In Memoriam: my Dad, on Memorial Day

My dad. My hero. It seems fitting to pay some tribute to him on the day set aside to remember and honor our military heroes, although he did not fall in combat.

He was born on his father’s 50th birthday, back in 1920, and he grew up on a small farm in southern Moore County, North Carolina. My grandfather died a month after Daddy turned 8, from complications of high blood pressure; barely a year later my grandmother was pinning on her hat to go to town when a neighbor came with the news that the local bank had crashed — she had, according to family legend, a dime in her purse. So my father grew up hard, doing a man’s work in the tobacco fields, plowing with mules, all the hard work that comes from non-mechanized farming, when he was still a very little boy.

The hardships made him strong. He was 21 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and he wasted no time volunteering for the Army. He did his desert training at March Field, California, only to have his unit sent to the South Pacific instead. They were called the 854th Aviation Engineers, and they did indeed clear the jungle and build landing strips for military aircraft, but they were in fact a Spearheader Unit. Daddy used to say that they were they guys sent in to rescue the Marines.

He served in the Marshall Islands, on Kwajalein. On Guam, he helped build North Field, now part of Anderson AFB, from which air raid missions to Japan were launched. He was on Okinawa.

Three times he was sent with his unit on missions which were expected to have 100% casualty rates; three times miraculous interventions occurred which brought every man back to base, safe.

When the unit had its first reunion, in September, 1976, a representative from the Pentagon informed the men that they had all been hand-picked to serve in this unit, which has served as a forerunner of all Spearheader and Green Beret units we know today.

Dean Lowder was extremely proud to have served the nation through his military service. A peace-loving man, he believed that there were times you had to get tough in order to stop bullies. He would rant against the mainstream media during the Vietnam era, because their news reports compromised the safety and well-being of our troops and fed anti-American propaganda to our enemies. Flag-burning infuriated him as a personal insult. “Free speech” does not extend to treating with utter contempt the sacred symbols of our liberty — or the sacrifices of those who died to secure our liberties.

When the Mi Lai massacre was first reported, he broke his rule of never discussing military matters with non-veterans. “You don’t understand! They don’t understand!” he exploded the night the news broke, before more shameful details were released. “It’s terrible over there! In the Pacific, the women would have grenades hidden between their breasts, in their babies’ diapers!”

Most of the time, he told stories of the men in his unit — the two Italian-Americans who were hopping mad to go fight Mussolini, of the church that had to be destroyed because it was being used as an ammunition holding station by the Japanese. “As soon as the order was given for that target, one of the men stood up, took off his hat and said, ‘Men, we may have to destroy a church, but we can also build it again when we’re done,’ and he passed his hat and we re-built that church.”

He also developed a distaste for the beach that lasted the rest of his life. “I saw more than enough of the ocean during the War,” he’d say, and any vacation we went on as a family, we headed toward the mountains. When we went to the beach, it was without him.

He died on July 10, 1991, of smoking-related lung cancer. The cancer was discovered just two weeks and two days before he died. A tough-as-nails man all his life, he was surprisingly meek when it came to facing death: “I know I’m in God’s hands,” said this man who rarely talked about his religion because talk was cheap. “I’d give a dollar to see you light up a cigarette,” he teased me one afternoon — was he missing smoking that badly? Or was he teasing me for my outward calm without the aid of nicotine as he lay dying? He was slipping into a coma when he began to hemorrhage; a great talker all his life, he talked as he descended into his coma, muttering incoherently, and sometimes we even heard hints of melody — he was singing. I was sitting by his bedside with my cousin Jane, looking over the stack of cards we’d received, listening to the faint murmurings of his conversations with — whom? Suddenly his breathing faltered. I sent Jane for the nurse, reached out for his hand — he sort of choked, then… silence.

I hope he heard me before he left us: I told him one more time: “I love you, Daddy!”

Corpus Christi — Tantum Ergo

This hymn, sung traditionally (formerly required) at all Expositions of the Blessed Sacrament, is actually the last two verses of a longer hymn now sung traditionally on Good Friday: Pange Lingua (which I will offer later):

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui;
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui;
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.
Genitori, Genitoque,
Laus et jubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
Sit et benedictio;
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio. Amen.10

Translation:

Down in adoration falling,
Lo, the Sacred Host we hail.
Lo, o’er ancient forms departing,
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying
Where the feeble senses fail..

To the everlasting Father,
And the Son who reigns on high,
With the Holy Ghost proceeding
Forth from Each eternally;
Be salvation, honor, blessing,
Might, and endless majesty. Amen.

Corpus Christi Hymns: Panis Angelicus

This is the most famous of the Aquinas hymns. It has been set to music by many composers, most notably Cesar Franck, and has become part of the classical repertoire.

Panis angelicus
Fit panis hominum
Dat panis coelicus figuris terminum
O res mirabilis
Manducat Dominum
Pauper, pauper
Servus et humilis
Pauper, pauper
Servus et humilis

Translation:

The Bread of the angels
is made the bread of mankind.
Bread given from heaven, terminating all figures.
O marvelous thing!
Nourished on the Lord,
are the poor, the poor,
slaves and the lowly;
the poor, the poor,
slaves and the lowly.

Honoring Corpus Christi — the Body of Christ

Once upon a time, long ago (in the 13th century, in fact), there was a Belgian nun, of the Order of Cistercians, named Juliana. A particularly devout and mystical woman, she was granted a vision by Our Lord in which He spoke to her of His desire to see His Sacramental Body honored in a feast. She reported the vision to her bishop, who recognized the virtue of her story, and the feast was initiated on a local level.

Then, shortly after Juliana died in 1258, a priest from her diocese became Pope Urban IV. It is perhaps not surprising that Urban continued and expanded on the new feast in particular honor of the Body of Christ, but it is quite surprising whom he ordered to write the liturgy for this feast: a Dominican friar named Thomas Aquinas.

It’s not that the Dominicans weren’t qualified for this work. Quite the contrary! Since the days of St. Dominic himself, the order had exercised particular devotion to the Holy Eucharist.

The amazing thing is that Aquinas was — well, he was a theologian, not a poet/liturgist. He was a prolific writer, the author of the Summa Theologica (which he was working on at the time Urban ordered him to write the Corpus Christi Office), the Summa Contra Gentiles, the Catena Aurea… brilliant theological works but, can we say, definitely prose? To re-appropriate Lucy Maud Montgomery’s words, a “very prosy prose”. Jesuit scholar Martin D’Arcy is quoted as calling it “dull, good jog-trot prose.” Trust me: I had to read excerpts of the Summa Theologica as an undergraduate! Denser than cheesecake, the man is brilliant, but a hard read. The liturgy, in startling contrast, is poetry — how could Urban have expected Aquinas to reach so far beyond his normal writing style to compose an entire Mass and Office for the Church?

The hand of God must surely have been upon Aquinas, for the Office of Corpus Christi is one of the most perfect works of liturgy ever composed. As a literature teacher, I will even “pull a secular” and say that it is one of the most exquisite works of literature ever composed. Written in Latin, translated in the 19th and 20th centuries by some of the most wonderful scholars and poets of the English language, these hymns are timeless and powerful — of great meditative value to the non-Catholic meditating upon Christ’s salvific work on the Cross as well as to the Catholic worshipping Christ in the Eucharist.

I’ll be copying the words to these hymns, above. I pray they become a basis for meditation and worship for you, my friends, this week.

Signs of Summer

I’m at the farm for the week-end, ostensibly to clean up and get ready for company next week-end and my return home for the summer. The reality, though, is that I’ve just about crashed! Our first Finals were on Friday, and now that the let-down has begun I am very very tired.

It was a hard semester in a number of respects. Teaching Philosophy was a real stretch. Whereas Grammar, at this point, I suspect I could teach while blindfolded, I haven’t read any philosophy since Rudy Behar’s Comparative Arts course at Guilford College in 1988. I loved the subject! Getting into the kind of depth we did, by focusing only on the “Big Three” — Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — has proven to be, for me, a mind- and soul-stretching experiencing. But staying one step ahead of my students who are exceptionally bright and eager young men and women, has been quite a challenge, to say the least.

Then there are those unpleasant occasions where the behavioral and character deficiencies of certain students had to be recognized and dealt with. There are students with a variety of personal crises, too, covering an astonishing range for such a small population. Their concerns weigh heavily on me; I want to fix everything for everyone, and of course I can’t.

So with everything beginning to lift for a few weeks, I arrived home on Friday afternoon, shortly after noon, and with all my work to get ready for the carpet cleaners, I first had to lie down for a few minutes. After the carpet cleaners left, at nearly 3:00, I had to lie down again. I think I’ve taken five or six naps over the past two days! And — nearly unheard of! — I slept eight straight hours Friday night.

Still, it’s summer! If we couldn’t see this and feel it by the thermometer, which has hit the mid-80s for the past two days, we’d know it by the evening song of the whipporwill, that perfect herald of the season. For the past two evenings I’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear his call as dusk settled. Both evenings, I stopped what I was doing and just… listened, holding my breath after the first call, until I was sure my mind hadn’t been playing tricks on me.

I ran down the road yesterday afternoon to a local farm that has a stand for its own produce. Strawberries are in — these were so sweet and so flavorful! I didn’t need sugar or whipped creme or anything, just popped them into my mouth like candy as I worked on the kitchen and cooked supper. There were perfect,tiny butter-yellow straightneck squash and emerald zucchini. The tomatoes, the girl admitted, had been bought at market, coming from Florida, but it won’t be long now before our first locals are ready. I was shocked to hear her say the first peaches for our area will be pulled this morning.

Then, last night, I was on the computer talking with a friend and a tiny flash of fluorescent light caught my attention: a lightening bug!

So it must not be my imagination, or mere wishful thinking. “Behold, the winter is come and gone, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land.” Er, sorry, Solomon — the whipporwill.

When a friend is suffering

A friend got an email today from his estranged wife. She’s seen a lawyer about filing for divorce.

This is the kind of news that hits a person in the gut, exposing old scars and reawakening old sorrows. I find that I’m grieving for my friend, and for his wife, for lost dreams and disappointed hopes — theirs and mine.

Marriage is a serious business. Two people exchange promises, establish a new family together, mingle their lives and souls… really do become one. And whether those bonds are severed out of utter necessity, as in my case, or out of some unknown, unintelligible cause, as in my friend’s, the tragedy of the sundering is of inestimable magnitude. The December 26 earthquake in Indonesia, which resulted in the tsunami disaster throughout the Indian Ocean basin and which was recorded to still be shaking the earth weeks after the event, is negligible by comparison.

For my friend, this email places before him what he feels to be a personal failure, although he as yet has been unable to identify what that failure might entail — sufficient to justify a divorce, that is. It brings about a complex sense of loss that only someone who has been abandoned can begin to comprehend. It is standing on the epicenter of that earthquake. He can now begin looking to the future, whereas he has been in a sort of limbo until now, but wisely he is allowing himself time to grieve his loss, to recover his balance and his footing, and I’m glad for that.

I’d comfort my friend if I could. But the only comforts I could offer right now would feel like salt in wounds, or cheesy platitudes. All I can do is stand by and watch and share the sorrow — for both of them! And I can pray, and I do pray, that the day will quickly come when my friend discovers the beauty that grows out of ashes, when he learns for himself that the Love of our Heavenly Father is bigger even than this.

May the God of all Comfort bless and keep you, dearest friend, and guide your steps by the Light of His most holy and perfect Love.

Reflections on Heirship Music (cont.)

But more than that — how arrogant I was! perhaps we all were. We were on fire for Jesus, we had so much enthusiasm, and so little wisdom. Every impulse we thought was a divine Leading; every opinion we chalked up to discernment.

I’ve been thinking about that for the past two days, stuck on it! trying to build on it, trying to make sense of it. Because it didn’t come out in that original post: God used those guys, and occasionally even me.

But it wasn’t enough — we had great ideas, noble impulses and ambitions… we had faith — of a sort. But I think, for myself, it was an idea of faith, not faith itself, that I was clinging to in those days. People told me that, as a Christian, I was supposed to believe certain things, do certain things — and I professed and tried to accomplish those things because I really wanted to be a good Christian. I really even believed…

but when my life collapsed, the joists of my faith were found to be rotted through and through. The fundamental beliefs, the foundation of Who Jesus Is — that remained solid. But all the supplemental things of what I was supposed to believe about Him, and the difference that was supposed to make in my life, were proved false.

I’d been told that if you play the game right, if you believe the right things and do the right things, then God is supposed to bless you and everything in your life is supposed to be hunkey-dorey. I didn’t just believe the right things, the orthodox things, about Jesus’ identity or His salvation; I believed the things about speaking in tongues, soul-winning, and ministry that I’d been told I was supposed to. I read my Bible daily, attended church every time the doors were open (most weeks) and went to The House of Jubilee frequently. I surrounded myself with good Christian people. I tried to honor and please God by following the example and instruction of people I saw as better, more authoritative Christians, than I was. Those authority figures included the guys in Heirship.

I don’t fault them — they were among some of the best friends I had, and they gave me the best that was in them.

But — if I can use the house-building metaphor again — the foundation of rock is necessary, but it’s not enough. The joists, the studs, everything else about the structure that we call a house also has to meet specs in order to be secure. In my case, the foundation was the only thing that was sound. My life was like a house built with defective, warped, termite-ridden materials, and whose joists and wall studs were spaced too far apart. When the worst thing I could anticipate, happened, everything caved in. Only the foundation remained.

(to be continued…)