Saturday, July 5, 2008

I'll know my song well before I start singin'

I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’.
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number.
And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it,
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it,
And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’;
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.
- Bob Dylan
The Catalyst

“What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops” (Mt. 10:27). This is the stirring commission Christ gives His twelve apostles as he prepares them to be sent out “as sheep among wolves;” but those wolves, He tells them, they are not to fear (Mt. 10:16, 26).

As I listened to this Gospel being proclaimed one Sunday at Mass, my heart was burning within me. I knew that this was the last bit of encouragement I needed. The time had come. I needed to set out again, spiritually and intellectually, down a path whose many turns are well beyond the terminus of my sight.

How you have come to find yourself crowded into my little corner of the web, perhaps only God knows. I hope, however, your time here will not be in vain. My greatest hope is that you will help enlarge this place with the input of your own thoughts and your own ideas, and perhaps lodge here more comfortably and more frequently in the future.

Some readers may be familiar with my former outlet in cyberspace, where I sought to engage in online discussion as part of my own vocational discernment while journeying toward ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. My efforts there were well rewarded and my time reading and writing online has indeed brought me closer to a “vision of truth.”

My reasons for launching this new blog are complicated and confused; some are very personal. My opinions have matured. My interests have both expanded and at the same time become more focused. Suddenly, the direction of my thoughts, prayers, and various other motivations all seem to be converging in a very singular direction. Pointing the way, at the outset, was Innocent Smith.

Chasing After Innocent

At the beginning of this academic year, I read for the first time G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive. Like so many before me, I became utterly fascinated by the character of Innocent Smith and his approach to life. When Smith waved a gun in a man’s face in order to convince the man that life is a desirable thing, it struck me as a revelation. Our world is chock full of men only half-living. Indeed, I myself have spent far too few hours in the “land of the living,” but have mostly wandered about half-asleep, not dead but, like Coleridge’s mariner, dead in life.

I became determined at that juncture to live; and, to bring others with me along the uncharted paths which I knew would open to the willing wayfarer. I had no idea what this new resolve meant. In truth, I wanted adventure: an intellectual adventure, a spiritual foray into uncharted territory. I knew the trip’s terrain lay somewhere in the Gospel of Christ but had no idea what contours would form the map of my particular journey. Like the Bagginses in the greatest story of the last century, I simply stepped out onto the ever-living Road and was swept along. I let the Way lead me to Truth and Life.

And very soon into my new pursuit, chasing after Innocent Smith’s life philosophy through sundry books and articles, I came to the first definite turn in my path; and I found this place at once a surprise as well as, truth be told, something of a disappointment...

Opening My Luggage

The road had dropped me at the doorstep of Catholic socio-economics. In distaste and a slip from reverence, I wondered whether I had not fallen victim to God’s first mistake (presuming, like most good theologians, the creation of the ostrich to be a complex joke). Catholic economics? The very mention seemed like a soporific drug. I hated the notion of economics, and thought it as much a “science” as auguring the entrails of the pigeons on Wall Street.

My first step into this field was Joseph Pearce’s Small Is Still Beautiful. Pearce had called the work an embodiment of “Chestertonian Economics” at a conference I’d attended in the summer and it was this name-dropping that encouraged me to stomach the book at all. But somewhere in the process of meandering along this first seeming detour from my intellectual path, it occurred to me that I had not been swept down this road alone: I had brought luggage with me.

Pearce’s book sparked memories of my intellectual past and my formation which revealed a subconscious interest in the subject I now found myself reluctantly investigating. My initial interest in the Papal Social Encyclicals; a fascination with writers like Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Merton who scrutinized class relations; the hidden undertones of the writings of Tolkien and the not-so-hidden undertones of Lewis, dealing with industrial dehumanization; my fondness for champions of the poor such as Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and of course, Chesterton: these and many other “landmarks” began to emerge from the chaotic landscape of my mind. Suddenly, all along that crooked line of my lifelong discernment, I saw clearly and powerfully the straight writing of the hand of God.

Following the Crowd

My intellectual luggage bore evidence of myriad philosophers, poets, and saints who had gone before me down this same road. What had once seemed a detour I now knew as a familiar but forgotten path; and soon I found myself, like Wenceslas’ servant, tripping eagerly in the warm and worn footpaths of my masters.

I further began to recognize that I was not alone on this road. I found many contemporary men and women pursuing the same ideal, the same “third way,” hoping to find the way to life and that in abundance. The merry crowd gave me courage and I began to rush as fast as my mind’s feet would take me; I found I could now walk with some dexterity along these lines of thought and anticipate the potholes that previously halted me or caused me to stumble. But my charmed journey could not continue thus uncomplicated forever. For as yet, I only pursued a goal along intellectual terrain. And this path led me directly to a Wall.

Scaling the Wall

The Catholic Church’s teachings on properly ordered economic life and functional relations within human society are not mere ideas, they are ideals. They are to be lived rather than merely thought. My journey of mind could only go so far by itself. Arriving at the wall which represented the intersection of idea and reality, I knew that I must scale that wall and engage my whole person – body, soul, and spirit – in this pursuit. Dietrich von Hildebrand helped me to perceive the footholds on this wall as I began to climb, with his edifying philosophy of the human person. My thought journey was going to continue, but now had come the time to walk on a new level, a terrain overlying the intellectual landscape alone. I would walk in thought upon pathways set in day-to-day life, melding bodily and spiritual reality. So, I threw my luggage over the ledge and sprang onto the plane retained by that edifice separating our dreams from their waking fulfillment (or disappointment). And, to my dismay, the road laid in front of me was not quite what I had been expecting; and, more than that, there awaiting me was additional luggage to carry.

Taking Up the Cross

When an ideological path intersects with real life, it bumps into all sorts of limits. Time and space and the finitude of nature are nature’s restraints. But the mysterious problem of evil; human frailty; disorder; pride; the Devil – all of these constitute further limits that challenge the marriage of ideas with existential fact.

In order to cut through such limits, we need to turn liability into asset, misfortune into benefit. The unique luggage which awaits us at the outset of such a journey is the Cross, an it has this very transformative power of working evil into good. But the Cross’s usefulness (utilitatem, a “good for”) comes at a price. The Cross must be shouldered and born as a sort of weapon into the fray; and the better armored a soldier would be, the heavier the wares he must wield.

Following the trajectory of my thought into the added dimensions of body and spirit means additional challenges, over and above the growth in philosophy which must always continue. The open landscape in front of me at the wall’s zenith was crowded with people following all sorts of different trends; and each intersection represented a potential conflict, a place where I might be swept off course. And this new concentration in my vocation, a path set within my current journey, was evidently a threat to the adversaries of life. The world, the flesh, and the devil grew in their hostility as I grew in my resolve. Instantly atop the wall, I perceived that they wicked three were brewing in their putrid caldron a reek and tempest, to darken and dampen the course where I was headed. Very shortly into my new pursuit, the storm had gathered and was heading my way.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

“The culture of death.” This is the term which our beloved former Pope, John Paul II, used to describe that confluence of forces which stands between a man and his pursuit of abundant life. In recent years, the frenetic anxiety of our world has seen this culture encroach even nearer to the foundations of human dignity and life. State-funded abortion. Gay marriage. The world food crisis. Rampant ecological abuse and poor stewardship. War. Genocide. International campaigns of attrition. Governments bloating in scope and scale. The list goes on. The world seems to be headed to a point of reckoning. A hard rain is going to fall and who is ready to survive the deluge?

The complex schemes couching lies and sedition in secrecy will crumble. These systems which form our existence cannot maintain their present course. All around the academy, government, society at large, the home, and the individual, walls are closing in. Soon, they will crumble and implode. Crawling out from the rubble, we will be able to investigate the foundations of these once impressive structures: their underlying ideas. Our society, having so long neglected ideas and not used to dealing with them, must choose its course: we will either succumb to mental atrophy and, in our refusal to confront these ideas, fall into utter decay; or, leaders will rise up and forge a new path, choosing new ideas, and these may be good or bad. My current quest is to set out early along the best path I can find.

“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God...”

And so I arrived at that Sunday to which I referred at the outset. Only the day before, the liturgy struck me with these words: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.... But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”

One last push the next day was all I needed. “Shout from the rooftops.” But be not brash: sufficient for a day is it’s own evil; one step at a time, onward through the impending storm.

Nor should I be going alone. As a sheep to the slaughter, led pacifically into the valley of death, the Christian chooses his course, but always comforted by the Shepherd who keeps wolves at bay. With me, too, would be those whom I invite to join me as I seek to grow and learn...

So, thank you again for visiting my site. As I try to find my path, I hope you will join me in calculating the steps. Please, challenge my ideas. Unabashedly put forth your own. Help me to see the best way through the jumbled crowd under the darkening sky. The Church has a message for our society which strikes on all levels of life. A message about family life, social life, economic life, political life. But this message can be put many ways; the song has many tunes. I feel the burning desire of a troubadour to sing loudly the song in my heart as it cadences my own steps to destiny. But I need to learn better the tune, and that you can help me do. I want to know my song well before I start singing.


A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan (Copyright 1963)


  1. So glad you're back to blogging! Looking forward to learning from and exploring with you!!! Praying for you going forward, as always... :)

  2. I might not be able to place such ideas into words, but I do have a life with which to live the ideal. I look forward to bearing the Cross with you, to finding truly abundant life.

  3. Oh, 60s folk lyrics...
    Have you seen this silliness yet:
    I know it's not what this new blog is about, but I was morbidly amused and thought I'd pass it along.

  4. Yeah, I had seen that already, actually. Talk about sensationalism! I think my own Dylan allusion at least pertinent, but to quote a song about a racial murder... and the gist of the line quoted (in the lyrical context) is that the "law" is actually the opposite of what it purports to be (speaking here of a corrupt American legal system). I could probably spend a lot of words on this, but there's really very little reasoning with such people...

  5. Thanks for brining up the social and economic issues so very integral to LIVING the Catholic faith. Many American Catholics need to be reminded that these too are tenants of the faith and not optional beliefs, along with learning the same things about the prohibition on artificial contraception and the real presence in the eucharist. For those who are not finding what they seek within the Catholic Church, they should ask themselves whether they are LIVING THE FAITH, or merely practicing it. Those that merely practice the faith (or practice at it) will never find the lasting comfort and joy they seek because they never open themselves up fully to letting God work in all aspects of their lives.


Please contribute generously and charitably to the discussion!