Uncle Bill

We are in Philadelphia this weekend, helping Aunt Barbara with the final cleaning of Uncle Bill’s house. Bill died on the anniversary of my own father’s death back in July. He had fallen a few days before and suffered a stroke, or perhaps the other way around. In the end, Bill was 95 and a half years old and my children were disappointed that his death came the day we shipped out to Europe, meaning that we would miss his funeral. Adding to the disappointment was knowing how many aunts and uncles on my side would gather in Philly for Bill’s funeral.

As it turned out, his burial was in Ireland a day before we touched down there, so we missed that too. Still, we lit candles for Bill across Europe and kept him close as we traveled. Bill and Barbara were together for more than fifty years. He proposed marriage once, she declined, and so they lived separate lives and yet were together always. Every memory I have of weddings, funerals, and trips to see Barbara always included Bill. Even when Aunt Barbara, dad’s only sister, would visit Tennessee with my grandmother, stories and greeting from Bill followed. When Barbara and I drove a half dozen times or so to be with dad during his sickness, I was privileged to hear the whole story – from how they met to her regret that he never asked for her hand more than once.

He was the youngest of ten children, born outside Belfast. Even the story of his birth was fascinating. His mother had delivered twins (children 7 and 8) so when the doctor came to deliver child number nine, he could not imagine there would be two babies. He delivered Hugh, Bill’s brother, and then departed, sure his work was finished. The hemorrhaging continued for two days until the doctor returned and, much to the surprise of everyone, delivered Bill – a twin born two days later. The bleeding had been too much, and Bill’s mother died in the process. Bill would often joke that he must have been an ugly baby, because, “my mother took one look at me at died.” Nothing was off limits when it came to Bill’s sense of humor. In today’s world, there would be lawsuits and endless news about the doctor, but this was a small village in Ireland in 1923.

He left Ireland in his 20s and joined the Army. Later in life, he owned a successful landscaping business and drove a truck for Sun Oil, Co. We know all this not just from stories from Aunt Barbara, but because we found all the receipts from the business and the jacket that still fit Bill from 1947 among all his belongings. With every piece of paper, picture, and receipt, there is a story. Bill’s house, an old Victorian home converted to apartments, was where he lived since 1979, renting rooms to those in need and hardly ever raising the rent or getting paid on time. It was as much a mission as it was a business. All the apartments are empty now and as we finish taking bags and boxes to St. Vincent de Paul, the finality of Bill’s absence is settling in.

There was never a time when my children didn’t get handed a few dollars from Bill. There was never a baptism, birthday or a holiday when Bill was either present of the children got a call or a card. His refrigerator has his few favorite memories, according to Barbara – notes from his family in Ireland and two photos – one of Bill and my Katie and another of my children and Aunt B and Bill at the Philadelphia Zoo. He loved my children and they loved him, perhaps more so since their own grandfathers had passed.

I expected complaints as we planned to spend a few days working, but I now understand that the children see this work as a way to honor Bill – and a way to serve the woman he loved. As we bag and box up the rest of Bill’s life today before we head north, we will whisper a prayer of thanksgiving for a kind and generous man whose life of generosity and humor will always be a part of us.

 

Photo – Uncle Bill and my father, at a party following Katie’s Baptism in 2009.

Becoming my Father

Today would be my father’s 85thbirthday. It feels like a lifetime has passed since we lost him in 2011. There is so much that has happened in my life, the lives of my family, and in the world, since he’s been gone.

I think death is like that sometimes – a great divide where suddenly you begin recalling things that happened “with dad” and other things that happen “after dad.” The older I get, the more I realize how much I am like him – his mannerisms, his jokes, even, Maureen says, the way I sometimes shuffle around.

But I struggle to be like him when it comes to his faith.

Dad prayed the Rosary every day. He only spoke when he knew he could improve upon silence or break the tension in a room with a comment that made everyone laugh. When he said he was going to pray for something, you knew he meant it. Then, weeks later, he would casually bring it up in a conversation to check up on you. He was a man of great patience, filled with the gift of wonder and awe for the people around him. All was gift. He recognized that. He lived in that understanding.

This week’s first readings are all about the creation story and my own creation story is rooted in dad. I often think about how he and mom sacrificed to send many of their eleven children to Catholic school, how going to Mass on Sunday was part of who were as a family, and how my own parent’s involvement in the church led to a lifetime of my own working for the institution.

On Saturday, my office sponsored an event and, since I am a team of one, Maureen and the children came to help out. One of the kids handled registration. Another manned the bookstore. Another helped set up breakfast and lunch. Though tired from her own work, Maureen was overwhelmed by the mess of my office and helped put things together, hoping it might lighten the stress that has crept in.

As the people were leaving, someone remarked about how they loved seeing the kids as part of the day. “You remind me of my dad,” this woman said. “Church is a family thing and your children will always remember that.”

It occurred to me as she walked away that I learned that from my father. He and mom were the epitome of involved when I was a child and I am glad my own children are having the same experience.

Happy birthday, Dad. Thank you for the valuable lessons you left behind.

Surprised

I attended a conference in Indianapolis last week. It was only for a few days and flying in and through Chicago gave me an appreciation for hats, coats, and gloves. The conference was about theological exploration and, though I didn’t really want to take the time away from home and work, I am glad I did.

I forgot that I could still be surprised by the stories of others.

Like the woman in my small group who shyly told of being on the FBI “list” back in the day when she and her friends sat in at a lunch counter and shut Dillard’s department store down “because they would not hire blacks.” Now she is an ordained minister in the AME church in Arkansas – the first woman to hold that distinction.

Or the man who worked as both a priest and psychologist with first responders after 9/11.

Or the young lady struggling to teach college students and raise her own two young children.

Or any of the other stories of faith I encountered – one surprise after another.

And I forgot that I could be overwhelmed by prayer.

For two mornings, our prayer was led by a group out of Richmond, VA called Urban Doxology. While many in the room danced, waved their arms, and shouted: “Amen,” I was more of the “chosen and frozen” kind of pray-er, rocking back and forth like I was putting a baby to sleep, but still moved to tears at the songs of praise and powerful witness.

After Friday morning prayer, when I was psychologically done with the conference and emotionally ready to go home, I found myself seeking out one of the worship leaders. She had given a powerful testimony about her struggle with anxiety and sang a song that saved her once and continues to save her today.

As we started to talk, I told her about my own child who, at age 13, struggles with anxiety. I found myself choking up and I simply said, “You give me hope,” to this young woman with such a gift for music and such a witness to the 100 or so gathered.

“Can we pray?” she asked. Sheepishly, I agreed.

She began, “Heavenly Father, we pray for Patrick’s baby girl….” And I lost it.

But as she prayed, I was overcome with a sense of relief. My oldest will always be my baby girl. She will always be my Ace Number One. And I knew at this moment she would be okay. In all my distractions, I remembered that there is a God who loves her more than I can ever comprehend, even if the child wonders if that’s always true.

“Amen,” the prayer concluded, and I thanked her.

I forgot that I could be overwhelmed by prayer.

~pjd

Distracted

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. I have studied his work and read his questions and answers many times. I am challenged each day by the three paths to God of which he writes: truth, beauty, and goodness. 

But I find that I am distracted. 

Distracted with worry about the child whose fever is high and whose congestion convinces her she cannot breath

Distracted by the unedited chapters of my dissertation that await my approach when I find the time. 

Distracted by the news I fear may come in the next few days or weeks.

Distracted about the trip I take this week, missing work and family and having to navigate airports and luggage and parking.

Distracted about the unfinished lists in my head and on my desk.

Distracted by the people in front of me at Mass that show up late, chatter throughout, and then leave after Communion. 

Distracted that I cannot seem to focus in prayer. 

Distracted by bills that did not get paid this month.

Distracted.

So, in desperation, I turned to the good St. Thomas: “Faith has to do with things that are not seen and hope with things that are not at hand.”

And it makes me wonder: is it a lack of faith that distracts me? If I understand that “faith is God’s work within us,” could I be so bold as to give my distractions over to God? Will any worry today fix any of these things tomorrow? Will the hope of change be enough or must there be a commitment to change, to act, to do something. 

If there really is nothing to be accomplished by worrying, why worry? 

Easier said than done. 

Perhaps, for now, I can simply ask St. Thomas to guide me, intervene for me, console me.

“Grant me, O Lord my God, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct pleasing to you, faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and a hope of finally embracing you. Amen.”

St Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

More Than A Day Off

School and work are closed today as we commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. The free time offers us an opportunity to catch up on sleep, watch a movie, or complete projects at home that have been waiting. But we would miss the real purpose of the day off if we did not also take a moment to remember the message of Dr. King. 

As a white American, I have never been racially profiled. My ancestors were never sold into slavery. No one has ever used a racial epithet to describe me or my children. The lenses through which African Americans see the world are not lenses through which I can see. In many ways, our stories are different and today is a chance to remember that. 

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is by far his most quoted work. Until last year, it was the work with which I was most familiar. When I started teaching as an adjunct at a local university, I assigned Dr. King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to the students. It was in the book and appeared on the syllabus I inherited. 

You should read it. Everyone should read it. 

It was written after Dr. King was arrested for his leadership of boycotts in Birmingham and in response to white church leaders who were criticizing King’s methods and presence in their community. The other church leaders had published an editorial, calling him an outsider and listing several criticism of his work and his movement. 

You can hear Dr. King’s frustration and despair as he writes on napkins, newspapers, and anything he can get his hands on, trying to scrape together a response to a world that does not understand nonviolence or the plight of his brothers and sisters. 

Perhaps today we can take a few moments and read the letter in its entirety. The words he wrote then are still appropriate today. 

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

You have, no doubt, heard the first part of that quote before. But what about the rest of the paragraph? Do we behave as though the lives of others affect my life? Do we believe in King’s “single garment of destiny”? Am I really affected by what affects another? Or do I watch a 30-second clip of a video on the news or online, instantly form an opinion, and let that opinion shape my reality?

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

We are still repenting for the sins of our past – as a society and as a community of faith. Surely part of the healing must include a commitment to be silent no longer when we hear hateful words and actions of bad people. 

“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

How in the world are we silent in the face of hunger, poverty, racism, sexism, and outright ignorance? Why are we quiet when someone from another political party or faith or race is treated with such disdain? When did our winning have to include the humiliating defeat of the opponent? Where are the real leaders today?

And finally:

“Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice ― or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

It is time for people who say they believe in Jesus and all He teaches – love of neighbor, forgiveness of others, charity, hope, and peace – to show the world that hatred has no home hear, authority is never abused, everyone is welcome, and salvation is open to all. 

Spend some time studying Dr. King today. Discover his message of peace. Welcome the stranger. Forgive someone. Most of all, live a life of peace and justice so that others might look at us and see straight through to God.

May your week be blessed.

God Breaks the Silence

When I was teaching in Knoxville, we had a diocesan in-service for teachers reflecting on the three times that God breaks the silence in the New Testament. One of those times is at the Baptism of the Lord, which we celebrated yesterday. Hearing this Gospel reading reminded me of that day so many years ago. 

During his presentation, the retreat master, Archabbot Lambert Reilly, OSB (who served as the leader of St. Meinrad Seminary from 1994-2004) said that God broke the silence in the New Testament three times. But he arrived late for his presentation and never got to the third occasion in Scripture where the voice of God is heard. Intrigued, I called the seminary, tracked down the Archabbot, and asked him to tell me about the third time. It was the start of a long friendship and I still have my notes from that conversation. For years, I have used yesterday’s readings as the jumping off point for a quiz I gave students – challenging them to find the three times in Scripture when God breaks the silence.

I will spare you the work.

The first, as I mentioned, is the baptism of our Lord (Matthew 3:13-17) in which not only the Trinity is revealed but also Jesus begins his public ministry to proclaim and make present the reign of God on earth. The Father’s voice in this passage speaks in terms that reflect Is 42:1, Ps 2:7 and Gn 22:2. This God-in-the-flesh is giving us first hand an example of submission to the saving activity of God. “To fulfill all righteousness” is to submit to the plan of God for the salvation of the human race. This involves Jesus’ identification with sinners; hence the propriety of his accepting John’s baptism.

The second time God breaks the silence comes at the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8, Lk 9:28-36, Mt 17:1-8) which confirms that Jesus is the Son of God (Mt 17:5) and points to fulfillment of the prediction that he will come “in his Father’s glory” (Mt. 16:27) at the end of the age. The voice that speaks repeats the baptismal proclamation about Jesus, with the addition of the command “listen to him.” The latter is a reference to Dt 18:15 in which the Israelites are commanded to “listen to” the prophets like Moses whom God will raise up for them. The command to “listen to” Jesus is general, but we know that just as Jesus shined white as light in this event, it is only by the light of his resurrection can we truly come to understand the meaning of his life and mission. His own instruction to the apostles to not reveal the details of this extraordinary event to anyone indicates that Jesus knows that until the resurrection, no testimony of this vision will lead people to faith.

The elusive third time that God breaks the silence is in John 12:20-36 as Jesus discusses his own death. He says that “whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be” (Jn 12:26). He continues and after admitting that he is troubled about the future and what he knows it holds for him, asks “what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (Jn 12:27). In other words, Jesus is saying that even though he is afraid, he also knows that it was for this purpose – to die for each of us – that he was born. In response to his request for his Father to glorify his name, a voice speaks: “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again” (28). The crowds who hear the voice say it was thunder, others say it was an angel. Jesus says the voice is heard so that we may believe that he himself is the light by which we all must live so as to become children of the light (36). We know that Jesus will have – after his suffering – all that he had before and that those who follow him will have what he has promised, namely, eternal life with the Father in heaven.

God becomes man so that we might follow Jesus’ example in our love for each other. Jesus dined with sinners and made the lame walk. He was crucified for our sakes and is made whole again through his resurrection. Those who follow will rise above all darkness that comes from doubt and sin and live only in the light. A light that is God. 

It is easy to forget the God still breaks the silence. We struggle to find both God’s voice and the silence. This week, take some time in the stillness of the morning or just before the lights go out to sit in the silence and listen for the voice of God.

May God be pleased with the work of our lives.

My Friend Steve

I have a friend named Steve. He’s a Catholic husband, father, grandfather, and singer-songwriter. My guess is that is the exact order he would put that list in, too. We’ve been friends for two and half decades and I first got to know him when I was in parish youth ministry in Knoxville and invited Steve to join us for our diocesan anniversary Mass. Though we are separated in age by only a few years, his children are older than mine and he’s always been the kind of father and the kind of Catholic I struggle to be. I imagine we all have people in our lives that inspire us and challenge us like Steve challenges me.

He’s been on my mind the last few days. I could pick up the phone and text, challenge him to a game of Words with Friends, or call him, but Steve has a gift for putting words to music and I wanted you to know. To be honest, I don’t listen to his music as often as I used to. My commute, since we moved, has gone from an hour every morning to about 10 minutes. I barely have enough time for the Rosary, catching up on the news on the radio, or the podcasts I used to enjoy. I love getting to work early and getting home in a hurry, but I miss some of the traditions that were once part of my morning. 

On the way out of the house yesterday, I grabbed Steve’s latest CD, High Above Our Way, for the road trip we planned to take after Church. Child number three needed shelves for his room so a trip up 95 to Ikea was on our list. I had heard some of Steve’s new music at a conference in Tampa back in December and wanted to give the whole CD a try. 

There is one song in particular that I could listen to again and again. It’s called More Beautiful and while the whole song is great, I really like the second verse and the chorus.

There is a longing we can’t deny
that God alone can satisfy
peace that none in this world can give
every good thing comes from you
you’re the source,
you’re the summit we’re reaching to. 

May we find you more beautiful,
more glorious,
more alive, and this life, more victorious,
to be more free, and all we can be,
more than yesterday.

You can listen to a sample of the song here. You can also purchase the whole album if you want or download it from iTunes. 

This year, I have resolved to make a concerted effort to tell the people who make my life better how important they are to me. Steve’s music and stories have become a mainstay of Catholic parishes and ministry to young people across the globe. But to me, he will always be the guy who wrote a song for my son’s sixth birthday, huddled with the kids on the steps of the house when we set the fire alarm off at an ungodly hour, and texted me every few weeks when dad died. He is a friend I treasure.

May his music move you as much his presence in my life moves me.

A Thought For the New Year

Death and Life are in the Power of the Tongue
I’m sorry…I didn’t mean it
I take it back
Strike it from the record

What is as irreversible as murder, violates its victims more than theft, is as deadly as an epidemic? And is a lot closer to you than you want to think?

Gossip, slander, and thoughtless speech. Gossip is a million-dollar industry in our country today. We tend to think of it as a sport, harmless and fun. After all, it’s only words. We even have shows devoted to it.

As Christians, we are called to see it differently. Which is worse, we must ask, to steal from someone or to speak ill of someone? To defraud a person or to humiliate him? Answer: Property can be restored, but the damage done to another can never be undone. In fact, our Jewish ancestors compared slander and humiliation with murder: the destruction is irreparable and enduring.

You can’t take it back. What we say about each other is terribly powerful: words have a long, long half-life, and they can destroy in unseen, unhealable ways.

Our words are a footprint we leave for the world. What will they reveal about the way we treat our children, our parents, our friends, students, co-workers, employees? How we treat ourselves?

It’s a new year. Perhaps none of us will find a cure for cancer, or feed the world’s hungry, or bring about world peace. But nearly every day we find ourselves with someone’s reputation or sense of worth in our hands.

We can improve our world in a powerful, pervasive way; we can act as though our words had the power of life and death.

They do.


About this reflection

When I was a child, there was an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal with the headline and text above, though I have edited some of the text. The ad was in celebration of the Jewish New Year, I believe. My mother, wise as she was, cut it out and posted it on the refrigerator. If you said or did something that warranted further reflection, you got to stand in front of the full page of newsprint. In time, I had it memorized. When her children moved out of the house, my mother made sure we each got a copy. Mine hangs on the refrigerator and I can still say it by heart. We learn slowly as children…and sometimes more slowly as adults.

Happy New Year Mom. Happy New Year One and All.

It’s time once again for the story to be told

The readings this week are all over the place, especially our Gospel readings. We hear about the genealogy of Jesus, the birth of Jesus, the prediction and conception of John the Baptist, then back to the Annunciation and final, on Friday, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Yes, the readings are all over the place.

Still, they are a good reminder about what we will gather next week to celebrate – God in the flesh. The miracle of the incarnation. Not unlike all of us, scattering from store to store, room to room, shopping and wrapping, dusting and decorating, this time of year is filled with a story here, a story there, a time-honored tradition of where the tree goes and who puts the star on top, and then a pause to reflect on why we do what we do.

The miracle, the wonder, the amazing bits and pieces of the story remain. There is great beauty in the truth of the story. God skips nothing: not the frantic eruption of birth or the numbness of death – through Jesus, God enters fully into humanity, even as He invites us to share in His divinity.

When I was a child, we would go as a family to the Knoxville Nativity Pageant. Every year. And every year, the narration was the same, the actors were the same, the parts were the same, the choir sang pretty much the same songs every year. And yet it was powerful and inspiring every single year. There was a line at the beginning and the end that I remember well. I can still hear the man’s voice when I close my eyes and think of those hard, wooden chairs and the smell of that parking garage.

“It is time, once again, for the story to be told. A story of peace. Of goodness. Of God as Man. It must be told. And it’s greatest beauty is its truth.”

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. May we be prepared to greet you.

Carrying Christ

This week, we have the optional reading from Luke:

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Most blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

And Mary said:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” (Luke 1:39-47)

I have been blessed to visit the countryside where the journey took place. I have seen the hillside that leads to Elizabeth’s home. I have visited the town well where historians believe that Mary would have visited first to inquire as to where her cousin lives and if she were home. It is topography you and I would not dare to trek alone or on foot – even today. So to reflect on that great reading, and on Mary’s journey that followed, let us reflect on the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta.

In the mystery of the Annunciation and the Visitation, Mary is the very model of the life we should lead. First of all, she welcomed Jesus in her existence; then, she shared what she had received. Every time we receive Holy Communion, Jesus the Word becomes flesh in our life – the gift of God who is at one and the same time beautiful, kind, unique. Thus, the first Eucharist was such: Mary’s offering of her Son in her, in whom he had set up the first altar. Mary, the only one who could affirm with absolute confidence, “this is my body”, from that first moment offered her own body, her strength, all her being, to form the Body of Christ.

This week, may we emulate Mary and carry Christ to the world.

-pjd