Author Archives: sdalton43

A Thought I Cherish…

The Catholic Church teaches, and I gratefully accept, that God has perfect foreknowledge. Simply put, God doesn’t have new ideas; and, that truth has enormous implications for each one of us. It means that, although we were conceived and later born on particular dates in history, we have always been in the mind, heart, and plan of God.

God has always known your name, your face, your strengths and weaknesses, your favorite color, your most cherished memories, the things that move your heart, and the things that make you cry. God sees your loneliness and insecurities. God hears your voice raised in prayer. God sees your fist raised in anger and frustration… and understands.

You have always been, and will always be, God’s beloved. You are never completely alone.

You are not an accident or a mistake! In fact, you are God’s good and eternal idea!

May I Take Your Order?

In the early years of our marriage, going out to dinner was a really big deal for Marianne and me because funds were so scarce at that time. These days, we typically dine out once a week as an established “date night” tradition; and, while we deliberately avoid the higher end (i.e., more expensive) restaurants, we also never really worry about paying the tab.

After a recent meal, as we were waiting for our check, an embarrassing memory came to mind. We were a young and still childless couple, and we had finally saved up enough money to treat ourselves to dinner out. I recommended that we try a restaurant my first family used to patronize when I was a boy. I remembered really liking their Italian dishes and looked forward to savoring one of my childhood favorites once again.

When we arrived, I noticed immediately that the restaurant had a new name; and, that was not the only thing that had changed. We were seated and handed menus, and our server told us that she would be back in a few minutes to take our order. When we looked at our choices – and their cost – our hearts sank. We didn’t have nearly enough money.

When our server came back, I explained that we had come there so that I could introduce my wife to one of my favorite childhood restaurants, and we’d not been prepared for the change in ownership and accompanying changes to the menu. In fact, I pointed out, my favorite childhood dish was no longer offered. We were told that the chef could make that dish as a special order, but I protested that it just wouldn’t be the same.

At that point, I think our server perceived what was happening, and she said: “I understand sir.” We thanked her for her kindness, gathered our things, and left. Perhaps it was my imagination, but it felt as though the other diners were staring at us as we exited, that they were somehow in on our shame.

Of course, I felt awful at the time, but now I am honestly grateful for the memory. Part of married life is walking through hardship together. Somehow, “date night” dinners are tastier and more meaningful now because we couldn’t afford that long-ago meal.

As I look across the table, that same beautiful woman is still my companion, for richer or poorer. We are so very blessed.

A Power in Naming

“Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” (Genesis 2:19; RSV-CE)

A long-ago co-worker of mine, Joey, a genial but opinionated young man whose company most people seemed to enjoy, was unabashed in his disdain for organized religion. Knowing my faith and, I suspect, my proneness to blushing,  he would sometimes publicly tease me about belief in God being a “crutch for the weak.” We would joust a bit, nothing mean-spirited, and always parted on friendly terms.

Whether or not he intended it, Joey’s provocative teasing spoke to a curious paradox. Indeed, human weakness before God is always a given; yet, lived Christianity is far more Cross than crutch.

When my wife, Marianne, and I first viewed the apartment, the middle floor in a triple decker home, we were so hopeful. For a number of reasons, the relationship with our current landlord had grown strained, and we were more than eager to find a new home for our young family.

The apartment featured two bedrooms, a large kitchen, surprisingly high ceilings, beautiful hardwood floors, and a sunroom that could function – at least while weather permitted – as an office. The building was owned by a friend, and he generously set the rent at a rate we could afford on our very limited budget.

So hopeful!

My aversion to bugs goes way back. I remember, for example, being a small boy in the front yard of my first home when a yellow-jacket landed on the sleeve of my sweater. I was paralyzed as I watched this winged demon twitching for what seemed an eternity before finally flying away.

Another time, when I was a bit older but still a young boy, I noticed a folded newspaper wedged inside the hedges alongside a neighbor’s home. Wanting to be helpful, I reached in to pull the newspaper out, intending to drop it on the doorstep where it belonged. Just a second or two after I had pried it from its perch, however, an earwig emerged from one of the folds and ran across the top of the paper. I immediately dropped it on the sidewalk, which caused, at least to my impressionable eyes, an earwig exodus. I felt traumatized watching those ugly creatures scamper from their newsy nest and recall instinctively rubbing my hands on my pant legs over and over as if doing so would somehow remove the horror.

Perhaps “aversion” doesn’t go far enough.

The day after we moved into the new apartment, I was eating breakfast at the kitchen table when something on the counter caught my eye. I literally gasped as a large cockroach, which I knew right away was just one of thousands, stood menacingly still, save the waving of its long antennae. We were suddenly, unexpectedly at war.

I had never lived with these invaders before, and it was a nightmare. While most encounters took place in the kitchen or bathroom, the roaches were by no means restricted to those spaces. Consequently, I was ever on alert, knowing that one (or more) could dart out suddenly from almost anywhere. That prospect, like the scurrying earwigs so many years before, honestly haunted me.

Our landlord, to his credit, understood and responded to our plea for help. He hired a local exterminator, who was soon on the scene for an assessment. He informed us that both the upper and lower apartments were infested and that he would need an aggressive approach to eliminate the problem. Of course, we were onboard.

The initial treatment resulted in a discernible drop in the number of sightings, but it didn’t completely eradicate the problem. A second treatment offered brief hope, but it too yielded unsatisfactory results.

After weeks of watching the population grow back to pre-treatment levels, we appealed again to our landlord, who proposed switching exterminators to a firm about which he had “heard some good things.” This was long before the advent of Angi and other such online review sites.

The new exterminator was notably more meticulous than his competitor. He spent considerable time analyzing the situation and assured us that the problem was resolvable. He added, however, that success ultimately depended upon our “proper preparation.”

I would not be at all happy when I learned what that term implied.

I am among those Catholics, apparently a minority in the U.S. today, who continue to rely upon the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a trusted channel of God’s forgiveness and healing. While I personally consider the Sacrament a precious gift, I am not blind to its potential complications and abuses. I have had wonderful experiences in the confessional and still others that were less than edifying – some even disturbing. In this respect, I know I am not alone. Recently, for example, a spate of Confession-related horror stories have been posted on social media sites, many focusing on women’s troubling interactions with their confessors.

The Church teaches that, for the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be valid, there must be proper matter (i.e., true contrition, confession of sins, and performance of penance by the penitent) and form (i.e., absolution pronounced by the priest). Validity, however, does not always translate into a positive experience for the penitent. For that blessed outcome to be realized, I would suggest two other ingredients. First, finding a regular, trusted confessor is helpful. For me, this does not suggest a theological milquetoast; rather, I favor a priest who is compassionate and non-judgmental but who is also not afraid to challenge me when necessary, though always within safe and appropriate boundaries. The second is – and here’s that phrase again – “proper preparation,” which, regarding Reconciliation, has traditionally been known as an examination of conscience.

Marriage is sometimes referenced as a metaphor for the spiritual life, and that makes sense to me. This coming March, Marianne and I will be married 40 years. When people learn of the longevity of our union, they will sometimes ask about our secret (i.e., to a happy marriage). My response is always the same: “Transparency.”

Hidden things can absolutely ruin a marriage; and, though nothing is ever truly hidden from an omniscient God, hidden sins can also grind spiritual growth to a dead halt.

When I resumed practicing my faith in my early to mid-twenties, my relationship with God followed something akin to a romantic arc. What began as a vague attraction to the holy, quickly deepened to a true desire for God. Some deliberate, though fumbling, steps toward intimacy (through prayer) came next, followed by a passion to learn more about my Beloved (through study). Finally, and not without resistance, came the time for my personal transparency before God; however, I wasn’t sure how to get all the way there. I would go to Reconciliation and make what I believed to be a thorough confession, but I would often leave feeling as though I hadn’t allowed God into those secret places, i.e., the ones that most needed God’s healing touch.

In 1986, some dear friends sponsored me on a Cursillo weekend. During that unique experience, I met a wonderful priest, Fr. Martin, who seemed to personify the qualifications I desired in a good confessor.

During one of Fr. Martin’s presentations at the Cursillo, he spoke of penitents who came to Reconciliation expecting to knock priests off their chairs with the thoroughly unique and awful sins they confessed. He then said something I’ll never forget. “The penitents are shocked – some, even disappointed – when the priest yawns at their sins because sins are boring. It is only God’s forgiveness that is exciting.”

Shortly after my Cursillo experience, I began seeing Fr. Martin for spiritual direction, a relationship that would continue for nearly twenty years. Early on, I told him about my desire for greater transparency before God but always feeling as though there were things I was afraid to confront. Exercising characteristic wisdom, at one of our sessions he gave me a copy of the “Young People’s Forgiveness Prayer” by Fr. Robert Degrandis, S.S.J., and he asked me to pray it every day until further notice.

While the prayer was not terribly long, going through it thoughtfully took a good bit of time, and I frankly found the practice tedious. When I would go to prayer, I often prayed that prayer first to get it out of the way.

But, God is a God of surprises.

Our new apartment had a dark walk-in closet that shared a wall with both the bathroom and the kitchen. In fact, the water pipes from both rooms ran through the back of that closet, making it a likely enemy stronghold. On the day we moved in, we had innocently stored a number of our still-packed boxes deep in that closet. Once the bug problem was revealed, I came to view those boxes, figuratively speaking, as multiple folded newspapers stuck in the hedges; and, I was more than content to leave them undisturbed.

“The key to addressing your roach problem,” the new exterminator explained, “is getting the treatment into all of the places where the bugs potentially nest and thrive.” As he walked with us through the apartment, he pointed out all of the areas we would need to empty out so that he could treat them thoroughly. I was quickly filling with dread.

When he came to the walk-in closet, he noted that it was a special area of concern.

“I’m really not crazy about pulling out those boxes,” I offered, looking warily at the open door.

“I understand that,” he said, “but to eradicate the problem we sometimes need to go into uncomfortable places.”

I swallowed and nodded.

As young parents of two small children at the time, Marianne and I were both quite used to a lack of privacy. Perhaps a couple of months into my practice of laboring through the Degrandis prayer daily, Marianne surprised me one day by announcing that she had errands to run and would be taking both children with her.

“You’ll have most of the day to yourself,” she observed. “What will you do?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied, barely hiding my excitement. “But I’m sure I’ll find something to keep me busy.”

When Marianne and the children had left, one of my first instincts was to grab the Degrandis prayer, again wanting “to get it out of the way.” As I began to go through it, however, grace rushed in. It is nearly impossible to explain an experience like this; but, portions of the prayer that had seemed extraneous to me before began to manifest much deeper meaning. It was extraordinary. 

Inadequately explored events, relationships, and sins from my past, areas requiring my and/or God’s forgiveness, became perceptibly present, along with all of the associated feelings, regrets, and (sometimes) shame. Tears flowed freely.

I’m not sure when it struck me, but at one point I realized that I should be journaling about the experience while it was happening. I hastily grabbed an unused notebook from the bookcase and began writing as I prayed.

When the experience finally yielded, I had written seventeen pages of notes and felt a great sense of transparency and relief. I realized that, with God’s help, I had explored those heretofore hidden areas of my life. I also knew that the content of my next confession was in those handwritten pages.

At my next meeting with Fr. Martin, I walked into his office and placed my notebook on the arm of his chair.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“That is my full confession,” I responded happily.

He opened the notebook, thumbed through a few of the pages, closed it, and held it out for me to take back. “Actually, I’d like for you to read this to me,” he said.

For some reason, I was caught completely off guard by his response. I had imagined that the cathartic experience had ended for me with the writing of the final page of my journal/confession. I was wrong.

I took back the notebook and asked shakily, “Do I have to do this?”

“I think you should,” he gently replied.

Knowing well the content of those pages, I was gripped with fear and shame; but, Fr. Martin’s gentle expression helped me to trust that I was in a safe place, so I forged on. I was not even through the first page when the fierce tears began. About halfway through, Fr. Martin said, “Let’s pause for a minute.” He then stood up and motioned for me to come to him. He embraced me, allowed me to grieve and weep on his shoulder, and all the while repeatedly assured me that God loves me beyond measure.

At some point, I regained my composure, blew my nose, and told Fr. Martin that I was ready to continue. When I resumed reading, the tears no longer came. As I looked at the remaining pages, the sins, which I had been incapable of facing apart from God’s extraordinary grace, seemed devoid of their power to embarrass, wound, and inhibit. In fact, Fr. Martin’s words now seemed so real. “… sins are boring. It is only God’s forgiveness that is exciting.”

When I was finished, Fr. Martin gave me absolution, and I felt a lightness in my being, an ineffable sense of peace in my spirit.

I did my best to thank him – and God, but all Fr. Martin did was smile.

After a period of blessed silence, he asked: “Do you understand why I wanted you to read the notebook to me?”

“I know that doing so ultimately brought me peace,” I answered, “but I’d like to know your reason.”

“In the Bible, there is a power in naming,” Fr. Martin explained. “In one of the creation accounts in Genesis, for example, Adam is given the task of naming all of the creatures God had created. You see, in the ancient mind, to know the name of something is to have power over that thing. In the same way, by speaking and naming your sins, you took authority over them, brought them into the light, and stripped them of any power they previously held over you. Then, God could truly set you free.”

I nodded in deep gratitude, and he continued.

“This is important. I want you to take that notebook home and destroy it. God has forgiven and forgotten. Now, be finished with everything that’s written there.”

When I got home, I wasted no time in ripping those pages to shreds and then delighted in throwing them all away. Looking at the pieces in the trash barrel brought yet another experience of extraordinary peace.

The roaches? I had no need to name them because, as the Biblical folk tale explained, Adam took care of that task long ago. What I could name was my fear of entering the dark closet where the crawly creatures dwelt, one of those hidden places that only God’s grace gives us the courage to explore.

By prying those boxes from their “hedge” and bringing them into the light of day, the exterminator’s treatment could penetrate to the root of the problem and thus proved effective. We lived the remainder of our time in that apartment sans the bugs.

True freedom? Often, we get there by facing our deepest fears.

A crutch? Sorry, Joey, but you just don’t understand.

Addendum: After reading a draft of this essay, a friend asked me if I attributed my remarkable prayer/journaling experience specifically to the Degrandis prayer or to grace. I have since thought often of his question, and I believe it warrants an answer here. The Degrandis prayer has no unique mystical power. In my circumstances, however, it proved to be an effective tool for excavating some things in my past that needed to be brought into the light. Other “examination of conscience” tools may have worked just as well had I made use of them. I will never know. I can say with certainty, however, that the breakthrough came as a result of God’s grace. I have no other explanation.

Did You Hear?

Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation)

Since reading it for the first time decades ago, I have felt powerfully drawn to this observation (above) from Thomas Merton. I go to it often seeking inspiration; but, I also enjoy reconsidering its implicit challenge. What, after all,  is the quality of my soil? How many precious “seeds of contemplation,” which are really words of God expressed through the ordinary circumstances of my life, have been wasted on me? How can I become a better listener?

After all, perhaps God speaks through…

The chirping of birds, the barking of a neighbor’s dog, a rush of wind…

The distant laughter of children at play, the “noise” testifying to human ingenuity, the traffic encountered during a daily commute…

Footfalls of a loved one approaching, the words “I understand” spoken compassionately by a friend…

A stranger’s yawn on the train, captivating music, a whispered “I love you”…

A trickle of water, an insect’s buzz, a cry for justice…

A sigh of relief, pages turning in a treasured photo album, a blessed silence…

The rustling of young leaves with their textured beauty set against the backdrop of a brilliant blue sky…

The crunch of those same leaves under foot in late fall…

A distant foghorn, the scrape of a razor over morning stubble…

The subtle sizzle of a candle’s wick, tears, even bitter tears…

The creak of a rocking chair against the deck of a porch, a panhandler’s “Friend, can you spare some change?”…

The rush of a river’s current fed by melting mountain snow, the fluffing of a pillow…

A familiar, tender memory, an interior aching for meaning…

The soft breathing of a sick child, who has finally fallen asleep…

The click of a camera shutter after capturing a precious moment…

Forgiveness given or received or both, a stick figure drawing by a very young child…

Moments of surprising stillness that invite participation, a forgotten person’s loneliness, a favorite teddy bear…

Condensation on an ice-cold glass of lemonade, morning dew, a hot shower after finally exiting a sickbed…

A great work of art, a witnessed act of kindness, receiving breakfast in bed…

A good listener, the crack of a wooden bat against a baseball, a frisky wink…

An unset alarm clock… a dentist’s “all done,” a street sweeper’s scratch and grumble fading in the distance…

A face smiling back in a mirror, acceptance, poetry, a happy surprise…

The first careful sip of morning coffee, the scent of a Christmas tree, an example of beautiful penmanship…

The first snowflake of the season, an orb weaver’s majestic trap, the twitching of a squirrel’s tail…

The view from a mountain top on a crystal clear day, the imagination of a child, the pages of a diary or prayer journal…

Mutually respectful dialogue, words in a holy book, an unexpected visit from a wonderful old friend…

And… [Thoughts?]

—–

What if the voice of God can be found/heard in the “seeds” of life all around us, and we need only till our soil?

Gum Balls

The little boy’s excitement was palpable. He bolted from his mother’s side and approached the array of gum ball machines at full tilt before braking abruptly just inches from the display. He studied his choices with wonderment, running his hand slowly over the glass as if some Divine guidance was forthcoming through his fingertips.

I studied him as discreetly as possible from my place in the checkout line. I remembered that feeling from many years past… and smiled.

But something else held my attention. The child’s face was badly scarred, no doubt from severe burns. He was also missing part of an arm below the elbow.

I couldn’t squelch the sadness that came over me in a wave. I thought about how hard it is to be different, how cruel and superficial the world can be. I wondered about his future and the courage and character he would need to survive. I hoped he would know unconditional love, acceptance (from others and from himself), tenderness, peace.

I knew that I would likely never see this child again; and, though my heart was deeply moved, I really had no right to project about his future. Almost certainly there would be struggles, but I also believe in grace, amazing grace.

Whatever the years ahead might bring, for that blessed moment, he was just a little boy in front of some gum ball machines, his heart racing as he considered where to insert his precious coin.

Wheat, Weeds, and Cancel Culture

On Holy Thursday, I brought Nikolai Ge’s haunting “The Conscience of Judas” to prayer, along with the various Gospel accounts of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. I soon found myself pleading with God to be merciful with this broken man whose very name is synonymous with “traitor.”

—–

When I was seventeen, I betrayed a friend. I will not disclose specific details because the story is not mine alone. I simply offer that my (sadly, former) friend and a certain young woman, who had been his girlfriend, were involved.

If this were a matter for a court of law, I may be able to argue successfully for a reduced sentence. Indeed, I believe there were some mitigating circumstances. Still, the cold fact is that someone I cared about, and still care about, was deeply wounded by my selfish, deceitful actions; and, I have carried that grief, that frightening yet enlightening awareness of what I am capable of doing, with me ever since.

—–

One of the features I enjoy most about Facebook is the “Memories” function, which reminds users of their post(s) on the same date in prior years. Recently, I was reminded of an inspiring quote I originally posted back in 2017. The quote spoke about virtues invariably found in healthy Christian communities, and its relevance for the present-day Church, so rife with division, was blatantly obvious to me. I was about to repost the memory until I saw the name of the person I had quoted – Jean Vanier.

—–

In 1987, two of my dearest friends, Nina Pension and Janie Korins, joined me in offering a Lenten mission in several local Catholic parishes. The mission, titled “I Believe; Help My Unbelief,” was based upon the pericope found in Mark 9:14-29, in which a father seeks help from Jesus in healing his apparently demon-possessed son. In pleading his case, the tormented man says to Jesus “… if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds with a challenging statement that all things are possible for one who believes. At that point, the father confronts and confesses his own weakness by uttering the words comprising our mission’s title.

My co-presenters and I could sense the power of that theme even as we met to discuss the mission’s content and our respective assignments. We knew that the words of that desperate father could aptly be placed on our own lips, as well as on those of all who would attend the mission, at various times in our respective lives.

I must have drawn the short straw because one of my assignments was a presentation titled “Forgiving the Church.” I based the talk on Matthew 13:24-30, the parable of the weeds among the wheat.

The story is a familiar one. A man sows good seeds in his field, but an enemy comes at night and sows weeds among the sprouting wheat. The owner must then decide whether to root out the weeds during the growing season or to wait until the crop has matured and then separate wheat from weeds at harvest. He wisely chooses the latter approach so as not to risk rooting up the growing wheat along with the weeds.

At the mission, one of my living examples of a weed among the wheat of the Church was a bishop (from the Midwest, if I’m recalling correctly), who had been credibly accused of abusing children. Little did I know then of the startling revelations that would dominate the headlines fifteen years later and well beyond – headlines that would strike painfully close to home.

—–

The late Jean Vanier was a personal hero to countless people, Christians and non-Christians alike. His founding of L’Arche, his voluntary life of sacrifice and (apparent) chastity, and his close fellowship with people with mental health disabilities made him a model of agape love at work.

To call him an inspiration would be an understatement. Like many, I drank in his writings because he seemingly lived a life that mirrored the virtues he extolled. In other words, he “walked the walk” and thus, credibly, “talked the talk.”

I had always struggled to appreciate the Gospel of John, until I read Vanier’s book Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John. I subscribed to an email service that provided a daily reflection drawn from Vanier’s writings. In that way, he was with me every morning to strengthen and encourage.

I described one instance of Vanier’s influence in my essay “Bridging the Chasm.” In that case, his challenging words, working in tandem with God’s grace, gave me the courage to move beyond my comfort zone when I really needed the push.

Vanier’s fall and the exposure of rank weeds growing in his life was, for me, the most disillusioning of all the Church-related sexual abuse revelations. I do not want to let his case harden my heart; yet, thinking about this man, whom I once considered a living saint, now yields profound sadness.

But there was also wheat, amazing wheat!

—–

The lyrics are simple but sublime.

I will come to you in the silence

I will lift you from all your fear

You will hear My voice

I claim you as My choice

Be still, and know I am near…

They give voice to the longing in the heart that draws one to prayer. No doubt, many have used a recording of that contemporary hymn specifically to lead them into prayer. The songwriter is the accused serial sexual abuser David Haas.

—–

At a crucial time in my life, when much was going right, but I nonetheless felt a deep sense of emptiness, a (then) young priest helped me to rediscover God and was thus instrumental in changing the course of my life. I wrote briefly about this pivotal encounter in my essay titled The Red Sweater.

This priest became a trusted friend and even officiated at my wife’s and my wedding. But, in 2005, he was finally laicized after multiple instances of molesting children.

—–

The Catholic Church teaches that only two people have ever walked sinless upon the earth, Jesus and his Blessed Mother. My presentation on “Forgiving the Church” focused on the hard truth that we all can sense in our hearts. Our lives and characters comprise both wheat and weeds.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus sends his twelve apostles out two by two on a mission trip to preach repentance, heal, and cast out demons (Mark 6:6b-13). Judas Iscariot was among those missionaries. His efforts likely touched, healed, and redirected many lives toward God. Wonderful wheat!

Yet, weeds have become his defining legacy – a Biblical example of cancel culture.

I pray for and have compassion for Judas… maybe because I know in my heart that I have been Judas.

—–

Sometimes the wheat and the weeds are so intricately interwoven that only God can do the untangling. The disciples tried to help the father and his tormented son, but Jesus alone could set them free from their bondage.

—–

I understand the motive behind cancel culture. Public figures who are revealed to have engaged in abhorrent behavior are finally and rightfully being held accountable. Vanier is no longer held up as an example to follow. David Hass’s music is no longer played at liturgical celebrations. The priest who touched my life can no longer exercise a priestly ministry. Judas is a pariah.

I get it. But, I’m left with some haunting questions.

What do we do with the good, the wheat in their lives?

Is the L’Arche movement invalidated by Vanier’s sins? Are his inspirational words nullified?

While Hass’s music is rightly no longer played in churches, would a believer who has always been inspired by his songs be wrong to play them privately if they still inspire prayer and faith?

Should my wife and I remove pictures from our wedding album that show the offending priest?

—–

Is there hope for Judas? I pray that there is, because therein lies the hope for me.

Some of My Best Friends Are…

Preamble

What follows is an essay that has been stirring within me for some time. I have discussed a few of the thoughts expressed below with friends, but I have never had the courage – or, perhaps, the humility – to commit them to writing. This reflection deals with aspects of human sexuality, a topic that somehow remains perplexing for me even after sixty-three years of life and nearly forty years of marriage.

I wish to make it clear from the start that I do not write as a teacher of Catholic morality. Further, I make no claim to be a theologian, philosopher, or anthropologist. What follows are simply the ruminations of a man with faith, who has stumbled more times than he cares to admit in the sexual arena, and who also happens to be a husband, father, and grandfather within a beautiful, complex family.

Why tackle this topic now? I could rightly claim that I am motivated by prayer since the matter arises often in quiet moments with God; however, the deeper truth is that I write this especially for my youngest child, Matthew, who shall always be welcome in my heart and at my table.

By the way, two related stories are quite deliberately interwoven below. I hope the narrative won’t be too difficult to follow.

—– —– —–

When our youngest child, Matthew (Matt), was a toddler, he had a stuffed Pinocchio toy that he really loved. At bedtime, I would sit on the edge of his bed, assume my silliest Pinocchio voice, and bring the puppet/boy to life. It was a ritual we both thoroughly enjoyed.

Just before turning out the light, Pinocchio would always mischievously say:

“Good night.

Sleep tight.

Don’t forget to write.

Be careful, I might bite.”

Then, after a pretend chomp on Matt’s belly…

“You weren’t careful.” (Delighted laughter!)

—–

It happened nonchalantly. My wife Marianne and I were watching a movie on the loveseat in our den when she suddenly pivoted, lifted her legs, and draped them over my lap. All the while, her eyes never left the screen.

It was not an overtly sexual act; still, it was quite intimate. There was no hesitation, no concern that I might not want her legs restricting my movement, no worry that her feet might smell after a long day at work.

I glanced down and instinctively began massaging her calves, but my mind was racing elsewhere. I was caught up in marveling at how far we had come, at how fruitful our difficult journey ultimately had proven to be.

—–

Matt was a child of firsts: the first to keep us waiting, a full two weeks beyond his predicted delivery date; the first who, thanks to meconium aspiration syndrome, remained in the hospital for several days after birth before he could safely come home; the first whose skin assumed an orange tint due to his seemingly insatiable appetite for carrots and sweet potatoes.

Other firsts would follow years later: the first to try smoking; the first to dye his hair; the first to get a tattoo.

Being Matt’s Dad has not always been an easy proposition. He is the most temperamental of our three children and the one who has always seemed most willing to push boundaries. When he reads this essay, as I know he will, I suspect he may recall some specific examples. (Right, son?)

Matt is a talented musician and artist. He is highly creative, strong-willed, tender-hearted, and very passionate about causes and people he believes in. He is a devoted son, brother, and friend, and he has the gift of genuineness that can be both charming and a bit in-your-face.

On parent-teacher day, I recall his kindergarten teacher raving about his people skills and his tendency to coordinate social activities among his classmates. We were not surprised.

Growing up, Matt had a sincere faith in God. He was an altar boy in our parish, attended youth retreats, and enthusiastically entered into daily family prayers. In fact, one of the sweetest memories Marianne and I have of Matt’s childhood is when he would summon his older sister and brother to gather for prayer by calling out: “Guys, it’s time for we’re prayers.”

—–

Marianne is an incest survivor. Her rapist was a trusted uncle, who began molesting her when she was only ten years old. His violations continued until Marianne was sixteen, when she rose up in her own defense and finally ended the horrific abuse. We didn’t know each other at the time, but I am so very proud of her courage.

Of course, I have Marianne’s permission to mention her ordeal here. Otherwise, I would never have brought it up. I will provide no further details except to say that such a sustained trauma cannot help but leave lasting scars. In the early years of our marriage, even though our love was genuine, building trust was the essential work of our intimate life. And it was precisely work, requiring a great deal of patience and perseverance from both of us.

Marianne was by no means the only wounded member of our team. I have written previously of the dysfunction characteristic of my first family and of the downward spiral ultimately leading to my parents’ divorce. I will not rehash specifics of my father’s abuse that caused me to doubt my worth and personhood. I will, however, offer one story that I have never told here before because I believe it exemplifies the awful confusion of my teenage years.

As my parents’ relationship deteriorated, they reached a point where they could barely tolerate being in one another’s presence. Almost anything could serve as a catalyst for their heated arguments.

One day, they were particularly incensed with one another and were screaming back and forth between different rooms in the house. I always assumed the peacemaker role, so I went to the kitchen to attempt to calm my mother down. Unfortunately, there was no consoling her. She broke away from me, walked to the doorway, and deliberately began banging her face into the door frame. Before I could pull her away, she had already violently impacted the surface multiple times. Then, she reached for the phone to call the police to report (falsely) that my father had struck her.

The shame and embarrassment of that afternoon are chiseled into my memory. I was seated on the front porch, in full view of the neighbors, with the flashing lights of  the police car drawing attention to the scene, as the two responding officers questioned me about the incident.

“He’s not a good husband or father,” I recall myself saying, “but he didn’t do this.”

My mother was a genuinely dear woman with unyielding faith and a deep love for her family. Under supreme stress, however, she broke that day, and I was left to pick up the pieces.

I believe I was 17 at the time.

—–

When Marianne and I wed, we embraced a shared and hopeful future; but, if we were to grow together, we would also need to confront our emotionally shattered pasts.

—–

The Catholic Church teaches that a married couple’s sexual expression should always manifest both procreative and unitive dimensions. This is a beautiful, holy ideal; and, many Catholic couples strive heroically to live out this commitment, particularly through the practice of Natural Family Planning (NFP). Many others, however, for complex reasons known only to God, the couples themselves and, perhaps, their confessor(s) and/or spiritual director(s), come up short of full compliance. Marianne and I fall into this latter camp.

While I believe in the possibility of a Divine plan for human sexuality and really do cherish the ideal the Church sets before us, I also recognize it as exactly that, an ideal. Though I am not proud of our struggles, especially in the procreative dimension, neither do I allow them to shame me/us disproportionately. They are a part of our intricate reality, and our forgiving God has met us most generously along that path.

—–

One day, some years ago, Matt asked if he and I could have dinner together that evening. I queried if there was something particular on his mind, and he replied that he had something to share with me that might make me uncomfortable but that could prove a breakthrough for him. I booked a reservation at a nearby restaurant, waited, and wondered.

I suspect he wanted to talk with me first (and alone) because, for whatever reason, he saw me as a larger hurdle than his mother. Over dinner that evening, in an act of liberating courage, my youngest son told me that he is gay.

—–

Based upon Marianne’s and my lived experience of ministry to one another, I would broaden the Church’s understanding of the fruit of marital sexual expression to include a third dimension, co-creative, and I would easily give it equal weight. Within this framework, such things as honesty, transparency, prioritizing the spouse’s needs above one’s own, sharing the daily burdens of temporal life (jobs, chores, etc.), active listening, empathy, compassion, patience, forgiveness, shared meals and tears, prayer, laughter, and exhausted hugs are all, in my opinion, co-creative expressions of married life and love.

I once heard a female comedian say something like: “The sexiest thing a man can do at the end of the day is wash the dishes.” I think that’s often true.

Since we committed our lives to one another, Marianne and I have been all about co-creating with God, helping each other become the person God created us to be. I am unquestionably a better man due to this amazing woman’s enduring love and support. My bride has been a channel of God’s grace in my life, and I pray (and believe) that I have been the same for her.

Indeed, it is “not good that the man [or woman] should be alone.” (Gen 2:18)

—–

During his teen years, as his sexual identity apparently came into clearer focus, Matt became vulnerable to the kinds of wounds only the Church and/or its members can inflict. As a result, he began to rebel against Catholicism, which I mistakenly interpreted as a faith crisis. I have since come to understand that he was actually struggling to reconcile his blossoming sexual awareness with his heretofore faith community, and it wasn’t going particularly well.

—–

Just a few days after “the  dinner,” Marianne and I departed on a previously booked cruise vacation. Early on, we learned that a priest was onboard and that he would be ministering to passengers throughout the trip. I requested a one-on-one appointment with him to talk through issues related to what I’d recently learned from my son. I was seeking an objective, compassionate ear, and, initially, I was warmly received; however, as soon as I mentioned Matt’s news, the priest’s entire demeanor changed. In an oddly hostile way, he began angrily railing against “sodomites.” I tried to listen politely, but it was all too much. He was demeaning my son, albeit circuitously. I left that ugly meeting without confrontation (thank God!) but with a much clearer understanding of what Matt was facing, at least in some quarters of the Church.

—–

I once knew an elderly woman whose middle-aged gay son lived with her. In many ways, her unconditional love for her son was a model of acceptance. Her devotion to him was sincere, but she always secretly held on to an unrealistic hope. On more than one occasion, she discreetly whispered to me: “I hope he finds a nice girl and settles down.” This fantasy, I believe, was her coping mechanism.

Many parents, I suppose, nurture an idealized vision of how their children’s lives will unfold – good health, a joyful childhood and adolescence, a great college experience, a satisfying career, solid friendships, a loving marriage, adorable children, a nice home, ample money reserved for those anticipated “rainy days,” sufficient retirement savings, and, ultimately, a burial plot in a particularly lovely part of the cemetery. Marianne and I were guilty of that too; and, Matt’s news, initially at least, seemed to throw those prefabricated plans – our plans – into disarray.

By God’s grace, we have come to recognize that our calling is to embrace the reality of what we have learned about our son. Matt’s gayness is not temporary. It is not a phase he will outgrow. It cannot be prayed or reprogrammed away. While he could, theoretically, “find a nice girl and settle down,” we know that doing so would be fraught with complications that could undermine even the strongest of relationships.

Rather than abandoning parental dreams for our son’s life, we find ourselves rethinking them in light of this new – or, newly understood – reality. Matt, our former “orange baby,” is gay!

Since faith and active participation in the Church are central elements in our lives, our rethinking must also consider how to reconcile our love and support for our son with our experience of God.

—–

When Marianne spontaneously draped her legs across mine, I saw in that simple act a hard-won, uncomplicated trust, an affirmation of safety, a sign of the maturity and beauty of our love.

Our path had certainly not been “ideal,” but it had been authentic.

—–

According to the Catholic Church, the only morally acceptable option for homosexuals is to live a life of chastity and celibacy. This may be a holy and high ideal, but is it realistic? And, does the Church honestly support it?

Before continuing, I will reiterate that I write only as a Catholic Dad, who knows and loves his gay son, and not as a teacher of morality. Some readers may be disappointed by my ideas, but they faithfully reflect my conscience.

—–

Recently, I spent some time reviewing web-based information about the formation of Catholic priests for a life of chastity and celibacy. In the pieces I read, the difficulty of this calling and the special grace required to fulfill it are repeatedly emphasized. I also discovered that seminary educators and formators are specially tasked with cultivating in their students a deep sense of the “precious gift” of celibacy, especially insofar as it prepares one for priestly ministry.

The website of The Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit included this statement on the topic:

”… Depending upon when a man enters the seminary, his formation can last from between six to eight years. The seminary has a well-developed and comprehensive curriculum for chaste celibacy. This curriculum outlines and examines key formation components: study of the Church’s documents; Sacred Scripture foundation; the history of celibate priesthood; psychosexual development; counseling others; prayer and a personal relationship with the Lord; celibacy and the evangelical counsels; intimacy in human friendships; discerning a call to celibacy; moral theology; and strategies for living celibacy and purity.”

Embedded in the excerpt above is a link to the “curriculum for chaste celibacy,” which helped me to understand more fully that Seminary’s comprehensive approach.

While I think it is entirely appropriate to form seminarians so carefully and comprehensively – over a six to eight year period – for a life of celibacy, I am left with some disturbing questions. Where is the corresponding formation for single and homosexual lay people? Are chastity and celibacy less demanding for them? Or, is their vocation simply valued less within the Church?

The truth is, many LGBTQ people, including Matt, already feel unwelcomed by, or alienated from, the Church. And, when people like Fr. James Martin, S.J., attempt to build bridges of healing with the LGBTQ community, they are often met with strong resistance, including from some brother priests.

Even if formation in chastity and celibacy were to be made widely available in parishes, which is where most active Catholics live out their faith, significant reparative work would likely need to precede the offerings in order to encourage participation. Further, and perhaps more importantly, I question whether a contemporary Catholic audience in Matt’s age group values or even understands celibacy.

—–

Knowing Matt as we do, Marianne and I seriously doubt that he will choose to live his life without a romantic partner. He is currently in a relationship, in fact, and it certainly seems to be blessing him, including helping him to trust and to heal from the wounds of his past.

I can easily imagine someone with the mindset of the priest on the cruise becoming apoplectic at the suggestion that a committed gay relationship could be a blessing; yet, can we really deny that possibility?

It is a cliché, of course, but some of our best friends are gay. As I write, I am thinking of a particular couple, Richard and Frank, who have been together for many years and are still very much in love. Their relationship richly demonstrates commitment. It also offers ample evidence of the fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23).

Can this be ignored?

Perhaps I’m grasping at straws, but I find hope in the groundbreaking work of the Council fathers at Vatican II, who drafted and approved the Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis redintegratio

That decree was written against the backdrop of the long-held Catholic view that there is no salvation outside of the Church. The Council fathers, because they could not deny the evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in separated Christian denominations, acknowledged a salvific, albeit imperfect, communion between those bodies and the Church. In so doing, they both confirmed the long-held teaching and recognized salvific degrees of incorporation/communion within the Church.

I wonder if the Church might one day apply a similar rationale with regard to human sexuality, i.e., uphold the ideal of marriage between one man and one woman wherein every sexual expression is both procreative and unitive, but also recognize degrees of incorporation within that ideal for those of us – the majority, I suspect – who fall short of fully realizing that ideal.

Yes, I wonder.

—–

Along the continuum of views regarding homosexuality and the Church, I know good people on both extremes: some who would read what I have have written (above) and conclude, without hesitation, that I am advocating grave sin; and others who would simply say that God made Matt gay, and he should pursue his truest self.

Marianne and I are decidedly closer to the latter view than the former, but we are still somewhere in between. There is, however, one thing we can say with certainty. Matt is our beloved son, in whom we are well pleased.

And, we’ve really no doubt that God feels likewise.

“I thought you knew…”

I caught sight of them while slowing down for a red light ahead. The thirty-something man, dressed in a fine suit, was holding hands with an adoring little girl, presumably his daughter. Oblivious to the bustle of the morning all around them, they seemed in rapt attention with one another, talking and laughing as they walked. Then, in what I consider an inspiring expression of fatherly freedom, they suddenly began skipping in unison along the crowded sidewalk. Passers-by couldn’t help smiling, even if self-consciously averting their eyes. I was captivated and regretted it when the light changed.

I tend to notice fathers with their children.

At a recent leadership retreat sponsored by my employer, I was charged with delivering to my fellow participants a short presentation expressing “my story.” Considerable liberty was given regarding content, so I chose to tell about an inexplicable encounter with God (and my father) that brought both healing and direction to my life.

I scribbled a few notes for the talk, but I honestly found the best preparation to be prayer and introspection. While reflecting, something my father said to me many times during my childhood and adolescence came painfully to mind.

“You’re not worth the powder to blow you to hell.”

Those words remain disturbingly accessible to my psyche even in this seventh decade of life. Sometimes, while with my grandchildren, I think about their innocent susceptibility to emotional injury and about the terrible implications if they were to hear such words directed their way, especially if spoken by someone they love, someone charged with their protection and formation.

When I read my resume, it is often with an odd sense of detachment. The career path and achievements detailed therein can actually intimidate me and feel as though they are someone else’s work, feats well beyond my capabilities. I believe the term currently used to describe this phenomenon is “imposter syndrome.”

I also wrestle this beast every time I sit down to write, which is likely why I so seldom post a new essay to my blog. Yes, I am in a long-term relationship with self-doubt (and shame). I also believe, however, that God is healing me incrementally, choosing opportune moments to speak a beautiful new reality into this wounded heart.

What follows describes just such an occasion.

I first encountered Peter Meinke’s powerful poem “Untitled” (reproduced entirely below) more than 30 years ago. I was overseeing a weekend retreat at the time, and one of the retreatants, a kind gentleman named Gene, who – coincidentally? – was just about my Dad’s age, read it aloud to the group.

The words, written by a father to his son in reparation for the harm he had caused him, seized me unexpectedly, even violently. Fighting back tears, I considered leaving the room but then concluded doing so would only draw attention to my embarrassing reaction. Instead, I bowed my head, took deep breaths, and battled to keep my composure.

Over the course of (then) recent months, Gene had become a dear friend. I first met him when he enrolled in an evangelization workshop I was teaching in his parish. From the start, I was drawn to his genial, affirming manner.

Gene was an educator by profession; and, though I was technically the instructor in our shared workshop, I really learned a great deal from him. At one of our sessions, for example, I was chatting with Gene during a coffee break and asked him about his experience while pursuing his PhD. Specifically, I wanted to know what he valued most about the experience. His response made a lasting impression.

“Oh Steve, that’s easy,” he said. “The best part of my studies was the research. It was such a privilege to take a topic I cared deeply about and to explore it from every direction, to peel it like an onion finding every hidden layer. Doing research is what taught me to learn to love to learn.”

At the time, I had no hint that I would one day become a research librarian. When I did, however, Gene’s words became my mission statement. With every student who sought my assistance, my goal was always to help her/him “learn to love to learn.”

The Meinke poem haunted me. My initial reaction had been so overwhelming, I was certain I needed to go further with it, certain that God intended my cooperation.

Several days after the retreat, I recognized a possible opportunity. I had a light workload at the parish and knew that I would not be missed if I spent some time praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Before deciding definitively that the timing was right, however, I peeked inside the building to see if I would have the privacy I knew I would need. Thankfully, the church was completely empty.

I brought a printed copy of “Untitled” with me and knelt before the Tabernacle. Since Catholics believe in the abiding presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, I trust there is no better place to open one’s heart to God.

As soon as I glanced at the page, as soon as I saw the words “I thought you knew” I began to sob ferociously.

Some tears seem to originate directly behind or within the eyes. These felt as though they were springing from within my soul.

Here is the poem that affected me so profoundly.

Untitled

This is a poem to my son Peter
whom I have hurt a thousand times
whose large and vulnerable eyes
have glazed in pain at my ragings
thin wrists and fingers hung
boneless in despair, pale freckled back
bent in defeat, pillow soaked
by my failure to understand.
I have scarred through weakness
and impatience your frail confidence forever
because when I needed to strike
you were there to hurt and because
I thought you knew
you were beautiful and fair
your bright eyes and hair
but now I see that no one knows that
about himself, but must be told
and retold until it takes hold
because I think anything can be killed
after awhile, especially beauty
so I write this for life, for love, for
you, my oldest son Peter, age 10,
going on 11.

(Peter Meinke)

Though alone in the church, my powerful emotional response made me self-conscious. Several times, I looked around through bleary eyes to make sure I’d not been mistaken regarding my solitude. Then, just as my concerns were sufficiently assuaged, I heard the unmistakable sound of the church’s large front door opening.

I regret admitting this, but my first reaction was anger. Seriously, God had put me in this very vulnerable place and then wouldn’t/couldn’t protect my privacy?

I dried my eyes as best I could and began praying that the invader would kneel, say a quick prayer in the rear of the church, and exit with no further trouble. Then, I heard the footsteps coming down the aisle in my direction. I bowed my head and quietly simmered.

As the interloper passed by on my left, I discreetly glanced in that direction. My heart immediately softened. Of all people, it was Gene.

He must have sensed the intensity of the moment for he was very respectful of my space. It occurred to me later that he may have even seen the Meinke poem in my hand and read the situation clearly. He was, after all, a very perceptive man.

Though I didn’t notice it at first, Gene, a Eucharistic minister, had a pix in his hand. He had come to the church specifically to retrieve the consecrated Hosts to bring Communion to the shut-ins he visited regularly.

He genuflected, opened the Tabernacle door, then turned to me. “Would you like to receive the Eucharist, Steve?”

“That would be so beautiful!“ I replied, my voice shaking in the winds of grace.

I received Eucharist twice in that moment – first in the sacred Host and second in Gene’s fatherly hug. I wept in that good man’s arms, no longer concerned with privacy or appearances.

“I thought you knew…”

I never did.

But, I’m learning.

Perhaps you are too.

Addendum:

I have honestly forgiven my father, who passed away in the fall of 2013, but forgiveness does not necessarily heal one’s wounds. I write as a cathartic exercise and not to pass on blame. My sincere hope is to hold my father’s hand in God’s Kingdom and to skip unashamedly with this man I have always loved but have not always understood. Again, I’m learning… with God’s grace.

Praying on 3rd Base, Etc.

For a number of years, I have been in the habit of writing a Thanksgiving essay as my way of expressing gratitude for the many blessings in life. Typically, those essays have taken the form of a single, sometimes lengthy story. This year’s entry, however, represents a departure from that tradition.

Earlier this month, I turned sixty-one years old. Having now completed the first full year of my seventh decade of life, I am in a scattered yet reflective mood. So, this year’s Thanksgiving entry finds me less with a (longish) story to tell and more with a few short musings possibly consistent with this later stage of life.

I hope one or more of them will bless you.

A friend of mine recently said to me: “God cannot be put in a box.” Her intention, of course, was to express that God is bigger and greater than we could ever imagine; and, I wholeheartedly agree with her. Yet, virtually every day of my life I violate that awesome truth.

When I sit down to pray, I most often do so with a concept/image of God in mind, something to make God seem more real and approachable. I suppose “boxing” God in that way helps me to cope with the mystery, especially God’s silence – even apparent absence – at difficult moments in life.

One such depiction of God, an anthropomorphic image found in the book of Genesis, grips my imagination like no other. It appears in the story of the fall of Adam and Eve, and it reads as follows:

“And they [i.e., Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” (Genesis 3:8a, RSV-CE)

I cannot explain my fascination. I can only admit to bringing a personalized version of this verse (i.e., a God box) to prayer countless times. In truth, one of my deepest longings has now become walking with God in the garden in the cool of the day.

To talk. To listen. To finally understand. And then, to rest in God’s peace.

One day…

This past summer, my wife Marianne and I attended several of our grandson Joseph’s little league baseball games. One inning of one game left a lasting impression.

The field where the game was played restricts spectator access along the baselines, so we were watching from behind the left field fence. Since we arrived a few minutes late, and our vantage point was a healthy distance from the dugouts, we weren’t even sure Joseph knew we were there. That question, however, would soon be answered.

When Joseph got up to bat for the second time, he got an infield hit. As often happens in little league, a series of fielding miscues followed; and Joseph, who should have been on first base, made it all the way around to third. His foot had no sooner safely landed on the base when he pivoted around and waved enthusiastically to us.

“Did you see that? Are you proud of me?” his wave seemed to say.

That endearing gesture spoke volumes to this grandfather’s heart. Joseph’s Mom and Dad had dropped him off that day, but they couldn’t stay for the game. If we’d not been present, with whom would Joseph have shared his great accomplishment?

Joseph’s wave reminded me of a child’s vulnerability and of his/her need to know support, affirmation, love, and acceptance. Since we are all God’s children, and since my mind inevitably works this way, it also taught me a lesson about prayer.

Sometimes I turn to God with a broad smile and wave. Other times, I turn and desperately search for God’s face in the crowd. Still other times, I turn and can only bow my head in sorrow.

What matters is that God comes to every game.

And, as it turns out, 3rd base is an excellent place to pray.

When I was a boy in parochial school, I learned that we all have a guardian angel assigned to guide and protect us. I can’t help wondering what the guardian angels of the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School were doing while Adam Lanza was on his hellish rampage.

Years ago, when I was working for the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), I was invited to deliver a presentation about preservation microfilming to an audience of imaging scientists at the Polaroid Corporation. That was, perhaps, the most intimidating lecture I’ve ever had to give. Before speaking, I remember studying the faces of those in attendance, knowing full well that every one of them was more knowledgeable than I about photographic processes.

Some years later, I had a similar experience while teaching a six-week adult-education course in my parish on the topic: “God and Human Suffering.” Looking out at the participants before my first lecture, I realized that every person in the room had suffered, many quite profoundly. Further, each person had processed his/her suffering in such a way as to reconcile it with his/her view of God. I was an amateur charged with speaking to an audience of experts.

Fortunately, the course was very well received. In fact, after the final lecture, many expressed a desire to meet for an additional session just to talk about what we had collectively learned. We did so, and it was a beautiful and humbling experience – so many moving stories.

I’m now convinced that discovering the beauty and goodness of God in the midst of our suffering is one of the most important adventures in life.

I can’t imagine a more central element to the spiritual life than daily prayer. Yet, in all the parishes to which I’ve belonged over the years (nine or ten, if memory serves), I’ve never found one that consistently prioritized teaching adult parishioners how to develop and deepen their personal prayer lives.

Why?

The divisions that exist in the Catholic Church today exhaust me. Twitter, in particular, has become a battleground wherein uncharitable comments from both the right and the left abound.

With that in mind, it is an interesting exercise to read James 3:1-12, while mentally substituting the word “keyboard” for the word “tongue.”

It is also worthwhile to recall that, whenever someone expresses an opinion that differs dramatically from one’s own, that person is defending what he/she believes to be good, i.e., he/she is not knowingly proposing evil. In all circumstances, deeper understanding is called for, not aggression.

I have a friend I greatly admire, who is an atheist. He is kind, thoughtful, socially conscious, a devoted husband and father, and he certainly has known his share of suffering. Though we’ve never discussed the matter outright, he and I would surely differ in our views about an afterlife.

Of course, the only way we will know which of us is right is if I’m right.

Should that prove to be the case, it would gladden my heart immeasurably if my friend were to walk with me – and with God – in the garden in the cool of the day.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Waiting (for God)

Waiting, it seems to me, is a defining characteristic of the spiritual life. In my mid-twenties, I rediscovered God and eagerly adopted the opening verse of Psalm 63 as a recurring prayer.

“Oh God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.”

These words gave/give authentic voice to an aching for God in my heart that has yet to be fully satisfied. Still today, in prayer or simply in quiet moments, I echo the Psalmist’s words, and I wait.

In my early fifties, I endured a prolonged and, frankly, demoralizing period of spiritual darkness. While in the midst, I repeatedly called out to God for even a pinpoint of light to sustain me, but all that came was this familiar ache.

On the other side of that wrenching experience, I shared the details with my spiritual director. In frustration, I asked him why God had withheld consolation for so long. In his wise way, he quietly asked: “Have you ever considered that the aching in your heart was your pinpoint of light?”

Since that exchange, I have come to view the ache as my companion on the journey. Now, we wait together.