Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

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.

Two Simple Words

I am a very sentimental person, and my children often tease me good-naturedly about how easily I can be moved to tears. Honestly, it doesn’t take much, which is why I surprised even myself earlier this year when my old high school was torn down. I passed by the scene during various stages of its demolition but remained dry-eyed and unmoved.

My high school years were complicated and difficult ones both at home and at school. Of course, not all of the memories are painful – far from it. I had good friends, and we shared some experiences I still treasure; but, there was also, throughout that awkward stage of life, an undercurrent of loneliness and uncertainty with which I contended in private. I’m guessing that some who read this essay will understand and relate more so than others.

Thinking back, ninth grade was a particularly intimidating experience. For the previous eight years, I had been in school with the same group of students. We’d grown up together; and, though there were certainly cliques in our Catholic school, they weren’t of the ferocious variety. So, an insecure person like me could still feel some sense of belonging, even among the cooler kids. In ninth grade, however, the playing field changed altogether.

—–

One morning, a few years back, I was praying and asking God for the grace to know God’s presence in my life. Quite unexpectedly, a flood of familiar human faces came to mind, including some I’d not thought about for years. And, I found myself basking in memories of God’s mediated love.

I thought of relatives, friends, teachers, and role models who had made a real difference in my life… people like my little league manager, Mr. Chiulli, who was determined to teach me not to bail out of the batter’s box when a pitch came inside. This good and dignified man actually sprawled face-down in the dirt behind me to hold my ankles in place during batting practice. (His noble plan back-fired, however, when I was hit by a pitch because I couldn’t move my ankles to get out of the way.)

That morning in prayer, I also thought of Domenic Marino…

—–

My former parochial school companions each handled the transition to public high school in his/her own way. In our new social environment, many remained my steady friends while others, perhaps under the weight of peer pressure, strategically distanced themselves. A handful started passing right by me in the halls as if I’d become invisible over the summer. Honestly, that hurt.

One of my old classmates, Domenic, seemed to handle the change with particular grace. Handsome, confident, charismatic, and blessed with great athleticism, he would soon become the quarterback of the high school football team and a leader among his/our peers.

—–

Gym class strikes fear in the hearts of many high school students. Slow to mature physically, I found gym a particular trial. If we were playing softball or whiffle ball, I could hold my own because I was a pretty good hitter. (Thank you, Mr. Chiulli!) Otherwise though, all bets were off.

At the top of the hierarchy of horrors was the dreaded obstacle course. Diabolically conceived, the obstacle course included an array of activities – e.g., climbing a rope to the ceiling of the gym, sinking a basketball shot, and maneuvering through various gymnastics apparatus – designed to showcase athletic ineptitude. That each student was expected to perform this feat alone (in front of everyone) and in a race against the clock only compounded the potential shame.

Just a notch below the obstacle course, for me at least, was any activity related to track and field, especially a long footrace. I was a very fast runner but only for short distances. I have asthma that was rather severe in my younger days; consequently, any race beyond a 50-yard dash would quickly leave me gasping for breath at the back of the pack.

One day, my ninth grade gym teacher announced that class would be held that day on the track around the perimeter of the football field. My heart sank. We’d be racing in small groups, running a complete lap around the track. If memory serves, I believe the distance was 440 yards.

When my name was called, I reluctantly took my place in one of the lanes. One of those running with me – I’ll call him Bill – was among the more popular students in our class. Although a decent athlete, the length of the race would prove a challenge for him as well since he was rather stockily built.

When the gym teacher yelled “Go,” I held my own only for a few seconds. Then, decidedly short of breath, I began to lag behind. Bill did too.

The race seemed interminable. By the halfway point, my lungs were burning and my legs felt like lead. I seriously considered stopping but feared the reaction from the teacher… and my peers. Bill was struggling too; but, we both kept going.

At one point, after the others in the race had completed the course, I began to hear our classmates both laughing and hollering their support for Bill. In retrospect, that was perhaps my most conspicuously lonely experience in high school.

As we lumbered neck-and-neck around the final turn, one lone, loud voice suddenly called out support for me. “You can beat him, Steve! Come on! You can beat him!” I looked up and saw Domenic cheering me on from the sidelines. His encouragement meant more to me than I can express.

No, I didn’t win the race, but I did finish just a few steps ahead of Bill. It was my Rocky moment. Domenic smiled and nodded.

—–

Various labels – geek, nerd, or misfit – might aptly be used to describe my high school persona. One important person, however, used different words – two simple words.

Once, I met Domenic in the hallway between classes. As we walked together, a student I didn’t know, who was going in the opposite direction, asked him in a tone intended to diminish me, “Hey, Domenic, who’s that you’re walking with?” Without hesitation, he decisively replied, “My friend!”

—–

I haven’t seen Domenic in many years. And, he may have no memory of his gestures of kindness and support that meant so much to me at that vulnerable time of life; but, he will always live in my mind and heart as an instrument of God’s love… as one of my heroes… and, as my friend.

—–

We meet so many good people in our day-to-day lives, often never knowing if their lungs are burning, their legs are heavy, and they’re questioning whether or not they’ll finish the race.

What an awesome opportunity it is to be a friend!

Bridging the Chasm

Once recognized, few things weigh more heavily on the human heart than a missed opportunity. Likewise, the related and unanswerable “what if?” is counted among our most perplexing questions.
​In the winter of 1995, I committed to speak at Chapel Talks, an adult faith-formation program being offered at the time in my parish. My topic was to be the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), a well-known and tragic example of habitually missed opportunities.

​Shortly after agreeing to speak, I was scheduled to travel to Philadelphia for a professional conference. Being a homebody at heart, such trips were often an occasion of loneliness for me. This time, however, I was actually looking forward to the time away. While my days in Philly promised to be quite busy with meetings of one kind or another, my evenings would largely be my own; thus, I anticipated having ample time to immerse myself in the story of Lazarus and the rich man as I prepared for my upcoming talk.

​When the time came to travel, I brought two books with me – my Bible (of course) and Be Not Afraid, a short but intensely challenging book written by Jean Vanier, a living saint, who was the founder of L’Arche.

In the book, Vanier specifically speaks of Lazarus and the rich man; but, he also elaborates, more generally, about the “two worlds” they symbolize – the worlds of misery and comfort, respectively. Further, he describes a “huge wall” that keeps the two worlds safely separated and explains that the comfortable often “throw money or things over the wall” but carefully avoid any direct contact. “The last thing they want,” Vanier explains, “is to see and touch.”

Hmmm.

Holding winter meetings in northern locations is always a risky proposition. On Saturday, my second full day in Philly, a 9-inch snowstorm blanketed the city. After the storm passed, temperatures plummeted such that Sunday’s high never made it out of the teens, and the evening and overnight hours saw temperatures drop into the single digits. It was brutally cold!

Early on Sunday morning, I asked the concierge about Catholic churches within walking distance of the hotel. My intention was to attend Mass prior to the day’s slate of meetings. He told me that there was indeed a Catholic church within a few blocks and advised me to leave by the hotel’s side door as that would be the exit closest to my route.

​Clinging awkwardly to a street map with my gloved hands, I left by the hotel’s side door and turned right toward the church. I quickly noticed two things – the biting wind that brought tears to my eyes and made viewing the map a challenge and the Uno’s restaurant situated right next door to the hotel. Since I’ve always been an Uno’s fan, I made an on-the-spot decision about dinner. When the day’s business was done, I’d have pizza in my room with Lazarus and the rich man.

​That evening, I returned to the hotel, readied a work space on the desk in my room, and called Uno’s to order a large pizza and two soft drinks. (If inspiration came, I wanted sufficient fuel for a long and productive night.) A few minutes later, bundled against the cold, I headed once more for the side door of my fine hotel, totally unaware that I was about to enter a living parable.

​Walking out the door, I glanced briefly to my left and noticed a man huddled on the sidewalk grates adjacent to the hotel. The heat rising from the grates must have offered him some relief from the cold… but I’m sure it was nowhere near enough. I quickly turned away and marched in the opposite direction to pick up my dinner.

​On the way back, the man on the grates was directly in my view. A knapsack, likely containing all of his possessions, was by his side. And, I noticed him periodically stepping in place, left-right-left-right, no doubt attempting to bring feeling back to his frozen feet. As I turned to enter the hotel with my food, our eyes briefly met, and I gave a slight nod in his direction.

Back inside – safely behind the “huge walls” of my luxurious hotel – there was blessed heat, but it offered little relief from what now seemed an interior chill. As I ate my pizza and tried to read and think about Lazarus and the rich man, I felt an unmistakable conviction in my heart. Lazarus was right outside.

​Have you ever debated with God? I did that night. God’s intention that I share my food with the man on the grates could not have been clearer, but I resisted in a variety of selfish, petulant ways.

​“I’ve worked hard all day and deserve some uninterrupted time. Further, I have work to do – Your work, in fact – so I need to stay focused on the task at hand. And, by the way, how can I even be certain that the man on the grates is homeless? Maybe he was on his way home and decided to warm himself for just a few minutes. I might actually insult him by offering him food. Are You trying to embarrass me… and him?”

At that moment, the man on the grates was inconvenient… but, I knew the call of love.

Finally yielding, I closed the pizza box, put the unopened can of Pepsi back in its bag, grabbed my room key, and headed outside.

​The man knowingly watched my approach. As I drew near, he returned my earlier nod and then waited for me to initiate conversation.

​“Have you had dinner?” I asked.

​“No sir, I haven’t.” he replied respectfully.

​Shivering, for I’d not worn my coat, I handed him the pizza box and the bag. “It’s not much,” I said, “just half a pizza and a drink, but you’re welcome to it.”

​“Thank you, sir!” he said, immediately reaching for a slice.

​“You’re welcome! And, God bless you!” I offered, and then went inside.

​If I felt any self-congratulatory impulse, it quickly receded. In fact, by the time I arrived back at my room, I knew without question that my response had fallen well short of God’s intention. God wanted human contact, communion. In Vanier’s words, God wanted me “to see and touch.” Instead, I had “thrown a pizza over the wall.”

I prayed with urgency. To my shame, I had to admit to myself and to God that leaving the hotel without a jacket had been intentional. How could I stay to talk when I wasn’t dressed for the savage cold?

​I definitely experienced God urging me to return to the man on the grates, this time, wearing my coat, hat, and gloves. I neither hesitated nor debated. Rather, I dressed quickly and headed for the elevator.

​Before venturing outside, I stopped at the coffee shop in the hotel lobby to buy two cups of coffee. One I left black and, to the other, I added just a bit of cream; he could have his choice. I stuffed a couple of sugar packets and a stirrer in my coat pocket, took a deep cleansing breath, and exited by the side door, the door near the grates, for the fourth and final time that day.

​And he was gone…

​I stood there in silence for quite some time, suddenly oblivious to the cold. Then, chastened, I returned to my room… and to my task. Later that same month, I introduced my Chapel Talks audience to the man on the grates, my personal Lazarus, and to the “rich man” standing at their podium.

What if?

I have no idea what might have happened if we’d had a chance to talk that night. My sense is that I would have gained far more than he, but I’ll never know for sure. I am, however, keenly aware of the lesson I learned from his absence, which is also the lesson, I believe, of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. As long as we live, there is no chasm too wide or too deep to be bridged, no “huge wall” too steep to be scaled, if only we can love without prejudice or fear.

​As you read this, in your kindness, you may be tempted to console me. If so, please know that I no longer bear a burden of guilt over this matter. In a strange way, the missed opportunity has proven to be its very own opportunity, which (hopefully) I have seized, by the grace of God.

Be not afraid.

“Thanks… Giving”

(The names have been changed in this true story, below.)

—–

I once attended a weekday Mass at a Catholic parish where I was working at the time.  As I took a seat in the small side-chapel where daily Mass was typically celebrated, I quickly recognized the signs that this would be a funeral liturgy.  Honestly, I thought about leaving, but I finally decided to stay.  I will always be grateful that I did.

A few minutes after the Mass began, someone noisily entered the vestibule just to the left of the chapel.  Some persistent rustling sounds followed, and chagrined faces began turning to look for the cause of this disruption.  Suddenly, the door to the chapel swung open and a homeless woman, carrying her belongings in a few small bags, maneuvered her way inside.  There was a hush.

At first she just stood there, apparently sizing up the situation.  Then, she asked quite loudly: “Is this John’s funeral?”  The priest who was celebrating Mass informed her that it was indeed John’s funeral, to which she responded: “I have one thing to say!”  There was another hush, a bit more uneasy this time.  Had John offended her somehow?  Was an accusation forthcoming?  Her next words broke the awkward silence.  “He was the best cab driver in this city!”  And then she was quiet again.

Smiles began to appear.  The priest thanked the woman for sharing her sentiments and invited her to stay.  She declined, saying: “Nope.  I said what I needed to say.”  And she turned and left.

What a wonderful eulogy!  What a blessing for John’s family!  What an amazing way of thanks… giving!