Lenten reflection on The Call of Levi: the weak spots

As I write this it is Saturday, March 4, 2017; the Saturday after Ash Wednesday.  The Gospel   Reading for today is the story of Levi the tax collector from Luke 5:27-32:  The Call of Levi, as it is sometimes called.  The narrative is a familiar one.  Jesus calls over the tax collector, Levi.  Like all tax collectors of this time they are a reviled lot, but Jesus says to him, “Follow me.”  What ensues after is left to the imagination, but we are told that, later, Jesus dines with him and other tax collectors.  The Pharisees then reproached Jesus for associating with sinners, after which Jesus responds with the oft cited retort, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  In common parlance this is the old problem of not “preaching to the converted.”

That narrative is certainly at play, but I think there is more going on here.  After my reading of this passage I engaged in an Ignatian meditation, the kind where one imaginatively places themselves in the scene.  The details of my meditation are unimportant, but I would like to share a few things.  At the banquet, Jesus, Levi, and the other tax collectors and sinners all share a meal, conversation, and laughter.  They are there, plainly, in their humanity.  They are there in their simplicity and even vulnerability.

I was then immediately reminded of something I had experienced or felt when I was  in my very early twenties on a few but poignant instances.  At that time I had drifted away from the Church, but looking back now I can see that I had had experiences for years that, I believe, can only be identified as spiritual, perhaps calling me back or even keeping me connected.  These particular experiences in my early twenties, in their seeming banality, all went something like this: I would be at the local mall having a bite in the dining area.  There would always be someone else eating alone as I was.  I couldn’t help but watch them, the way they were just there chowing down, in, what I can only describe, their simple humanity.  Some of these souls I saw were tough looking guys.  Others looked as lonely there and then as I imagined them as being through much of their life.  Some were beautiful or handsome.  Some very plain and a bit gawky.  But the thing that united these occurrences – and I stress there were only a handful – was the phenomenon I observed that I can only call “the tender act of satiation,” and the accompanying feeling I had each time, which was that I was witness to, and perhaps even enjoining, human weakness.  This is very hard to explain without sounding sentimental, but I truly believe there was more going on here than some projecting of my own sentimentality as a flaneur of regular people doing an ordinary act.  There was in all those episodes, as it were, something else speaking to me, and whatever that was, was brought out vividly through today’s Gospel reading.  The tender act of satiation, the feeding of a hunger, is in many respects the dissipating of an ongoing or repeated weakness.

Our hungers and fragility are universal.  We often attempt to cover them over with veneers of toughness, or we try to escape them in all kinds of unfortunate ways. But then, when we are just ourselves, simply and plainly, we remedy this hunger.

Sometimes at Mass or during holy hour I have a similar experience to those I had in the concessions area at the Mall.  I see ordinary people doing an ordinary thing, which is truly extraordinary.  They are feeding their spiritual hunger.

What was Levi hungry for?  I’d like to believe that when he dined with Jesus he needed and was given more than the food served.  And how much more rich and meaningful the laughter and companionship must have been that evening.  The Pharisees only saw a scoundrel in Levi; Christ saw someone vulnerable and lovable despite, or even because of, their sins.

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My Favorite Catholic Podcasts

A little over a year ago I told the director of religious education at my parish that I believe there is a slow and tenuous mood shift in our culture that will be increasingly open to traditional values and religion, including Catholicism. Translation: Catholic stuff is getting popular again.  She thought I was crazy.  Maybe I was and still am. But in not a lot of time I have seen a rise in the quantity and quality of Catholic social media.  Catholic Twitter alone is impressive, but the stuff going on over at YouTube and the increasing number of podcasts is, I would humbly assert, enough to give my comment from a year ago at least some credibility.

I wanted to highlight some of my favorite stars of Catholic social media for fun and hopefully to get the word out on some really great stuff.  The notable Catholic YouTube channels will have to wait for another day. Now, I’d like to introduce a few good podcasts that have gotten me through difficult times, enlightened me, entertained me, and helped me clean my house.  (I love learning while mopping the floor.)   Some of these I’ve been listening to for a while, and others are either new or I only just discovered them and found them compelling enough to stick ’em in here.

Rather than rank or rate these, or otherwise insinuate some ordering, I decided to categorize the eight podcasts I either regularly listen to, or got into recently and enough to “binge listen” while making paella (because it takes a long time).  They’re all quite different, and they’re all, by my humble yet discerning taste, quite excellent.

The Bishop Barron Two: Sermons and The Word on Fire Show

Has any Catholic under the age of 60 not heard of Bishop Robert Barron? I was trying to explain Barron to a friend lately and I described him as Fulton Sheen mixed with St. Patrick, which is to say he works the popular media like Fulton Sheen did TV, but also works diligently to convert non-Catholics and bring back lapsed Catholics the way that St. Patrick did with the Druid pagans of Ireland.

The Sermons are essentially Barron, in his unmistakable style, delivering homilies on the weekly readings.  But here’s the thing: these come out several days (Wednesdays, I think) before Sunday.  What I love about Barron is that he doesn’t hold back on the depth of the readings, and nor is he shy about making references to the lives and works of theologians, philosophers, saints, blesseds, and even heretics from antiquity to the present.  But don’t take this as suggesting Barron is pedantic.  Hardly.  What I love about these sermons is that they exhibit Catholicism in all its glory and really get to the heart of the meaning in the readings.  There are some I have listened to several times.  As I write this, just before Ash Wednesday 2017, his series from the past few weeks on the Sermon the Mount is especially noteworthy.  What’s good, too, is that these clock in at a short ten to fifteen minutes.

The Word on Fire Show is Bishop Barron responding to questions by the Word on Fire content director, Brandon Vogt, about various and sundry bits from pop culture.  These podcasts are typically about twenty minutes or so, and discuss things like movies, holidays, important news and events relevant to Catholics, and any other sensational bit that might be noteworthy.   Barron really rocks these, and I have especially enjoyed when he takes on famous and outspoken atheists.  These come out once a week, and when Barron is away on retreat or working one of his many lectures are uploaded, and these are not to be missed either.

Catholicism on Campus:  The Crunch and Fr. Mike Schmitz Homilies

It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a college student once you leave school and start working.  We forget how nearly everything is more intensely experienced.  I don’t know if this is because of the age we typically are when in college, or more simply that the manner in which so much concentrated information is given to us, and that we, in turn, respond in kind with either intense attraction or repulsion to our studies.  Even when college kids are indifferent they are intensely indifferent.  But I think we can learn a lot from, and be inspired by, college students because of this.  Frankly, I miss being a college student, even though I am a professor and am around college students all the time.  I miss being so into things that I want to talk about them all the time.  OK, well, I still am that way, but it’s a heck of a lot harder to find peers that want to, or even can, do that.  And that’s what makes college students smart.

The Crunch is a podcast by two college students, Ethan and Pat, from Kansas State and Franciscan University at Steubenville, respectively.  They banter, they joke, they get personal, and they deliver some great Catholic content.  What I love most about these guys  is that they’re really into their faith, they love learning more about it, and they are really quite insightful.  One of the things I most enjoy about their discussions is they never fail to bring theology — or whatever it is they may be talking about — and bring it into their own worlds, into the context of college life.  And you know, college life with all its drama and weirdness is, in the end, really not that different from what any of us face over the age of 30.  I think, too, these guys aren’t afraid to try things and speak about them honestly, such as Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory.  So fun stuff!  Go check them out.  Episodes are uploaded weekly, on Sundays, I believe.

Man, I love Fr. Mike Schmitz.  If he was my priest when I was a late teen I may very well have discerned and entered seminary.  I came upon his podcast quite by accident during a very tumultuous time in my life.  Before then I knew next to nothing about him, but I started listening to his homilies from the Newman Center at University of Minnesota, Duluth and they just, well, spoke to me. It was using the Gospels and applying them to life problems.  And then I noticed these would sometimes run in themes, like “heroic confidence or “it’s nothing personal”.  It didn’t take me long to notice that he was speaking to college students, but that didn’t matter at all.  The content of our problems may differ a bit, but the structure and the solutions are remarkably similar.  And Fr. Mike has to be one of the most warm and approachable priests working in the new media.  Each homily is about 15 to 20 minutes, and are typically uploaded weekly on Monday or Tuesday.  In the summer they taper off.

Everyday Catholicism: The Catholic Hipster and Catching Foxes

If the TV show Thirtysomething came back as a Catholic podcast it might very well be either of these two very cool podcasts that currently I know little about because I only recently discovered them.  But how about this: you know those young families that you see at Mass, where the mom and dad look kind of hip, but frazzled enough that you can’t quite imagine they can rock an interesting conversation, but then you find out they are into craft beer, indie rock, and esoteric saints from the 9th century?  Well that’s how I imagine the folks that do these podcasts.

The Catholic Hipster is Tommy Tighe and Sarah Vabulas, who converse about adulting from a Catholic perspective.  Occasionally they have guests from the new media.  The conversation is light and engaging and offers intelligent perspectives on being a responsible adult in the current culture from a Catholic perspective.  Tommy and Sarah have a great dynamic that is immensely listenable.

So I should have found out about Catching Foxes a while ago.  Not sure how I missed it, but whatevs, what’s done is done, and I have a lot of catching up to do with these fun guys.  Catching Foxes is a duo, Gomer and Luke, who do interviews and discuss all the weird, wild stuff in popular culture through a Catholic lens.  I’m only three episodes in, but I really like what these guys are doing and how they are doing it.  Apparently, a lot of listeners agree!  They don’t hold back on the, a hem, “colorful language”, so best not to listen around yer children folk.

Theonerding: Catholic Stuff You Should Know and Pints With Aquinas

I had a student a few years ago who was going to convert to Catholicism, and my suspicion was that it was for our philosophy and theology, much like that Seinfeld bit where a dentist wanted to convert to Judaism for the jokes.  Our intellectual tradition is second to none in the world, and has produced many of the best thinkers from antiquity to the present.  The four priests that make up Catholic Stuff You Should Know and Matt Fradd in Pints With Aquinas run with this.

Catholic Stuff You Should Know is one of the first Catholic podcasts I subscribed to, and I’ve truly gotten a lot from listening to them.  In fact, they spurred my interest in Hans Urs Von Balthasar!  But appropriate to their name, CSYSK covers all the little bits of Catholic and priestly life that you may have wondered about but were afraid to ask, covering the simple question of priestly vestments, to the controversial matter of homosexuality.  Whatever it is they cover, it is with scholarly aplomb, precision, thoroughness, and levity.  They are currently four priests, Fr. Nathan Goebel, Fr. John Nepil, Fr. Michael O’Loughlin, and Fr. Mike Rapp, from various parishes around the Denver area.  In most cases their podcasts are any two of them at a time, and it always seems they have a great chemistry together.

Pints With Aquinas is Matt Fradd’s podcast, and he does an excellent job introducing and breaking down the main arguments from St. Thomas Aquinas, usually from the Summa.  No easy task! Plus, he does with humor and levity! I love Aquinas, and don’t mind spending an evening reading him, but I can see how, despite his importance in Church teaching, approaching him is a bit daunting.  However, Fradd’s approach is simple yet effective: take one of Thomas’ questions of interest and go through the objections and response slowly and methodically.  Sometimes, Fradd will take a question or problem from our own time and see where it might be in the Summa, but the method is the same.  Occasionally, Fradd brings on some guests, and also occasionally he will explore a more generally theme not necessarily related to Thomas.  But this one is well worth checking out.