I’ve been stranded at the Baltimore-Washington airport for the last couple of days, due to this enormous winter blizzard. Flew out here Friday morning, and had meetings with clients all day and evening. I also took about 30-40 pounds of meat with me, as Christmas gifts for clients; it’s hard to describe how pleased folks were get a heritage turkey, or Icelandic lamb chops or leg roasts. Although we did sell meat to the public at one time, for now we’ve found that it makes more sense for us to give the meat away to friends, family, and clients as gifts; it’s something very special, very personal, and something that cannot be purchased in stores. We may eventually sell to the public again, but for now the “gift” approach seems best for us.
The plan was to fly home on Saturday morning, but 20 inches of snow begged to disagree. All three DC Metro airports were shut down pretty much all day, and I’d be surprised if more than a handful of planes got in or out of the region. There is a television monitor in the hotel lobby, showing flight arrival and departure information at BWI; every time I walked past it, every single flight was marked as “cancelled.”
I spent all of Saturday holed up in that hotel near the airport with hundreds of other stranded travelers, watching snow fall. And fall. And fall. Being the consummate introvert, I didn’t mind the opportunity to crawl into a “cave” with a detective novel and hibernate for a day. I wish I’d brought another change of clothes, and I wish I had my boots here with me, but I’m grateful that I reached my hotel late Friday night before the worst of the snow fell – and that I was able to extend my stay for an extra night. And while the food here is overpriced, and the restaurant is understaffed, everyone has remained cheerful. There seems to be a spirit of “we’re all in it together, and there’s nothing we can do to change things, so let’s make the best of this situation” with both the hotel guests and staff. For my part, I told the housekeeper that I didn’t need any service for my room (other than a few extra packets of coffee for my coffeemaker); I figured she had plenty to do already, given that much of the staff probably couldn’t have made it in to work.
The television had lots of footage of children playing joyfully in all this white stuff, and I’m sure the Yeoman Farm Children would’ve been doing the same if we lived here. They tell me we only got an inch or two back home, which is hardly enough to do anything with. I’m very grateful that Mrs Yeoman Farmer, and the YFCs, have been such good sports about my being stuck here; they’ve had to pick up the slack with caring for the animals, cooking, and mixing up formula for Yeoman Farm Baby. Southwest Airlines put me on a flight out of here this afternoon, and it’s showing “on time” status so far. Given that the sun is shining brightly, and the snow has completely stopped falling, I’m optimistic about getting home tonight.
The local TV station also had a continuous scroll of business and school closures. One thing that was interesting: the number of individual Protestant churches that were announcing the cancellation of all Sunday services. There were only a couple of individual Catholic churches that announced cancellations, and those seemed to be just for Saturday evening Masses, but the TV scroll did include an important general announcement: The Archdiocese is reminding Catholics that church law excuses them from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass if it’s unsafe to travel because of the weather.
Note, however, that most Masses in the area will not actually be cancelled. You can bet that attendance will be way down, but the priests will be there and will be offering the Holy Sacrifice. As I thought about it, I realized one obvious reason: most Catholic priests live on the same property where their church building is located. Most Protestant ministers do not. I still remember an amusing incident from the early 1990s, when a similar blizzard hit Michigan; I called a local Catholic church, which was staffed by a community of Franciscans, and an older friar answered the phone. I asked if they were still going to have Mass, and he gave a hearty laugh. Then, in a wonderful southern drawl he replied, “We sure are. You see, we’re all in here. The question is: can you get here?” I laughed with him, because the answer was such an obvious No.
But as I thought more about it, I realized that there was an even more important reason why Mass will still be offered in most places today: because, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how many people are in attendance. Yes, it is important for us to attend Mass when we are physically able, but it isn’t necessary to have a congregation present for the Mass to “do its thing.” In Protestant services, by contrast, the focus is largely on the congregation and the fellowship of the community; if only a couple members of your congregation will be able to come, it doesn’t make much sense to have a service. But the Catholic Mass is totally different: it is a true sacrifice, and as such provides countless graces for the whole church, completely separate from the merits of the celebrant or the size of the congregation. When we cannot be physically present at Mass, we can unite ourselves spiritually with it and join in those graces.
A chapter in St Josemaria Escriva’s book, Christ is Passing By, has an excellent discussion of the Eucharist, which develops these thoughts in more depth. This particular morning, when the twenty inches of snow outside meant there was no way I would be able to attend Mass myself, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about one particular paragraph from that homily of St Josemaria (in point 89, of the chapter linked to above):
Through the communion of the saints, all Christians receive grace from every Mass that is celebrated, regardless of whether there is an attendance of thousands of persons, or whether it is only a boy with his mind on other things who is there to serve. In either case, heaven and earth join with the angels of the Lord to sing: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus…
If you are among those who can’t physically attend Mass today, I hope these considerations from St Josemaria are as spiritually fruitful as they have been for me. As a nun from the parish I grew up in used to say, on days when she had to lead a communion service because there was no priest available to celebrate Mass, “put yourself on a patten,” spiritually uniting yourself to a Mass that is being celebrated right now, somewhere else in the world.
Various people threw out various guesses, ranging from “six” to “all ten.” The priest shook his head after each one, and we ran out of guesses. Then, with a wry smile, he gave us the answer: “Nine and a half.”
“Huh?” we collectively responded. “What’s the ‘half’?”
Still giving the wry smile, he explained, “We can know from natural reason that human beings need a day of rest, but we need God to reveal to us which one it should be.”
As I explained in one of this blog’s earliest posts, we’ve grown much more appreciative — and much more observant — of Sunday as a day of rest. We’re not Pharisaical about it, but we try to avoid doing any kind of hard labor or other work that isn’t strictly necessary. Livestock certainly need to be cared for on Sundays, but the garden certainly doesn’t need to be weeded and laundry almost never needs to be washed. We try to spend our time seeing and hanging out with extended family, taking bike rides with the kids, catching up on some reading, or having other families over for dinner. The idea is to avoid shopping for anything but emergency items, trying to clear backlogs of work, and other kinds of “running around”.
This weekend, an unfortunate necessity loomed over our Sunday: Haying. Thanks to a timely application of fertilizer last fall, we have a bumper crop of hay this spring. We hire a local farm family to cut it, flip it, rake it, and bale it; we assist with hauling it to the barn and stacking it. The farmer did the cutting late last week, and thanks to some hot weather it was nearly dry enough to bale yesterday afternoon.
Nearly dry enough, but not quite. The hay was so thick on the ground, it hadn’t all dried even after flipping and raking. But by his estimation, Monday might be too late; the hay could be so dry, much of it would crumble into dust and be lost.
We reluctantly decided that we’d better bale the hay on Sunday afternoon. In this case, as backbreaking and exhausting as the work is, it was necessary if we were to feed the livestock. We decided that this week, our “day of rest” would be Monday.
We decided. But, as it turns out, God had other plans. I awakened this morning, threw back the bedroom curtains, and observed a surprise: rain. Not a hard rain, but the ground was definitely wet. Going out to take care of chores, there was definitely a steady drizzle. Everything, including those five acres of neatly-raked and ready-to-bale hay, was wet. Not soaking wet. Not we’re-going-to-lose-it-to-rot wet. But definitely too wet to bale today.
Fortunately, the drizzle has already let up, and it’s supposed to be sunny and warm all afternoon and Monday. It’s not supposed to rain again until Tuesday. I suppose we’ll let the top of the hay dry today, flip it, allow the other side to dry Monday, and bale it Monday afternoon.
Regardless, it’s looking like Sunday will indeed be our day of rest this week. And thank God for that.
Ash Wednesday has rolled around again…and in the last few days I’ve actually found myself looking forward to it.
Last year, I posted a reflection about ashes — the everyday kind that we dig out of our fireplace. The ashes build up and build up, and slowly reduce the amount of space available for burning wood. It’s a gradual process, and we don’t think about it much…until there’s not much room for fire at all. Only when we clear all those ashes out can we begin again. Ash Wednesday is a wonderful opportunity to “clean out” the figurative ashes that have accumulated in our lives.
I thought about that this morning, as I was cleaning the ashes out of our wood burner. We got a new, high-efficiency unit this fall, and it’s a wonderful improvement over what we had last year. It produces so much heat, we’ve made it through this whole bitterly cold winter on just one tank of fuel oil in the furnace. Because the fire is going pretty much around the clock, we need to clean the ashes out every day or two. This morning, as I shoveled them, I couldn’t help thinking about the dead material and bad habits I’d be shoveling out of my life this Lent.
And I think that’s why I’ve been looking forward to Ash Wednesday this year. I have a couple of specific things that I enjoy that I’ll be giving up as a sacrifice. But I’m also making a couple of “positive” resolutions for ways to be more disciplined and focused in my prayer life. As I prepared for Lent, it occurred to me that there is a common factor or “problem” that unites both the things I need to give up and the things I need to be more disciplined about: In these specific areas of my life, I have ceded control over my appetites. And at the root of it, the discipline of Lent is in many ways about regaining that control. Because it’s really hard to make spiritual progress, or to become the kind of friend or family member God is calling us to be, if we don’t first have control over ourselves. And I’m looking forward to being back in control.
For those of us who remember the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, one of the most iconic images of that day was Secretary of State Alexander Haig, standing at the podium, and declaring: “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President and in close touch with him.” (An excellent description of the full context of the event, and what led up to Haig’ statement, can be found here.)
Lent is the time that each of us can declare, to our laziness or to our appetites, “I am in control here. I don’t need to indulge my body, and what it is demanding from me. I do not need to let my imagination run wild when I am supposed to be praying. I don’t need to watch that television program, no matter how interesting it looks. I will give my kids the full attention they deserve from me right now. I will read that book I’ve been putting off reading, and not give in to procrastination. I am in control.”
Go ahead and say it, using your best Alexander Haig voice.
I just got home from an Opus Dei evening of recollection at a church in Ann Arbor, led by a priest who drives up from South Bend. We have these recollections every couple of months, and they always draw several dozen men from around the area.
We begin with solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance on the altar, and then the priest leads us in a half-hour reflection. He is then available for 45 minutes or so for confessions, followed by a second reflection. Finally, we close with solemn benediction, and the Blessed Sacrament is returned to the tabernacle. All in all, these are wonderful events and bring considerable spiritual fruit to those who attend.
I am usually tapped to help serve the exposition and benediction (Homeschooled Farm Boy, who is an altar server at our parish, thinks it’s cool that Daddy is also an altar boy). Tonight, I managed the incense and another guy managed the humeral veil. But between the two of us, and the priest, everyone managed to forget to bring the book with the priest’s prayers. He did have a song sheet which included most of what he needed, so we were fine during exposition and the first part of benediction. But only as he knelt to recite the divine praises did we realize we were missing something very important. We all looked around, but the book was nowhere to be seen.
As I retreated to one of the pews, to look to see if the misalette had what we needed, the priest began digging in his pocket. And produced…a Palm Pilot! As he removed the stylus and began tapping through various screens, he muttered, “I know it’s in here.” Sure enough, about a minute later (it felt more like ten minutes, with the whole congregation looking on), he cleared his throat and began, “Blessed be God…”
And so we went all the way through the divine praises, finishing with “Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints.” The priest returned the PDA to his pocket, and we all began singing “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” as he reposed the Blessed Sacrament.
And as we processed off the altar, I couldn’t help smiling at the wonderful mix of “things old and new” I’d just observed: solemn exposition and benediction, with bells and incense and wonderful Latin hymns, led by a priest dressed in a cope and humeral veil — and packing a PDA with the divine praises as an emergency backup. You simply can’t not love that. He only could’ve topped it by connecting to the internet and downloading the prayers as he recited them.
Back in the sacristy, I commented that I’d never before seen a priest lead benediction with a PDA. He chuckled and replied, “And I’ve never done it before. I’m just glad I have so much stuff on there.”
I told him I agreed. And made a silent resolution to make sure I double-check that we have the Handbook of Prayers book at the altar next time.
One of the best things about being Catholic is that you’re not alone. Regardless of your personal family situation, you’re part of a much larger family. That’s really been brought home to me (in a manner of speaking) these last few days, when I’ve been in NYC on business. There is a Catholic church right around the corner from my hotel, and right on the way to where I’m working. It’s been easy to stop in for Mass, and it’s remarkable the diversity of people who are there: the business executives, the Fordham students, the young married couples with small children, the homeless man huddled in the back pew…all here. All part of this crazy family.
And the family isn’t just here in this particular church building, or the one we attend back in Michigan, or anywhere else. All of us are only one slice of the family; the saints who’ve gone before us, and are now in heaven, are the older brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles we’ve heard so much about and are looking forward to meeting again. And especially during this month, we’re praying for the souls in purgatory, that they can be speeded along their way to that family reunion as well.
I think it was James Joyce who said the best description of the Catholic church is “Here comes everybody.” And it’s hard to think of a pair of days that illustrate that better than November 3 and 4 do. Today is the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, one of the most prominent reformers at the Council of Trent. He grew up in the aristocracy, became a cardinal archbishop at the age of 22, and his uncle was a pope. He lived a life of outstanding holiness, and cleaned out many of the abuses in the 16th century church. And yesterday, November 3, we celebrated the feast of St. Martin de Porres — a contemporary of Charles Borromeo, but living in a social situation which couldn’t have been more different. He was the illegitimate mixed-race son of a Spanish nobleman and a young black freed slave in Lima, Peru. He grew up in abject poverty, and lived a life of austerity and menial labor (which he regarded as a tremendous blessing, because all work is a participation in God’s own creation).
November 3 and 4. Two men, alive at the same time, on different sides of the world, in entirely different circumstances…and yet both are my older brothers who I admire and who have a lot to teach me.
I posted the following video some time back, but it somehow seems especially appropriate to recommend it again today:
Today is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and sometimes called Our Lady of Victory. The feast was dedicated in memory of the tremendous victory that Christian forces won over the Turks of the Ottoman Empire on October 7, 1571. When Muslim forces were threatening to overrun the Mediterranean, and with it all of Western civilization, Christian Europe rallied and went out to meet the Ottoman Empire. Pope Pius V famously asked all those back home to pray the rosary on behalf of those in harm’s way; the result was a stunning victory which saved Christendom.
Michael Novak wrote an excellent piece on the subject two years ago, and is well worth another read. In part:
The two greatest naval forces ever assembled — 280 ships in the Turkish Armada, some 212 on the Christian side — came into each other’s sight on the brilliant morning of October 7. So confident was the Turkish admiral, Ali Pasha, that he sailed proudly at the center of his own Armada, bringing with him on vessels just to his rear his entire fortune, and even a part of his harem.
Historians tell us that all over Europe a pall fell. Few had hopes that the Christian fleet could avoid the doom that seemed to hang over Italy. The pope had urged all Christians to say the rosary daily on behalf of the brave crews on the Christian galleys. The rosary is a simple prayer that can be said in almost any setting, and had already achieved a certain popularity among humble folk. With each decade of the Hail Marys they had been taught to reflect upon a different event in the life of Jesus. The beads went through one’s fingers as regularly as the blood through one’s body, as regular as heartbeats and the breathing of the lungs.
To make a long story short, Don Juan aimed his own galley directly at the heart of the Turkish armada, directly at the clearly colored sails of the Ali Pasha’s galley, with its great green flag, inscribed 28,000 times with the name of Allah in gold. The Venetian vessels sailed furiously into the Turkish right wing, and with the help of the revolt of the galley slaves collapsed that wing. Six of the largest Christian vessels had been outfitted with a platform elevated above normal levels on which rows of devastating cannons were arrayed. Blasts from these new cannons were withering, and within minutes sank dozens of Turkish ships. The sea, witnesses said, was covered with flailing sailors, floating turbans, pieces of wood and sail.
The passion for defending their own civilization against ruthless invaders also strengthened the muscles of those engaged in the close, bloody, violent hand-fighting when one vessel came alongside another. But it was mainly the new firepower of the smaller Christian fleet that quickly sank galley after galley until, after not too many hours, the Turkish center also collapsed, as if cut through by a hot knife. The Admiral’s galley was captured, along with 240 more Turkish ships.
These are lessons well worth remembering, in the midst of the seeming-impossible trials that our country is now facing. Let’s all remember to pray for our country and her future every time we say the rosary, and to ask Our Lady of Victory to pray for us.