Happy Monday! Since yesterday's gospel was the raising of Lazarus, I'll start the week by sharing one of my favorite old-timey Catholic prayers (the kind your kids won't learn in CCD or hear on a New Age-y nun-led retreat). This one, incredibly, has helped me cope with Existential Dread.
You as in, you. Die, as in, gone, as bafflingly and totally gone as that husk-like guy in pancake makeup, lying in a glossy box surrounded by floral arrangements, at the last wake you went to. Because the husk was there, but the guy wasn't. Existential dread! Not the terror of getting there, in the ER or the doomed plane, no, the terror of not being anymore.
I deal with this terror by eating in the middle of the night. The mighty modernists dealt with it on nearly-bare stages where men grapple with ultimate meaninglessness. Jesus deals with it by telling us to hold on until He gets there, and He will call us out and set us free.
Surrendering to that faith must be about the hardest thing there is. (Where did the husk-guy go? Where is he now? Why did someone put a DVD of his favorite movie in the box with him?)
For some reason, this prayer from my dad's old Missal has helped me connect to my Lazarus faith. There are various prayers like this, often called "Prayers for a Happy Death." (Happy!) This one is called "an act of resignation," and it is an act: outrageous, simple and radical. It's like falling off a cliff and trusting someone invisible will be there to catch you. It is practice, and I try to practice every day...or at least in the middle of the night.
An Act of Resignation
My Lord God, even now I accept at Thy hands, cheerfully and willingly, with all its anxieties, pains and sufferings, whatever kind of death it shall please thee to be mine.
James R. C. Martin is a painter in Ivybridge, Devon, England. Not all his paintings are religious in theme, but the faith-based ones are unsentimental, evocative, and lovely.
The depiction of St. Michael the Archangel conquering Satan used to strike me as one of those wacky medieval bits of Catholic iconography. That was before I had a child.
Now I relish the idea of a mighty champion kicking demonic butt, because my kid is going out into that world, and sometimes it seems to resemble this terrifying dreamscape by Raphael. On this Saturday night, when the perils that may await our children are much in the news, this prayer goes out to all who face mortal dangers, whether spiritual or physical.
Prayer To St. Michael The Archangel
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle.
Be our safeguard and protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; may God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
No, not Tony Stark. Meet a real Iron Man: Walter Ciszek, SJ (1904-1984), whose canonization process has just been greenlighted by the Vatican, according to fellow Jesuit Fr. James Martin (who ought to know, being the author of a book about saints).
Yes, that is a mug shot. A reformed Polish-American punk from Shenandoah, Penna., the young priest went to Europe on the eve of WWII, hoping to sneak into Russia as a missionary. He got more than he could ever have imagined: Accused as a spy, he survived years of solitary confinement and torture in a Moscow prison and was then swept into the fathomless Gulag system, where he toiled for decades in Siberian coal mines and logging camps. After his release, he was shuttled around the USSR for yet more years, finally being traded back home to the US in a Kennedy-era spy exchange.
This would be a ripping enough yarn, but all this time, Ciszek contrived to minister to those around him, even celebrating Mass secretly at great risk. In all the godforsaken places of exile, he left converts in his wake. And upon his return, he took up priestly life at Fordham and elsewhere, writing, counseling, and leading retreats.
More miraculous to me than his raw survival--against the elements, against brutality, starvation, and slave labor--is Fr. Ciszek's seemingly endless power of forgiveness and acceptance. "Let God rule; be affected by Him," he advised. I cannot manage this behind someone with 11 items in the 10-item supermarket lane, much less a prison camp. "The grace of surrender has to take effect like medicine," he also wrote. "You'll know it has when you're not thinking about it."
I hate surrendering anything, to anyone. Trivial slights reduce me to a raging toddler or, at my best, a sulking teenager. Just having read the bare bones of Fr. Ciszek's story has been awe-inspiring. Here's to the cause of Saint Iron Man, and here is a prayer based on his teachings.
Prayer Of Surrender
Lord, Jesus Christ, I ask the grace to accept the sadness in my heart, as your will for me, in this moment. I offer it up, in union with your sufferings, for those who are in deepest need of your redeeming grace. I surrender myself to your Father's will and I ask you to help me to move on to the next task that you have set for me.
Spirit of Christ, help me to enter into a deeper union with you. Lead me away from dwelling on the hurt I feel:
to thoughts of charity for those who need my love,
to thoughts of compassion for those who need my care, and
to thoughts of giving to those who need my help.
As I give myself to you, help me to provide for the salvation of those who come to me in need.
May I find my healing in this giving.
May I always accept God's will.
May I find my true self by living for others in a spirit of sacrifice and suffering.
May I die more fully to myself, and live more fully in you.
As I seek to surrender to the Father's will, may I come to trust that he will do everything for me.
I've always had a streak of "blue domer" running through my orthodoxy, and today, a wild summery vernal equinox, is the day to unleash it. Here's an offering for the first day of Spring.
A Prayer in Spring
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.
And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil. —Robert Frost
Happy St. Joseph's Day! Here is a beautiful litany to St. Joseph, "foster father" of Jesus and earthly husband of Mary. "Litany" is used to denote any lengthy recitation, but its call-and-response as spoken prayer, especially in a group, can be powerful.
St. Joseph…pray for us.
Renowned offspring of David... pray for us (etc.)
Light of Patriarchs...
Spouse of the Mother of God...
Chaste guardian of the Virgin..
Foster father of the Son of God...
Diligent protector of Christ...
Head of the Holy Family...
Joseph most just...
Joseph most chaste...
Joseph most prudent...
Joseph most strong...
Joseph most obedient...
Joseph most faithful...
Mirror of patience...
Lover of poverty...
Model of artisans...
Glory of home life...
Guardian of virgins...
Pillar of families...
Solace of the wretched...
Hope of the sick...
Patron of the dying...
Terror of demons...
Protector of Holy Church...
I love this tender scene of the death of Joseph, from a window in the Oratory Church of St. Boniface in downtown Brooklyn; it speaks to all of us who have nursed and lost an aging parent. Joseph is a mysterious and fascinating figure, upon whom Christians have projected all sorts of needs and desires. Scripture tells us little about the upright carpenter from Nazareth, who refused to expose Mary to shame when she was found to be pregnant before their marriage. By tradition, he is depicted as older, perhaps because there is no mention of him later in Christ's story, or to make it more credible that he remained Mary's "most chaste spouse" and she a perpetual virgin. (The lily that often accompanies his T-square is a sign of purity.)
Fulton J. Sheen took issue with the depiction, arguing that Joseph was probably young and virile, "not in the evening of life, but in its morning, bubbling over with energy, strength, and controlled passion." Heck, yeah! (Catholic artist Jason Jenicke, whose work is at right, apparently agrees.) Personally, I've always wondered why Joseph and Mary had to be locked into perpetual chastity once their Redeemer Son was born; the dogma seems to spring more from the preoccupations of theologians than from Scripture or the human heart. Why couldn't they form a perfect model for human marriage in all its dimensions? (Since the Catholic blogosphere is probably divided into Those Who Couldn't Care Less and Those Who Would Be Outraged, I will pursue this speculation no further.)
Beyond his role as dad, Joseph is patron of a wild array of things, including (in addition to, of course, carpenters and fathers): confectioners, Canada, China, the dying, workers, and the Universal Church. Oh, and house-hunters. You can even buy this rubbish "kit" on the Internet and ask him to help you sell your house. (Given the Holy Family's travails on the first Christmas, I've always wondered why Joseph wasn't also the patron saint of hotel reservations.) He also gets another feast day: St. Joseph the Worker, pegged conveniently onto May Day in 1955 (take that, Commies!) Here's a bonus to tuck away for May Day; it's a bracing antidote for the Age of Dilbert.
Prayer to St. Joseph, Patron of Workers
Glorious Saint Joseph, you are the pattern of all who work. Obtain for me, please, the grace to work conscientiously and to put devotion to duty before my selfish inclinations.
Help me to labor in thankfulness and joy, for it is an honor to employ and to develop by my labor the gifts I have received from almighty God.
Grant that I may work in orderliness, peace, moderation and patience without shrinking from weariness and difficulties. I offer my fatigue and perplexities as reparation for sin.
I shall work, above all, with a pure intention and with detachment from self, having always before my eyes the hour of death and the accounting which I must then render of time ill-spent, of talents unemployed, of good undone, and of empty pride in success, which is so fatal to the work of God.
For Jesus through Mary, all in imitation of you, good Saint Joseph. This shall be my motto in life and in death. Amen.