Ask the Wizard, Part 1 – Nothing Ever Ends

I’ve always been curious as to how you got the name “The Wizard.” And I know you are not from Oz. – Diane
Oh good, this one’s fairly easy! My dear-dear-deardeardear-dearly beloved friend David starting calling me Gandalf about ten years ago after I walked into his store (he worked for Starbucks in Boston at the time) wearing my long black coat, my brimmed black hat and my big gray scarf. Soon he got his fellow partners to start calling me Gandalf, and when he got his own store he got his employees to call me Gandalf as well. For a few years it was the only name I was known by. A while later he introduced me to his new boyfriend as both Gandalf and my given name, which just got him confused so he inadvertently called me Dangalf – which I actually liked better! And after trying to get David’s employees to call me that instead, one lovely woman by the name Cynara got confused and started calling me Randolph (which she continued to do adorably for a few years until she watched Lord of the Rings one night and made the connection). Finally, one of his staff, a beautifully no-nonsense woman by the name Irene (which, of course, means “peace” in Greek), had had enough and started calling me simply “The Wizard.” And so I’ve been, in some capacity or other, ever since.

What’s your perspective on what Christ would be like if He lived among us today? How would He dress? What would some of His habits be? Where would we find Him, where would He hang out? What would He like to do for fun, both as a boy and an adult? Would He go to college and, if so, what would He study? What would His occupation be? Would He have a website? Would He play in a band? – Kathy
…What do you mean “if”?

As a non-Catholic Christian, I don’t really understand Catholicism as I have been exposed to it and I don’t quite agree with a fair amount of it. I also see a lot of “Catholics” practicing a watered-down version of the faith compared to those I know to be devout. What do you feel is the most important thing that I should know about your faith? – Taknika
I wrestled with this question a bit after reading it, because there are so many important things for both “outsiders” and “insiders” to know about it. But I think all of them can easily be subsumed under one very important thing that is so under-realized about Catholicism itself, and that is how real it is. Most Christian churches or sects like to promote that Christianity is a relationship first and foremost, a relationship with Jesus the God-Man. And I do believe that premise is correct; Christianity is centered not on an idea or a philosophy or a system or even a doctrine, but on a person. All the other elements revolve around the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the One God Incarnate – without that, all Christianity falls apart and we’re all just playing dress-up. Now: accepting that premise as a given, I think Catholicism is one of the few churches/sects that takes that relationship seriously. Because relationships are hard. They are messy, complicated things that require commitment and dedication and discipline and acknowledgment and honest communication and a mutual leaning on each other, whether it’s with family or friends or co-workers or spouses or significant others. So why would a relationship with Jesus be any different? Why else would He make Himself so present to us in such a perceptible way? All those who see the material beauty of the Church as obscuring a greater spiritual “correctness” miss part of the point of an earthly Church. Why wouldn’t a relationship with Someone Who is both God and Man be just as physical as it is spiritual? Why wouldn’t He span the boundaries of the dimensions to be within history itself, within the tangible signs of Himself we call the Sacraments, within the very food and drink in which He literally enters into us both physically and spiritually, and within each other as all adopted children of the same Father because His Son eternally shares our very DNA? That’s what “Catholic” means – in accordance with the whole. What affects one affects the other – indeed, affects all others. And why wouldn’t it all be as beautiful as we could possibly try to make it? Don’t we like to make beauty for those we love? . Go back through the Church’s history: its best and worst moments happen based on how much we recognize we’re all in a real relationship with Jesus. All its Saints, all its dogmas, all its problems and solutions are “from the ground up” stories, not “from the top down.” It’s rooted it messy, complicated physicalness balanced out by a union with a mind-blowing, transcendent spiritualness that doesn’t cancel out the mess but transforms it. All the Church’s beauty, mysticism, logic, complexities, teachings are ultimately explained by the fact that it is so ridiculously (and sometimes terrifyingly) real, because it’s a religion that is a relationship and relationships take work. Understanding the Catholic Church correctly – and even the ancient Orthodox and Coptic Churches – starts there. And I don’t care if you’re reading the creed of Nicaea, the canons of Trent, the constitutions of Vatican II, the letters of Saint Paul, or the witticisms in the back of the bulletin; if you’re not trying to see the Church as proclaiming a real relationship, you’re not going to understand the transdimensional balancing act Catholicism really is.

What do you think of G. K. Chesterton? Are there any other modern Catholic writers you’d recommend to people who are agnostic? – Albert
Chesterton was brilliant, and had a compelling way of presenting his point of view on the things he believed in. I think his biggest problem – and this is true of apologists in general – is that he was offering answers to people who either a.) weren’t asking questions or b.) were asking questions they really didn’t want answered. Some of the most enduring works about Catholic life and spirituality were written as reflections on their own lives and spiritual practices. So there’s at times that lack of personal touch in his non-fiction writings, I find. As far as other modern Catholic writers, look into the works of Bishop Robert Barron if you want a sense of what Catholicism really is underneath it all, and J. R. R. Tolkien if you want to see a genuine Catholic influence on modern literature. (I know you mentioned C. S. Lewis, and as much as I love him, he was an atheist convert to Anglicanism and Roman Catholic as his outlook got over time he couldn’t resist beating you over the head with Jesus sometimes – so it’s probably best to ease into him after an initial exploration!)

As a Classicist, what’s your response to this article [How to be a Good Classicist under a Bad Emperor]? – Albert
The paradox of Classics academia continues to baffle me. We have so much information about the foundations of the West – including, by extrapolation, what to do to avoid a Dark Age! – and yet our every invocation of Greco-Roman culture and civilization, on both liberal and conservative sides, is so unbalanced that it makes me wonder who’s trying to convince whom of its value. It makes me think of the ongoing post Vatican II wars between the trendy eclectics who regard church like a yoga-alternative, the liturgy as optional and the precepts of the Church as suggestions, and the radical traditionalists that imagine the Church burning with eternal hellfire without a full restoration of the Tridentine Mass and the papal tiara. On the one side you have the “spiritual but not religious” crowd who regards all that happened before they were born as interesting data points on the way to intuiting ways to move beyond it that so far have not worked in any viable way, and on the other the “religious but not spiritual” crowd that must restore the old mechanics at all costs or all is futile because the stuff matters more than the reasons and the need for the stuff. So in my opinion, the alt-right’s citing Scripture for its purpose wouldn’t be any sort of credible threat if the Classics intelligentsia had been doing its job all this time teaching the lessons of the history of the West instead of presenting it as a quirky hobby that’s only really useful in crosswords and on Trivia Tuesdays.

Why are Catholics called to work for peace and justice in this world? – Larry
Because we are called to love each other as Jesus loves us. Don’t you want those you love to “be still and know that I am God”?

As far as goals go, where is your focus right now? – Taknika
My main goal is to get at least one other person to come to church with me. I’ve been trying to do this for the last several years, and it is beyond doubt the hardest thing I have ever tried to do.

What would you say to people doing good works who are simply exhausted, physically and spiritually, at doing an endless and thankless job? – Taknika (Jennifer seconded)
Remember: we don’t do it for thanks; we do it because it’s right, and doing right by others is a job that never ends. And as exhausting as that can be, it’s even more exhausting trying to do the wrong thing all the time.

Thank you for your questions. Please keep them coming!


A Meditation on the Joyful Mysteries on the Memorial of the Most Holy Name of Mary

“In all my temptations, in all my needs, I shall never cease to call on thee, ever repeating thy sacred name: Mary, Mary.”

Hail, favored one! So spoke the angel to you, almost fearing to greet the Mother of his Lord by her name. Only once did he speak your most holy name, to bring you the same reassurance that your name now gives to all men. Simeon saw the sword pierce your heart, but did not know your name. Anna the prophetess told all the city of its coming redemption, but would not utter your name. Not even your divine Son would speak that sweet and wondrous name; obedient to you even in His Father’s house, He calls you Woman and Mother as long as He lives. Now, as His Father’s house, we are privileged to keep within our hearts the sweet name that showers awe upon the angels and solace upon men.

Help me, O Blessed Mary, never to lose the grace of the gift that is your most holy name, even as I ask, with your cousin Elizabeth, “How does this happen to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?”

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“Merciful Like the Father,” Part 49 – The City of the Living God

Forty-ninth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Hebrews 12:18-18, 22-24a; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Two places – or at least two metaphors of places – with which most of us are familiar are “the top of the mountain” and “rock bottom.” At the first place, there’s nowhere to go but down; at the other, nowhere to go but up. These are the extremes that the merciful Father asks us – quite explicitly through today’s readings – to keep in balance for ourselves. He Who exalts the valleys and lays the hills low, Who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, is always cautioning us to think neither too much nor too little of both ourselves and everyone else. It is not for us to level the playing field (God will do that), but rather not to allow our own presumption and despair to tear it up and make it a hazard.

Continue reading

Thus Says the LORD, Part One: Your Light Must Shine before Others

One of my favorite activities during the week is walking down Washington Street during my lunch break and visiting at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the seat of the Archbishop of Boston. It is a beautiful building, one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world and since its restoration in the mid-1990s breathtakingly bright and inspiring (I included a picture of the interior in my recent, and rather lengthy, post on church buildings). Whether I am standing in awe before the great windows and vaults of the main church or simply sitting before the Blessed Sacrament in the side chapel, it is a wonderful place to talk with God and to just be.

The other day I had come into the cathedral chapel seeking help with a particular recurring problem of mine. We all have our hang-ups, to be sure, but some hang-ups have a habit of manifesting in ways that can’t easily be categorized. Suffice to say (and I will have to for now) that even a harmless pleasure can become a burdensome preoccupation. So as I knelt before the tabernacle there in the cathedral chapel, I prayed less formally than usual and simply asked God to tell me something I do not know, tell me something about this problem of mine I am struggling to understand. Getting even more to the point, I asked Him not just to tell me but to show me, and I shut my eyes (which I normally do when I want to see something) and steeled myself for a response, whatever it might be. Continue reading

“…But Then Face to Face” – On the Death of Pets

“God made all things for his formal glory, which consists in the knowledge and love shown to Him by rational creatures. Irrational creatures cannot give formal glory directly to God, but they should assist rational creatures in doing so. This they can do by manifesting God’s perfections and by rendering other services; whilst rational creatures, by their own personal knowledge and love of God, refer and direct all creatures to Him as their last end. Therefore, every intelligent creature in general, and man in particular, is destined to know and love God for ever, though he may forfeit eternal happiness by sin.” – “Heaven,” Catholic Encyclopedia (1911) Continue reading

Good Deal

“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. …[C]onversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said that when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.'” – Flannery O’Connor

This weekend my darling goddaughter makes her First Communion. She will receive the Eucharist for the first time on the feastday of Saint Damien of Moloka’i, also known as “the leper priest.” He fought and studied hard to become a priest, and prayed to be sent to the missions. He was sent to the then-Kingdom of Hawai’i where he volunteered to minister to those suffering from leprosy and other serious diseases. Father Damien served them and evangelized them for over ten years before dying from leprosy himself at the age of 49. That’s a hell of a thing to do on account of a mere symbol. A symbol’s a hell of a thing to get excited about, too. And my darling goddaughter is very excited. I was excited too, when I made my First Communion 26 years ago. After all, I was getting ready to experience something so powerful that I had to sit with one of my parish priests and tell him everything I’d ever done wrong, so that I could experience it with a clear and clean mind and heart! Is that what one does, even at 7 or 8 years old, when getting ready to accept…a symbol? Continue reading

Behind the Name: a Reflection on My Grandfather

My grandfather Daniel Joseph O’Brien, Jr. – the man for whom I was named – has gone home to God, at the tender age of 90. And as I read through the comments and tributes from family that were springing up on Facebook and elsewhere, I saw the same ideas recurring: he was a hero; he was an example; he was a guide. I started to think about the idea of heroes, and (being me) when I think of heroes, my thoughts turn toward the saints. They are, in a sense, the heroes of the Church. Theirs are the lives we are to emulate, the models we are to follow. On the spur of the moment, I decided to make a brief look-see at some of the saints associated with parts of my grandfather’s life. Continue reading

“It Is in Your Power to Bring Them Relief”

It was a beautiful Tuesday morning. I had just gotten to work at the graduate dean’s office, when the assistant dean called in to say that she would be late, because she had to find her brother. A plane, she explained, had just struck the top of one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. As we reeled from that piece of news and started to wish her good luck, she told us that she had just watched a second plane fly right into the second tower. That was, of course, September 11, 2001. And I knew as I ran over to another phone that I had to track down my sister-in-law.

My sister-in-law was safe, as was the assistant dean’s brother. But thousands were not, and millions were profoundly affected. Many of us who remember that day–really remember that day–will never forget where we were and what we felt as we watched the buildings fall and the dust fly. In some cases, it changed our lives. In many cases, it changed our perceptions of the world, or shattered some core assumptions. And I, like many others, wondered what I could do–what I could really do– for those who were suffering, including myself.

The following Saturday Gramma and I went to the 4:00 Mass, celebrated by our beloved Bishop Riley. Before starting the introductory rite, he asked us all to be seated. And he talked to us about the events of the past week, and offered a simple solution to the question that I and everyone else was asking.

“Pray.” Continue reading