Saturday, June 25, 2016

Fix your fixation

“Yes,” I said.  “He’s a real aficionado.”
“He’s not an aficionado like you are.”
Aficion means passion.  An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bull-fights.
That is from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which I am finally reading.   I didn’t intend to ignore Hemingway this long; it just happened.  Nobody made me read him in school.   Finally when I was casting about at a bookstore I stumbled onto this and decided it was time.
Hemingway’s passage about “aficionado” struck me.  I cannot grant him much authority on Spanish vocabulary, but I do recognize the point he makes about passion.  When he wrote the book in 1926, I am not sure how many people would have used the word “passion” in quite the way he does, in this case about bull-fighting.  Hemingway wouldn’t have needed to make the point so elaborately if he were writing for a modern audience. 
Now, everybody talks this way about passion.  Find your passion; Follow your passion; I’m just not passionate about that.  These are all statements uttered a thousand times a day at any given Starbucks, and usually taken in all seriousness.  Christians have always regarded the passions  not as imperatives, however –  quite the contrary.  From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1763 The term "passions" belongs to the Christian patrimony. Feelings or passions are emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil.
1767 In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary, "either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way." It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason.
1768 Strong feelings are not decisive for the morality or the holiness of persons; they are simply the inexhaustible reservoir of images and affections in which the moral life is expressed. Passions are morally good when they contribute to a good action, evil in the opposite case. The upright will orders the movements of the senses it appropriates to the good and to beatitude; an evil will succumbs to disordered passions and exacerbates them.  Emotions and feelings can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices.
If you study the word Hemingway starts with – aficion – you can discern a relationship to fixation, which reveals something the true nature of the phenomenon described.  Aficionado could be rendered one who is fixated.  This reveals the aspect of passion that is voluntary (1767, above).   Because of passions’ dependence on emotions and feelings, they can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices. (1768, above)   
Armed with this ancient and divinely assisted understanding, we should all be careful to evaluate our passions, cultivating the good ones and resisting the evil ones.  Who, after all, would stand before a graduating class and exhort the members to Follow your fixation!  Yet so it happens too often. 
I have not progressed far enough in the book to know whether Hemingway’s hero’s aficion, or passion, turns out to be for good or for evil.  That’s what makes the book interesting.  Analyzing and shaping our own passions, our own fixations, and ordering them toward what is good, resisting what is evil in them, is not only what makes our lives interesting: it is what makes us human.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, June 18, 2016

What is really underneath

It was still a familiar mom-saying when I was young, even though my mom never said it to me, and it was probably a little outdated even then: Make sure you’re wearing clean underwear, in case you are in an accident!  Perhaps nowadays that admonition when young people leave the house has been bumped down the list by, don’t text and drive!  I think that the focus has shifted from accident-preparedness to accident-avoidance.
I am not sure why there was such concern about underwear in an accident anyway; I think it had something to do with being presentable or respectable in the eyes of the eventual doctor, or paramedic.  But it did bring to mind a certain unpleasant reality many prefer to avoid:  that this outing may not end as expected, sashaying home safe and sound.
Every time we set out, we assume that our day could include some surprises, but its end will be the same: we will go to bed, then have tomorrow.  This assumption may be necessary for us to function, but it is also necessarily false.  We all know that one day will be our last.
Perhaps we assume the day will come to us as it recently did for Michael, a long-time parishioner.  Eighty-six years old, ten years widowed, and still in his own home, he fell and broke a hip, needed surgery, and was placed in Intensive Care to achieve sufficient function in his internal organs to withstand the surgery.  The organs continued to fail instead, and after more than a week to receive the sacraments and visit with his family, he died surrounded by love: a full life, followed by a peaceful and prepared-for death. 
But we know that is not the only option.  Heart attacks and strokes come to people who are “too young”; accidents happen even in the home; and lethal violence manifests in nature as well as human nature.  A bizarre bug bite or a tiny bit of food lodged in the throat can bring the same result as a raging tornado or runaway dump truck.  Systems fail; weather happens; people don’t pay attention; we get sick.  We know this, but assume it won’t happen to us.
Perhaps the concern for clean underwear for the undertaker is a relic of a time when people dressed out of concern for what other people might think.  Certainly, the concern for dressing well for Mass has yielded to an assertion that God does not care about one’s clothes, but rather what is inside.  And while I cannot endorse disregard for one’s church-going wardrobe, it is precisely what is inside that God cares about, and so should we.
The state of our souls at the moment of death has everlasting consequences.  Since we cannot predict the moment of our death, we must attend to the state of our souls.  We Catholics are blessed to have not only a clear identification of the sins that can harm us, but also the tools we need to reverse that harm by the medicinal application of sacramental mercy. 
Whether a terrorist shooter or a text-messaging driver, the menaces that lurk between us and our tomorrows can spoil all our plans, including those to go to confession “eventually”, or even to return to the life of the sacraments “soon”.  Some Day Soon will certainly come, but it may not find us here to greet it. 
The Boy Scouts know to Be Prepared, but Catholics realize that this includes being prepared for death.  I cannot exhort you emphatically enough to flee from the sin that kills and seek often the forgiveness that saves, though at the same time nobody I know would suggest you neglect your underwear.

Monsignor Smith

Monday, June 06, 2016

BTCA Redivivus

Birmingham, Alabama is a railroad town.  Not because it has railroads, as do many other cities; but rather it exists because of railroads.  After the Civil War, the area that would be Birmingham was mountains, forest, and streams.  But when two railroads were built that intersected in that spot, giving access to the one place on earth where all the ingredients for making steel (iron ore, coke, and limestone) occur together, a city erupted with unprecedented suddenness. 
The heyday of the railroads was past when I moved there as a boy.  The beautiful passenger station had been demolished, and the decline of industry was mirrored by the decline in freight rail.  But people remembered!   And there was a movement to keep steam engines rolling to remind a new generation of the marvel of machinery that amazed and enchanted previous generations.
Because Birmingham had one of the few locomotive works that could still service the beasts, many of the locomotives found their way there, and while in town, they pulled excursion trains.  So for about a dozen years coinciding perfectly with my age and interest, there was a series of opportunities to ride behind beautiful, powerful steam locomotives that had been removed from every other type of service.  
The 4501, a (freight) 2-8-2 Mikado that had been painted in Southern Railway livery to resemble a passenger locomotive; the 4449, a Pacific Daylight that in 1976 pulled the commemorative "Freedom Train" to Birmingham; the Royal Canadian Pacific that came south; and the elegant Norfolk and Western J-Class 611 were the highlights of that series.

A photo I took of the Royal Canadian Pacific pulling an excursion train
near Leeds, AL, in November 1981.
Increasing maintenance costs and resurgent traffic for freight on the dwindling rail network ended that era, and most of these glorious machines went into mothballs and museums.  But recently, the Virginia Transportation Museum and the Norfolk and Southern, a conglomerate of two great railways of the past, with the help of many an eager rail fan, refurbished and reactivated the 611.

A painting of the Norfolk & Western J-Class 611, rendered from one of the photographs I took in the early 1980's.  She is crossing a trestle just outside Chattanooga, TN.
Now, I had last seen this shining beauty in the early 1980's, by which time I had replaced riding the excursion trains with "chasing" them with my friends Mary, Allan, and Lisa.  We were all interested in photography at a time when that involved film and darkrooms with chemicals, and freshly equipped with drivers licenses and well as forbearing parents.  It was our ideal way of having fun together to pile into a car and tear across the Alabama countryside hoping to catch the Perfect Photo of a galloping steam locomotive.  The Birmingham Train Chasing Association was born!  We even printed up shirts.
So, when the restored N&W 611 was out on excursion in Northern Virginia recently, I finished the Masses here, braved weekend beltway traffic, and used modern GPS technology and a camera phone to set out into the countryside and chase me some train.
At the first remote crossing, I found a small, cordial group waiting with cameras and tripods, and I knew I was in the right place.  The pleasant conversation yielded to analysis as we first heard the distant steam whistle, then ceased altogether when one spotter announced "Headlight!"  Because the new video technology records sound, these thoughtful fellows didn't want to spoil anyone's recording.  Alternatively, we may have all just fallen speechless, as the passing beauty was a marvel to behold:

The surge of excitement and delight that followed as we all rushed back to our vehicles and set off in happy pursuit of the quarry brought me back to those days with Mary, Allan, and Lisa.  I missed having their help "spotting" -- though I often caught glimpses of the plumes of smoke and steam above the trees.  Once I was ahead of her again, my second site to wait by the tracks was mobbed with folks less serious -- and less considerate -- than my first fellows.

I was luckier on my third stop.  After a few failed attempts to find a photogenic and accessible setting, I stumbled into one where I was less then a hundred yards from a small group of rail fans, but when the train came through, there was nobody else in view.

Just like old times!  Satisfied, I headed back toward home and more mundane traffic frustrations.  I stopped at a roadside stand to pick up some rhubarb for a pie, refilled my tank, and tuned into the end of the (maddening) Nats game.  I had dinner at the home of some Virginia friends, and shared my pictures.  They nodded and smiled.  I discerned that it would be better to wait for some other time to tell them about the Birmingham Train Chasing Association.
Monsignor Smith

P. S.  Nowhere else but Crudup!

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Our standing

This week at daily Mass, we began to work through the Second Letter of Peter.  Monday’s reading began with the second verse, so I went looking and found the first: Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours in the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.
At first that took me aback: those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours.  Who is that?  Whose faith is of equal standing with that of Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ?  Peter’s faith is of the highest standing, suitable for an apostle, even the prince of the apostles.  I realized that he was talking to all of the believers who would receive his letter, including you and me.  What a shock to realize that Peter would consider my faith to be of equal standing to his! 
Peter’s faith, the development of which we have all witnessed, was all zeal and impetuosity, love and insight, until that time when it was overcome by fear: I tell you, I do not know the man!  When the cock crowed, his faith disintegrated.  So it seemed to him, and seems to us.
But the Peter who writes us this letter has his faith restored.  The risen Jesus appeared to him, and even made him breakfast.  This, surely, elevated Peter’s faith to a level strength and importance that surpasses anything I could achieve – doesn’t it? 
Well, expressed that way, yes, because Peter did not “achieve” faith, and neither will I.  But faith was given to Peter from the Father, and nourished and fortified in the experience of the risen Son.  So, even if the Father has given me faith, how can it be “of equal standing” with the faith of Peter, who saw and touched and talked to the risen Lord?
The answer lies in that conversation on the beach after a night’s fishing.  Jesus asked, Simon, do you love me?  three times, once for each denial; and admonished Peter to feed and tend his sheep, then assured him that his death would glorify the Lord.  So Peter’s experience of the resurrection was not characterized by the breakfast, but by the forgiveness Jesus gave him.  That is precisely the experience of the risen Jesus that is at the root of my faith, and yours.  Therefore, our faith has equal standing with his: it is from God, by his mercy, given to us who regret and turn away from our sins and receive forgiveness from the risen Jesus.
Peter values the faith of us who read his letter, and encourages us to treat it like the precious gift it is, caring for it:  For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.
So if a preacher happens to encourage you to strive for greater virtue, he is not demeaning your faith – far from it!  He is valuing your faith as highly as his own, and Saint Peter’s, by exhorting you to supplement it. 
Similarly, if a teacher suggests that you would benefit from studying the content of the Faith, exploring its teachings and meditating on its truths, then he, too, is indeed showing respect for the faith that abides in you, and calling you to do the same by increasing your knowledge.
When we are reminded of our responsibility to nurture, teach, and practice our faith, remember: what motivates that admonition is not an assumption that your faith or mine is second-rate.  No, your faith, and mine, is of equal standing with that of an Apostle!  But let that realization be the beginning of our work to keep it strong and make it stronger, just as this remarkable assurance form Peter is at the beginning of a most instructional letter.

Monsignor Smith