It was something like 12:30 in the morning on the first of November when I noticed the man across from me on a delayed flight from Florida to New York making the sign of the cross. He was a tough-looking fella, and while I was delighted to know I wasn’t the only one praying in the turbulence, it also struck me as confirmation that this being tossed right and left and dipping and dropping in the air was not a good thing. We (obviously) survived, and the pilots made an amazingly smooth actual hitting-the-ground landing, despite the strong winds, but was it unsettling, to say the least! I travel a good deal, and this was by far the worst I’ve experienced. People report — and I’ve certainly experienced in my time in other situations — that life-flashing-before-your-face feeling. I think that can be a mix of panic and regret and gratitude. You think your life may end, and you do a little examination both of where you’ve fallen short and what you’re most grateful for. At some point during the turbulence, I thought of people who in the past few days had asked for or clearly needed an increase in prayers and realized that, if I died on the plane, God would make use even of that in their lives, in the mysterious and real way he works. So — after my initial gasps, there was an odd peace, even in the turbulence.
Before the scare, I was reading on that flight a new book by Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York. Sometimes I think of him as America’s pope, inasmuch as he’s probably the most well-known Catholic bishop at the moment, by virtue of being in New York and having some special communications gifts we don’t all have — TV is something he feels comfortable on, and he makes other people feel natural about, too. So it was no big surprise that when his new book came out, some of the morning-news talk shows had him on. The one I watched before my delayed rocky flight was CBS This Morning, and it made me extremely sad, because it was this tremendous missed opportunity. And the tough guy making the sign of the cross during one of our dips in the air that late night and early morning in the severe-thunderstorm-watch high winds seemed like an exclamation mark on this point.
Cardinal Dolan’s book is Who Do You Say That I Am?: Daily Reflections on the Bible, the Saints, and the Answer That Is Christ. It’s a daily devotional, and I was reading it in a very nontraditional way on the plane, skipping in and out in one sitting.
So, about the interview: Although they had the cardinal on to talk about the book, they barely mentioned it; the course of the interview was about scandal, controversy, and sex. This is nothing new to Dolan, so he was clear and strong, all the while conveying some real Christian hope and even joy, as he does, even in the midst of great challenges. One of the things I like about the book is that while others have written important books addressing the hurting in the Church — my friend Father Thomas Berg (whom I ran into on the extremely smoother plane ride down to Florida) wrote a book with exactly that title, and Bishop Robert Barron wrote a short, powerful book, Letter to a Suffering Church, a few months back — Dolan’s was an attempt to get everyone back to fundamentals. Because while there are reforms and reviews, mental illness and evil, scandal stems from our taking our eyes off God! Sin happens when we aren’t who we say we are, because, perhaps, we have forgotten who God is. So, of course, the question is posed by God: Who do you say that I am?
On my birthday (the entries in Cardinal Dolan’s book are dated January 1 through December 31), he writes: “A good question to ask ourselves on reflecting on our lives and our eternal goal is: ‘Who or what dominates? Because the word dominates comes from that word Dominus.’”
He then asks about who or what dominates our lives. For the Christian, it should be Jesus. But it is often something else.
He says: “We need to say: ‘Jesus, I need a Savior. I can’t save myself. I want you to dominate and have dominion over my life.’” And, we need to say that not just when we’re in an airplane feeling completely out of control and desperate!
There are lots of legitimate and important questions about the state of the Church and the world today, and Cardinal Dolan has no problem addressing them. It’s part of his job. But, especially as we start to end the more reflective end-of-the-year holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas in a particular way) and season (Advent comes to mind), let’s open ourselves God in a new way. That’s what the cardinal is trying to help with the book. Whatever you do, or whatever book you use to help (the Bible’s the original!), don’t miss the opportunity for spiritual growth. It stretches the heart and makes us better, and the people and the world around us, too.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.