Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book Review: Serenity Vol. 3: The Shepherd's Tale by Joss Whedon et al.

Serenity Vol. 3: The Shepherd's Tale story by Joss and Zack Whedon, art by Chris Samnee

Joss and Zack Whedon pen this tale of Shepherd Book from the Serenity/Firefly storyline. His past has been very mysterious and this book reveals a great deal of his background. Why is he so violent? How did he become a Shepherd, a sort of preacher or wandering holy man? Why do so many people fear him? Unlike Clint Eastwood's character in Pale Rider, Shepherd Book is an authentic holy man seeking to spread a message of peace. Book doesn't ride into town just to avenge wrongs. He's a fascinating character who comes to use violence only sparingly and highly effectively. But that is the end of his story, not the beginning.

The story is told in reverse order, like the movie Memento, though the episodes are of varying time lengths (though each is told in six to eight pages). As a character study it is fascinating and the story is accessible as a stand-alone story (i.e., if you have no knowledge of the movie Serenity or the TV series Firefly, you will still be able to follow and enjoy the story).

Easily the best of the Serenity graphic novels.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Dice Masters: Spider-Allies OP

We had another fun event at Savage Mill's Family Game Store, a rainbow draft organized play event where the rewards were a bunch of Spider-man's allies.

Reward cards (taken from WizKids' website)

My drafting technique this time was to try and fill out my Amazing Spider-man collection, which worked really well. I was able to get ten missing cards! A key card I drafted was the Black Cat uncommon that forces an opponent to re-roll characters already fielded. If the die came up as energy rather than a character face that die was sent to the used pile. Getting rid of a named character die is a one-in-two chance; getting rid of a sidekick die a five-in-six chance. So the odds were in my favor most of the time. I also fielded a nice Blade that would give him a bonus to attacking when fielded and a negative to an opposing character, but he never saw action since he was too expensive to purchase (a six cost is hard to get). Daredevil, Iceman, and Firestar saw more action but they were definitely support to Black Cat.

My team of Spider-Allies

The team did well. I had two games that were decisive victories for me, one that was a close victory, and one a close loss. Unfortunately I lost to the one guy who went undefeated, so I came in second place for the day and only got the participation prize, a Luke Cage card with art from the Marvel Noir line.

Luke Cage, looking retro and cool

I did get four extra booster packs for second place, providing two of the ten new cards I needed. Friends at the draft filled in some other holes with their duplicates, which was awesome. All in all, it was a fun day and a great experience. I can't wait to play again!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Easter 2016

For Easter this year we thought about getting up for a sunrise service since the children are usually up way too early anyway (though the toddler has finally accepted daylight savings time, so he's no longer up an hour before way too early). Not being that ambitious, we went to the earliest Mass at Saint Mary of the Mills near our house. Mass started at 7:30. We arrived at 7:31 in our finest Easter outfits.

When did our toddler get so grown-up looking?

The new Easter dress

The Mass was already packed and the usher took us to the choir seats off to the right of the altar (much like our typical location at Saint Joseph's in Harrogate). One other family was already there though no choir, since it was the early Mass. The kids were great during the service, which was nice since we felt a bit more visible than usual.

Back home, we had an Easter Egg hunt indoors. The sky was nice enough for an outdoor hunt but the temperature was not high enough.

Searching our front room

Bookshelves were a popular hiding spot (since they are numerous in our house)

Plastic egg-shaped bunny

The eggs we decorated the day before

After that, we headed off to Grandmama's house for more fun and a great dinner. On the way we stopped at the Apple House, a semi-famous roadside attraction. They have an impressive selection of hot sauces and serve barbecue pork and apple-based products. The most famous is their apple donuts which are indeed delightful. I'm glad we finally had a chance to sample them, but now that we may be stopping there more often.

Apple donuts, like fasnachts after Lent

At Grandmama's, they had another indoor Easter egg hunt but I slept through it, so no pictures. The temperature did get high enough for some outdoor bubble making. Fun was had by all.

Blowing/popping bubbles

We had a great dinner and a fine time visiting with my relatives.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

In this post-nuclear-war future (centuries from now), education is something despised. Along with wiping out the government officials (all of whom were blamed for the war), the mobs killed as many intelligent people as they could (who were blamed for giving the government officials the power to wage such destructive war). In the aftermath, a small community of monks strives to preserve learning. One monk is on a Lenten retreat in the wilderness and discovers a fallout shelter with an incredible amount of information in it, some of it seemingly written by the hand of the scientist Leibowitz, one of the intelligent people martyred for being smart. The community is the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, named after that man. The rediscovery of his writings is a bit like the rediscovery of Aristotle in the Middle Ages.

The intellectual revival does not happen for a long time afterward. Once civilization is built up enough, a scholar named Thon Taddeo comes to the monastery to determine the authenticity of the documents. Taddeo is secular and a bit above the religious ideas of the monks but he comes to an uneasy understanding as he discovers the monks' practical applications that dovetail nicely with his theoretical research. The intellectual renaissance ensues, bringing a new age where nuclear weapons are again available to government officials. Can mankind avoid a historical rerun?

The book is an odd blend of authentic Catholicism (including a generous amount of Latin), historical echoes (besides the Aristotle-like bit, there's a sort of Protestant Revolt), and pessimistic predictions. For a while the book seems unfocused and rambling. The ending sort of pulls things together though its blend of optimism and pessimism falls too far on the pessimism side for me to find it enjoyable. A lot of interesting ideas pop up along the way, but not enough to get a whole-hearted endorsement from me.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Holy Door, Shrine of Saint Anthony, Maryland

Pope Francis has declared this year the Year of Mercy, a special jubilee year. In Rome, he opened a sealed door into Saint Peter's Basilica. The door is called a "Holy Door." Those who enter through it and perform the usual acts (see below) can gain a Plenary Indulgence. This indulgence removes all the penalties of previous sin and may be applied to the one who walked through the holy door or to a soul in Purgatory (one of those who have died without serious sin but with minor sins or penances that prevent entry into Heaven).

To make the indulgence more available throughout the world-wide church, the Pope asked bishops to establish holy doors in their dioceses. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has made several holy doors in Maryland for their celebration of the Year of Mercy. One is located at the Shrine of Saint Anthony in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Shrine of St. Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland

The Holy Door

Above the door

Through the door

The Shrine of Saint Anthony's web site explains the requirements for the indulgence quite well:
To receive a full indulgence (called a plenary indulgence), you must:
  1. Walk through the Holy Doors
  2. Go to confession
  3. Receive Communion
  4. Pray for the intentions of the Pope

We welcome everyone to visit the Shrine of St. Anthony during this Jubilee Year of Mercy and walk through the Holy Door, go to confession, attend daily Mass at 12 noon, and pray for the intentions of Pope Francis. 
The Holy Year of Mercy continues until November 20, 2016.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Immaculate Conception BVM Church, York, Pennsylvania

Commonly known as St. Mary's Church, Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in York, Pennsylvania, has a long history. The land was bought in 1850 by the bishop of Philadelphia, St. John Nepumocene Neumann. They planned to create a parish for the local German-speaking Catholics. The first church was completed by 1852 and consecrated on July 25, 1853, by Bishop Neumann. In the 1880s a new church was built around the original church, allowing services to continue during the construction of the walls. This church (the current one) underwent a series of remodeling and refurbishing, along with the additions of a rectory, a school, and a thrift shop.

St. Mary's Church, York

The interior has a rich and historical look, especially enhanced by the 1921 murals in the ceiling.

Nave (seen from altar)

The main altar is flanked by two side altars, one dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the other to Saint Joseph. All three are made of Italian marble and were added in the 1921 renovation of the church.

Main altar

Side altar to St. Joseph (the picture of St. Mary's altar didn't come out!)

The baptismal font is also by the main altar.

Baptismal font

New Stations of the Cross were also added in 1921, making them nearly a hundred years old now!

Stations of the Cross

The church has many other fine statues throughout.



Toddler Jesus

Back corner altar with Infant of Prague, Our Lady of Lourdes, and St. Teresa

Close up of Our Lady of Lourdes

The Lourdes altar in the back of the church is a nice touch. At that apparition, Bernadette Soubirous asked the lady for her name. Mary's reply was "I am the Immaculate Conception."

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Movie Review: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

A Man for All Seasons (1966) written by Robert Bolt (from his stage play) and directed by Fred Zinnemann

This faithful telling of Saint Thomas More's life is not so much a life-to-death biography but a character portrait drawn from the final years of his life.

The movie begins with the great controversy of the time, King Henry VIII's desire to divorce his wife Catherine. They've been unable to produce a male heir and Henry has become infatuated with Anne Boleyn. The Chancellor of England, Cardinal Wolsey, has failed to convince Rome to allow the divorce. When Wolsey interviews More in the film's first scene, More explains the tricky situation--the pope made a dispensation so that Henry could marry Catherine (she was Henry's brother's widow) and now they are going to ask for a dispensation from the dispensation. Awkward. More refuses to support Wolsey's efforts which Wolsey finds annoying. Soon enough, Wolsey dies and More is named the next chancellor (ahead of the scheming Thomas Cromwell, secretary to Wolsey). The king visits Thomas at home and has a difficult conversation about the situation. Henry is convinced that he is living in sin by being married to his brother's wife and the lack of male heirs is a sign of God's punishment. More is resolute, though as non-confrontational as he can be--he will not help with the divorce. The king tries his utmost to convince him but finally promises More that he will leave More out of the issue. Henry isn't yet the bloated tyrant who kills off his wives willy nilly, though it is easy to see how he gets there from here.

The deeper issue is the King wants More's approval because More is the most honest man he knows. His integrity is all the more impressive because he is very intelligent and very compassionate. More's daughter is interested romantically in Will Roper, a man who's converted to Lutheranism. More refuses to allow a marriage but leaves things open if Roper will come back to the church. He doesn't forbid them from seeing each other and gives Roper subtle nudges to encourage his return. Richard Rich is a young colleague of More's who wants a position at court. More recommends a teaching position, something with little appeal to the ambitious Rich. More knows Rich will have a hard time resisting the corruption at court. Rich vacillates between More, whom he admires for his integrity, and Cromwell, who is more willing to advance Rich (but with costs). The king knows More's character and that his approval would be a sign that Henry is right in divorcing Catherine. But More won't go that far.

The movie is a great portrait of More's integrity, showing the amazing balance of intelligence, honesty, and humility that makes him a man for all seasons. The movie is based on Robert Bolt's stage play but is successfully transformed into a movie with a good variety of locations and a fairly large cast. The actors are all excellent. Paul Scofield rightly won the Oscar for Best Actor as More. Robert Shaw plays Henry VIII with a boyish vitality that shows his appeal to his subjects but also hints at the childish selfishness that is turning him into a monster.

Sure enough, the good folks at A Good Story is Hard to Find Podcast discussed this film on their 88th episode, and it is definitely worth listening to.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Book Review: The Art of Praying by Romano Guardini

The Art of Praying: The Principles and Methods of Christian Prayer by Romano Guardini

The Art of Praying does not shy away from the number one issue people have with praying--praying is hard. It's a conversation with God that all too often feels one-sided. It's easy to be distracted by other, mundane things while going through rote prayers. It's hard to find time (and patience). Prayer has no practical, tangible, visible results. Authentic prayer should well up from a deep and profound movement, a fully and clear manifestation of God's presence. Romano Guardinin not only acknowledges these problems, they are the very first issues he confronts.

Moments of transcendent awareness or experience are so few that they are not a reliable foundation for a prayer life, nor are they to be expected. Much more value comes from having a regular routine with a certain amount of structure and focus. The focus comes from preparing to pray, finding a method to avoid distractions and compose oneself. The structure should be a bit fluid, based on personal experience and ability. Some may do well with rote prayers while others may benefit more from spiritual reading (the Bible is the most important text). The time praying should not be too short, for then the effort will seem unimportant and irrelevant. The time should not be too long either, especially if other pressing needs or weariness demand attention. Even the posture of prayer is important. It's a matter of discipline and respect, adopting an outward stance that reflects the inner attitude.

Guardini reviews the various purposes of prayer (adoration, reparation, petition, and thanksgiving) and how they are integral to a fruitful prayer life.  He considers the Triune God and how prayer needs to start with the Second Person, Jesus Christ the Son, who is the easiest way into contemplation of the transcendent God. Achieving a more substantial union with God through prayer requires both oral or formal prayers and personal contemplative prayer. Guardini again provides practical advice and examples, especially using the example and the intercession of the saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This personal prayer life needs to be integrated with the communal prayer life of the church through the various liturgies, the most important being Mass. Here too a rich inner meaning is communicated through outward actions. This happens only when the individual looks past his or her personal preferences and embraces the corporate nature of liturgical prayer. It is not corporate in the sense of conforming to business-like formality but in the sense of being members of the Mystical Body of Christ. The corporal union with others is deepest in the Eucharist, which unites each of us with God and thereby makes us children of God. In this way prayer life is balanced between the responsibilities of individuals to God and the individuals' responsibilities to each other through God (i.e. loving one another as He has loved us).

This book is a very helpful and enlightening look at prayer life for individuals, especially those who struggle to find the time, energy, and proper method for a prayer life.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Winter Soccer 2016

The two older kids have been boosting their P.E. by playing in an indoor soccer league. The league has teams at four schools. The first couple of weeks were spent in team and skill building. The main skill for the six-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half year olds is not chasing the ball around the field as a big amorphous blob of children. Other skills include ball control, passing, and defense.

Keeping control of the ball

Following the ball


Another important skill--not using your hands!

They had to choose a team name. Everyone had suggestions which they voted on. Amazingly the name that won out was "The Rabbits." I guess they were going for deceptively unassuming.

The week before their first game they played against their parents. The game was fun but completely unexpected. I had more of a workout than I expected.

Practicing a goal kick

Spreading out

Then they had their first game at home and in their jerseys.

Getting on the court

Ready to start the game

They did a good job working together and managed to score many times.

Brother has sister's back

Switching positions

My son had a great kick sending the ball from his own goal back to the other side of the court. The team did a good job keeping the ball on their opponent's side of the court. My children had a lopsided victory!

Keeping the pressure on

Parent involvement

The subsequent games were all close losses, which was a little disappointing. The games were very exciting.

Warming up at the last game

High action before the game

A great stop

The game had both children and parents seeing action. Since the game was indoors, the ball would often wind up on the sidelines where the parents (and younger siblings) were sitting. Parents who were watching were able to defend themselves from incoming balls. Other parents learned to stop surfing their phones and watch the game, or at least the ball. One child took a direct, high-speed ball to the face. He was okay after a short break. The game was intense and satisfying (except for losing by one point).

Pre-game pep talk

My daughter in action

High fives at the end

Close up of high fives (which certainly look like medium fives)