53 & Grateful

Given the length and complexity of my previous posts this week, which was necessitated by the subject, I am going to give myself and the readership a break and keep today’s post lighter.

Today is my 53rd birthday, more than halfway home, decidedly middle-aged, not a landmark birthday like 50 or 60, a just-getting-older birthday.  Normally, I would be in Puerto Rico this week but this year, my sister is bringing my dad to the island and I am taking him to Rome in the autumn. So, we can add cold, wet feet to the experience of this birth anniversary. Still, the overpowering emotion I feel this morning is gratitude.

I am grateful, first of all, for my faith and for the Church that brought me to the faith. If, in the night, I had through some unhappy occurrence, lost my faith, my life would be unrecognizable. The friendships I cherish are largely, though not exclusively, born of a common commitment to and interest in the Church. The books that mostly fill my library have some connection to the life of the Church. The thoughts that occupy my mind, these are mostly thoughts about our faith and what it means and what it demands and how it consoles and how it challenges.

I am grateful for my parents. I have always liked a line by e.e. cummings: “I am first the son of my parents, and whatever is happening to him.” My parents, who were instrumental in bringing the faith to me, also gave me a wonderful, nurturing, inquisitive home. My mother was a champion of personal and fiscal responsibility and, regrettably, in these regards I take after my dad. My father is a paragon of kindness and forgiveness in his personal relations and, regrettably, in this regard I take after my mom. My mom has gone to God, but I call my dad every night and we talk, this time of year mostly about UConn basketball (our men’s team is not having a good year but our women’s team is again dominant), and, at 87, he still relishes his independence and cherishes his grandchildren. He cuts articles out of the local Connecticut papers and sends them to me, which helps me stay informed about the town where I grew up. He is a holy man.

I am grateful for my friends. Here, I can scarcely count the blessings. So many wonderful, interesting, thoughtful people in my life. I am at that strange age when some long-time priest friends have become bishops and long-time bishop friends have become archbishops and cardinals. I like it when this happens - a lot. But, what I like even more is when you meet someone you have known of for some time, but never met, and you meet and almost immediately can finish each others’ sentences. That happened a couple of times this year. Or, when you have the chance to spend real time with an acquaintance who, at the end of that time, has become not just a friend, but a great friend. That happened this year too.   

I am grateful for my work, both here at NCR and at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies. Ten years ago, when I decided not to return to restaurant work and, instead, try and chart a course as a writer, I did not realize I was entering the publishing and news business at the worst possible time. Book advances were shrinking and are now nothing you can live on unless you are already famous. Newsrooms are down-sizing. But, NCR has become a natural fit for me I think. Not many journals are thrilled to have writers who challenge orthodoxies held by colleagues, but NCR celebrates that. At the Institute at Catholic University, I work on organizing conferences that are consequential. Last year, our conference “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism,” really touched a chord with many people – in the Church, in the academy, in labor – and we will be continuing that conversation this year. Next month, we are doing a conference on immigration, past and present, drawing lessons from the past and comparing ecclesial approaches then and now. It is fun to be a part of such events.

All of these things are sources of gratitude each and every day, and a birthday is about the passage of time. In a culture that celebrates youth, it is almost subversive to note the vast and varied ways that middle age is preferable. Youth can be an age of discovery – but so is middle age; I still encounter people and ideas and works of art that I did not know about previously. But, middle age also provides something youth cannot, the capacity for re-evaluation, and it does so in ways that are every bit as fun as discovery. A few weeks back, a friend objected to one of my blogs because I had written “auto-de-fe” and he asserted it should have been “auto-da-fe.” Turns out, that both are acceptable. But, in finding that out, I came across a video from the song of that name in Bernstein’s “Candide.” Here opened a trip down memory lane. I encountered this music in 1989 when Leonard Bernstein recorded it shortly before his death. The original play, in the 1950s, had bombed on Broadway. I knew the overture from All-State Band, but nothing else. The libretto was, of course, based on Voltaire’s tale of the same name – a tale that yielded the wonderful adjective “Panglossian” – and was written by Bernstein, Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman. What’s not to love? The humor is so sophisticated. The music glorious. The story, and the music, is a celebration of humanism, a decidedly secular humanism, and the final song “Make our garden grow” could be the anthem of secular humanism. In 1989, having left seminary, I was not allergic to the appeal of the secular.

Now, so many years later, I realize that Leibniz was not as ridiculous as Voltaire thought he was, Voltaire still relied heavily on the Christian faith for the categories in which he thought, even while he denounced the faith that had provided these. I realize that Bernstein really was a great composer and conductor, all emotion and power but great nonetheless. I realize, too, that the phrase “daily bread” in the lyrics demonstrates, as if it needed demonstrating, the inability of even the most hardened secularist to escape the West’s Christian cultural inheritance.  I realize, too, in ways I did not then, that the lines we draw, of necessity, between the religious and the secular, the modern and the ancient, the arts and the sciences, all these lines are crossed more easily than a youth thinks, that one can have feet in both camps, in all camps, with work but without compromise, though I suspect that it is actually easier to effect such lower-case catholic cultural sensibilities if your strongest foot is planted firmly in the upper-case Catholic camp. In middle age, you realize that re-discovery and first discovery are almost equally exciting but that the former is a richer, multi-layered experience, like the second sip of a rich, complex, earthy red wine.

Chesterton captured some of this sensibility, in Charles Dickens, the Last Great Man, where he wrote:

It is currently said that hope goes with youth, and lends to youth the wings of a butterfly; but I fancy that hope is the last gift given to man, and the only gift not given to youth. Youth is pre-eminently the period in which a man can be lyric, fanatical, poetic; but youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged: God has kept that good wine until now. It is from the backs of the elderly gentlemen that the wings of the butterfly should burst.

So, mindful of this “great inspiration,” filled with gratitude, I leave you this happy day with Lenny Bernstein, Jerry Hadley, June Anderson singing “Make our garden grow.”




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