Author Archives: sdalton43

Ripples, Tares, and Bedford Falls (Part One)

I have always enjoyed watching the ripples caused by the dropping of a stone, even a small stone, into still water. There is, I think, a valuable life lesson to be learned from those concentric waves gently moving whatever floats in their path.

It’s a Wonderful Life, my favorite Christmas film, teaches a similar lesson. George Bailey’s small acts of kindness ripple through the lives of his Bedford Falls neighbors in subtle yet utterly transformative ways. “Strange, isn’t it?” says Clarence, his guardian angel. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Even after viewing the film countless times, I find it impossible to hold back tears when George’s loved ones and friends rally to save him in his moment of need.

Ah, the human family!

Recently, I was privileged to attend a presentation delivered by Fr. Michael Himes, a professor/theologian at Boston College. Fr. Himes is a brilliant speaker, and I always enjoy hearing his perspective; but, that evening, I found his subject especially captivating. He spoke of how God has deliberately and intricately interwoven our lives such that even the smallest of actions can have wide-ranging significance. He then logically concluded that, “There are no small actions.”

It’s true! We ripple each other’s lives in countless, meaningful ways. In a sense, we are all George Baileys… or, under the right circumstances, Mr. Potters.

In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus tells what we have come to know as the “Parable of the Wheat and the Tares/Weeds.” In the story, a man sows good seed in his field, but weeds grow up alongside the wheat. The man’s servants ask if he would like them to pull up the weeds; but, he wisely concludes that both wheat and weeds should be allowed to coexist lest the wheat accidentally be uprooted during the weeding.

I find that man’s decision strangely comforting, perhaps because I know that my life – and, frankly, every human life – manifests both wheat and weeds. (Even good George Bailey unjustly railed against Mrs. Welch, Zuzu’s teacher, while under particular duress.)

As Christmas draws near, I’ll be praying especially for two things: 1.) insight into the various ripples emanating from my life; and, 2.) the grace to remember that the child born in Bethlehem so long ago came to save not only the George Bailey in me… but especially the Mr. Potter.

Merry Christmas!

Bridging the Chasm

Once recognized, few things weigh more heavily on the human heart than a missed opportunity. Likewise, the related and unanswerable “what if?” is counted among our most perplexing questions.

​In the winter of 1995, I committed to speak at Chapel Talks, an adult faith-formation program being offered at the time in my parish. My topic was to be the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), a well-known and tragic example of habitually missed opportunities.

​Shortly after agreeing to speak, I was scheduled to travel to Philadelphia for a professional conference. Being a homebody at heart, such trips were often an occasion of loneliness for me. This time, however, I was actually looking forward to the time away. While my days in Philly promised to be quite busy with meetings of one kind or another, my evenings would largely be my own; thus, I anticipated having ample time to immerse myself in the story of Lazarus and the rich man as I prepared for my upcoming talk.

​When the time came to travel, I brought two books with me – my Bible (of course) and Be Not Afraid, a short but intensely challenging book written by Jean Vanier, the now disgraced founder of L’Arche, who, until the recent revelations, had always been one of my spiritual heroes.

In the book, Vanier specifically speaks of Lazarus and the rich man; but, he also elaborates, more generally, about the “two worlds” they symbolize – the worlds of misery and comfort, respectively. Further, he describes a “huge wall” that keeps the two worlds safely separated and explains that the comfortable often “throw money or things over the wall” but carefully avoid any direct contact. “The last thing they want,” Vanier explains, “is to see and touch.”

Hmmm.

Holding winter meetings in northern locations is always a risky proposition. On Saturday, my second full day in Philly, a 9-inch snowstorm blanketed the city. After the storm passed, temperatures plummeted such that Sunday’s high never made it out of the teens, and the evening and overnight hours saw temperatures drop into the single digits. It was brutally cold!

Early on Sunday morning, I asked the concierge about Catholic churches within walking distance of the hotel. My intention was to attend Mass prior to the day’s slate of meetings. He told me that there was indeed a Catholic church within a few blocks and advised me to leave by the hotel’s side door as that would be the exit closest to my route.

​Clinging awkwardly to a street map with my gloved hands, I left by the hotel’s side door and turned right toward the church. I quickly noticed two things – the biting wind that brought tears to my eyes and made viewing the map a challenge and the Uno’s restaurant situated right next door to the hotel. Since I’ve always been an Uno’s fan, I made an on-the-spot decision about dinner. When the day’s business was done, I’d have pizza in my room with Lazarus and the rich man.

​That evening, I returned to the hotel, readied a work space on the desk in my room, and called Uno’s to order a large pizza and two soft drinks. (If inspiration came, I wanted sufficient fuel for a long and productive night.) A few minutes later, bundled against the cold, I headed once more for the side door of my fine hotel, totally unaware that I was about to enter a living parable.

​Walking out the door, I glanced briefly to my left and noticed a man huddled on the sidewalk grates adjacent to the hotel. The heat rising from the grates must have offered him some relief from the cold… but I’m sure it was nowhere near enough. I quickly turned away and marched in the opposite direction to pick up my dinner.

​On the way back, the man on the grates was directly in my view. A knapsack, likely containing all of his possessions, was by his side. And, I noticed him periodically stepping in place, left-right-left-right, no doubt attempting to bring feeling back to his frozen feet. As I turned to enter the hotel with my food, our eyes briefly met, and I gave a slight nod in his direction.

Back inside – safely behind the “huge walls” of my luxurious hotel – there was blessed heat, but it offered little relief from what now seemed an interior chill. As I ate my pizza and tried to read and think about Lazarus and the rich man, I felt an unmistakable conviction in my heart. Lazarus was right outside.

​Have you ever debated with God? I did that night. God’s intention that I share my food with the man on the grates could not have been clearer, but I resisted in a variety of selfish, petulant ways.

​“I’ve worked hard all day and deserve some uninterrupted time. Further, I have work to do – Your work, in fact – so I need to stay focused on the task at hand. And, by the way, how can I even be certain that the man on the grates is homeless? Maybe he was on his way home and decided to warm himself for just a few minutes. I might actually insult him by offering him food. Are You trying to embarrass me… and him?”

At that moment, the man on the grates was inconvenient… but, I knew the call of love.

Finally yielding, I closed the pizza box, put the unopened can of Pepsi back in its bag, grabbed my room key, and headed outside.

​The man knowingly watched my approach. As I drew near, he returned my earlier nod and then waited for me to initiate conversation.

​“Have you had dinner?” I asked.

​“No sir, I haven’t.” he replied respectfully.

​Shivering, for I’d not worn my coat, I handed him the pizza box and the bag. “It’s not much,” I said, “just half a pizza and a drink, but you’re welcome to it.”

​“Thank you, sir!” he said, immediately reaching for a slice.

​“You’re welcome! And, God bless you!” I offered, and then went inside.

​If I felt any self-congratulatory impulse, it quickly receded. In fact, by the time I arrived back at my room, I knew without question that my response had fallen well short of God’s intention. God wanted human contact, communion. In Vanier’s words, God wanted me “to see and touch.” Instead, I had “thrown a pizza over the wall.”

I prayed with urgency. To my shame, I had to admit to myself and to God that leaving the hotel without a jacket had been intentional. How could I stay to talk when I wasn’t dressed for the savage cold?

​I definitely experienced God urging me to return to the man on the grates, this time, wearing my coat, hat, and gloves. I neither hesitated nor debated. Rather, I dressed quickly and headed for the elevator.

​Before venturing outside, I stopped at the coffee shop in the hotel lobby to buy two cups of coffee. One I left black and, to the other, I added just a bit of cream; he could have his choice. I stuffed a couple of sugar packets and a stirrer in my coat pocket, took a deep cleansing breath, and exited by the side door, the door near the grates, for the fourth and final time that day.

​And he was gone…

​I stood there in silence for quite some time, suddenly oblivious to the cold. Then, chastened, I returned to my room… and to my task. Later that same month, I introduced my Chapel Talks audience to the man on the grates, my personal Lazarus, and to the “rich man” standing at their podium.

What if?

I have no idea what might have happened if we’d had a chance to talk that night. My sense is that I would have gained far more than he, but I’ll never know for sure. I am, however, keenly aware of the lesson I learned from his absence, which is also the lesson, I believe, of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. As long as we live, there is no chasm too wide or too deep to be bridged, no “huge wall” too steep to be scaled, if only we can love without prejudice or fear.

​As you read this, in your kindness, you may be tempted to console me. If so, please know that I no longer bear a burden of guilt over this matter. In a strange way, the missed opportunity has proven to be its very own opportunity, which (hopefully) I have seized, by the grace of God.

Be not afraid.

Bus Fumes… and Leaven

One bright morning in the fall 1996, a brief verbal exchange happened between my two sons that, when considered in light of something else that would happen a few short weeks later, I’m quite certain I’ll never forget.

I was driving my children – the two boys and their sister, Rachel – to school along a two-lane stretch of highway. We were in the right lane directly behind a large bus. Eventually, I grew impatient with the slow pace and seized an opportunity to pass. This prompted my older boy, Stephen, aged ten at the time, to say: “Nice move, Dad. Those bus fumes were getting to me.”

Matthew, four years his junior, then rather innocently replied: “I like bus fumes.”

To which Stephen, a precocious boy, answered: “Perhaps you’d change your mind if I told you that bus fumes contain deadly carbon monoxide gas.”

Matt paused, no doubt bewildered by both his brother’s words and tone, and simply replied: “Oh.”

I stifled a laugh. The difference in their perspectives was remarkable… and would soon console me during an unexpected hardship.

The next month, I made my first (of four) trips to Cuba. My visit was part of an allowable cultural exchange, and I travelled with an appropriate license from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Due to legal restrictions, travel between the U.S. and Cuba must involve an intermediate stop in a neutral country. I booked an itinerary through the Bahamas that necessitated an 8-hour layover in Nassau.

Admittedly, spending eight hours in a tropical paradise doesn’t sound like the worst of fates; however, there were no lockers at the airport in which I could store my luggage, so I spent the entire layover sitting in a nearly empty departure lounge lacking even a television monitor to keep me company. By the time the flight to Cuba boarded, I was exhausted and gnawingly hungry.

Onboard the plane, I immediately experienced disquiet. My fellow passengers were a rowdy group; and, I got the sense that many of them were traveling to Cuba for a “good time.” I wanted to disappear.

When the plane finally landed in Havana, many seemingly inebriated passengers gave a mock cheer, as if surprised by the flight’s successful arrival.

Relieved to be off the plane, I gathered my luggage at baggage claim and stood in the long line at immigration and customs. Just in front of me, I noticed another man traveling alone, who looked a bit haggard. I introduced myself and discovered that he too was from the United States. Further, I learned that he would also be staying at my hotel, the Habana Libre, in the newer section of Havana. I was grateful to have a companion for this last portion of the journey.

When we arrived at the hotel, it was nearly 2:00 a.m. We asked about food options at the front desk and were directed to an all-night cafe across the lobby. My new acquaintance and I agreed to drop our bags in our respective rooms and then meet back in the lobby to get a bite to eat. At this point, I was only moments from one of the darkest experiences of my life.

I turned on the light in my room and, as I dropped my bags on the bed, noticed a cockroach running along the top of the headboard. Things were not going well.

Back in the lobby, I joined up with my companion and headed for the cafe. We were not yet through the door when we were met by a very aggressive young man, who kept asking us in broken English if we wanted to go to the disco? I told him that we weren’t interested and kept walking toward the stools in front of the counter. He walked right along with us and sat on the stool next to mine. Again, he asked about the disco and then motioned to someone with his hand. Suddenly, two young women, dressed quite provocatively, came over to join us.

I was exasperated. “No!” I said, shaking my head emphatically. The young man looked at me with a truly puzzled expression and walked away with the two young women. A moment later, two young men – undoubtedly sent by the same pimp – came to take the places of the young women. Again, I looked at them and said, “No!” Ever persistent, two other young women then came by, only to receive the same response.

After that final dismissal, the pimp finally yielded. I hurriedly ate my hamburger, bid goodnight to my quasi-friend, and went back to my room and my multi-legged roommates.

When I entered, I did not turn on the light. Instead, I walked to the window and pulled aside the curtains, revealing the downtown area of the city. On the street below, I saw many young people, each of them a child of God, prostituting themselves.

I felt sick!

Describing what happened next is an impossible undertaking since spiritual matters, by their very nature, defy explanation. It must suffice for me to say that an oppressive and “living” sense of darkness overwhelmed me.

I wanted desperately to rescue those beautiful young people… to help them understand their awesome dignity; but, instead, I felt paralyzed and completely impotent. I could not change their world. All I could do – and this with great difficulty – was pray.

In God’s time, the then-recent conversation between my two boys came vividly to mind, and I suddenly had greater clarity about its implications. And, with that clarity, came peace.

Very few are called to change the world in an obvious and heroic way, least of all me. There is nothing I could have done directly to change the circumstances in Havana at (roughly) 2:45 a.m. that day. Still, I firmly believe that we are all genuine agents of change and that there is a portion of the world in which we can make an enormous difference – namely, in what sociologists call our personal “oikos,” i.e., our regular social circle comprised of family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.

The recollection of the conversation between my two sons broke through the darkness to remind me of my “oikos,” my very own sphere of influence.

Stephen had matured to the point where he understood some of the world’s risks, but there was still so very much to learn. Matthew was in an even freer – and, consequently, more vulnerable – place, where bus fumes were still a good thing.

And me?

I was (and still am) privileged to hold an enormously important place in both of their lives. If I could(/can) help them – and other members of my “oikos” – to understand better their remarkable dignity and worth, I will have made an enormous difference.

In Matthew 13:33, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to leaven, which has a transformative effect on an entire loaf of bread.

It can defeat us to imagine trying to help an entire world “rise” to wholeness and holiness. But, if we can leaven just our personal “oikos,” the loaf entrusted to our care, we will have done a great deal, i.e., we will have changed the world.

Love dispels even the deepest darkness.

—–

NOTE: This essay is definitely not intended in any way as an indictment of the Cuban people, who were among the warmest, kindest, and most hospitable people I have ever encountered while traveling internationally.

“Salieri”

(This is the last of five re-posts of previously buried essays.)

In the 1984 movie Amadeus, composer Antonio Salieri is (fictionally?) depicted as being insanely jealous of Mozart’s remarkable talent. Gradually, he descends into actual madness; and, in one compelling scene, he throws a crucifix in the fireplace in rage and despair. He had wanted to glorify God with his music; but, in the shadow of Mozart, he felt the terrible sting – rooted in pride – of being a lesser talent. It is truly tragic.

I feel sympathy for Salieri.

Many times, I have wanted to express something I was feeling in words, but the words won’t come. Many times, I have marveled at someone or something but have found myself incapable of conveying the height, depth, and breadth of my experience.

One idea that I treasure about heaven is that it will bring transcendence of our all-too-human limits. We will love and be loved perfectly. We will know and be known perfectly. We will understand and be understood… perfectly.

And our song(s), now playing obscurely in our souls, will give perfect glory to God and bring perfect satisfaction to us.

All shall be well!

“All Shall Be Well”

“All shall be well. And, all shall be well. And, all manner of things shall be well.”

These eschatological words were spoken by Jesus to (and through) Julian of Norwich while she was engaged in mystical prayer. I hold them very close to my heart and find in them a definitive statement about God’s goodness and good intentions for the world.

We may quarrel, but all shall be well.

We may struggle, but all shall be well.

We may suffer, but all shall be well.

We may be so wrapped up in our own selfish pursuits that we miss God’s blessings in the moment, but all shall be well.

We may be discouraged and lonely, but all shall be well.

We may doubt, but all shall be well.

Life’s burdens may sometimes seem too heavy to bear, but all shall be well.

We may be divided ideologically, politically, and theologically, but all shall be well.

We may ache to find a deeper purpose in life, but all shall be well.

We may question our own ability to accomplish the tasks before us, but all shall be well.

We may be wilting under the judgment and criticism of others, but all shall be well.

We may be experiencing terrible grief, but all shall be well.

Ultimately, all manner of things shall be well.

Being Buppa (a.k.a. Grandparenting)

This is re-post three of five…

—–

Image

When our daughter, Rachel, was expecting her first child, friends who were already veteran grandparents promised us that we were going to love the experience. “It’s all of the fun and none of the responsibility” was the typical refrain. Of course, there’s a degree of truth to that, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story.

For me, the genuine wonder of grandparenting comes from perspective.

As a young parent, I was often so busy providing for my children and tending to their day-to-day needs that I failed to appreciate fully the transitory nature of their childhood. And then, too suddenly, they were grown.

As a young parent, I tended to idealize my children and to have unrealistically high hopes that they might avoid some of the mistakes and the pain that had colored my life. And then, I watched them struggle.

As a young parent, I worked hard to protect my children from harm. And then, I saw them suffer.

Today, when I gaze into the eyes of my grandchildren, I understand that the huge place I now occupy in their worldview will necessarily (and rightly) diminish over time. So, I gaze more intently.

When I read or tell a story to my grandchildren, I understand that the narrative of their lives will, far too soon, become more complex and cloudy. So, first, I try not to rush; and, I emphasize (and relish with them) the simple wisdom each story seeks to convey.

While playing with my grandchildren, I really try to play.

And, when I hear my grandchildren cry, I sometimes cry too.

… (By the way, our grandchildren call me “Buppa.” It is an identity I truly cherish.)

Dementia’s Curious Lesson

(NOTE: When I started this blog, I uploaded a number of essays all at once so that there would be content there if/when people visited the site. After checking the stats, I now see that those few early postings got quickly buried and, thus, were seen by very few people. This essay, “Dementia’s Curious Lesson,” is the second of four re-posts I’ll be making this week.)

—–

Loving someone stricken with dementia is a curious journey. The disease not only robs a person of precious memories, but it also can tear down some of the afflicted person’s personal boundaries.

A few months ago, I was visiting my Mom in the nursing home, and we were having a nice chat about family matters. I mentioned that her ninth great-grandchild would soon be born, and she smiled.

“Really? Who is having a baby?” she asked.

I told her that her granddaughter, Sarah, Christine’s daughter, would soon be having her first child. Her expression changed when Christine’s name was mentioned.

“She’s gone, isn’t she?” she asked.

We talked a bit about Christine’s short life and, in an attempt to console my Mom, I mentioned that she would be reunited with Chris in heaven. Then, something unexpected happened.

My Mom not only gave me the gift of life, she also passed along her strong Catholic faith. Many factors/voices have contributed to my faith formation, but I first learned of God’s great love sitting on my mother’s knee.

Even during family crises, my Mom’s faith was always an anchor. She was a daily communicant, a woman of prayer, and, for many people, an instrument of God’s mercy and love. In fact, even in her diminished capacity, she continues to minister – through tenderness and contagious joy – to her fellow residents in the nursing home today.

“Do you think it’s true?” she asked (about heaven). “You know, when you’re in your eighties…” and her voice trailed off.

I couldn’t believe it! For the first time in my life, I heard my Mom express doubt about God and God’s promises. Dementia made that possible.

Though we may be guarded in sharing our personal struggles in this area, doubt is always a part of the life of faith. In fact, I have discovered that it is precisely my doubts that draw me further along the journey, that cause me to seek answers to some of life’s – and faith’s – deepest questions.

“I believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) With these brutally honest words, a desperate father cried out to Jesus on behalf of his afflicted child. His words could also be my words every day of my life. And now, I have my mentor’s (i.e., my Mom’s) example to let me know that it’s okay to voice that very human struggle. Again, dementia made that possible.

I looked at my Mom and encouraged her to hold fast to what she has treasured her whole life. Now, it is my turn to minister.

Listening

(NOTE: When I started this blog, I uploaded a number of essays all at once so that there would be content there if/when people visited the site. After checking the stats, I now see that those few early postings got quickly buried and, thus, were seen by very few people. I’ll be re-posting four or five of them, beginning with this essay (below) titled “Listening.”)

—–

Like you, I have a lens through which I view and interpret the world. It is a lens forged by the entirety of my life — my religious formation, for sure, but also my upbringing, my relationships, my education, my opportunities, my inclinations, my struggles and losses, and my many mistakes. I make no claim that mine is a perfect lens. In fact, when I go to prayer each morning, I do so with the stark awareness of my need to see more clearly.

My vocation, at least in part, is to consent to the gradual sharpening of my vision by God’s own hand, which will happen as I do a disciple’s work, namely, as I listen with an open heart to the countless words of God spoken – sometimes as a whisper – into my life each day.

On a continuum, be it religious or political, my lens (or worldview) falls somewhere between far left and far right. From my vantage point, when I look in either direction, I see friends whom I love, who are themselves words of God infused with profound meaning and deserving of my utmost consideration.

If I speak from my worldview, my place along the continuum, and express a perspective at odds with yours, I hope you will be patient with me. And, I hope you will recognize that I have arrived at my position after careful soul-searching… and often with an anguish born of love.

Most people, I believe, follow a similarly thoughtful path of discernment. In our politically volatile culture, however, even good, sensitive people seem prone to lose sight of this.

The world may indeed have its share of small-minded people, spouting bigotries and reacting in knee-jerk fashion to the issues of the day. Nonetheless, to presume such a disposition in another, especially on the sole basis of a conflicting worldview, seems a grave offense against that person’s dignity. Further, presuming such a disposition of an entire group or community of people (e.g., “traditionalist” or “progressive” Catholics; or, members of the “Tea Party” or the “Occupy Movement”) represents, in my opinion, a genuine flirtation with evil.

We are quick, these days, to demonize. It is so much easier, after all, to brand and dismiss someone than it is to listen thoughtfully to the circumstances that have shaped that person’s perspective. Such is the carelessness of our age; and, we collectively suffer as a result. The chasms between us are sometimes shockingly wide and deep. But love and respect are a marvelous bridge and a reason for hope.

I am pro-life. I say that with no intent to confront or accuse, though some may hear it as such. I say it though painfully aware of the exploitative, abusive, and terribly irresponsible behavior so often manifest in those of my gender. I say it with shame for the ways in which such behavior has been manifest in me. I am truly sorry! And, I am pro-life!

Perhaps it will help if I explain that I see all life as proceeding from the mind of a loving God. When I see you, regardless of your worldview, I see one who has been intended for all eternity, who has been “spoken” into existence purposefully, and who has a worth well beyond my comprehension. God does not waste words!

For us, however, language is often a big problem. Civil discourse has all but evaporated because of, what I call, a “contraceptive mentality” (i.e., an automatic tendency to close our minds and dig in our heels the moment certain buzz words or phrases are uttered, such as “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “gay marriage,” “traditional marriage,” etc.). Such barriers – or shields, to borrow an image from Star Trek – prevent the life-generating sharing of our human stories and prohibit discovery of what we hold in common, including our shared beliefs and frailties.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:20)

Do we believe this in practice? What if, for example, one of two is a strident so-called “American Catholic” and the other an unapologetic “Papist?” Before considering the possible tenor of their conversation, perhaps we should wonder if they ever would “gather” in the first place… in the name of the Lord they both profess.

It seems irresistible to mock the “left-wing loon” or the “right-wing bigot,” as though the entirety of a person’s life, the complex circumstances that have forged her/his worldview, has no validity. How can we miss this injustice in ourselves?

It hurts terribly to be branded! And, make no mistake; we are diminished profoundly by branding others!

So, we remain a polarized people, living in fear and anger, suspicious of each other, and yet craving to be understood and accepted.

There is a creed that I profess. In faith, I embrace the elements of that creed as “objectively true” in the fullest sense of that phrase. My understanding of these truths, however, remains a work-in-progress, especially regarding their practical and pastoral application. I am reminded of the traditional definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” As a person of faith, my life’s work is to strive for a deeper understanding of all of God’s wonderful words – the ones printed on pages in holy books that I treasure… and, the ones who will pass by me, some on my left and some on my right, as I live this day.

The gift that is this day!

The Red Sweater

“Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:30)

On the Tonight Show many years ago, comedian George Gobel jokingly posed this question to long-time host Johnny Carson: “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

People laughed, of course; however, I’d wager that more than a few hearers could personally relate to that experience of feeling different from others, about which Gobel had spoken.

I have a “brown shoes” kind of story to share, but it actually involves a different kind of apparel – namely, a favorite red sweater I had as a child. First, however, I must provide a bit of context.

I was a pious little boy. Faith came quite naturally to me; and, obedience to God and my parents defined my sense of normalcy. Innocent faith, however, can often be stretched almost to the breaking point as life becomes more complex.

During my teen years, my first family began a slow and agonizing process of disintegration. I need not divulge specifics, but it is necessary that I admit of a uniquely painful gulf that developed between my father and me. Eventually, I came to seriously doubt his love, which is a torturous experience for an adolescent boy.

As my parents’ marriage crept steadily toward divorce, and as I wrestled with the associated emotions that seemingly invaded every fiber of my life, I also began to question, for the first time, the goodness of God. Honestly, I felt betrayed by the One I had always trusted. My best friend seemed to have turned a deaf ear precisely when I was most desperate for God’s consolation.

Disillusioned, my heart strayed from God for quite some time. Strangely, I never stopped believing; yet, bitter experiences had numbed my faith and (seemingly) rendered it irrelevant in my life. This spiritual state of confusion persisted through my college years… until God resuscitated my soul.

In my early twenties, I met my future wife, Marianne, fell in love, finished college, and proposed marriage. There was much cause for hope, yet, when alone, I was persistently sad.

One day, I woke up feeling particularly distressed but unable to identify the cause. The malaise worsened as the day went on; so, desperate for some solitude, I decided to take a walk. In the midst, I began to feel an interior sense of longing that I could not squelch. I kept walking… and awkwardly lifted up a prayer.

At one point, I found myself standing in front of a rectory. Had I purposely come there? I don’t believe so; but, once there, I felt an overwhelming urge to ring the doorbell. I resisted for a time, unsure of what I’d say, but then I reluctantly consented. That concession to grace has made all the difference.

A young priest, Fr. Bob, welcomed me and invited me into a private room where we could talk. My mind blanks on the specifics. I remember only a rush of thoughts and words, a sympathetic listener, a reassurance of God’s love, and an invitation – for both Marianne and me – to the prayer community that met on Thursday nights in the Parish Center.

When I told Marianne of my experience and of my inclination to accept the invitation, she graciously agreed to accompany me; so, the following Thursday evening found us among a group of strangers, who would quickly become instruments of God’s healing in both of our lives. Marianne and I were married (by Fr. Bob) shortly thereafter.

At one Thursday gathering some months later, Peter, an intense yet obviously tender-hearted man, gave me a book about the Holy Spirit and said that he hoped it would bless my life as it had blessed his. I accepted his gift knowing full-well that I’d need to report back to him and, therefore, would actually have to read it.

“But, what about the red sweater?” That’s coming.

I felt strangely at home in the pages of that book. It seemed to tap into the dormant piety from my past. Again, I experienced an interior longing, but this time the longing had an object. I wanted God again.

Then, I reached a chapter in the book that stopped me cold. It was a chapter on reconciliation that was based upon these verses from the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5:23-24:

“… if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Immediately, I sensed that God wanted to be admitted into the relationship between me and my father. I felt nothing but desperation and fear. The wounds were indeed very deep.

For days, I could read no further in the book. I felt as though an obstacle was now in my path that I had no power whatsoever to overcome. Would my rediscovery of a spiritual center in my life end here?

Then, one evening, I sat on my couch trying to pray. Marianne walked into the room and could see that I was distressed. She asked what was going on and I told her about the book… about the obstacle… and about my failed attempts at prayer. She wisely asked if I had done any listening during prayer, and I admitted that I hadn’t. I’d only been pouring out my heart to God.

Marianne told me that she would give me complete privacy and advised me to sit in silence. She was God’s instrument in that moment, and I will forever be grateful for her sage counsel. After she left the room, I turned off the light and waited for God in the quiet.

What happened is quite difficult to explain; but, it literally changed my life. Please bear with me.

I did not have a vision. In fact, I can’t even be certain if my eyes were opened or closed. Neither was the experience a dream, as I was far from asleep, nor a hallucination, as I had taken no drugs.

That evening, as best I can describe it, God placed me inside a lost memory such that I actually relived the long-ago experience with all of its attendant emotions. Afterward, I remembered that this incident had really taken place, but it was so obscure, so seemingly inconsequential, I had long forgotten it.

I was perhaps six or seven and was in the schoolyard during recess. It must have been chilly that morning because my mother had dressed me in my favorite red sweater, the one with the zipper in front. She had also told me not to remove the sweater. You see, I was a rather sickly child, and she was being cautious.

By recess time, any morning chill had yielded to a hot sun. All of my schoolmates were in their shirtsleeves running and playing. But, I was obediently wearing my red sweater and sitting on the short wooden fence at the side of the schoolyard… feeling quite different and very alone.

Being “brown shoes” is especially painful for a child.

Then, I looked up and saw my father walking past the schoolyard. Instantly, I leaped off my perch and ran to him.

(Since my mother had ordered me to wear the sweater, surely my father had the authority to allow me to remove it.)

I looked up into my father’s eyes and asked him: “Dad, can I take off my sweater?”

Now, when this episode actually happened, I’m sure that the young version of me missed the most important detail. All I cared about at the time was securing permission to remove the sweater, which my father granted.

As a man in his mid-twenties, however, looking through the eyes of that little boy, I saw my father’s expression anew. He looked at me with understanding and compassion. His was a knowing look… the look of one who had, himself, been “brown shoes” to the world’s tuxedo.

His was that look of love that I had longed for my whole life!

Sitting there in my living room, I broke down and wept forcefully.

God had plucked from obscurity an event long forgotten and miraculously revealed its deeper meaning.

When I finally collected myself, the remarkable peace that I felt quickly gave way to darkness and sadness. I remembered feeling betrayed by God in my teens and realized that, just as I had needed to know the love of my father, I also needed to know myself loved by God.

I decided to sit in the darkness again with all of the interior stillness I could muster.

Rather quickly, I was drawn into the identical memory. Again, I was sitting by the edge of the schoolyard, in my red sweater, under the hot sun, feeling different and alone. I looked up and saw my father walking past the schoolyard…

But, this time, Jesus was guiding him there by the hand.

(Tears! Intense healing!)

—–

The moment of grace described above happened thirty-five years ago. Although daily prayer has long been a part of my life, I have never again experienced God so vividly and intimately; and, perhaps that is by design.

That moment is a touchstone for my spiritual life. I return there often when I am in distress to drink in its lessons once again.

The red sweater helps me to understand God’s interest and involvement in every detail of our lives. It makes sense of the promise that even the hairs on my head are counted.

Amen!

One Real Hero

Heroes need not be bigger than life. One of mine, in fact, was a rather diminutive man, whom I met only when he was in his later years.

I was eight years old when my parents bought their first (and only) home together, a two-family structure wherein my family would occupy the first floor. Upstairs, there lived an elderly couple, John and Alice Mackey, who had already been tenants for many years.

John Mackey had a “yes” face, which – I imagine – must have put many people at ease over the span of his years. His features were soft and kind; and, his thinning white hair, frame-less glasses, and understated mustache all contributed to his grandfatherly countenance. He was hard of hearing, walked with a Walter Brennanesque limp, and always sported a simple wooden cane. I came to love him dearly.

John was a huge Red Sox fan whose history with the team could be traced back almost to the local nine’s very beginning, around the turn of the last century. He had actually seen many of the greats of yesteryear – Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, etc. – ply their craft; and, he had a storytelling gift that brought their exploits to life again for me, a budding fan.

I was not conscious of this at the time, but I now understand that John must have recognized the void in my life. And, in his own quiet and generous way, he tried to fill it. Consequently, many summer days of my childhood found me at Fenway Park with him.

Daytime baseball was common then, and crowds were nothing like they are today; so, John would buy us inexpensive tickets, and we’d gradually move to vacant seats in our favorite location, the grandstands behind first base.

Those games were a baseball immersion experience for me. I’d watch Yaz (Carl Yastrzemski), Boomer (George Scott), Rico (Petrocelli), and the other stars of the day playing on the field, and, between innings, I’d listen in rapt attention to tales of Ted Williams, Tris Speaker, Cy Young, and so many others. What a gift!

Around the sixth or seventh inning, John would reach into the paper bag he’d carried into the park and proclaim: “I have a surprise for you.” Then, he’d hand me a home-made egg salad sandwich, cut diagonally and carefully wrapped in wax paper. Even though the gesture was far from a surprise, and despite the fact that I was not at all a fan of egg salad, it was a part of our routine – our relationship – that I really came to depend upon. “Grandfathers” are thoughtful like that.

As traveling became more difficult for him, John and I would sometimes watch baseball games together on his television. We both missed the ambiance of the ballpark, but it was still a privilege to be in his presence.

Baseball got into my blood largely through John Mackey’s influence. My continuing love of the Red Sox is, at least in part, the legacy of that very good man’s kindness to this little boy.

Today, my wife and I own that same two-family house purchased by my parents in the mid-sixties. And, we live in the space once occupied by John and Alice. I think of him (and them) often… and smile.

Heroes often disappoint when their true character is revealed. John’s true character is precisely what made him my hero.

To this day, my preferred seats at Fenway are the grandstands behind first base.