Monday, April 20, 2015

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Laurence Olivier - Hamlet
                It’s 3:53 am and all is well, except that I can’t sleep.  I’m usually a sound sleeper, and tonight seemed no different – until 3:53 am when I woke up and was pretty much wide awake.  Up to that point, I slept well, perhaps too well, as my body seems to have no interest in going back to sleep anytime soon.  I have no idea why.  I worked hard this weekend, so I should be tired.  I do have a lot going on, but none of it is troublesome to the point of stress or worry.  Unlike Hamlet, I don’t think I’m suffering from anxiety or a guilty conscience that would deprive me of the kind of sleep that leads, perchance, to dream.

                As, you can see, after ten minutes or so of lying in bed with the sure (alas, futile) expectation that I would return to a deep slumber, my mind started racing.  My first thought was that I hadn't blogged for a while and that a post in the morning about sleep and dreaming might be interesting (you can be the judge).  I thought about whether what I ate last night might be keeping me up (I don’t think so) and how a lack of sleep would be particularly challenging on Monday morning as my employer frowns upon napping during work hours.  But once I started composing this post in my head, along with a grocery list and new passwords for my internet accounts, it was over.  My brain was off and running, and sleep was left in the dust at the starting gate.  Dreams seem out of the question.

                Dreams play a major role in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  You’ll recall that Jacob was dreaming of a stairway to heaven long before Led Zeppelin, when God promised that Jacob’s descendants would “be like the dust . . . , spread to the west and the east.” (Genesis 28: 14)  Jacob’s son Joseph (the one with the Technicolor Dream Coat) was a prolific dreamer who saw in a dream that his brothers one day would bow down before him.  He also interpreted Pharaoh’s dream that predicted the great, seven-year famine, allowing the Egyptians to store up inventories of grain and leading the aforementioned brothers to bow down before him.  (Genesis 37; 41)  It was also in a dream that King Solomon received the offer from God that he could not refuse:  “Whatever you ask, I shall give you.”  (1 Kings 3:5)  Solomon asked for wisdom.  At this point, I think I would ask for more sleep. 

                Saint Joseph, in the New Testament, never speaks a single word, but he sure seems to be a sound sleeper.  God told Joseph in a dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife for “it was through the Holy Spirit that the child was conceived.”  (Matthew 1: 20)  I’m not sure that I would have believed that one when I woke up in the morning, but thank God Saint Joseph did.  After Jesus was born, God sent two more dreams to Joseph, one telling him to take his family to Egypt to protect the child from King Herod, and the other telling him that Herod had died so it was safe to return home to Nazareth.  (Matthew 2: 13-15)  Not everyone was as attentive to God’s message-laden dreams as Joseph was, though.  You’ll recall that Pontius Pilate’s wife warned Pilate to “[h]ave nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.”  (Matthew 27: 19)

                It seems that God does some of his best communicating through dreams.  Perhaps it’s the only time he can get us to pay attention.  Now I don’t believe that every dream has some deep, subconscious meaning or that dreams necessarily predict future calamity or riches.  But I do believe that our dreams reflect our hopes and fears and that God communicates with us all the time in whatever ways are best for each of us, including in our dreams.  I know of too many people who have received great comfort in dreams of lost loved ones living happily in heaven to dismiss those dreams as mere coincidence or a trick of the mind.  As for me, I've found on more than one occasion that when I’m stuck on a homily, the answer comes to me in a dream – so much so that I keep a pad next to my bed.  I jot a quick note in the middle of the night and (usually) return to a restful sleep.  Without fail, I’m pleasantly surprised in the morning to find a lucid note that resolves my writer’s block perfectly.  In my view, that’s the Holy Spirit at work.

                Speaking of work, it’s now 6:00 am, my normal waking hour.  The sun is rising, and so must I to kick off my day with a shower and some coffee.  I think I’ll wait to post this essay until after the aforementioned shower and coffee to make sure that it’s as divinely-inspired as it promised to be at 3:53 am.  I pray for a clear head on what will be a busy day and that I won’t be cranky with the poor souls who have to work with me today.  And as the day draws to its close, you can rest assured that I’ll be praying for sleep, perchance to dream. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Take a Hike!

View from Mount Tammany 
                It was a beautiful day for a hike, so I took one.  Actually it was a pre-planned hike that happened to fall on a beautiful day.  You see, three friends and I are planning a new ministry, one involving – you guessed it – hiking.  But it’s not just hiking, anyone can do that.  This ministry focuses on the fact that we humans are both physical and spiritual beings, so the hikes are intended to integrate our physical and spiritual natures by exercising both. 

                I confess that I was a little nervous going into today’s hike.  While I like to hike, and I do hike a fair amount, Eric, Ken and Evan are much more athletic than I am, and I have at least ten years on the next oldest guy.  I was a little afraid that I’d be the rickety old guy that they’d have to take turns carrying back to the car after some crucial joint or ligament failed me.  I’m happy to report, though, that I held my own among the young bucks; the nursing home deposit goes back into the sock drawer.

                Today was our test run for our first hike as a ministry next month.  Ken planned the route – a beautiful three-mile hike on Mount Tammany along the Delaware Water Gap in New Jersey; Eric clocked our time and the difficulty of the route with some fancy exercise gadget; I planned some simple spiritual exercises to do along the way; and Evan brought the toilet paper – I’m not kidding, though I really don’t know why.  Be prepared, I guess.  We left home at 5:30 am, and hit the trail by 6:30.  It was a crisp, sunny morning, and we were practically alone on the trails.  It really was a beautiful day for a hike.

                Mount Tammany is a challenging hike, so our pulse rates jumped pretty quickly.  Well, at least mine did; I don’t know about the others, but I suspect that Eric’s gadget captured all of our bio-metric data and sold it to the Russians.  From time-to-time we’d stop to check out the great views, share some scripture passages (Jesus’ appearance to his disciples along the road to Emmaus) and engage in some pretty heady discussions.  We talked about why we believe in the existence of God, whether the Messiah had to suffer, the meaning of redemption, the challenges we face at work, and why the hell Evan brought toilet paper on a hike – a whole roll, I’ll add, which mercifully he never used.  It was a great morning with three great guys whom I’m blessed to know.  It was physically and spiritually uplifting and exhausting – in a good way.

                So if you’re interested in some no-frills physical and spiritual exercise, stay tuned.  We’re planning our first hike for men in mid-May where we’ll talk about the existence of God.  After that, we hope to have hikes covering all sorts of spiritual topics for women, couples, families and anyone who’s interested.  So if you want to exercise your heart and soul, come take a hike!  You might even find out why Evan brought the toilet paper.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Seventh Word

Leon Bonnat - The Crucifixion
          Almost ten years ago, I was sitting in my office in New York when my colleague, Helen, came in, closed the door and abruptly asked, “Are you afraid to die?”  Without missing a beat, I answered, “No.”  And then, just as abruptly, she asked, “How do I get that way?”  I don’t know what surprised me more:  the fact that Helen asked me that question, or that I responded so quickly.  You see, Helen was a super-confident business woman who had career goals and a plan to achieve them all.  Fear would not have made the top ten list of characteristics that come to mind when I think of Helen.  And as for me, I don’t think I had ever given a moment’s thought to whether I was afraid to die before Helen asked me.  I guess it wasn't high on my list of concerns.  As you can imagine, a long conversation followed, one that talked about faith and the need be in relationship with God.  I've thought of my conversation with Helen many times over the years because I’m just as surprised today as I was then about how quickly I declared that I’m not afraid to die.  That conversation triggered in me a now ten-year long examination of my own faith journey – a journey that has led me to the Seventh Word more times than I can count:  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

          Unfortunately, I never had a good relationship with my father.  Now, I’m not about to paint for you the picture of a cruel tyrant.  That would be untrue and unfair.  My father was a good man; he was very hard-working, generous and very funny.  We simply didn't get along.  Whether we didn't get along because we were so much alike or because we were so different, I don’t know.  We were like oil and water – we didn't mix.  So from an early age the image of God as Father resonated with me.  I found God in the majesty of nature, in quiet walks in the woods, sitting on the front step watching the cars go by, and spending time alone in my room, whether I had been sent there involuntarily or I had gone of my own volition.  I talked to God all the time, and without necessarily realizing it, I developed a relationship with God – a relationship that I could always turn to in difficult times . .  . .

                    Like when I was in fourth grade.  I gained a lot of weight and became the target of bullying at school.  I was harassed and humiliated whenever the teacher left the room and was chased home almost every day after school.  As a result, I avoided friendships and became somewhat of a loner.  I never told my parents because I was too embarrassed that I wasn't tough enough to stand up for myself.  But I told God, and I turned it over to God:  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  By turning it over to God, I found safety, I found solace, and I ultimately found self-worth.  God helped me discover talents that would bring accomplishments that I’m very proud of; God led me to friendships in high school and college that I cherish to this day.  God gave me the tremendous peace that comes with learning to be comfortable in my own skin.

          One month after my twentieth birthday, I faced what would be the greatest challenge to my faith up to that point in my life.  My Uncle Jerry was an important father figure to me.  I had a special and unique relationship with him that I cherished.  So I’ll never forget standing in the doorway of my bedroom with phone in hand as my father called from the hospital to tell me that Uncle Jerry had died of a heart attack that morning.  It was completely unexpected.  He was much too young, and he had no known health issues.  How could God do this to us?  What kind of God would take such a good man in the prime of his life?  I was devastated, and I was very angry with God.  So I told him, and I turned it over to God:  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  By turning it over to God, I found peace, I found comfort and I found faith.  God helped me let go of the anger that welled up inside of me.  God showed me the happy memories of Uncle Jerry that softened the pain of his loss.  God gave me the faith that brings with it the sure hope that Uncle Jerry lives, happy, healthy and eternally loved.

          I have countless examples from my faith journey where turning it over to God changed my life, always for the better.  By turning everything over to God, our worries, our fears, our anger, our sorrows, we free ourselves from the hands of the evil one and find comfort, peace and joy in the hands of God.  That’s what I've found, and I live a much happier life because of it.

          You know, the Seventh Word, Jesus’ last word in Luke’s Gospel, is a prayer – Psalm 31, verse five.  It’s a prayer that Jewish mothers would teach their young children to pray at bedtime.  I can imagine Mary reciting that prayer with Jesus as she tucked him into bed at night.  This prayer is a statement of trust in the goodness of God, trust that by turning everything over to God, “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”  Jesus’ last words weren't cries of desperation and fear, they were words of confidence and trust.  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  And with those words on my lips, I’m not afraid to die.

Reading:  Luke 23: 46.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Carrying Crosses

The Fifth Station: Unison by Sieger Köder
                I can’t believe it’s already Holy Week.  Just yesterday I realized that I hadn't practiced the Exsultet yet – the eight minute chant proclaimed by a deacon at the Easter Vigil to announce the Resurrection.  I usually practice for weeks beforehand, so you may want to bring earplugs to the Easter Vigil.  Generally speaking, a quick Lent is a good thing for me:  I’m really not into the whole fasting thing.  But this year, Lent went by quickly for me largely because I was distracted by so many goings on, some not so good.  If I learned anything this Lent it’s that we’re all carrying crosses. 

It really hit me that Holy Week was upon us when I was assisting at Palm Sunday Mass yesterday.  Catholics also call Palm Sunday “Passion Sunday” because our readings feature the communal proclamation of the Passion of the Lord.  I was especially moved yesterday by the passage where Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service to help Jesus carry his cross to Calvary.  It made me think of all of the people who've helped carry my family’s crosses, especially in recent weeks.  The outpouring of prayers, food, offers of rides and childcare following my wife’s knee injury has been nothing short of overwhelming and incredibly touching.  We always knew we were blessed.  Now we know how really blessed we are.

I also thought of the people who've asked me to help carry their crosses.  It’s a special privilege of ministry to be able to help people in their most difficult times through prayer, counseling and sometimes just our presence.  I’ll confess that when I was first ordained I was terrified of this aspect of ministry, and I avoided it all costs.  I’m not a touchy-feely kind of guy, so I was afraid that I’d do more harm than good.  But the Hound of Heaven kept nipping at my heels, and I finally had no choice – someone needed me in a dark moment of his life, and I couldn't say no.  He wasn't a touch-feely kind of guy either, so we were perfect for each other.  I can’t tell you what a blessing he was (and is) to me.  In fact, every single person who invited me to help carry a cross has been a great blessing in my life in his or her unique way.

We all need help, and we all need to help each other.  Allowing others to help us carry our crosses and helping others carry their crosses is what life is all about.  These acts of love may mean that we have to swallow a little pride and maybe even step out of our comfort zones every once in a while.  But in the end, we’re always blessed with the gift of service – both on the giving end and on the receiving end.  Carrying crosses is what Holy Week is all about.  So this Holy Week, I’m devoting my prayers to all of the Simons in my life and to all who have invited me to be Simon in their lives.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An Irish Blessing

I've always wanted to try my hand at an Irish Blessing, so here’s one in honor of my Irish grandmother, Anna:

May your worries be few and your joys abound;
May your eyes always see the angels around;
May you always be known for what you have given;
And may your last day on earth be your first day in heaven.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

I Resemble that Remark

                I just read that at a religious education conference in Los Angeles yesterday, a prominent Vatican beat reporter referred to bloggers as “losers, drunks and fanatics, wholly deficient in centrist sensibilities.”  I have to say, I've never been so flattered in all my life.  I’d like to say that I resemble that remark, if I thought I could get away with it.

                You see, I've always considered myself pretty boring, and those that know me well have assured me of that on countless occasions.  I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin though, so I don’t mind being boring – no need to post comforting comments telling me that I’m not boring:  I’m OK with it, and I’m not on a fishing expedition for compliments.  That said, while I’ll leave the judgment to others as to whether I’m a loser (no comments please), and I don’t think I’m a drunk (please do comment if you think I am, as I must be in denial), I was kind of excited to be lumped into the category of fanatics who lack centrist sensibilities just for writing a blog.  Little did I know that I was such a radical.

                   Obviously, there are two possibilities for what’s going on here.  Either I completely lack any hint of self-awareness, or this reporter had a bad day and made a broad generalization about bloggers that doesn't hold true for all.  Heaven forfend!  As for the first possibility, while I may not be as boring as I think, I’m pretty sure that I’m not a fanatic because I don’t generate the visceral comments that the more fanatical among us bloggers invite.  For the same reason, I don’t think I’m wholly deficient in centrist sensibilities.  I’ll add that I try hard to express centrist views in my blog in an effort to avoid offending people and to avoid generating the visceral comments that the less centrist among us bloggers invite.   
                So, much to my chagrin, I think the reporter must have just had a bad day and made a broad generalization about bloggers that doesn't hold true for all.  I’m pretty sure he thinks so too since he has apologized for his comment.  That’s good enough for me, even though it means that I may not be even a little less boring than I thought I was.  As I mentioned, this reporter is prominent and I’ll add well-respected.  I read his columns regularly and appreciate his reporting.  We all have bad days, and it’s pretty easy to make broad generalizations that don’t hold true for everyone.  All is forgiven, even if it means that I don’t resemble that remark.   

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Facing the Truth

Christ and the Woman of Samaria,
by Giovanni Lanfranco, c. 1625-8
          There comes a time when every person confronts a life-altering question:  Does God really see everything we do?  The answer to that question can have real consequences on the way we live our lives, a fact that seems to dawn on us at a pretty young age.  I remember asking my parents that question when I was about 5-years old.  My girls sheepishly asked me that question at around the same age, and I remember clearly that neither I nor they were very happy with the answer.  That’s because as Catholics, we believe that the answer to that question is “yes,” which means that we’re accountable to God for all that we do.  Standing before God, we can’t hide behind anonymity or even plausible deniability.  Standing before God, we can’t avoid facing the truth.  The Woman at the Well learned that lesson in today’s Gospel. 

In our Gospel passage, chosen especially for our RCIA candidates as we celebrate the First Scrutiny, a Samaritan woman meets Jesus at Jacob’s well, where he offers her living water, the gift of eternal life.  Her initial response is somewhat incredulous and surly.  But as soon as Jesus confronts her with her questionable history, as soon as she sees and acknowledges who she really is, her tone change because she begins to see Jesus for who he really is.  Once she faces the truth figuratively, she faces the truth literally.  Then, and only then, is she ready to receive Jesus’ gift of living water.  And so it is with us.

          In his classic Bible commentary, William Barclay wrote that “[there] are two revelations in Christianity:  the revelation of God and the revelation of ourselves.  We never really see ourselves until we see ourselves in the presence of Christ.”[1]  Facing the truth can be a humbling experience.  The light of Christ not only illumines our paths; it also reveals who we really are, warts and all.  “There are no wrappings or disguises [that] are protections against the gaze of Christ.  It is his power to see into the depths of the human heart.”[2]  In some aspects of our lives, Jesus’ soul-searching gaze may seem embarrassing or even painful.  But Jesus doesn't only see the wrong we've done; he also sees all the good things we've done.  He understands our true motives, our hopes, our fears and our weaknesses.  Better yet, he sees our potential for the great things we can achieve, offering us forgiveness for our sins, and the opportunity to live holier and happier lives.  Jesus always accepts us for who we really are, and then, he offers to make us even better – he offers us his living water.

          But to receive the living water, we have face the truth, and facing the truth starts with knowing the truth.  We live in a time when fewer and fewer people accept that there’s such a thing as universal truth.  This phenomenon is known as moral relativism:  the belief that what may be the truth for me, may not be the truth for you.  Speaking from my own experience, I seem to plunge head-first into moral relativism when what I want to do is inconsistent with the Truth.  Truth becomes relative for me whenever the universal truth challenges me.  Faced with the truth or, more accurately, faced with being in the wrong in light of the truth, I grumble and complain against God like the Israelites did at Meribah and Massah in our first reading.  Worse yet, I deny God’s universal truth and justify my actions by adjusting the truth to fit my wants and needs.  This act of moral manipulation doesn't make my actions right; it just makes them more convenient.  It’s easier to run away from the truth than to face it. 

So one of the most important lessons I learned in diaconal formation was that, like the Woman at the Well, I had to face the truth.  Faced day after day, lesson after lesson with the Truth of Christ, I slowly began to see who I really am – the good and the bad.  I learned that “although no one will ever grasp the truth in its entirety, it is total truth that we should aim at, not the snatching at fragments which happen to suit ourselves and our own position.”[3]  I learned that I can’t achieve a holier, happier life alone.  I have to face the truth of my weaknesses and turn to Christ for his saving help.  I learned that “[w]e sinners can always find hope, we who flee furiously from God can never run fast enough finally to get away.”[4]  I learned that this hope does not disappoint because “God’s love for us is unconditional, and the greatest witness of this is Christ’s death for our sins in order to redeem us, though we are unworthy and undeserving of his mercy.”[5]  I learned that the living water is always available to us if we’re willing to face the truth. 

So where do we find the truth?  In scripture, in the teachings of the Church and, most importantly, in the well-springs of our hearts – our consciences.  “[Our] conscience is [our] most secret core and [our] sanctuary.  There [we] are alone with God whose voice echoes in [our] depths.”[6]  God speaks to us in our conscience to help us discern right from wrong, to inspire us always to live in truth and to help us choose the lesser of evils when faced with nothing but bad choices.  Our conscience always leads us to the living water.  We just have to listen to it.  As today’s Psalm so beautifully pleads, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”[7]  

          Did I mention that God sees everything we do?  Now, some of us may not mind so much, being that we freely advertise to the world what we ate for breakfast, what level we've achieved on Candy Crush, and how much we hate the snow.  But it’s probably safe to say that we've all done things that we don’t want posted on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.  Be that as it may, we can’t hide from God, and that fact has real consequences on the way we live our lives.  We can deny the truth and live in fear, shame and denial, or we can accept the truth, as challenging as it may be, and strive for a holier and happier life.  The gift of the living water, the fountain of eternal peace and happiness, is waiting to quench our thirst.  But before we can drink, we have to meet Jesus at the well and face the truth.   

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 1 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) at 182.
[2] Barclay at 190.
[3] Barclay at 182.
[4] Robert Barron, Thomas Aquinas:  Spiritual Master (New York, Crossroad Publishing, 2008) at 92.
[5] The Didache Bible, Romans 5:6-11, note (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014) at 1516.
[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church at 1776.
[7] Psalm 95.