About Josh McDonald

A writer, cartoonist, and a movie theater manager; Josh makes his home in New Hampshire where he has a fiancee and a rabbit named Ginger.

Looking-Glass Wars

My mother gave the book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron as a Christmas gift this year, for both my wife and myself. Though I’m not quite finished with it, the following passage really stood out for me:

Aristotle said that the best activities are the most useless. This is because such things are not simply means to a further end, but are done entirely for their own sake. Thus watching a baseball game is more important than getting a haircut, and cultivating a friendship is more valuable than making money The game and the friendship are goods that are excellent in themselves, while getting a haircut and making money are in service of something beyond themselves. This is also why the most important parts of the newspaper are the sports section and the comics, and not, as we would customarily think, the business and political reports. In this sense, the most useless activity of all is the celebration of the Liturgy, which is another way of saying that it is the most important thing we could possibly do.

My own total lack of interest in sports notwithstanding, this passage does a good job, I think, of capturing the heart of why I remain a devoted Catholic. Father Barron does a very good job throughout of showing the myriad ways in which our society’s values are not God’s values — that in many ways our world is upside-down and backwards; a mirror-image of what it should be.

And he does so not through the typical Conservative “Culture Wars” rhetoric, but through true Gospel values. He writes of Christ calling us to oppose “… the realm of hatred, racism, sexism, violence, oppression, imperialism, what Augustine termed the libido dominandi (the lust to dominate).” The church, he points out, is not meant merely to withstand these forces, standing hard and fast against the Worldly onslaught until such time as Jesus returns to rescue us. Rather, our calling is to actively oppose injustice.

Father Barron speaks of our mission to “invade the world” (a more timely phrase might be, “occupy the world”) with God’s transformative love. But Love doesn’t mount a frontal assault — the ethic of “turn the other cheek” is more about (to appropriate another timely phrase) “winning over the hearts and minds” of those we should see not as the enemy, but as fellow-victims of an oppressive power-structure.

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Waiting For the World to End

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

This well-worn truism, keystone of so many commencement speeches this time of year, made its way into my meditations on Sunday, May 22 this year. Not that I’d actually expected the Rapture to happen the day before – Catholic theology has never dwelt too much on the end-times. We believe that someday everything will end, that we’ll all be called upon to give an accounting of our lives on this Earth, and that we won’t have any way of knowing when it might happen so there’s no point in worrying about it.

But apocalyptic predictions have a way of exciting the public imagination. In times like these, trusted institutions crumbling, society coming apart at the seams, our world broken beyond repair, it’s tempting to imagine a Great Cosmic Reset Button. It’s easier, more comforting, to believe that this world will be swept away and something better will magically take its place. It’s a spiritual death, really, a walking suicide.

“We’re waiting for the world to change,” says one recent popular song. It’s always irked me, that song and its attempt to put a positive spin on a defeatist attitude. As we wait for the world to change, or for a Deus ex machina to change it for us, our God-given talents lie buried in the ground. If we can’t be trusted to look after this world, can we really expect to be entrusted to the next? At the very least, maybe we can try and tidy up some before He gets here.

Looking ahead in our liturgical calendar, toward the end of the Easter season, I’m struck by the readings for the upcoming commemoration of Christ’s Ascension into Heaven (June second). As the Apostles stand in awe, staring at where they’d seen their friend and Lord disappear into the clouds, they are admonished by two angels; “Why are you standing around staring into the sky? Don’t you know he’s coming back?” It reminds me of that old bumper sticker, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” It isn’t as though there’s any shortage of work to be done.

If anything, there’s too much work to be done. It might seem overwhelming, but that’s when I like to turn to a reflection attributed to the late Archbishop Romero. No one, it tells us, can do everything, but everyone can do something. And only then, through hundreds of thousands of somethings over the course of time, the work gets done. Changing the world is like planting a tree – we plant today what we will never see the fruits of, and future generations will carry on the work we started. Just as we cultivate what previous generations have planted. This wider perspective gives us the freedom – but also the responsibility – to do what we can.

The Way The World Is

“This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it’s just lunch.”

Roughly a third into Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the above quote made me stop and think. The author is quoting Gene Kahn, whose little back-to-the-land farm from the seventies is now a subsidiary of General Mills and one of the biggest names in the organic food industry. Kahn was explaining, unapologetically, how youthful radical idealism gradually gave way to corporate mindset. “Everything eventually morphs into the way the world is.”

But “the way the world is” really isn’t the way it should be; if this fact weren’t so deeply engrained in our Catholic theology, this book reminds me of it several times per page.

As a devotee of St. Francis of Assisi and his holistic approach to spirituality, I bristle at these quotes and their lackadaisical attitude. Just because the rest of the world doesn’t see the sacred wonder of God’s providence in every meal, it doesn’t justify the rest of us throwing in the ideological towel.

And yet …

As I read that particular section of the book I happened to be eating a greasy slice from a nearby pizza joint. In the ordinary day-to-day, it is too easy to let mundane convenience overshadow sacred mystery. And even as I protest too much, I still give in to the mindset of “just lunch”. Life too often wears away at ideals –gradually and over time – until, eventually, they settle into “the way the world is”.

Which is why this book is such a wonderful experience. Although it doesn’t present itself as a spiritual book, its thorough examination of ecological science is a remarkable faith-booster. Looking at the myriad ways God has crafted our world so that every part nourishes and is in turn nourished by each other is a powerful reminder of just how wonderful and generous a God we have. And it drives home just how far modern humanity has strayed from the ideal of Eden – how far “the way the world is” is from “the way the world was meant to be”.

Josh McDonald is a writer and cartoonist who lives and works in New Hampshire and maintains a web-based comic strip at http://www.askrachelcomic.com.

Getting Creative for Lent

This Lent, I’m trying to do more drawing. Said like that, it doesn’t seem like much and I’m a little embarrassed to name Drawing as my Lenten discipline. But there it is: I’m drawing for Lent.

But creative works – drawing, writing, music, whatever – are very prayerful activities. I often find my best praying is done with a pencil and sketchbook (just as much of my best writing happens during Mass). I find the Spirit is never quite so alive and active in me as when I am trying to interpret a piece of God’s Creation into a little creation of my own. I start to see the world differently, to recognize the grace and the beauty that can too often be taken for granted.

The creative arts are, I believe, one way we can understand our having been made in the likeness of our Creator. It is also part of our call to be a Prophetic people – to share with the world a unique vision, to call attention to that which we might otherwise be too busy to notice. Lately I’d begun to feel like Jonah, letting my particular prophetic gift be swallowed up by worldly concerns. I had buried my talents in the ground instead of investing them in something that might bring about some return.

Josh McDonald is a writer and cartoonist who lives and works in New Hampshire and maintains a web-based comic strip at http://www.askrachelcomic.com.

Inheriting the Promises

Brothers and sisters: God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name by having served and continuing to serve the holy ones. We earnestly desire each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of hope until the end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who, through faith and patience, are inheriting the promises.

Heb 6: 10-12

This passage from Tuesday’s first reading somehow gets me thinking about the Communion of Saints – all those great and holy men and women who have gone before us. To paraphrase Archbishop Oscar Romero: they planted seeds that one day would grow, while we water the seeds they planted. And sometimes, we might even reap the harvest of seeds planted and watered before our time.

Such thoughts are hard to avoid just now as we celebrate the back-to-back occasions of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday and President Barack Obama’s inauguration. And I was pleased to hear the President’s address echo some of the sentiments of the day’s reading:

Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the fainthearted, for those who prefer leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

And,

What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

It was a stirring and important reminder that the best – maybe the only – way to honor those great souls who have gone before us is to take up the work they had begun, and to carry it on in our own lives.

Epiphany

In a recent piece on NPR the reporter, no doubt tired of hearing the same old handful of economics experts repeating the same old dire predictions about the national economy, talked to some astrologers to find out what their particular field of study had to say about it. It was a fluff piece and quickly forgotten, until Sunday’s Epiphanal Gospel reading. Until I was reminded that, while the birth of Christ went unnoticed among the vast majority of His own people – a people actively hoping and waiting for His coming – it was astrologers from far-off lands, reading the signs in the stars, who recognized what a momentous event had just taken place.

It’s said that all roads lead to Rome; our Catechism tells us that every belief system, imperfect as it may be, represents humanity’s attempts to reach for a God who loves us. And so it happens that these practitioners of a belief system condemned both by the religion Jesus was born into and the one he would inspire, nevertheless found their way to Him.

When Everything Old is New Again

In response to a worldwide consultation requested by Pope Benedict XVI, the U.S. Bishops have recommended moving the sign of peace from its present location just before Communion to an earlier point in the Mass – after the scripture readings and before the offertory, or the presentation of gifts.
– John L. Allen Jr., National Catholic Reporter. Read the full story here.

This front-page story jumped out at me as I brought this week’s NCR into the apartment, and I grumbled, “why are they trying to change the way we’ve always done it?” Meaning, of course, the way I’ve always done it. So now I’ve officially become one of those Grumpy Old Catholics. Or maybe this is the beginning of Grumpy Old Catholics: the Next Generation. In any case, I’m feeling very resistant to the idea of changing the liturgical norms I’ve grown up with.

But it’s not a simple matter of wanting things to stay the same just for the sake of familiarity. The liturgical tug-of-war currently going on in the Church is about what kind of Sacramental experience we bring to, and take from, the Mass. And the Sacraments, the point at which life and metaphor intersect, are key to how we as Catholics experience our Faith.

This strikes me as just the latest version of an ideological division in how Catholics view (ironically) the Sacrament of Communion. I call it (somewhat simplistically) “Eucharist” versus “Communion” — where Eucharist focuses on the outward signs of the Sacrament, while Communion looks more to the meaning behind it. Eucharist wants to worship Christ present in the gifts on the altar; Communion prefers Christ present within the community.

I heard once of a small monastery of contemplative Franciscans (I forget where, or who they are) who would spend about half their day in Eucharistic Adoration, then spend the rest of the day in the streets of the city attending to the needs of Christ in the poorest and neediest of the homeless population. And it seems to me that they understand better than most of us how the one part of the Sacrament feeds the other.

Which is why, ultimately, I would hope to see the sign of peace remain where it is. Because the ideological divide I describe is false; it breaks apart what ought to be united. So it seems to me good and proper that, in the middle of our celebration of Eucharist we pause to recognize our Communion.