Names on Walls

Memorial Day reminds us of those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. Do we take it personally or is it just a holiday that gives us a long weekend?

On a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, I noticed the monument to those who died on the Battleship Maine. Do you “Remember the Maine” that battle cry that rallied us into the Spanish-American War? No visitor stopped to touch the wall, make rubbings, or even read the names. Will the same come true for the Vietnam Memorial?

I made my first contact with war when I was about three and a half. The family gathered around the most magical piece of furniture in the house, the Philco radio. President Roosevelt announced that we were at war. As I grew, the war became part of the family’s life with Ration Books and War Bonds, the collection of tinfoil, scrap metal, newspapers, and bacon fat. Four uncles and many family friends entered military service. One never came back.

Uncle Eddie had arrived in England only eighteen days earlier. On a training mission, he and his crew flew their B-24 Liberator bomber over the Irish Sea. Upon their return to base, the plane exploded. The grateful citizens of Birkenhead, England—south of Liverpool—carved Eddie’s name and the names of his companions on a memorial. My Aunt wrote that flowers decorate that monument all these years later.

In 1944, The Selective Service System drafted my thirty-four-year-old father into the Navy. We walked him to the Green Line Bus and waved goodbye. He called that night to say that he had been assigned to the USMC Reserves. Eventually, he participated in the invasion and occupation of Okinawa.

I vividly remember a day in September of 1945, when Dad, Mom, and my younger brother met me outside Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. When we had walked home, Dad opened his duffle bag and handed my brother and me Marine fatigue hats and knapsacks. We wore them beyond the point of utility. These battle mementos and endless viewings of John Wayne movies convinced us that we, like Dad would join the Marines.

Growing up, we dressed in parts of our father’s uniforms and joined the neighborhood boys in war games. The only kids excluded from our melees were the young baby boomers and girls.

As the years passed, my younger and youngest brothers joined the Marines. Although my youngest brother and a girl who lived down the block never played our war games, they both saw action in Vietnam. As part of a recon unit, my brother dropped out of helicopters with a massive radio on his back. He has the scars to prove it. The girl joined the Army. Captain Eleanor G. Alexander R. N. died in a plane crash with other nurses and a group of Vietnamese children. You can find her name on The Vietnam Memorial.

I met Rich Roughgarden at Notre Dame. He illuminated his architectural drawings much like an ancient monastic scribe. They were works of art, science, and social commentary. Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Rich took me along on a road trip east. I visited friends in Brooklyn and attended the Notre Dame-Syracuse game in the old Yankee Stadium. Rich and I lost track of each other, but years later, I noticed his obituary in the Notre Dame Magazine. He served in an engineering unit and died in an accident. His name is on the Wall.

Many served and continued to serve. I know three who died in accidents. Like many, they never fired a shot in anger, but they stood between us and the shooters. They and those who fell in the service of their country remain forever young. Take a moment to remember what they did for us. They deserve our thanks and prayers.

Rejoice! Gospel Meditations, by Louis Evely

Lent invites us to refresh our souls, to refocus our lives, to set things right. Rejoice! by Louis Evely, has a way of growing us out of our comfort zones into the light. It challenges us to lift our crosses and follow Jesus. Evely writes: “There were times when Jesus was frightening in his logic, frightening in his relentlessness. He went beyond what was said of him; beyond the half-measures at which the Law had reasonably stopped. Jesus allowed nothing to stop him. He knows only one law: love. And from that law, he draws consequences with logic, which must either electrify or repel his followers.”

Consider the tax collectors and harlots who flocked to the desert to see St. John the Baptist. They asked John, “What must we do?” To their surprise, John told them, “If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.” Luke 3:11.  To approach God who we cannot see; we must first approach our neighbors, especially those in need. The message of John and later Jesus electrified their followers. Imagine the joy among the penitents at finding the path to forgiveness and love. Imagine the community that benefits from their joyful giving.

Consider the Pharisees. Why instead of the Pharisees, did the likes of Matthew, Zacchaeus, other tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes flock to Jesus? Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection and angels. They maintained their zeal for the Law and awaited the Messiah. “They should have been Jesus’ staunchest supporters.” On the contrary, many of them joined in the call for Jesus’ death. Evely explains that “The Pharisees were proud of their faith, their knowledge, their good works, and their religious observances. Therefore they were closed to God’s gifts and God’s forgiveness, for they did not believe that they were in need of either.” They believed that they had saved themselves through their rigorous observance of the Law. In their assumption of righteousness, they not only rejected God’s mercy, but they refused to extend mercy toward the unrighteous. Imagine their frustration when Jesus said that they had to change their whole approach to God and that their earlier efforts may have placed them behind the hated tax-collectors on the path to God. The message of Jesus repelled them.

Evely used the Parable of The Prodigal Son to compare the Pharisees to the tax collectors and sinners. The older son keeps the Law, but he does so, resentfully. The prodigal, like the tax collectors, rejects the discipline of the Law, but at least he realizes his sinfulness. He is willing to confess to his father and beg a place among his servants. The father, like God the Father is something of a prodigal in his mercy toward the younger son. God squanders love on sinners and reproves the cold-hearted legalists. God’s ways are not our ways.

Evely observes, “It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that we often find more generosity, compassion, and willingness to serve among libertines and loose women than among our moral rigorists.” To underscore his claim, he cites the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. Those who endured the heat of the day received the same pay as those who worked only one hour. Evely writes that those who worked longer should have rejoiced at the good fortune of the last to arrive. The day-long workers grumbled at their fair wage, but Jesus made the point that the vineyard owner was free to do with his money as he wished, despite how it appeared to the workers. God’s ways are not our ways.

If we proclaim Jesus in our liturgy, we must live according to His teachings by radiating God’s love. “God is no more and no less visible than love itself,” Evely writes. “Other men see it and know that the Spirit of God is present. In the early church, only men ‘filled with the spirit’ were chosen for important missions. And the pagans said of the first Christians, ‘See how they love one another!’ The love of these Christians was such that, through it God Himself was made visible.” The lives of the early Christians proclaimed the Law of Love. In loving, they won the culture war against their pagan environment. Why today, have so many churches closed or serve only the elderly? Why today, do some Catholics fear the lure of the secular culture? Shouldn’t they be more concerned about cold-hearted Church members who lack the compelling love that denoted the early Christians and attracted new Christians?

Wishing you an invigorating Lent, one that brings rejoicing.

Louis Evely also wrote a collection of meditations focused on the Easter-Pentecost season: Joy: Meditations on the Joyful Heritage of Christianity.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

 

Image of the book jacket coverElizabeth Kolbert’s journalistic style offers an exciting and thorough case study of humanity’s impact on life, and the likelihood that human behavior may extinguish all earthly life, including human life.

Not one to research in dusty museums, Kolbert meets the current extinction experts in the ecological hotspots that serve as their laboratories. She climbs the Andes, goes spelunking in the bat caves of New York and Vermont, snorkels off the Great Barrier Reef, trudges through the South American rain forests, and visits Gubbio, Italy where she explores the clay left by a dinosaurs-killing asteroid collision.

She speaks with the experts in each aspect of Earth’s changing ecology and examines the evidence left behind by Lyell, Darwin, Lamarck, and Cuvier.  She introduces the reader to a galaxy of fascinating critters, among the living and the extinct. In the process, she outlines the apparently irreconcilable theories of evolution and how with time they evolved into one substantial explanation of the origins and extinctions of the species.

When Kolbert assembles this myriad of puzzle pieces, they point to the term, Anthropocene. That is the name given to the geological epoch dominated by humans. People have secured this dubious honor because they have diverted the course of natural history toward an unnatural and moribund path.

Throughout human existence, our species has intentionally and accidentally annihilated countless species. Once abundant and successful, every Wooly Mammoth, Great Auk, and Passenger Pigeons, thanks to humanity’s relentless hunting are now extinct. Our unwitting transport of disease organisms and invasive species have eradicated vulnerable life forms distorting their native biological communities.

The ecological impact of humans will soon rival that of Earth’s collision with a six-mile wide asteroid that closed the Cretaceous period, sixty-six million years ago. That “nuclear-winter-like” event exterminates seventy-five percent of all life forms, including every land organism larger than a cat.

The multipronged human attack on creation includes climate change, ocean acidification, and habitat destruction.

For those uncertain about climate change, the author offers solid evidence to support the notion that human activity accelerates natural cycles and in this current situation has endangered life itself on this planet. She introduces climate change’s evil twin, ocean acidification. The latter is easily measured and is found consistently in the waters of the world. Carbon dioxide’s role in the greenhouse effect and global warming is significant, but CO2 finds its way into the oceans—now thirty percent more acidic than in 1800—where it joins with water to form the carbonic acid that erodes coral reefs, drives out dissolved oxygen and otherwise alters living conditions for marine organisms.

Humans have replaced or fragmented the natural land communities of the world. Deforestation, agriculture, development have destroyed habitats and ruptured the communities that sustain life as we know it. When species disappear, it is like an ingredient goes missing. The resulting dynamic spins askew, affecting every other living thing, including present and most certainly future humans.

Those who hold life dear must realize that unless they respect and preserve all life forms, humans will lose the ultimate battle. They needn’t fear the Zombie Apocalypse or the Planet of the Apes. More likely, Earth’s next dominant species will be the rats.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert offers affirmers and deniers of climate change, an approachable, but a substantial body of evidence to support the case for climate change. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is not an opinion piece. It outlines the evidence affirming that the current rate of global warming is ten times faster than at the end of the last glaciation and all glaciations before it. The end-notes occupying the last quarter of the book offer a guide to the available data for all to examine.

Climate change deniers often cite that some scientists are not on board with the dangers of climate change and therefore we should ignore those who predict dire consequences. Kolbert clearly shows that scientists rarely agree on anything. Scientists are rivals who push their own explanations of natural phenomena. When so many scientists from every field from astronomy to zoology agree that climate change and the human role in it is the equivalent of an asteroid striking Earth, it is time to sit up, notice, and act. Humans may be helpless the next time a monster rock targets Earth, but humans can curb their own activities. It is time to raise voices to ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency continues to protect the environment. The EPA can do more to keep today’s and tomorrow’s Americans safe from earthly threats as can the Defense Department. The future is in your hands.