A Message from Brother James
Brother James L. Butler. FSC has been in his current ministry as President of La Salle College High School since June 2012. he is well known for his ability to connect with students, faculty, alumni and friends through his many vehicles of communication.
A Thanksgiving message from Brother James:
Driving early one November morning to St. Philip Neri, I scrolled somewhat aimlessly through Sirius XM channels, looking for something to jar a half-awake brain into a higher level of consciousness. Not unexpectedly for someone of my vintage, I found it as the entertainment console alighted on The Eighties at Eight. "Hold on Loosely," by .38 Special: perhaps the song began that day since the group's bassist Larry Junstrom had recently died in the prime of life, having just turned 70. The music of Southern Rock bands like .38 Special, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, and ZZ Top undoubtedly played a role in my transition from high school through college and featured in my stockpile of cassette tapes at that time. I really hadn't thought much about them in the years since R.E.M. came along and shook that genre to its foundation. Still, .38 Special gives some unexpectedly good advice as we take that brief annual time-out to count blessings and express gratitude. When you find a moment to think about it, the refrain of that song:
Just hold on loosely
But don't let go
If you cling too tightly
You're gonna lose control
provides an apt mantra for this particular celebration.
To those of us who raise or work with young men in their teen years, it's almost axiomatic. Hold on too tightly, and you foster resentment and rebellion, a sclerotic spirit, and a crippling lack of resilience. But if you don't hold on at all, the lack of structure and boundaries quickly translates to other gaps: a lack of ambition, a lack of character, a lack of commitment, a lack of compassion. To those of us who raise or work with young men in their teen years, it's almost axiomatic. Hold on too tightly, and you foster resentment and rebellion, a sclerotic spirit, and a crippling lack of resilience. But if you don't hold on at all, the lack of structure and boundaries quickly translates to other gaps: a lack of ambition, a lack of character, a lack of commitment, a lack of compassion. The song itself makes plain the aspirational balance, "Your baby needs someone to believe in/And a whole lot of space to breathe in." Here at La Salle we have long strived to impose conformity only in those few essentials required for a functional community. Hence, we have a dress code, a range of options, not a uniform. It may be why your son truly enjoys coming to school every day. He's not bedeviled by a cornucopia of silly little rules, mastered by punctilious adults who thrive on detecting and punishing infractions, whether deliberate or unconscious. Rather, he's growing up in an atmosphere of wise freedom, surrounded by a scaffolding that encourages him to choose, choose carefully and well, and choose community. Let us give thanks for that.
For those of us who are about to get caught up in—perhaps all too consumed by—the annual madness the fourth Thursday in November can inspire, this admonition is likewise relevant. We hit the seafood market last minute to get a can of oysters for Great-gramma's trademark stuffing, even though no family member born since President Hoover's economy tanked truly likes oysters. We concentrate on keeping our hands away from the carving knives when his mother helpfully suggests, "I bought you this ricer you can try with the potatoes this year instead of your Mixmaster. That way they'll turn out mashed, instead of looking like cake batter." Masking whatever residual awkward trepidation we feel with a greeting that occupies the DMZ between a handshake and a hug, we hurdle into the 21st century. The guest his mother persists in introducing as "our son Drew's special someone, Kyle" is welcomed to our table for the first time. We thereupon hustle impulsively downstairs during dessert to stash the bottle of V.O. obscurely behind the circa-1989 hot air corn popper underneath the bar--all in the hope that that Uncle Charlie, who hasn't said anything so far, might persevere through the Cowboys/Bills game without doing so. Wordlessly shocked, we watch Dad carefully cut the turkey for his wife of 62 years. We come to appreciate how the progress of her dementia means that this woman once famous for her impeccably symmetrical table settings is now forgetting how to use cutlery. Fortunately, that moment's utter pathos gets broken when our senior, ignorant of the thoughtful research on local customs undertaken after learning Kyle hails from Baltimore, blurts out, "Why is there sauerkraut on the table? Who eats sauerkraut on Thanksgiving? Are we expecting Angela Merkel for dinner?" At least we know he's paying attention to Bernie Fitz in AP Comparative Government. And we also know, though we have not controlled everything, that we have tried. We have "held on loosely," and that trying and holding on pleases God. Let us give thanks for that.
"Six so far this year, and it's only November." I was struck by this heavy-hearted comment a Class of 1957 alumnus made recently at another classmate's funeral. Both liturgically and meteorologically, the month of November focuses on things that are passing, on transience. And this concern affects not only the "seasoned" members of the La Salle family. 'We'll just get through this last holiday season together…if we can. Twenty years of marriage, but it's gotta end." Or even, "Every teacher my father had was a Brother when he went to La Salle at 20th and Olney. We had 25 Brothers and 25 laymen when I went through. When my grandson graduates in 2025, I don't know if there'll be any." Confronted by transience, we seek to acquire the wisdom Tennyson's "Ulysses" captures as the old warrior king reflects, "though much is taken, much abides." The memories gallop through our minds, whether they be of running for Pat Devine or running from Big Joe. We remember some chemistry, whether we had it with the White Owl or Dottie Ponisciak, a few lines from poems, whether they were drummed in our heads by Bernie and Ernie or Holwick and Hartey. Yet a great many lessons about life are seared into our psyches, whether they were kindled by Jeremy or Carl, Marty Stanczak or Tom Turner, Dominus Michael or Michael McCabe. "Though much is taken, much abides"—and what abides makes a splendid foundation for living. Let us give thanks for that.
"Though much is taken, much abides"—and what abides makes a splendid foundation for living. Let us give thanks for that.
We give singular thanks that, to contradict .38 Special explicitly, it's not too late to realize what we have. We have family and friends, teachers and colleagues, classmates and teammates. We have each other. We have La Salle. We hold these things dear, as precious gifts from God. We consciously give thanks for them this week, and we hold them and their giver in our hearts, forever…confident we'll be forgiven if, contrary to instructions, we squeeze just a bit.
Dear Parents, Students, Guardians, Alumni, and Friends of La Salle College High School,
Quomodo sedet sola civitas. These words popped into my head late Monday afternoon as I flicked on the news prior to leaving for an evening engagement. I confess I first encountered them nearly forty years ago in a secular context: a Modern British Literature course where we were studying Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited prior to the release of the television miniseries of the same name, the one which introduced Jeremy Irons to the world. Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo. The words themselves are an allusion to scripture, to the first verses of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. This Latin translation is sung in the Holy Week liturgy of Tenebrae, the "service of shadows." Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo! Facta est quasi vidua domina gentium. "How does the city sit so lonely that was filled with people! How she has become a widow, she that was great among nations."
I have visited seven world cities repeatedly over my adult life. Two don't really hold a special place in my heart, though I am not blind to their allure (London and Rome). I am more susceptible to the magic of Hong Kong, Venice, and Prague, though I just haven't been to those cities as often as I have Sydney and Paris, the two where I feel an instant connection once the plane lands at Kingsford Smith or Charles de Gaulle Airport. Both cities provoke the same predictable behavior on arrival. Once I drop off my bags wherever I am staying, the first stop is always the same. In Sydney it's Circular Quay, the area nestled between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. In Paris, of course, the first destination was always Charlemagne Square and the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.
The first sight of Notre Dame in flames on 15 April was surreal. At first it seemed like watching a clip from a film contending for a computer-generated special effects Oscar. This couldn't be happening, not to the place where human aspirations and divine transcendence intersect more perfectly than any other structure on earth. The images were shattering: the roof and scaffolding ablaze; the elegant, delicate spire collapsing inwards, the fire threatening the towers and façade, but held back, the inferno contained at a critical juncture. Devout Parisians and those of no faith alike looked on, generally silent and bereft, their "New Jerusalem" fulfilling Jeremiah's vision, not Revelation's.
Veteran European correspondents appeared ashen and tremulous while transmitting developments to anchors at homes. A surprising number among both groups framed the loss in terms of their own personal Catholicism, speculating with varying degrees of articulacy about the significance of the disaster in terms of the Holy Week mysteries. Laïcité, the enshrined French principle regarding the thoroughly secular nature of public life, was put to one side for a moment as groups prayed in the street; the video of those young people kneeling and singing a haunting French version of the Hail Mary went viral on cable news and in social media.
Then there were the pictures. I'm not referring to the videos of the conflagration in progress, which are simply disturbing, but to a couple of the aftermath. The ones accompanying this letter, they show the gold cross on the high altar strikingly visible amidst the haze and that same altar, wondrously intact when Tuesday dawned, surrounded by rubble from the roof, fallen 100 feet to the ground.
As any of your sons or peers who paid attention in AP European History can tell you, a Gothic cathedral is "a sermon in stone"; the stained glass and carvings provided an illiterate populace with access to the stories of the bible and the mysteries of salvation. And what a homily the edifice accounted most eloquent of all preaches this Holy Week, 2019:
- It teaches us the value of community, both that formed by strangers in the anonymous city as they stated speechless at the devastation and that we make in our own parishes and congregations, teams and clubs, parents' organizations, and alumni classes in mid-life meeting for beers after work, a ritual that becomes lunch in our senior years;
- It shows us how important it is to accept our limitations, but never to translate those limitations into inaction. Les Pompiers de Paris couldn't prevent all damage from the fire. The combination of 800-year-old timber, the scaffolding, incendiary chemicals and BoushXButton urban firefighting conditions proved overwhelming. But they did stop the fire from claiming the bell towers. Therefore, the cathedral's external structure remained intact, the three rose windows preserved. When we gather as family this Easter, we may be painfully conscious of the things we could not save: a child's marriage (or that of one's parents'); the addict who can never make it in recovery long enough to grab a six-months' coin; the kid we could never motivate to finish college; the recent widow or widower who finds in a holiday only the invitation to blacker, more wordless depression. These problems may be beyond our ability to solve, but that doesn't imply there isn't something we can do, someone affected to whom we can offer a healing love, a love that inspires hope.
- It suggests the value of an incremental approach. The task of rebuilding seems so overwhelming right now. It may not end for years, but it will begin when the first wheelbarrow of blackened timber is carted away from the sanctuary floor. Most of us are self-reflective enough to know our faults and to experience frustration at their durability. But all God asks of us is to make those first small steps towards improvement, to "live Jesus" a little better each day, to find God's Presence in one more difficult person.
- It trains us in the virtues of resignation and gratitude. How long will it take to restore Notre Dame, to replicate, however imperfectly, the glories of its past? You'll hear different numbers, but I'm guessing 30 years. By then, I'll be too old to undertake another trip to Paris (if I haven't made a shorter but more definitive one-way trip east on Cheltenham Avenue already!). But I got there six times over the last three decades, and I'm so grateful for that and for the opportunity to experience this epitome of western civilization across several seasons of the year and of my life. As we take stock of our lives and relationships over the Easter Triduum, may we all find that elusive "serenity to accept what I cannot change, courage to change what I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
- It speaks emphatically to what endures: the saving power and mystery of the Cross, especially when we can barely glimpse it through the haze of confusion, even when it seems to preside only over the rubble of our lives. Sociologists tell us that only five percent of the French attend Church on a regular basis. It seems a much higher number were praying this past Monday. The lesson is the same as the theme Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited to illustrate. You may forget to call to mind the Holy Presence of God, lose sight of the Cross, even turn your back on it. But that doesn't mean that its saving power will become one bit less efficacious for us and all those we love.
As we enter these holiest days of the Church year, please include in your prayers all of us at La Salle, that we may be blessed to succeed in the most important aspect of our Mission: instilling in our students, your sons and grandsons, a faith that fulfills the aspiration expressed by the city of Paris' ancient Latin motto, a retort to the quotation with which this letter began: Fluctuat nec mergitur. "It is rocked by the waves, but it does not sink."
Brother James Butler, FSC