Tag Archives: God

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!

“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!

(God’s) Providence…

(For privacy’s sake, some names have been changed in this true story. The actual names – and actual people – remain in my memory and in my heart – and always will.)

—–

Seemingly, little had changed in the old neighborhood, and the sentimentalist in me felt appropriately gratified. Employing a light touch on the gas pedal, I drank in familiar sights and easily yielded to the flurry of tender memories.

Wyndham Avenue was just ahead.

As I turned the corner and saw that marvelous old house – wherein Marianne’s and my young love had endured and deepened and in which our oldest child, Rachel, had taken her first steps and spoken her first words – I was unexpectedly confronted by a disquieting question. Would Minnie still be there?

When we left Rhode Island, nearly a decade earlier, Minnie was already in her late seventies. Sadly, we’d not been very good about keeping in touch.

Our final, somewhat hurried good-bye had been an emotional one. After our rented truck was fully loaded and our friends/”movers” had already embarked for my family’s new home back in Massachusetts, I hugged Minnie and, while still embracing her, started to cry. In character, she scolded me and told me to pull myself together. Yes, Minnie could be tough; but, there was no mistaking the sadness in her eyes that day.

Minnie was a “God-send” to us! And I mean that quite literally.

In early 1984, Marianne and I discerned that my pursuit of a master’s degree in Religious Studies was the right direction for us. Of course, there were obstacles. We’d only been married for two years and were, frankly, broke. We were also expecting our first child and needed a stable home for her. An assistantship from Providence College (PC) that both covered my tuition and provided me with a part-time job on campus, along with a pledge of monthly financial help from members of our prayer community, addressed some of our financial concerns, but we still needed a good place to live while I studied.

The very first time we met Minnie, she became our patroness. It was an unusually hot spring day, roughly a month before my two summer classes were to begin. We bundled Rachel, who was not quite two-months old, into our stifling car – base models did not come with air-conditioning back then – and set out for Providence. Our (unrealistic?) goal for the day was to find an acceptable apartment that we could afford; and, we couldn’t afford much.

When we arrived in the city, I suggested making the Religious Studies department on the PC campus our first stop. The Dean’s administrative assistant, a warm and friendly woman named Mary Belcher, welcomed us and asked why we were in town so early. We told her of our mission for the day, and she smiled. “You know,” she said, “there is an elderly woman who has rented to some of our students in the past. She hasn’t done so for a while, but it’s worth giving her a call.”

Mary said the woman’s name aloud, “Minnie DeFranco,” while reaching for the phone book. She quickly found the number and encouraged me to use the office phone to call. I did, and, without visiting a single realtor, we had an apartment to view.

Minnie lived in a quiet, beautiful neighborhood only two blocks from the campus. Her sturdy old house was originally a two-family, but the attic had been converted into a legal apartment with two bedrooms, a good-sized kitchen, a living room, and a bath. It was perfect… and available.

We told Minnie that we were very interested in the apartment and, sneaking a hopeful glance Marianne’s way, I asked about the rent. Minnie’s response nearly floored us. She wanted only $180/month – an outrageously low figure even then. We told her on the spot that we’d like to take it, and she welcomed us as her new tenants.

Providence!

The day we moved in was one of those beautiful times when the hand of God was unmistakably at work. When our small caravan, with the rented truck at the head of the line, pulled up in front of the house, Minnie came out to meet us. She looked tired and sad. “You’ll never guess what happened this morning,” she said. “My husband died.”

We had never met Minnie’s husband, and I can’t recall exactly how we responded to this stunning news. I do remember, however, that – even in her grief – Minnie looked lovingly at Rachel and gently brushed our daughter’s cheek with her fingers. At this moment of profound loss, God had delivered new life to Minnie. Beginning that very first day, Rachel was a healing presence for this kind, dear woman, who had already been such a blessing to our family. Love was happening!

For the duration of our stay, Minnie was to us a surrogate grandmother. We shared meals and long conversations; we got to know her siblings, as well as her son and daughter-in-law and their children; and we saw first-hand her charity, which happened without fanfare and which was often directed our way. At a time of real loneliness and need, Minnie was both our friend and protector.

Providence indeed!

All those years later, it was a business meeting that brought me to Rhode Island. I finished a bit earlier than expected and decided to surprise Minnie. I pulled up in front of the house with uncertainty. While climbing the front stairs, my fears were somewhat relieved when I saw her nameplate – DeFranco – still fixed beneath the second floor doorbell. I rang the bell and waited. After a minute or so, I heard a familiar voice calling from the landing. “Who is it?” I sighed gratefully and turned the knob of the door, which was unlocked.

A few minutes into our visit, I heard an unfamiliar woman’s voice calling up from the front door. “Minnie, are you okay?” Minnie hollered back an invitation, and the woman came up the stairs. When she came in, she explained that she’d seen me, a stranger, enter the house, and she wanted to be sure that her friend was safe. I was pleased that Minnie had such a caring neighbor; but, it was Minnie’s response that really touched my heart. “Oh, there’s no need to worry. Steve is family.”

Erminia “Minnie” DeFranco went home on December 16, 1996. Our lives intersected for only a brief time, but hers is a treasured place in our family’s history.

I believe that God’s deliberate choice to work in and through people is ultimately one of life’s greatest blessings. In her own inimitable way, Minnie revealed the face and heart of God to me. And, trust me, God’s face and heart are so very kind.

Noise?

In his wonderful book, New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton says the following:

“… every expression of the will of God is in some sense a ‘word’ of God and therefore a ‘seed’ of new life. The ever-changing reality in the midst of which we live should awaken us to the possibility of an uninterrupted dialogue with God.”

One recent morning, I opted to pray on my back porch, where I was bombarded with the sounds of a busy summer day. Applying Merton’s insight, I chose to hear those sounds not as a distraction but as ‘words’ of God that became an integral part of my prayer. And so, I came to understand that sometimes the voice of God sounds like…

The chirping of birds, the barking of a neighbor’s dog, a rush of wind, the distant laughter of children at play, the “noise” testifying to human ingenuity…

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

The yawn of a stranger on the train, music, a whispered “I love you”…

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

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

Your neighbor puttering in his yard in the cool of the day, the far-away slamming of a screen door, a mother calling her children home for lunch, the whistle of a tea kettle…

And…?

What a consolation to know that God will not be silent today!