I never get much time to write, much less blog, but I keep trying to write as it is indeed my first love. This week, I was invited by my friend and fellow editor Brett Colasacco of Sightings asked me to write a response to the canonization of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I focused on her experience of the dark night of the soul. You can read it here or click the image below.
Those who suffer from their own dark nights of the soul often feel as if they are doing something wrong—as if their faith were somehow weak because of these interior struggles. Mother Teresa, like her patrons St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, is an example to the countless souls who pursue a spiritual life of charity but are frustrated by feelings of doubt, loneliness, and depression. They now have a contemporary champion, someone who shows the way to a faithful selflessness, who could work for the good of others despite, or because of, her own struggles.
Nota bene: What I’m sharing with you is a short story that I wrote a while ago and it was published
by Gilbert, the magazine of the American Chesterton Society. It’s edited by my friend Sean P. Dailey, who is the most attractive editor in Catholic media (his official title) but was further edited by my dear friend, Emma Fox Wilson. It’s not my usual thing, but I love writing fiction and Sean was kind enough to let me share it. Please see the ACS website to see about subscribing.
The Ghost of the Ashes
It was the perfect, cloudless autumn night in rural Oregon, made more impressive by the orange and blue glow of the fire that consumed the Hamilton house. Had it not been a house fire, anyone would’ve appreciated the flickering shadows against the trees and the way the flames reflected in the neighboring creek.
In the months leading up to it, the Hamilton parents had a nasty divorce. Andy Hamilton, the eldest son, was living somewhere else while mother and father split. Mother had left a “dear John” letter for the drunkard father to find.
After the fire and all related investigations, Mom Hamilton was three states away and Andy remained at his new residence, not far from his family home. Aaron, the youngest son, was missing, as was his father. Nobody knew how the fire started. Rumors circulated, as they do in all rural counties, but nothing could be confirmed.
I tell you this as a background, a setting, if you will, for the real tale begins a short time after the mysterious fire. Still, there are more details to understand and, since you are not from the region, I ought to explain a bit more.
The rural landscape of Oregon is beautiful, so long as you merely visit and have the means to escape. For families such as the Hamiltons, it is hard to find beauty after a while. Andy would eventually go back to school, where his high school classmates made his life a living hell.
And of course there were ghosts. At first, the stories would be the kind that you’d tell at any November bonfire while sipping cheap beer, but the details of each story would get more elaborate with time. The remains of the Hamilton house became a spot where teens dared one another to see if they could contact the angry spirits of the fire. They’d invent games such as standing in the wreckage, chanting a calling, while listening for the noise of an avenging spirit.
However, we began to see something else emerge from the tales. At first, a neighbor would tell of seeing a lone boy with a black hoodie, standing by the blackened remains. The boy would appear often in daylight, but neighbors and witnesses claimed they could feel his presence even at night. Nobody saw his face. When we saw him, he seemed to be lonely and lost, but instantly disappeared when we tried to get a little closer.
Of course, anybody who dared to tell Andy Hamilton of these stories would be met with a blow across the face. If you even hinted that this might be the spirit of Aaron, who was still missing, there was a good chance that Andy would use the whole of his great stature to bring you to the ground and send you to the clinic.
Andy was the only teen who refused to show up to the old ruins. I assumed then that it was because of bad memories and a desire to let the past stay in the past, as most locals like to say. Every other teen, however, delighted in the thrill of visiting a local haunt and meeting other kids for beer and other vices.
As the ruins slowly turned to a more pleasant forest meadow, the stories would dry up, but people were still drawn by the hooded figure. Legend had it that he only showed up on clear days, while hikers reported hearing someone laughing and playing in the distance only to find nobody around. Neighbors built larger fences and kept their dogs indoors. The braver kids would, on a dare, go there with cameras and recording equipment, and a few of them claimed to have captured the hooded, faceless ghost. Each image was blurry and a few were clearly a normal teen in a hooded sweatshirt, with not a hint of the ethereal about him.
It was perhaps three years after high school that Andy asked me to join him to visit the old remains of his home. I was one of the few who had never talked to him about it and perhaps that’s why he wanted me along. On our initial trip, I was unsure what he was looking for. It was perhaps just to see the place to see if he could recall it, but I remained uncertain.
Regardless, as we spent some time wandering around silently picking out what we could from the ground, I asked that we could leave as night was about to fall. I pulled the car out of the drive way when, without warning, Andy opened his door and flew from the car, running down the driveway. I looked in the rearview mirror to see a hooded figure. Or, maybe it was the Hooded Figure.
As is often the case, there was so much about the figure that was unremarkable. It could just as easily been a scarf caught in the wind with just the right light or it may have been just another curious wanderer looking at the ruins of a house fire in the dense forest.
I stopped the car and backed in to find Andy was at the spot where I saw the Hooded One. He was yelling and cursing in a tone that betrayed anger. While I tried to calm him down, there was nothing I could do to bring him any sense of peace. The anger eventually wore him out and then there was silence with only the murmuring, splashing water of the creek. Andy kept that silence for the whole ride back.
Three times we journeyed back to the house, not seeing the figure again until our very last visit. However, there was always a feeling of being watched. Perhaps something still lurked behind one of the great firs that dotted the landscape, but I never saw any evidence of more than a party the previous night.
It was the last night of Andy’s return that we drove up and this time we took enough provisions to stay for hours. By now, Andy was obsessed. This hooded kid had pissed him off a great deal and I could tell that he would not be satisfied until he confronted the figure.
After several hours, six beers, and a few packs of cigarettes, Andy and I were ready to go. I excused myself to answer nature’s call while he smoked his last cigarette.
As I wandered back, my heart quickened at the sight of the hooded figure. Only this time, its back was to me while Andy was in front of it, studying what he was seeing with a look that conveyed horror mixed with a strange alleviation. Whatever it was, his anger was no longer present at its sight.
“How long have you been hanging around here?” Andy asked the figure.
“I’ve lost track of time, to be honest,” the figure responded.
“Well, do you want to come with us? I know folks would love to see you.”
“I don’t know,” the figure began. His voice was young, child-like, but was flat and emotionless. Having never met Aaron, I couldn’t tell you if it was familiar. “I want to show you something, but only you,” the figure continued.
“You’ll see, I can’t describe it. It’s just across the creek and won’t take but a minute.”
“Okay, well, why don’t we bring my buddy, he should be back soon.”
“No! I can only show you. I’ve been wanting to show you it since…since…oh, come on.”
The two walked away together and I remained frozen in my cowardice. Had I not just relieved myself, I am positive that I would have done so then. I wanted to call out to them and make the Hooded Figure turn around, but I couldn’t find the words. More than anything I wished I could have run to the car and gotten the hell out of there.
I watched them move out of sight just beyond the Hill but I could hear them conversing. Between the pleasantries I heard their last exchange. I have forgotten many things since then, but I will always remember this.
After some steps, they stopped and Andy asked, “You’re not actually my brother, are you?”
A moment’s pause and that childish, flat voice responded, “No, not anymore. But does it really matter?”
With a sound that could be wind as much as a sigh, Andy answered his interlocutor, “No, I guess not.”
I never heard from Andy and have been too timid to tell anyone of this. The county went about its business and the ruins were eventually reclaimed by the forest. Noises and figures are still encountered and stories are still told.
image: Afternoon fog and the trees of the Pacific Northwest – Ecola State Park, Oregon by Justin Kern via Flickr. Justin is a brilliant photographer, please checkout his website and facebook page for more amazing shots.
…on his show discussing mental health, showing charity, and the strange effects of altitude sickness. While my connection kept getting lost, I really enjoyed this conversation and hope that it helps some folks.
You can give ‘er a listen at this link.
And if you’re not tired of my voice, yet, I have a new season of the Catholic Exchange Podcast coming up and you can listen to my latest interview with Dr. Kevin Vost over CE, or on iTunes, Sticher, and Google Play.
So, it’s a dirty secret of mine that I’m what some call a “radical Catholic,” by which those bloggers mean that I think a lot about economics, family, society, and the general human condition. I don’t write about all aspects because, well, I’m not an economist or a sociologist and I respect the great deal of time that goes into those disciplines before you can something that isn’t patently stupid.
Anyway, part of that interest is examining what it would be like for us to start making a local economy and growing food. I explore that in the latest podcast, that is with Ken and Cari Donaldson of Ghost Fawn Homestead.
I’ve been to the homestead a few times and Clan Donaldson has been the most of Christian hosts. And, yes, their six kids are very entertaining and love having strangers around. As a single guy, I love this touch of home. In many ways, I’ve come to call it my home in Connecticut’s quiet corner. There are animals, fields of barley, and six kids eager to show everything. I’m not sure that this situation is the ideal economic model, but for the family it seems perfect.
“Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man…You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time…Let us rejoice in this grace…For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us to make his only Son become the Son of Man, so that a son of man might in his turn becom God? As if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.”
Advent is rough. It is taking place when the nights are getting longer, when the weather gets awful, and when New England enters its most awful phase in terms of weather. Yet, it’s my favorite time of the year, speaking liturgically. I never thought much of Christmas growing up, in fact I hated it for a time. Now, it is a time that I look forward to, and that is no small part due to the symbolism of Advent and my growing reliance on the Doctrine of the Incarnation.
From Shadow to Light
It makes sense to have a period in the winter where we think about our coming from darkness into light. As I mentioned, these long nights can really get to a man. How great it is, during the darkest time of the year, that we have a celebration that celebrates with merriment and a light that shineth in darkness.
For a good overview, Dom Prosper Guéranger has a pretty good overview on the history of Advent in the Roman Rite. In The Liturgical Year, Dom Prosper notes that Advent as a time for preparation can be found going back early in the Church and was often treated as a “little Lent.” Fourth Century France had already established a time of fasting and almsgiving, all to prepare our hearts to receive Christ as a child at Christmas. The West has relaxed many of its customs since at least the fourteenth century, but we still use this time as period of penance and also to recall the world before the Incarnation. Dom Prosper notes:
“The holy Church, therefore during Advent, awaits in tears and with ardour the arrival of her Jesus in His first coming…These longings for the Messias expressed by the Church are not a mere commemoration of the desires of the ancient Jewish people…From all eternity, the prayers of the ancient Jewish people and the prayers of the Christian Church ascend together to the prescient hearing of God; and it was after receving and granting them, that He sent, in the appointed time, that blessed Dew upon the earth, which made it bud forth the Saviour.”
(The Liturgical Year: Advent, p. 29)
So, yes, Advent is a period of awaiting, and we wait like those before Christ were waiting and it’s also symbolic of or waiting for the return of Christ in Glory. Or, as Fr. Nnamdi Moneme, OMV put it in his first Sermon of Advent:
The waiting of Advent is more than just waiting for Christ’s return in glory. We wait for Christ’s glorious return by making use of the graces of the redemption, graces that He gained for us in His first coming in flesh to this world, to renew and to fulfill the promises that we made to Him on the day of our Baptism. Advent is a time of thinking and reflection on how faithful God has been to us, faithfully renewing and fulfilling His promises to us in good or in bad times
So, in this time when the nights get overly long and lead me to some strange contemplation, I found that it’s a good time to consider all of life and what it means.
The Incarnation Gives Us Meaning
This all is hard for me to put into words. I’m not saying that the Incarnation is the perfect meditation to ward off all dark thoughts. I can’t make that claim. But, with my own mind, which is often shouting with the dark thoughts, the Incarnation is that point of belief in me that has kept me going.
I mentioned in a previous post that I once had one of my most intense let’s not talks on Christmas Eve. Those talks will be familiar to many of you who have had to deal with mental anguish as they are those moments when you can only say, “Let’s not end my life today, even though living is painful.” That night is a painful one to recall, as you can imagine. What kept me going? Well, for whatever weird reason, it’s been the idea that God became man so, as Augustine and Athanasius said, so that we might become God—that is, that we share in an eternal unity with God that is accomplished by this even we call the Incarnation.
I posted that quotation from Augustine at the beginning because it illustrates a point that has saved my life: there is no bloody reason for why God would create us, come down to us, and for Him to take on our flesh. Or, as Terry Eagleton summed it up, God did this for “the hell of it.” If we ask what merited this great gift, if we ask what we did to merit it, we’d find no answer except for grace.
The Incarnation is weird, scandalous even. We say that God did not come to appear as a ruler; He did not come into the body of an Adonis and fight a great war. God came down as an infant and was birthed in a cave by a Virgin with a fugitive carpenter for a foster father. How often do we look at a Nativity Set this time of year and reflect on just how strange it is.
My dear reader, I don’t expect much of this to make sense. I’ve studied it for years, and it still strikes me dumb. However, this central even is the great joy of Christianity. Jesus took on our nature in order to redeem it and I know of no greater thought that has given me comfort these last eleven years, even as my depression would abandon all other hope. I still take my medication and see a counselor, but when I say that the love of Christ has saved my life, that is not a mere hyperbole. When I had those let’s not talks, it was knowing that Christ took on our nature and our pains, and that it was for no other reason than for love, that kept me alive that night and the following morning.
Again, I know this is not a universal comfort. I would never say to an atheist that this is the reason to convert, but I would gladly say that it’s why I remain a son of the Church. As we continue in this season of Advent, I pray you all will take the time to reflect on the weirdness of the Incarnation. Let it scandalize you, even. But, please, whatever you do, do not treat it as just another doctrine you memorized or just another belief. This is the time to come out of our darkness and that may mean even the darkness of our own minds, as it is often for me. However, at the end of all dark paths is this promise of Christ. He is among us, He has been born, and He shall never depart.
I now leave you with my favorite reading for Christmas, from G.K Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:
A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded…
There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end. All this popular and fraternal element in the story has been rightly attached by tradition to the episode of the Shepherds; the hinds who found themselves talking face to face with the princes of heaven. But there is another aspect of the popular element as represented by the shepherds which has not perhaps been so fully developed; and which is more directly relevant here.
Men of the people, like the shepherds, men of the popular tradition, had everywhere been the makers of the mythologies. It was they who had felt most directly, with least check or chill from philosophy or the corrupt cults of civilization, the need we have already considered; the images that were adventures of the imagination; the mythology that was a sort of search the tempting and tantalizing hints of something half human in nature; the dumb significance of seasons and special places. They had best understood that the soul of a landscape is a story and the soul of a story is a personality. But rationalism had already begun to rot away these really irrational though imaginative treasures of the peasant; even as systematic slavery had eaten the peasant out of house and home. Upon all such peasantries everywhere there was descending a dusk and twilight of disappointment, in the hour when these few men discovered what they sought. Everywhere else Arcadia was fading from the forest. Pan was dead and the shepherds were scattered like sheep. And though no man knew it, the hour was near which was to end and to fulfill all things; and though no man heard it, there was one far-off cry in an unknown tongue upon the heaving wilderness of the mountains. The shepherds had found their Shepherd.
image: Sarowen via Flickr
My latest podcast is with Mrs. Nancy C. Brown discussing her book The Woman Who Was Chesterton. I really enjoyed this conversation, and you can hear the excitement in my voice. As you can probably gather, I love GK Chesterton and know quite a bit about him, but I knew next to nothing about his amazing wife. Really, she’s in a class by herself and should have societies and journals dedicated to her. In this podcast you’ll learn about this wonderful lady and all the things Nancy had to do to really give us such a fantastic biography. Listen and enjoy!
The Woman Who Was Chesterton, Nancy C. Brown’s new and definitive biography about the great woman behind GK Chesterton is coming out this month. Yet, she gave a fine preview of Frances Blogg Chesterton at Catholic Exchange today.
This might be one of the better love stories I’ve ever encountered. It’s simple and profound, and I especially like this line of GK Chesterton about his future wife:
“She is good, she is nice, she is polite, she is intelligent. She is sane. These things are scarcely novel, they are among the common objects of a morning walk. If you care to know ordinary conversation, we talked about laughter, and I said how sacred it was, and she said her monosyllable. By the way, not that it matters much, and although she does say “Yes,” she is really an acute, if not clever girl, I find. I really didn’t know it until I began to throw out a few Christian reflections. She hasn’t been broadened enough by reading, but when it comes to interior meanings, she’s all there.”
Today’s podcast is mostly me sitting back and letting a theologian do all the talking, which was good as I don’t think I could have added as much. Thomas J. Nash is a theologian with EWTN and a fantastic author. His latest book, The Biblical Roots of the Mass, is a good book that gets beyond the apologetics squabbles and offers a fine introduction for where we Catholics get our ideas about the Mass, the Liturgy, and the Eucharist. I mean it when I say that he pretty much covers Biblical typology in 20 minutes. Listen, share, and enjoy!
Click the big ol’ image to your right or click this shiny link here to listen.
My latest podcast features Michele Chronister of My Domestic Monastery and we talk about a lot of fun things in this one. Namely, her work with disabled adults and what powerful lessons she learned about life, sanctity, and joy from that challenging and rewarding vocation. We also talk about the monastic rhythms of domestic life and the things she’s gleaned from the Liturgy of the Hours.
Take a listen by clicking here or on that image you see below. Then be a doll and give us a share and a subscription.
I’m finally back in the podcast saddle talking with Dr. Mark Giszczak, a writer and professor. I had to take a break while I tried to get a handle on my new job, which is now editing books for Sophia Institute Press. I’m very excited but it’s also a lot to do. Click this link or the photo to give a listen, and then give a like or a share, if you’d be so kind.