Monthly Newspaper • DIOCESE OF BRIDGEPORT

The forgotten value of suffering

I’ve never been a person who could endure suffering without complaining. Even a little suffering. I wish I could learn from saints like Padre Pio, who lived with the stigmata for 50 years, or Therese of Lisieux, who died at 24 from tuberculosis after terrible suffering.

Or the 14-year-old martyr St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, who defied the Mexican military with the cry of “Viva Christo Rey!” as they led him to his death. Or St. Josephine Bakhita, a religious sister who had been kidnapped from Sudan at 7 years old and was sold into slavery. I look at their lives and realize that kind of strength could only come from Christ.

We’ll all suffer in this life. No one is exempt. It’s part of the human experience, a result of original sin and living in an imperfect world. Suffering leads some people to anger and others to despair. Suffering leads many to atheism, and a privileged few to a deeper understanding of Christ’s Passion.

Suffering is a mystery we’ll never fully grasp in this life; however, it’s a spiritual certainty that our suffering offered to God can do miraculous things. I first encountered that idea a long time ago, not in my college theology classes but in my fourth-grade catechism lessons with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Shelton.

“Offer your suffering to Jesus, and he’ll do amazing things with it,” Sister told us young Catholics. “If you scrape your knee, offer it up. If you have a stomach ache, offer it up,” she said. It may sound juvenile, but Sister taught us that our little sufferings when united with Christ’s Passion would do wonderful things for people who needed help. Years later, I realize she was right.

Back then, I wasn’t sure what the “amazing things” could possibly be, and even now I sometimes wonder, although I’m certain I’ll find out in the next life and never regret offering up my pains, sorrows and trials. I’ll probably wish I’d done more for Jesus.

That doesn’t mean I welcome suffering. I dread it, especially when the pain has been excruciating, like that case of shingles or those kidney stones. My first words weren’t “I offer it up,” but rather a desperate plea something like, “Get rid of this pain PLEASE because I can’t take it!”

The coronavirus pandemic has been a time of suffering for many people, who faced illness, anxiety, loneliness, abandonment, or dying without their loved ones.

You don’t have to look far to see the face of suffering in the world. One of my friends spends the day in pain and he’s not even sure of the cause. Another cares for a child with cancer. Another is carrying the cross of addiction. Another is living with someone else’s addiction. Another is a caregiver for a spouse with chronic illness. Another lost her job and is facing eviction.

My mother did her share of suffering. She had cancer and eventually developed Alzheimer’s. What set her apart was she never complained. I’m convinced her suffering helped bring down a lot graces for family members and friends who might otherwise never have known Christ.

When I look at the picture of the Little Flower on my bureau and recall her short life, I ask for only a fraction of the strength she had. That strength, of course, came from Jesus, who though divine took the form of a man and shared our suffering … and embraced it so we could have eternal life.

Our only hope lies in Christ. Sometimes he shares his cross with us, and sometimes we share our cross with him. Years after Sister told us about the redemptive value of suffering, I read St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, in which he said, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…”

Such a curious concept, such a wonderful concept that another person’s conversion or salvation can be made possible through our willingness to carry a cross.

There’s only one place to go when your life is afflicted with pain, emotional or physical. Sit in front of the tabernacle. Words aren’t even necessary. Jesus understands everything. And always remember to turn to Our Lady of Sorrows, who endured suffering in a way we never will and who is always there to comfort us.

With Gratitude

“So, what have you been up to?” I asked my neighbor when we happened to meet at the mailbox one misty afternoon last week. The rain had been falling most of the day, and it was a welcome break to venture out, even just fifty feet from the front door. After sharing the usual quarantine talk about playing Bingo on Zoom and cleaning out the garage—again, she said, “Oh, and I started a gratitude journal.” Well, she had one up on me. “It’s just the little things,” she said, “but I can’t believe how much I’m finding to be grateful for.” I nodded, skeptical, as I wasn’t feeling all too grateful at the moment.

A typically positive and upbeat person, I had found myself struggling. While trying to keep students engaged during distance learning, I felt devastated for my seniors missing out on graduation. When talking to a friend, I heard the lamentation in her voice over the loss of contact with her disabled brother, who had become despondent in his group home without her weekly visits. Like so many others, my family had suffered illness, job loss, missed milestones, and lost opportunities due to the pandemic, though I knew there were others facing far worse than we were. The countless little things that comprised the mundane yet beautiful life we had just months ago seemed so far out of reach.

But what did my neighbor say? “It’s just the little things…” While I was acknowledging all that we were missing, she focused on all that we weren’t—all that we had before our lives shifted so abruptly but still continue to have, the ones that don’t change in the midst of our suffering but are actually enhanced because of it.

Still thinking about her journal, I remembered a line from a Jane Kenyon poem about enjoying life’s moments that I often share with students: “I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. . . . I took the dog uphill to the birch wood.” Though we don’t have a dog, the sight of our cat sleeping lazily by the front door in a sliver of sunshine makes me smile, as does my first sip of hot coffee each morning, the sounds of playful banter from my husband and daughters as they work on their “Star Wars” puzzle, the smell of lilacs blooming at last in the backyard. Such riches, such blessings.

I found myself thinking: When we look back on this season of challenges, what will we remember most? Though the difficulties we faced may linger, it is the gratitude that I hope endures. As our lives begin to recapture some normalcy, I want to embrace the way we notice what is often missed, the way we celebrate those “little things,” the way we pause to feel the goodness of God’s graces surrounding us, sometimes in the most unexpected moments, like the chance meeting of a next-door neighbor, who reminded me that even a quick trip to the mailbox can shift our perspective—with gratitude.

Nana, Papa, everybody up there, pray for us!

Sometimes I look up to heaven in frustration and grumble about the way things are in the world, my country and—let me not forget—my family.

I have relatives and family members who are so far from Christ that I find myself complaining, “Mom! Dad! What the heck are you doing up there? Stop enjoying yourself and think about us down here! How about some prayers! Get to work, PLEASE!”

Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating…but not much. I’m sure they’re praying for the rest of us, but just in case they’re asleep on the job or not giving 150 percent, I want to remind them to get going because if there’s anything our world needs now more than ever, it’s prayer. Don’t believe what the secularists and the media say. Pray works.

Down in this vale of tears, we need all the help we can get, which is why I try to spend as much time as possible appealing to the saints for their intercession because they understand firsthand how much life can be a struggle and they have a direct line to God.

I’m always asking the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph for help, along with my own group of personal favorites, who include my guardian angel, St. Michael, St. John Paul II, St. Ann and St. Joachim, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Joseph Barsabbas, Blessed Margaret of Castello, St. Martha, Venerable Fr. McGivney, Blessed Solanus Casey, Servant of God Vincent Capodanno, St. Padre Pio, Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo, St. Jeanne Jugan, St. Josephine Bakhita, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Blessed Mother Clelia, St. Joanna, St. Mother Teresa, Servant of God Dorothy Day and St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who lost her family in a small pox epidemic.

I try to pray the Litany of Saints every day and petition everyone from Saints Peter and Paul to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Mary Magdalen to “pray for us.” Last week, I had another idea that I thought might help during this time of crisis. I sat down at my typewriter and started to put together what I call a “Litany of Family and Friends” to my deceased loved ones.

The private litany I compiled included grandmothers, grandfathers, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, classmates, coworkers, nuns, and priests like Father Ed Coyne, who helped countless people in recovery when he was alive. Pray for us!

My litany also included teachers, professors and friends who made a difference in my life, including the most devout journalist I ever knew, the late Hugh Mulligan of Ridgefield. Pray for us!

If they did so much while they were alive, just imagine what they can do now. I’m convinced they’re waiting for us to call on them, so I encourage you to compile your own list and appeal to them by name for their intercession…every day.

I ask for help not just from saintly people I knew, but also from the less than perfect ones, and there are many. I figure they’re like the bungling angel Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and are always looking for opportunities to earn their wings.

The veil between heaven and earth is a thin one, and our beloved deceased family members and friends are always praying for us. While I never doubt that, it gives me enormous consolation to ask them for prayers.

Like Jesus and Our Lady, they’re watching over us, directing us and praying for the graces we need during these troubled times. Only when we see them again in heaven will we understand all they did for us during our earthly exile, and we’ll owe them a great debt of gratitude.

One last thought. Don’t forget your grandmothers. I’m convinced a grandmother’s prayers are one of the greatest forces in the universe. Don’t believe what the scientists, the secularists, the media and the atheists tell you. Politics, science and the press are nowhere near as powerful.

Someday when Jesus is handing out the Most Valuable Player awards, I bet there will be a long line of mothers and grandmothers standing in line to be honored. For all eternity, they’ll be recognized for what they accomplished for us with their prayers.

Disssolution into the Universe

Atheism has emerged in our times as an outlook held by many people from diverse backgrounds, especially the young. The claim is made that atheism equips people to live life more freely and fully.

A common idea among atheists is that death is a return to Nature. Death involves a dissolution into the universe. One becomes one with the stars, the plants, the animals, the whole cosmos. In 1819, the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, published a book titled The World as Will and Idea. Schopenhauer wrote that in death the “Universal Mother Earth” receives humans into her arms. Also, according to Schopenhauer: “if one knocked on graves, and asked the dead whether they wished to rise again, they would shake their heads”.

More specifically, the view is that, after death, the atoms of one’s body will eventually reveal themselves perhaps in the brilliant yellow of a dandelion, in the wetness of a rain drop, or in the throat of a giraffe, and certainly in the hearts of some people as well. It is therefore appropriate to scatter one’s ashes in the wind or on the sea, or to bury them in the forest at the roots of an ancient tree, ideally in a biodegradable urn. There are owners of some forested areas who, for a price, allow people to bury remains on their property. The family and friends of the deceased can console themselves with the thought that the organic remains of the deceased person will one day reach out to the sun in the whispering leaves of the trees.

Thus, today ashes are strewed over the sea, or swept from the top of a mountain by the wind, or buried in “forest cemeteries.”

The Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book No Death No Fear writes: “everyday I look deep at everything around me: the trees, the hills. I see myself in them and I know I shall not die, I will continue in many other forms.”

In the movie Houseboat, Cary Grant, in a scene where a boy asks him what happens when people die, Grant gives a dissolution into the universe response.

Today’s obituaries commonly express the idea of the self’s return to nature. Above the obituary is not the cross, but a broad-branched tree.

I am not the least bit consoled by the idea that my physical energy may live on in strawberries or Rhinos. Nor am I satisfied that “something” goes on and that I will continue in many other forms. I want to live on in my own person. I have no interest in being recycled in a cosmic way, like plastic bottles. The meaning of “dissolution into the universe” would seem to be that we live, we, die, we become compost, and all those vitamins, minerals, and nutrients help a path of ragweed grow big and strong and cause allergy problems for countless sufferers. Is that consolation?

The Christian Creed says: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Our bodies are destined for resurrection. John 6:40: “Everyone who believes in me has everlasting life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” The resurrection is not a metaphor, for example, that the dead live on in the memory of their loved ones. The resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of the General Resurrection (cf. Acts 26:28).

Christ is the first fruits of the great harvest that is to follow and there will be the annihilation of death itself. The omnipotence of God “will swallow up death for ever and will wipe away the tears for all faces” (Isaiah 25:18).

I will be made into “Immortal Diamond”, not some fertilizer for the universal greenhouse.

Let me leave you with something to think about. Karl Rahner, the elite theologian of the 20th century, stated: “No one is in danger of defending as a heresy if he maintains the view that the single and total perfection of a human being in body and soul takes place immediately after death”

(Theological Investigations, XVII, 120). In other words, Rahner is saying that being a human being calls for the union of body and soul. This calls for a body immediately after death. This body will be perfected at the General Resurrection. I can’t think of anything that I would like less than to be a disembodied spirit.

A man you don’t meet everyday

They called him Hambone.

His real name was James, but few called him that. The priests at Assumption Church did, as did the teachers at the Maple Avenue School. At home he was Jimmy. Everywhere else he was Hambone.

As a child I resented my dad’s nickname. I thought it made him seem small, like he was a joke, like they were all having a laugh at his expense. Over time, I came to realize that it was a good nickname. It was a great nickname, in fact, capturing something about Jim Hennessey’s personality that got to the heart of who he really was.

He was a ham. He loved to be the center of attention, whether it was cracking wise in the back of a classroom or holding court in the little bar business he and my mother built over 30 years. His voice could boom like an opera singer’s when he wanted it to. He could quiet a crowd. He could hold a room.

The bar business is tricky. To succeed you need to have people skills. Jim did well because he cared about the drinkers and seekers who gathered in his place. Many considered it a second home. Some treated it as their primary residence.

But it was Hambone’s joint and he ran it his way. If he wanted to give an elderly patron a permanent discount, he did it. The break wasn’t transferable. If, in your generosity, you wanted to buy an old timer a drink, you paid full price for it.

And Hennessey’s wasn’t a place where welcomes were overstayed. When dad felt you’d had enough, he sent you on your way, often calling the cab himself.

“Bye now,” he’d say while washing your glass and mopping up your spot at the bar. “Safe home.”

Some drinkers consider it an injustice when they’ve been cut off. They argue. You didn’t argue with Hambone. It would’ve been like arguing with the priest about your penance. What good could come of it?

If your drinking was becoming a problem, Hambone was someone who could help. He called alcoholism “the Irish Disease.” He knew the cure because he’d taken it himself. He’d sobered up before he bought the bar.

For all his success, my dad went to work six and often seven days a week. He didn’t do it because he loved cutting lemons and pulling pints. He did it because he loved his family. He’d rather have been a historian or an archaeologist, maybe even a draftsman like his own father. He was an insatiable reader and a skilled sketch artist.

“Matt,” he said. “Sometimes when people are talking to me across the bar my mind is a million miles away.”

When I got behind the bar myself I knew exactly what he meant. It’s a long day’s work when you’re paid to be a captive audience. Only then did I understand what he sacrificed for us.

Hambone wasn’t the only Morristown original with a nickname. His running buddies were all called things like Itsy or Snuffy or Doc or Muzz. He spoke of neighborhood guys like “Fooey” Cullen and “Dingy” Foran. All the brothers in the Kenny family were for some reason called “Darb.” The entire Pelligrino family was known as “Green Bananas.” One fellow in town was nicknamed “Bungalow.”

“You know why they called him that?” my dad asked me once.

“No.”

“Because there was nothing upstairs.”

Hambone loved a good wake. He was what you might call a regular. When he wasn’t hanging out at Hennessey’s, he was hanging out at Doyle’s, the local funeral home that his cousins owned. He loved wakes because he loved people.

He never missed an evening of remembrance for someone he knew, and there weren’t many people in Morristown he didn’t know.

When someone died, dad usually got the news before everyone else. He had the catbird seat in the upstairs office at Doyle’s. Bartenders and undertakers, he liked to say, rarely hurt for customers. People drink in good times and bad. Death comes for us all.

It came for Hambone on April 17. He was 85. As much as he loved a good wake, he won’t be getting one. You know the reason why. It’s a pity. He would’ve had no problem holding the downstairs room at Doyle’s. I wonder if it would’ve held him.

Jim Hennessey was a local legend, a ham for all seasons, a man you don’t meet every day. I was blessed to call him my father.

Bye now, dad. Safe home.

Will we ever take these things for granted again?

I’m an introvert. I love my alone time and I love my personal space. I enjoy having time in solitude to be introspective. But what I have learned during this time of social distancing is that the more I isolate, the harder it is to socialize when the time comes. I think that’s one of my worries in all of this, besides the virus itself. It’s a great challenge—to know when to push myself and when to give myself time to grieve what we’ve lost—the sense of normalcy.

As a creative, there is also this pressure to be extra productive in this time. But I’m finding that these conditions aren’t exactly conducive to healthy creativity. The more I ruminate, the further into desolation I slide—so I find that sometimes distraction is the healthiest thing at the moment.

I want to offer words of hope but I don’t really have any. So I search for the message in the smallest of things—affirmations written in chalk on our daily walks, finding positive stories to tell in the community, discovering a swing set we never knew was there.

I am left wondering, “What could we have done to have made the outcome different?” and “What can we do to ensure that this never happens again?” I want action, I want answers, I am uncomfortable in this waiting.

What we’ve lost in this pandemic is our sense of the ordinary; we are bereft of the loss of the myriad social and personal interactions that form our day and our sense of wellbeing, even our spirituality. There is a numbness, where there should be curiosity and engagement. Does it sometimes take something being taken away from us to realize how much it really meant to us?

Will we ever take for granted these things again?
The simple touch of a hand, a hug.
Having the choice to stay or go.
A sporting event, a movie, your grandparents’ house.
Now that all we have is time to reflect, to spend with one another,
Will the life we knew before be enough?
Will we remember that there was a time when we did have time…
To go for a walk.
The work still got done,
The world still went on.
It’s bittersweet, this time.
Because in one respect,
It makes us stop and take stock
Of the things that are important and the things that really aren’t.
But will we remember what it was like?
Will we let it change us,
The way we do things,
The way we live our lives,
The things we hold in importance.
Or will we simply return to the way we were,
Until something else makes us stop
And go for a walk.

But I have to hope that, because all times of waiting are uncomfortable, and because out of discomfort comes growth, something good will come out of this. Maybe it will bring the change we’ve all been yearning for.

We’ve seen people playing instruments outside their windows as a form of entertainment, we’ve seen creatives release comforting content, we’ve seen food drives and donations, and people stepping up to fill a need wherever they see one. Is it possible to hope that perhaps this is the reminder that we needed?

To see the good in each other. To have no other choice but to take a pause in our own busy lives to check on our neighbor, offer a helping hand or remember how much value is held in a simple hug.

Sometimes we get so busy in our lives that we forget to pause and connect. My hope is that, for however long this time ends up being, I don’t let it go to waste. What is the thing that I had been waiting to do but “didn’t have the time?” I have to hope that God is somehow guiding my search to find the good in all this, and that maybe He will help me notice the ways He works in my life once again.

“We Had God’s View”: Diocese Blessed in Flyover Mission

TRUMBULL—Clear skies and light winds made Tuesday the perfect day for an inspiring mission of hope and healing—abroad a Cessna 172. Accompanied by the Blessed Sacrament encased in a monstrance and a statue of the Blessed Mother, Father Brian Gannon, pastor of St. Theresa Church in Trumbull, and associate pastor Father Flavian Bejan bestowed prayers of protection as the plane flew above the Diocese of Bridgeport, a spectacular flight meant to calm the faithful amid growing anxiety over the coronavirus.

Departing mid-morning from Sikorsky Memorial Airport, the four-seater traveled the border of Fairfield County, north through Newtown and Danbury, down to Stamford and the shoreline, and over Trumbull, before returning to Stratford. This whole experience, Father Gannon said, was a call for God’s grace to enter our souls.

“We offered blessings on all people of the diocese,” he said. “It wasn’t just a bird’s-eye view. We had God’s view.”

This mission, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus Council 8013, was the third of its kind for pilot John DeCastra, son-in-law of Tom Monks, a member of the St. Theresa Knights. A lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard, DeCastra earlier this month initiated similar flyovers in the dioceses of Camden, NJ and Harrisburg, Penn., taking time out from his position at a base in Atlantic City to inspire others.

“He uses his talents for God,” Monks said of his son-in-law. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something you never forget.”

Prior to take-off, Father Gannon led a brief ceremony in the airport’s hanger, praying for a safe flight as those present knelt before the Eucharist. Dressed in the traditional black cassock and white surplice, he also wore a yellow gold cope, a cape-like vestment for special liturgies outside of Mass, and a biretta, a three-sided black cap. “I wanted to wear the proper vestments (for the occasion),” Father Gannon said. “We can never pay God back for all He has given us, but we can give Him the best from us.”

A thousand feet over Fairfield County, the priests held close the monstrance and Blessed Mother statue, continuously reciting prayers for people afflicted with COVID-19 as well as blessings on those striving to find a cure, healthcare workers, and anyone facing anxiety.

“God has an avenue to reach us,” said Dominick Angiolillo, Deputy Grand Knight from St. Theresa who was present when the Cessna took flight. “I believe this ‘flyover blessing’ is comforting. This is a message of hope and peace.”

Adding to their intentions for the protection and good health of God’s people, Father Gannon encouraged everyone to turn to Him in these uncertain times.

“When we feel fear and suffering, we remember how the Lord suffered in the flesh,” he said. “He walked as we do. We trust in Him—the source of all love and purpose—and feel His presence now.”

By Emily Clark

The best advice I ever got

I gave my public speaking class a homework assignment to write a speech on the topic, “The best advice I ever got.” Students know a lot more than adults give them credit for…especially if they got their wisdom from their parents. OK, I admit I’m biased. I’m convinced that more young people should listen to their parents, although I probably didn’t as much as I should have.
We all have advice we’d like to share, some good, some bad. Some of us can’t stop giving advice—to the chagrin of our family members and friends—and many of us don’t listen to advice anyway.
I’ve certainly heard enough of it from my mother, my father, my grandmother, my teachers, priests, professors, the pope, every boss I’ve had, and countless blowhards I’ve encountered throughout my life who shall go unnamed. And I’ve given my share of it to my kids, who occasionally listened, and my wife, who rarely listened. The older I get, the more they want to give ME advice.
My brain is teeming with advice, most of which I let go in one ear and out the other, as my mother would say.
My father, who lived the last 25 years of his life sober, was always passing along AA wisdom like “A day at a time” and “Live and let live.” The advice that got him sober and kept him sober was pretty simple: “Don’t drink and go to meetings.”
One valuable tip I often ignored came from my stock broker, who said, “Buy low and sell high.” Easier said than done. It was usually too late by the time I bought and even later by the time I sold. My 401(k) still hasn’t fully recovered from the trauma.
Throughout history, sages like Ben Franklin spouted adages like “He who lies down with dogs shall rise with fleas,” “A friend in need is a friend indeed,” “We may give advice, but we cannot give conduct,” “Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices,” and this classic, “There are three faithful friends—an old wife, an old dog and ready money.”
Another source of wisdom is the Book of Proverbs, which contains gems like “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” And this timeless proverb, which all husbands should memorize: “A wife of noble character is worth far more than rubies.”
I recently bought a book titled, “The Best Advice I Ever Got, by Katie Couric, who observed, “I never learned anything when I was talking.”
As I leafed through the pages, I found advice from many famous people, including the usual platitudes like “Do your best,” “Don’t be afraid,” “Work hard,” “Take risks,” and “Follow your dreams.” A few tidbits left me scratching my head in amazement. For example, Bill Cosby prophetically said, “Don’t be your own worst enemy.” As my mother would say, “He should have listened to his own advice.
Before his fall from grace, Matt Lauer said, “Sometimes you gotta go off course.” He sure did. Valerie Plame—remember her?—opined, “Life is unfair.” Echoing Socrates, Ellen DeGeneres said, “Be true to yourself.” And pre-presidential Donald Trump said, “Know everything you can.”
I was amazed that not one person mentioned God. However, one famous actor who isn’t afraid to mention God is Denzel Washington. In his commencement address at Dillard University, he told graduates, “Put God first! Put God first in everything you do!” That’s certainly worth remembering.
The best advice I ever got is better than everything in Katie Couric’s book. It’s a simple and yet life-altering piece of wisdom. It’s advice I try to remember every day: “ALL the answers lie in the tabernacle.” One more time. ALL the answers lie in the tabernacle. Not a few, not some, not many. ALL.
Are you troubled about money, your marriage, your kids, your job, your health, your country? Are you sick or depressed or unhappy or confused or lonely? Sit in front of the tabernacle. Talk to Jesus in the silence and then listen to Jesus in the silence, and he will speak to your soul.
All the answers lie in the tabernacle. Go there even if you don’t think you’re looking for answers because you’ll find consolation, peace and joy. You’ll find everything you need.
“All the answers lie in the tabernacle” is the best advice I ever got…or gave.

Time changes the places that knew us

March is such a welcome month. There is the quickening that glows with promise, life triumphant. The first migrant robins and red-winged blackbirds arrive, and soon the returning birds will sing their ancient songs. Blue deepens in the sky, and a violet dusk folds gently over the earth and fades slowly. A line of geese is likely to be seen returning north. Another spring begins.

Yet, almost three months that make up this year have already passed. I believe we are allotted a certain period of time in this world. “And in Your book were written all the days that were ordained for me” (Psalm 139:16). As we get older, the days seem to get used up quickly, one by one. If I could stretch out the days like a rubber band, I would pull them out and out – and out!

How small a period time we share. This drums the certainty into one’s mind—the unique treasure of each moment; to take each day and treat it carefully; to savor the moments.

For me, March and Spring are times when the past comes to life again, vanished places, faces and voices. A while ago, to test my memories against the reality, I went back to my old block and neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. My home was a four-room flat. The rooms led into one another and thus were called railroad flats. There were six such flats in my building which was three stories high.

That flat left memories of pleasant excitement, of happy adventures, of warm sleep on howling winter nights, and joyous awakenings on summer mornings. I wonder about all the lives that have been in those rooms. How many lives have the rooms sheltered down the long years before welcoming my family? Who lived there since we left? How many? Were they happy there? I’ve prayed that things went well with them. Those railroad flat rooms were rooms in which some of the best things in my life took place.

There are the names of streets that marked the boundaries of my youth—Stockholm, Onderdonk, Gates. From Seneca Ave., one could see the distant spires of New York City. I walked to school every school day, and I can remember store by store, home by home, on those familiar streets I walked.

Time changes the places that knew us. I think everyone revisiting any scene of childhood invariably feels how smaller everything looks. The tree my brother and me used to climb is no longer so tall. The little grocery store my mother used to send me when she discovered she was out of butter, or rice or baking soda is gone. The vacant lot where I played fungo has apartments on it. Today, the kids on my block are Black. “Things are all changing; the world’s rearranging” (Willie Nelson duet song)

I recall those dear friends of childhood who were my elementary school classmates. To think of them can bring tears to my eyes.

I find myself remembering small events, so small I’m surprised to remember them. Katie sitting on the stoop; the girl with the mouth that turned up at the corners when she smiled; a drizzly November day; jump-rope chants; sounds of boys playing punch ball in the street.

There’s those giants of my childhood, the people who loved me and shaped me, who taught me things. How they live on. Above all, it is my mother who lives on in me.

How well I remember the melodies of my childhood:

Smile the while you kiss me sad adieu
When the clouds roll by I’ll come to you…
So wait and pray each night for me
Till we meet again.

“Night and day, you are the one, only you beneath the moon and under the sun.”

That Brooklyn neighborhood had become my place, that spot on earth which, as Horace says: “above most others ridet mihi.” It was the spot that nurtured me.

The years have spilled since Brooklyn. We move on, but the past is always with us. When I dip back into the past, I have a sense of something hidden at work—a God who works secretly and humbly. I believe a benign Providence was at work, a mysterious love and protector.

Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

There was God’s hidden but attentive care. “I greet Him the days I meet Him,” wrote Gerard

Manley Hopkins, “and bless when I understand.”

Oft, in the stilly night
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me:
The smiles, the tears
Of boyhood’s years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm’d and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
(Thomas Moore, “Oft, In the Stilly Night”)

I sigh for lost years, its vanished summers. Those dear, dead days.

The woman at the well is in my parish

There’s a woman in my parish, you may have noticed her. She comes in through the back and sits with her head down. Her eyes are closed and her hands are open toward the sky. She doesn’t look you in the eye but there is always the slight twinge of a smile pulling at the sides of her mouth. She is not dressed in her Sunday best, in fact, she looks as if she has walked for miles and miles to be here. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

When her eyes are not downcast she looks directly at the Cross. She looks as though she has weathered many storms. There is pain in the lines on her face, there are stories of hurt in her eyes. Her hair is windblown. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

She blends in to the crowd, she asks for no recognition. In fact, you may not have noticed her there at all. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

No one knows why she returns. In fact, no one cares to know much about her at all. And she likes it that way, for if they did, she fears, they might not let her back in. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

But if we were to listen to the stories she had to tell, if we were to care, we would surely see God’s divine hand woven like strings of gold throughout her life. If you were to tell her that, she would simply cast her head down again, or maybe look toward the Cross, the slight twinge of a smile pulling at the sides of her mouth. She would shake her head, thinking of her many wanderings, her many mistakes. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

Surely she does not know Jesus, one would say. Just look at her haggard appearance. She doesn’t even mouth the prayers, just sits with her eyes closed and head down. Surely, she cannot know Him. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

Little do they know, she is close to His very heart. And He smiles on her in her efforts. And when she falls—which she does often—He is there to help her up. He calls her to Himself. She is far from perfect, but that is not what He wants. He does not turn her away. He offers her Living Water and she drinks.

You don’t know her, you don’t see her. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

And when she leaves she tells others of her experience. “He told me everything I ever did” (John 4:39). “And still he calls me to Him, and still He loves me.”

They say to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).

The woman at the well is in my parish. She is here—week after week, she is here.

Now is the springtime of our social distance

It was only an onion. Half an onion, actually. I was going to throw it away. It had been on the cutting board for a few hours. In the time of pandemic quarantine, Daddy’s work on the computer gives way to dinner time, which gives way to bath time, which gives way to toothbrushing time, which gives way to bedtime and its stories about Billy Hennessey the Famous Tiger Hunter.

When the tigers have all been hunted, lights out gives way to a cold beer and a seat next to my beautiful wife on the couch. Cleaning up the kitchen comes last. By the time I got around to it on this particular night, the half onion was looking tired. Onions do poorly in the open air.

If I thought about it I’d have to say we throw away far too much good food: bruised bananas, elderly potatoes, cereal that just didn’t get eaten in time. It’s shameful, but only when you think about it. Most of the time you don’t. The great world spins, the fridge fills up and you say, “Soon it will be summer and we can have blueberries for breakfast and watermelon at lunch and won’t that be the snaps.”

So I deemed the half onion on the cutting board not worth saving. There’s usually a bag full of them on the bottom shelf in the kitchen and sometimes when you reach for one it has a green shoot growing from the top. I’m not sure if those are safe to eat or not.

A yellow onion costs what—30 cents at the store? Why settle for one that isn’t perfect?

Then I had a terrible thought. This coronavirus thing has come on so strong, so quickly. Six weeks from now will I wish I hadn’t wasted that onion? A vision came suddenly, as visions often do, of a broken society, a paralyzed economy, of complete chaos, the kind of place where you can’t get a roll of toilet paper, much less an onion.

I’m sure many have had similar visions in recent weeks. But such is my faith in this country’s resilience that I picked up the half onion and launched it toward the wastebasket with a flick of the wrist, like John Starks. Swish.

I wasn’t going to write about the onion. I was going to write about the sabbath, the Lord’s Day, the day of rest. I was planning a meditation on family and leisure in a culture of distraction. I was going to tie the enforced isolation of our pandemic spring to an assignment Clara was given at her new high school, Cardinal Kung Academy in Stamford: Arrange your weekend in such a way that Sunday can truly be called the sabbath day. Now that’s the kind of assignment you don’t get in a public school.

“Whatever you do, try to keep it light,” my wife told me as I went upstairs to write. “People don’t want to read things that are sad and depressing right now. They want to laugh.”

“Too late,” I said. The onion thing had already settled in my brain. Onions have so many layers.

In Italy they are throwing away people. The Italian health system is so strapped that doctors are doing the unthinkable, rationing care and leaving those deemed unlikely to recover—the old, the weak, the already sick—to their fate. Of course, their fate is death.

A trio of health experts wrote recently in the New York Times that we should expect such agonies will be necessary here.

I’m troubled by all this, as perhaps you can tell. My father is 85. He has all the health concerns normally associated with the later stages of this mingled yarn called life. My mother-in-law is 79. Her hearing isn’t so good. My Magdalena has Down syndrome. Society already doesn’t feel like it needs an excuse to throw lives like hers away.

What will become of us in this time of trial, separated as we are from our places of worship, watching Sunday mass on the computer like teenage gamers, kept away from our sacraments and at a social distance from our priests? What will become of our neighbors and friends, our communities, our country? I suppose it’s in God’s hands, as all things must be.

Keep it light, she said. Okay. Soon it’ll be summer. The bans will have lifted and the bars will be full. The shows will all have gone on. There’ll be good news on the radio, sun in the outfielders’ eyes, and fireworks on the Fourth of July. We’ll have a cook-out in the backyard. All our friends will be there, eating hamburgers, hot dogs, and watermelon slices. I’ll have a cold beer in the shade.

And won’t that be the snaps.

Waiting Patiently

Oftentimes, the spark of hope we need, the boost of positivity we crave is found at the most unexpected moments in the most random of places. And in these times we now face which test our patience and resolve, we will take whatever inspiration we can find. For me, it was in the parking lot of a small office building.
While helping my husband cart files and boxes out of his work place last Friday as he prepared to join the rest of the family in working from home, I was thinking how our society’s sense of normalcy had deteriorated day by day throughout the week. So much of what we knew and took for granted had ceased, albeit temporarily. Trying to process it all, we walked to the car, arms loaded with supplies until he stopped in the middle of the parking lot and glanced at two towering pine trees in the grove beyond his office. “Look,” he said to me, gesturing upward. “There, in the second tree. Do you see it?”
Squinting my eyes against the late afternoon sun, I wondered what “it” was until I saw a slight movement within the branches. A bald eagle. Large, commanding, regal. Right, I remembered. He had been telling me about this. That slight movement suddenly became more pronounced, and from there, the bird flew from the pines, wingspan out-stretched, across the cerulean sky. “That’s the female,” my husband explained. “We see her every day coming and going. She’s been nesting up there for weeks. Such patience…”
In awe, I stood there, watching her go. Such patience, indeed, and such beauty, and so obviously unaware of the surreal challenges that the world below her was confronting. Life continued as usual, if not for us then at least for her.
As we loaded boxes into the car, I couldn’t keep from glancing upward. These times have stressed us all, but the cycle of nature endured, essentially unaffected by our troubles. That eagle continued to build and prepare for what would come next: the completion of her nest, the hatching of her offspring. She was doing what she was meant do in this time, persevering in her world as we were doing in ours, as challenging as it may be.
Still awaiting the bird’s return, since my husband said she never left the nest for long, I remembered a scene from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” And so now, we decide to hope, to persist, to marvel at those unexpected moments that bring us the inspiration we need just when we need it.
The eagle did return, a twig in her beak, soaring across Southport Harbor with her unabashed majesty and grace and settling back in her nest to wait patiently. For she knew, just as we do, of the hope and expectation yet to come.

Leave the light on a little longer this year

I have a confession to make…my Christmas decorations are still up. Luckily for Catholics, we can conveniently use the excuse that the Christmas season technically lasts until The Baptism of the Lord on January 12 (or the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple on February 2, if we want to get really technical).

But something in me just did not want to take down the lights this year. There was something about their warm glow that I just didn’t want to lose, because the doldrums of winter just seem so long without them.

What is it about winter that always seems so melancholy? I know it’s coming every year and yet every year I brace against it.

Is there a way to hold on to the magic of Christmas a little bit longer? One could argue yes, of course, Jesus is always with us. But there still is something especially magical about a baby in a manger. I am almost moved to tears every time I gaze upon a Nativity scene. I don’t know if it’s the vulnerability of it all that pulls on my heartstrings, or if it is the silence, the stillness, the holiness.

My family experienced some health scares in 2019. So in 2020 my focus is on wellness—mind, body and spirit. I bought essential oils and downloaded a meditation app. I made some doctor’s appointments I had been putting off, trying to will wellness into existence with almost equal exuberance as my determination to keep the lights on.

But it’s the spiritual side that is tripping me up a bit this year. I’ve lost some trust. And maybe this is part of growing older, or maybe it’s circumstantial…or maybe it’s something else. I’m trying to do what works for me—to form an adult faith.

Is it okay if picturing the Christ child as a vulnerable baby as part of a young immigrant family in a stable is what works for me this year? Can the tears that come to my eyes be my own prayer, even if that’s all I can muster?

If Christmas lights until February works for me, can that be okay too? Can I leave the lights on a little bit longer? Can I sit in their warmth and feel held by God in the Light of Christ, if that’s the only way?

My hope is to remain in these moments, to take each of them as they come and embrace them.

There’s a beach down the road from where I live. I run to the end of the road and back every day. Some mornings I wouldn’t stop at the beach because I was in too much of a hurry but this year I am going to stop every morning. I am going to take it all in—no matter the weather.

The ocean reminds us that there are days when things will be tumultuous, but there are also days when a peaceful calm will wash over us. And we can experience each of them with the same openness.

And we can leave the lights on.

The man in the mirror and me

At 50, you have the face you deserve. I think I read that somewhere. Probably in a magazine. Remember those?

I’m not 50 yet, but not far off. If what the magazine said is true, I deserve a boiled ham. The kind with a pineapple ring stapled onto it with cloves.

The bathroom mirror at my mother-in-law’s house tells no lies. It’s good for me to check in with it three or four times a year. We all need someone (or something) that will show us the truth about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

Up in New Hampshire, where my mother-in-law lives with her mirror, things are different. The way the trees move in the wind would make the trees at home blush. It’s wilder. Like nobody’s watching. Like the garden before the fall.

I’m glad nobody’s watching as I examine my face in Chi Chi’s mirror. Chi Chi is my mother-in-law. We call her that. You don’t have to. Though I find that most people can’t resist. It’s a great nickname.

My own father we call grandpa, though he has a great nickname too: Hambone. Can you believe that? Looking at myself in Chi Chi’s mirror I can believe it all too well.

The face looking back isn’t all ham, but neither is it all bone. My 20s are there. Eyes still green, hairline strong as ever, teeth still straight. That stuff was useful once. Not sure what good it does me now.

My 30s are plainly visible. There’s a strong vertical crease at the point where my eyebrows meet. That’s the mark of the two degrees I earned while working nights and playing stay-at-home dad. My mother died when I was in my 30s. She’s there in my mouth, the way it slopes down at the corners.

The shadow of a pinprick on my earlobe marks the teenage earring debacle. I gotta smile thinking of the look she gave me after that one.

“There’s no sense in being Irish if you ain’t thick,” she loved to say. Getting the ear pierced, letting it get infected, and removing the thing after two weeks was pretty thick. But every time I see that scar I think of her. Time collapses and I can hear her laughing. So the debacle was worth it. Many are.

The 40s have been the war years. So many kids. So many fevers. So much tuition to pay. Sports. Music lessons. Car issues. Tax issues. House issues. No health issues, thanks be to God.

My bulging toad neck testifies to the barrels of beer applied to therapeutic purposes. The splotches on my cheeks give away my new taste for scotch whiskey. This mirror tells the down-and-dirty truth: You look like a rummy, bub.

Usually when we go to Chi Chi’s I announce my intention to stop shaving: “I want you all to get ready. Daddy is going to look rougher, more rugged than usual. Like Justin Trudeau or Ted Cruz. But you don’t need to be afraid. I am still your husband. I am still your dad.”

Goodness, I oughta just skip it. Such stubble as I’m able to muster is an insult to the other parts of my face. It comes in patchy and soft. Mostly white. After a few days I look like a fuzzy molding ham. The shavedown is a relief.

“Hey kids, daddy’s back!”

“Yay! Where’d you go?”

“Nowhere. Just shaved. Do I look different?”

“Uhh . . . different than what?”

“Never mind. As you were.”

My in-laws moved up to New Hampshire almost 20 years ago. The patch they staked out was pristine, deep in the woods, isolated. We loved going there to get away from all the madness at home, in what we thought of as civilization.

Lately when we go, it feels like civilization is coming with us. Some of those swaying trees have been cleared out. There are houses going up on the street. Now, when the wind blows right, you can faintly hear the traffic on the nearby interstate. In another 20 years, I’m guessing Chi Chi’s patch will seem a little less innocent, a little less wild.

Just like my face.

Immortal Diamond

In Farmingdale, Long Island, there is a cemetery named St. Charles. It is a vast cemetery, an immense necropolis. Row upon row of gravestones with their manicured lawns seem to spread endless, in every direction. The graveyard seems to have swollen to a city – the city of the silent. Indeed, a marvelous quiet penetrates everything.

James Joyce, in Ulysses, wrote of “funerals all over the world, everywhere every minute. Thousands every hour.” The statistic worldwide is that 150,000 thousand people die every day;

The daily harvest. Death is hungry. As Proverbs 30:15 says: “Death is never satisfied; it never says ‘Enough.’”

The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, was asked how we could better lead our lives and he said we should spend more time in graveyards.

At St. Charles, I read dates on gravestones and measure the years. There are many early leavings. One thinks about the lives of these young people, what were their expectations, the dreams that never came true, the disappointments, the unrequited loves. All that trapped forever. All the stories silenced now.

And we wept that one so lovely should have a life so brief,
so gentle and so beautiful, should perish with the flowers.
(William Cullen Bryant, “The Death of The Flowers”)

I had a friend named Rick with whom I went fishing in summer. He died when he was sixteen. He is frozen in my mind as a sixteen year old boy. He will always be sixteen, and it will always be summer. It’s been asked if the deaths of young people really are the saddest thing in life – they were saved so much and kept so much?

There is an area of St. Charles marked “Children.” Plastic pinwheels adorn each grave as well as some toy. So many of the children had only one year. They hardly got to exist. One thinks of all the child missed. The child missed 70 or 80 springs and summers. They never had the chance to marry or look into the eyes of their own first child, to finish college and launch a career. They never got to experience the joys and pains of middle age and growing old, they never got to grow old surrounded by love.

Parents feel that it is not right to live when one’s child has died, that one should somehow have found the way to give one’s life to save their child’s life.

Why do infants die? Is there something that bears the mark of God’s wisdom and providential care? Does eternal life give those whose life was cut short the opportunity to live the life they were intended for, and for which they were born? Will their lives be completed someplace, somehow? Can they somehow live to the full a human life after they have died” (cf. Jurgen Moltman, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, pp.117-118)

The gravestones tell that taken to the grave are countless “golden years.” How many people have stood in front of these gravestones imploring “Come back to me.”

Broken hearts’ remnants
Litter the cement bases.
(Emily Jo Manchester, “Graveyard”)

“For the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear the voice of the Son of Man and come out” (John 5:28). St Paul adds the Archangels call, the sound of trumpets, and the Lord coming down on the clouds (1Thess.4:16). I like to picture this literally taking place at St. Charles cemetery. Loved ones being raised, the empty tombs. All shall rise and bloom to fade no more. We will see our loved ones faces again, and hear their voices as they march toward us from their graves, telling us that all will be again as it once was.

Twill show us each forgotten grace
And make the dead, like flowers, arise
Youthful and fair to see new skies”
(Henry Vaughan, “The Day of Judgment”)

As for myself, my hope is expressed by what some writer said: “Tarry awhile, O Death, I cannot die with all my blossoming hopes unharvested, all my songs unsung. Tarry awhile, till I am satisfied of earth.”

There is a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins titled “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire.”

It is one of the last poems Hopkins wrote, and it is regarded as one of his greatest achievements.

The opening lines convey a delight in the world of clouds and wind. The poem pictures cloud shadows on walls and buildings, sunlight through trees, etc. The poet humanizes the activity of clouds and wind. Then Hopkins goes on to meditate on how undermining all the beauty of nature is flux. Nothing is stable. All things are subject to time and annihilation. It is a world where nothing lasts. Everything, no matter how beautiful, must die. This includes human impermanence. Humans too must suffer obliteration like everything else. The poet’s reflections continue to spiral downward.

Then comes the dramatic word “Enough!” The poet reacts from his somber thoughts with this cry and turns his attention to the Resurrection. Because of Christ, humans will rise to a new level of being, something that can be described as Immortal Diamond, something solid and everlasting, and imperishable. Something that was previously buried in the earth, the diamond, is as permanent and immutable as anything we know; it involves a sense of transcendence.

Because of the Resurrection, the human being, destined for oblivion like everything else, is also “Immortal Diamond,” something everlasting.

That workaday, ordinary, even laughable dolt of a human being will shine forth and become something precious and beautiful. He or she will be made into “Immortal Diamond.” There is the resounding affirmation of the last line of the poem

in a flash, at a trumpet crash, 
I am all at once what Christ is…
This poor potsherd is Immortal Diamond.
Is immortal diamond.
(potsherd = broken pottery)