Saturday, March 31, 2007

Up, Up and Away!

Come on, America, you know you love Superman. You know you want to fly, be impervious to pain, have the strength of will to always seek the Good. I love the fact that the Man in Blue is back, and however the film turns out (we'll see it in 46 hours and 19 minutes, or... Saturday), I'm sure the iconic qualities about the son of Jor-El will be clear as crystal. He's Christological! No denying it! How 'bout this line from the new film's teaser trailer: The voice of Marlon Brando, Superman's father from the 1978 film: "Even though you've been raised as a human being you are not one of them. They can be a great people Kal-El. They wish to be, they only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son." Wow. Now, this rather explicit typology is stirring up the anger of a few people in the secular press. They are upset that this comic icon is being morphed with "religion." To which I respond, how could it not? We are a fallen race, a wounded band of travellers in a world that is dying, and we long for redemption. We seek Truth though all we see here is mingled with lies. We want the Good, though all we see here is compromised with evil. We pant after a Beauty that is infinite, though all we taste here is destined to decay. So we create myths and stories and fairy tales with superhuman characters that can lift us up out of our own weakness.But the Gospel is the true fairy tale. Here God steps into Our Story, and beyond our wildest dreams, he becomes one of us. And this is the best part! Jesus is not a Man of Steel, but a Man of Flesh.... a Man of Sorrows....
Jesus vs Superman? Remember the debates we had as kids (I suppose this was more a boy thing. Ladies?) "Who could beat who in a contest... Batman or Spiderman, Torch or Iceman, Aqua Man or Green Lantern?" Who the heck is Green Lantern anyway? Invariably, some kid would bring up Superman and the debate was over. Come on, no fair! He's SUPERMAN! Well, fine. He is super, but here's where the Gospel has these guys beat. It's the true fairy tale. God really steps into Our Story, and beyond our wildest dreams, he becomes one of us. Jesus is not a Man of Steel, but a Man of Flesh! A Man of Sorrows... and this is exactly how he saves us, not by deflecting bullets off of his chest, but by taking them right into his heart. He is the Pierced One, and as St. Bernard says "The piercing nail has become a key to unlock the door, that I may see the good will of the Lord. And what can I see as I look through the hole? Both the nail and the wound cry out that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself… Through these sacred wounds we can see the secret of his heart, the great mystery of love…" - St. Bernard Throughout history, many have fallen into the trap of seeing Jesus as a kind of superman, impervious to suffering. Sure, he died for us to save us, but he was GOD. How could he feel pain? For the answer to that one, let's read Isaiah 53: He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, One of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned, and we held him in no esteem. Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, While we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; But the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all. Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth.

Don't Mess with Star Wars!

I decided to show the classic Return of the Jedi in my study hall yesterday. What the heck, Easter break is here, and it's Star Wars for the love of Yoda!!

Watching this classic brought me back to my own high school days. Actually the saga spanned throughout my elementary education and well into high school. We had to wait about three years for each sequel! What patience we had then! I could tell you some amazing trivia. I knew the actors and actresses behind the costumes, I knew the space systems, the creatures. I owned those classic action figures. Yes indeed, those were the salad days....

Now Return of the Jedi had "state of the art graphics." We were blown away by the speeder-bike chase, the "new" Death Star, and the wild alien creatures that came creeping out of the mind of George Lucas. How 'bout that Sarlacc Pit? Nasty! Star Wars was COOLNESS PERSONIFIED.

As I was reflecting on this, I was suddenly sucked back from my 80's nostalgia and into the present 2007 "everything's digitally enhanced is that a real person\city\landscape I can't tell the difference anymore" world. One of my 16 year old students mumbled "This is like a bad YouTube video."


Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they say!

A bad YouTube video? OK, in all seriousness, compared to today's special effects, sure, the Ewoks were a little cheesy, the Death Star did look like a big firecracker blowing up in space (would there be sparks?), and what was up with the Admiral Lobster Head Guy?

But we suspended our disbelief, we got lost in the story. And that was the missing link between the old school Star Wars movies and the new ones, so loaded with computer generated images that the actors were mostly working in front of a blue screen staring at nothing: the missing link was a good story.

I was quickly comforted after this blow to my beloved Star Wars by another student, who nailed it on the head; "If they had this story with the new effects, those movies would've been sick." (this means "exceptionally spectacular, Mr. Donaghy!")

So, wake up America! Let's get back to those epic tales of good versus evil, cheering for the underdog, and the crushing complexity of the hero who learns to let go (finally!), putting others before himself. We've been super-soaked by special effects and we're drowning in a blue pool of virtual reality. The kids are suffering from a numbing of the mind... a snuffing out of the sense of wonder. We need an appeal to the real, a drama we can enter into ourselves. We need to look and see that the best movie ever made is you and me. The REAL LIFE! And also we need Peter Jackson to make The Hobbit!! Yeah!!


PS - Speaking of Star Wars, many of us hoped the latest "episodes"
would have recaptured the glory of the originals for a new generation,
and we were sorely disappointed. George must have had an accident
involving wet linoleum and the hanging of a clock. For a good laugh at
this sad reality, enjoy the following video wondering what the "new"
Lucas would have done if he directed the Lord of the Rings.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

What's Wrong With You?

There is a moving scene (among many) in the film The Fellowship of the Ring where the character of Aragorn, known as Strider, struggles with his own mortal weakness. In the quiet of Rivendell, in a dimly lit chamber where ancient memories are held sacred, he gazes on a painting of his ancestor, Isildur. It was he who in ages long past cut the Ring from the Dark Lord's finger and saved Middle-Earth from defeat. But it was by that same Ring that Isildur himself fell into weakness and death. The memory of that fatal flaw has haunted Aragorn his entire life.

As he turns to the shadows in this fog of fear and shame. He sees his love, Arwen approach and she speaks a word of confidence to him. "Why do you fear the past? You are Isildur's heir, not Isildur himself. You are not bound to his fate."

The future King replies "The same blood flows in my veins. The same weakness..."

What is it that "leads us into temptation"? Why do we so often do the evil that we hate, and not do the good we know we should do? The answers to questions about sin, suffering, death, neuroses and psychoses are all bound up and tightly packed in the simple phrase "Original Sin." The sheer density of this reality is like the weight of galaxies. It's like our collapsed star, a black hole in the human universe.

Original Sin is the sin at our origins. And it's real. Painfully real. Other dogmas and doctrines in the Church sometimes need more expounding, more unfolding for us to see them more clearly. For the doctrine of Original Sin, we only need to look in the mirror, or to read a newspaper. Before we are tempted to dismiss it as something irrelevant to our everyday lives, another doctrine of the Church that's all "spiritual and stuff," let's pause.... if we miss this, it will be impossible for us to ever truly know ourselves, others, or this beautiful but broken creation that has been dying and rising with us all our lives.

In the beginning, with the sin of Adam and Eve, there was a terrible break, a mortal wound that caused four major fractures in our relationships as human persons. These four Original Wounds are still experienced by every son or daughter of Adam and Eve. They are breaks in our relationships with God, within ourselves, with each other, and with creation. We all feel them, we all experience them in some fashion every day. They are our ancestral heritage. They are in the blood (which is why we need the blood of Jesus to be poured out for us in a Divine transfusion - that's the Mass).

Think of your life. It's a good examination of conscience every day to look at these four areas and to ask the question, "Have I been healed?" The good news is, we have the cure today. The blood of Jesus is with us. His Sacred Heart is here! The organ is ready to be transplanted within the hollow of our chest. New life, a strong heart, and reconciliation.... finally!

In Jesus ALONE is this reconciliation made… In Jesus ALONE is real union and communion. Has this truth really sunk in for us? Peace and reconciliation will NOT come from politics, the Republicans, the Democrats… economics, a new haircut, or a new job… a new car, a new relationship… It's Jesus. It really is.

How strong a reaction are you having to this statement right now? Is it an "amen" or a whimper? A shrug of the shoulders or a surge of the heart? For me, it's getting easier every day. I'm getting acclimated to this new heart and this new blood that comes to me every time I go to Mass. Sometimes it cuts. He's that divisive. He's a two-edged sword that slices us through like a surgeon's knife. But this is the open heart surgery we need, or we'll die. If we don't have His Heart, than we suffer those mortal wounds and we'll never accomplish our own mission or finish the journey...

Arwen the Beautiful held Aragorn's weathered face in her hands. He was a Ranger and had seen many dangers in the wide world. She whispers "Your time will come. You will face the same evil, and you will defeat it.... The Shadow does not hold sway... Aragorn. Not over you and not over me."

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Do You Want Dessert?

Silly question, I know. But this Lent, I made a rash decision: no snacks between meals, no desserts (except, of course, on special occasions, feasts, solemnities, and Sundays, which officially begin with the vigil on Saturday).


I really like dessert. And dessert likes me. But let's get to the Heart of Things, because that's what this blog is all about.

In the realm of the spirit, which is of course intimately joined to the body, I think we can often fall into a "dessert spirituality." We want prayer to taste good. We want our time with God to be sweet, to cleanse the palate as it were, and to make our mood fresh, clean and clear.... "Ah yes, here's my list of wants and needs, Lord. And yes, whipped cream and a cherry on top would be great."

But most of the time, I think our Loving Father wants us to have a "meat and potatoes" spirituality. Solid stuff..... stick to your ribs kinda food. Better still, He calls us into a "desert spirituality" more than a "dessert spirituality." He longs for us to depend solely on Him, to step out on a journey into Him, to be fed by Him alone, and not to be weighed down by the baggage of excessive comfort. A mature Christian faith is called out of comfort and into the cross. Into the deep and into the mystery!

"It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today's world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but 'Christians at risk'."
- Pope John Paul II

God leads us into the desert. If we listen, and we let Him take us there, we will see that this "diet" and this fast are for our own good. To make us strong, to be a real gymnasium for the soul. So are we tough enough? Are we ready for a hike into this wilderness? Remember that He has gone before us even here. We have our guide, we have the water of grace, and the markers on this trail are in the shapes of little crosses.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Mary's Open Heart

Today the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. It actually fell on Sunday, but that's Resurrection Day, so it got the Biblical Bump. Fine by me... because a solemnity in Lent means all fasts are off! Woohoo! Bring on the snacks! It's cool to be Catholic!

Just shy of nine months from now, we'll celebrate the fruit of the womb that was conceived this day; the Word Made Flesh! Miracle of Miracles!

Now sometimes we can see Mary's yes as such an easy thing, all roses and sweetness. Really, how difficult would it be to raise the Perfect Son? But let's remember that Mary was a true Hebrew, and as such she would know the prophets and the prophecies by heart. She knew her people were searching for the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. Mary had the tender heart to see that the Messiah would be this Suffering Servant that Isaiah alluded to, not a military man that the militant were hoping for.

So the shadow of the Cross fell over the cradle Joseph had built. In the light of this truth, Mary's YES becomes so much more powerful, so much more of a sacrifice and a death to self. Her openness to God and to the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit was closer to the openness of the wound that Jerome Miller describes below (After all, it was her heart that Simeon the priest said would be pierced through even as she cradled the newborn Messiah in her arms that day).

This is a reflection I've had for years, stashed in my files of Spiritual Gems. I don't know where I first found it or who it was who first gave it to me to ponder. But hear it now with the vision of Mary behind it all. Sweet Mother of Sorrows, pray for us! The path to wholeness and holiness, I believe, must begin with this radical vulnerability before God and the mystical movements of life....

"A more essential condition is the willingness to be devastated, by which I mean the willingness to let the mortal wounds penetrate one's heart so deeply that it is broken completely open by it. This is, I think, a pregnant image. For it suggests that the deepest lessons the heart has to deliver to us become accessible only when it is ruptured. It is anguish that makes the heart an open book because the wound it causes pierces all the way through to the core. These are terrible lessons, the kind that fill one with nausea. We like to think our lives would be happier if we could find a way to avoid learning them; but the only way to do that is to close one's heart and keep it closed, so that nothing gets in or out of it - to make oneself a heart of stone. It is terrible to put into words the one real alternative to this avoidance. But I see no way to get around what seems to be the harshest, the most merciless truth about the human heart - I mean the fact that, to keep it open, once it has been pierced, one must allow it to be an open wound."

- Jerome Miller

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Planet Earth - The New Series on Discovery Channel

This is promising to be a sweet tribute, as far as I'm concerned, to the Creator's genius and to the myriad beauties of this Blue World of ours! More trailers to come...

Cutting Out the Sarcasm

Craig Ferguson, the late night funny man, takes a strong turn away from attacking the vulnerable. A beautiful confession about human weakness, his struggle with alcoholism, and getting sober.... (laced, of course, with laughs.... some crude, some hilarious, be warned).

Friday, March 23, 2007

Hush Ya'self....

By the Sea - William Wordsworth

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free;
The holy time is quiet as a nun

Breathless with adoration; the broad sun

Is sinking down in its tranquillity;

The gentleness of heaven is on the sea:

Listen! the mighty Being is awake,

And doth with his eternal motion make

A sound like thunder - everlastingly.

This is a piece of Wordsworth's poem that first grabbed me in my college days. Doesn't it make you want to, in the words from a recent Paul Simon song, "sit down, shut up, think about God"?

Oh the power and the beauty and the sometimes awkwardness of SILENCE! Before Easter, in the next two weeks, can we find some time to be still in it? To wallow in silence for a good 30 minutes, or 20? There are deep mysteries within and without every heart. Can we drink from that chalice given to us by the Father in a wordless act of prayer and adoration?

Silence is GOLDEN. Catherine Doherty once said "Silence can be the greatest expression of love. Such silence is deep, unfathomable, and endless. It already partakes of eternity. Such silence touches the face of God..." Listen to the poets, the mystics, the saints. No need for fear here, because the Loving Father is closer to us than we know. Just walk out into silence and see what happens. Peer into the quiet pool of your heart when the water is still and see what you see.

Perhaps it will take some time before the last ripples of distraction dissipate, but let's be patient (that's why a good session of silence takes a solid 20 minutes or more). Maybe walking, sitting, driving... and remember, it's not a "library" silence, not a vacuum, or a pall laying over everything and suffocating the heart. It's a pregnant stillness. It's the rhythm of breathing. It's the ancient movement of exitus-reditus, the sending out and the return that is the very life-breath of the created world.

What will we discover in this place of silence?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Jimmie vs. Creepy Bunny Man

When you stand back (or sit back on a bench like I did last night at the Cherry Hill Mall) and look at the wacky stuff we do in our culture, you might wonder why things aren't actually worse than they already are.

Case in point...
We had a FANTASTIC dinner and conversation with mom last night in NJ (Bahama Breeze, 5 stars!). Afterwards, Rebecca and I just popped into the mall for a "quick walk." As I was waiting for my lovely bride to exit a store, a six foot rabbit (Harvey?) walked past me and disappeared behind a large outcropping of plastic plants.

I was in the mall's "oasis" area - this is where you can find large palm trees, various ferny plants, goats, and water coalesced in fountains or in pools, which are full of coins (why do we throw our money into their stores AND into these pools?). In the "oasis" you can hide from the heat of great sales and the storms of intense shoppers, finding peace, and sometimes large rabbits. I guess I had forgotten all about the Easter Bunny thing. Or maybe I repressed it. Well, here he/she/it was, hopping back into my life, and into little Jimmie's life too. Poor kid.

There was a huge Bunny Throne Room set up in the "oasis." Here kids could come and pay homage to the Great Rabbit. The throne had all sorts of colored streamers on it, and plastic flowers and gummi worms. Jimmie's dad strode confidently through the fernage and exchanged a secret sign with the Easter Bunny's henchwoman, who was crouched behind a podium, clutching a neon whirly toy in her hand like a weapon (This torture device was later used to make Jimmie, how did she say it?.... "smile.")

"Smile, Jimmie! Smile!" They danced and jumped around, the dad and the Nasty Sidekick Lady, waving the torture device like a dagger. I thought of the old western movies where the bad guy's yelling "DANCE!" Pow! Blam! Then it got serious, because Jimmie for some strange reason, caged in the furry embrace of Creepy Bunny Man and being taunted with a neon swirly to "smile" wasn't smiling.

"Now why don't he smile?" growled the Henchwoman.
"Daddy!" Jimmie cried.
"Smile, James! For the love of all that's holy!! Just smile!!"

Whew.... spring and all. I know we get excited about the changes in the weather to come. I know rabbits are cute and candy is sweet. But the Easter Bunny is like... cute on steroids. It's like a Cute Monster that's grown out of its cage. I wonder if the things that are holy and sacred, like the true meaning of Easter and Christmas, I wonder if once we take away the holy we're left with a mutated substitute? And we feel we have to keep feeding it every year. But it doesn't have to be this way!

We wonder why kids start to doubt their faith and question us as they grow. Why not? Think of all the things that peel away as they grow up; Tooth Fairies, Santa Claus, Easter Bunnies.... who can blame them when they ask "Is God for real or just made up?"

Hmmm, we just hit deep waters. To be continued! In the meantime, "Smile America! SMILE!!"

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Spring Cleaning

Are you a back roads kinda person, or a main roads kinda person? Maybe a bit of both?

I had a great commute when I was studying for my associates degree. I'd stick to the back roads for as long as I could on that almost hour long drive; Georgetown to Sykesville, Chesterfield to 130, and sometimes Route 68, in the days before it was cluttered by golf courses and condos.
You see more life on the back roads. More trees, more fields, more bizarre lawn art. And there's always the added bonus of those little mom and pop convenience stores (the ones that carry "Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies"... deeeelicious!).

I was on such a back road drive one day, in my classical-music-and-opera-are-actually-amazing phase, when I was seized by a flash of beauty. At the exact moment that Puccini's "E Lucevan Le Stella" was roaring from my radio, I was passing a farmer's field where soil was being peeled back by a rusty old tractor. It was the springtime of the year. The smell of earth lifted up like incense, just as a flock of white gulls hovered above the farmer in an earthy paraclesis. What a sight! The music was deep and mournful, the earth open and naked under heaven, and the mystical attentiveness of the birds over it all; the scene breathed like a sacrament.

I think we have seasons, like Lent, when Jesus wants to stir things up in us. Perhaps we've gone fallow as a field and the fruits of our labors have become a little scattered. Maybe the soil of our souls has grown old and cold from a winter away from Him and we need tilling.

Christ is the Divine Gardener, the Tiller of the Soil of our hearts. If we let ourselves be open to Him, then He can literally plant new life in us. He cares so deeply for us. He will show us the roots and stones that are causing us trouble. Sometimes we can move them together, sometimes He asks that we move around them. It takes patience. But the Holy Spirit will be working in us as well, hovering just above us, carefully removing the sin and the roots of sin, as the birds clear fields of what does not belong.

If we let Him have His way, what a fruitful harvest it will be!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Saint Joseph and Fatherhood

I've heard it said that the crisis in the Church today, the crisis in vocations, and the crisis in the family, can all be traced back to a crisis in fatherhood; a cultural confusion regarding just what it means to be a man.

Interesting. Think of the failure of Adam in the beginning, to guard and protect Eve from the serpent. He chose silence rather than to cry out to God for help against the foe. He gave in and grasped at the forbidden fruit, rather than to suffer the bullet, to stand in the gap and offer his life for his bride. Men ever since find it easier to lust than to love, to take rather than receive the gift of the Bride. To cling to life rather than lay it down for others.

In the present state of affairs, in a society that thinks the only "sin" is intolerance and the greatest virtue is "niceness", the drive, the passion, and the initiation of the gift of self that is inscribed in the very soul of a man is looked down upon.

Our culture contracepts it. It robs men of their spiritual patrimony, and relegates the drive to a merely biological level. And so we say "boys will be boys" but they are not. Men are turned into animals. Lust is to stoop to the level of the beasts. Love, real love, is to rise to the heights of holiness. But this radical gift of self is seen as so... "radical." Nobody loves like that anymore, do they? It's so extreme. So selfless! What's in it for THEM? So women are tempted to settle, and with no damsels in distress, the knight's armor gathers dust, and rust, and men forget their higher call.

The confusion about the spiritual dimension of a man to become a gift for others has caused an identity crisis in the Church. It has, in a very real sense, emasculated the mission of the gospel. When we take away the masculinity of Jesus, the passion of this God-Man who turned over tables in His Father's House, cleansing it of compromise, then we are left with the Jesus who is nice. The anemic, soft-skinned nice guy who just luvs, luvs, luvs and never mentions the cross. But this is not the Christ in the gospels. The carpenter's son who alone had the gall to call the religious leaders of his day a "brood of vipers." The One Who laid down his life for us devils, just where the old Adam failed.

Today, we the bride still dialogue with that serpent. And we say to the Christs of today, those fathers in the line of apostolic authority, "Don't impose your beliefs on me!" And so some priests and bishops don't even open their mouths to challenge us. They stand silent in the garden of the world as we reach again and again for that forbidden fruit. I believe we must let fathers be fathers, and not sterilize the life-giving gift of the gospel. If we stop the fathers from giving up their lives for us, from giving us the whole gift of the gospel, then how will the new life of grace ever grow within us?

St. Joseph, pray for us! At a word you leapt out in faith, guarding and protecting the Woman and the Child within her womb. You loved Mary, putting her first, and before you knew the truth, you were willing to take the "shame" of her unmarried pregnancy onto yourself. Now you are in God; spinning and swirling in the heart of the Great Dance, and we need to learn your steps of self-giving. Pray for us, St. Joseph... pray for all fathers now. Make our lives fruitful again!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Saint Patrick's Day

“St. Patrick suffered mightily at the hands of the Irish,
but rather than seek revenge, he came back to share his faith.”
- Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, O.F.M.Cap.

From the Confessions of St. Patrick:

I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many. My father was Calpornius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest, of the village Bannavem Taburniæ; he had a country seat nearby, and there I was taken captive. I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation... And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.....

And there I saw in the night the vision of a man... coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were, ''The voice of the Irish'' ... and as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice - they were those beside the Wood of Voclut, which is near the Western Sea - and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: ''We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more.''

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sometimes "Stinky" is Good

Years ago, I spent some time working as a groundskeeper at a beautiful garden estate in New Hampshire. It was a lush little plot of earth set right on the rugged New England coast, a stone's throw from the sea. Every day I'd drive the 'ole Chevy "Eurosport" Wagon (aptly named the Eggplant) down the winding ocean road to the gardens, to a place that was crammed with life: dozens of hybrid roses, delicate iris, a greenhouse packed with bougainvillea, cacti, ferns and flowers. The sea air was rich and fertile, pouring over us and into us from the Atlantic. The music of the waves was always soft and near. The irony was that in the midst of all this life, I was going through a kind of death.

It was a kind of "dark night of the soul." A deep fog surrounded me then, and life seemed suddenly like a pathless void. So, finding no clear path, I took to the soil. I tossed hay and trimmed roses. We hauled dirt and cut grass, kept the greenhouse green, and the plants well watered. It turns out the simple rhythm of the work in that rose garden was just what I needed. Sometimes I can think too much.

On the way home one day, I found a little church, coincidentally named for St. Therese, the Little Flower. It was right off the ocean road, just minutes from work! So I'd pop in time and again and lay my troubled heart on the altar. "Where am I going? What do I do now?" Things never got any clearer, but there was at least this daily act of the will to "lay things at His feet." Sometimes I think that's all we can do; like little kids with shoelaces all knotted up from running around, we go to Daddy to fix it. Some knots take longer to work out than others.

I see now His timing was perfect. I spent a few months with my brother, which was priceless. We had a rundown little apartment we jokingly named the "Palace," right next door to Sander's Fish Market. Right upstairs was the coldest, meanest old lobsterman you ever laid eyes on. He had his traps all over the backyard, never said a word to us. We called him "Mr. Happy."

Walks at night along the river between Maine and New Hampshire, to a pub for a pint or just out for fresh air, were so good for the soul. And our conversations were bonding. I'm so grateful for those days when the younger brother became the older. Looking back, there were lessons all around me. I was amazed to learn about the practice of trimming the rose bushes at just such a precise angle to prevent mold, or the covering of them with thick burlap when a chill was due. Don't we need to do as much, trimming our desires, and knowing when to conceal and when to reveal our hearts in the midst of this often cold world?

My favorite lesson might seem the most ridiculous. In the early days of spring, we covered those scented rosy beauties with..... horse poop. Now that's a fun job. What a parable there is in this one. Here's a flower famous the world over for its scent, and I'm putting horse poop at its roots? The lesson - Sometimes the stinky stuff is just what we need to help us grow. This puts a new twist on the experience of having a crappy day! Maybe we should actually wish for it! Any gardener will tell you that dark, smelly compost is so often what generates the most fertile, nutrient-rich soil. And horse manure for a good gardener is like gold... nuggets.

The question then, as we continue the Lenten journey: what's crappy in your life? What's the poop with you? Maybe it can turn into something efficacious? It depends on how we respond to the soil in which we're planted...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Snatches of Poems

When I was a teenager, we went to an Irish festival run by the Ancient Order of Hiberians near Hamilton, NJ. This was serious business. The music was rich, the smell of wool and pipes abundant, and the love of the open air rang out. The gypsy spirit, the wanderin' wonder of the pilgrim laid heavy on the crowd. And curiously, every face looked like a relative to me. Here's where those snatches of songs and pieces of poetry first began to stick and settle into my spirit.

I picked up my first tinwhistle at that festival and have been "foolin'" with the melodies ever since; a jig or a reel, but mostly the slow, soulful airs are what I like to play. And a tune must start with a poem. My brother and I know a few. They were absorbed by osmosis, by the listening over and over again to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, in the wake of that great resurgence of Irish music and new folk music that struck in the 60's.

As I grow older, from time to time, I try and recite those old poems or songs in my head. God forbid I should ever slip and they fall right out altogether. This one has the weight of the world in it. The tragic beauty of a man, made in the image of the King, but through his own weakness subject to act the fool. But it's charged as all good poems are with the same sense of hope. Hope that man can rise up again, be lifted up to glory if only he can remember where he came from!

He stumbled home from Clifton Fair
with drunken song and cheeks aglow
yet there was something in his air
that told of kingship long ago
I cried and innly burned with grief
that one so high should fall so low.

But he plucked a flower and he sniffed its scent
and waved it toward the sunset sky
some old sweet rapture through him went
and kindled in his bloodshot eye
I sighed and innly cried for joy
that one so low should rise so high.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Fiddles, Whistles and the Slowly Poured Pint

Sometimes we want too much too fast. We want it all! But in the wise words of comedian Stephen Wright "You can't have everything. Where would you put it?"

A Tangent...

One of my favorite traditional Irish bands is the Chieftains. They've been around forever. They are amazingly gifted musicians: on the harp, the flute, fiddles, bodhran, tinwhistle... and Paddy Moloney on those Irish pipes! "Cheese and crackers!" (as Grandpa Donaghy would've said)... it sounds like the mystic moan of the poets and warriors of Ireland, calling us out to Tir na Nog!

Matt Molloy plays the flute for the Chieftains, and he owns a pub in Westport, County Mayo. On our tour of the west coast of Ireland, we stayed a night in Westport. After setting up in a little B & B, with great reverence and a dose of excitement, we walked into town and entered the dark cavern of this legendary pub. Our eyes adjusted, and our ears as well, just as a stream of music came gushing out of a cozy little back room.

There was a band of 7 souls gathered around a wooden table covered with pints and glasses. They were kicking out jigs and reels like kung fu masters. Making "moosic" with wild abandon; fiddles flew, whistles wailed, drums beat. The room was packed, but we managed to squeeze in beside a mantle against the back wall. Then I realized, my hand was empty. And so was Rebecca's.

Now if you're ever in a pub in Ireland, having an empty hand is like not burping after a meal in Turkey. You follow me? I hastened back to the bar; "Bailey's with milk, please," I said to the man, "and a pint of Guinness."The music played on, rising up, swirling about in a Celtic cloud of glory; feet were pounding the hardwood floors, hands smacking hands, smiles, joy, an occassional "woo!" I could see Rebecca back there, crammed in the shrinking space, her face pleading "hurry!" as the room filled with people. It became a microcosm of the larger world: Germans, Italians, Poles, Chinese, Americans, that's the magnetic power of this music, this Irish stream of melody that is still a riverdance running through the world.

"I'm coming!" I mouthed, and turned back. The drinks were laid on the polished bar. And then I did what I knew I should not have done. I reached for my pint before it had *"settled."

Now there are those who know what an offense this is, and those who don't. The bartender, of course, was in the know. As my hand touched the glass in obvious haste, he took it, and drew it back. With a look of sincere pity, he shook his head. And I hung mine. No words need be said. And so it goes. As the dance of life continues, and the rooms around us fill up, can we stop and simply let it be? We are in it. No need to grasp, no need to rush. I made it back in time, and there was room to spare. Of course there would be. And the pint was just right. When will I ever learn!

* settled - there's a distinct gap between the
dark liquid and the head or foamy cap.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Irish Chronicles - Part One

Now we're well into the octave of St. Patrick, so it's only fittin' that we should open up the floodgates of Story, of the Remembering and of Recollection. For the Irish, you see, are full of it (the art of storytellin'... that is.)

A few years ago, my wife and I had the chance to visit Ireland. We stayed with Rebecca's cousins in Cork and Killarney, touring up and down the western coast. We even made it up to the northwest corner of Ireland, to the windswept, rocky fields of Donegal where a section of my family traces its roots. We hiked up Slieve League and down the Gap of Dunloe, we prayed at Knock, and sang songs with the cousins for Denis's birthday party at the little red pub just near his house. The family took us in, as they say, and we experienced Ireland from the inside out (this being the third time for my wife!)

"And now a song from Bill" cried Rebecca's Uncle Pat one night. And like it or not, I was singing in the kitchen, "Four Green Fields", surrounded by the relations, with pints and glasses and poems being read. It was just like the stories I heard growing up.

Everyone I have ever spoken to about Ireland praises her. Everyone who has ever been there longs to go back. When I was young, images of Ireland were so often repeated, breathed in with the scent of tea and mince meat on the stove at Grandma Donaghy's, that I thought perhaps I had already been there, and was just now remembering. I heard the songs of Frank Patterson and the Chieftains, Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem, the Pogues and the Wolftones and all the stories; about the land and the "moosic".... about the time dad (at 19) showed up at Grandma Roses' step and they thought it was Frank back from America. About the way little Hughie at 9 could call the sheep better than the locals, and how when they first landed, they followed Uncle Hugh on his scooter on the winding road from work, threatening to pass and annoying him to no end, until he finally pulled over, tore off his cap and realized with tears that it was his brother Frank and his American family behind him all the while. I have a picture in my head of them embracing beside green fields, with a gravel road curving away.

I found the following lines years ago, a bit of verse on the Irish. When I first read it, I had that sense again that I already knew it. For most of it sounds like my family.

What Shall I Say About the Irish?

The utterly impractical, never predictable,
Sometimes irascible, quite inexplicable, Irish.
Strange blend of shyness, pride and conceit,
And stubborn refusal to bow in defeat.

He's spoiling and ready to argue and fight,
Yet the smile of a child
fills his soul with delight.
His eyes are the quickest to well up with tears,
Yet his strength is the strongest
to banish your fears.
His hate is as fierce as his devotion is grand,
And there is no middle ground
on which he will stand.
He's wild and he's gentle,
he's good and he's bad.
He's proud and he's humble,
he's happy and sad.
He's in love with the ocean,
the earth and the skies,
He's enamoured with beauty wherever it lies.
He's victor and victim, a star and a clod,
But mostly he's Irish—
in love with his God.

Tomorrow Irish Lesson: "Fiddles, a Whistle and the Slow Poured Pint"

Monday, March 12, 2007

Fearless and Finally Free

I just finished watching the movie Fearless (thanks for the recommendation, Tom B!). This was to be the renowned martial artist Jet Li's last film. And what a way to end...

I'm a sucker for a super-kick'em-up movie. Not one that glorifies violence, however, but one that confronts the reality of violence and deals with it in a way that shows discipline, courage, and self-sacrifice. Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers all portray characters who have learned great secrets, cosmic truths, and lessons about mercy and compassion through their discipline (be it Wu Dan or Wushu). The character Huo Yuanjia that Jet Li portrays learns these lessons well. So well that they lead him to a truly heroic end in the film, as he moves from an arrogant fighter who "will not be defeated" to a symbol of humble strength and endurance for all of China.

Huo learns his most valuable lesson after a self-inflicted exile leads him far from home. Ruined, broken and despairing after the death of his family, he is rescued by poor mountain villagers. An aging grandmother and a young, blind woman named Moon nurse him back to health. As his strength returns, however, so does his competitive and arrogant spirit. He is put to work in a rice field with two other men, and just as he begins to settle into the rhythm of planting the tiny green rice seedlings, he pushes himself past the other men as if it were a race. As Huo's back is bent and he scurries to plant more seedlings, he notices that the men have stopped in their tracks. They are standing upright with eyes closed, facing the bamboo forest as it is suddenly caught up in a gentle wind. He sees that the entire village in fact has suddenly stopped their work to drink in the soft movement of the wind in the trees. Ignorant of the grace of the moment, he shakes his head and buries it back in the "rice race." The next morning, it turns out, all of his seedlings had to be replanted. They were packed in so tightly that they would never have grown. "They need space to breathe, like people do," the young girl tells him. Later, we see Huo again.... this time a deep contentment in his face. The rhythm of the mountains and the discipline of the fields has taught him well. He stands upright and faces the forest, as a breeze catches the bamboo and moves them.

Priceless moments. We should drink them in, looking up from our "rat race" today to glimpse these higher motions, these cosmic seasons that hold the seeds of answers for us. Look up! Watch the skies. We know not when the Wind of the Holy Spirit will stir up something new.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Catechism in Flesh and Stone

Sacred Heart is a quiet little Polish Church nestled in a neighborhood adjacent to ours. We thought we'd go to Mass there today just to check it out (this is the good kind of "cafeteria Catholicism"). Besides, we were running late and they had an 11:30 as opposed to our parish's 11:15 (thanks a lot new Daylight Savings Time "Change Things Early" Idea!) What a happy discovery. The church was small but packed with theological delights. Marble stations with polish titles, powerful portraits of the Apostles flanking the nave of the church, luminous stories in stained glass above us, and a massive mural behind the main altar that looked like a scene right out of Heaven. Granted, the angels were wispy, pale, and pre-Raphaelite. I think they are a little more awe-inspiring than that. Why else would they always say "Fear not!" when they appear to us in the Bible? But the thoughts these heavenly creatures inspired were.... heavenly. Bearing their incense and bowing in adoration, they formed a circle of praise around the high altar and brought our eyes to rest on the tabernacle where the King of Kings presided. The polish priest had such a thick accent, it was as if Pope John Paul II were back at the altar: "Praizzed be Jay-soos Kryst!" His homily was strong and clear, his posture one of reverent love. And although every Mass is of course deeply nourishing because Jesus comes into our very flesh, this one had a real "stick to your ribs" kinda feeling that has stayed with me throughout the day. So thanks to the builders of that beautiful catechism in stone, and to the priest who was God's love in the flesh.

Cardinal Rigali on the Third Sunday of Lent

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Being Driven

Driving home, or I should say being driven, was always one of my favorite experiences when I was young. Sitting in the backseat, a good hour's drive ahead of us, the radio just loud enough to kindle thought, the raindrops streaking in a drunken race outside my window.... There was nothing to do but be on the road, be carried, be driven. The alphabet game was over, the talk about dinner or the movie died down, and now there was only the whisper of the wheels, a muffled radio, and the slosh of the windshield wipers. The stage was set. My mind turned inward, and the real journey began.

Contemplation is a gift. A sweet gift that is given, but we can facilitate her arrival. We can, in a certain sense, prepare for her coming. Keep a guest room ready, so to speak. That's part of the culture of prayer. It's building that interior room in the heart, and then patiently waiting for Love to call.

Back on the journey home, I remember moments of deep wonder, serendipitous moments when, beyond the rain-spattered window, the horizon would lift her veil for a moment and the sun would kiss the fields and the tree tops, and then the radio would harmonize with a melancholic tune from Jim Croce or the Alan Parsons Project. Suddenly, I was wrapped in the warmth of the Mystery. I was looking out and into a Face Whose Name I did not know. Then softly, mom or dad would whisper-sing, thinking we might be sleeping. They were the music ministry in this liturgy of the road. The clouds over the fields hovered like incense, and then the setting sun would dip down and be buried beneath the trees, like a Sacred Host in reposition. So ended this natural sacramental, building and cultivating in the heart a foundation for the wonders of the Mass, where these hints and shadows would pass into Realities! Into a Real Presence...

Being driven was pure gold. Being carried down those roads with the wide world opening up before me was my first taste of the spiritual life. I learned the most valuable lesson from it: that you must let it be done unto you. You must wait for the gift. Receptivity is the perfect posture of the creature in relation to the Creator. Anything else is a contradiction, and it could be contracepting the Life He is trying to pour into the human heart. We must first receive in order to give! "As the Father has loved me, so I love you. Live on in my love."

I think now more than ever, we need to let down the walls in our hearts and wipe clean the windows of our minds. Lent is this chance to purify the vision. So let's open new roads to the Presence of God that perhaps we've nervously blockaded for fear of Him getting in. Let's look out the windows more often on this ride. Great thoughts can infiltrate when our defenses are down. Don't worry about the road ahead for now; don't strain your eyes or squint at the headlights on the highway. Just take in those fields, watch and learn from their openness to the heavens. So long as we can be open to God, our thoughts can indeed be fertile and multiply. And we can come to know the One Who drives us on, in Whose Love we are forever being driven...

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Lenten Resources from the Vatican

Great resources from Catholic Headquarters, including MP3s of beautiful choir music from the Sistine Choir! Here follows a section of Pope Benedict's powerful Lenten message for 2007:

Dear brothers and sisters, let us look at Christ pierced on the Cross! He is the unsurpassing revelation of God's love, a love in which eros and agape, far from being opposed, enlighten each other. On the Cross, it is God himself who begs the love of his creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us. The Apostle Thomas recognized Jesus as "Lord and God" when he put his hand into the wound of his side. Not surprisingly, many of the saints found in the Heart of Jesus the deepest expression of this mystery of love. One could rightly say that the revelation of God's eros toward man is, in reality, the supreme expression of his agape. In all truth, only the love that unites the free gift of oneself with the impassioned desire for reciprocity instils a joy which eases the heaviest of burdens. Jesus said: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself" (Jn 12: 32). The response the Lord ardently desires of us is above all that we welcome his love and allow ourselves to be drawn to him. Accepting his love, however, is not enough. We need to respond to such love and devote ourselves to communicating it to others. Christ "draws me to himself" in order to unite himself to me, so that I learn to love the brothers with his own love.

- read the Pope's entire Lenten message

Daniel Tammet - Brain Man

The incredible story of Daniel Tammet, a savant with a mesmerizing gift for numbers and calculation. This is the 60 Minutes segment, Part One.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


The universe is amazing. Seriously. The fact that we exist at all is amazing. And we are but the size of the head of a pin in the vastness of space. We're like a grain of sand on a planet full of sand! When we hear the astronomical figures, the ratios, the spaces between things in space, it makes the head swim. There are over 50 billion galaxies in the known universe, there are gazillions of stars, and the one star that is our sun is so large that a million earths could fit comfortably within it's warm and cozy interior. That is amazing. My brain hurts. And yet even with this knowledge, people are bored today. "What'd ya do this weekend?" "Nothin' much... what'd you do?" "Same ole same ole. What'd you do?" "You already asked me that." "Oh yeah.... huhmph." I believe we are starving today for a renewed sense of wonder at the universe. Let's be honest; aren't we burying our heads for most of the day in malls, offices, cars, and supermarkets? Our eyes more often reflect the glow of computer screens and TVs than the starry heavens above, or the shining sun for that matter (ironically, I'm typing this on my computer). But we do love getting those unexpected doses of humility from the stuff in the heavens: the rain, snow, sleet, leaves, wind, starlight, and an occasional lunar eclipse! They're stellar reminders of our smallness in the great big world. They help keep things in perspective. Sometimes they just blow perspective out of the water completely, and we just say WOW, like a clip from one of those new Windows Vista commercials (irony again!). So last night, we had one of these cosmic moments. I didn't get the chance to see it (I saw a foggy moon abit after the fact), but reading about it and seeing the pics has been rather "illuminating." It was a lunar eclipse, and the best seats in the house were in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. (A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth passes between the sun and the moon, closing off the sun's light for a period of time. Coooooolness.....) I can't help but wonder what the ancients must have thought when the heavens did such crazy, creepy, and unexpected things. One thing I'm sure of.... it must have WOWed them, filling them with that healthy sense of their own smallness in the universe. On the flip side, in reading about the eclipse, this statement from one of our "modern" astronomers just made me shake my head: "It's not an event that has any scientific value, but it's something everybody can enjoy," said Professor So and So, of Britain's Royal Astronomical Society. Scientific value? It's not an event that has any scientific value? Why does it have to have scientific value? Some things, I believe, are just made to WOW us.

Windows Vista WOW Commercial

I love the WOW moments in this commercial. They're priceless, as is the funny twist in the last 2 seconds of this Italian version of the commercial.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Cardinal Rigali on the Transfiguration

Amazing Grace - A Review

We just saw the new film "Amazing Grace" and we loved it! Ioan Gruffudd does an excellent job playing the humble and passionate William Wilberforce, an 18th century man torn between his desire to give his life to God or to stay "in the world" and make it a better place. With the help of some dedicated friends, he soon discovers a man may do both. The main thrust of the film is his more than decade long battle with Parliament to end the slave trade in the British Empire.

One of my favorite lines came from the character John Newton, the former slave trader whose conversion led him to compose the famous song "Amazing Grace." Newton is played powerfully by an aging Albert Finney: "Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly. I'm a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior."

This film was a refreshing return to good plot, solid acting, strong characters, real history, and the power of virtue to pull us out of vice. Stay for the full ending, and the playing of the bagpipes!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Do You Believe This?

About 2000 years ago, a weathered old Jewish priest named Simeon was standing in the cool, shadowy interior of the Temple in Jerusalem. He was holding a little baby in his arms. With a surge of spiritual insight and trembling with emotion, Simeon whispered to the humble mother standing by "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

Two millennia have passed and that old priest's words ring truer than ever. Jesus is still a sign that is contradicted (or spoken against); our image of Him is still sometimes confused. His words remain an enigma that many feel is unsolvable. The truth of Who He is, Who He said He was, is still so contended, so contradicted that Mother Church still feels the stab of that unbelieving sword in her soul.

I think it all comes down to one question. The one He Himself asked to a troubled and weeping Martha, herself confused when standing beside another tomb just outside of Jerusalem. Martha was mourning the loss of her brother, Lazarus, who was wrapped in burial clothes and locked in the stone cave before them.

Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise." Martha said to him, "I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus told her, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

Oh there it is! The kicker at the end of this dialogue is so often missed or dissed as just some sweet "spiritual" sentiment, no matter how many times we hear it read at funerals and wakes.

"Do you believe this?"

We have to respond to the question. So.... do you? Do we? Do I believe this? And let's not call it by any other name. Don't "spiritualize" it, metaphorize or anesthetize it. Listen to the words of the writer/poet John Updike. Oh this is a good one. This one should go on the fridge, or at your desk in the office, or on the nightstand at home because it's just so good.

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that - pierced - died, withered, paused, and then regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

- John Updike, Seven Stanzas at Easter

Tomb and Gloom - A Deeper Study

For those who really want to know what the buzz is all about on this Jesus Tomb controversy, here's Ben Witherington's excellent (and quite long) point by point analysis of the claims made in the documentary:

Also, an article on Catholic News that's a little more to the point:

And finally, other sources for understanding what happened to the body of Jesus (but be warned, they have no credentials, degrees, or doctorates to their names), would be Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Talking to Your Little Ones About the Big Topic of Sex

A much repeated sentence we hear at our Theology of the Body retreats and courses is "I wish I heard this when I was younger!" ...