In the fall of 2003, Sebastian Smee, the art critic of the Daily Telegraph in London, described a mid-19th century painting by British artist J. M. W. Turner as “an almost unbelievable vision of swirling blue, orange and white light thrusting through fog.” His colleague, Rachel Campbell-Johnston of The Times of London, wrote that the…
Life is lonely. We’re born alone. We die alone. No matter how much we’re surrounded by people, even people who love us, we experience life in a way that can only partially be shared. You hear a song that makes your heart soar. But it does nothing for the person standing next to you. You read a book that touches you deeply. But you can’t find the words to make someone else — even a good friend, even a spouse — understand all the many ways it speaks to you. In a deep insight into human nature, the Catholic Church recognizes this reality. Its seven sacraments are outward signs of God’s workings in the world, and six of them are given to individuals. Water was poured on your head at Baptism. The cross was marked in holy oil upon your forehead at Confirmation. When you are gravely ill or near death, it will be your body that is anointed. Marriage Only Marriage is a sacrament that is given to two people at the same moment, “that they might no longer be two, but one flesh.” Marriage is the epitome of all the relationships that people have in life. In any relationship — such as parent-to-child or friend-to-friend or spouse-to-spouse — two people share their lives. They commit to each other. Nowhere is that commitment as deep as in marriage. Spouses are more open with each other than with anyone else. They reveal more about their inner depths. They trust, and they gain support and encouragement from, each other. Yet, that sharing can only go so far.
Norman Mailer called writing “the spooky art.” And anyone who’s been a writer, amateur or professional, knows what Mailer means. There’s a mysterious alchemy that takes place when the writer begins putting words together into sentences. There was nothing; now, there is something. The chaos of existence — that swirling, kaleidoscopic, overwhelming, storm of stimuli — is funneled down to the narrowest of straight lines. Tiny symbols, as regular in size as bricks or building stones but ever so small, are mortared across the page or screen or paper. Sculpture mimics the body. Painting plays the same tricks on the eyes that the physical world does. Music tickles the mathematics of our ears. Writing, though, speaks directly to the brain. The writing goes from one mind to another, from the writer to the reader. It doesn’t exist without a writer and a reader. It is a kind of a prayer, an effort to find and transmit truth, to reach across the chasm that separates people and enable them to see, hear and experience each other. It is God’s work. Something new I am always the first reader of what I write. And I’m always surprised in some way at how the words have fit together. Even if I’m working from a detailed outline, something I rarely do, there are twists in the argument or account that I didn’t anticipate, unexpected phrases and descriptions that, seeming to come out of nowhere, have the tang of aptness to them. I think, at the beginning of a paragraph, that I will say one thing, but, by the end, I’ve written something a bit different. Or quite different. The thing written is something new. It’s been created. This essay is coming into being as I write it. As I put them down, the words — my words — lead me in this or that direction. I’m interested in how the words are combining and, even more, in the ideas those words are communicating. I’m curious to find out what happens next. I have, to a greater or lesser extent, some general idea of what I want to write whenever I begin writing. But the images and thoughts I expect to address are floating fairly free-form in my brain. In snatching them out of that ether and giving them substance in grammatically correct sentences that relate to one another with a logic and move with rhythm and pace, I’m transforming them, just as a seamstress takes various segments of fabric and fashions a dress.
If you're one of the millions of young people who are graduating from high school or college this season, I have one word of advice for you: Believe. Believe in God. Believe in other people. Believe in yourself. I'm not sure how much your education and upbringing has prepared you for the question of faith. By its nature, faith is a squirrelly sort of concept. It doesn't lend itself to test scores. A fact doesn't require belief. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States -- that's a fact. Anything that can be proved doesn't require belief. If you put a cup of water in the freezer and wait a couple hours, you'll find the cup is full of ice. You can see it with your own eyes. By contrast, faith isn't something that's forced on you by the facts. You have a choice. You can choose to believe or not to believe. You can make the leap of faith. Or stay put with your feet firmly planted in the rational world. Here's my advice: Jump!
This essay original appeared in the Chicago Tribune on August 25, 2013 Edward Paul Brennan was one of us. A nobody. Born in 1866, he made deliveries for his father’s grocery store, then worked downtown at the Lyon & Healy Co. music store as a bill collector and later as building superintendent. Yet, few individuals in Chicago’s history have had as much impact — for the good — on the daily lives of Chicagoans, suburbanites and visitors to the city. That’s why, on Friday (8/30), a little before noon, a small ceremony will be held to officially unveil the honorary street designation of the corner of State and Madison as Edward Brennan Way. On hand will be Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who sponsored the designation ordinance, and Brennan’s daughter, Adelaide, who will turn 99 that day. No intersection is more central to the identity of Chicago as State and Madison, and it’s an apt location to honor Brennan since he’s the one who gave the corner its prominence. In the summer of 1901 when he turned 35, Brennan took an armload of maps with him on vacation to Paw Paw, Mich., and came back, like a prophet from the desert, with a detailed plan for helping people find their way in what was then a very chaotic Chicago. How chaotic?
As a parallel to the story I wrote for National Catholic Reporter in July about St. Gertrude Church and the death of our longtime religious education director, I did a similar piece that was published this month in Reality, a Catholic magazine in Ireland. Here it is: Patrick T. Reardon 9.18.13 If the above copies of the magazine pages are too tough to read, here's the story in a more readable format:
It was a moment of high drama. And Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to find his rhythm. He stood before the Lincoln Memorial to address some quarter of a million black and white participants in the March on Washington as well as untold millions of television viewers watching a live broadcast. He was giving the speech he’d written for this auspicious day, August, 28, 1963. It was formal, sober, high-minded — and more than a bit clunky. One early line was: “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.” As King came to his line, he seemed to recognize the awkwardness of such polysyllabic phrasing, historian Taylor Branch writes, and decided to speak instead from the heart. Looking up from his text, he told his listeners: Go back to Mississippi; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. Those on the platform with him knew he had moved off his prepared remarks, and Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, shouted to him: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” No one knows if King heard her, but he abandoned his text and decided to talk about his dream. And thus was born one of the greatest speeches in world history.
On August 28, 1963, a solemn, deliberate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his address at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial — the climax of the March on Washington — with the words: I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. It was the start of what has become known as King’s “I have a dream” speech, one of the most revered and most influential orations in history, a stirring improvised poem of human hope and possibility. At the time, many Americans thought that King was simply speaking about freedom for blacks, freedom from discriminatory laws and discriminatory attitudes and a discriminatory culture. Yet, half a century later, it’s clear that, when King said, “I have a dream today,” his vision was much greater. His dream was twofold. He sought freedom for all people everywhere — each man, woman and child — from the chains of repression. He dreamt that all people everywhere would someday stand on equal footing, without limitations imposed because of race, ethnicity or some other accident of fate. And, over the past fifty years, his words have been an inspiration to anyone across the globe seeking to get out from under the boot of an oppressor. And they’ve been a beacon of promise for those who, like King’s fellow blacks, have been seeking equality under the law and in the eyes of society — women, the disabled, lesbians, gay men, the poor, anyone living on the margins. Yet, King’s dream was even broader than that. "Free at last!" He had the deep religious and human insight that the victims of discrimination aren’t just those who are the targets of prejudice. But also those who do the discriminating.
Jesus was a carpenter, and the people in Nazareth knew him as one of the village’s young men. Then he heard the “still, small voice” of his Father and began his ministry. Katey Feit grew up in my parish, St. Gertrude, on the Far North Side of Chicago. She was the product of a middle-class family, the third child of six, the second girl. She went to grade school at St. Gertrude and later trained to be a pediatric nurse. Then, she followed the stirrings of her conscience and went to prison. In their quiet way Today, when there is much about the Catholic church that is disturbing — the pedophile scandal, the way the Vatican is bullying nuns — I take heart from people like Katey who, in their quiet way, provide an example of living a good life.