Category Archives: Thanksgiving Essays

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.

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.

If I Spoke at Career Day…

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love [God].” (Romans 8:28a)

Since September of 2008, I have been blessed with the privilege of assisting students, both lay and religious, with their academic work in theology. These remarkable people, who inspire me every day, intend to use the knowledge and formation they acquire in graduate school and/or seminary to bless the world, to help heal and restore.

I understand and encourage their mission for I once walked in their shoes.

——

Admitting I am a sinner is far easier than disclosing the specifics of even one sin. Likewise, claiming I have learned from my failures is far more comfortable than detailing a single instance when I unquestionably failed. Yet, such is my intention here.

In retrospect, I do not regret what I plan to describe. In fact, if this makes sense, I now see its necessity, though I use that word cautiously. Yes, I have learned from my failure(s).

My tale begins in a dark place.

——

Soon, I would need to vacate the newly renovated office in the basement of the rectory. In the scant time I had left on the job, I labored on, trying to resurrect the genuine passion that had brought me to that place ten months earlier. It wasn’t working. How could I compose a lesson plan about God’s faithful love while consumed with worry about my wife and our two small children – and, truth be told, while doubting if God’s faithful love extended to me? I was tired, demoralized, and wrestling with a fearsome goblin named self-doubt.

——

Footsteps on the stairs were the first thing I noticed. Then, several faint voices grew steadily stronger as the visitors approached. I quit typing and sat motionless while shadows of feet became visible beneath the door.

The basement room was windowless. I had always preferred a small desk lamp to the stark fluorescent overhead light; so, from outside, the room must have appeared dark and unoccupied. Someone tried the doorknob but found it locked.

“This is my new office,” a man said. (I later learned it was the parish deacon.) “Unfortunately, I can’t show it to you yet because I don’t have the key.”

A woman’s voice queried, “Is someone else using it now?”

“Some guy who’s been running an evangelization program,” the deacon replied, “but that’s ending, and he’ll be gone soon.”

It wasn’t breaking news. I had learned my fate a couple of days earlier. Still, there was something icily final about his words.

Another topic soon captured the group’s attention, and I was vaguely aware of a shared burst of laughter as the oblivious assassins exited the scene.

“Some guy… and he’ll be gone soon.”

——

At one time in my life, I fashioned myself a writer. As an undergraduate, I took every writing course my school had to offer – advanced writing, creative writing, technical writing, journalism. Then, in the final semester of my senior year, I had a dream opportunity to serve as an intern reporter for the local daily newspaper.

It was a bitter cold winter that year, and my schedule was taxing. I had to report to the newsroom, with the newspaper’s daily mail in tow, by 6:30 every weekday morning. That placed me at the nearby Post Office at least fifteen minutes earlier.

I would remain in the newsroom, working on any assignment(s) given me by the News Editor, until deadline at 10:30 a.m. Then, I would rush to campus for my classes before returning to the newsroom to cover evening assignments. I was sometimes there quite late writing, and it was a grind; but, there was also a palpable energy in the newsroom that fueled my desire. This, it seemed clear, was the life I wanted.

My internship ended with the close of the academic year. On my last day, the News Editor invited me into his office for an exit interview. He thanked me for my efforts and told me that my work showed real promise. Though he had no position to offer at the time, he encouraged me to pursue writing professionally.

Graduation and reality awaited.

——

Landing a writing job just out of college proved a pipe dream. To pay my bills, I tried my hand at selling insurance (a disaster), installing mini-computers (a mini-disaster), and working the ticket counter for a regional airline. I had some interesting experiences, but I kept watching for the right opportunity.

The advertisements appeared in the newspaper only a few days apart – two entry-level reporter positions, one at the very newspaper at which I had served my internship. I had the phone in my hand almost immediately.

In the interim between my graduation and the posting of the jobs (a little more than two years), there had been an important personnel change in the newsroom. The News Editor had moved on, and a reporter I had worked with once or twice had been promoted to fill the vacancy. He took my call, listened patiently while I rambled on about my strong interest in the position, and advised me to send a resume directly to him.

The other posted job was a Junior Staff Writer position at a soon-to-be-publishing computer weekly with strong financial backing out of New York and enormous promise. I applied almost as an afterthought. I imagined the competition would be intense but vaguely hoped I would secure an interview that would help to sharpen my interviewing skills for the job I really wanted. To my genuine surprise, I got a call.

In my experience, that interview was unlike any before or since. With my heart set firmly on the other position (i.e., at the daily newspaper), I felt completely at ease, even when I had to demonstrate my writing skills on the spot under strict deadline pressure. It went well, which gave a much-needed boost to my confidence.

To my great relief, the daily newspaper also called me for an interview; and, though I was nervous throughout, I left that encounter in a very positive frame of mind. The News Editor told me he remembered my work and thought I had done quite well as an intern. He made no promises but said he had confidence in my ability to do the job.

I’ve never prayed with greater fervor for a personal intention. The job seemed like a perfect fit, and I let God know that day and night.

I waited anxiously. When the News Editor finally contacted me, he didn’t deliver the exact message I had ached to hear. He did, however, offer real hope. He told me he had decided I was the right person for the job, but there was a snag. The Editor-in-Chief was having second thoughts about filling the position due to cost considerations. He told me a firm decision should be rendered soon and asked me to call him just after deadline exactly one week later.

There wasn’t time for a novena; but, over those intervening seven days, I visited the parish church of my childhood several times on my way home from work. Perhaps God would hear me more clearly from there, I reasoned, where I had offered so many prayers in the past.

——

“I’m really sorry, Stephen,” he said. “We’ve decided not to fill the position at this time.”

There had been such certainty in my mind. The news violently deflated my spirit.

That evening, while grieving with my wife, our phone rang. It was a representative from the computer publication. He offered his congratulations and asked me when I could start.

——

In everything, God works for good.

——

From day one, the job and I were a mismatch. At first, I thought my discomfort was due to continuing grief from a lost opportunity; however, I soon realized it was the nature of the work that unsettled me. As an intern at the newspaper, I had written about interesting people and circumstances, and I found doing so exhilarating. On this job, my writing assignments were all about machines and software. Try as I might, I couldn’t force compatibility.

——

While wrestling with my fit at the new job, important changes were also happening in my personal life. I was in the midst of what I would call a spiritual reawakening, an experience I wrote about in a previous essay titled “The Red Sweater.” In addition, though I didn’t yet realize the significance, major changes were taking place in a ministry organization run by two dear friends.

The Word of God Ministry was a pioneering venture in Catholic circles. Established by lay evangelist Nina Lauzon, the ministry brought regularly scheduled adult Bible study courses to Catholic parishes on the North Shore of Massachusetts. In addition, Nina and her co-worker, John Clabeaux, ran retreats and parish missions that touched many lives. I count myself, in fact, among those richly blessed by their efforts.

As I was writing, grudgingly, about hard drives and CPUs, John Clabeaux was completing work on his doctorate at Harvard Divinity School. Once finished, he intended to accept a full-time appointment teaching at St. John’s Seminary (SJS), which meant there would soon be an opening at the Word of God Ministry.

——

I first shared my story of “The Red Sweater” at a meeting of our parish prayer community in Salem, MA. After hearing me speak, Nina asked if I would be willing to tell the story again as part of a retreat called “2 by 2 Before Him” that she and John would soon be offering in a couple of Catholic parishes nearby. I was honored to do so and found the experience uniquely stirring. Honestly, it was as though something had been unlocked in my soul.

——

Perhaps a future essay will tell the more complete story. For now, I will simply say that I began a process of discernment about my future. It was then that two important firsts entered my life – spiritual direction and the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Both have since proven indispensable on the journey.

My wise director, Sr. Lucille Cormier, offered to guide me through the Exercises after I spoke with her about my desire for vocational discernment. Again, much is missing here; but, by the end of the process, she and I both sensed that a call to some type of lay ministry could be authentic.

I believe Nina was the first to suggest the possibility that I might join her in the Word of God Ministry after John’s departure. For that to happen though, I would need the appropriate credentials.

——

I see clearly now that the seeds of failure first appeared while I was in graduate school.

A complicated variety of factors were in play, including: general low self-esteem; self-doubt about my ability to do master’s level work; a perceived need to justify the major changes I was imposing on my young family; a drive to prove that the Word of God Ministry had not made a mistake in holding the teaching position for me while I studied; and, a deep interior need to demonstrate to the generous members of our prayer community, who pledged to help us pay our living expenses while I was in school, that they were making a good investment. Whatever the motivation(s), grades became excessively important to me to the detriment of true learning.

Held hostage by perfectionism, I pushed myself to extremes to “get the A.” By the end of my program, I had indeed achieved a 4.0 cumulative average and had passed my comprehensive exams with distinction. I was also very run-down and sick with mononucleosis. Was it worth it?

Interestingly enough, in the 30+ years since my graduation, not a single person has ever asked me about my grades.

Perspective, even when it comes after a considerable passage of time, is a valuable thing.

——

I taught for two years full-time in the Word of God Ministry, and perfectionism dogged me throughout. Every lecture preparation was an ordeal; and, though I thoroughly enjoyed the classroom experience and the wonderful people among whom I ministered, I was growing increasingly weary. When Nina suggested a new model of service, I was intrigued.

While the prior work of the ministry had reached those individuals who chose to come to classes or retreats, there was no intentional corporate outcome. What Nina now proposed was a parish-centered evangelization program wherein a self-selecting group of parishioners would be trained over the course of an academic year to serve as hosts/facilitators for home-church meetings, which would commence after a Lenten parish mission. It was an exciting vision.

Two Catholic pastors embraced the concept and hired us to run the program in their respective parishes. We intended to do the lesson planning over the summer and begin co-teaching on an academic calendar in the fall. Then, an obstacle arose. A personal issue prohibited Nina’s involvement, at least for the foreseeable future. The plan moved forward, but with just me at the helm – and, at the podium.

——

In the captivating novel Watership Down, author Richard Adams employs a fictional language, Lapine, which is spoken only by the rabbit characters in his story. One Lapine word, “tharn,” has remained a part of my vocabulary ever since I read the book decades ago. It refers to a paralyzing level of fear a rabbit might experience, e.g., while looking into the headlights of an oncoming car.

——

I did not hear the visitors’ footsteps as they climbed back up the stairs. Although alone in the room, I felt suddenly exposed, confused, humiliated, vulnerable, scared. If writing had once been my strongest aspiration, ministry now had supplanted that notion entirely. And, the ministry door seemed to be slamming shut.

In that bleak moment, my future was an approaching set of headlights; and, laboring to breathe in the deacon’s new office, his key resting uneasily in my pocket, I was tharn, utterly tharn.

——

Saying good-bye to the parishioners who had participated in the evangelization program was very difficult. For all of my (apparently not so) private struggles, the classroom experience had been consistently uplifting; and, I had formed strong bonds with these remarkable people. I was guarded in what I disclosed, mostly from embarrassment. Still, I was sure word would spread.

I cannot fault the pastors for witnessing the toll lesson prep was taking on me and choosing to adopt a tough-love stance. In retrospect, I see that they did me a favor. I can, however, mention a real injustice that my family was forced to endure.

Working for the Church often involves sacrifice, especially regarding wages. When the job abruptly ended, my wife Marianne and I had virtually no savings. With two small children, imagine our surprise when I applied for unemployment compensation and was told that the Church does not participate in the program. So, I had no salary and no unemployment protection. We were in a genuine state of panic.

I won’t belabor the point here, but the Church must be/do better than this.

——

In everything, God works for the good.

——

In that desperate moment, an unexpected phone call offered us a life-line. The call was from a priest we barely knew at the time, but he had heard of our circumstances.

“No one who has worked for the Church should ever find himself in your position,” he said, “especially someone with small children.”

That very good man of God promised to pay our family’s living expenses until I could find a job. He proved faithful to his word.

After a two-month search, I found a job teaching religion/theology in a Catholic high school. Though it proved to be just a stop-gap position lasting only a few months, something beautiful and quite unexpected happened there.

Until then, the vast majority of my teaching experience had been with an adult audience. High school students were so very different; and, they called forth from me a response I wasn’t initially sure I could make. They had no tolerance for painstakingly planned lectures. Instead, they demanded spontaneity. With their (unknowing) help, I broke free from enslavement to preparation. And that freedom has endured. I have since taught many adult faith-formation classes, and my prep time is nothing at all like it once was.

I left the Catholic high school without completing the academic year because a position was offered to me that promised great benefit to my family. A local public library was looking for an Assistant Director/Reference Librarian. The pay wasn’t great, but it was more than I was earning at the high school. That wasn’t the determining factor, however. The job came with the promise that, should I choose to pursue a master’s degree in Library Science, the library would cover the cost. I accepted, and I found myself once again needing to say good-bye to some very special people.

——

Often we fail to appreciate the impact we have on one another. My students didn’t realize how instrumental they had been in healing a broken part of me. Likewise, I don’t think I fully appreciated the bond we had forged.

Years later, my daughter Rachel attended that same high school at which I’d briefly served. While she was walking down the hallway one day early in her freshman year, a young teacher called out to her.

“Are you Rachel Dalton?” she asked. “And, is your Dad Steve Dalton?”

When my daughter replied in the affirmative, the teacher introduced herself as one of the religion/theology teachers at the school. She then said: “I was one of your Dad’s students. And, he’s the reason I became a religion teacher.”

I honestly had no idea. Wow!

——

A library colleague once shared her impression with me that libraries can sometimes serve as rehab centers for derailed careers. I’m sure she didn’t realize how true that is in my case. I smiled internally.

I served at the public library for almost five years, and during that time I did indeed acquire my master’s degree in Library Science. When the degree was finished, I took a second job working the reference desk in a community college library. There, my love of working with students was rekindled, and I set a long-term goal of ultimately making academic librarianship my primary job.

Before that could happen, I took a marvelous detour by joining the staff of a major paper conservation lab. There, for nearly twelve years, I engaged in many fascinating preservation-related projects and met some truly inspiring people, many of whom remain close friends today.

Finally, I found my way to Boston College (BC), where I have now served for almost thirteen years. My first position at BC was that of Preservation Manager for the BC Libraries. Three years into my tenure in that position, BC was poised to open its newest library, the Theology and Ministry Library (TML), to serve the newly-formed School of Theology and Ministry (STM) and St. John’s Seminary (SJS). One position at TML had yet to be filled before the opening, that of Collection Development/Reference Librarian.

Knowing my background, a colleague took me aside one day and said: “That position is made for you. You should really apply.” I did, and it was the best career decision I have ever made.

——

I was fifty years old when I finally landed my dream job. I have since spent the better part of ten years doing ministry again, and I cannot imagine experiencing a greater degree of job satisfaction.

The door I thought had permanently closed at that profoundly trying moment of failure is now wide open, perhaps (realistically) for the first time.

Only recently, I successfully applied for the Head Librarian position at the TML. I began serving in that position earlier this month, and I’ve yet to appreciate the full dimensions of the job. Knowing my past, however, and my history of benefiting even from hardship, I have a hunch God will be working for good.

It’s sobering to consider that, if my oh-so-urgent prayers had been answered affirmatively, if I had been given the newspaper job I coveted so long ago, my life would be entirely different today.