Monthly Newspaper • DIOCESE OF BRIDGEPORT

Timeless Moments

They seem to bob into consciousness without announcement or connection—images of people and places. A multitude of figures and scenes, fragmented recollections, show up at unexpected moments. There are faces of strangers I sat beside on a train and exchanged a few words with; the face of someone I took shelter with under the same awning in a rainstorm; there’s the haggard face of an alcoholic panhandler; there’s the quiet girl who sat at the next desk in the fifth grade. Thomas Merton referred to this phenomenon and suggested that these images are of people who are in some kind of trouble and we are being called to pray for them. Interesting.

So many images suddenly flame to life and insinuate themselves in my life. They are fragmentary recollections. Lost times and forgotten scenes suddenly return: my mother pulling down the blinds at sunset; suddenly for a moment I’m back in my Aunt May’s kitchen. There are so many images from the past that pass through my mind and show up at unexpected moments: a seagull with a broken wing, frost on a windowpane, the look of a street at twilight, a scene of Manhattan weather. I’m carried back to the dead people I knew. Momentary recollections like these seem to dot my being.

I have many recollections of scenes that belong to childhood. As I get older, my childhood self seems to become more accessible to me. The recollections are usually delicious moments, for example, the shore where childhood played. They are bright memories of kind people and lovely places. They are remembered with love and with a longing for a happiness I wish I could regain.

For oft…they flash upon that inward eye…
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils
(Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud”)

A frequent recollection is myself, a small boy, crossing a street, alive and going somewhere.

But there are also dark memories of old unhappy far off things. There are the sudden remembrances of things that made me feel scared and lonely, old failures and old hurts.

These sudden fragments that float in and out of my mind can both brighten and darken my life. There are recollections of sounds: feet on a stairway; a clanging bell; the clip-clod of a horse; a train whistle; the calling of a voice through the autumn dark; a voice calling from the foot of the stairs; the barking of an old dog. When I was little my older brother often followed me and kept shouting “Tommy wait!” I often recall that. All these recollections stir something in me, vague and tender.

There are fragmentary memories of fragrances, for example, the sweet, dry fragrance of talcum powder that clung to a girl. There are fragmentary memories of touch. After all these years I can still remember, and almost feel, the pressure of my father’s hand on the small of my back, guiding me across the street.

As someone said, the night is never alone, it remembers. It is often at night that peculiar memories pop up out of nowhere.

It is extraordinary the things I remember—so many seem like trifles. It puzzles me that I remember these impressions. Why were these things stirring to be remembered? Why do these scenes revive, or are awakened? Why are they remembered when they are? Why are some things engraved in memory? Do they arrive from “deep down”? Are they there for some purpose? I expect psychologists might have some answers.

In a way, they can evoke in me a sense of reverence. St. Augustine wrote about the religious significance of memory. Maybe these unbidden memories that suddenly form and dissolve mark places in one’s life where we were to hear the “more” that runs through it all. Life is holy ground. It is possible to see the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday. One can find meaning in the briefest and most unexpected moments. Maybe there is something like playing jump rope going on. You can miss the split second where entry is possible and you’ve flubbed up everything. Maybe we keep missing entries.

Do some of these memories involve moments of transcendence? There are holy sparks in every occasion. Are these recurring memories calls to listen to our lives? The co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, expressed it this way: “Life gives us moments.” There are moments of illumination, when the most ordinary objects and commonplace events shed the shackles of matter-of-factness and enter the realm of mystery. T.S. Eliot wrote in Little Gidding of “the timeless moment.”

Can I Twirl?

When the thermometer inched past 60 degrees last week, everyone seemed to catch a bout of spring fever. Though the warmth was fleeting, it held a promise of renewal we hadn’t felt in months, sending everyone into a frenzied mode of cleaning. My daughters brushed cobwebs off their bikes and took to the road, my husband found a rake to tackle our dormant lawn, the neighbors swept leaves out of their fire pit, and I … well, I retreated indoors to an area most in need of attention: my 14-year-old’s bedroom closet.

I was ready to purge—with her permission—the piles of too-small T-shirts and shoes that were trendy no more, along with forgotten stuffed animals, ripped drawstring bags, a pair of crushed Mickey Mouse ears, and several granola bar wrappers. As I sorted and folded, stacked and arranged, the opened windows welcomed in mild breezes, seeming to refresh and purify all that surrounded me, confirming an instinctive need for renewal. This to Goodwill, that to recycling. I was on a roll. The piles of donations grew while the piles of clutter shrank …until the last hanger made me pause.

Pushed to back of the closet, encased in a plastic dry-cleaning bag hung my daughter’s First Communion dress, still as white as the day she wore it. Oh, should that go too? I wondered, weighing my sentimental attachment with my practical need to pare down possessions. A consignment shop would love this. Fingering the tiny pearls and embroidered florals stitched near the hem, I pictured her, not only on the steps of the altar or near the cherry trees with her friends, but in front of a mirror at JCPenney, taking a short gasp at her reflection and whispering, “Can I twirl?” And twirl she did, with all the innocence of a seven-year-old, poised to continue on her faithful journey, one which she had reaffirmed just weeks ago in another white dress at her Confirmation.

What needs to go as we shed the inessential weight of our lives and aim to declutter? And what must stay because it’s an undeniable part of our past? “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit,” Psalm 51 advises, but at that moment, my spirit was not as steadfast as I wished it could be. The symbolism of spring and renewal was not lost on me as I held this dress in my hands, contemplating its future. While breezes gently stirred my heap of castoffs, I felt the importance of the past and the knowledge that we don’t need to let go of everything all at once to start fresh—just that burdensome excess like the piles of leaves in the yard or the old pair of Converse in its box. This cleansing of our lives is cyclical and ongoing, whether from the depths of a teenager’s closet or in the refreshing of our souls.

I placed the dress back on the hanger, behind the now orderly rack of shoes. Shedding cobwebs, tossing wrappers, and raking leaves I could handle. But that symbolic purity of youth needed to remain—at least until the next 65-degree day.

Not all prayer involves saying prayers

Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, arrived at the conclusion that there is one God who made all things. He further concluded that this God was a self-actualizing, eternal and immaterial Person. However, Aristotle concluded that this Supreme Reality did not care in any way about his human creatures. Relating to us would lessen God; it would be degrading to him.

Here is a quote from Aristotle: “God is self-sufficient and has no need for the service of others, nor of their affection…God cannot have any need of human friends, nor will he have any”

(Eudemian Ethics, VII, 1244B). Aristotle spoke of his friendship involves equality. Accordingly, there can be no friendship between humans and God.

This generally was the view of the Greek philosophers. For example, Epicurus stated that “it is absurd to think that the gods should concern themselves with the affairs of humans. This would upset their serenity and peace. Thus, the gods take no interest in human affairs and have no need of human worship.”

The Biblical God is presented as Someone Who knows and loves us in the uniqueness of our person. The Scriptures say He calls us by name and numbers the hairs of our head. He made human beings in order to offer His friendship. We are taught to speak of God as a “Father.”

Prayer is best defined as a search for God. It is an attempt to develop a relationship with the Ultimate Mystery. In his famous Rabbit novels, John Updike presents his protagonist, Rabbit, as someone who nothing he experiences is quite enough. He remains incomplete and searching. Toward the end of the novel Rabbit is Rich there is a scene that takes place at the end of day when Rabbit always felt most at peace, “the moment of the day when the light dims and the weeping cheery glows in the dark.” Rabbit insists to himself that “somewhere behind all this, there is Something or Someone that wants me to find Him.”

The writer C.S. Lewis spoke of prayer as seeking a relationship with “that unnameable something behind the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”

There is something in us that longs for God. Many experience a hunger for a deeper prayer life. The Lord was explicit and blunt in directing us against wordy prayers. “When you pray do not babble as the pagans do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard. Do not be like them” (Matthew 6:5). We are cautioned against wordiness. St. Augustine wrote: “To pray at a deeper level is not the same as to pray by multiplying words…God does not seek human words” (Letter to Proba). The mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: “People make a goat of God, feeding Him on word-leaves.”

We can grow tired of words. Sometimes one can feel that our church services are awash with words, verbosity. This can lead to such monstrosities of language as “Mother inviolate” and “singular vessel of devotion.”

Not all prayer involves saying prayers. Jesus spent whole nights in prayer. “In those days he departed to the mountain to pray and he spent the night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). It is unlikely he spent the night uttering words.

It was John of the Cross who stated that “silence is God’s first language.” Prayer often involves wordless attention, just being there, quietly gathered in God’s presence. “Stay quiet before the Lord, and wait longingly for Him” (Psalm 37:7). We need to build times of silence into our lives. Without silence there can be no interior life. We need to fast from too much togetherness and enjoy more solitude and silence. Solitude and silence are the sine qua non of contemplative prayer. Isaiah tells us to “be still and know that I am God.” The way of contemplation is found in all the great religions. It is practiced in Hinduism and Buddhism, among the Sufis in Islam, and is part of the Hasidic movement in Judaism.

If someone has a true experience of contemplative prayer, nothing else really satisfies anymore. Many people these days are experiencing a hunger for something more than a spirituality of devotions. Life causes one to examine one’s ideas of holiness. One tends not to see it as bound up with merit and reward; that’s part of the childhood of the spiritual life.

Close contact with worldly people often arouses a longing for the spiritual. We feel at times a certain weariness with the world.

A truth of the spiritual life is that “no one can come to me unless the Father draw him/her.” God takes the initiative. We do not get to God by our own efforts; God comes to us. John of the Cross stressed that no two people travel the exact same route to God. God has varied ways and methods to draw people to Himself. In the end, an individual is found by God.

Lately it has dawned on me that God is seeking me. For the first time, I truly believe this to be so. I look over my past and have a sense of God’s persistent pursuit. A mature spiritual life eventually feels much more like Someone has found you.

Back to college … defending the faith

Melissa decided to go back to college. After 25 years.

Things had changed and she had the misfortune, or dumb luck, of taking a course titled, “The Sociology of Marriage and Family,” which is a difficult topic for an orthodox Catholic in the hookup culture. Our views are countercultural on a lot of topics, but especially marriage and the family.

She found herself in a crowded classroom of young people and she wasn’t prepared for the tempest.

The first assignment the professor gave them was to write their definition of sex … and things went downhill from there. He called on an outspoken 20-something fellow who fancied himself the next Jimmy Kimmel. The young man stood up and gave a personal definition that included himself and his girlfriend and went something like this: “Sex is when …(content not suitable for a family publication, Catholic or otherwise.)

The class erupted in laughter, while Melissa sat seething in her front-row seat. Then, throwing caution and political correctness to the wind, she raised her hand and even before the professor could call on her, she blurted out, “That’s disgraceful!” The class was stunned.

“So what’s your definition?” asked the enlightened professor.

She was quick to respond:
“Sex is an act created by God that is love giving and life giving inside of the sacrament of marriage.”
“Where did you get that?”
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

Before anyone could snicker, she jumped out of her chair and pointed to the jokester in the back of the class and began upbraiding him with the vengeance of a district attorney assailing Harvey Weinstein:
“Do you have a sister???”
“Yes,” he responded sheepishly.
“Well, what would you think if …”

And so it went. During her soliloquy about respect for women, she noticed the girls in the class nodding in agreement. From that point on, students began calling her “Church Lady,” after the Saturday Night Live character. But Melissa didn’t object because she was proud of her Catholic faith.

They laughed but they listened and little by little, week after week, she noticed a change especially in the girls, who came to appreciate her views, which set her apart in a permissive and abusive society. So many young people are wandering in darkness, but when they’re shown the Truth, they’ll respond positively.

Marriage and the family are under constant assault after decades of social indoctrination that came out of the sexual revolution, which ultimately degraded the meaning of love and promoted exploitation, recreational sex and loveless relationships. Our challenge is to make sure young people understand the difference between the cheap substitute that society and celebrities promote … and the real deal.

We have to tell young people that despite what secular society says, true love and marriage are not what is portrayed in popular culture, celebrity lifestyles … and Saturday Night Live. The Catholic Church Lady wasn’t afraid to do that.

In an address John Paul II once gave to young people, he said things that are outlandish by today’s standards: “Do not let yourselves be carried away by sexual excitement, for this puts genuine human love at risk and leads to the breakup of the family.” Which is why, he said, “so-called ‘free love’ is morally unacceptable.”

George Weigel, biographer of St. John Paul II, said the pope recognized one of the most urgent questions of our age involved love and the family. As Archbishop of Krakow, he played a central role in drafting the encyclical Humanae Vitae and eventually developed the Theology of the Body, which restores a sense of sacramentality to the body, making visible the spiritual dimension of the human person.

Fundamental to John Paul II’s theology, Weigel says, is the belief that “Our love is a truly human love when it is a gift of myself to another … and not the use of another, which is the type of exploitation that characterizes the modern world’s view of sexual relations. We need to ask, ‘How do I live a life of sexual love that conforms to my dignity as a human person?’”

Sexual intimacy is sacred. That’s a truth that society, and many Catholics, have forgotten.

Gaelic football is our green new deal

Spring is here. The season of new beginnings. Of baseball and baby chicks. Of Cadbury eggs and confirmations.

We are involved in something entirely new—new, that is, to us. Our Paddy (10) and our Sally (6) are trying their hands (and feet) at the ancient game of Gaelic football.

This year at the Hennessey homestead Spring is the season of hand passes and Sperrin Ogs.

Gaelic is best described as soccer mixed with basketball plus a touch of violence and a pinch of volleyball. The goalposts are a mixed marriage of soccer net and football upright. It’s a sport mainly played in Ireland, but wherever Irish migrants settle in large numbers they are apt to form local associations of the county committees that govern the game back home.

Gaelic is quite popular in our new neighborhood of Southeast Yonkers, an honest-to-goodness enclave bordering the northern Bronx neighborhood of Woodlawn. Green, white, and orange tricolors easily outnumber the stars and stripes here, and not just during the month of March.

Mrs. Hennessey is consistently delighted at the preponderance of broguish speech she hears in the pews at St. Barnabas and the aisles of the Acme on McLean Ave.

Paddy and Sally have been learning this new game with the underage teams of the Tyrone Gaelic Football Club of New York—aka, Sperrin Ogs. I know from reading a bit that the Irish word “og” is a suffix meaning little or, in English parlance, junior. The Sperrins themselves are a mountain range in Northern Ireland that have been officially designated an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”

The thing is, the Sperrins are quite low-rise as mountains go. Add the suffix “og” and you have a translation situation leaving the youth squad’s name as something like Pretty Little Mountains Jrs.

That may not be the right handle to put the fear of the Banshee in your opponent’s heart.

Last year, on the Tonight Show, the Irish comedian Chris O’Dowd described Gaelic football for Jimmy Fallon. “It’s played a lot by farmers, people from the countryside, very rural, very rough, brutal but beautiful like a big wave,” he said. “A great sport. You should try it, if you like wrestling or death.”

Things are not so smash-and-grab at the youth level. It’s good exercise with a lot of running and the kids are developing a fair amount of ball-handling skills. I can see how it could be beautiful like a big wave, when played by people who know what they’re doing.

The best thing about the Gaelic experiment from Paddy and Sally’s point of view is that their old man has no idea what’s going on. I wish I could help them. I really do.

Yes, my family tree has roots in the auld sod, but I never played the game. Until recently I’d never seen it played. I’m unfamiliar with the ground rules and don’t know the names of the positions. The points and scoring regime are a mystery. Couldn’t tell you what’s a foul and what’s not. I wouldn’t be able to name a single famous player, or even say if there are any.

I can Google though. A little research shows that Gaelic was first played loooong ago. Irish history records the accidental stabbing of a football player at a match in County Down in 1308. This is the kind of game we’re talking about.

Things went dark for a few centuries due to the meddlesome influence of a certain neighboring imperial power, but the Gaelic football—and other indigenous revelries such as hurling, which is basically baseball where everyone gets a bat—played a significant role in the Irish national revival of the late 19th century.

Soccer, if you didn’t know, is an English game. Playing a purely Irish game was a weighty symbol to those who’d grown tired of the oppressor’s yoke.

In Northern Ireland, which, if you didn’t know, is part of the United Kingdom, Gaelic games took on an explicitly political bent. This is a place where politics and religion are sometimes indistinguishable. Gaelic sports, tied up as they were (and are) with expressions of Irish nationalism, were (and are) mostly played by Catholics.

Long way of saying: A Gaelic football family is a family that eats fish on Fridays. It marks you as papists.

Thank goodness these religious and political undertones don’t enter into Paddy and Sally’s weekend games at Van Cortlandt Park. America is a land where such ancient complications can be forgotten over a generation or two. Yanks like us are lucky we can still try something new, even if it has been around since 1308.

Sperrin Ogs Abu!

Beauty breaks forth amongst the ordinary

I sat in the hospital waiting room, waiting for inspiration. Well really, I was waiting for my dad to come out of surgery, but I thought inspiration might come, as it usually does at times like this. The faces around me looked tired and strained. I watched different families file in and out, hoping that in with one of them would come a story waiting to be told, inspiration begging to be beheld.

But as the hours passed by I realized…hospitals aren’t at all glamorous and maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t find inspiration here.

But sometimes inspiration comes in the places we are least looking for it. Beauty shows up in the most unexpected places.

Something my cousins and I always reminisce about is the way we celebrated Easters growing up.

My grandparents would hide our Easter baskets all around the house and before our coats were even off or before we greeted everyone hello, we would be off and running to search for them.

We’d look high and low, up and down and every direction in between, to the sound of my grandpa or my uncle behind us yelling “you’re getting warmer…or COLD, YOU’RE COLD.”

The thing is though, more often than not, our Easter baskets were hidden in the most ordinary places. Like in a coat closet or behind the stairs or in the fireplace.

These places that we saw every day in this old house now held hidden treasure. Something beautiful in an ordinary place. Something beautiful disguised as something ordinary or even mundane.

This makes me think of the crucifixion. Those who followed Jesus had just witnessed the grotesque death of not only their very best friend but also the Son of God.

But to others who did not know this, he was just another criminal being crucified. I can imagine the people that lined the streets as Jesus came by with His Cross, acting as if they were witnessing just another execution.

Something awful to some…but to most, part of their everyday lives. To them, something ordinary. “Who is this Jesus?” they might have asked.

But then the Resurrection happened. And that changed everything.

Something beautiful happened. In an ordinary place, in an ordinary time to seemingly ordinary people.

And God deemed Himself ordinary, because He loves us that much.

And because of this something beautiful, we can partake in the beauty of heaven.

After a long Lenten season, some of us may feel that our spiritual life has become ordinary. We may have become used to not having what we gave up with such difficulty in the beginning, or our prayer and almsgiving has become rote. But with the Easter season, something new is coming.

Eventually, those tired and strained faces in the hospital waiting room turned joyful, as they were called to reunite with their well-mended loved one. And so did my mother and mine, as my father’s surgery went well, in perfect timing for a celebration of new life.

Let that hope fill our hearts as we look toward this new season with joy. That hope that God has a way of making beauty out of the most ordinary things.

I guess inspiration did eventually come to me in that hospital waiting room…but not in the way I expected it. How like our God. Like an Easter basket nestled in a pantry. Like a father recovering from an illness. Like the Son of God Risen from the dead. Beauty breaks forth amongst the ordinary.

Failure is a teacher

This is not a news column. I write here about my family. Sometimes I report on my own struggle to be a good and faithful man in an increasingly weird world. My goal is to do it with a dash of style and a dollop of humor. I never, ever, want to be accused of laying it on too thick. My nightmare is that I’ll come across as preachy.

Occasionally a news story comes along, however, that practically stands up on its spindly hind legs and screams: Preach, Brother Matthew!

So, settle in. Here comes a sermon.

The hardest thing to do is watch your kids fail. It goes against every parental instinct. To sit back and watch them fail at something they want to be good at, that you want them to be good at, or that you and they think they need to be good at, is excruciating.

I am lately reminded of this on Saturday mornings at a local school gym near our house. Here, Patrick and Sally train for the upcoming Gaelic football season in our new neighborhood. They have no idea what they are doing, and it shows. The kicking, the passing, the dribbling—it’s all bad. No bueno. I find it hard to watch.

But as excruciating as it is to stand by and do nothing while your child flails away, it’s nothing compared with the upswell of pride you feel when they figure it out. The two things are related: If you can’t handle the pain of failure, you can’t enjoy the thrill of success.

Some things come easily to some people. That doesn’t change the fact that the greatest satisfaction in life comes from overcoming obstacles. Earned success tastes better, even if you have to take a few Gaelic footballs to the face.

God put us here to be fruitful and multiply. He wrote on your heart and mine how to do it: Have children, love them with all your heart, push them to be the best they can be, forgive them their trespasses, give them an example of goodness to follow. We know this intuitively.

Sometimes, though, because our lives are chaotic, our intuition goes screwy. We read the instructions upside down. We scramble God’s commandments and feed them back to ourselves in simplified form. Usually it amounts to this: Don’t hurt anyone. Fine. It’s what comes next that that’s the killer: Make sure your kids get into good colleges.

It would be so easy to mock the parents who were recently indicted as part of the college admissions scam. They bribed college officials and paid to have people take the SATs for their children. They embarrassed themselves. They conspired to cheat the system because they had the money to do it and the system was open to being cheated.

How easy to laugh, shake your head and say, “What a bunch of idiots!” It’s easy to think yourself better than them.

But are you? Am I? Really?

Saying I’d never pay $500,000 to get my kid into USC isn’t difficult. I don’t have that kind of money, and I’m betting you don’t either. It’s also quite within my power to say I wouldn’t cheat on a test, because cheating is wrong. That’s obvious.

What’s not obvious is when to stop yourself from hurting your kids in the guise of helping them. To succeed, first we need to fail. That’s the paradox.

Put aside for a moment that those college-scam parents were rich. Put aside that some were famous. Put aside that people get into elite colleges because their grandparents endowed the dining hall.

All true, but put it aside. These parents aren’t really so different from the rest of us. They love their kids and want the best for them. They wanted to help them and did the only thing they could think to do, which was to protect them from failure.

That was a mistake, but I’m guessing they realize that now. Failure is a teacher. Failure is a motivator. Failure teaches humility. It even works for parents.

Don’t get me wrong. You shouldn’t deliberately put obstacles in a kids’ way (says the guy who signed his up for Gaelic football). But if you insulate them from failure, you’ll insulate them from happiness.

I told you it was going to get preachy around here. I hope I didn’t lay it on too thick.

Holiness

The Second Vatican Council stressed the essential need in the Church for “stirring up a hunger for holiness” (cf. Lumen Gentium). What is the meaning of this “holiness” the Council calls for? One can wonder why God seeks a contact with human beings in the first place. What is He pursuing in us? We are told that God seeks something more from us than submission and reverence. We’re told that He wishes to be loved. Indeed, He desires to be loved above all things. Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (cf. Luke 10:27). I sometimes found myself asking, “Was God lonely? Is God lonely? Does God need humans?”

And then, on the other hand, Therese of Lisieux stated: “Oh, how little God is loved on this earth, even by priests and religious. No, God isn’t loved very much.” A writer nameaway J.H. Leuba pointed out that “God is not known; He is not understood; He is used.” For the average person it can seem that God is Someone the person never thinks of save in exceptional circumstances.

Still, we are told that we can have a personal relationship with one’s Creator. Is it possible for two beings so far apart to love one another? Can the Origin and Sustainer of the universe be the object of a relationship to be cultivated? Moses’ intensifying relationship with God is fascinating. Moses, the frightened shepherd, “slow of speech and slow of tongue (Ex.4:10) ends up speaking to God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Ex.33:11).

There was the God I grew up with. He had lots of rules and He was looking on approvingly or disapprovingly. He seemed prone to take offense. As I remember it, religion was occupied with saving one’s soul, avoiding hell, shortening purgatory. And there was a multitude of devotions (nine first Fridays, novenas, etc.). I made offerings to God of duties performed and devotions attended. It was a quid pro quo piety—I made deals with God. My view of God was essentially as Scorekeeper and as Spoilsport.

Eventually, a reshaping began to take place silently. The old things that used to satisfy began to lose their luster, their vitality. I could no longer see them as serving for a mature, adult spiritual life. My image of God began to change. So much of what was familiar began to fall away. That which was good for me yesterday was not right for me today. That which I had come to yesterday no longer helped me to mature, to grow and deepen.

I began to feel the need for something more in my spiritual life. For me, it was mainly Bible Study that led to a deeper and more mature spirituality. As Jeremiah 15:16 puts it: “When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart.”

There is the sheer poetry and beauty found in the Scriptures. Now many of my happiest times take place in the study of the Bible. The Bible never grows wearisome or stale. I even enjoy slogging my way through the scholarly commentaries. When one studies the Scriptures, what one leaves behind is much more than what one takes away. Christian spirituality needs to be rooted in the Scriptures for its nourishment and sustenance.

St. Augustine insisted that “soaking oneself in Scripture” is a part of holiness. The Second Vatican Council called for a return to the Scriptures as the primary source of Catholic spirituality. After the Reformation, Catholics were officially discouraged from reading the Scriptures owning to the emphasis given to Scripture by the Reformers. In 1692, a man named Pasquier Quesnel published a book in which he asserted that “the reading of Sacred Scripture is for everyone.” That comment became one of the propositions in the list of Quesnel’s “errors” condemned by Pope Clement XI in his constitution “Unigenitus Dei Filius.”

Today, many of us Catholics agree with the Scripture scholar Daniel Harrington, S.J., who said: “I find God largely in and through the Bible. Most of my spiritual life revolves around the Bible. It is for me the most important way to know, love and serve God.”

Bible Study needs to be accompanied by other kinds of reading. A spiritual life needs to be nourished by sustained reading. When we read, God can talk to us. Unfortunately, many modern people no longer read serious books.

There is a desperate need in our Church today for the recovery of spiritual depth. Spirituality is the hook back into the faith for many young people. They’re not turned off to spirituality. As we know, they talk of being “spiritual but not religious.” It is possible to be “religious but not spiritual.”

(to be continued)

God will provide

My mother always said, “God will provide,” but I can’t say that I always believed her. She usually said it the day my father got laid off from his job as a carpenter because winter had set in and there wasn’t enough work to go around, so he had to sign up for unemployment and drive down to the union hall every morning to see if there was anything he could do.

I’m sure St. Joseph understood the situation because he was a carpenter, and there were probably times in Egypt when he didn’t have enough work to support the Holy Family.

Did my father believe “God will provide,” as he sat at the kitchen table, with a bottle of Budweiser and a jigsaw puzzle laid out before him, passing the time in anxious worry about what tomorrow would bring … or wouldn’t bring?

If you ever lost a job and knew the fear of not knowing what tomorrow would bring, it can be hard accepting that “God will provide.” Sometimes God waits a little too long for my tastes before providing.

But my mother understood his mysterious ways better than we did. Truth be told, we never went hungry although God cut it close some of the time. She kept a dime taped to the bottom of the statue of the Infant of Prague, which they got as a wedding gift, because she had been told that was an assurance you would never go without.

Both my parents knew what it meant to go without because they lived through the Great Depression and went to bed hungry a lot of nights. My mother had to leave her family in Bridgeport and go live with her aunt in Stamford because her parents didn’t have enough money to support everyone. And my father was one of nine children raised by a widowed immigrant from Italy back before there was a safety net for the needy. They knew hunger and they knew cold … but so did Jesus.

During the Great Depression, I’ve been told, when you were down to your last dollar, it was a common practice to give it away because it ensured God would provide. Over the years, I’ve met people who did just that and swear it worked.

Sometimes you have to let go and let God and step out into the unknown. You have to have faith and a hopeful attitude. But trusting is never easy. It’s a virtue that is acquired from experience and prayer.

In her book “God Will Provide,” author Patricia Treece recounts miraculous stories about saints like Mother Teresa, Solanus Casey, Frances Xavier Cabrini and Padre Pio, who turned to God in trust when the chips were down … and he provided beyond their wildest expectations.

Of course, our idea of what God should provide is probably different from God’s. As long as things are going well, we can have a strong faith but when things start to get a little shaky and the going gets rough, we worry.

I even start to suffer anxiety when I look at my 401(K) statement and the accounts are headed in the wrong direction. You see, sometimes I confuse the assurance “God will provide” with the fantasy “God will make you rich.”

The Sisters of Life have a wonderful prayer called the “Litany of Trust.” It says in part:

“From the fear that trusting You will leave me more destitute
Deliver me Jesus.

From the rebellion against childlike dependence on you,
Deliver me Jesus.

From anxiety about the future,
Deliver me Jesus…

That not knowing what tomorrow brings is an invitation to lean on you,
Jesus, I trust in you.

That You always hear me and in Your goodness always respond to me,
Jesus I trust in you.”

Sometimes God waits before he provides in order to strengthen our trust.

Worrying about the future is part of the human condition, but it can cripple us spiritually. Jesus knew that and talked about it often. He meant for us to take him seriously when he said, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

God will provide.

The earth reflects His glory

If you know me, you know I love to be outside. I could walk for hours just taking in the beauty of nature. It is often in nature that I witness God’s presence most of all. Gazing on the beauty of His creation can bring a sense of peace, along with a sense of wonder and awe that makes me say, “God, I know you must be there.”

This love of nature has lent itself well to my enjoyment of photography. Capturing the beauty of God’s creation with the right combination of light at the perfect angle seems, in a way, to be a nod to Him. Almost as if each picture is a way of saying, “thank you, I appreciate the beauty of your creation.”

Over a year ago, I had the privilege of joining a group of young adults from around the diocese on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This was something I never thought I would be able to do and an experience I am forever grateful to have had.

I never really imagined what it would be like to travel to the Middle East. Any image I had ever seen of that area of the world seemed barren and even dangerous.

That being said, one of the things that surprised me most about being there was the sheer beauty of the land around us. Each place we went was more beautiful than the next. We were surrounded by palm trees, lush vegetation and sunsets over the sea. Even the desert, which most would expect to be dry and void of life, was absolutely breathtaking.

When I’m reading the Gospels, I often picture the places that we traveled to. I look back at the pictures I took as reminders. It makes a difference knowing they are real, tangible, beautiful places.

This seems especially heightened during Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Having been there makes it all the more real, even though it all occurred some two thousand years ago.

The forty days of Lent mirror the forty days that Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert. We know it is a real place. We know because we’ve been there.

I can’t help but picture the Mount of Temptations in Jericho, surrounded by mountains of rock and sand. We hiked up to a monastery build high up in that rock. Although the monastery and the buildings below it would not have been there when Jesus was, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the land might have looked like at the time. It makes a difference knowing it was a real place.

It helps the Gospels come alive when we can picture an actual place in which they occurred. When the Pharisees tried to silence the crowd of disciples upon our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, Jesus responded, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). I believe it. The earth reflects His glory. His creation can be a prayer, wherever you may be.

He has made all ground holy: Every time we watch a sunrise or a sunset. Every time we walk by the beach or hike up a mountain. Every time we witness the change of seasons; the fresh fallen snow, a tree of bright orange leaves or the first buds of spring.

As Thomas Merton wrote, “Let me seek, then, the gift of silence and poverty and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.”

Shake the hand that shook the hand

We’re having some work done on the roof of the new house. The chimney is twisted and needs to be rebuilt. Friends gave us the number of a guy we could call to fix it.

McNulty is from Ireland. He told me he did “finishing work” for Guinness. I know what Guinness is. What finishing work is I have no idea. McNulty came one windy weekend to asses the chimney’s twist. We stood together in the driveway, eyes on the sky. We both saw the problem but McNulty saw what I couldn’t: How to fix it.

I only know how to fix sentences.

The meeting took five or ten minutes. “It’s no good Matchoo,” he said, pronouncing my name in what I took to be Dublinese. “You don’t want one of them bricks coming loose and falling down into the driveway while the kids are playing and all.” We agreed that was something I did not want. “I’ll talk to my brick man—Billy from Kildare—and we’ll get you sorted straight away.”

We shook hands on the sidewalk and parted ways. As I watched him leave I thought, “My goodness my hands are an embarrassment.”

McNulty is a slightly built man but his hands were like cinderblocks wrapped in sandpaper. Shaking my hand must have felt, to him, like meeting a man-size chinchilla with opposable thumbs. I am inadequate in the hands department.

Pinkish, uncalloused, and prone to cracking in winter, mine are the hands of man who has only ever worked indoors. My palms are like pillows; my fingers like sausage links. Ever see a tree that has grown around a chain-link fence? That’s what my wedding ring looks like.

Years ago I worked in bars. I sliced lemons with sharp knives. I tossed around kegs and dunked pint glasses in scalding hot water. The enemy then was small nicks and cuts, which were annoying and could let in bacteria that could get me sick and unable to work. No one wants a drink served by a bartender with a scabby hand or a runny nose. I used lotion and other manly emollients to care for my hands.

These days my hands do nothing more dangerous than hunting and pecking. My desk is ergonomic. My keyboard has a wrist rest. I still get little nicks and cuts, but mostly from the sharp corners of Post-it notes. I have one callous—on the tip of the finger that does my most aggressive deleting.

When I was a kid the joke was that plumbers made more than guys who worked in offices. Now I hear you can make a good living as a welder. My hope for my sons is that they have manlier hands than I do. Maybe I’ll send them to welder’s college.

Jesus was a carpenter’s son. Some scholars say the Greek word tekton, usually translated as “carpenter,” really means “builder.” It’s possible that Joseph was actually more of a stone mason. Either way, if Jesus worked alongside his father, his hands must have been rough. Like McNulty’s, not like mine.

Jesus swung a hammer. He knew his way around a workbench and a toolkit. He was fit for a job using chisels. So many familiar images of Our Lord convey a different vibe. Arms outstretched and surrounded by divine light, the Jesus of our time is a softie. We see him in hippy robes, cuddling a lamb. He hammers out justice, not stone blocks.

We see Jesus sad-eyed at the Last Supper. We see his thin, broken body on the cross, his hands bloodied by the nails, his lean torso twisted. But Jesus was a working man. Yes, the message of his public ministry was mercy, but his day job was building houses.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see an icon of Our Lord that makes him look like what he was? Some artist should render his misshapen fingernails and tough, calloused palms. If he needs a model, I can give him McNulty’s number.

A river that never pauses

Over the course of my life, there were days I wanted to salvage from the rush of time. I wished I could preserve a certain day from sliding away into the flow of time. I can picture myself clinging to a lovely, fulfilling day, repeating to myself “Don’t go—not yet—not yet—.” I wished I could stretch the day like a rubber band—pull it out and out and out. But time would not relent and the day slipped away as fast as any other.

I often wonder, where did they go, those used up days. John Donne wrote “tell me, where all past years are” (“Go Catch a Falling Star”). Do past years and days slip into nothingness? Or do they have some kind of eternal presence in God? Is there a gathering of all temporal times in an eternal present? Pavel Florensky, a Russian philosopher and priest, stated: “The past has not passed away, but is eternally preserved somewhere and continues to be real.” A modern Catholic philosopher, John Haught, also asks “do all things somehow remain in God?” He also asks “where does each moment come from in the first place?” (What Is God? p.25).

God is the giver of time. The sovereignty of God over the length of our lives is taught in Scripture. Our days are numbered, our term of life is fixed. Job 14:5: “Man’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and set limits he cannot exceed.”

Psalm 139:16: “In your book were written all the days that were ordained for me when none of them as yet existed.” We all have our earthly allotment of time. A number of psalms pray to God: “Do not take me away before my days are complete” (Psa.102).

The Scriptures frequently summon us to remember the past, e.g., Psalm 143:5: “I remember the days of long ago…I muse on the work of your hands.” When I look over my own life and ask myself which years of it I would particularly like to live over again, I think the happiest times were my boyhood times, the time when life was young. As W.B. Yeats put it, it was the time “when I was a boy with never a crack in my heart” (“The Meditation of the Old Fisherman”).

My boyhood years were kind years to me. There were those vanished summers of a simpler era, a time of splendor in the grass. I shopped at Kresge’s and took girls to ice cream parlors. It was a time of innocent and uncomplicated faith. Something I chiefly remember about those days is the absence of fear. Now fear seems to be a companion of us all. Job 29:1,4: “Oh, that I were as in years past…As I was in my flourishing days, when God sheltered my tent.” Or, as Shakespeare put it, “O! call back yesterday, bid time return” (Richard I, Act 3, Scene 2).

Time moves and all things come to an end. All things run their courses to their appointed ends. As Edmond Waller, the 17th century poet, put it in his beautiful poem “Go, Lovely Rose” there are so many lost and lovely things. Even that which is wondrous, sweet and fair doesn’t last. “The time of her sweetness and fairness, will be short lived.”

There is a Spanish proverb that says, “there are three tyrants—the weather, il Padre, and il Tempo.”

There are the dear, dead joys of those days long past—the brightness and beauty that could not last. So many people I loved from my boyhood days naturally have died. When you lose somebody who remembers who and what you were in the fifth grade, you bury a part of yourself, a part of your life. Nobody remembers me as the fifth grader who made that splendid catch on a baseball field long since plowed under for condominiums. There’s no one in whose eyes I can meet that fifth grader who sank the two foul shots that won that important game.

The dead are very close to me these days. I can see their faces. I long for them to be living and to have it all over again. There was a song from my boyhood days titled “Till We Meet Again”:

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.

Shelter from the storm

When my grandparents arrived in America almost a century ago, they moved into a second-floor flat on Sherman Street in Bridgeport, across from St. Mary Church and next to the convent where the Sisters of Mercy lived.
They didn’t know what the New World would bring, but they were hopeful it would be better than what the Old World offered. They raised nine kids in that apartment. Then, my grandfather died, leaving my grandmother to raise them alone. Her name was Angelina, or “little angel,” which I’ve always believed was an appropriate epitaph for her life.
During the Great Depression, she sent the boys out to shine shoes on East Main Street and collect coal that had fallen off trucks down by the harbor. In those days, there were no social service agencies to help her. There was only the Church.
Her children went to St. Mary School, and the nuns spared no discipline when it came to my father and his brothers. On Sunday, my grandmother made sure everyone was up in time for Mass.
When I was a young boy, I lived with her for several years and we went to Mass at St. Mary’s together. I still recall its stunning stained glass windows and the beautiful image of the Blessed Mother being assumed into Heaven.
As I knelt in the quiet, the priest intoned the words of the Consecration in Latin. Beside me, my grandmother fingered her rosary beads. She was one of the little gray-haired ladies you saw so often, a Catholic icon from an earlier time, who prayed the Rosary because she believed in its tremendous spiritual power and Our Lady’s unfailing intercession.
As a child, I would lie on the kitchen floor by the stove with my coloring book while she baked two sweet potatoes for us and sat in her rocking chair, praying the Rosary. Someday I’ll learn the true power of her prayers. You see, she was one of those people that secular elitists ridicule nowadays because they pray to God for help and consolation…and because they place their faith in Christ rather than politicians and world leaders.
Years later, while I was at St. Joseph High School, we went to St. Mary School once a week to tutor students. The church was the same, but by then my grandmother was living in a nursing home in Milford.
Another time, I went to confession, and Father Ed Coyne tore into me for some adolescent indiscretion, which prompted me to come out of the dark confessional and vow, “I’m never going back to that guy!” God, however, had different plans. He later became a good friend…and I often went to him for confession. He’d always be sitting in the reconciliation room, praying the Rosary.
A while back, I visited St. Mary’s for the first time in a very long time. The school and convent were gone. The old church, which had been demolished in 1982, was replaced by a beautiful circular building with a tile mosaic of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe over the front doors. The original stained-glass windows surround the interior, and there is a large image of the risen Christ above the altar. A statue of St. Anthony, which once stood in the old church, is at the entrance along with St. John the Baptist, patron of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
An Adoration Chapel was added, where daily Mass is held with Eucharistic Adoration from 8 am to 10 pm Monday through Friday. Above the altar is a replica of the cross of San Damiano from which Christ spoke to St. Francis of Assisi and told him to rebuild his church. On the altar is a relic of Francis.
The mission of St. Mary’s is still the same—to spread the love of Christ to everyone, particularly those who are dispossessed and impoverished, spiritually and physically. That morning I met Father Rolando Torres, who introduced me to a family that had just arrived from Puerto Rico after losing everything in Hurricane Maria. Father found them an apartment, and introduced them to the parish. Their story reminded me of my grandparents’ experience as Italian immigrants arriving in Bridgeport so long ago.
In 2000 years, the mission of the Church has not changed. It is still the source of spiritual nourishment, it is still the source of charity and love, and it is forever the light that leads us to Christ in a darkened world.

Defend Us In Battle

I’m a student of pubs. Maybe it’s because my dad owned one. Maybe it’s because they smell so good, especially that front-door bouquet of stale beer, hamburger, air conditioning, and disinfectant. The flavor profile at my dad’s place included the unmistakable overlay of nicotine, but even without that, the pub smell is a sensory experience beloved of the truly cultured.

Many of the best pubs are decorated with framed Irish blessings. “May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back”—that kind of thing. Here’s a good one: “May those who love us, love us. For those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts. And if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may He turn their ankles, so we will know them by their limping.”

A lifetime of study has taught me that roughly 72 percent of the Irish pubs in New York feature a toast ending thusly: “May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”

We talk a lot about the devil, even if we don’t usually think much about what we mean by the word. Sometimes we use it as a kind of synonym for temptation, or a catch-all excuse for our own bad behavior. “The devil made me do it the first time,” sang Waylon Jennings in 1973, before adding, “the second time I done it on my own.”

The idea of the devil is a bit of a cartoon to us now. If you’re my age, you remember that great line delivered by Kevin Spacey in “The Usual Suspects”: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The devil most certainly exists. From the grand jury report exposing the shocking sexual abuse of 1,000 victims in Pennsylvania over seven decades to the New York Archdiocese review board’s finding that the allegations of sexual abuse against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick were “credible and substantiated,” this summer has reminded every Catholic that the enemy always has the one true Church in his sights.

My wife and I, like all parents, have always wondered how to approach the problem of evil with our children. When to tell them about the worst things in the world? How to keep innocence from descending into ignorance? No one wants to place vile ideas in clean hearts. No one wants to sully what’s pure. Our love for our children makes us, naturally, protective.

Then again, no one wants a child to end up in a vulnerable position because they’ve been kept in the dark about the filth in the world. We love our children, and we are compelled to keep them safe, but there comes a point when you have to lay it on the line: The devil exists, and he’s working hard to defile everything that’s good, true, free, and holy.

Watch your back. The devil has nothing better to do than try to keep you out of Heaven. And he’s got more than 30 minutes to do it.

My wife and I homeschool our children. This has afforded us the ability to regulate more aggressively than is typical our children’s exposure to the funkier stuff. But we know that it also makes it more likely that they will find out later than their peers that the world can be a terrible place. We worry this will place them at a disadvantage. We know the devil lurks in wait.

The priests of the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford solved our problem. They kept alive a tradition that had lately gone lax—recitation of the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel at the end of Mass.

“St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan, and all evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.”

When we first started attending Mass at St. John’s, this prayer was a mystery to us. It had fallen out of favor during the last few decades in the life of the church—probably because of its unrelenting insistence on the presence of true evil in the world and its clear reference to the existence of the devil.

We learned that prayer. Our children learned that prayer. Now they pray it every night before bed on the principle that it’s better to be safe than sorry. In his wisdom, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano has decreed that in response to the abuse scandal all parishes shall recite this prayer after Mass. I hope it catches on in other dioceses.

Evil spirits seeking the ruin of the souls? Yes, kids, and if St. Michael does his job, you will know them by their limping.

That Old House

My mother hated the house on Speedwell Avenue. She may have had her reasons. The kitchen was small, the sink was too far from the stove, there was one bathroom for six people, and the whole place drooped slightly so the bedroom doors wouldn’t close. Then again, it was home.

We moved there in 1979. I was six. Before that we’d lived in the house where my dad grew up. It was built in 1886 by my great-grandfather John T. Murphy. My dad told us that John T.’s ghost still lived in the attic. I don’t think my mom liked that house much either.

I didn’t hate those houses. I loved them, especially the Speedwell house, which was quirky in the best way. I loved the sounds it made; the creaks in the floorboards; the squeaks; the little bell my mother hung on the doorknob so she’d know when some late-night sneaker let himself in.

I loved the staircase landing where the laundry baskets piled up; the bathroom with the light switch on the outside; the living-room window that gave the whole neighborhood a view of our Christmas tree; the ancient and faded wallpaper; the decorative Tuscan columns in the living room.

I loved all of it in the way of a child. That’s the way that doesn’t see your parents struggling to pay the electric bill. That’s the way that doesn’t know how annoying it is to have a lawn with grass that just won’t grow or a white picket fence that’s missing a few pickets.

When I drive by that house now I’m shocked at how small the property looks. As a kid I thought it was plenty big—practically an estate. We played every sport imaginable in its friendly confines, with eccentric grounds rules covering Wiffle balls hit over the porch roof or off the side of the house.

The driveway was only wide enough for a single car, and bounded on one side by a hedge, so we played quarter-court basketball. There was room for a layup on the right, but you could only launch jumpers from the left. The hedge led the league in rebounds.

My mother eventually achieved her dream of leaving that house, but before she did 234 Speedwell served as the setting for many great moments in the life of the family. Graduations, birthdays, homecomings, and holidays, of course, but also the unpleasant stuff—the hard Christmas when I dropped out of college, the frightening day my mother fainted and was taken away in an ambulance, my father’s heart attack.

One day I was coming home from high school and found Onyx, my sister Mary Ann’s cat, dead on the side of the road. She’d been hit by a car.

I buried Onyx using a garden spade near my mother’s rose bushes. Mom called Mary Ann to deliver the bad news.

“Mare,” she said. “Onyx bit it.” My mother wasn’t sentimental about pets.

The surprise party for my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary was a famous hooley. A platoon of friends and relatives who’d gathered up the block were led in by a bagpiper. Mary Ann’s 21st birthday party featured a keg of beer that she and her friends couldn’t quite drain. Me and my teenage friends tried to finish the job the following afternoon.

I did the lion’s share of my growing up on Speedwell Avenue.

I tell you all this because we moved recently, leaving behind a house—and a community—that we had grown to love. My son Patrick got emotional when I told him we’d be moving. He’s about to be 10, and probably thinks of Millport Avenue the same way I think of Speedwell Avenue.

Patrick didn’t know the house was too small for us. He didn’t know the long commute was poisoning Daddy’s soul. He didn’t know how badly his parents wanted a house of their own. Millport Avenue was just his home, the setting for his family memories, and he didn’t want to leave.

“I’m gonna miss this place,” he told me, his eyes brimming with tears. “I’m gonna miss all my friends.” I promised he’d make new ones. He didn’t care. All that mattered was that we were going and we weren’t coming back.

How much would I love to walk through that old house again—to hear the bell ring as I come through the door and the stairs creak as I take them two at a time, to flip that hallway switch on my way into the bathroom, to sink a jumper from the left side of the driveway? I’d give anything to look up from the kitchen table and see my mom again, or to hear her sigh because the sink’s too far away from the stove.

I put my arm on Patrick’s shoulder and, pulling him to my side, said, “I know, bud. I know.”