What’s Up with People?

Today is Sunday.  I didn’t preach this weekend so I don’t have a homily to share, but there are some things on my mind that I’d like to get off my chest.  (How do things get from your mind to your chest??) Anyway, I’m home alone today (more on that later) which is never a good thing because I tend to ruminate over things I can’t control.  So, here’s what’s on my mind today.

There’s a blog called Beauty Beyond Bones that I highly recommend.  It’s written by a young lady who is recovering from anorexia.  Believe me, it’s not easy to go public with a disease which many people consider to be a defect of character.  But Caralyn doesn’t hold anything back and I know her words have helped many people.  She is a devout Catholic and doesn’t mind if anyone knows it.

On Monday she wrote a post about the massacre in Las Vegas.  It was a very thoughtful.  Among other things she wrote:

Instead of calls for prayer and compassion for the victims of the shooting, there is outcry for gun control reform.

Instead of numbers and addresses for blood banks to donate the vital lifeline so desperately needed in Vegas right now, there are email addresses and phone numbers to “flood” our congressmen and women about gun control.

Instead of comforting bible verses or religious images, there are political cartoons, using the pain and tragedy of others to parody and promote their stance on gun violence.

Instead of sorrow, and compassion, and empathy, there’s rage and outcry and defiance.

And it is disgusting.

lynchmob

All in all it was a great post but the response wasn’t what she expected.  Here’s a part of what she wrote on Thursday:

The response, and rather – the backlash – from the post, brought out, some not-so-nicewords, to put it lightly. My faith was questioned. I was told I was cursed by God – and that my singleness, infertility and history with anorexia were all signs of said curse. I was called names that would make a sailor blush. (All of said comments have been removed.)

What is wrong with people?  Obviously, these people are followers of Caralyn’s blog.  They know who she is and what she believes.  Why would they attack her?  That’s not to say that I’ve not been attacked both for this blog and for things I’ve said from the pulpit.  But I’m kind of a curmudgeon.  I expect to make people mad once in a while.  In fact, my Archbishop once told us that if we didn’t get any complaints, we weren’t doing our job.  But this young lady, who’s bared her soul to help others doesn’t deserve that kind of abuse.  I hope she doesn’t take it to heart.  The noisy few don’t outweigh the thousands of people who follow her blog regularly.

Speaking of what’s wrong with people, what’s the deal with these overpaid football players refusing to stand during the National Anthem?  Are they trying to make some kind of point?  What is it?  What do they want?  I just don’t get it.  This country that they seem to dislike so much has given many of them the opportunity to escape poverty, get a free education, and make millions of dollars per year for working(?) just a few months per year.  Maybe this country isn’t so bad after all.

If I could I would boycott their games but the NFL stole our team two years ago and moved them to Los Angeles.  I would boycott their games on TV, but I haven’t watched one minute of pro football since the Rams left.  I guess the only thing I can do is refuse to patronize the companies who sponsor the NFL.  Here’s a list for your consideration.

Finally, I mentioned that my wife isn’t home today.  She’s working.  Apparently her employer hasn’t heard about the Ten Commandments, especially number 4, “remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.”  Maybe they should take a hint from Chick-fil-a, Hobby Lobby, or locally Goedeker’s Appliances.

All three of these things just emphasize that our country is drifting away from God and that scares me.  God made America great and God can take us down again.

Please pray for our nation.

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Thoughts on a Funeral

I assisted at a funeral today.  The word “assisted” is probably generous in describing what I did.  There were two priests and two deacons in attendance.  One, or even zero, deacons would have been sufficient.  A former deacon director used to speak of us as “liturgical furniture” or “liturgical flower pots”.  That would have been appropriate today.

My most important part of the proceedings was going to lunch.  A funeral lunch is when the clergy get to mingle with the family and friends and share memories of the deceased.  Today’s “guest of honor” was indeed a lovely lady.  Everyone knows it, but I think it brings comfort to most people to hear it from someone in a Roman collar.

I’m an Irish deacon who was sent by the Archbishop to administer a Czech chapel.  The chapel was once a parish but lost that status some years back.  The last pastor stayed on until his retirement so I think the place still felt like a parish until I showed up.  I was about as popular as a cockroach in the goulash.

The lady we buried today (and you’ll notice that I’m dancing all around using her name because I don’t have permission) was the first member of the Czech community who actually welcomed me and made me feel at home.  I’ll never forget her for that.  She was taking a big risk with her fellow Czechs and I really appreciate it.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been on retreat and attended something called “Deacon Day.”  The retreat was very inspirational and educational.  Deacon Day was a day where everyone said nice things about deacons.  It happens every year and is in lieu of any financial recompense.  Both of these things were nice.

But it occurred to me today that the people at the funeral, the people who really matter, couldn’t care less  how much I know, how many retreats I’ve been on, how many books I’ve read, or what the Auxiliary Bishop of Saint Paul/Minneapolis thinks of me and my brother deacons.  They want to know that I care about them.  And that’s a real revelation to me because frankly, it’s easy to get caught up in those other things and forget what’s really important.

In just a few weeks I’ll be leaving this community and returning whence I came because, to be honest, I’m just not physically able to be an administrator anymore.  I need to go back to just being an ordinary deacon, assisting the pastor at mass and with whatever else he wants me to do, including funerals.

I’m going to miss my Czech flock, even the ones who still wish I were a priest and that I wasn’t Irish.  But at ordination, a deacon promises to go wherever his Bishop sends him.  I believe right now the Holy Spirit is telling me to move on.  What happens in the future only He and the Father and the Son know.

Retreat Postscript

arch

Yesterday was a travel day as we returned from Gesthemani, KY.  It’s always a transition to come back from retreat life to “real” life.  First of all there’s the time difference.  Gesthemani is in the Eastern time zone, Saint Louis is in the Central time zone.  It will take a while for my body clock to reset.  Second, there’s the “normal” events of life that don’t seem so hectic normally, but after a few days of life at the monastery,  it all seems kind of overwhelming.

I always come back from retreat determined to spend more time in prayer and contemplation.  I did that today, at least so far, but I don’t know what tomorrow will bring with morning mass, a breakfast at Saint John’s to introduce the new deacon, a 7:00 pm meeting, and a party afterwards.  That sounds like a hard day to find time for contemplation and reading.  We’ll see.  At least in my reading this week I learned some short prayers that can be said on the fly, keeping God at the front of my mind all day.

As usual, I came back with an arm-load of books.  All I have to do is find time to read them.  I’m looking forward to my retirement in December.  Maybe then I’ll have more time.

I was asked “what did you learn on retreat?”  Well, as I posted the other day, I learned to be willing to accept other people’s help, allowing them to be Jesus.  I think that’s big.  I also learned some things about contemplation and meditation.  That’s something the Monks are known for and something we should all cultivate.  With so much junk coming at us from all directions, it’s not easy to empty your mind and be open to God.  But it’s something we all have to learn to do.  There’s tremendous freedom in pushing all the stuff away and making room for God.

I believe that our souls have a finite amount of space in them.  The bad stuff can’t get in if we fill ourselves with the Holy Spirit.  But it takes work.  It doesn’t just happen.  Frequent repetition of the simple prayer “God come to my assistance.  Lord make haste to help me.” is one way to push out the negative thoughts.  For those who practice the Liturgy of the Hours, each hour begins with this prayer.  There’s no reason why we can’t repeat this request of God all throughout the day.  Try it.

I have more retreat news, so stay tuned.

I’m going to leave you with an audio clip of the Monks chanting Compline, or Night Prayer.  It’s fairly short and doesn’t vary much from day to day.  You might want to listen to this tonight (and every night) before you go to bed.  It’s very peaceful.

More on Seeing Jesus

monks

I posted yesterday about seeing Jesus not just in the helpless, but also in the helper.  Today God taught me that lesson in a big way.  My blood sugar was very low this morning and I was having some trouble getting around.  The cafeteria lady saw me struggling with my tray and asked me if I needed help.  My first inclination was to say “No thanks.  I can manage.”

Then I remembered Father’s words.  I said that would be great and she carried my tray over to “our” table (Once you claim a table in the dining room it’s yours for the week.)  I thanked her profusely for helping me and the look on her face was priceless.  Among  all the priests, monks, deacons, and even a Bishop in this place this week, I found Jesus working in the cafeteria.  It was a lesson I hope I never forget.

merton

The most famous resident of Gesthemani was Father Thomas Merton, possibly the greatest Christian thinker of the 20th century.  He was famous all over the world and people come here every day just to see where he lived.  A “famous monk” seems like an oxymoron, but that’s what he was.  He died in 1948 and the  Abby is still collecting royalties from his books.  But in the end, a monk is a monk.  Father’s grave is marked with this simple metal cross just like all the other monks.  His reward is in a much better place.

This is the last day of our retreat.  Tomorrow we go back to reality.  I’ve spent a lot of time reading this week and I’ve discovered a lot about God and about myself.  I plan to share some of that in future posts.  Stay tuned.

Come…..Go

abby cemetery

abby cemetery

According to Bishop Fulton Sheen, Jesus’ first word of his public ministry was “come”.  His final word to his disciples was “go”.  “Come follow me.  Go out into the world”.  I wonder how many of us really follow these simple instructions.

Even the Monks here at Gesthemani have mastered the first part, but they haven’t really mastered the second part.  They’ve come alright.  But once they come they pretty much stay.  There’s no question that they welcome visitors, each year by the thousands.  And they do their best to share the good news through their actions.  But as far as going out into the world, that’s more up to you and me.

abby keep out

 

Last night in one of only two sessions the monks hold with visitors Father gave us something to really reflect on.  We all know that we’re supposed to see Jesus in the poor, the sick, the elderly, in anyone who needs help.  When we look into the face of that person, we’re seeing Jesus.  We may not always act on it, but we do know it.

But what about the helper.  Isn’t he/she Jesus too?  In his book Rediscover Jesus, Matthew Kelly tells the story of a group of men hurrying to catch a New York City Taxi.  In their haste they run into a blind lady’s vegetable cart, knocking all the produce to the ground.  Only one of them stops to help.  His friends urge him to hurry up or he’ll miss his plane but he stays behind to pick up the spilled fruit and vegetables.  Dozens of other pedestrians hurried by but no one else stopped to help.  When he had everything picked up and neatly arranged, he handed the blind lady some money to pay for the damaged goods.

The lady is very grateful and asks the man, “Are you Jesus?  When I heard the fruit hit the ground I prayed to Jesus for help.  Then I heard you picking it up.   Are you Jesus?”

“Oh, no ma’am”, he said.  He ends up missing his plane and has to spend another night in New York which gives him plenty of time to think and pray about what happened.

The story begs the question, “When was the last time someone wondered if you were Jesus?”

My recent health problems have forced me to rely on others much more than I like to.  I’ve always been very independent.  At first, I fought this dependence with all my might.  I don’t want to have to depend on others.  That’s a sign of weakness.  But as Father told us last night, when we refuse the help of others we take away their chance to be Jesus.  We’re actually being selfish.

People like to help.  It makes them feel good inside.  When we let our egos take charge and refuse to let others help us, we’re taking that good feeling away from them.  As I’ve hobbled around Gesthemani Abby this week, I’ve had any number of people offer me help.  Before Father’s talk last night I was my usual egotistical self.  But now I see that by letting them help me, I’m actually helping them.  And I get to see Jesus.

Now the cynic might say, “You’re on a retreat.  You’re surrounded by holy people.  Most people are like those New Yorkers who just kept on going, not stopping to help.”  I don’t agree.  I think most people want to help, wherever they are.

I have to say something here about my wife.  For the last year, she’s literally done all the heavy lifting.  She carries things.  She picks things up when I drop them (which is constantly).  She drives most of the time (except at night when she can’t see.)  She fills out forms and signs things.  She has been the perfect caregiver.  Occasionally she gets impatient with me (who wouldn’t).  But if you want to see Jesus, take a look at my wife.  Or at anyone who takes care of someone else.

 

4 Nights Alone in a Single Bed

retreat bedroom

This week I’m on retreat at Gesthemane Abby in Kentucky.  The Abby is where Thomas Merton lived and you can feel his presence wherever you go here.  The guests live in pretty simple accommodations and eat simple food.  In fact  at dinner (12:30 pm, more on that in a minute) they ran out of meat before I got there.  Sidebar, when I first started coming here 14 years ago they didn’t serve meat so my meal of stewed tomatoes, mashed potatoes and salad wasn ‘t all that bad.

So, what’s the deal?  Why drive 322 miles to sit in the woods and read?  The daily schedule goes like this:

3:15 am (yes, am) Vigils, the first prayer of the day.  To be perfectly honest, I used to get up for this, but as the years have gone by, not so much.  This morning I didn’t even try.

5:45 am Lauds.  This is morning prayer.  Most retreatants get up for this.  I’m ashamed to report that today my alarm went off at 5:00, I thought about getting up, and when I looked at the clock again it was 7:00.

Sixish is mass following 5:30 am vespers.  Note that I missed those too.  Breakfast is served after mass at 7:00.  I didn’t miss breakfast.

There are more hours of prayer throughout the day ending with Compline, or night prayer at 7:30 pm.  The prayer routine is broken up by supper at 6:00, following Vespers. Notice that they don’t have lunch here.  They have dinner at 12:30, which is the main meal of the day, and supper at 6:00.  There’s no room for lunch.

Face it, you don’t come here for the gourmet chow.  It’s a place of prayer and reflection and food is served out of necessity.  The rest of the time is spent either in the chapel or someplace engaged in private prayer, reading.  God is definitely present here and you can choose how you want to encounter Him.

retreat library

One thing that’s new this year is wifi in the library.  I will be able to post what’s happening all week.  I expect something significant.  It always happens when I come here.  I have a lot to pray about what with family and friends, parishioners at two churches and an upcoming job change.  I’ll keep my readers in my prayers as well.

I hope to be able to post some pictures this week but at the moment I’m having some technical difficulties so for now, I’m borrowing some pics from the monk’s website.

retreat abby

 

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” That’s according to the prophet Isaiah. And how true it is.

 

We humans always want to be in control. We know what’s best for us, don’t we? Who knows us better than we know ourselves? It’s in our nature to think that way. But Isaiah was so right. God’s thoughts are above our thoughts. In fact they’re so much higher than our thoughts that we can’t even begin to comprehend the difference.

 

Over the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time talking to God, trying to discern what He wants me to do with my future. It’s a lot like when I was trying to discern my vocation. Should I become a deacon or not? Should I retire or not? These are big questions; much too big for my tiny human brain to figure out. I started to consider retirement over a year ago when I was in the hospital. Then last November, when I had my back surgery, I really started to think about it seriously. Over and over I asked God what He wanted me to do.

I thought about it and prayed about it for months before I finally made up my mind and went to see the Director of the Diaconate and asked him to start looking for someone to take my place.

 

I’m still not sure I made the right decision, but I put it in God’s hands. His thoughts are above my thoughts. It says so right here in the first reading. When ever we have a problem to solve or a decision to make the answer is to put it in God’s hands. We may not always agree with Him, but His way is always the best way. If you’re struggling with something, put it in His hands. You can always trust Him.

 

You’ll notice I’m focusing on the first reading much more than I usually do. That’s because I really don’t like the second reading or the Gospel all that much. Paul tells us he longs to depart from this life and be with Christ. Considering all his suffering, it’s not hard to understand his feelings. I’m sure we’ve all had similar thoughts at one time or another. But it’s not up to us to decide whether we live or die. Only God can make that call.

There’s an old Irish joke that goes like this:

Father Murphy walks into a pub in Donegal, and says to the first man he meets, “Do you want to go to heaven?”

The man said, “I do Father.”

The priest said, “Then stand over there against the wall.”

Then the priest asked the second man, “Do you want to got to heaven?”

“Certainly, Father,” was the man’s reply.

“Then stand over there against the wall,” said the priest.

Then Father Murphy walked up to O’Toole and said, “Do you want to go to heaven?”

O’Toole said, “No, I don’t Father.”

The priest said, “I don’t believe this. You mean to tell me that when you die you don’t want to go to heaven?”

O’Toole said, “Oh, when I die, yes. I thought you were getting a group together to go right now.”

 

At some point, ready or not, God’s going to call our names. Then it will be our time. And God knows us better than we know ourselves. Like Isaiah said, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways.”

 

And, as Thomas Merton said,

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.