Saturday, September 7, 2013

Overweight? Start Your Own Religion: Reflections on T.M. Luhrmann's Recent Essay in the New York Times

Postmodernism is in the saddle now, with its own jargon.

                                                                                            Tony Hillerman
                                                                                            Hunting Badger

T.M. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropology professor, published another vapid essay in the Times recently.  This one starts with a story about Sigfried Gold, an atheist who created a false god to help him lose weight.  As described by Professor Luhrmann, Mr. Gold's god is "a large African-American
T.M. Luhrmann
Photo credit:
lesbian with an Afro that reach[s] the edges of the universe." Every day, for some period of time, Mr. Gold "dropped to his knees to pray, and every day he spent 30 minutes in meditative quiet time."  Apparently, this regimen worked as a weight-loss strategy, because today Mr. Gold only weighs 150 pounds.

Why does the New York Times print this drivel? I suspect it is because the Times' editorial board disdains religious faith or is afraid of it.  The Times would like Americans to see religion as a  psychological phenomenon that is useful only as a way of promoting a sense of well-being--something like yoga, Xanax, or exercising with a trainer. Indeed, Frank Bruni, in one of his recent op ed essays for the Times, compared personal exercise trainers to priests.

In other words, religion is supposed to be a sort of harmless hobby, like collecting stamps.  And a lot of people have adopted the Times' point of view--the Episcopalians come to mind.

I have commented on several of Professor Luhlmann's New York Times essays. But after the reading the one she wrote in early August, I realized that I simply don't understand what she is talking about.

 I'll just quote the last paragraph of her August 4th essay, which I found completely incoherent:
The imagination is a double-edged sword. It is, from a secular perspective, at the heart of what makes Mr. Gold's god sufficiently real that he treats it as more than himself. But the capacity to make something real is not the same as the capacity to make it good or useful. That's a caveat to bear in mind for any kind of prayerful life.
Whether she knows it or not, Professor Luhrmann is promoting a religion that comports with a postmodern worldview--an understanding of human existence based on atheism, selfish individualism, and relativism.  After all, a man who consciously creates a false god in order to lose weight is essentially a postmodernist.

Of course, as Catholics, we live in a different world from the postmodernists, and we speak a different language. From the time of the early Church Fathers to the present day, the best Catholic expression has been reasonable, coherent, and balanced. Catholic writing is accessible to anyone of common understanding, as we see in the writings of Chesterton, Belloc, Christopher Dawson, Dorothy Day, Saint Teresa of Avila, and St. Catherine of Siena.

It is true that Catholics are a mystical people. We believe in Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, the constant intercession of our saints, and the motherhood of Mary.  But we can discuss these mysteries in ways that people of even the meanest understanding can comprehend.

St. Catherine of Siena
And so when we get discouraged by the meaningless chatter of our postmodern world, let us turn for solace to our Catholic writers--people who wrote of serenity, grace, and beauty.  G.K. Chesterton is a good antidote for Frank Bruni, Dorothy Day is a good remedy for Maureen Dowd, and St. Theresa of Avila is a soothing salve after reading T. M. Luhrmann.

And thus I will conclude with a beautiful quote from St.Theresa of Avila, who wrote with simplicity and serenity:
Let nothing disturb you; let nothing frighten you. All things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains all things. He who has God lacks for nothing. God alone suffices.

Frank Bruni. Our Pulchritudinous Priesthood. New York Times, July 27, 2013. Accessible at:

T.M. Luhrmann. Addicted to Prayer. New York Times, August 4, 2013, Sunday Review Section, p.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Let us pray for Dorothy Day's canonization in our lifetime

Designation as a saint is by no means the only measure of a person's virtue and ability to inspire spiritual seekers on the path to union with God. Yet, in a world populated with 1.1 billion Catholics, it is surely a powerful way for the Catholic Church to officially multiply the effect of saintly persons on others, through increased awareness of their exemplary lives and contributions. 
                                               Marilyn H. Fedewa
                                               Mariá of Ágreda : Mystical Lady in Blue

I just finished reading Marilyn Fedewa's biography of Mariá of Ágreda , the mystical lady in blue.  Mariá of Ágreda was a seventeenth century mystic who spent her entire adult life as a cloistered nun in a convent founded by her mother in her home town of Ágreda in northeastern Spain. 
Maria of Agreda:
The Mystical Lady in Blue
Although she never left her convent, Mariá became a trusted advisor to King Felipe IV, engaging in an intense correspondence that accumulated to a total of more than 600 letters. She was investigated by the Spanish Inquisition when she was in her 40s, kneeling before her questioners for six hours a day for eleven days. She dazzled her inquisitors, however, with her piety and sincerity, and was exonerated.

Mariá has been named one of the nine most influential women in Spanish history, but she was also an important figure in the American Southwest. Through bilocation, she visited Native Americans in what later became Texas and New Mexico, evangelizing them before they were reached by Spanish missionaries. That a woman who could be in two places at once--places separated by an ocean--seems fantastic to the modern mind; but these incidents of bilocation were thoroughly investigated by ecclesiastical authorities in the New World and were accepted as bona fide by the religious figures of her day.

Mariá of Ágreda was a prodigious writer, but her crowning achievement was Mystical City of God, her multi-volumed biography of Mary.  This work has been translated into many languages and remains today as one of the great contributions to Catholic mystical literature. 

When Mariá died in 1665 at the age of 63, a great clamor arose to canonize her. The Vatican designated her as venerable in 1673, the first step to canonization. Unfortunately, although the cause for her canonization has waxed and waned over the centuries, Mariá of Ágreda has yet to be canonized.

Why it takes so long for some worthy people to be canonized I cannot say. Even St. Thomas More, who was beheaded for the Catholic faith by Henry VIII in 1535, was not canonized for 400 years. 

Dorothy Day, Servant of God
Canonization is not simply an honor for particularly pious Catholics. As Marilyn Fedewa explained in her biography of Maria of Ágreda, canonization is a means for the Catholic Church "to officially multiply the effect of saintly persons on others, through increased awareness of their exemplary lives and contributions." As the Mass reminds us, we can invoke the intercession of the saints on our behalf, to strengthen us and aid us in the challenges of life.

And this brings me to Dorothy Day. I am one of thousands of people who pray for the day Dorothy Day will be canonized, and we have powerful allies among the clergy. The American Bishops have endorsed her canonization, and Pope Benedict spoke of her holiness in a public address he made shortly before stepping down from the papacy.

So far, although she has been named a Servant of God--the first step toward canonization--and her cause has been enthusiastically taken up by the Archdiocese of New York and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Dorothy has not moved up the ladder to canonization.  So far, she has not even be beatified.

What does she need to become a Saint?  Two miracles.  Miracles have been attributed to her.  The eminent psychologist and author Robert Coles attributed his wife's recovery from cancer to Dorothy's prayers while she was still alive.  These are Dr. Coles' words, which are taken from his biography of Dorothy:
[S]he often wrote to me, and when my wife became seriously ill in 1973, she prayed long and hard for her. My wife miraculously--the doctor's words--survived  the illness, and she and I have never really been the same since then with respect to our feelings for Dorothy Day, who wrote to us every single morning for a while: a testimony of concern we scarcely know how to acknowledge, even now. God bless her soul. (Coles, 1987, p. xx).  
I myself have reported on the miraculous recovery of Sarah Dorothy Maple, whose brain tumor disappeared after I sought Dorothy Day's intercession, in spite of the fact that Sarah's doctors gave her no hope for recovery.  My intercession was documented in the Houston Catholic Worker, which also printed Sarah's own testimony of her miraculous recovery.  I sent a copy of Sarah's medical records to the New York Archdiocese.

Perhaps Sarah Maple's recovery from brain cancer  is not the miracle Dorothy Day needs. If not, let us keep praying for other miracles.  Let us have faith in Dorothy's power to intercede on our behalf.

As the old Christmas hymn attests, long our world has lain "in sin and error pining."  We live in a culture that has lost its way--drugged by materialism and selfishness and the insatiable lust for power and recognition. Dorothy--through her humility, through the clarity of her beautiful writing, through her saintly lifelong witness--can show us the way home.

Even now, she waits with other saints of the ages--Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross--to aid us.  Let us pray for Dorothy Day's official recognition as a saint--sometime within our lifetimes.


Robert Coles. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1987.

Marilyn H. Fedewa. Maria of Agreda: Mystical Lady in Blue. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2009.

Sarah Maple. Dorothy Day Miracle Visits Casa Juan Diego. Houston Catholic Worker, November-December, 2011. Accessible at:

Sarah Maple. Miracle After Prayers to Dorothy Inspires New Convert: My Long, Circuitous Journey into Catholicism. Houston Catholic Worker, June-August, 2013. Accessible at: