Tag Archives: Spirituality

The Tale of the Foul-Mouthed Boy

”For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” (Thomas Merton)

I see him at the vigil Mass every Saturday evening. He sits in a pew toward the back of the church. So, by the time he reaches the front of the Communion line, I’m already back in my place – praying, watching, remembering.

Though we both live in the same small town, where secrets are not easily kept, I’ve never known his first name. To me, he’ll always be the “unwitting catechist,” and I’m content with that.

He resembles his late father; and, it was he, rather than the son, who once wagged an accusing finger in my face, thus teaching me something truly important about integrity and authenticity at a tender age.

My first childhood home had a fateful encounter with a demolition crew many years ago. No doubt the house was already well beyond its prime by the time the Daltons took residence there in the 1950s, but I have no recollection of its warts. Instead, I remember it as a magical place, and I suspect I always will.

A formidable maple – “my tree,” also gone now – served as sentry at the front edge of the property. Countless times I traversed the deep grooves of its bark with my small fingers and scaled its rung-like branches as far as I dared. On one side of the trunk, the tree’s sinewy roots poked up through the ground like a child’s bench, a perfect perch on which to savor a Popsicle, swap stories, or simply relish the pure freedom of a young child’s summer day.

The large backyard was a wonderland, overgrown in places, lending a true sense of mystery to the space. It served as a de facto neighborhood playground, and many adventures were concocted and acted out there under its seemingly inexhaustible inspiration.

For the first eight years of my life, that house and its immediate environs were virtually my world; and, it was a charming place indeed. Of course, being a small boy, it never mattered to me that my family and I lived in a rented apartment. It mattered to my parents though, especially my mother, who had long dreamed of owning her own home.

The move comprised no more than half a mile, but distance is an unreliable measure of change.

Yes, the new house was “ours,” but there was no maple tree, no intriguing backyard to attract playmates. In fact, there was really no yard at all, only a narrow driveway and a boring one-car garage.

My initial response to the move was grief.

“There seem to be quite a few children in this neighborhood, Stephen,” my mother observed one day from across the room. “I’m sure you’ll make lots of friends here.”

Embarrassed at having been noticed, I let the curtain slip from my fingers and turned my attention away from the window and the children playing outside.

“Maybe,” I replied in a near-whisper. Shyness can make social transitions so very difficult.

Thankfully, over time, my mother’s words proved prescient. I did make good friends and forged life-long memories in the new neighborhood. In fact, if my first eight years are characterized by memories of things and places, the next few years are filled with names (Paul, Phil, Evans, Justin, Jackie, Jimmy…) and endearing faces. Those were, in fact, the happiest days of my childhood.

My friends and I typically matched our activities to the season. In summer, we seemed to play baseball morning, afternoon, and night. In the fall, our street became a touch-football field with telephone poles marking the end zones. And, in winter, we played street hockey both after school and on weekends, as long as daylight accommodated.

Often, boys from nearby neighborhoods would join us for our games. That made our play more realistic as we’d have more positions covered on the field; however, it also changed the group dynamic a bit and eventually presented me with an early moral dilemma.

I wonder if there’s anything – temporally speaking, of course – that the human heart desires more than fitting in, i.e., being accepted by one’s peers.

I’m not a fan of foul language. Even as a child, I was very careful with my words, never wanting to offend God or others. While my closest friends always respected who I was and how I tried to conduct myself, kids from other neighborhoods were not always so understanding. They would occasionally tease me about my “holiness.” And, though most of their jibes were not mean-spirited, being a sensitive child, I tended to take their words to heart.

I don’t recall how the idea first came to me, but the more I worked it over in my mind the more sense it seemed to make. Convincing myself, however, was only half the battle. When I summoned the courage to raise the issue with her, my mother looked less than pleased.

“Why would you want to do that, Stephen?” she asked.

“The other kids say swears, Ma.”

She carefully studied my face. “You know it’s not right to use bad language.”

“I know. But, if you give me permission, that would make it okay, right?”

She remained silent for some time, and I could feel my face flush under her persistent gaze. When she finally answered, she did so with obvious hesitation. “I don’t like this, Stephen.” She shook her head slightly as she spoke. “But… I do understand.” After another pause, she continued, “I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you choose one word to say. But, that’s all. Does that sound fair?”

“Thank you, Ma!” I said gratefully, feeling a weight had been lifted from my small shoulders.

We then rather delicately discussed my possible choices – an interesting exercise between a mother and her young son. While I don’t clearly recall our rationale, we ultimately agreed upon the word “sh#t.”

Soon thereafter, my friends and I gathered to play touch football. It was a beautiful fall day and, though we didn’t notice it at the time, one of the local residents was sitting on his enclosed front porch observing our play.

As the game progressed, so did our use of salty language. Feeling a newfound freedom and connection with my peers, I made liberal and creative use of my new vocabulary word.

“That was a sh#&&y pass!”

“You really looked like sh#t on that play!”

“This ball is as dirty as sh#t!”

I was playing my role to the hilt until a porch door suddenly swung open, and a large, angry man stepped out.

“Hey!” he bellowed. The game abruptly halted and all of us players gave him our full attention.

“I’ve been listening to you guys and your filthy mouths for half an hour now, and I am sick to death of it!”

He came down from his steps to confront us at closer range. My heart was racing but my feet were anchored in place.

Pointing a thick finger at one of the boys, he screamed, “I’m sick of listening to you!” Then, he pivoted, aimed his finger at another, and yelled, “And you!” He quickly turned again, “And you!” Finally, as I knew in my heart he must, he turned his rage my way. He glared at me and thrust his finger forward once for each pronounced word of my sentence. “And! Especially! You!”

Especially?! Me?!

My first instinct, though I didn’t act upon it, was self-defense. “You don’t understand,” I thought to myself, “I had permission.” Within a split second, however, defensiveness yielded to shame for my actions. I had indeed been responsible for the verbal assault this man experienced, and any protestation, even one pointing to a mother’s consent, would have been an empty excuse. My eyes dropped from the outraged man’s face to my own feet. I felt crushed.

“I’m really sorry, sir,” I said, still not looking up.

“I don’t want to hear any more of it!” he proclaimed loudly to all of us. “Do you understand?”

I and several others answered, “Yes, sir.” Then, our game broke up and the dispirited players scattered.

As I was walking home, the scene played over and over again in my mind. I knew the man was justified in the action that he took, and I felt true contrition for my offense; still, I couldn’t help feeling like a victim of injustice. He had singled me out as the worst offender without really knowing me.

The realization, when it came, was sudden yet gentle, like a soft voice in the soul. Even being a child, I could understand. Indeed, the angry man didn’t know the real me because I hadn’t shown him the real me. Instead, I’d pretended to be someone else in order to feel more like a part of the group.

Sh#t happens! My real sin was falsity and compromise. And, the angry man was my wake-up call – a true friend.

I’ve come to trust that the soft voice in my soul was/is my conscience, helping me interpret my world and inviting me to live more authentically (i.e., closer to God’s plan for my life). I wish I could say that I’ve always been true to that calling. Alas, I’ve needed many wake-up calls.

So, I will be at the vigil Mass again next Saturday evening. When my “unwitting catechist” passes by, I will see again the face of his father. I will remember. And, I will lift up a prayer of thanks.

Bonding with a Beloved (Dead) Stranger

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The memory is vague, almost dream-like. My paternal grandfather, who died in 1960 when I was still a toddler, is atop a fight of stairs in the family home and speaking with my father, who is with me at the bottom of the stairs. I can’t describe my Grandpa’s features except to say that he was an old man, nor can I recall anything distinctive about his voice or manner. To be honest, I’m not even sure that I can trust my recollection at all. I know, it’s not much to go on; but, somehow, it’s proven to be enough. That one obscure memory has always served as my relational touchstone with my father’s father, a foundation upon which to build.

For most of my life, I had no such connection with my maternal grandfather.

During the opening credits of Rocky Balboa, the 2006 entry in the “Rocky” film series, there is a touching scene wherein the aging title character visits the gravesite of his beloved wife, Adrian. While brother-in-law Pauly awkwardly watches and waits, Rocky sits on a folding chair in quiet communion with his departed bride.

When he’s ready to leave, Rocky tenderly kisses the top of the headstone as if it were Adrian’s soft, blushing cheek. Then, he collapses his chair and returns it to its storage place in the sturdy branches of a nearby tree. The message is clear. Rocky visits often; and, the audience feels the good man’s pain.

Intentionally or not, this scene models behavior that contemporary grief counselors might describe as an “enduring bond,” i.e., a psychological and/or spiritual relationship that continues even beyond death.

While love is typically the defining characteristic of such bonds, other sentiments can certainly be involved as well. It is not unusual, for example, for someone to come to a gravesite bearing unresolved anger, regrets, a desire for forgiveness and reconciliation, or countless other all-too-human emotions.

Indeed, graves can be complicated places.

Perhaps that explains, at least in part, why I seldom visit graves, even of people I’ve dearly loved. Knowledge that the bodily remains (the “earthen vessel”) of a loved one lie beneath my feet affords me neither inspiration nor consolation. By faith, I believe the person I cared for is no longer there. Rather, she/he is now in the hands of a loving God. That considered, I’m far more likely to work on my “enduring bonds” behind closed doors during prayer. It is there, rather than in the cemetery, where I’ve had some of my most satisfying “conversations” with departed relatives.

There is, however, one grave that tugs at my heart like no other.

John J. Christopher, my mother’s “Papa,” died when he was my age, 58, in 1944, a terrible year for the family. I’ve shared previously about how little I know of my grandfather’s life and death. In fact, as I write these words, it occurs to me that I can’t ever recall even seeing his photograph. Whenever I’d question my Mom about my grandfather, she’d always seem hesitant to speak. Was it grief or something else that knotted her tongue? Judging by the sensitive tone her voice assumed whenever she did speak of him, it was clear that her Papa held a special – albeit, a hidden – place in her heart.

Over the years, I’ve found myself a number of times pondering unanswered questions in front of my grandfather’s grave, a resting place he shares with his oldest child, Mary, my aunt, who pre-deceased him in 1944.

So, who was this man? What were his treasures? Did he believe in God? Did he make friends easily? What made him smile, laugh, cry? Did he have a hobby? What burdens did he carry? What were his gifts? His regrets? His foibles? Did he pray? Was he a dreamer? What were his politics? Was he satisfied with his life? Was my grandmother his first love? Did he love her to the end? Was he always faithful? What thoughts filled his mind in quiet moments… and, in his final moments? What were his fears? His temptations? Who were his heroes? How did he die? And, more importantly, what guided how he lived?

My Mom was the last surviving member of her first family. When she passed in March of last year, it meant that all those who had been closest to my grandfather were now gone. So too, I imagined, was any hope I had of finding answers to my myriad questions concerning this stranger whose blood I share.

While going through my Mom’s things shortly after her death, my wife Marianne and I came upon a diary my Mom had kept in 1940 when she was 13 years old. I’d never known of the diary’s existence and couldn’t resist immediately exploring it’s pages, which were a genuine revelation to me. Marianne, ever-gracious (and knowing me only too well), gave me a pass on further sorting that day.

Just holding the book stirred my emotions. Seventy-five years earlier, my Mom recorded the highlights of her adolescent life in its pages, beginning each entry with “Dear Diary” and concluding with “Love Eleanor.”

The textured cover of the book bore the words National Surety Corporation 1940, and the title page read National Surety Diary 1940. A handwritten note on that title page explained that the diary had been: “Given to me from Johnny as a Christmas present.” Johnny was my Mom’s older (and only) brother. Just a few years later, in 1944, he would be horribly wounded by a German soldier during ground fighting in Sicily. He’d be in recovery for a long time, but he’d live and eventually return home.

My Mom wrote faithfully in her diary through May 27th of 1940. Then, for whatever reason, her daily entries abruptly ceased. Mostly blank pages followed; however, there were a handful of later entries, including a few dating from 1949 and 1951.

There were many gems to discover in the diary’s pages, including my Mom’s first (recorded) encounter with my father on Thursday, May 2nd. That entry reads as follows: “Then Robert Dalton called me by my first name and then hit me over the head with a magazine. It seemed so nice.” Knowing the pain that awaited them later in life made this sweet passage particularly poignant for me.

I won’t delve into the specifics of my Mom’s early adolescence beyond these few observations. At age 13, she was a bit boy-crazy and seems to have prompted innocent flirtations (e.g., the magazine on the head, above) from more that a few young suitors. She struggled in a couple of her subjects at school, was somewhat fashion-conscious, and was prone to being “kicked out” of the public library. She and her older sister, Edna, were inseparable, but they also had strong arguments, a characteristic they would carry into old age. My Mom’s allowance at the time was $0.30/week, and she often used the money to go to the movies with her friends. She felt things deeply. In short, she was a typical teenage girl of her time.

As these previously unexplored aspects of my mother’s life unfolded with the turning of each cherished page, I was too taken with her story to anticipate what was coming; but, my Mom was about to introduce me to my grandfather.

Mystery sometimes begets romanticized notions; but, any idealized images I’d subconsciously formed about my grandfather were quickly humanized by my mother’s pen. In all, there were twelve entries in the diary that mentioned my grandfather. Some were just brief references, but a precious few were more revealing.

Rather than recount all of the details, I will instead summarize the still thin portrait of my grandfather that emerged for me from the diary. Some general aspects of his life, e.g., that he once worked for a railroad and that there was some tension between him and my grandmother, were not a total surprise. The insights I gleaned about his temperament and character, however, were altogether new and satisfying. I was also surprised and saddened by the intensity of the rift between my grandparents.

John J. Christopher was an emotional man whose identity was closely tied to his work. For twenty-five years, he was employed by the narrow gauge railroad that operated in his community. After experiencing a serious drop in ridership, the railroad shut down on January 27, 1940. My Mom’s diary entries on that fateful day and the next both speak of her Papa’s constant tears at the loss of his job. “He cried into five hankies. Ah diary, it was so sad.” At one point, she also recounts him calling out hysterically: “It’s gone!” His children gathered around to console him in his grief. That was very heartening to read.

My grandfather seems to have had a strong sense of responsibility regarding his family. As much as the job loss devastated him, he was quick to search out employment and apparently found a new position in less than two months. My mother mentions both a new job and the start date, but she provides no further details about either the employer or her father’s adjustment to his new work.

As mentioned, the relationship between my grandparents was strained, perhaps torturously so. Six of the twelve diary entries that mention my grandfather reference either their fights or their complete lack of communication. No motive for their discord is ever mentioned, but the impact upon my Mom and her siblings appears to have been quite severe. At one point, my Mom reports that her oldest sisters, Mary and Barbara, had devised a plan to save their money and move out of the house with all three of their younger siblings (Johnny, Edna, and my mother) due to the fighting. That plan, at least during the period covered by the diary, was never carried out.

Alcohol is mentioned in passing once, but the reference, as I see it, is open to interpretation. Exactly one week after the traumatic loss of his railroad job, my Mom wrote: “Papa is very good lately. Hasn’t drank any liquor. He used to all the time.” Can her last sentence be taken literally, or did she mean “all the time…” since losing his job? I will likely never know.

Finally, despite the stress in his marriage and his devastating work situation, my grandfather appears to have had a strong relationship with his children. As noted, they gathered around to console him after his job loss. Also, when my Mom was laid up for two weeks with a terrible sore throat, she wrote of how kind he was to her during the illness. And, he apparently tried to involve his children in activities around their home. My Mom reports affectionately, for example, about spending a Saturday morning painting woodwork with her Papa.

This last point evokes a beautiful picture in my mind, a picture that, like the image of my paternal grandfather atop the stairs, can serve as a foundation for an “enduring bond.”

My Mom’s diary doesn’t come close to answering all of my questions about my grandfather. Still, it provides marvelous insights I’d never had before about both him and my mother herself. I consider it one final, loving gift passed from mother to son.

I only wish she’d written much more.

P.S. Writing is difficult. One reason I take up the pen (or, the keyboard) is to provide future generations in my family with an understanding of who I was and what I valued. Perhaps it won’t matter to anyone. Then again, if one of my grandparents or great-grandparents had shared something of her/his heart in writing, I would treasure it beyond measure. By the way, I also hope that my experiences might strike a familiar chord within you and somehow prove to be a blessing in your life. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my reflections.

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!

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?

Any Day, at 4:30 a.m.

I’m here, Lord.

My body ached getting out of bed this morning, but I’m here.

Did You ever have body aches? Are they redemptive?

Oh my!

I’m tired, my King. Tired… and old.

So, here we are again.

I ache; but, my deepest ache is for You.

Your silence puzzles me. It always has.

When I say that I ache for you, I speak the truth… and I wait.

Beheadings, war, disease, corruption, politics, countless people living in misery…

I’m tired.

Does prayer help somehow?

And have You noticed the state of Your Church? The divisions?

It feels sometimes like I have no home… unless I take sides.

But, I can’t.

What I long for is Your voice. To walk with You. To rest in Your embrace. To finally understand.

Mother Mary, help me!

I’m tired.

And… I love You, my King.

I always have.

Heeding Jofy’s Ears

Despite good intentions, my life seldom – if ever – directly mirrors my Christian faith. I believe, for example, that God speaks constantly in and through the ordinary circumstances of life. So, in God’s order, every breeze has its purpose. Every sound has its deeper meaning. Every leaf, every barking dog, and every passer-by manifests unique and mysterious theological lessons to comprehend. Genuinely holding that perspective, it is beyond frustrating that I so often find myself wallowing in life’s mundane distractions and deaf to God’s actual voice.

With a little help, though, I can sometimes experience a breakthrough.

—–

One day, when our grandson “Jofy” (i.e., Joseph) was two years old, he wandered into our family room where I was watching a baseball game. Since his parents, our son and daughter-in-law, wisely limit his exposure to television, he was quickly fascinated by the images on the screen. I began to chat casually with my son, Stephen, just as the inning was ending, and neither of us paid much attention to the commercials that immediately followed. Jofy, however, was riveted.

At the time, the Nicholas Cage movie Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was being heavily promoted. An ad for the film came on the television showing a (literally) hellish image of a demonic motorcycle rider shrouded in fire. Jofy immediately began to scream in absolute terror. As quickly as I could, I turned off the television. Then, my son and I tried to console our little guy and to explain the inexplainable. I was furious at the violation of his innocence and felt terrible that it had happened under my watch.

I see a bit of myself in Jofy, now five years old. He is a sensitive child, who – like his Buppa – obviously feels things quite deeply. When someone reads him a story, for example, if he finds any part of the tale troubling, he’ll cover his ears with his hands until the offending portion has passed. I find that trait especially endearing.

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—–

My wife and I are often blessed to be joined at Sunday Mass by Stephen and his family. Such was the case on Palm Sunday this year; and, as usual, Jofy positioned himself between Marianne and me in the pew. (His younger sister, Katerina, typically prefers to remain close to her Momma, Mikayla.)

Like every small child, Jofy has his fidgety moments, including at Mass. He is never a nuisance, but he often engages himself in quiet play while we worship. Honestly, I enjoy watching him exercise his creativity, whether directing an imaginary jet plane with his hand or deftly swinging Paul Bunyan’s double-bladed ax to fell an invisible tree. He can seem detached from the solemn proceedings around him; yet, there is a deeper truth.

Of course, Palm Sunday Mass is busier than the typical Sunday liturgy. There are palm branches, an extra Gospel reading, a procession, and a dramatic (and lengthy) reading of the Lord’s Passion wherein the congregation assumes the generic role of the crowd. “Crucify him,” we are expected to demand loudly, for example, when Pilate asks those assembled what he should do with this troublesome Jesus of Nazareth.

With script in hand and anxious not to miss my cues, I followed the text carefully as the priest and two lectors read their respective parts; but, my focus, I’m sorry to say, was misdirected. Mindful of the performance, I failed to listen attentively to the great story itself. Meanwhile, Jofy played by my side.

The details of Jesus’ betrayal and death are well known; and, maybe familiarity risks dulling their impact, especially after so many retellings. That particular day, though, as we read about our Lord being brutalized and murdered for loving perfectly in an imperfect world, I happened to glance at Jofy, who had ceased playing and was now carefully covering his ears with his hands. The story had become too terrible for our sensitive little guy to hear. His reaction awakened my spirit.

Marianne saw it too. We both smiled, nodded at each other, forgot about the script, and listened anew to the awesome story of our faith.

Wakes

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I am an associative thinker and tend to rely on analogies to help me interpret my world, particularly its more painful aspects.  And so, as I stood alone in the aft, transfixed by the cruise ship’s turbulent wake, a different wake, my father’s from three months prior, came readily to mind.

Close by the ship’s propeller, the water churned fiercely.  Yet, as the vessel moved on, I was consoled to see order and serenity gradually restored to the sea.  Perhaps the emotional aftermath of my father’s death will follow a similar pattern.  Time is essential, of course.  Time… and very much grace!

I have written elsewhere about my father (most notably in “The Red Sweater” http://wp.me/p3OG1U-3C), testifying to the healing work that God has already accomplished in me.  Tragically though, forgiveness does not always translate to reconciliation.  So, by my father’s choice, which I honored, for the past twenty-three years – his final twenty-three years – we were estranged.

Considering the painful distance between us in life, and now, that ultimate separation in death, I’m amazed by the significant space my father still occupies in my psyche.  Such is a son’s need, I guess, even as the son himself grows old.

—–

A few years ago, I was called for jury duty.  At the courthouse, while waiting to go through security, I struck up a conversation with the man immediately ahead of me in line.  He was an African-American Protestant minister, who explained that his “calling” was to help broken-hearted men, of which there were many in his congregation.  He referenced the story of the Baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3 and made special note of verse 17, wherein God the Father’s voice is heard saying:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

“That verse,” the good man observed, “is something every boy – and every man – aches to hear from his father.”

Quite unexpectedly, while inching toward courthouse security, I felt laid bare.  Fighting back tears, I desperately hoped that my vulnerability, my wound, went unnoticed by my new acquaintance… that healer of broken-hearted men.

—–

When a loved one dies, memories sometimes come in a torrent.  In the wake of my father’s death, an all too familiar memory came yet again to me.

When I was a young boy of perhaps eight or nine years, my father made me a special promise.  “This Saturday,” he said, “will be our day. We’ll spend the whole day together, and we’ll do whatever you want to do.”

I was ecstatic!  Time alone with my Dad!?  Even as a child, or perhaps especially then, I had sensed the disconnect between us; but, maybe things could be different.

The days of that week could not pass quickly enough.

When Saturday came, I bolted out of bed and into the kitchen, where I found my mother, with a knowing smile on her face, already making breakfast for my father and me.  As we ate together, my father told me that he had a quick errand to run but thereafter the day would be mine. In fact, I could even accompany him on his errand.  It didn’t matter to me.  We’d be together.

While on the errand, my father ran into a co-worker, who told him that a number of their mutual friends were getting together to play golf that morning.  Then, he asked my father if he’d like to join the group.

Even now, it’s difficult to explain my feelings as I was dropped back at home that morning.  Rejection?  Embarrassment?  Confusion?  Yes to all those things.  But maybe shame comes the closest to telling the story.  Even as my mother tried to console me, I just wanted to disappear.

Through the years, I’ve often wondered if my father enjoyed that round of golf, which was surely the most costly round he ever played.

—–

“The Red Sweater,” was a story I’d told a number of times, but I’d never felt free to write it down.  It always seemed like something that should wait until my father’s passing.  Then, in late September of last year, I unmistakably sensed that the time had come.  The writing proved cathartic as I relived that blessed experience.

My work was completed on October 6th.  I then sat staring at the “Publish Post” button on my blog site.  “Should this wait?” I briefly anguished again.  Then, feeling a surprising sense of peace, I really knew the time had arrived.  I clicked the button without regret.

The next day, I received a characteristically kind phone call from my dear, life-long friend, Paul.  “Steve, I’m so sorry about your father’s passing…” he began, but I quickly lost track of his words.  You see, no one close to my father had informed me of his death. Paul had unknowingly broken the news.  He had died the previous morning… just a few short hours before I posted “The Red Sweater.”

All things considered, I am truly grateful to have learned the news the way I did, from a loving friend.  God is good!

—–

I didn’t attend the formal wake or funeral.  After all, his second family had shared his life far more closely and deserved their private time of grief.  Instead, my wife, our children, and I went to pay our respects the night before, alone.

My father was eighty-eight years old when he passed.  In death, his body looked so small and frail… so unthreatening.

In the funeral parlor, my family gave me some private time.  Time alone for just me and my Dad.

I knelt, prayed, and said “good-bye.”  The next day, after the graveside service had concluded and everyone from his second family had gone home, I paid my final respects just before the cemetery workers filled in his grave.

May God rest his soul!

And, at a time known to God alone, may we finally have that special day together… father and son… on a day that will never end.

In the meantime… healing, as the waters gradually settle.