Essay Archive

Published Elsewhere
Saying Yes to Christmas in Christ Is Our Hope Magazine (Essay with Poetry)
Our Lady of Guadalupe: 23.5 Degrees of Consolation at (Essay)
Forgiven at (Poem)

Inauguration 2017. The Beards Are Back. So Are the Wounds of Division by A. J. Clishem


           The beards are back. So are the wounds of division. Look around. Young men sport longish beards while post election partisans wear election return emotions on their sleeves. The last time beard high fashion coincided with heightened election politics may well have been the year 1877.

           In that year, the beards were everywhere. That was the year the Smith Brothers trademarked their cough drops. My generation will recall the iconic cough drop box with the unmistakable printed image of the two bearded brothers. The lozenges suppressed the cough, soothed the throat, and tasted good.

           No cough drop, however, could suppress the political partisanship of that New Year. The first two months of 1877 found the country in the throes of an undecided presidential election. Contested results in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana meant that the American public did not know whether their next president would be the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes or the Democrat, Samuel J. Tilden. As partisans took up the electoral fight, second-term President Ulysses S. Grant languished in the lame duck waters of his final months in office.

           In this historical context, John Groark, my great-great grandfather, exchanged letters with his bearded friend, Ulysses S. Grant. One of the correspondences—the letter written by Grant—has survived. Before I share the contents of this family heirloom, a little more cultural and political context. First, the cultural.

           Republican presidential hopeful and Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes sported his own version of the in vogue beard. Candidate Abraham Lincoln had innovated the look in 1860 at the request of eleven-year old Grace Bedell. In a letter, she advised him to try the fashionable look. She wrote, “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.” Twice Lincoln won the presidency. Then seven out of his eight successors opted for the hairy look. The final election outcome might bode well for Hayes for Tilden preferred a clean-shaven face.

           Of course, this period of whiskered vanity had a sober side to it. In the wake of the Civil War, a devastated South had been struggling to right itself under the crushing policies of Reconstruction. Former slaves seeking full participation as free citizens of a reunited country would not see those hopes reaffirmed for generations. The Grant administration, hampered by corruption, scandal, and the president’s own ineffectiveness, had set the stage for the divisive election of 1876. Both presidential hopefuls promised to clean up the mess.

           Though Tilden had won the popular vote by more than 250,000 ballots, the count in the Electoral College would decide the final result. The winning candidate needed to capture 185 electoral votes to claim the presidency. An election stalemate had Tilden with 184 votes and Hayes with 165. Held up were 20 votes in the three disputed states where partisans on both sides claimed victory. Tilden would need only one of these states to win the election. A victory in all three would give Hayes the coveted 185 votes and the presidency.

           Historians have called the resolution of the electoral impasse the Compromise of 1877. A publicly appointed bipartisan commission, made up of senators, representatives, and Supreme Court justices, met to resolve the matter. Operatives on both sides would also meet in secret.

           Now for the letter President Grant sent to my great-great grandfather. The return address reads, Executive Mansion, Washington D.C It is dated February 2nd, 1877. On the previous day, the electoral commission had met for the first time to count electoral votes. I imagine the outgoing president stroked his beard once or twice before dipping his feather pen into the presidential inkwell. The letter begins,

Dear John Groark,

Our communication of the 8th (unintelligible) is as has it, and after giving it due consideration, I reply to you.

Thanking you for your friendly suggestions and I shall endeavor to the best of my ability to keep my eyes open the balance of the short time I remain in office and will turn it over to R. B. Hayes, who is in my judgment duly elected if not bulldozed out of it.

Here I imagine another stroke of the beard and dip in the inkwell. Then Grant writes what I consider the heart of the letter, a sentiment worthy of deeper reflection for Americans anticipating the 2017 Inauguration. Grant writes,

Mr. Hayes is one of America’s best sons and will be President for the [w]hole people both South and North and will bring about a better and livelier time than we have had for years.

            The electoral commission continued to meet for about a month, meticulously examining the vote count and each time awarding the three disputed states to Hayes. In the shadows, the political operatives also met. That latter effort would help ensure the victory for Hayes: Democrats would not block the election of Hayes as long as he would agree to withdraw all federal troops from the same three states. Reconstruction would end in the South, and Rutherford B. Hayes would become the 19th President of the United States. The art of the deal. The final electoral vote count: Hayes 185, Tilden 184. Hayes had won by a whisker.

……..As Americans, let us set aside both the fashions of the day and our ideological heartstrings. Let us work now together in good spirit for a better and livelier time than we have had for years.



Luther and Therese by A. J. Clishem


On October 31, 2016, Pope Francis traveled to Sweden to meet with Lutheran leaders in a joint Lutheran-Catholic commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  Knowing Francis’ devotion to Saint Therese of Lisieux, I have wondered about possible connections between the Little Flower and Martin Luther.  Saint Therese of Lisieux, steeped in Catholic Orthodoxy, did not set out to write a spiritual classic.  Martin Luther, reformer of the Church, never set out to start his own church.  Yet both became prodigies of the faith.   I see in both a deep affirmation of God’s merciful love, which could be a bold new starting point of unity between Catholics and Lutherans.  This being the “Year of Mercy” for Catholics provides another reason to be hopeful for Christian unity.  (My thanks to Thomas A. Bokenkotter whom I quote often.  His “Concise History of the Catholic Church” proved an invaluable resource.  Heartfelt thanks as well to Dr. Kurt K. Hendel, Distinguished Ministry Professor of Reformation History at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago).


            Martin Luther and Therese Martin share more than a name. Historically, each left an indelible mark on the Catholic Church. Personally, each encountered similar severe psychological battles with religious scrupulosity. Spiritually, each overcame those personal struggles to forge new spiritual paths that would draw countless souls. Yet even as the similarities are striking, so are the differences. Luther lived a life of notoriety. Therese, a life of obscurity. Luther would be branded a heretic. Therese, a saint and Doctor of the Catholic Church. The comparisons invite deeper reflection, to be sure—but to what end? Within the constraints of this short paper, I will argue that Luther and Therese, rightly juxtaposed, offer more than a simplistic contrast between Liberal Protestantism and Catholic Orthodoxy. They invite us to a deeper appreciation of the mystery of the Church.

Luther, the Catalyst Who Split Christendom

            A newly ordained Catholic priest at the age of twenty-four, Martin Luther was in 1507 acutely aware of his sinful nature. The historian Thomas Bokenkotter writes of this time in Luther’s life, “Deeply conscious of his sinfulness and guilt, [Luther] felt that at any moment he might be struck down by the living God and cast into hell” (210). Hopeless and dour, Luther would not easily overcome his religious scruples. The nominalist theology of the times presented no way out for Luther. “According to this theology he was supposed to merit salvation by his good works, whereas his own experience told him he was completely impotent to do good” (210). Concludes Bokenkotter, “In essence, his spiritual crisis was caused by an intense craving for certitude about his salvation” (211).

            To Luther what came in 1513 must have seemed nothing short of pure gift. One day, as he read St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, a verse struck him like a bolt of lightning. Paul had written, “For . . . the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’ (Rm. 1:17). Bokenkotter describes the moment as a “mystical illumination” (211). The insight provided Luther the antidote he needed: it is not by one’s own merits that salvation is gained “but through the unfathomable mercy and boundless generosity of God, who justifies us in spite of our sins” (211). Simply put, salvation comes through faith.

            Soon the phrase justification by faith would have the power to do more than resolve the deep spiritual crisis of one German priest. The phrase would also have the power, by means of that same priest, to fracture the very foundations of Christendom. Luther saw a Church that presented, even promulgated, the very disease for which he had already discovered the cure. Bokenkotter puts it this way:

For a theologian who held that the heart of religion was personal response, a man whose own religious experience and spiritual evolution was so bound up with the idea of the Gospel as offering God’s free gift of salvation, Church practice of the day must indeed have been a sore trial; for in a thousand different ways the Church seemed to teach just the opposite or at least put excessive emphasis on the role of man in the work of salvation (214).

            Luther now found himself in a Church in sore need of a cure. Ironically, the Church had sunk to the depths of dysfunction and corruption as a result of the unscrupulous behavior of the clergy. To Luther, his contemporary Church in no way resembled the early Church of his imagination—the Church of the early fathers. “Like all enlightened men of his age,” writes Bokenkotter, “Luther was [now] fully aware of the terrible state of affairs in the Church . . .” (213).

            For Luther, separation from the Church did not happen overnight. Just as his spiritual crisis had evolved, so too did his relationship with the Church. And just as he would find personal liberation in a single moment of light, he would also discover personal resolve in a singular instance of darkness for the Church. Here we look no further than the buying and selling of indulgences, promulgated and encouraged among the faithful as a means for their salvation. It “was only when [Luther] became convinced during the indulgence controversy that the Roman Catholic Church held a diametrically opposed theology—basing justification on the works of man . . . that he felt obliged to oppose the Church” (211). Now it would only require some time—greatly hastened by the invention of the printing press—for Luther’s ideas to gain momentum. The seeds of schism had been sewn.

Therese Martin, the Spiritual Antidote for Modernism

            In 1873, three and a half centuries after the Protestant Reformation, a middle-aged couple living in the small provincial town of Alençon, France welcomed their last child into the world. Her name was Thérese. Thérese Martin was the fifth surviving child of nine born to Louie and Zélie Martin. She would live only twenty-four years after a life of obscurity in the Carmelite cloister of Lisieux. At the time of her death, none could have predicted her future importance to the Church. It is said that her small community of sisters, when faced with the task of writing her obituary, did not know what to write for she had not done anything. Yet few have challenged the arrogance of Modernism so powerfully as this “Little Flower.”

            The popes of the late nineteenth century—Pius IX and Leo XIII—had done their part to squelch the Modernist cause. Pius had successfully “put down the liberal Catholic movement” (Bokenkotter, 345). At the time of his death in 1878, he had left behind a “Church [that] resembled a well-organized fortress prepared for a fight to the finish with the main cultural and political movements of the day” (Bokenkotter, 345). The battle wore on under the pontificate of Leo XIII who weathered the storm of a modernism marked by human achievements in science, technology, philosophy, and historical-critical methods of biblical scholarship. Bokenkotter characterizes these challenges to Christian doctrine as “formidable” (345). Leo fought back the modernists by restoring medieval Scholasticism to the Church. This new synthesis of old methods was to be called Neo-Thomism (346). In response, Catholic scholars attracted to Modernist views held firm to “the idea of a personal conquest of the truth” facilitated by “critical-historical study of the Bible” (347). To this challenge, Leo XIII and his defenders would reply in the only way they knew how. “One’s only salvation . . . lay in absolute obedience to the Church” (347).

            This conservatism provided the religious milieu in which Louie and Zélie Martin raised their five children. Daily prayer, regular religious devotions, attendance at weekly Sunday Mass and feast days typified the religious experience of young Thérese. Sensitive, intelligent, and impressionable, Therese also found in this milieu ample cause to develop religious scruples. In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, Therese selects a passage from her mother’s letters to illustrate the earliest manifestation of her own scrupulosity at the age of four. Zelie Martin writes, “Everyone has to know the moment she’s done the slightest thing wrong” (Story of a Soul, 6). The trials continued through her middle childhood years. Therese writes of those times, “The terrible disease of scruples attacked me when I was in retreat for my second Communion. One cannot really understand this torture unless one has suffered it . . . Even the simplest of my thoughts and acts became a source of worry” (46). Of her utter powerlessness over her scrupulosity, she explains, “No amount of reasoning with me did me any good, and I couldn’t cure myself of this wretched fault” (52-53).

            But God could. Therese credits God for healing her of this disease just shy of her fourteenth birthday. She writes, “[I] needed God to perform a small miracle to make me grown-up in a second, and this miracle he performed on Christmas Day” (53). Having just returned home from midnight Mass and anticipating the childhood ritual of finding gifts left by Pere Noel, she overhears her father say–Thank goodness it’s the last time we shall have this kind of thing!  Therese describes what happened next:

I suppressed my tears, ran downstairs, and picked up my shoes. I pulled out my presents with an air of great cheerfulness. . . . Therese had got back for good the strength of soul which she had lost when she was four and a half. . . . Jesus, satisfied with my goodwill, accomplished in an instant what I had been unable to do in ten years (53).

This Christmas miracle allowed Therese to enter more fully now into a mature quest for her vocation and a new question that would occupy her mind: By what means shall I get to heaven?

            It was the question that would lead her to discover her “little way.” Therese explains that she had always wanted to become a saint even though sainthood required greatness, an attribute she could never ascribe to herself. She was too little and too unimportant to accomplish great deeds like the saints. Yet, she reasoned, “God would not make me wish for something impossible and so, in spite of my littleness, I can aim at being a saint” (113). But how? Comparing the difficult journey of a soul to heaven to a child’s laboriously impossible ascent up a tall flight of stairs, Therese reasoned there must be some other way—a short cut for the soul. Borrowing from the technological advances of her time, she compared this short cut to the invention of the modern elevator—a quick and direct path upward. She writes, “I was determined to find a lift to carry me to Jesus, for I was far too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection” (113). With intent and purpose, she sought an answer in sacred scripture. In due time, she came upon the verse—Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me—and then the verse—You shall be carried at the breasts and upon the knees; as one whom the mother caresses, so will I comfort you (113). Therese had discovered her “little way” of spiritual childhood. She writes, “It is Your arms, Jesus, which are the lift to carry me to heaven. And so there is no need for me to grow up. In fact, just the opposite: I must stay little and become less and less” (113).

Luther, Therese, and the Historicity of the Holy Spirit

            The success of critical methods in biblical, historical, and literary scholarship has had perhaps the unfortunate effect of limiting inquiry to that which can be determined by scientific evidence alone. But what of the activity of the divine in human events? It seems that modern scholarship has so emphasized the effects of human actions and intentions that even the most serious thinker would be apt to ignore the activity of Divine Will through time. Can one trace the work of the Holy Spirit through time? Had there been no Pentecost, for instance, there would have been no Church. Without divine inspiration, there would be no Christian scripture. Speculative to be sure, this type of inquiry still draws one into a serious search for answers. Did historicity end at the Ascension? The future of the Church was to be shaped by the Risen Lord’s commandment, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mtt 28:19). Yet the unfolding of that same history was to be shaped by disciples who also entrusted their efforts to the Lord who assured them—I am with you always, to the close of the age (Mtt 28:20).

            Was the Lord with Martin Luther and St. Therese of Lisieux? Did each become instruments of his Divine Will? How does one discern the activity of the Holy Spirit through time? One may be reminded here of our Lord’s teaching concerning false prophets. In Matthew 7:15-20, our Lord gives us a litmus test for discerning the authenticity of a prophet. He says, simply, “You will know them by their fruits” (v. 20). By what fruits, then, do we know Martin Luther and St. Therese of Lisieux? Perhaps one place to start is to examine the effect of their living witness on the Church itself.

            Their effect on other believers was intense and the extent far-reaching. For his part, Luther was quite intentional in making known his objections to the state of the Church. He expressed that intentionality in his use of the newly invented printing press “through which his voice could be heard in even the smallest German hamlet” (Bokenkotter, 208). Bokenkotter explains that Luther was both able and willing to address “the whole German nation.” His “most important utterances” came in “revolutionary manifestos” that had “the greatest importance in setting Germany ablaze” (218). Luther also struck at the foundation of the Church by rejecting apostolic succession. As a “first principle” he focused on the “common priesthood of all believers,” laying a new foundation that found great popular appeal. Recognizing only two sacraments of divine institution, Baptism and Eucharist, Luther argued that “no sacrament [had] efficacy apart from the faith of the recipient” (218-219). Bokenkotter points out that Luther’s “potent popular appeal lay in its simplicity, which appeared . . . obvious when compared with the sophisticated and complex Catholic system” (218-19). Bokenkotter adds, “Luther’s movement continued to spread like wildfire” (219).

            Therese’s boldness in witnessing to the faith differed from Luther’s in at least one important respect: hers was addressed to only one person, her biological sister, Pauline, who was also her religious superior. Therese begins her Story of a Soul this way:

I am going to entrust the story of my soul to you, my darling Mother, to you who are doubly my mother. When you asked me to do this, I felt it might be too great a distraction and might make me too concerned about myself, but afterwards Jesus made me realize that I should please Him by unquestioning obedience. Besides, it involves me in only one thing: to start extolling now the mercies of the Lord—which I shall go on doing throughout eternity (1).

               Like Luther’s writings, the Story of a Soul spread like wildfire. One publisher of the autobiography describes that phenomenon this way: “First published in 1898 [one year after her death at the age of twenty-four], [the  book] quickly became a modern spiritual classic, read by millions and translated into dozens of languages around the world” (ICS Publications).

            Luther’s theological insights resonated with large numbers of Christians hungry for a faith more accessible to their hearts and minds. “The new Lutheran liturgy reflected this belief in simplicity. It stripped the Catholic Mass down to its bare essentials, made it understandable by translating it into the language of the people, and emphasized participation by the whole congregation . . . (219). Luther’s new theological system, reflecting the Gospel of justification by faith alone, has stood the test of five hundred years. One current count of Lutherans estimates 66 million members among its denominations worldwide. “Of these, 36 million live in Europe, 13 million in Africa, 8.4 million in North America, 7.3 million in Asia, and 1.1 million in Latin America” ( These statistics attest to the staying power of a theology that continues to speak to Lutheran Christians today.

            Like Luther who by all accounts lived the justification by faith that he preached, Therese also lived her little way. At a time when the Church was causing ever more disaffection among Catholics for being out of step with the times, Therese of Lisieux provided the antidote to the excesses of modernism. While unquestioned obedience to Church doctrine and traditions remained the norm for the practicing Catholic, Therese reminded the Church that beyond obedience, our primary vocation is to love. In stark contrast to the fortress mentality of Leo XIII and subsequent pontiffs against the proud “isms” of the modern world, she reminded the Church that it has a heart. In this way, she
provided the antidote the Catholic Church needed against the allure of Modernist pride.


            In the final pages of the Story of A Soul, Therese describes how she discovered her true vocation. It happened one day as she was reflecting on St. Paul’s theology of “The Mystical Body of the Church.” Not recognizing herself in any of the members listed by Paul, she realized in an instant that if the Church is a body made up of different members, it would not be without a heart. “Charity gave me the key to my vocation . . . . In the heart of the Church,” she writes, “I will be love” (161). Within weeks after penning these words, Therese died.

            Luther died on February 18, 1546 in his birthplace of Eisleben, Germany after being called to settle a dispute. The former Catholic priest turned reformer became the lightning rod for a broader schism known through history as the Protestant Reformation. Still, only five years before Luther’s death, many had hoped that reconciliation could be reached. Bokenkotter notes that the “high-water mark of dialogue was reached . . . in 1541, when Protestants and Catholics came very close to agreement” (222). That this goal ended unsuccessfully is not altogether surprising. A combination of political factors plus religious obstinacy, on both Catholic and Protestant sides, would ruin any hope of reconciliation.

            Yet the similarities between Therese Martin, the saint and doctor of the Catholic Church, and Martin Luther, the great reformer, should not be minimized. Both found personal freedom in a God whose mercy overcame personal imperfection. Luther required faith. Therese, littleness. Both approaches provided a cure to the sickness of their times. Looking forward in hope to greater dialogue, reconciliation, and Christian unity, both Catholics and Protestants would do well to reflect on the memory of these two prodigies of the Christian faith.


Works Cited

Beevers, John. Trans. The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux, the Story of a Soul. New    York: Doubleday, 1957. Print.

Bokenkotter, Thomas. A Concise History of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 2005. Print.

“Lutheranism.” 10 Nov. 2015. Web. Accessed 13 Mar. 2016. <>

“Institute of Carmelite Studies.” Accessed 13 Mar. 2016. <