Sunday, October 15, 2017

Revisiting the Church of My Childhood

I double-dipped today, attending the 8:30 mass at St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minnesota; then taking in the 10:45 at Wayzata Community Church (UCC) just west on the boulevard.

The Protestant church (pictured) is bigger by several times than it was in 1950, when my parents were married here, or in 1952, when I was christened. My first Bible (RSV with black leatherette binding) is inscribed to me by Wayzata Community Church and dated 1959. I still have it.

So when I returned, a Catholic convert, to my childhood community this weekend, visiting relatives, it was important to me to return to where my faith was born.

Four babies were baptized at Wayzata Community Church this morning in a rite conducted by pastor John Ross, and they helped me revisit the spirit of my own entry into the fold, at seven months old during my first Minnesota winter. My Uncle Truck, a longtime member of Wayzata Community, warned me that Pastor Ross would be sermonizing on the Protestant Reformation, the 500th anniversary of which we “celebrate” this month.

The sermon topic was being saved “by grace, through faith.” I noted that the Protestant preacher mentioned the pope only once and used the word works in a positive vein though also only once. I told the pastor so as we exited.

“You walked to the edge of the precipice, referring to works,” I said, “but you pulled back from the brink. Well done.” He laughed. I think Truck had warned him that Catholic relatives (my wife and I) would be in attendance, and Ross went easy on us.

Tonight, we had dinner with Truck’s two children, their spouses, plus three grandchildren, all of whom are faithful Christians. It was a rich and rewarding feast to celebrate my return home, geographically and religiously.

I record this short post to register my gratitude.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Posturing While the World Ends

My wife and I are in Minnesota, my home state, for our 33rd wedding anniversary. Friday, before visiting relatives outside town for the weekend, we spent the day in Minneapolis, mostly at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Rather, my wife did. You know how it goes at art museums, guys. She wants to look at every piece twice. You pick a couple of paintings, look at them a while, then go out for coffee or a beer or a nap, depending on time of day. I went for a nap at our hotel, but not before pondering Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s painting of “The Eruption of Vesuvius” (1771).

What struck me about the painting is the three gentleman relaxing on a safe ledge in the foreground. Even their dog looks unconcerned. A caption alongside the painting suggested that the men were “consuming the scene with  an air of detachment, as though the eruption were a controlled experiment. It mirrors the way men and women of means consumed science at the time, as public presentations and social encounters.”

The men in the foreground didn’t make me think of science; their “detachment” or nonchalance led me to think instead of the collapse of our culture while the rich look on, getting richer while embracing each new progressive cause, walling out the disadvantaged with gates and private security guards while throwing money at the poor with invisible tax dollars. Ten billion for programs? Check! A dollar into the hat of the toothless man leaning against the building? Never! Better yet: take the man out for coffee. Are you serious?

My juices must have been stirred by the pope. On the plane from Boston I read Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelic Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel. As in his first encyclical, Laudato Si, our pope lays into the money world. “In this system,” he writes, “which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

One line struck me most forcibly: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

For me, as for Hamlet, the time is out of joint. Everything seems out of proportion, and we do not connect the dots, the only exercise that could possibly put things back in perspective.

L’Arche may be to blame for my sense of dislocation. I was always skeptical of philanthropy, as a sop to rich guilt, but since I began “sharing time,” as we say in L’Arche, with men and women having intellectual disabilities, I have grown appalled at my own ignorance, detachment, and nonchalance. A neighbor would call, ask for $100 for a cause, and I would write a check, never once trying to bridge the gap between my safe ledge and the uncomfortable lives of the actual human beings “beneath me” in the lava, the people my charity check allegedly benefited.

A few months at L’Arche Boston North in Haverhill, Massachusetts, changed so much for me. Beginning with me myself. To change I had only to get off my ledge and jump in. A terrifying thought? Yes. It was.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Single Most Important Thing I Learned in School

Last night at The Actor’s Studio in Newburyport, I took a class in improvisation for the first time in fifty years. I am not on the doorstep of a new career. I am not even in the same zip code. A chain of circumstance led me to this class, and I’m glad it did.

One of the teachers happened to be a onetime, longtime L’Arche assistant. I met her while sharing time together at one of our homes at L’Arche Boston North. I told her that I was (am) writing a play (it’s a long story). She said she was co-leading an improv class.

I explained that improv was probably the most indelible portable skill I gained from three years at a particular fancy boarding school. That and writing, I should have said. I told her I might take the class, and last night I did.

If nothing else, improvisation is a way of being that helps me be a better L’Arche assistant, a better husband, a better person. An example may help.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Star is To Die For. The Movie Just Dies.

Aristotle asked that a drama have “unity” of action, time, and place. The new “Wonder Woman” movie has these, more or less; what it lacks is unity of common sense.

Each of its three or four acts plays out to a different set of cosmic rules. Imagine Dorothy stepping out of the tornadoed farmhouse in “The Wizard of Oz” and onto the no-man’s land of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” only to find the battle taken over by a DC Comics superhero.

In Act I we meet the Amazons on Island Something-or-Other, and we meet Wonder Woman, who is every bit as cool and photogenic as a little girl as she is in the to-die-for form of Israeli commando/actress Gal Gadot. It’s notable that everyone who told me about this movie before I saw it today told me how awesome Gal Gadot is, which is undeniable. They neglected to tell me that her movie is ludicrous.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Standing at the Door

While on retreat a year ago, I was offered spiritual direction by a priest in residence. Things did not go quite the way I might have hoped.

As a convert to the Catholic Church (Easter class of 2008), I told the spiritual director of my journey before and after that memorable vigil mass. My account was filled with more obstacles and detours than The Odyssey. It was an impressive little mini-epic of man-finding-Church against the odds he had stacked against himself, or something.

The priest listened carefully, and then responded: “It sounds to me like you’ve arrived at the door of the Church but haven’t come inside yet.”

Uh, were you even listening to me, Father? . . . I was hurt, offended, and puzzled beyond telling.

I love the Catholic Church. I have never regretted becoming a Catholic a day in my life. How could this seemingly wise, sensitive, and perceptive spiritual director tell me—ME—that I wasn’t even inside the door?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

“The Hero,” Sort Of

I wanted to like “The Hero” more than I did. I fully expected to.

My brother had recommended it; he has good taste in movies; and like me, for obvious reasons, he is sensitive to old-guy flicks in which the protagonist (not to say hero) has made mistakes along the way and has serious amends to make.

That’s the case with Sam Elliott as Lee Hayden, a Western movie actor who had only one starring role, that being forty years ago. Now on the far side of seventy, Lee finds out he is dying—very early in the film and therefore that’s a very minor spoiler.

What would you do if you found out you were dying and were divorced and alienated from your adult daughter, whom you never failed to disappoint? What Lee does and the sense he makes of his condition are just about the only moral point of this movie or watching it.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Two Little Films that Gave Me Big Pleasure

My wife and I are trying to make a weekly thing of movie going. You know, the real thing, where you go to a movie? It’s one of the better, cheaper dates.

So last week, sifting through the summer dreck of action and explo, I gave her two choices: “Norman,” starring Richard Gere as a New York “fixer”; and “Megan Leavey,” about a female Marine who serves as a dog handler, sniffing out IEDs in Iraq.

Now we’ve seen them, and although we both enjoyed “Norman” more, I particularly liked “Megan Leavey.” My wife rightly commented that it is manipulative in the way that it systematically pulls on your heart-strings. All I could say by way of rejoinder was that “Megan Leavey” is the first dog movie to make me cry since “Old Yeller.”

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Mercy at the Movies

I watched “Manchester by the Sea” again last night and so should you, especially if you’re one of those people who thought it was too depressing, a downer, saaaaad.

I couldn’t disagree more. “Manchester by the Sea” is not only the best picture I’ve seen in the past twelve months (“Moonlight”? Best Picture? Seriously?). It’s also the most Catholic.

I don’t mean that the characters are Catholic, which they are. Lee (“Best Actor” Casey Affleck) reminds his nephew of this fact, adding that, by the way, Catholics are Christians. It’s not only that the plot effectively centers on a Catholic funeral and a Catholic burial.

What makes the film Catholic is its portrayal of mercy. “Manchester by the Sea” was released in the jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Becoming Old Myself

For thirty years, I have helped old people write their memoirs. Since my thirties, this has been my number-one bread-and-butter occupation.

One insight of my work as a private memoir ghost-writer is that old, or retired, people, have less ego, less push-forward, less need to prove themselves right or prove themselves at all. In general, they have worked with me on their life stories not because they consider themselves important but because they consider their children and grandchildren important, and they want to pass along a few things to these next generations.

Today, I find myself becoming that old guy. Somewhere in my sixties, I have already taken one stab at my own memoir and I now find myself working with a much younger population, who view me as, well, old, or at least older. They are not blind or deluded about this. I am older. (The photo shows me with John, a core member at L’Arche Boston North, with whom I was privileged to travel cross-country recently. With only a few months’ difference, John and I are the same age!)

Monday, June 5, 2017

“L’Arche Across America” — Day 27 — Epilog

It was not the way we drew it up, but it was, as Jane would say, beautiful. Last night after supper I was sharing time at Pat House of L’Arche Boston North when a van pulled up outside. My van. Containing my friends Jane, Doris, and Woody.

The meter on the dashboard read: Trip A / 9,298.6 miles.

The way we drew it up was, six of us would arrive in triumph earlier in the day, at the end of a coast-to-coast, round-trip odyssey, to be greeted by a gigantic celebratory cookout. The six of us were supposed to be the three in the photo above, plus Todd, John, and me.