Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut
Friday, July 21, 2017

Donald DeMarco

Commentary

Dr. Donald DeMarco

 

There is considerable wisdom in the popular maxim “Stop and smell the roses.” A recent study done at Rutgers University, and reported in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, indicates that taking the time to appreciate people and the little things in life can play in important role in our overall happiness. Even taking the time, literally, to smell flowers, can be a healthy antidote to what is called the “rat race” in which we often find ourselves.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade, of the Society of Jesus, wrote The Sacrament of the Present Moment to help his readers hear God’s voice as he speaks to us at every moment, and with love. This 300-year-old classic asks us to put aside our ego and pride so that we can be open to God’s salvific grace that is available from moment to moment. Each day, the author assures us, is a sacrament that we should not ignore.

In another 300-year-old classic, The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence advises us that “whatever we do, even if we are reading the Word or praying, we should stop for a few minutes – as often as possible – to praise God from the depths of our hearts, to enjoy Him there in secret.”

“[W]hy shouldn’t you stop,” he asks, “for a while to adore Him, to petition Him, to offer Him your heart, and to thank Him?” There should be many stop signs in our daily lives that invite us to listen to the voice of God. The horizontal dimension of life should not eclipse our vertical relationship with the transcendent.

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,” said the poet, William Wordsworth: “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; little we see in Nature that is ours; we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.” Our excessive preoccupation with money has dulled our spiritual faculties. We have traded in Homo sapiens for Homo economicus. There is little time to stop and think. Our lives remain unexamined; our destiny, undiscovered. Speed robs us of the opportunity to appreciate all the beauty that lies around us.

Speed has become a central characteristic of our culture. The 1982 movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is an excellent encapsulation of America’s love affair with speed. It portrays teenagers trying to grow up too fast, working at fast-food restaurants, engaging in fast sex, listening to fast music and taking fast-acting drugs. There is no time either to think or to live. Unfortunately, the movie was regarded more for its entertainment value than for its timely moral message.

Technology, from speedways to the high-speed internet, has certainly sped up our lives, but at the price of reducing our face-to-face relationships and opportunities to appreciate the sacrament of the moment. In walking to work, we become involved in a host of interpersonal exchanges. If we ride a bicycle, these exchanges are fewer. But if we take the car, though we gain in speed, we lose in personal encounters. Getting there becomes all-important.

A character by the name of Yonatan Frimer has recited Hamlet’s “To Be, or Not To Be” soliloquy in less than a minute. At this speed, however, the message is completely unintelligible. It is fair to say that Shakespeare would have preferred a slower pace. Speed obscures. In “getting there” faster, speed erases all the vital experiences we could have enjoyed along the way. Life is to be lived, not rushed.

Mozart, who knew something about music, taught that the silent moments between the notes were more important than the notes themselves. This is a key to understanding the spiritual significance of his music. We might also say that in those silent moments between one action and another we begin to appreciate and enjoy the life that surrounds us, and perhaps even hear the Word of God. We need to stop and think, rather than stop and go. We need to meditate, to look over what we often overlook, to count our blessings. Life should not be a high-speed, endless merry-go-round, but the continuing opportunity to savor the blessings that God has strewn at our feet.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario.

DonDeMarco1 sm 75x75Column name: Soliloquies of a secular heretic

 

I recall hearing a statement that a teenager made when a TV host asked her, “If there is one thing you could tell your parents, what would that be?”

“I would tell them,” she replied, with an unmistakable air of confidence, “to be more lenient with us because the times have changed!” She gave the last four words strong emphasis as if her mom and dad were either hard of hearing or hard of thinking.

It was a most revealing answer, if one is willing to read into it. At face value, it may have been predictable. Teenagers are likely to love freedom more than discipline. Yet it is far too simplistic to believe that teenagers are alert to change while their parents are insensitive to it. Is there any parent who is not on life support who is not keenly aware of change? We now have flat screen televisions, high speed Internet, on-line banking, ATM machines, iPads, same-sex marriage, bone marrow transplants, keyless entrances to cars, genetically modified food, cyberspace bullying, the Zika virus, physician-assisted suicide and the persistent threat of terrorism.

A person, parent or otherwise, could no more be inattentive to such changes than he or she could fail to notice the presence of rain during a thunderstorm. Change is merely a synonym for what’s happening. Both parents and their children face the same formidable problem of how to navigate through the stormy seas of incessant change. They need to assist, not oppose, each other.

The problem that vexes the teenager, however, is the very same problem with which adults wrestle. It does have to do with change, but not the kind of change that is going on. The problem is that God wants us, along with parents, to change. Since time immemorial, people have been quarreling with God. Why do you make things so difficult for us? Why is your road so “narrow”? Why can’t we have the freedom to do as we please? And why do you assail us with guilt?

The answer remains the same. Because God loves us, God wants our better self to emerge. And just as the artist or the inventor must take pains in order to perfect his or her finished product, so, too, we must suffer the pain of discipline and the inconvenience of self-denial in order to become who we truly are as children of God. The experience of guilt simply means that our own complicity in wrongdoing has put us on the wrong track. Guilt is part of our moral compass.

The teenager’s criticism of her parents is an image of humanity’s universal quarrel with God. It is fair to say that parents are in a better position, all things considered, to raise their teenagers than the latter are to raise their parents. The alternative view is one change that we should neither advance nor tolerate. No teenager aspires to being married one day and then allow his or her children to determine how they should be raised. The task of parenting belongs to the parents. More importantly, however, let us acknowledge that God is in a better position to advise us on how we are to live than we ourselves are.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works are available through Amazon.com.

Soliloquies from a Secular Heretic

On January 23, 1943, the S.S. Dorchester, carrying 904 passengers, mostly military men, left for Greenland. During the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223 off the coast of Newfoundland. The blast knocked out the electrical system, leaving the ship in the dark. Panic ensued. Four chaplains sought to calm the men and organize an orderly evacuation. They also assisted in the attempt to guide the wounded men to safety. Life jackets were passed out until the limited supply ran out. The chaplains then removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. They helped as many men as they could into lifeboats. When they could no longer be of help, they linked arms, saying prayers and singing hymns. They went down with the ship.

The four chaplains were of different faiths but shared the conviction that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend. One survivor wrote a moving testimony: “The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

According to the testimony of another survivor: “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.” According to the Army War College account, another survivor of the Dorchester, John Ladd, said of the four chaplains’ selfless act: “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”

Who were these courageous and self-sacrificing men? They were truly an extraordinary quartet. George L. Fox was a Methodist preacher who had been decorated for bravery and was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre. Alexander D. Goode, the son of a rabbi, followed in his father’s footsteps. He received his doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins University. He was both an athlete as well as an intellectual. Clark V. Poling was ordained in the Protestant Reformed Church in America. He studied at Yale University’s Divinity School and graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1936. John P. Washington was a Catholic priest. He was chief of the Chaplains Reserve Pool at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind. In 1942, he reported to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Mass., where he met chaplains Fox, Goode and Poling at Chaplains School at Harvard.

On December 19, 1944, all four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1988, February 3 was established by a unanimous act of Congress as an annual “Four Chaplains Day.” The United States Post Office Department issued a commemorative stamp in 1948 honoring the chaplains. The stamp bore the words: “These immortal chaplains . . . Interfaith in Action.” The various ways in which these self-sacrificing men of God are honored, in music, literature, iconography and other modes of expression is quite extensive.

We often admire what we are reluctant to imitate. Nonetheless, our willingness to honor genuine heroes at least keeps our sights on the right ideal. Perhaps this is the first step in gaining the willingness to do something heroic. In the meantime, there are the unheroic acts of self-sacrifice that are always within our grasp. One way of honoring the “Immortal Chaplains” and their like is by making small acts of generosity. That may very well have been the apprenticeship of chaplains Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington long before they boarded the ill-fated S.S. Dorchester.

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut.

Soliloquies from a Secular Heretic

A person’s last words – his or her exit line – may or may not be a conscious goodbye to the world he or she is about to leave. They may or may not be characteristic of the person, encapsulating a life in a few syllables. It is a romantic idea, however, to think that they are, like the dying words of an actor. Hamlet’s last words were, “the rest is silence.” Julius Caesar’s last words were, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.” What could be more theatrical? On the other hand, Scarlett O’Hara’s last words in Gone With the Wind, “Tomorrow is another day,” are bright with hope and determination. Her words parallel in optimism the final words of Sidney Carton as he faced execution in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

While a priest was reading Charlie Chaplin his last rites, he recited the words, “May the Lord have mercy on your soul.” “Why not?” was the legendary actor’s reply, “After all, it belongs to him.”

When I relayed this anecdote to a priest friend of mine, he responded with an immediate burst of enthusiasm: “How wonderful!” he exclaimed. There must be some theological depth to Mr. Chaplin’s reply, I thought, since it prompted such a strong and spontaneous affirmation.

It does not matter that the exchange between the priest and the revered actor might not have really taken place, since the same exchange occurs in the 1947 movie, “Monsieur Verdoux.” Be that as it may, it was the rich theological implications that interested me.

Our soul does, indeed, belong to the God who created it. Thus, God is most inclined to have mercy on something of his own making. We can, therefore, expect mercy from God. And yet, we are in charge of our soul. It is “ours” in the sense that it is entrusted to us. We are the stewards of our soul. And when we meet our Maker, our Maker will review what we have done with it.

 Joan Crawford, who specialized in portraying characters who were often self-centered and cold-blooded, had a different exit line. When, on her death bed, she overheard her housekeeper praying aloud for her, she said, rather forcefully, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me.” Ms. Crawford may have felt that her soul belonged exclusively to herself.

What we have done with the soul that God has entrusted to us is the subject of our final examination. We can expect mercy, but we must show God how much we appreciated his gift to us. When we return the rental to the car dealer, we may have to pay for whatever damages it sustained while we were using it.

“May the Lord have mercy on your soul” is spoken, and properly so, in the subjunctive mood. God will have mercy on our souls only if we are willing to accept it, and perhaps more importantly, if we have shown mercy to others.

Yet there is another factor. We are terribly fallible creatures, prone to an endless series of crimes and follies. God is merciful to us because of his loving generosity; but God is also merciful to us because he is sympathetic to our wounded condition. “Heaven have mercy on us all,” wrote the great American novelist, Herman Melville, “for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head and sadly need mending.”

God’s mercy is available, but it is not administered unless a person wills to receive it. Water is abundantly available. But a person may choose not to use it to wash his or her face. The moment of death is one of intense realism. “So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21).

One prays that God’s bounteous mercy will shine on the good fruits of a person’s life and that the combination of mercy and goodness will illuminate the pathway to a better world.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is an adjuct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell. 

Hoping to dispense mercy, King Frederick William I (1688-1740) visited a prison in Potsdam, Germany. He listened attentively to one prisoner after another, each of whom claimed that he was a victim of injustice. They all alleged being sent to prison because of prejudiced judges, perjured witnesses or unscrupulous lawyers. From cell to cell, the king heard each prisoner swear his innocence and insist on his false imprisonment until he came to an inmate who said nothing.

“Well, I suppose you are innocent, too,” said Frederick, somewhat sarcastically. “No, your majesty,” came the startling reply. “I am guilty and richly deserve all that I get.” “Here, turnkey,” thundered the king, “come and get rid of this rascal quick, before he corrupts this fine lot of innocent people that you are responsible for.”

If I may stretch an analogy, I once found myself in a comparable, but far less dramatic situation. While a houseguest, I observed an unhappy situation unfolding for which there seemed to be no solution. The oldest daughter had apparently (but not definitively) neglected certain household duties. Her punishment was severe. She would not be allowed to play soccer that day. The father of the house wanted to be merciful, but he knew that he must also insist on discipline and responsibility. He feared that if he backed down, he would be shirking his fatherly responsibilities. The mother also hoped for mercy, but remained silent since she did not want to interfere with the execution of her husband’s responsibilities. It was a stand-off. Meanwhile, I could hear the daughter’s sobs from her prison in the basement.

I thought of a way that would be acceptable to everyone.

“There is an old Catholic tradition,” I said to my hosts, who were highly respectful of Catholic lore, “that if you are showing hospitality to a guest and it is his birthday” (which it was), “in accordance with the esteemed Passover custom, you are allowed to release one prisoner.”

That did the trick. A broad smile swept across the father’s face. He raced downstairs and freed his prisoner. She emerged happily from her cell, gave me a big hug and verbalized her heartfelt thanks. The father could show mercy because he had a basis that justified it, and one that had a long and honored tradition (especially the part about Passover).

Mercy cannot be dispensed willy-nilly. It means nothing to the unrepentant who would regard it as irrelevant and unneeded. But it means everything to the person who has accepted justice and thirsts for mercy.

“Justice without mercy is cruelty,” writes Saint Thomas Aquinas. On the other hand, according to the angelic Doctor, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution.” The New England poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, put it nicely when he said, “Being all fashioned of the self-same dust, / Let us be merciful as well as just.”

A little mercy goes a long way. It brings joy to a young girl, relief to a father, pride to a mother and peace to a family. But it also can bring a smile of satisfaction to a houseguest.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review.

Soliloquies from a Secular Heretic

Warm-heartedness embraces a multitude of virtues. It includes sympathy, kindness, congeniality, gentleness and care. It is a virtue for those who are seasoned in virtue. According to J. P. Marquand, “There is a certain phase in the life of the aged when the warmth of the heart seems to increase in direct proportion with years.” Warm-heartedness is the soft glow of love, winning over people’s trust and rendering them comfortable in an intimate, often domestic, environment. It is virtue that is perfectly suited for the Christmas season.

On the other hand, we know only too well how age can harden people, turning them into cranky, crusty, crotchety, cantankerous, grumpy old men and women. Life is a drama, ambiguous and uncertain. If we are fortunate and live long enough to enter our “Golden Years,” we have no assurance whatsoever that we will arrive at that noble estate without being cursed by cold-heartedness. The entire thrust of Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, is to warm up the frosty heart of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Early in the story, Dickens describes his character as follows: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell is an icy lake. Scrooge was headed in that direction until his heart started to heat up. And when it did, it burst into a paroxysm of love and generosity. If warm-heartedness is the channel, love is its furnace. Philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand speaks of “the peculiar quality of expansive warm-heartedness which belongs to pure love.” He also points out how easy it is for lust and any of the other Deadly Sins to cause the heart to atrophy and lose its warmth. A heart of vice is a heart of ice.

 The warm heart has the capacity to warm others, just as a source of heat warms its immediate surroundings. A warm heart can touch other hearts and ignite them in the process. The Heart of Jesus not only warms, but burns. After talking with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the two companions say to each other: “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24, 32)

One of the endearing features of the warmhearted person is that he or she manifests virtue even prior to its enactment. The virtue of warm-heartedness, like modesty, is recognized apart from its being expressed in action. Its “temperature” alone is sufficient to make its presence felt. This is the case with any personal feature that has warmth, whether the warmth is in the heart, the eyes, the words, the smile or the laughter.

Just as, according to the old saying, “Who splits wood warms twice,” the warmhearted person engenders warm-heartedness in others. Marriage is a relationship that demands that the spouses warm each other’s hearts.

When we warm up people’s drinks, we can be taking an important step in warming their hearts. We have house-warmings in the hope that these dwelling places will warm the hearts of all of its future inhabitants and guests. The physical is closely attuned to the spiritual. This is “global warming” in the best sense of the expression. “Shall not my heart’s warmth not nurse thee into strength?” asks the poet Browning.

Let us all grow warmer with age and may the warmth of Christmas warm all our hearts.

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of HLI America, an Initiative of Human Life International. He is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell. Some of his recent writings may be found at HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum, where this column first appeared.

Soliloquies from a Secular Heretic

Perhaps the two most beloved Christmas stories that we see every year on television are Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The former involves a man from hell, Jacob Marley, who shows Ebenezer Scrooge the ruinous future he is preparing for himself and for others. The latter involves an angel from heaven, Clarence Odbody, who shows George Bailey what a wonderful life he has had. In both stories the order of time is changed so that the trajectory of the two lives can be seen from the perspective of eternity. Also central to the stories are the families of Bob Cratchit and George Bailey. Each person can have a profound effect on others, especially on intimates, according to how that person views the significance of his or her life.