought him, ultimately, to sainthood.
The podcast is free to listen to on your favorite podcast app, or you can listen directly from Ascension Press's website. At Ascension's website, you can also purchase a copy of the translation being used which is an "updated translation of St. Francis de Sales’ original text that features the full English translation (which is not included in all commonly available translations), language updates that make the text accessible without changing its meaning or message, and expert commentary from podcast hosts Fr. Gregory Pine, O.P., and Fr. Jacob Bertrand Janczyk, O.P." It's available for $29.95.
This podcast would be an excellent candidate for anyone still thinking about taking the "Back to School, Back to Learning" challenge. With Advent and the start of the new year only four weeks away, now is the perfect time to jump into some deeper Catholic waters and contemplate the "devout life."
These days, the Frankenstein icon is one of the most important to consider, because it is everywhere, running rampant. Although the man-made creature is usually referred to as "Frankenstein," it's real name is "the monster." At least, that's how Dr. Frankenstein referred to his creation in the classic book Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Written by Mary Shelley and published in 1818, this famous tale tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young, ambitious doctor who conducts experiments in electricity on decaying tissue for the purpose of reanimation. As we all know, Dr. Frankenstein is successful in patching together a human on the lab table, composed of body parts from several different dead people, and he also successfully reanimates this being. However, his joy in the success of his experiment is very short lived. He gazes upon his new creation with a look of horror and abhorrence, an obvious and marked change from the look of love and joy which God bestows upon Adam in the Garden of Eden. Scripture tells us that “God looked at everything he had made and found it very good.” Adam and Eve were especially prized by God, as they were not only the first humans, but they had also been made in God’s image, a distinct elevation granted to humanity. Yet, in contrast, when Dr. Frankenstein looks upon his creation, he not only does not pronounce it "very good," but he desperately wishes he had not made it in the first place, and he seeks to rid himself of it. Thus begin years of threats, suffering and pain - not just to Dr. Frankenstein but also to his family.
Dr. Frankenstein discovers for himself this great secret: the creator always puts him or herself into their creation. This is part of what it means to be made in the image of God. We participate in God’s ability to imagine and create, although more as co-creators or sub-creators, since we cannot make anything appear out of nothing, as God can. The life of the creation is drawn from the life of the creator. Unfortunately for Dr. Frankenstein, he finds that he is just not that great, and so, neither is his creation. Dr. Frankenstein is a flawed human, seeking to replace God, and his creation reflects that truth. In contrast, God can look upon everything he creates and proclaim it "good" and "very good." Why? Because God himself is the source of good. Everything he thinks, touches or creates will draw from his own energy, his own being, and copy it. No matter how often or even the type of creation, whatever God creates will be good.
It is important for us to realize, then, what it means to say we are "made in his image." This certainly means that we, like God, have the ability to create. This creative ability is seen in marriage, with the ability to create new people, but it is also seen in other aspects as well. For example, if a person creates a company, that company will by default receive the spirit of its founder. So, if the founder is generous and God-fearing, seeking to build the Kingdom of God, those who work for him or her will experience an environment of respect and collaboration. The office environment will reflect the principles and spirit of the founder. When that company grows, the bottom line will not be the only driving decision. Things like safe-working conditions and environmental considerations will also be taken into account, as part of our role as stewards of God’s creation. Granted, since no one is perfect, it is unrealistic to expect any office or business or school to be perfect, either. That being said, we've all experienced the difference of spirit in different places.
In the Romantic era, when Frankenstein was published, the Greek god Prometheus had become a symbol of the solitary genius who sought to advance the human race by his own efforts, especially in the field of science, which was just beginning to establish itself as an authority. However, like the original story of Prometheus, the modern Prometheus dares to go beyond what he should and ends in tragedy. So who, then, is the real monster in Frankenstein? The reanimated corpse or the man who seeks to take the place of God? The words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, a scientist in the movie "Jurassic Park," are appropriate here: "Just because we CAN do something, doesn't mean we SHOULD."
When God creates, it is an outpouring of his divine love, an invitation to return that same love back to him. As St. John Paul II reminds us in his Letter to Artists, as “Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” We may not all necessarily be gifted artists like Michaelangelo or Botticelli, who produce masterworks, but we each still nevertheless have the capability of producing a masterpiece. In these last few days of October, let's take an honest inventory of all areas of our lives and ask ourselves: What are we engaged in creating? Is it a masterpiece, reflecting divine love, or a monster, reflecting merely ourselves?
St. John Paul II, pray for us, pray for the works we do, and help us to craft lives that are pleasing to God. Amen.
Quick - what song comes to mind when you think of a "werewolf?" Michael Jackson's THRILLER!!! That iconic music video propelled MJ into the limelight and became the standard background music for every Halloween gathering since.
A werewolf is a funny creature. It's half man, half wolf. It is forced into existence due to circumstances beyond its control, ie. a full moon. In most werewolf tales, the person who becomes a werewolf is also a victim. Once he turns into this monster, he is absolutely unable to access his rational mind. He becomes a killer completely out of control. In the morning, after the moon has set, there is typically plenty of remorse for the havoc and destruction wrought the night before. Yet, nevertheless, in another month that same person will transform and repeat those same actions. The mayhem is going to take place again in the future. The werewolf does not change and never really leaves.
The Spirit of Violence
To me, werewolves have always represented the spirit of violence. Although we don't actually see a human transform literally into an animal, we have all seen humans become so overwhelmed by the spirit of violence that they act like savage wolves, bent on destroying and killing. This can range from domestic violence to gang violence, to school shootings. Our times are tragically and woefully full of examples of werewolf killing sprees.
Although Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was meant to be a mostly lighthearted, goose-bump causing, rocking song, it also revealed a deep truth about human nature. Put just about any of us in the right situation, for an extended period of time, and the werewolf within will explode. We will give it permission to escape.
It is especially appropriate to consider werewolves this month, since October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Statistics tell us that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have been or are being physically and violently abused within their home. That’s a lot of abuse going on, and most of it is hidden. In my own parish, we put up “safety signs” in the bathroom stalls of the church and our parish center. Each sign has small slips of paper on the bottom with the number to call for help. These slips of paper can be torn off and slipped into socks or shoes, the one place that is usually safe from being searched. I will admit - the first time we put these signs up I considered it more of an exercise in solidarity, to get the word out and remind people this could be going on. I didn’t really think there was much need for Domestic Violence awareness in my large, affluent, suburban parish. Then I watched in dismay and horror as one by one, the slips of paper disappeared over the next month. Now, we routinely replace the signs all year and add speakers and other events to our October programming. Our thinking has changed from “It's not happening here, in our community” to “Everyone knows Someone.” The werewolf shows up frequently in the lives of many, and although we may not be grabbing any torches and pitchforks to drive it away, we can’t just ignore these visits either.
As I wrote in my last article, Halloween gives us the chance to reflect on what keeps us from being saints, from joining the “cloud of witnesses” we celebrate the next day, November 1st. We could ask ourselves: What circumstances force the werewolf out of me? When do I seek to destroy another's spirit, soul, reputation, opportunities or even body - regardless of the devastation or consequences it might cause?
The Spirit of Peace
To combat the spirit of violence and usher in a spirit of peace, let’s dwell on these words of Henri Nouwen, "Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone's face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come."
Hail Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us and for all those who suffer from violence.
Bang! The front door closed with yell.
“Mom! It’s Spooky Season! It’s time to decorate!” my son announced in great excitement as he came into the front hall. Rushing past me, he ran up the stairs to start getting the Halloween decorations down from the attic. Was this an elementary aged boy, looking forward to candy and costumes? Nope. He was in his early 20s, home from college for the weekend, and just as excited about Halloween as he was 10 years earlier. Watching him work, I once again took a moment to think about this holiday.
Over the years, Halloween has presented me with quite a quandary. What’s the right way to celebrate it? Should it be ignored? Should we jump in and enjoy it? Should we ignore all the ghosts and ghouls we see and focus on the next day, All Saints, and those in heaven?
The Friars of the Atonement refer to October 31 as the Vigil of All Saints. I think that’s a helpful way to approach it because that brings out the reality of the feast day, namely its connection to the triumph of the saints over sin through participation in the saving work of the Trinity. If we look carefully, we can even see that same slow journey in our own lives, and we can see it especially clearly at Halloween.
A few years ago, I realized something. There seems to be a progression of sorts in the costumes that children choose to wear on October 31st. Up until roughly the age of 7, most children, if given a choice, will choose happy, sweet costumes of princesses, knights, superheroes and the like. This is natural, because it reflects their stage of development. They are still in the age of innocence. But around 7 or so, called the “age of reason,” when children come to the realization that there are good things and bad things, in and of themselves, and they likewise understand they themselves can make good or bad decisions, the costumes gradually change. They get a little, or maybe a lot, darker. This is when the ghosts, vampires and zombies start to appear.
The age of 7 is also the age for First Reconciliation. Children are taught that there is sin in the world, “out there,” and some of that same sin is in us, “in here.” They intuitively understand this. They know that sin is outside of them, because they remember being hurt by a friend or family member or some life situation. They also know those tendencies are inside them, because they themselves have hurt a friend, or family member or some other life situation.
But it is rare that we are wrestling with every kind sin. Most of us struggle with the same two or three impurities, and Halloween gives us a chance to name those tendencies, to look at them in the mirror, see them and recognize them, much like the story of Rumpelstiltskin. Dressing up at Halloween can make the invisible visible, and the unseen seen, so that it can be recognized. Once we know the name of the enemy, we can start to overcome it. Over the years, I’ve invited parents to think about the costumes their kids choose, and then see if those costumes connect with their interior struggles. Here are some examples of that:
The good news is that if we accompany our kids on this journey, allowing them the space to do enough self-reflection so that they can identify what they struggle with without being overwhelmed by it, they eventually make their way through it. As they grow and mature, the costumes change again. Sometimes the princesses actually reappear, but they are older, grown-up versions. Athletic uniforms might take the place of zombies and vampires, although there is usually still some type of fake blood and/or bandages. In other words, there is a recognition that sin is real, but it doesn’t have to define them. In fact, in a child who has journeyed well, there is a great deal of hope about their costumes.
Halloween shows us that sin is real. It’s not fantasy. It’s not make-believe. It exists, and it exists Out There just as it resides In Here. But, if we are courageous enough to name our sin, and to accompany our kids in identifying their sin, the impurities separating us from God, we can also walk through them, leaving them behind to join in the dawning of the Kingdom of God, celebrating together the next morning on All Saints Day, November 1st. Halloween shows us that sin, destruction and death, while real, do not have the final word. We can keep going and pass through all of them to come out on the other side, into the glory of heaven. That’s the hope of All Hallows Eve, what we celebrate on November 1st, All Saints Day, and what we pray for on November 2nd, All Souls Day.
This Halloween, whether you dress up or not, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself: What do I need to name, what do my kids need to name, so that we can divest ourselves of them?
In my last couple of blogs, I wrote about two common symbols we see at this time of year: sunflowers and apples. Following the lead of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who wrote about the Book of Nature, we find that just about everything God creates speaks to us, teaches us about God himself and our relationship to him.
To recap, sunflowers are symbols of obedience. But obedience doesn’t mean being voiceless, thoughtless or victimized. Biblical obedience, the kind that God desires, is about willingly submitting ourselves to his rule, to be guided by him in our thoughts and actions. Biblical obedience is an external display of an internal disposition, where we listen to God and decide to do as he prompts.
Apples are connected with learning. Since they are traditionally represented in art as original sin, as the fruit that Eve picked from the Tree of Knowledge, they are symbols of learning. But it is learning that is placed under the guidance of God, a type of learning that ushers in the Kingdom of God on three levels, individually within ourselves, on the communal level in the world, and on the cosmic level, in reflecting the truth of God. This knowledge doesn’t have to be explicitly about God, it can also be implicitly used to serve God through serving others. For example, the specialized knowledge that is required to repair downed electrical lines after a hurricane, or to aid injured people, or clear destroyed buildings using heavy machinery, are all examples of knowledge that serves the common good, while it serves others.
So, what happens if these two symbols are brought together? One might end up with something like the wreath above - a seasonal example of obedience (sunflowers) and learning (apples) working together to produce something new. I made this wreath a couple of years ago, and I hang it in our Family Prayer space when it’s Back to School time, as a subtle reminder of why and how we should study. This Fall, see if you can find these two symbols joined together somewhere, and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance and growth in both obedience and knowledge.
*The instructions for making this wreath are on the Wreaths for Prayer Spaces page, if you want to give it a try!
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