Tag Archives: faith

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” by Roland Jefts

“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, M, 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 M and me – to the prayer community that met on Thursday nights in the Parish Center.

When I told M 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. M 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. M 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.

M 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 M had 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 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!