Monthly Newspaper • DIOCESE OF BRIDGEPORT

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.

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.

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)

A model for all grandparents

I’ve often wondered what kind of grandparents St. Anne and St. Joachim were. Did St. Anne dote over Jesus because he was her only grandchild? Did St. Joachim slip him a piece of candy when Mary and Joseph weren’t looking? Did they spoil him with gifts at Hanukkah? Did they babysit?

Grandparents play an important role in the development of every child—even the Christ Child—and although their efforts were never recorded by the Gospel writers, you can be sure Anne and Joachim did their part and can serve as an example for Catholic grandparents everywhere. After all, look at the outstanding job they did raising Our Lady.

With Baby Boomers among the growing ranks of grandparents, it’s more important than ever to step up to the plate and set a good example the way that their predecessors in the Greatest Generation did. My daughters still amuse themselves with stories about my mother and father. I only hope I can do as well, although sometimes I have my doubts.

Grandparents are fundamental to family life now that both parents are often in the workforce. I recently got stuck behind a school bus and noticed that boys and girls were getting picked up by smiling grandparents. I guess grandparents are an inexpensive resource in a competitive job market. I know from firsthand experience because my wife, Sandy, and I regularly watch our 3-year-old grandson Gabriel, although I confess it’s more work than play, and by the time we get home, I’m ready for a nap…and so is the dog.

Both my parents worked to support our family, and for a number of years I lived with my grandmother on the East Side of Bridgeport.

She was an Italian immigrant who was widowed in her early 40s. She raised nine kids during the Great Depression with no safety net, and she raised them by herself. During the years I lived with her, she would take me across the street to St. Mary Church for daily Mass, which was celebrated in a mysterious language called Latin that I couldn’t understand.

Every afternoon at lunchtime, I would lie on the floor of her apartment in front of the stove with my coloring book and crayons, while she baked two sweet potatoes, one for her and one for me. Then, she sat nearby in her rocking chair, praying the rosary. Very often, she would doze off but miraculously wake up just in time to take the potatoes out of the oven.

Years later, I still remember that simple pleasure and those moments together. And years later, I still have a devotion to the rosary because of her. Even now, in anxious and frightening times, I’ll whisper to her, “Please pray for me,” because I’m convinced of the intercessory power of her prayers. Appropriately, her name was Angelina, which means “little angel.”

Back when our children were young, our oldest daughter would stay with my parents on the weekend because four kids could be a little overwhelming for us. My mother, who was the director of religious education in her parish, would take her to Mass and make sure she knew her prayers and catechism. And every May, she had our daughters participate in the crowning of the Blessed Mother.

I confess that I could be a better power of example for my grandchildren—Lennox, Mason and Gabriel—but they tend to bring out the last vestiges of the child in me, and sometimes, it’s all about toys, candy and fooling around.

Gabriel, 3, recently told me that broccoli was his favorite food, if you can believe that—and I couldn’t. He loves broccoli so much that at a dinner party, he stole some off his uncle’s plate when he wasn’t looking. That peculiar obsession ended, however, when I introduced him to Mike and Ike candy. He would have eaten the whole box if I didn’t stop him.

Then, I asked, “What do you like better, broccoli or Mike and Ike?” His response was instantaneous—“Mike and Ike!” Hey, that’s what grandfathers are for.

I’m really proud that his parents are teaching him to say his prayers, and whenever we go out to dinner, we let him lead us in grace, to the amusement of other people in the restaurant.

Of the many things grandparents can do—from helping with college tuition to buying First Communion dresses and babysitting—the most important is setting a strong example of faith. It’s something that grandchildren will always remember.

St. Anne and St. Joachim, please pray for us grandparents and our families.

“It Was the Season of Light…”

“It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness” wrote Charles Dickens in his memorable opening to A Tale of Two Cities. Though meant to illustrate the dichotomy of life in the 18th century, this line has always instead reminded me of Advent. The English teacher in me loves reading this novel with my students in December as the truest and most spiritual “season of light” is upon us. Still, we cannot escape the contrast of darkness as the winter days become shorter, colder, and gloomier with those opportunities for physical light dimming even as the light of Christ’s birth grows within us.

Leaving the house each day at 6:35 am, I see little brightness other than the street lights emanating a florescent glow and the harsh beams of cars flying past me. But as I travel up the Merritt Parkway to greet those students who I hope will be as enamored of Dickens as I am, one light illuminates the darkness of each December morning in a way the others cannot. Rounding a curve near the exit to Route 8, I glance to the left and see, perched atop a rocky hill, a miniature Christmas tree, settled among a small grove of pines—a solitary glimmer, an encouraging beacon. I can’t help but smile as it awakens me.

In these darkest mornings, I watch for it as I approach that curve, ready to glimpse it and annoyed at myself on the days that I don’t—like today. Preoccupied by nagging thoughts of my mental to-do list, I missed it. Throughout my ride, I felt the absence of that momentary sight and pondered why it bothered me so. It will be there tomorrow, I reasoned, or will it? How often do we miss a chance to bear witness to those small instances that may bring us great joy? And how often do we take them for granted? Too often.

That tiny tree offers a sense of comfort that little else can at 6:35 am—not the heated seats in my Honda, not the thermos of coffee, or the carols on the Bluetooth. Maybe it’s because it was placed there by an anonymous individual, one looking not for recognition but to simply provide that glimmer, that beacon of the light that we all need to see.

Like the flickering flames of the Advent wreath and the twinkling candles in neighbors’ windows, this little glowing pine tree comes humbly in its unpretentious, unassuming form.  Despite the surrounding darkness, be it the approaching winter solstice, personal struggle, or collective strife, one single brilliance has the power to enlighten us, for as John 1:5 writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

As we wait for the truest light that is the joy of Christ’s birth, I take personal comfort and joy each morning in the welcoming glow of that miniature tree, remembering that throughout the “season of darkness,” I’ll continue to keep watch as I round the curve toward the “season of light.”

Breaking the Second Commandment

Every so often I rent a movie to watch on my iPad because I don’t own a television. We’re not Amish. We just gave up TV when we realized the entertainment industry was undermining everything we were trying to do as parents.
With four daughters, it was virtually impossible to monitor what they were watching, so in a fit of what I like to think was justifiable anger, I pulled the cable box out of the wall and went to Walmart, where I bought a set of rabbit ears, which let them watch two channels for the news, the weather and maybe “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” or “Little House on the Prairie.” No more “Jerry Springer,” no more “Dawson’s Creek,” no more “Beverly Hills 90210.” That was a while ago and things have gotten immeasurably worse.
I eschew R-rated movies although PG13 can be pretty downright vulgar too. When I’m looking to rent a film, I usually google it and ask the question, “Why is (film name) rated R?” You’d be terrified by the answers. There are generally a large number of violent acts, sex acts, deaths, dismemberments…and the requisite “pervasive language,” which in simple terms means a whole lotta swearing. They say you are what you eat. Well, you certainly are what you watch.
The other day, I came upon a few movies I thought might be appropriate and I rented what seemed like the most innocuous possibility of all—“The Bad News Bears” with Walter Matthau, a classic kid comedy that most of us have probably seen several times since it was released in 1976. Rated PG, it seemed like it would be my kind of movie, so I settled down for a predictable plot with a few laughs along the way.
Now to be sure, there was no gratuitous bloodshed or recreational sex in “Bad News Bears.” However, I found plenty of swearing and, most disturbing of all, what was once called “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” which in modern America and Hollywood is perfectly acceptable. Everybody does it, right? Well, everybody in the movie industry certainly does it.
I lost count of the times Walter Matthau took God’s name in vain or used the name of Jesus as a curse. Every time he did, I cringed and said a prayer for forgiveness.
Forgive us, Lord, for using your name as a curse, for taking it in vain, which has become commonly accepted, along with four-letter words we sprinkle throughout our conversations at work, at home, on the street, in the bar and everywhere else.
I still remember being in fourth grade when we learned the Ten Commandments from the Sisters of St. Joseph. I wasn’t quite sure what the words “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” meant, but I figured it must be a pretty important commandment if God made it number two…when murder was number five and stealing was number seven.
A few years ago, I really started to pay attention to my language and launched a major personal campaign to stop using profanity even when I was insanely angry. I got so bold that when someone used Jesus’ name as a curse, I would object. As you can imagine, I didn’t get many invitations to sports bars and rock concerts.
But this is important stuff. If we don’t tell our kids, family, friends and coworkers that we don’t like to hear God’s name tossed around like a common curse, who will?
Whenever you hear anyone taking God’s name in vain, ask for forgiveness for that person and say a prayer of reparation.
Our faith is pretty explicit on this topic. The Catechism says, “The name of the Lord is holy. The second commandment prescribes respect for the Lord’s name…and forbids the abuse of God’s name and every improper use of the names of God, Jesus Christ and also of the Virgin Mary.”
God’s name should only be used to bless, praise or glorify and not be abused in hateful words, false oaths, anger, reproaches or defiance of God.
Never forget the fundamentals: “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

September

“In the soft light of an autumnal day, When Summer gathers up her robes of glory, And like a dream of beauty glides away.”
(Sarah Whitman, A Still Day in Autumn)
Already it is September. The sun edges south. Days shorten. Nights deepen. Summer is already a fading memory. The waning flowers are living their last days. A medieval poet said it well: “Now fade rose and lily-flower that for a while bore its sweet savor in summer, that sweet time.”
You see the changes in the way the shadows fall. Day by day, the shadows grow longer. And there is a slightly different tincture to the light—a softening. The grass looks a bit exhausted. The first dead leaves of a new autumn scrape on the sidewalks. People walk faster, and there is usually a sharper appetite.
Before the month is over, there will be the flight of geese going south for the winter. At first we hear the distant gabble. Then we see them penciled against the morning sky. They fly in their lovely wedge and always have a leader who pilots the flock. Their sound is oddly triumphant and exciting, but it is also the sound of another summer gone and the certainty of November and December.
The birds are busy. They begin to gather in restless flocks, migration on their minds. They often cloister on wires, rallying for the long trip. But mainly they are incessantly in motion, hoping, flying, alighting. You hear the change in the birds calls. There are fewer songs of ecstasy. Now they are filled with the excitement of migration time. They put on their pre-migration fat, often in grapevines and berry bushes. They will act this way for a time, and then be on their way. They may cover hundreds of miles in a day. Most of the swallows have already gone; some of the robins have left. There are those winter birds that decline to join the seasonal escape.
By the middle of the month the katydids and the crickets, which made the darkness hum and quiver, have pretty much run their course.  There’s quiet to the darkness now.
September brings back the routines and chores we have laid down during the summer. There are the old routines to take up again. There are the rituals of the new school year. Classes begin; teachers and others return to work. There are the school bus and train schedules, homework and soccer practice. Some fill the woodshed with firewood. We sink back into the old routines. For some, the changes are energizing and exhilarating, a time of reinvigoration and rediscovered energy. Parents are often relieved to have children in school again.
Now the furnace sighs and there is the sound of leaf blowers. The beaches are empty. There are the barren porches where leaves are gathering.
Even in September the year turns toward color in the woodlands. Maples turn first. Color tiptoes through its treetops, rouging a few leaves that turn yellow and red. The dogwoods turn early. The elm trees particularly look tired and begin to shed old leaves early. Then little by little the other trees follow.
September brings some of the loveliest days of the year. The sun has lost its summer fire, and days tend to be crisp and clear. There’s the sparkling freshness of a September morning. Thomas Hood wrote that in an early September morning it can be like “silence listening to silence.” There is the deep blue sky of September, and wonderful afternoons. with mild breezes and comfortable temperatures. There is that relaxation from summer heat. There are the soft September twilights, and sunsets are often brilliant and triumphant.
“Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too”.
(John Keats, To Autumn)
But September knows the limitations of life. In September, one can almost hear the sound of passing time. September tells us that nothing stays, all changes. Beauty passes, however rare it be. Nothing lasts in this world. But beauty lingers in those autumn shadows.
“And time passes, passing like a leaf…time passing, fading like a flower. Time passing like a river flowing. Time passing.” The words are those of Thomas Wolfe, in September we have a sense of those words.
September is insistently a time of remembering. Each September finds me with a sweet, faint melancholy. There is a haunting sorrow for the dead, for all those who were gone and would not come again. I sigh for lost years. Van Gogh understood there’s a certain melancholy that belongs to autumn. And, of course, September warns us that winter days lie ahead.

It’s not a party until someone counts the shingles

We had a nice little party. Invited some friends. Among our guests were the Freshies and the Frazzles.
The Freshies are a couple who are older than my wife and I by about a decade. The Frazzles are younger than us by about the same amount. We are all at different stages of the game. My wife and I enjoyed the glimpse that hanging with them gave us of days gone by—and days to come.
The Frazzles, as their fake name is meant to suggest, are still in the early stages of what social scientists call “family formation.” They have two children, ages four and two, and expect to have more. They are exhausted all the time. Nothing adds up and everything seems harder than it needs to be.
“Thank you so much for inviting us,” a sincere Mrs. Frazzle told me while bending over to reattach her two-year-old’s velcro sandal strap. “What a treat it is finally to be, you know, talking with adults.”
She laughed, but I knew she really meant it. As I topped up her red wine I remembered just how desperate it was in the early days. The daily routine of bottles, naps, snacks, strollers, diapers, bedtime stories and midnight pharmacy trips felt like it would never end. And then miraculously it did.
Our youngest is now in big-boy pants and (mostly) sleeping through the night. Our oldest squeezes in volunteer opportunities between texting her school friends and studying her Latin and biology. It feels like we’ve closed the book on that first chapter of family life—the one that leaves you feeling constantly frazzled.
Don’t get me wrong: The current chapter has its challenges. But they’re different. And we’re better-rested.
The Freshies, as their fake name implies, are extremely well-rested. Their skin glows and their clothes are without stain. They appear to get regular haircuts. Mr. Freshie took delight in circling the outside of our house, remarking on its construction.
“I like the shingle work on your roof,” he said, sipping a can of flavored sparkling water and shielding his eyes from the sun with his free hand. “Oh wow, you got three layers on there. That’s unusual. A lotta towns don’t allow that.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about but I envied his interest. Shingles and roofs must be the kinds of things that really grab your attention when you no longer have to do two hours’ worth of dish washing every night after dinner.
Two of the Freshies’ three children have flown the coop. Only their extremely mellow 16 year-old still lives at home. They have nearly run their race. They have kept the faith.
“Do you miss your older sisters now that you’re alone with your parents?” I asked young Ms. Freshie, the sole nesting daughter.
“Uh, no,” she said. “Not really.”
“You aren’t lonely?”
“Nope.”
I turned to Mrs. Freshie, who was munching on a fruit plate.
“What about you?” I asked. “You must really miss having the older kids banging around the house.” She wrinkled her nose and wobbled her head in the signal for “yes and no.”
“Of course I miss them, but let’s just say we’ve adjusted to their absence,” she said. The Freshies rested at noticeable ease, as if all—or most—of their troubles were behind them.
Gosh, I nearly forgot to mention the Fratties—the four young singletons we invited to provide what my wife called “age balance.” The only thing weighing on them was where they would go for dinner. Yet they seemed charmed by us midlife people with our alien concerns. One day, perhaps, the Fratties will grow up, get married, and invite me to their own houses. Perhaps I will comment on their roof shingles.
After the party broke up my wife and I convened for the after-action report.
“What fun,” she said. “The little Frazzle kids are so sweet. I could eat them up.”
“Do you think we’ll ever be able to sit back and enjoy a party as thoroughly as the Freshies did?” I asked.
“Probably,” she said. “Though it’s hard to picture.”
I agreed. Then I got to work. All those dishes weren’t going to wash themselves.

What does our heart look like?

I recently moved to a new apartment and it taught me a bit about furniture, which taught me a bit about people.

I never had to buy my own furniture, so the process was a bit lost on me. My focus was on finding the best price. What I didn’t realize is that quality is also a big factor.

I figured that wood was wood. But as my friend, my sister and I tried to build a piece of furniture that I ordered online and the “wood” split, I realized that there might be a big difference between what is real and what is fake.

In contrast, I had also ordered a few pieces of furniture that were older, but refurbished. The original pieces were solid wood, but they were painted in a way that made them look beautiful.

This brand new piece looked nice on the outside, but it was made of something fake on the inside. While the older pieces may not have looked as nice on the outside, they were true, solid wood on the inside.

This made me think about our tendencies as humans to want to put on a façade to the world. If we follow all the rules of the Church and we say the right prayers and look like we’re doing what’s right, then people will think we are good. But what does our heart look like? Is it real, solid and genuine or is it fake, pliable and easily broken?

In contrast, maybe our sin is visible on the outside. We’re not proud of it, but we openly admit that we have failings. Maybe we struggle a bit with the rules; maybe we don’t always get it right. But our heart is solid, we genuinely love God, do our best and strive to do what is right every day.

I don’t know about you but I would rather go with the second option. When we acknowledge that we are human, we can make genuine connections through our openness and vulnerability. When our hearts are in the right place, versus looking “right” to the rest of the world, that is when true love of neighbor can occur. When we reach beyond the things that seem important to the real heart of the matter, true change can occur.

I think of Mary Magdalene. Others knew of her sin, looking down on her for it, calling her unclean. But she was so very close to the heart of Jesus. She knew very much what it was like to be human, to have failings, and yet she was so very close to the Divine. She may not have been welcome at the temple, but she knelt at the feet of Jesus. And he loved her, ate with her, welcomed her and called her his own when others would have turned her away.

In a February 2015 homily, Pope Francis spoke to a group of Cardinals, referencing Jesus’ act of healing a leper: “Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (John 10).”

The Pope continued, “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: ‘Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners’ (Lk 5:31-32).”

This is the way I desire to be, the way that he calls us to be. The kind of open vulnerability that requires us to acknowledge our failings enough to be able to meet others where they are and accompany them on their path to Christ. I don’t want to just look like I’m doing what is right on the outside. Rather, I want my heart to reflect that of Christ’s, like a piece of furniture with inherent value.

Come, Follow Me

He was eighteen. He was just eighteen. He was outgoing and generous, an athlete, a scholar and a volunteer. He could have been my child, my student, my neighbor. He was someone’s child, student, neighbor. And he was my daughter’s friend.

When the news flew over social media of the senseless accident that had killed Chris, the anguish I saw in my daughter’s face was profound. “How could he be gone?” she said in disbelief, remembering shared smoothies with their friends, endless card games and hours of volunteering. “He was just here.”

There were no answers I could give for this shocking loss, no comfort other than endless consoling and a presence to listen. At the memorial, some comfort, she said, came from seeing a photo of Chris with a cross around his neck, convincing herself that he must be in Heaven, though the image of a strong, healthy eighteen-year-old in Heaven was almost impossible to comprehend. Even the hope that he was at peace could not ease all the grief. Never before had she faced such a tragedy. At four, she barely remembered her grandfather’s funeral, and when her great aunt passed away last year, her death at eighty-eight seemed somehow easier to accept. But eighteen? He was not ready, everyone said. Or was he?

She was ninety-one. She was a steadfast ninety-one. She savored a good lobster roll and treasured her sunflowers. She was a loving wife, patient grandma, dedicated choir member – and my good friend’s mother. When her body and mind waned irreparably, she surrendered them in her usual quiet manner. The family undeniably grieved, but she was ready, my friend said, having had her fill of all life could offer: the joys of marriage and children, the fulfillment of gratifying work, the abundance of pleasures and sorrows that naturally encompass close to a century of living. The news that Theresa had died came just hours after the news about Chris, but our reactions were as different as the people themselves – and their deaths.

Two lives, well-lived and well-loved. While we accepted one passing with understanding, we struggled to process the other. With Theresa’s came a sense of peace; with Chris’ a sense of devastation. As I sat at Theresa’s funeral, her pastor consoled the family by recounting her great strength throughout the many challenges of her life, reminding them how that strength came from her love of God who now welcomed her home.

And, I realized, Chris had been welcomed home too, though it appeared to us all that he was not “ready” in the sense that Theresa supposedly was. How are we ready? I wondered. When are we ready? Will we be ready when God chooses to welcome each of us home too? Though a teenager tragically taken as his life is just beginning lives a far shorter time than an elderly grandmother submitting to dementia, is one any less ready than the other? And how can anyone make that determination when it’s God’s choice to call us when He alone decides? As Catholics, while we enjoy our own smoothies and card games, lobster rolls and sunflowers, we keep God at the forefront of it all, guiding us to our own readiness and helping us to become worthy of His call, whenever it may come.

As the choir eased the congregation from Theresa’s funeral with the lyrics “Be not afraid, I go before you always, Come, follow me…,” I was reminded of the similar message from Matthew 11:28 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” In that moment, I sensed that both Chris and Theresa had found their rest. Eighteen. Ninety-one. Two lives, well-lived and well-loved who both heard a call from God to come, follow Him.

 

A saint like the rest of us

I still remember the time I didn’t get the job. Well, actually there were a few times I didn’t get the job and I don’t like to remember them. Then, there was the time I didn’t get the girl or the promotion or the mortgage or the college acceptance or (fill in the blank).

Life is full of disappointments, and I suspect if we sat around cataloging every time we were disappointed, we wouldn’t want to face another day. Sometimes you just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again, as the song says.

My typical response to a major disappointment is to raise my eyes to heaven, shake my head and ask, “Why, God, why? Why did this happen? Why didn’t you prevent this?” But disappointment is a fundamental fact of life that we can’t escape, and it has always been that way. As they say in 12 Step programs, “You are not alone.”

One of the most painful scripture readings for me is in the Acts of the Apostles, and we hear it every May 14 on the feast of St. Matthias. Although he wasn’t one of the original apostles, Matthias got the job after they voted to replace Judas.

St. Luke recorded: “So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas—who was also known as Justus—and Matthias. Then, they prayed, ‘You, Lord, who knows the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.’ Then, they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the apostles.”

Joseph Barsabbas didn’t get the job, and he was lost in the shadows of history, eclipsed by someone else’s success. Did he go home and brood? Did he complain to his wife and family that he was better qualified than Matthias? Did he walk away from Christ like so many others and return to his Jewish faith? Was he angry and resentful?

To my thinking, none of our disappointments can compare with not being named one of the Twelve Apostles. That’s the kind of disappointment I don’t think I could have survived … without Jesus. I’m pretty sure the same was true of Joseph Barsabbas, now known as Saint Joseph Barsabbas, who stands as an example for all of us who’ve suffered disappointments in life. He didn’t let his disappointment defeat him.

St. John Chrysostom writes, “The other candidate (Joseph) was not annoyed, for the apostolic writers would not have concealed failings of their own, seeing they have told of the very chief apostles, that on other occasions had indignation, and not only once, but again and again.”

Joseph was one of the disciples, who followed Christ from his baptism in the Jordan to his Ascension. He served Christ faithfully until the end. He became a bishop, and tradition says he was martyred at Eleutheropolis, a city in Judea, southwest of Jerusalem.

During the first century, it was a village called Betaris, which Roman forces under Emperor Vespasian attacked in 68 A.D. to quell Jewish rebels. Among the 10,000 who were killed was Joseph Barsabbas, who refused to renounce his Christian faith. There’s a relic of him in the chapel at the University of Notre Dame, and his feast day is July 20.

In our success-obsessed culture, we typically consider the guy who didn’t get the job as unworthy, or worse, a failure. God, however, doesn’t have a corporate mentality. With God, worldly titles and honors count for nothing. He’s not interested in short-term gains at the expense of long-term goals. He sees the entire picture, or more accurately, the eternal picture. And here’s a secret: We find Jesus in our greatest disappointments.

Even though God’s will is inscrutable, I like to think he knew Joseph could deal with the disappointment. I also like to think Joseph wasn’t less worthy, just that God had a different plan for him. He was a humble man, and Jesus surely considered humility one of the greatest virtues. (Let’s not forget the other St. Joseph, who was a humble man of quiet, courageous accomplishment.)

Even though he hasn’t been designated the patron saint of a particular cause, Joseph Barsabbas should be the patron saint of the disappointed. St. Joseph Barsabbas, pray for us, that we see God’s will in our disappointments.

Where mindfulness meets Catholicism

I am one of those people who reads about four books at once because I can’t decide on one. So one can imagine my joy when we receive books in the mail to our office. Something I am doing this year is keeping track of all the books I read to count up the grand total come 2020—so I am always interested in adding another to the list.

Every so often, though, one of the books on my growing list will make a profound impact on the way I think. I recently read The Mindful Catholic: Finding God One Moment At A Time by Dr. Gregory Bottaro. It was a book that seemed to find me at the exact time I needed it, call it Divine Providence, if you like.

A parishioner of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford with his wife Barbara, Dr. Bottaro formed the CatholicPsych Institute in 2012 to connect Catholics around the world with therapists trained to integrate the faith with the practice.

He has given many talks in the diocese and has worked directly with our bishop on a number of initiatives. He is currently serving on a newly formed committee for ongoing priestly formation in the diocese.

Being a strong advocate for mental health awareness, I had heard of and read about the practice of mindfulness before but never in the context of my own faith. When I can combine my other interests and passions with my faith, the fruit that is yielded seems to be exponentially more.

In The Mindful Catholic, Dr. Bottaro presents mindfulness teaching alongside hundreds of years of Catholic spirituality, evidence which shows that these techniques have huge potential for enhancing our health and wellbeing.

Dr. Bottaro’s advice helps the reader to become more mindful and teaches one how to pay attention to the full scope of life in order to have a greater sense of freedom, joy and peace.

Of the integration of mindfulness and Catholicism, Dr. Bottaro says, “This is a natural integration that comes from the recognition that something about mindfulness actually works.” Dr. Bottaro makes the distinction between Catholic-based mindfulness and Eastern-based meditation, saying that many meditative practices seek to empty the mind, while Catholic mindfulness views the mind to be full of reality, allowing one to see thoughts and situations for what they really are.

Having fallen in love with the Catholic view of the human person through the work of Pope St. John Paul II, Dr. Bottaro read Love and Responsibility and later more of his philosophy and saw these writings as essential manuals to understand how we’re made and what we’re made for. “This foundation provides the perfect stability for building an infrastructure of therapeutic intervention to help people flourish,” he says.

Personally, I had been using mindfulness to combat my own negative self-talk. I would find myself falling into patterns of self-deprecating thoughts, letting them lead me down a path that God never intended me to go.

In The Mindful Catholic Dr. Bottaro writes, “God made you with the highest dignity possible and with a destiny for greatness, but we can all be tempted at times by the thought that we aren’t that good. This sense is at the very root of why our minds turn against us in so many ways.”

Many of the exercises that Dr. Bottaro presents in his book are aimed at bringing healing toward these thoughts and patterns.

He writes, “Thoughts and feelings happen, but they don’t have the authority to lay claim to truth. Just because they happen doesn’t mean we have to obey them, respect them, or let our lives be run by them.”

By learning to focus on the thoughts and feelings that are coming in a particular moment, one can be made more aware of oneself, letting the thoughts and feelings lead them to the discovery of truth.

One of my greatest challenges, and a topic that Dr. Bottaro deals with extensively in The Mindful Catholic is seeing myself as God sees me. He writes, “Learning how to practice mindfulness in a Catholic context is a way to recognize the dignity God created you with and take care of yourself accordingly…your happiness is directly connected to you becoming more of who God made you to be.”

Dr. Bottaro explains that mindfulness is ‘awareness of the present moment with acceptance and nonjudgement,’ and that applies to our view of ourselves. The author describes the merciful gaze of God, saying, “This is the foundation of the gaze with which God looks at us. This is the gaze we need to look at ourselves with.”

Changing my negative self-talk is something I have to work on every day. But with practices like mindfulness and the roots of my faith, as Dr. Bottaro writes, I can “step out of the thought stream, watching the negative thoughts float by as if you are sitting on a riverbank watching leaves float by on the water.”

(For more information on Dr. Bottaro and the CatholicPsych Institute visit: www.catholicpsych.com.)

Dad will cry if he wants to—or not

Among the harder things to prepare for as a parent is the raw emotion that pushes up like an oil strike during big family moments. Our Clara’s confirmation got me good.

We earned our stripes with Clara. She is the oldest of our five. My wife and I could teach a masterclass covering all-night fevers, tick removal, car-seat vomit, tween drama, sideline pep talks, technology interventions, pop-star crushes, groundings, un-groundings and the rest.

You’d think 15 years of this dad business would’ve toughened me up. You’d be wrong.

Clara is the pioneer—first to do everything. And at every sacramental rite of passage I’ve had to fight off the ugly cry. At her baptism. At her first Holy Communion. When she made confession.

How could I possibly hope to hold it together at confirmation?

The Hennesseys are on a treadmill. The conveyor belt never stops: work, school, study, banjo, soccer, lunch, dinner, bed, up again, out the door, head count, back home, don’t forget, wash your hands, tie your shoes, go go go go go.

The questions are future-focused. How are we going to get these kids through high school? What about college? When will the mortgage be paid? Will the car make it another year?

So transfixed by what’s ahead. The past gets blurry. Sometimes the present does too. What day is it?

Treadmills break down. Without the conveyor belt moving beneath us, we go at half-speed. For a man of my emotional makeup this is the moment of danger. Call me a mush.

I knew I was in trouble during the procession. The candidates wore white robes, hands clasped like praying angels. The robes were for me what students call a “trigger.” White is the color of baptism. It’s the color of the cloth draped over the coffin.

Birth. Life. Love. Death. Mom. Dad. Eternity. The rush came fast. It gets me every time. Oh, goodness, it gets me good.

It wasn’t my first Holy Spirit rodeo. I knew the pot was boiling over. I took a deep, trembling breath. And another. Our Patrick, age 10, sat next to me, stonefaced, none the wiser, probably his mind was off in the Marvel universe.

For much of the mass I was mostly fine. Bishop Caggiano told us to remember to slow down, to make one good choice at a time. The right message, compellingly delivered. Teenagers, in my experience, want to get to Heaven but live in a world of easy pleasure and cruel temptation.

Well, we all live there.

I stole a look at our Clara while the bishop homilized. She looked so adult it frightened me. I imagined her vulnerable, the way dads do. The wolves will come. She’ll be a target. I’ll won’t be able to keep her safe.

Then, suddenly, she looked young again. So innocent. To be 15 is to feel like a puzzle piece that won’t fit. She handles it well. I saw her in that moment as a walking, talking miracle, the way dads do.

Along with another young lady, our Clara took to the lectern to read the prayer of the faithful. In her long white robe she was beautiful, self-possessed, her voice clear and steady.

That’s my girl, I thought as the treadmill came to a dead stop. That’s my little baby girl.

I should have been ready for what happened next, but of course I wasn’t. The boil was roiling again. Throat closed. Eyes welled. It was coming strong, coming fast. I had to act.

I made a noise as if clearing my throat. Patrick glanced. I pulled a tissue from my jacket pocket and blew. Fooled you, Iron Man.

“What’s the big deal if the boy sees you cry? It’s a happy occasion. It’s 2019. The Great Depression is over. You don’t have to be such a stoic. Dads aren’t like that anymore.”

To which I say, go pound sand. I can do what I like, when I like. I’ve earned my stripes.

The Divine Healer

In 2002, a prison chaplain contacted Father Larry Carew about working with an inmate who had been sexually abused by a priest. When Father met Tom, he had unruly hair and a long beard and seemed like “a wild man” consumed with anger.

He counseled him several times and shared a few minutes of prayer. Then, after a month, he decided it was time to engage in deeper healing prayer. As their session began, he told Tom to invite Jesus into the places where he hurt and give the Lord permission to remove whatever needed to be removed, including his self-consuming anger.

Even before Father finished his instructions, he saw an immediate change. “Tom’s face took on this peace,” he recalled. His eyes were closed and he was out of touch for 15 minutes. When he finally came out of that deep prayer, he said, “Jesus spoke to me in my heart and told me, ‘Tom, everything is going to be OK.’”

They continued to pray that the Lord would liberate him from despair and anger and infuse heavenly hope in his heart.

“The next time we met, I told him to let Jesus free him from the inner wounds that the abuse caused, from lies he came to believe about himself, such as he deserved what happened or that he didn’t deserve to be happy like other people or that maybe he brought it on himself,” Father said.

Once again, Tom immediately went into deep contemplative prayer for 20 minutes. For a second he opened his eyes and momentarily looked over his shoulder. When he came out of this state, he told Father, “My eyes were shut, but I could see us praying together. I could see us holding hands and I could see something else—I could see Jesus standing right behind me. He had his hand on my shoulder and he was praying, too. He was praying that I would be healed.”

Father explained, “That was why Tom had opened his eyes and looked over his shoulder … because he wanted to see with his earthly eyes what he was seeing with his spiritual eyes.” He wanted to see Jesus in the flesh.

Within a few months, this angry, wounded, depressed man changed. He smiled, he cracked jokes and he interacted with the other inmates and staff.

“It was such a clear example that the Lord wants to heal these wounds,” Father Carew said during a homily he gave at a Mass of Hope, Healing and Reconciliation at St. Joseph Church in Danbury. In his prison work, he witnessed other dramatic instances in which Jesus intervened to heal those who had been sexually abused.

“These stunningly powerful stories of how Jesus healed tragically traumatized victims of clergy sexual abuse catapulted me into a whole new level of faith in what our risen Lord is willing and able to do in the present,” Father said. “It is not enough to believe in what Jesus has done or even what he has promised to do for us in Heaven. When he proclaimed himself to be the Resurrection and the Life, he wasn’t just talking about a future reward of being raised from the dead on the last day, he was saying, ‘Get in the habit of asking me—The Resurrection and The Life—for resurrection surprises in the here and now.”

That is a message for everyone, Father says. “All of us need healing from this tragedy. Anytime we sense the weight of his kind of discouragement, we need to invite the Lord into places within us where this darkness has descended. Then, we need to give him permission to replace it with a fresh hope, a peace and a courage.”

Tom later wrote a message for the people who were taking Father Carew’s healing workshops for abuse victims titled, “Disregarding the Shame, Reaching Out for the Joy,” which hundreds have attended.

His words offered testimony of divine healing, and his message simply said, “Stay open to Jesus. He will get you past the abuse you suffer. There is no sin of mine that he hasn’t forgiven. I had to let him help me forgive my abuser. He will do the same for you.”