The Pebble

If you watch TV at all (and I watch it all too much) you cannot help but see the jewelry store ad with the penguins. Oh, it's so sweet when the cute boy penguin waddles over to a girl he's been working up the courage to talk to and drops a pebble at her feet. We anticipate a cozy cuddle and the two of them waddling off to happily ever after.

Alas, she waddles away. Poor guy. We were rooting for you.

In this world of penguin wooing, there is a clever fellow who dazzles his sweetie with gold and diamonds and she snuggles up with him. That's how you find true love, kiddos!

Wow and Merry Christmas to you too, you jaded cold hearted, well, you can fill in the adjective.

I know the jewelry store is trying to make a buck or two. I know that the 'Holiday Season' is their make or break time of year. I know that shiny jewelry at Christmas has become part of our mythos. Heck, I got a lovely shiny ring at Christmas many years ago from my honey and we've been happily ever after for several decades.

We in our house agree that the schlub with the pebble is cuter and more lovable than the slick haired piece of poultry who dazzles his honey with a rock that refracts sunlight and blinds the silly hen to his shallow heart.

Yes, I know I am super-imposing my own take on the birds in this thirty second romance. I do that sort of thing.

The humble full-hearted gift of love (see, I am granting the pebble penguin sincerity and not stinginess) resonates true considering the original Christmas presents were given to a boy tucked in to a bale of hay and kept warm by donkeys and sheep. 

Would the parum-pa-pa-pumming of The Little Drummer Boy be covered by crooners and rock stars all these years if it didn't resonate as true?

Merry! Merry!

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It's been a while and I don't know if I still have readers.  but I thought I'd check in, share a few thoughts, and say Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas and the yearly nonsense spouted about Nativity Scenes and the insipid Happy Holidays greeting we are assaulted with and how the entire national and thus, world, economy depends on buying lots of stuff for an event that no one is allowed to name, I shake my head. I wonder. Then I shake my head some more.

Now, I love Christmas. I love the lights and Santa and children touched by magic and mystery and hope and love. I believe that Santa and decorated trees in our living room, along with silly and sacred songs and big doses of imagination are a wonderful introduction to miracles and apprehending the Divine. Just as I am irritated by the nasty-no-fun-don't-put-Baby Jesus-in-the-town-square folks, I am almost equally annoyed at nasty-no-fun-don't-talk-about-Santa religious grumps.

But, mostly, I am irritated at the nasty grumps who bar the door to the Holy Family looking for a safe place to receive the Son of God. Talk about no room at the Inn.

When people state that the world is getting worse and worse, I would, in my reasonable let's not get carried away voice, say that we don't really know its worse, its just that we see the bad and the ugly all day long on our ubiquitous devices.

Lately, though, I have come to agree with the 'it's worse' folks.

There has always been sin and intolerance and greed and murder. There have always been crazed warriors who will try to make their argument with a sword and lopping off heads. There has always been killing of the innocents.

But. But. Public discourse in our country is downright nasty. I can hardly check in on Facebook without being assaulted by soapbox rantings and hate. The world seems darker. Life, more tenuous. Random acts of violence is the daily news.

But, again, but. Look at the face of a child, an innocent, beautiful child, and there it is. There it is. Hope and life and love. Divine power and Light. 

In our little cells of faith, of hope, of love, keep the light shining. The light that led the shepherds and the Magi to Jesus. The light that darkness cannot overcome. 

Merry Christmas.

St Clare and The Morning Offering

photo by Peter Damour, Sacristan, St. Clare Parish

photo by Peter Damour, Sacristan, St. Clare Parish


*O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, for the salvation of souls, the reparation of sins, the reunion of all Christians, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father this month. Amen.*

The halls were cool. Large pale ceramic tiles lined the walls, the floors polished by Mr. Jensen, every afternoon, so I thought. We knew to be quiet and respectful in these halls, except of course when it was nearly impossible at 3 o'clock and our capacity for stillness was wrung out and we needed to run and chatter and play and burst into the sunshine or the rain or snow. But we weren't released until the entire class could line up quietly and proceed in an orderly fashion.

Every morning began with the Morning Offering and the Pledge of Allegiance. A large crucifix over the speaker box, an American flag in its pole, Sr. Mary Norbert leading us.

Catholicism and patriotism twined. I entered St. Clare School in September, 1963, not yet six years old. My oldest brother was in the 8th grade, my sister in the 6th, the next brother in the 4th and there were two more at home who would be enrolled. My little piece of the world, Rosedale, New York, on the southeast edge of Queens, was a wonderful place for children. And boy, were there children. We were Baby Boomers: our fathers fought in World War II, victorious over the forces of darkness that threatened to destroy all goodness. We were born into a time of peace and prosperity. For all I knew in 1963, everyone was Catholic, everyone attended St. Clare's School and Church. And, we had a Catholic President. 

Life was good. Life made sense.

We were on the cusp of Vatican II changes; the nuns wore starched white crown and bib, black veil, with voluminous organdy skirts and around their waists a large rosary with a crucifix—the crucified Savior swinging past us as Sister paced the aisles checking to see that we were doing our work. We made First Communion in First Grade with the Latin Mass. We we introduced into the mysterious, powerful words and if we were paying attention, we were seized with the power of the presence of Christ. 

How could we not be? Our young souls were drenched in the mysteries, the discipline, the prayers and the oft repeated lives of the saints, our heroes and heroines, who gave everything, even their lives, to defend the truth of our faith.

And, importantly, there was St. Clare. She stood watch over us from the first floor hallway, across from the principal's office. She stood, head bowed in reverence at the monstrance housing the Blessed Sacrament. And at her feet was a sword and arrow, shattered. The message was clear to my child mind. It is, and always will be, the power of Christ that will conquer all adversaries, vanquish all evil.

(To those modern day liturgical  iconoclasts who dismiss the teaching power of stained glass windows, statues and icons, here is my witness.)

On the feast of St. Clare (I get an email for the saint of the day) I reread a bit of her bio. She was an early feminist—-rejecting her parents plans for her to marry and running away to meet with St. Francis and found an order of nuns, the Poor Clares.

She lived a rugged life and suffered from poor health. In the year 1240, her home of Assisi was overrun by Saracens bent on destroying Christianity and slaying all Christians. Though she was confined to bed because of illness, her frightened charges pled with her to protect them from the army at their convent door. She arose, removed the monstrance from their chapel and held it up against their would be murderers. The Saracens fled, unable to withstand the holy presence of the Body of Christ, enshrined in the monstrance. Thus, the sword and arrow, shattered, at her feet.

But, that was more than 700 years before. Things like that didn't happen anymore. Christian persecution was a thing of the past. History. Thank God that was all behind us. 

What did I know? I was six. I lived in a bubble, a happy child who loved school and church, loved the comfort of the holy colors and aromas and the beautiful, reassuring sacredness that I was privileged to be wrapped in.

Before Thanksgiving of First Grade, the world began to shatter. Caroline Kennedy and I were the same age, born in the same month. Our mothers even combed our thick blondish hair in the same fashion. Her father was killed and it changed the world. Could my father, every bit as much a hero, be killed?

An era was over. It was a short era, granted, and it was killed with gunshots in Dallas.

And then the Sixties really began to happen. Social unrest, riots, war, everything questioned and scoffed. Christianity laughed at as a pleasant delusion to keep the masses down. Nothing new there, just that now they had microphones and TV cameras and the subtleties of tossing everything up for grabs and not waiting to see what stuck. The idea of the Sacred and the everlasting was for fools. Only the now, man, that's the only thing that matters. Peace out and be groovy. Here, take a toke if you want to see mysteries.

Over the years I have learned that all those holy colors and aromas and rites were not a pleasant distraction, a magnificent pageant. No, they all were centered in Christ crucified and Christ Risen. And the cloud of witnesses, the saints and the holy ones, whose very core, stripped of all the world has to offer, is Jesus.

When the world crashes down around your ankles, and the Saracens are at the gate, what is it that will save us?

Ask St. Clare.

So Vast and Shattered

This mosaic is composed of a handful of shapes repeated over and over to form five major faces and several minor ones on the canvas. Artwork by Daniel McCullagh 

This mosaic is composed of a handful of shapes repeated over and over to form five major faces and several minor ones on the canvas.

Artwork by Daniel McCullagh 

I've been listening to Leonard Cohen while I drive. He's got several songs that deal with brokenness and being shattered, and the Love that is so vast and shattered that it will reach us anywhere.

So, with his lyrics dancing in my head I wanted to write a post on the state off being broken, our lives crashed around our ankles and the redemption and light that can arrive at the end of such a difficult journey, if we pray for discernment and grace.

I had several false starts. I wrote about brokenness in general, as a necessary state that we will all go through at certain points in our life. That it is an important state that we must all learn to navigate  

It occurred to me that I already wrote words on this subject; in fact I wrote a whole novel on this subject. Here is an excerpt toward the end of The Narrow Gate when Rose, the protagonist, has survived a terrible year.

"Rose is making her bed, the Miraculous Medal still hangs around the bedpost. These late October mornings are breathtaking—in another week the leaves will be swept off the trees as November settles in. Late October in New York is the height of autumn, nature’s magnificence on bright display as something to take forward into the darker days to come.

She takes the small gold medal from its resting place and runs her fingers over Mary’s face and hands. Months ago Rose asked for a miracle. She got a breakdown. Jimmy died. She went into a tailspin. Her marriage was in crisis.

Her faith shattered into shards revealing what? Seed planted on good soil, like she thought when she was young and untested—I'm the good soil that hears the word of God and keeps it—such arrogance in a child, such childishness in faith, yes, childishness; she was a child.

She discovered that she was more like the seed planted on rocky ground: roots shallow, pulled away at the first strong wind leaving only bare pebble and sand. What could be planted on that kind of heart? Something cold and stony, hard and unyielding.

But no, the rocks have shattered. Under the rocks the soil is soft and rich; tender. New faith stepping out. God, its hard. I cannot see, I’m battered, broken. Questions replaced answers. Questions still don’t have answers, and maybe they never will. And maybe thats just the way it is: open ended, messy, ambiguous.

No one with any sense would seek out a broken heart. We try to protect ourselves from broken hearts but at some point the protection is more expensive than the truth and then it all must crumble under its own weight.

We just can’t do anymore and we break down. Can’t hold back crying. Can’t hold on to what passes for dignity and if we ever cared about such things, we just don’t anymore.

We see how stupid it all was. Broken hearts hurt down to the core of us. They rend us alone in the dark, unconnected, cut off. All the ways to describe isolation, severance: birth. We do what we can, desperately if need be, to be connected, encumbered even, with with lies.

Its better than being alone. Abandonment as our most basic fear, not falling, but exile. If I tell the truth I will be exiled. I will have to connect with other exiles. The island of misfit toys. All the children’s stories were written to warn us, weren’t they?

Is this theology? The theology of the broken hearted, the crushed, the humbled.

The road to perdition is broad, but isn’t the road to salvation broad? The narrow way is just that, narrow.

I asked for a miracle. What I got was a breakdown. Just what I needed. Miracle of the broken heart.

Rose undoes the clasp of the gold chain and fastens the medal around her neck."

There is something about us humans: we cannot reach true adulthood unless we’ve been through—and examined—a crisis or two or ten or a hundred. I think it goes back to Adam and Eve and Original Sin and that niggling trait we all have that just wants to rebel, just wants to challenge, just wants to stand up to the big man and stamp our feet. Or, our vision of life never matches up with our reality. I know we are supposed to claim our own destiny and power and bliss—but really, we still have to deal with who we are, imperfections and all.

If we are not cracked open every once in a while we become stagnant. Our normal starts to show wear and tear and that leads to boredom, or existential angst or ennui, depending on the books you read. If life doesn’t present you with a crisis, it is in our nature to manufacture one.

In our brokenness we descend into Hades or our Dark Night, just as the heroes and heroines of mythology and saints must, in order to become our truer, braver, better selves, filled with light, with our weaknesses, some of them at least, left in the underworld.

After being shattered, we seek wholeness. It will be a different wholeness. A wholeness with cracks that add to the beauty of what a life becomes, and hopefully, our brokenness will allow us to become compassionate and understanding and generous and loving.

Of course, it can work the other way, and often does. We can take our shatteredness and become angry and vengeful and tight and mean or inflate our narcissism, but that is a different story.

Therein lies the tension of any heroic journey, and I contend that we are all asked to embark on our own heroic journey. Some say yes, some say no, some say maybe. Free Will.

When we are broken, we must reside for awhile in darkness, a kind of death to the incomplete notion we have of ourselves, and out of that, with grace and love, we may enter the light.

June

This June marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Seventy years and the blood of those young men is still fresh in our collective memories.

Most of those men were younger than my sons are now--my youngest on the verge of his 24th birthday, later this month.

My mother would have turned 91 last week. My father died, after a long, long struggle, the day after my son's birthday. He was 94.

When I was young, I assumed the rather practical mindset that when people get old you must expect them to die. Well, of course. We will all die. The more days we have lived past say, eighty or ninety, every day is a grace, unearned, after all, because in the history of humanity, the odds were not in favor of such extended years. Both my grandmothers died when I was in elementary school, each of them    around 79 years old. Sad, of course, but I didn't know them very well. One, because I'm not sure she even knew my name and seemed to focus all of her attention on my oldest brother, something I accepted without fuss.
My other grandmother had been in some degree of senility as long as I could remember, and I am pretty sure she had no idea what my name was, either. Again, I didn't take it personally.

After all, I was in the middle numbers of their grandchildren, my parents and aunts and uncles contributed their fair share of babies to the post-war boom. When you are a middle child in such a crowd, you learn to not take much personally.

And, of course, there was the news. I was in the first grade when JFK was killed. In some ways, the years telescoped with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy. We were a news family, so our background noise was the rolling list of casualties every night peppered with a Walter Cronkite reporting from the jungle and young men my brothers age coming home in body bags. And, of course, the Civil Rights movement and the violence that accompanied that moved closer and closer to home.

I grew up in the bounds of New York City and we learned, as a matter of course, as part of the culture, that as carefree as our childhoods were, and we were very blessed, there was always danger, always, at any moment, something could erupt, and often did. We each had our armor, invisible, perhaps, but I know mine would be activated at any hint of danger. How else could one survive?

Last year I gave a eulogy at my father's funeral. He had been in WWII like almost every man of his generation. He landed in Marseilles in December of 1944, then sent north on a cattle car to the Ardennes, a group of virgin warriors pitted against a seasoned set of SS Troops who grew up in mountains and handled the depths of snow with ease. Most of the GIs were killed. My father survived, was promoted for heroism, then sent to Les Vosges, where his history would be marked, degrees deeper than it had already been witnessing the deaths of his friends.  

In March of 1945, just weeks before the war was to finally end, Dad was shot, several times. Life threatening, life changing. It is amazing he survived. Head, shoulder, back. 

His men said, 'we saw who shot you. We're going to get him.'  Now, there he was, bleeding out, probably dying and he forbade them to kill the young German. "Don't, do it", he commanded.

Later, when we asked about this, six children around the dinner table, after my mother told us this story (he did not talk of war, unless asked directly, and that was rare) his reply struck me, has stayed with me. "I thought of my own mother, home, worrying, praying the Rosary for me. I knew this kid's mother was doing the same."

Well, of course.

Watching the coverage of D-Day last week, of course my heart ached for the soldiers, some still teens, jumping out of planes, charging off boats, the water red with young blood. I watched out of respect and awe. I watched, mostly, as a mother.

Soon after my fathers stroke, the news again, always, was filled with soldiers deaths. I said to him, 'I feel like everyone's mother,' watching as another young life was blown up. His response, 'that's good'. I didn't argue my point that it hurts, it hurts to feel like everyone's mother when young soldiers, or street thugs, or kids in a car, or cancer victims, or any of the other heart breaking, everyone's mother detail of duty, entailed. 

But, he knew that it cost me. And it is good, in its way, that it does cost. It is the price of our humanity to enter into the suffering of each other. If every hurt is a prayer, then maybe, maybe, like my grandmother's prayers for her son kept him alive, the prayers and pains of all the mothers, and fathers, will save one soldier, one child, one struggling person another moment, another chance at grace to spare a life.

Happy Birthday Mom, Happy Father's Day, Dad.