#OpenBook: Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim

For September’s Open Book link-up, I offer Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim by Malcolm Muggeridge (Harper & Row, 1988).

This month, it’s back to my personal library to pick up this short treat for the first time in many years. It’s not a full-dress autobiography (see Chronicles of Wasted Time for that). Instead, Confessions is a brief survey of the phases in journalist Malcolm Muggeridge’s life, each a stage on what he recognizes as his pilgrimage. He was late in life, 79 years of age, when he was received into the Catholic Church. In Confessions, he looks back at the uneven route he took to get there.

I have always felt myself to be a stranger here on earth, aware that our home is elsewhere. Now, nearing the end of my pilgrimage, I have found a resting place in the Catholic Church from where I can see the Heavenly Gates built into Jerusalem’s Wall more clearly than from anywhere else, albeit if only through a glass darkly.

Each phase of life gets a chapter – The Boy, The Journalist, The Soldier, and so on, sketched with a lifelong journalist’s deft touch. I knew before I picked up the book how it was going to end; Muggeridge was a celebrity whose conversion made news. The heart of Confessions lies in the way he describes what led to that conversion: the steps and missteps and unlikely occurrences in his life.

He gives credit to Mother Teresa, whom he met in the course of a documentary project that remains his best-known work, at least in the United States (Something Beautiful for God). She gave a nudge, and left the rest to time and God’s grace. In her, Muggeridge’s lifelong skepticism met its match.

The younger Muggeridge would have been astounded to know where that would lead: “It was the Catholic Church’s firm stand against contraception and abortion which finally made me decide to become Catholic.” That was a countercultural claim, even thirty-odd years ago, particularly from a worldly man.

Despite such blunt declarations, Confessions is full of warmth and humor. I love his insight into what he calls “The Steeple and The Gargoyle.” Since reading this for the first time, I’ve never looked at a photo of an old church in the quite the way I did before.

This assumption that a sense of humour and a Christian faith are incompatible is totally mistaken….

The true function of humour is to express in terms of the grotesque the immense disparity between human aspiration and human performance. Mysticism expresses the same disparity in terms of the sublime. Hence the close connection between clowns and mystics; hence, too, the juxtaposition on the great medieval cathedrals of  steeples reaching up into the Cloud of Unknowing, and gargoyles grinning malevolently down at our dear earth and all its foolishness. Laughter and mystical ecstasy, that is to say, both derive from an awareness, in the one case hilarious, in the other ecstatic, of how wide is the chasm between Time and Eternity, between us and our Creator.

Let us then, while, as we should, revering the steeples, remember the gargoyles, also, in their way, purveyors of God’s Word, and be thankful that, when the Gates of Heaven swing open, as they do from time to time, mixed with the celestial music there is the unmistakable sound of celestial laughter.

This #OpenBook linkup is hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com.

“Decisive Strategies” Needed, Says Fr. Imbarrato

Fr Imbarrato at PP by Phyllis Woods

Father Stephen Imbarrato (at left, in black) leads prayer at Planned Parenthood, Manchester NH. Photo by Phyllis Woods.

Father Stephen Imbarrato of Priests for Life paid a visit to New Hampshire recently, leading a prayer vigil outside Manchester’s Planned Parenthood office before speaking to an attentive audience about effective pro-life action. “We aren’t doing enough: that has to be our starting point.”

Fr. Imbarrato, an EWTN television personality and longtime pro-life activist, was a guest of New Hampshire Right to Life. About 25 people joined him for prayer outside PP, at midday on a workday. A larger group attended his presentation afterward at a nearby retreat center.

I was drawn by Fr. Imbarrato’s story, and despite my differences with Priests for Life – more about that below – I found his message worth hearing.

The Foundation for His Work

He has a unique personal story, with an astounding array of experiences that leave each listener with something with which to identify. A priest who’s an adoptive father, grandfather, and father of an aborted child – thereby hangs a story, to which he referred only in passing in his New Hampshire appearance. We’re left with YouTube to lay the foundation for Fr. Imbarrato’s work.

Basics: “We’re Not Doing Enough”

In New Hampshire, Fr. Imbarrato began his presentation by referring to his Priests for Life colleague, Fr. Frank Pavone. “As he says, our work should begin with repentance. The biggest obstacles [to a culture of life] are within ourselves. We aren’t doing enough; that has to be our starting point.”

“Enough” starts with prayer, with Fr. Imbarrato recommending that activists – and those Catholics who should be activists – pray to God daily, with this petition: “What can I do, through Your grace, to save a child today?”

He is not a supporter of the “faithful citizenship” or “consistent life ethic” model advocated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, fearing that it dilutes opposition to abortion and euthanasia by introducing other issues including immigration and the environment to a list of topics for the faithful to consider when casting a vote. Politically, he said, this is “pandering to Catholic Democrats.” He called the split Catholic vote in the United States “a scandal.”

“Abortion and euthanasia are foundational. You can’t be wrong on those. These are the pre-eminent issues of our time.” He recommended Pope St. John Paul II’s Gospel of Life (1995) and the USCCB’s Living the Gospel of Life (1998) as documents that clearly affirmed this. “Read and share them.”

Fr Imbarrato in NH by Phyllis Woods

Fr. Stephen Imbarrato speaking in New Hampshire. Photo by Phyllis Woods.

At the Ballot Box

The leader of Priests for Life, Fr. Frank Pavone, was NHRTL’s featured speaker at their 2016 banquet. The point he pressed the most in his speech, aside from opposition to abortion, was the imperative of electing Donald Trump to the presidency,and the evils of not doing so. (The election was only a few weeks away at that time.) I was repelled by both major candidates, and I eventually voted accordingly. In his NHRTL speech, Fr. Pavone pretty much ordered voters like me off the island, so to speak. Fr. Imbarrato, without mentioning the 2016 election directly,  was obviously on the same page.

Every general election candidate choice is easy, he said: “is a candidate pro-abortion or not? There’s one issue and one issue only.”

(Indeed – and I was skeptical last fall of a presidential candidate who made pro-life noises but had no pro-life roots. But I digress.)

He is optimistic about the pro-life possibilities under President Trump. He called the prospect of presidential personhood proclamation part of a “decisive strategy” toward changing a pro-abortion culture. As for urging the President to take such a step, he said, “we have direct access to this President” via social media, an avenue never exploited to such an extent by previous presidents.

Pro-life Leadership in the Catholic Church: “Not United”

Fr. Imbarrato was unsparing in his indictment of American bishops as factors both cultural and electoral tolerance of abortion. “The bishops aren’t united” in recognizing abortion as the foundational pro-life issue. Further, “We’re not hearing our shepherds talk about chastity. That has repercussions.”

How can Catholics respond to this? He suggested three ways to “up our efforts.” First, “pray inconveniently” – meaning in front of abortion facilities, in season and out of season. With that, “fast – that’s always inconvenient.” Finally, “almsgiving – acts of charity and mercy.” They add up to witness, he advised, that can move even bishops.

He added this to the list later in his talk: “invite people to Mass.”

“Decisive Strategies”

Fr. Imbarrato urged his listeners to embrace “decisive strategies to end abortion,” ranging from political to spiritual.

•”Heartbeat bills,” which would make abortion illegal once a fetal heartbeat is detectable, early in pregnancy. “All our efforts” – presumably he meant political ones – “should be toward that.” He cited Ohio’s heartbeat bill as an example. Perhaps due to time constraints, he did not mention that Ohio governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich vetoed the bill last December, citing concerns that it would lead to unwinnable litigation. At the same time, Kasich signed a 20-week ban without exceptions for rape or incest.

•Resisting the use of tax dollars to support abortion. He mentioned a proposal for a “national tax strike,” advanced by Mark Harrington of the Center for Bioethical Reform.

•Sustained peaceful, prayerful protest outside abortion facilities. He said he has no problem with the use of what he called “abortion victim imagery,” a longtime point of contention within the pro-life movement. (40 Days for Life, for example, does not employ that tactic, and I personally consider the bloody-baby photos counterproductive.) No apologies for that from Fr. Imbarrato: “let’s start upsetting people.”

•A personhood proclamation from the President. “Start talking it up. Personhood is the right strategy.”

His New Hampshire audience was appreciative, all too aware that in our state, abortion is legal throughout pregnancy with nearly no regulation. (While New Hampshire has in place good cultural markers like parental notification and a partial-birth ban, neither one addresses a preborn child’s fundamental right to life.) The people around me, without exception, seemed to be refreshed by Fr. Imbarrato’s bracing words.

Whatever my differences with him, I recognize that anyone who energizes people to peaceful action in defense of life has something of value to offer. Anyone who challenges Catholics to take their civic responsibilities seriously is doing important work. Any man with Fr. Imbarrato’s experience speaks with an authority that must be respected.

Cross-posted at Leaven for the Loaf.

Share What You Love: Treasuring My Corner of the World

A sense of place, of gratitude for one’s own surroundings, is a wonderful thing. I had to learn it and earn it. Here’s my post from Granite State Walker (August 2013) about a gentleman who helped me along the way.

Mr. Stiles’s lesson: share what you love

In August 2013, I read in the newspaper about the passing of a New Hampshire gentleman named Walter Stiles. The published tributes indicated that he was a generous man in every respect, devoted to his family, active in his community.  I met him once more than twenty years before his death, had a single unforgettable conversation with him on the subject of lilacs, and never saw him again.   In the short time we chatted, he managed to convey his great and contagious affection for this state and its natural beauty.

We were at a political gathering, not a social one, and there was a lot of edgy debate among attendees that day. No matter. By some chance, I was seated next to Mr. Stiles, who I think was a state representative at the time. His kindness and dignity were a kind of antidote to the tension in the room. I asked him what he did when he wasn’t serving in his political office. I realize now that he could have said any number of things, for as his obituary made clear, he was a man of many parts. What he chose to tell me about was his interest in horticulture, particularly lilacs.

I had never paid much attention to lilacs before that time, to tell you the truth. They were just sort of there. Listening to Walter Stiles, I began to realize what I’d been missing. He told me about the Governor’s Lilac Commission, which was a fairly new group at that time. He told me that the lilac was the state flower, and that he hoped to see more people plant them around their homes and schools and towns. He talked about the flower’s wonderful fragrance (which I had never stopped to notice).  He told me about the people working with the Commission and with their own local garden clubs to encourage cultivation.

When the day’s proceedings were over, he bid me a cordial farewell and went on his way. He must have been grinning to himself, knowing better than I did that he had dropped an idea in front of me and that I was sure to pick it up eventually.

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As I said, that was many years ago. Since then, lilacs planted by my husband have grown to line one side of our yard. I wait impatiently every spring for those gorgeous blossoms. I fill vases with them and bring them into the house so the fragrance can fill the rooms. Wherever I see lilacs in blossom, I appreciate all the colors from white to deepest purple. I’m grateful to everyone who has gone to the trouble of planting the bushes, which take a few years to establish. As I learned to look for lilacs, I learned to keep my eyes open for the other flowers all over New Hampshire. The variety astonishes me anew every year.

It’s no accident that I do more hiking as I get older. I have more to appreciate and enjoy. I’ve benefited from many people who have taken the time to share with me their love of this state’s beauty. From such folks, I am learning more all the time, and I have all the more reason to savor my time on the trails.

If you’re a fan of being outdoors, I hope you’ll do what Mr. Stiles did: share your enthusiasm. I only met him once, and I never had the chance to thank him for expanding my horizons just a bit. I’m guessing he’d consider those lilacs in my yard thanks enough.

#OpenBook, August 2017: On the Hail Mary

Peter Ingemi, in his blogging persona as Da Tech Guy, is a Massachusetts-based writer and political reporter whose blog is a staple for conservatives in the region. The writers Ingemi welcomes on his blog (a group that includes me) all get fair warning before coming on board that the boss is unapologetically Catholic.

In his new book, Ingemi puts aside political reporting and takes up a labor of love: Hail Mary: the Perfect Protestant (and Catholic) Prayer [Imholt Press, 2017, 80 pages, $6.99 paperback, $2.99 Amazon Kindle e-book]. Ingemi is donating a portion of every sale to his local Catholic radio station in north central Massachusetts.

The book’s title is intriguing and perplexing at the same time. Ingemi is reaching for two audiences, and he’s likely to score with his fellow Catholics. Will the word “Protestant” in the title appeal to anyone? Among my own acquaintances are people who identify themselves as Baptist, Lutheran, or simply Christian – but Protestant, however accurate in a historical sense, is not a label they use. I wonder how many of Ingemi’s intended readers will get past his book’s title.

Book-cover-e1499903750923Those who do will find a brief (80 pages), straightforward examination and celebration of the Hail Mary prayer. Ingemi writes in the hope that all Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, will come to value the prayer’s meaning.

Ingemi takes the reader through the Hail Mary clause by clause. In the early part of the prayer, the words are taken from Scripture, offering common ground for all of Ingemi’s intended readers.

The second part of the prayer, following the invocation of the name of Jesus, also gets a line-by-line breakdown that flows naturally from what has come before.

This book could be one resource for any Catholic’s personal education, because it illuminates a prayer so common to Catholics that it might be taken for granted. It also could equip Catholics to explain the Hail Mary to non-Catholic friends.

Ingemi’s enthusiasm is irreproachable. He is nevertheless frank about the fact that he has no credentials as a theologian. This is a personal labor of love, not a work of scholarship.

If there is ever a second edition, the book would benefit from tighter copyediting and a sharper focus on readers who profess faith in Christ yet don’t understand Catholicism or Marian prayer. The author assumes knowledge of some things which have yet to be proven or explained to non-Catholic readers.

As for his Catholic readers, they’d probably be pleased to see a future edition carry an imprimatur. I know from conversation with the author that he’d be pleased for his work to receive one.

At its best, Ingemi’s book reflects faith that is informed by hope and charity, not by fear. Peter Ingemi sees the Hail Mary as a unifier for Christians. He will make a reasonable case for that to anyone, whether Catholic or not, who approaches his book with curiosity and good will.

Note: I received and reviewed a courtesy copy of the book’s text in proof form. Some typos and grammar detracted from the book’s quality, but they may have been corrected in the final published version. This review contains an affiliate link.

This post is part of the #OpenBook linkup hosted at My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com.

Two Families Persist & Succeed at N.H. State House

Edited from an original post at Leaven for the Loaf.

Sarah and Griffin’s Law has been signed. I was determined to see this happen, in person. I wouldn’t believe it otherwise.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu signed SB 66 on June 30, and now the fetal homicide measure will be known as Sarah and Griffin’s Law. It will go into effect January 1, 2018.

At that time, prosecutors will have the option of bringing a homicide charge against a person whose violent actions cause the death of a preborn child at or after 20 weeks’ gestation, against the will of the mother.

The state Supreme Court’s 2009 plea in the Lamy case was a factor in passage of this new law. Overturning a drunk driver’s homicide conviction for killing a child who died from injuries sustained in utero by the drunk driver’s actions, the Court told the legislature it would have to update state law in order for such a charge to stick.

Finally, the legislature and a governor have answered the Supreme Court with something other than “meh.”

Moms Deana Crucitti & Ashlyn Rideout (front); dads Nathan Crucitti & Daniel Kenison (rear middle & right) after SB 66 was signed into law.

The families of Griffin Kenison and Sarah Crucitti were at the Governor’s side as he signed the law. Their extended families, children included, filled the Executive Council chamber. Some held photos of Griffin and Sarah.

Three generations of Griffin’s family were there, including “Grammy Shirley,” who told me with deep emotion three years ago “we’re on a crusade.” 

A year ago, Governor Sununu was an Executive Councilor. In that capacity, to the dismay of many voters, Councilor Sununu in voted “Yea” on a state contract with abortion providers – a contract that the Council had rejected a few months earlier, with Sununu voting “Nay.” He flip-flopped.

Shortly before the 2016 gubernatorial election, with Sununu in a tight race, a concerned pro-life Republican asked Republican candidate Sununu what pro-life initiatives he (Sununu) could support. The candidate responded with a short list, made public with his consent.

Fetal homicide was #1 on the list.

I give him credit for keeping his word.

I give credit to the legislators who persevered to pass a fetal homicide bill. At least one New Hampshire legislator has been an advocate for such legislation for more than twenty years.

I give credit to the concerned voter who last year elicited Chris Sununu’s written support for fetal homicide legislation.

I give credit to the New Hampshire Supreme Court justices, who in signing the Lamy decision placed the matter squarely in the legislature’s arena eight years ago.

I give most of the credit to the families who lost their children and who came to Concord again and again to tell their stories.

I spoke to baby Griffin’s great-aunt at the bill-signing ceremony. “I didn’t think I’d live to see this day,” I told her.

She gave me a no-nonsense look. “Shame on you.”

Lesson learned: never give up.

Volunteers Building a Safe Harbor

Reposted from Leaven for the Loaf.

“A Safe Harbor for Mother and Child.” Step by step, St. Gianna’s Place is on the way to becoming a shelter for pregnant and parenting women. Administrative details are in place: a board of directors; nonprofit tax status. Now comes the work of acquiring a house, most likely in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

St. Gianna’s is taking shape one step at a time, guided by board members and an increasing number of supporters. One of those supporters, Lynn, hosted me and several other women for coffee recently so we could meet Maria Szemplinski of the St. Gianna’s Place board.

Maria talked about the planned home and about the people whose vision has brought the project this far.  She told us about the need for more shelter beds in our area: “our Calcutta is right here,” she said, evoking Mother Teresa. She talked about other shelters in the region and how their staffs have been generous in sharing their advice and experience with the St. Gianna’s team.

So what’s next? We asked Maria what we could do.

One obvious answer: fundraising. That wasn’t what Maria led with, though. She asked us to consider what our gifts might be.

I knew some of my fellow guests slightly, and had met others for the first time that morning: a student active in pro-life work at her school, people with experience working with at-risk youth, an adoptive parent. These were women with full lives, hardly in need of another project, but all of them eager to offer practical assistance to pregnant and parenting women. I was in a room full of potential mentors and teachers.

Our hostess was meeting one of St. Gianna’s most urgent needs by welcoming us for an information session. Spreading the word is critical to attracting the material support the project needs. Maria and her fellow board members welcome opportunities to speak with any person or group who’d like to learn more.

Maria made it clear that even at this stage, the St. Gianna’s board is on the lookout for people with the skills to work with women who want educational guidance, job training, and parenting skills.

Eventually, it will be time to furnish and equip the house that will serve as the shelter. There will be ongoing needs for food, baby supplies, and building maintenance.

There will be – there is – work for everyone who wants to make the shelter happen and help it thrive.

Learn more about St. Gianna’s Place, about the woman whose life and example inspired the project, and how to contact the St. Gianna’s Place team for more information. Watch the St. Gianna’s Place Facebook page for updates. 

Open Book, May 2017

Open Book is a monthly blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately.

My book pile reveals a serious lack of attention to best-seller lists. I take note of them, but they seldom prompt me to chase down a newly-published item. I made an exception for The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. I couldn’t resist a subtitle like “A strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation.”

Dreher, who is Eastern Orthodox, calls on Christians living in America to evaluate their beliefs, take them seriously, take a hard look at the prevailing culture, and prepare for tougher times ahead. Without resorting to panic or an apocalyptic tone, he offers a chapter-by-chapter accounting of various aspects of culture – education, family life, sexuality, politics, among others – and how they are now in radical opposition to authentic Christian life. He doesn’t write to complain, but to point a way to living in joy and confidence without accepting what he calls “cultural captivity.” “Love is the only way we will make it through what is to come.”

As someone whose professional life involves political engagement, I found Dreher’s assessment of the civic position of Christians compelling and accurate. Unlike some readers of The Benedict Option, I don’t interpret Dreher’s message as an exhortation to withdraw from civic life and into a shell. Instead, I hear him calling on us to reject fear and anxiety, and to keep in mind that our Creator is Lord of all. Civic engagement with that attitude would be a blessed antidote to a “horizon” that extends only as far as the next election.

In practical terms, Dreher calls for a return to the roots of Christian faith, to learn or re-learn what love and service mean, to recognize that there is such a thing as divine order. The formation of Christian communities will be a natural result not of fear, but of recognition of the things that are truly and eternally important.

Read the last chapter first. You’ll then be eager to read the whole book, to learn about the path that led to such a conclusion.

I spent a few recent weeks on Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. (Far in spirit from The Benedict Option!) Her sonnets leave me in no doubt of her gifts as a writer, and Savage Beauty invites even more exploration of Millay’s workNancy Milford, author of Savage Beauty, relies possibly too much on the reminiscences of Millay’s sister Norma. Millay’s own voice comes through nonetheless.

Found on the New Books shelf at my local library: John LeCarré’s The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life. LeCarré’s Smiley trilogy occupies a place of honor on my figurative bookshelf (which is actually a series of shelves, rooms, and piles), and I consider his The Honourable Schoolboy his supreme work. Now in his eighties, LeCarré has published a memoir of sorts for me to savor. The Pigeon Tunnel is not an autobiography or a linear narrative, but a series of episodes from LeCarré’s life that inspired some of the stories he’s written. I loved it.

This post contains affiliate links.