Gotta Serve Somebody!

Jesus said to those Jews who believed in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How can you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.” John 8:31-3

In 1979, American folk singer and now Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan famously sang, “Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”  St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787, not a Nobel Laureate!) offered a theory about who we serve when he said, “Habitual sin and prayer cannot co-exist. We will either stop sinning or stop praying.”  What do you think?  Is this true?  Can sin and habitual prayer co-exist?  These are challenging words, but I feel the key distinction in St. Alphonsus’ teaching is that of habitual sin. When we regularly recall God and ask for His grace, we both lose the desire and habit of win (though we’ll continue to stumble, but not in a habitual manner) and are at the same time given the grace to overcome it through the habit of prayer.

But what is certainly true is that we cannot claim, with the Jewish followers identified in the above Gospel passage, “we have never been enslaved to anyone.” Whether prayer or habitual sin, we’re gonna serve somebody.

Tears of Lent–the Penitent Magdalene

For Catholics (and other Christians!), the season of Lent, the 40 days of preparation ahead of Easter, begins with Ash Wednesday and a scripture passage from the Old Testament book of Joel, where the prophet sets us on our Lenten course with the words, “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:12).  Tears and weeping—the course recommended to us by the prophet, as we begin this season of penance and spiritual preparation for Easter!  The figure from our spiritual tradition that comes to mind is St. Mary Magdalene, who in our church at St. Edward in Waterloo IA is depicted in one of our stained-glass windows with a tear coming from her eye.

While some feminist critics have a legitimate complaint about the depiction of Mary Magdalene as a sinful woman, I would like to think about her from a different, and also legitimate perspective:  as the role model for all of us who are flawed and weighed down by our failures who, nonetheless are caught in the embrace of divine mercy.

To assist this reflection, we can do no better than reflect upon the painting of Caravaggio, The Penitent Magdalene from 1594-5.   In summary, Caravaggio captures well our Lenten (and everyday) journey from ourselves and our futile attachments to things towards the light that is the freedom of God and the Gospel.  Looking at the painting, we immediately notice the things that were of former value, strings of pearls and a flask of oil, which are spent and cast away.  Instead, she now kneels a posture of humility, her back turned on the things that formerly commanded the attention of her soul.  Now, she bows her head in the traditional posture of Christ on the cross, even while the slant of light and white to the top right of the painting, begins to descend into the darkness of this time of penance.  The artist seems to be saying:  Inasmuch as we follow the penitential path of the cross and turn from things that cannot possibly satisfy the God-sized hole in our souls, the relentless pursuit of God’s Light will find us!

As we wondered during Ash Wednesday Masses, are the tears recommended by the prophet Joel and exemplified in the figure of the Penitent Magdalene tears of sorrow (in her failures and the attachments that dominated her life) or tears of joy (that, now freed from empty pleasures, she now can see that and the One who satisfies the human soul, God, the Light of the World)?   What are those attachments whose allure has grabbed us and held us from life, and where is that Light being offered to us that gives clarity and the fullness of Life? #Godsatisfies


Laughter–The Cathartic Safety Valve

Laughter—the cathartic safety valve.

A friend of mine recently said, “I have never seen things more politically divided and hostile.” Well, there is some truth to this, though it does also reflect that we have only limited memory regarding more distant past when things were really bad too.  For example, one critic of our most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, said of him just PRIOR to his assuming office,

“The illustrious Honest Old Abe has continued during the last week to make a fool of himself and to mortify and shame the intelligent people of this great nation. His speeches have demonstrated the fact that although originally a Herculean rail splitter and more lately a whimsical story teller and side splitter, he is no more capable of becoming a statesman, nay, even a moderate one, than the braying ass can become a noble lion. People now marvel how it came to pass that Mr. Lincoln should have been selected as the representative man of any party. His weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world. The European powers will despise us because we have no better material out of which to make a President. The truth is, Lincoln is only a moderate lawyer and in the larger cities of the Union could pass for no more than a facetious pettifogger. Take him from his vocation and he loses even these small characteristics and indulges in simple twaddle which would disgrace a well bred school boy.”

And this was from a newspaper in his home state!

I don’t offer this as some type of apologetic for our current president, but rather to merely point out that such hostility has happened before in history and will happen again.  From our faith perspective, we do rail against human frailty and perceived ineptitude and long for human solutions to our problems which, due to our fallen human condition, will be lacking.  But, what I want to discuss, from an art/aesthetic perspective, is how laughter (which only we humans have the faculty to employ) is a perennial remedy for the ludicrousness of our human condition.  I can’t help but think about satire, the figure of the court jester from “olden days,” and the very fact of comic theater to suggest that humor has always been with us to contend with the perplexities of life.

Three examples from visual artists come to mind that take this issue on directly. First, with the passing of Mary Tyler Moore this last month, I took the chance this week to watch again her renowned episode from her show, from its sixth season, called “Chuckles the Clown Bites the Dust.” I was surprised, beyond the side-splitting humor of Mary being reduced to laughter at the clown’s funeral (after having chided others for making jokes about the deceased before the funeral), that the episode takes time to reflect on humor as cathartic in a difficult situation like death.  Laughter can become a healing release in the face of an untimely death or other tragedy, when we can make no human sense out of it.   Here’s a link on youtube to watch it –don’t miss it!

Second, I thought about the GREAT, GREAT film by the American film director Preston Sturges from 1942, Sullivan’s Travels. The protagonist, Sullivan, wants to produce as an actor a work of “serious art,” and goes on the road to know the trials of the “ordinary man”  in preparation for this opus magnus. Through a series of ridiculous misfortunes, the famous actor Sullivan finds himself imprisoned with no seeming chance to be found out and saved.  What a great image of the ridiculousness that life can sometimes deliver!  In this setting, Sullivan and the other prisoners take a night from their chain gang to watch a movie, which turns out to be a Disney cartoon where “Goofy” is afflicted by all kinds of misfortune.  When Sullivan finds himself laughing at the comic character, and at his whole confounding and tragic situation, he finds the value in comedy before tragedy.  I hope you can take the chance to see this VERY GREAT film!  See the final scene here

Finally, in a film clip not for children, consider viewing the short clip of the late comic Joan Rivers who, when making fun of deaf children, is accosted by an angry audience member who has a deaf child.  While Rivers does sprinkle some mild profanity throughout the two-and-a-half minute clip, she also speaks to the value of comedy before tragedy.  See it here:

Of course, politics and how our government tries to make our world a more just place are serious business.  But, comedy is serious business too—an essential part of our humanity trying to deal with tough situations.  Let’s not forget to laugh—it’s a great gift given us by our Creator.



It’s Been A While!


Well, I admit it has been a while since I took the time to post on this blog.  The primary reason was that I took on some new responsibilities to teach a class through our local community college for the students at our Columbus Catholic High School. The course:  Introduction to Literature.  So, now that the first iteration of that class is finished, there’s more time to attend to things like this blog.  So, thanks for your patience, and here we go again!   There were many highlights in the course of study, reading lots of great short fiction, poetry, drama, and a novel (Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.  One highlight would be “Dover Beach” (1867) by British poet Matthew Arnold.  In the poem, the narrator looks out over the English channel at night and hears the “grating roar” of the tide as representative of eternal course of human suffering, the decline of the “Sea of Faith” as a means to contend with and make sense of suffering, and then offers a final appeal individuals loving one another in the face of war and other aspects of the plight of humanity.   It is worthy of careful reading and reflection, some 140 years after its publication, as its themes are eternal.  I’m sure it would not be hard to connect it to our current experience of the struggles of the eternal human experience.

DOVER BEACH by Matthew Arnold (1867)

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Come to the Feast!

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-older-sonThe gospel given to us during this weekend’s Masses of the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time includes the great Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15.  It is a teaching so rich, so resonant with life and its struggles, that it can hardly be characterized by a few words.  So, not trying to do so, let’s focus on a part of the parable (and a very important part of it!) as it is “explained” by one of the great masterworks of western art, Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal.” On the right of the painting, standing erect and in judgment over this whole “sentimental” scene is the elder son of the parable.  He stands like a pillar, detached from the entire reunion, unable to join in the joy. Indeed, as the father will later remind him, he wears the robe of his father, part of “everything” that the father owns that has been shared with him, in sharp contrast to his brother, reduced to poverty (by his own choices!) and humbled after years of suffering.  We get no sense of the elder brother’s rage at this “unjust” welcome, speaking volumes to the dwelling place of resentment and rage:  controlled, in a socially-acceptable and mannered way, deep within our hearts.  However, Rembrandt indeed manifests in his painting the effect of resentment, long held:  we cannot enter the feast of life.  Instead, while joy is celebrated at the supremely human reunion of father and [prodigal] son, the elder son still awaits a return to the father, who has grieved him by acceding to the request of “this son of yours” for his premature part of the inheritance that set this whole drama on its course.  The figure of the elder son and his repressed, judgmental representation by Rembrandt, causes us to pause and consider if we have separated ourselves from Life by clinging with tenacity to the feast of resentment.  Even while we stand in judgment, we cannot see ourselves as quarantined from life’s full joys.  Forgiveness and mercy is the call—the call to return to life.  But, this bitter feast of resentment can become such familiar fare that, however poisonous, we can’t imagine any other sustenance.  As the Father initiates the reconciliation with the prodigal in the parable (“while he was still a long way off, he ran to him (the prodigal)”), can we cease our resentment and ask the Father in His Spirit to run to us with his healing and mercy too?  Until we do, we stand on the sidelines of life:  righteous, resentful, in just judgment, and impoverished in the midst of the marvelous banquet that is life.  Time is short—come into the feast.

Divided Self

In the synagogue there was a man with the spirit of an unclean demon,
and he cried out in a loud voice,
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are–the Holy One of God!”
Jesus rebuked him and said, “Be quiet! Come out of him!”
Then the demon threw the man down in front of them
and came out of him without doing him any harm.  (Lk 4:33-35)

Plato, the Greek philosopher, in his dialogue Phaedrus, wrote some 400 years before Christ of an experience in the general human condition that has dogged our humanity since its creation:  the divided self.  In his famous Allegory of the Chariot (246a-254e), he likens the human soul to a chariot with two horses, one noble and the other troublesome.  Any person has experienced this divided self, knowing that something is good, but instead experiencing an attraction and desire for the opposite.  Believers have read the above passage from the Gospel of Luke with this existential fact in mind:  that a “demon” that might possess us is in fact a “we” instead of a “me.” This unfortunate soul is possessed by a demon that itself is divided.  Into this spiritual chaos comes Jesus, to rid the man of this self-division and restore his unity of life.  When we seem unable to “drive the chariot” of our unmanageable and divided hearts, the Christian faith holds up the example of this restored man from the Gospel of Luke and invites us to come to the one, Jesus, who can cast out chaos from our divided hearts and give us a new singularity of purpose: to love God and neighbor.

St. Clare of Assisi

Today is the feast day of St. Clare of Assisi (1195-1253).  Oftentimes, St. Clare is depicted holding what appears to be a lamp, or sometimes, more clearly, a monstrance.  The historical basis of this subject is the crisis that struck the city-state of Assisi in 1224.  The Italian peninsula at the time was, by all reports, a place of constant warfare, as cities and dukes were locked in constant conflict.  For example, St. Francis, prior to his conversion, was captured by the city of Perugia in 12o1 and incarcerated for a year.  In 1224, the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II were threatening the city of Assisi.  St. Clare met the soldiers at the boundaries of the city, not with guns and soldiers, but instead her most powerful ally, the Lord Jesus, contained in the Blessed Sacrament.  It is said that Frederick was dissuaded from conquering the city by this spiritual force.

The name Clare derives from “Chiara” in Italian and means “brightness” or “light.”  This additional meaning further explains why Clare holds forth the monstrance with light emanating from it, together with the fact that Jesus Christ called himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12).

As it happened, the gospel reading for today’s feast day is that of Matthew 18:21-19.1, which can be found through the following link:

 In this teaching, Jesus commands his followers to be as forgiving as the Heavenly Father has been for each of us.  When his disciples ask him if this means they must forgive others SEVEN times (the Biblical number of perfect completion, like when God completes the creation of the world in seven days), Jesus takes the forgiveness required from perfect completion to an infinite level, with the hyperbolic response:  not seven times, but seventy-seven times!  We could not presume to be this forgiving, as forgiving as our God has been for us, unless God help us.  And . . . when we do, we become like that light that St. Clare holds up, the very brightness of life that is Christ himself, reflected and magnified through us! 


Looking Back on Funeral of My Mother

Mildred Helen Bullock, circa 1940.


I’m back in Waterloo—and it’s good to be home!  The funeral of my mother, last week at St. Joseph Parish in Howell MI, was a most blessed event indeed.  I felt strongly the prayerful support of many.  I was able to preside at preach at her funeral, a blessing that was also difficult.  Yet, Mom did many sacrificial and loving things for all of us, so there was never any question that I could and would do this for her.  It was great to welcome Archbishop Jackels of our Archdiocese of Dubuque, as well as several other priests from Iowa, to concelebrate the funeral.  I appreciated the efforts they made to show the support of the priests and the Archdiocese.

I’ve attached the text of the homily that I gave at her funeral.  It includes, first, the scripture texts that were selected for the funeral, followed by the text of the homily itself.  I focused on Mom’s penchant for humor, a sign of hope, as well as the sublime spiritual guidance that she offered me and our family.  As with the entire week surrounding her funeral, the predominant feelings we all expressed was that of gratitude, for the life she gave us all!  She was a hope-filled, wise mom indeed! 

Just click on this link to see the text of the homily:  Mildred Helen Bullock Funeral Homily

Update from Michigan

As I told you in my last post, my mother died yesterday.  Fortunately, I had already had a flight scheduled to my parents’ hometown and arrived without incident around 11am on the same day, Saturday morning.  We met with the funeral director also yesterday and have made the following plans for Mom’s funeral:

Visitation:  4-7 pm, Thursday, June 30 @ MacDonald Funeral Home, 315 N. Michigan Ave., Howell MI 48843, with a rosary at 6:30 pm.

Funeral Mass:  11am, Friday, July 1 @ St. Joseph Church, Howell MI, with burial to follow immediately in Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

We’ll be making more plans about the actual services tomorrow, once parish staff is in the office.  Since my mother dedicated much of her life praying for all of us, it’s our honor to attempt to return the favor in the prayers of the Church, and all of our prayers leading up to them. With great confidence in the prayer of the Body of Christ, the Church, please join us, wherever you might be, in praying for my mother, Mildred “Helen” Bullock.

On the health front, I continue to get stronger every day.  I have dropped some of the pain medications that I was prescribed from Mayo, just using Tylenol now.  It no longer hurts when I get up and down and in other ways twist (some) my torso.  Yet, to calm my caregivers in Waterloo, know that I am taking it easy and continue to take my “prescribed” daily naps!    Brother Stephen’s new kidney is definitely working better for him.  His blood creatinine levels have dropped nearly 50% since the surgery and are quickly approaching a normal level.  I give thanks for this!  He continues to “doctor” his heart that reacted to the stress of the whole situation and is on medication that leaves him quite tired.  Yet, he is determined to continue his recovery and we’ll keep helping him with our prayers.

We’re telling all kinds of “Helen” stories among my family, so I think I’ll drop some classic photos of her over the next days.  This one was a family portrait from the late 1960’s. Mom’s hairdo is EPIC!  (The line-up, left to right:  the future Fr. Scott Bullock, Christine (my sister), my father AJ, Helen, and Bob (my brother).

Family Photos 001





Mildred Helen Bullock (January 5, 1936—June 25, 2016)

My mother died and entered into eternity this morning at about 2:30 am in Howell MI.  Having been admitted to Hospice last weekend, she was able to die surrounded by her family and in a place where she had called home for many years. I had already arranged to take a flight to Michigan this morning, so will be leaving early to be with my family.  I have received so many promises of prayer for my family and will ask that you keep it up—especially for my father Jim, who shared nearly 56 years of marriage with mom.

The above picture is Mom’s high school graduation, an indeed beautiful woman who, in my eyes, never lost any of her beauty.  In fact, it was one of the last things I was able to say to her when I visited with her a couple of weeks ago—that she was indeed a beautiful mother, which she in her spunkiness disputed.  But, in God’s providence, I got the last word—and Mom was indeed deeply beautiful!  In these last days, in the celebration of 25 years of ordination to the priesthood, I was able to take the occasion to express how grateful I was for the gift of being a priest.  While there is much credit to go around for getting me to ordination and then supporting me once I got there, Mom is certainly at the top of the list, the one who first shared the faith with me and my siblings and then constantly strengthened my faith by her resolute and joyful example. It is not hyperbole to say that she has a share in any compliment paid to me as a priest. 

Over the last day, my prayer changed regarding Mom.  While I had been praying the words of Mary, “may it be done according to thy word” (Luke 1:38) (a good prayer, maybe the BEST of prayers!), it struck me that I needed instead to commend her to God’s infinite mercy and, letting go of any self-focused need to have her remain with us, the prayer became something like: “gather her into Your Mercy.” In fact, I had awoken a bit before her death, prayed that prayer with joy, and then received news of her death.  My, is not our God Mercy Itself?

Here’s a picture of Mom and Dad, with one of their many beloved Great Danes (I can’t remember which one that one was!) on their “farm” where they spent these last 30 years of life.   With my siblings, we are grateful for the life of Mom and the life she shared with us!