Tag Archives: faith

“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.

Waiting (for God)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

Believing in Santa

Did you ever have a “God moment?” Even if you’re not a believer, have you ever experienced a surprising insight, a sudden drawing back of the veil, that caused you to stop whatever you were doing simply to ponder what you’d just seen, heard, or felt in your heart? I’ve had many.

Once, for example, I had traveled to the Boston Public Library for a meeting. Since I’d arrived a bit early, I spent a few minutes people-watching in the lobby. An assortment of interesting characters passed by, but my attention was especially drawn to a class of middle-schoolers, who had come for a library tour.

The social dynamic among the students was eerily familiar. Some were the cool kids, comfortable being the center of attention, which they commanded by their antics. Others, the clear majority, seemed indifferent to their surroundings. They conversed in small clusters while waiting for the tour to begin. (This was before the age of the ubiquitous cell phone.) Finally, there were those bringing up the rear. I’ll affectionately call them the misfits. They generally appeared ill-at-ease and eager just to get beyond this ordeal. I understood.

As I watched, I felt compassion for this latter group, whose members quite likely endured taunts and trials for being perceived as different or for failing to measure up to some unjust standard. Then, however, I noticed something important. Yes, the misfits were segregated somewhat from the larger group, perhaps by choice; however, amongst themselves, they genuinely cared for each other. Maybe they weren’t as audacious as their more confident peers, but they talked, goofed around, and laughed together. They shared a bond, a communion of souls. It’s difficult to explain, but that awareness was startlingly joyful for me. In that unexpected moment of clarity – a “God moment” – I appreciated anew the wonderful blessing of comradery.

On another occasion, my wife Marianne and I were in our stateroom awaiting the launch of a Caribbean cruise. Shortly before the scheduled departure, the ship’s captain made an announcement that we’d be leaving late due to a mechanical problem. Since our balcony overlooked the pier, we were able to witness some of the feverish activity below as cruise line personnel scrambled to resolve the unnamed issue. It looked like exhausting work.

We finally set sail about three hours late, and I watched the departure from our balcony. As we exited the ship’s berth and crept toward the open ocean, I saw three workmen gathered at the far end of the pier. Most likely, they’d been forced to work overtime and were quite tired. Still, they lingered, enjoying each other’s company. The last sound I heard from those men was a hearty, shared laugh. It seemed to speak directly to my soul about the healing power of friendship.

Right there, I lifted up a prayer of thanksgiving… under the stars, on the Dolphin Deck.

—–

I’ve noticed that, on social media sites, some atheists mockingly equate belief in God with belief in Santa Claus. That always makes me smile.

I learned the truth about Santa on Christmas Eve when I was only five years old; and, for a few hours, it felt as if all the magic had drained from my world. Then, I had a “God moment” – perhaps my first (though I doubt that) – and learned what C.S. Lewis might have called a deeper magic.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I offer this wee bit of context.

Exactly one year earlier, when I was four, I had a Santa Claus nightlight. It plugged into the outlet, just below pillow level, behind the headboard of my first big-boy bed. And, if I were frightened during the night, one quick look at Santa’s backlit visage, with rosy cheeks and kind, smiling eyes, was all I needed.

“He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.”

How thoroughly wonderful that, with all of the many children in the world, Santa cared so much for me. My devotion was real, and it reached its peak on that long-ago Christmas Eve.

Alongside the foot of my bed, there was a drafty old window, which routinely frosted over during the winter months. By late December, the frost was already thick enough to obscure the night sky.

I was restless and far too excited to sleep; but, it was the promise of presence rather than presents that denied me slumber. Santa Claus would soon be near; and, thinking back, it felt as though hope itself, rather than blood, was coursing through my veins. Eventually, after many adoring glances at my nightlight failed to satisfy, I pulled off my covers and made for the window.

I haven’t many crystal clear memories from early childhood, but that night is an exception. My big sister, Christine, who shared the room with me, asked what I was doing. “Watching for Santa,” I replied matter-of-factly, while scratching out an icy peephole with my thumbnail.

Through that tiny portal, I expectantly searched the dark sky for a sign. Every twinkle, every shadow passing in front of the moon, quickened my pulse. I couldn’t have identified it at the time, but this was, I’m now convinced, an early experience of desire for the Transcendent.

—–

That moment apparently left a profound impression. Even today, when I go to my prayer room hoping to encounter the un-seeable One, I can almost feel a ribbon of frost melting beneath my thumbnail.

—–

Despite a valiant effort, my four-year old self never did see Santa that night. I ultimately returned to bed and fell asleep. While I’m sure it was wonderful, I have no memory of Christmas morning that year or of the presents under the tree. The next year, however, would be quite different.

—–

Months passed, and Christmas Eve arrived again.

Just before bedtime, Christine, who would turn ten the next morning, pulled me aside and said that she and my Mom “had something important to tell me.” She had a strange, sad expression on her face, and I sensed something was wrong.

They both knew of my sensitivity, and it must have been quite difficult for them to bear such crushing news. I don’t remember the precise words they used, but I do recall their reason for telling me on that particular night. Though I hadn’t known about it, our family had been struggling financially. Consequently, Christmas was going to be lean that year – just two gifts per child.

My Mom had decided it would be better to tell me the truth the night before than to have me wake up the next morning thinking I’d somehow disappointed Santa during the previous year. Today, I marvel at her concern. That night, however, I was too brokenhearted to think.

I cried… and, so did my Mom.

Grieving is hard work for a little boy, especially on Christmas Eve. I still had my Santa Claus nightlight, but looking at it only magnified my sadness.

That night, the frost on my window remained undisturbed.

—–

On Christmas morning, I lingered awake in bed. The birthday girl, my very closest friend, came over to encourage me.

“Come on. Let’s go see.”

“Okay,” I replied, but I was still slow to move.

“You know,” she said, “it’s not that Santa isn’t real. He’s just not who you thought he was.“

—–

Two gifts awaited me under (and beside) the tree. And, honestly, of all the presents on all the Christmas mornings of my childhood, they are the only two I can still recall. One was a paint-by-numbers kit with a special kind of glittery paint. The other took my breath away. It was my first and only childhood bicycle, a 24-inch Columbia that I cherished immediately. Was it my imagination, or did it really glow?

No other conclusion was possible. I must have been a very good boy that year!

I looked across the room at Santa’s now smiling face.

She knows when you are sleeping. She knows when you’re awake.”

“God moments!”

—–

Philosophical proofs of God’s existence make my head spin. Try as I might, I just can’t follow the arguments; and, I’m honestly not edified by them. I don’t say this to disparage intellectuals, whom I greatly admire. It’s just that, if the world is comprised of thinking people and feeling people, I’m a card-carrying member of the latter group. In Myers-Briggs typology, I’m classified as an INFJ, which is a fancy way of saying that I lead with my heart.

My “proof” of God isn’t found in logic, reason, or even the theology I so dearly love. Rather, it’s found in the comradery of misfits, in laughter at the end of the pier, in frosty peepholes, and in Santa’s smiles and tender tears.

Yes, I still believe!

My Mother’s Hands

Eleanor #1

The nurse timidly entered the room for he could see that we were praying.

“I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but you really should remove her ring.”

Disoriented by grief and fatigue, I glanced down at my mother’s left hand, cradled in mine, and saw the ring. I instinctively twisted it ever so gently to test the tightness of the fit and asked if removing it was absolutely necessary.

“It will need to be taken off,” the kind man said, “and I think it would be best for you to do so.”

“Do you need it for some reason?” I asked, still befuddled.

“Oh no,” he replied. “You should take it with you, so it doesn’t get lost.”

After I promised to attend to the ring, the nurse said, “Then I’ll leave you alone. Please take all the time you need.”

All the time we need? I’m afraid that wasn’t possible.

—–

It’s strange, but my earliest memories of my mother are mostly set during the night. Due to asthma compounded by allergies, from toddlerhood through grade school, I often woke up struggling to breathe; and, night after exhausting night, my Mom would lovingly answer my cries.

Only many years later, when I’d lose sleep tending to my own sick children on a random night here and there, could I even begin to understand the depth of her selflessness and sacrifice.

I remember the wooden rocking chair where we spent so many hours – me, struggling to breathe, and she, stroking my hair, singing softly, and patiently waiting for the medicine to take full effect.

Though rescue inhalers were available by the late ’50s and early ’60s, I never remember having one. Instead, my Mom always relied upon a traditional OTC treatment called Asthmador, a powder that she’d spoon onto a saucer or small plate and ignite with a match. Soon, I was breathing in the healing smoke rising from the burning powder. It sounds absurd and even dangerous today, but somehow it worked. And, once my breathing regulated, my Mom tucked me back into bed, no doubt desperately hoping I’d remain asleep throughout the remainder of the night.

In retrospect, I don’t know where she got her strength. Then again, maybe I do.

—–

The youngest of five children born to John and Catherine Christopher, my Mom was well acquainted with loss from an early age. She was only three when Black Tuesday (October 24, 1929) ushered in the great depression; twelve when the deadly hurricane of 1938 struck New England; and, fifteen on December 7, 1941, the “date which will live in infamy.”

In the fateful year of 1944, my Mom and her family endured a series of unimaginable traumas. First, her only brother, Johnny, was critically wounded on a battlefield in Sicily. A German soldier, who had somehow managed to circle around behind him during ground fighting, shot him five times at point blank range and left him there to die. Miraculously, he didn’t; but, it would be months before he was strong enough to leave his hospital bed in northern Africa to return home. All the while, my Mom and her family anxiously waited and prayed.

While Johnny slowly recuperated, Mary, my Mom’s oldest sister, whom she idolized, became seriously ill and died still months shy of her thirtieth birthday. That tragic event left a deep impression on my Mom. Even late in her life, well into her battle with dementia, she would occasionally grow quiet and speak softly and reflectively of “my beautiful sister, Mary.”

Still in 1944, with his cherished oldest daughter already gone and his only son battling for his life on a distant continent, my maternal grandfather likewise became ill and died. My Mom never provided us with many details about his dying, or his life for that matter. I think it was too painful for her to do so. What she did share, however, was her conviction that her beloved father had died of a broken heart.

—–

As the old saying goes: “The same sun that melts wax hardens clay.”

The events of her youth could have embittered my Mom. Instead, by God’s grace, they tenderized her heart and made her especially receptive to God and God’s people in a truly beautiful way.

My Mom believed, always. And, it was precisely her persevering Catholic faith that guided her through many more of life’s awful storms, including the sudden death of her oldest child (my sister, Christine).

Yes, my Mom knew loss; but, it never defeated her.

Further, no matter the difficulties she faced in her own life, she always managed to share her faith, hope, and love with those in her path.

“Your mother is a saint!” was a refrain I heard countless times and from scores of people through the years. It was a running testimony to the number of lives she had touched with her kindness.

“You may be right,” I’d always respond, smiling. “You may be right.”

—–

My Mom died peacefully in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, March 14th.

The previous Monday, when I stopped at the nursing home on my way home from work, I sensed immediately that something was wrong. I’d taken the stairs to the third floor, the dementia unit, which had been my Mom’s residence for roughly two and one-half years. The coded security door at the top of the stairs is equipped with a small window, and I looked through it before pressing the button to unlock the door. My Mom, as it happened, was seated directly across the hall from the window. She was slouched forward in her chair, bent at the waist, and repeatedly blessing herself.

Although my Mom had lost a great deal to dementia by the end of her life, by God’s grace she always knew me and would unfailingly greet me by name and with a radiant smile. That evening, however, was different. When I came through the door, she looked at me through glassy eyes and gasped, “Oh, thank God!” I sat with her and immediately took hold of her hand. It was warm, as it had always been.

—–

A mother’s hands are special. Many years before, hers had bathed me, changed my diapers, prepared my meals, washed my clothes, tied my shoes, buttoned my shirts, combed my hair, brushed my teeth, tended to my cuts and bruises, dried my tears, guided me through crowded places, scooped me from my crib or bed when I struggled to breathe, administered needed medicines.

Yes, it was a long time ago. But I remember.

—–

I spoke with the nurse on duty, who confirmed that my Mom had not been herself that day. She said the nurse practitioner had ordered tests and that results should be available the next day. In the meantime, she promised that my Mom would be carefully attended through the night.

Tuesday, I got news that pneumonia had been detected in one of my mother’s lungs. She had already been prescribed an antibiotic in case the pneumonia was bacterial, and she was being watched closely. That night, my wife Marianne and I both went to visit her. She was nervous and struggling to get comfortable. We stayed with her until she was changed and in bed for the night. It was difficult to leave.

The next day she rallied a bit, but the uptick was temporary. On Thursday, I received news that my Mom’s liver function was not within the normal range. I asked if she should be sent to the hospital, but the nursing home staff thought that was unnecessary. We visited again that evening. Our concern was mounting.

On Friday, my Mom’s newest blood work revealed a dramatic drop in liver function. She was sent to the Emergency Room at a nearby hospital, and we met her there in the late afternoon. The doctors and nurses in the ER were kind and attentive, but they were also careful not to offer false hope. Tests were ordered to see if the cause of the liver failure could be determined and, hopefully, treated. And, as soon as a bed became available, my Mom was to be admitted.

In the midst of this activity, my Mom actually seemed more at peace and more like herself than at any other point that week. She was calm, chatted amicably with us, and even joked with the doctors and nurses that were in and out of her room. We stayed with her in the ER until about 10:45 p.m., at which point she was ready to fall asleep. The nurses promised to contact us if anything changed and suggested that we go home to get some rest. Before leaving, we said good night to my Mom and promised to see her in the morning. As Marianne and I left, she said, “Good night, guys. I love you both so much.” Those were the last words I’d ever hear her speak.

We slumped inside our bed at about 11:30 p.m. and, exhausted, fell quickly to sleep. Shortly after midnight, my phone rang. It was a doctor I’d not spoken to before. She quickly assured me that my Mom was still with us. Then, she explained that my Mom had been moved to her floor and that she was now her attending physician. As such, she needed to ask me some questions that the ER doctors could not answer. We spoke for about twenty minutes. Then, I tried to go back to sleep.

A little after 3:30 a.m., the phone rang again. A different doctor explained that my Mom’s vital signs were dropping and that it was time to come back to the hospital. My wife and I dressed and scrambled to get out the door.

The hospital has a parking garage directly across the street. We pulled in, parked the car, and were just steps from the hospital door when my phone rang again. It was the doctor I’d spoken with just after midnight.

“Mr. Dalton,” she said.

I quickly interrupted her. “Please doctor, don’t tell me she’s gone. We’re right outside.”

“I’m very sorry.” And, she paused.

My mind was racing. “Was she alone?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she replied. “She died just moments ago. I was with her. We were holding hands and talking. She closed her eyes, and she was gone. It was very peaceful.”

After a respectful silence, the doctor promised to meet us at the entrance to the ER. I ended the call and Marianne hugged me tightly. Moments later, we were standing outside my mother’s room.

“Please, go in to be with her,” the good doctor said.

—–

We walked toward the bed tentatively. My Mom’s eyes were closed and her mouth was slightly open. She appeared to be asleep, but there was no breath.

Emotionally wrung out, my first thought was to pray. Marianne and I each pulled a chair to our respective sides of the bed and took hold of one of my mother’s hands. I held her left hand, on which she wore her ring.

My Mom had a great love for the Blessed Virgin Mary. For many years, she prayed the Rosary with a group of friends after daily morning Mass, often leading the prayer. So, Marianne and I began our prayer with a decade of the Rosary. We were perhaps half-way through when a male nurse tapped quietly on the door and entered the room. “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but you really should remove her ring.”

After the “Glory Be,” we sat in sacred silence, and I lost track of time. I held my mother’s hand as I’d done so often before. Then, I remembered the ring. I gently twisted it again and tried to pull it off, but the fit was snug. I tugged harder and anxiously glanced at my Mom’s face to make sure I wasn’t hurting her. There was no change in her expression. In that brief instant, the reality of her passing fully dawned. With sadness, I pulled the ring from her finger, dropped it in my pocket, and took hold of her hand again. This time, I squeezed a bit tighter.

More time passed. Memories. Then, Marianne and I both noticed the change. The warmth was leaving. After exactly eighty-eight years and nine months, my mother’s healing, loving hands were growing cold.

“Time to go,” I said. And, Marianne nodded.

I kissed my mother’s forehead and whispered, “Thank you, Mom. I love you.”

Before sunrise, the very next morning, our seventh grandchild, Leo, was born. New life!

His tiny hands were warm.

Why I Remain Catholic

In response to an invitation from The Anchoress, Elizabeth Scalia, on patheos.com, a large number of Catholic bloggers are weighing in right now in response to the question: “Why remain Catholic even when it is a struggle?” In this short essay, I’d like to add my perspective to this most interesting discussion.

While I intend to play by the rules and cite some of my reasons for staying in the fold, I’ll also spend just a bit of time on the second part of Elizabeth’s suggested topic, namely: “even when it is a struggle.” Call it therapy, but I feel the need to (charitably) vent.

What Binds Me:

I remain an active member of the Catholic Church because being Catholic is an integral part of who I am. I love, anguish, breathe, laugh, cry, think, work, play, reason, and act as a Catholic man. While I suppose living outside of that framework is a theoretical possibility for me, I honestly cannot conceive of such a circumstance in my life. In fact, were I to stop believing in God entirely, I suspect I’d be a very Catholic atheist.

Early on, my Catholic faith was formed – for better or worse – by the catechesis I received in parochial school, but it was born through living witnesses, the first of whom was my own heroic mother, Eleanor. Even from childhood, my Mom was intimately acquainted with loss and suffering. She lived through the depression and multiple wars; survived a dysfunctional first family; endured abandonment by, and divorce from, my father; and, suffered perhaps the most grievous wound possible, the sudden death of her beloved oldest child and only daughter, Christine. Throughout, she remained not only a person of unyielding (Catholic) faith but also an instrument of hope and love. In her last years, when dementia had robbed her of much of the interior narrative of her life, she continued to be a light to her world. Whenever we visited her in the nursing home, where she spent her final two and one-half years, we’d inevitably hear stories of her kindness toward the other residents from staff members and even residents’ family members. A daily communicant, rosary leader, and Eucharistic minister for many years, my Mom lived her Catholicism to the end; and, she continues to inspire me to do the same. I can only pray that I will live it so fully and so well.

Particular saints are another reason I stay in the Church. Therese of Lisieux, for example, is one of my personal heroes. This remarkable young woman, raised within a torturously legalistic form of Catholicism, nonetheless came to understand God as tender-hearted and merciful. What a gift to the Church! I also draw great inspiration from saints like Maximilian Kolbe, whose sacrificial death in the starvation bunker at Auschwitz was a beautiful model of Christian charity. Indeed, we Catholics stand on the shoulders of giants.

As one who finds fundamentalism, including Catholic fundamentalism, frustrating and, at times, even dangerous, I cherish the work of Catholic theologians and Biblical scholars, who seek unflinchingly to engage life’s deepest questions with courage, openness, faith, and with appropriate hermeneutical tools, including insights gleaned from the social sciences. May God bless their holy work!

Finally, as others have thoughtfully expressed, the Eucharist positively anchors me to the Church. I believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament; and, as long as that belief burns in my heart, I could never imagine myself abandoning Catholicism.

Why I Struggle:

Frankly, divisions in the Church overwhelm me. In late October of last year, for example, Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic, famously wondered aloud in the pages of the New York Times if Pope Francis might be pushing the Catholic Church toward schism. After all, he reminded his readers, there are two living – and, the implication being, competing – Popes. While I don’t believe schism, as in a choice between following Benedict XVI or Francis, is a serious risk, polarization is painfully real; and, I’ve no doubt that the rhetoric accompanying the upcoming Synod in October will reveal the depth and breadth of our theological differences.

Over the years, several of my devout Catholic friends have joked with me that the phrase “parish life” is an oxymoron. I intend here no blanket indictment of Catholic parishes, and I recognize that “parish life” may mean different things to different people; still, in my own experience of yearning for something more in the parishes to which I have belonged, I have often wondered if the Church takes lay spirituality seriously enough. As a case in point, in her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, author Sherry A. Weddell explains that many lay Catholics, even those engaged in leadership roles within their parishes, do not self-identify as disciples of Jesus. In heaven’s name, why not? Can there be any doubt that the Church needs to do a better job of adult faith formation, i.e., of passing on to her members a practical way, compatible with the many complications inherent to the lay state, to grow in relationship to Jesus? Far too often, maintaining the status quo in a parish seems to be considered enough. It isn’t!

Some years ago, I had a troubling conversation with a conservative and admirably devout young man. He spoke of the terrible ubiquity of mortal sin in the world and made it clear that priests, with their faculties to forgive sins, are like a small army of saviors (my words not his, but I believe they accurately convey his point of view). Now, I believe firmly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In fact, some of my most moving experiences of God have happened in the context of receiving that beautiful Sacrament. But, wow! Are countless numbers of baptized Catholics really walking around in a state of total alienation from God? The Church lists three criteria that must be present for a sin to be mortal: 1.) grave matter; 2.) sufficient formation of conscience to understand the serious nature of the sin, along with sufficient reflection; and, 3.) complete consent of the will to act on the sinful impulse. Considering the aforementioned lack of adult faith formation, is it really possible for these three criteria to be fully met on such a large scale? The ubiquity of sin is undeniable; but, I can’t help recalling the words of Jesus as he was being crucified, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The other thing about that conversation that alarms me is this young man’s exalted view of priesthood. Is this aggrandized perspective on the clergy nurtured by the kind of clericalism Pope Francis abhors? While I believe in the ontological change brought about by Holy Orders, I also can’t help remembering Peter’s words to Cornelius in Acts 10:25-26, where we read:

“When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I too am a man.'”

A stark reminder of the humanity of Catholic priests has been manifest in the sexual abuse crisis that (shockingly) continues to make headlines. Living in the Boston area, I was at ground zero when the avalanche of news stories broke in 2002. Like so many others, I was stunned both by the violators themselves and by their – in my estimation, criminally negligent – superiors. On a personal note, I’m not sure I have ever fully grappled interiorly with the implications of this massive betrayal of trust. I was acquainted with eight of the accused priests, two of whom had already passed away when the allegations against them surfaced. Of the remaining six, none have returned to active ministry, and at least two have been laicized. One of the offenders had actually been in our apartment when our two oldest children were toddlers. Thankfully, he was never alone with either of them. God have mercy!

I could go on.

Love makes one vulnerable. I love the Church. And, the Church has broken my heart.

So, will I see you at Mass on Sunday?

Faith

there is another Way
neither rejection nor grand delusion
a third path
holy, often silent… sometimes torturously so

questions are permitted
even doubts

stridency, militancy… born of fear
these are the enemies
of that third and quiet Way
of immersion

pilot lights still burn
though softly

urgent moments screech
then settle into recesses of memory and history
mine… and others’
swallowed by that blessed stillness…

of the moment
that teaches everything
but for just that moment
then beckons, darkly, onward

“this little light of mine”
step by step
pages of the deeper story
relaxed and unfolded by human tears

yours… and mine

“All Shall Be Well”

This (below) is repost four of five figuratively buried essays…

—–

“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.

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.

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 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 pious little boy. Faith always seemed quite natural to me; and, obedience to God and to my parents was simply my way of life. My innocent faith, however, would soon be sorely tested.

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!