Sunday, June 30, 2013

Thomas B. McNulty, Jr. (1930-2013)

Whoever has a true desire to be in heaven is in heaven spiritually at that very time.
~ Anon., The Cloud of Unknowing (14th c.)
I'm the son-in-law—husband of Nancy, Tom's daughter. So, I’m not a blood relation, but Eleanore has given me the privilege of saying a few words about Tom, and I’m truly honored.

My first introduction to Tom was through Nancy of course, and, specifically, through his books. I think it was the first time Nancy and I really spent time together—I’d just moved into a house across from her place, and she invited me over for a cup of coffee and a get-acquainted chat. Maybe this is a peculiar habit, but when I visit someone’s home, I can’t help but look at the books in the bookcases. It tells me something about the people I’m visiting, what they’re interested in, what they care about.

As I looked through Nancy’s bookcases while she prepared the coffee, I was struck by how many volumes we had in common—a full set of the Catholic encyclopedia, for example, and lots of Classics of Western Spirituality. Even then, on our first meeting, I thought that we’d have to give away a lot duplicate books if we got married.

Carl Spitzweg, The Bookworm (ca. 1850)
As you can guess, the majority of the books in Nancy’s collection were from Tom, so looking through the shelves in her apartment told me as much about her dad as about Nancy. You all know this about Tom, I’m sure. He was an insatiable book hound and book pusher—and not just to his family. Has anyone here not been given a book by Tom?

The book thing was underscored when I visited the McNultys here in Omaha shortly after Nancy and I got engaged. There were books everywhere in the house—really, everywhere. And then Tom took me out to his favorite used bookstore in town—the Antiquarium, where he was on a first name basis with the proprietor—and we spent time getting to know each other by hunting for bargains and swapping favorites. Pretty much whenever I saw Tom after that, a bookstore prowl was something I count on.

Something else I could count on when coming to Omaha was an endless supply of candy, ice cream, and other things that we tried to reserve as special treats in our own home. This meant that, most assuredly, our seven kids always anticipated visits to or from Grandpa McNulty with great enthusiasm knowing that they’d be showered with Tootsie Rolls continuously.

That’s an example of Tom’s famous generosity, but it did have its limits. For example, he was, shall we say, a determined driver, and he did not suffer fools gladly. Many the trip to the grocery store or a bookstore with Tom behind the wheel combined a high level theological stream of conversation with an intermittent sampling of strong language and epithets directed toward other drivers who crossed him in some way.

Speaking of theological conversation, Tom was one of the most educated, articulate laymen I’ve ever met. He was a perpetual student—which accounts for his vast, ever expanding library—and a perpetual teacher. He loved the Bible particularly, the Old Testament especially, along with the great spiritual masters and mystics. And, as Mary Kate and Steve mentioned at the wake, Tom didn’t just know that stuff—he also lived it. 

Tom reading to Nick and Cecilia
Then, there’s his family. I’m a convert to Catholicism, so growing up I didn’t have a vision for what Catholic family and fatherhood was all about. Tom and Ellie and the McNultys filled in those gaps for me, and Tom in particular gave me an idea of how a Catholic man—despite faults and shortcomings—ought to love his wife and his children, how to put them first, ahead of work, career, personal interests.

He provided and protected, of course, but he also led—in faith, first and foremost. Mass (daily Mass in fact), Sacraments, the Rosary, Catholic education and formation—these were all non-negotiables for Tom, and I know he prayed for his growing family—children, their spouses, the grandchildren—regularly, every day. He was a prayer warrior then; I’m sure he continues to be one now. 

And not just leadership in faith, but also in courage, and in this he was a warrior as well. I think my favorite story about Tom revolves around the Supreme Court’s infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that legalized abortion throughout the United States.

For years on the anniversary of the decision, Tom brought members of his family downtown to march around the federal courthouse, despite the bitter January cold and snow. He knew the momentous gravity of what happened that day, and he knew that it was important to publicly demonstrate his opposition—important to himself, but especially important to his children.

It was a matter of principle, after all, for the actual impact of the picketing on the course of politics or legislation made little difference, but Tom knew it made an impact where it really counted—at home. It was legacy of integrity and fortitude and strength—and it was a legacy of kindness as well, as he was known to cross the street to the bus station to buy all the other marchers hot chocolate.

That legacy lives on in his children, and, God willing, it will live on in his grandchildren—my children—as well. Rest in peace, Tom McNulty. Well done, good and faithful servant; well done, faithful warrior. But don’t leave the ramparts just yet. Keep doing battle for us, and strengthen us through your prayers.

Remarks at the conclusion of Tom's funeral Mass on June 28, 2013, at Mary Our Queen Parish in Omaha, Nebraska.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

We Can't All Be Ben Folds

Upfront, I confess I know nothing about Ben Folds himself, but I like his music—what I've heard of it anyway.

From time to time, my daughter makes a point of having me listen to a song of his, and she plays his stuff in the car pretty regularly. It's exuberant, fun, occasionally meditative—not a downer in other words. Joyful. Happy even.

Van Morrison is like that. With few exceptions, it's hard to listen to a Van Morrison song without feeling better. Not any particular lyric necessarily, or any particular song. It's something in his attitude, his disposition. There's a smile that runs through all of Morrison's songs, and it's catching. Paul Simon, too.

My impression is that Ben Folds' music does something very similar—it has a mood, a flavor, and it reminds you of goodness. People naturally gravitate to music like that, and the musician that stands behind it. We want to be like Ben Folds, to internalize his vision—to be Ben Folds perhaps.  We think, "If I could just write great songs that make people happy and do concerts and tour the country, my life would be great!" But not very many people get to hit that jackpot, and I'd imagine Ben and the others would tell you it's got plenty of downside in any case.

But there is a key to the good life in all this I think: Ben Folds' music makes us grin and tap the steering wheel and put aside our burdens for a moment because it communicates a hopefulness and a buoyancy that all of us crave. "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly," wrote Chesterton, and that angelic attitude is just what we need in these oh-so-serious times.

We need it, and we try to internalize it, but here's one more thing to keep in mind. That hopefulness and buoyancy and joy is especially accessible when you're 16 or 20, and healthy, and well fed, and open to a future of possibilities. It's a bit harder to bring it to the surface later in life, when you've got too many bills to pay, and your back hurts after a long day at work, and the car breaks down, and the mechanic says it can't be fixed.

Then, Brown Eyed Girl comes on the radio, or maybe Tupelo Honey. And you pause and listen, and you know it's all OK, despite all the junk and the noise, and that you have a lot to be grateful for, that you want to give something back. Twenty years from now, or 30, will Ben Folds' music do that for you?

I suspect it will. Assuming that's the case, bravo, Mr. Folds. And thanks.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bird Poop and Providence

It’s Tobit week at daily Mass, and you know what that means: bird poop! A biennial favorite for those in the know, it's the week when you can expect to watch your lector struggle to keep a straight face while reading aloud about warm bird droppings (“warm” no less!) falling into Tobit’s eyes. In case you missed it, it was yesterday—mark it on your calendar for 2015!

Anna and the Blind Tobit, Rembrandt (ca. 1630)
The book of Tobit is one of the Old Testament deuterocanonical books—otherwise known as “the Apocrypha” among Protestants—so it wasn’t a Scriptural text I grew up hearing in the Presbyterian Church. Consequently, sitting at Mass as a new convert some years back, and hearing the bird poop reading for the first time, I just about bust up laughing—can you blame me? It’s truly a comical scene: Having risked his life burying a fellow Jew in defiance of the law, Tobit lays down for a nap next to a courtyard wall, and sparrows perched above poop in his eyes. I can’t be the only one that looks forward to hearing that ancient anecdote proclaimed in church every couple years.

To be sure, the rest of the story isn’t quite so comical. Tobit contracts an eye disease and goes blind, his wife has to go to work weaving cloth to support him, and his whole life seems to fall apart. “Lord, command that I be released from such anguish; let me go to my everlasting abode,” he prays. “For it is better for me to die than to endure so much misery in life” (3.6). 

What follows is pretty complicated—there’s an archangel and a demon, a marriage and several murders, a journey, a debt repaid, and recovered vision. Along the way, Tobit also recovers his fundamental trust in God—despite the disappointments and adversity—and his faithfulness is rewarded abundantly. In a Job-like way, Tobit’s story calls us to live lives abandoned to the Lord, come what may. God is God; we’re not. We can’t possibly see things the way He sees them, so no matter the difficulty or setback, we’re reminded to keep banking on Him and hoping in His love. “Blessed be God who lives forever,” Tobit prays after his reversal of fortune. “For he afflicts and shows mercy, casts down to the depths of Hades, brings up from the great abyss” (13.2).

The Healing of Tobit, Bernardo Strozzi (ca. 1625)
But there’s one additional element in Tobit’s story that makes me prefer it to Job’s better known tale. It’s the role of Raphael, the archangel mentioned earlier. His name means “God heals,” and Raphael is truly the Lord’s instrument in restoring relationships, health, and even property to the story’s chief characters. 

What’s particularly striking about Raphael’s actions, however, and what sets them apart from God’s restorative actions in the Book of Job, is the way Tobit’s author weaved them together in the narrative with the very travails that beset all the key players in the first place. Bird droppings and blindness for instance? All part of God’s plan to match up Tobit’s son, Tobias, with Sarah of Media. And when a fish attacks Tobias on his way to Media? It’s a propitious opportunity for Tobias to acquire the very balm that will heal his father’s sight.

Raphael Taking Leave of the Tobit Family, Rembrandt (1637)
This mixing and connecting of conflict and resolution throughout Tobit is highlighted by Raphael in his parting words to Tobit: “I was sent to put you to the test,” he says. “At the same time, however, God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah” (12.14). Junk happens; we don’t understand it; we cry out to God for understanding and relief. But, more often than not, it’s the very junk we wail about that ends up being the source of our growth and transformation and even salvation.

Providence seems to work that way often. We see obstacles; God sees opportunities. And often our stubbornness is such that He is forced to resort to those maddening obstacles to divert us from our ruts of pettiness and sloth and greed and pride.

Forced? No, I suppose not. We are speaking of God, after all. Yet it does seem to be the way He prefers to do things though—working through circumstances, orchestrating events, prompting and upsetting, prodding and tripping. We're so blind to the obvious ways we're called to live that sometimes He has to, well, make us blind in order to make us see.

All the same, let's be clear: Sometimes bird poop in the eye is just bird poop in the eye. Still, next time it happens, wipe it off, and glance around. It just might be a sign that an angel is nearby and God is up to something.