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.

 

 

Light Breaks Blue

Image courtesy of Frank1030's Flickr stream under Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Frank1030's Flickr stream under Creative Commons

It’s dark. He turns right, to the aurora of street lamps along Forest Park Drive, to the diluted light pushing its way through the trees that have arbored this area for generations. Wind whips up under his shirt and slaps his back. Jimmy steps out from the awning. A smoldering cigarette in one hand, an empty beer bottle in the other, he raises his arms over his head breathing in the cold, clean, wet dirt smell. His upturned face receives the sharp needles of rain. A baptism. 

The wind and rain pick up. A crackle of light breaks blue deep into Forest Park. Thunder reverberates his thin frame, tolling out the bell of him. Somewhere in there, somewhere in here, I still am. I am.  (Chapter 58, The Narrow Gate, JBMcCullagh, 2012)

The sacramental nature of the ordinary is a recurring theme of mine. I suppose all writers have themes. A few of mine are: finding grace in the ordinary, the communion of saints, the light that darkness cannot overcome, the heroic journey and redemption, no matter how late in life we say yes to it.

In this small excerpt from my novel, Jimmy, who is in his early fifties, has reached the realization that he's been on a course of destruction for decades. There is grace and forgiveness and redemption to be had if only he will say yes to it. Even a faint hearted yes will be a start. 

I am at a disadvantage in explaining faith. On one level I know that faith cannot be argued or terrified into anyone. On the other hand, the evidence of God and redemption and the power of prayer and grace surrounds us and if we have the eyes to see and the heart to receive, it will overwhelm us beyond any need for argument or persuasion.

My disadvantage is this: I have always believed. In God, in Jesus as God, in the whole array of saints and angels. I feel confident in the use of the word always, because my understanding of this knowledge pre-dates my childhood, pre-dates my infancy, to whenever the beginning is.

I never had a Damascene moment, a falling of the horse and struck blind a la St. Paul event forcing me to recognize Jesus. I didn't have to. I always believed.

I have certainly had epiphany moments, moments of clarity and beyond the veil moments (another theme of mine) that have given me strength and courage and hope and direction. Transformational, transcendent moments that are pure gift, pure unearned gift. Grace.

Grace and belief do not spare you from struggle. The struggle of dark nights where you plead and pray and many of the Psalms seem like they were written for you. (Out of the depths I cry unto you O  Lord, Lord hear my prayer, over and over and over and over) The struggle of feeling forgotten, ignored, unanswered. No, belief does not spare you that. It reminds you to hold on, though.

The example and witness of others, be they canonized saints or some wonderful grandparent whose whole manner of life pointed the way beyond the present to the eternal, should teach us to face our struggles with hope, to remind us that we are not alone. The witness of grace in suffering and of joy in the everyday ordinary wonderful gifts of life, testify to the life giving fruits of faith.

Faith doesn't make you less stupid or even less sinful, necessarily, though I think it would give you pause by engaging your conscience and reminding you that you indeed do know right from wrong.  Faith and grace do supply the light to pierce the darkness of sin and doubt and hopelessness. They allow the light to break blue in our darkness.

That Pesky Original Sin

Man, having been wounded in his nature by original sin, is subject to error and inclined to evil in exercising his freedom. (Catechism of the Catholic Church section 1714) One of the many things that has gone out of fashion over the years (it was only whispered in some circles that we were taught that our perfect selves are stained by the deliberate disobedience of a couple running around in a garden) that we return to is the teaching on Original Sin, particularly during Lent.  

Why?

Years ago, while I was teaching Baptism Prep to a group of parents, many who admitted that they hadn't been inside a church since their wedding-- a grandmother called me out.

I was soft peddling Baptism to this group on the fringe of the church-- emphasizing community and family history and the long generations of their family, all our families, united under this big bosomy umbrella of love and kumbaya.

This grandmother raised her hand and asked  "what about Original Sin?"  I fumbled momentarily but I had my answer: we are now emphasizing community and loveydoveyness. She walked out.

I saw the back of her and I knew she was right.

We can couch all our faults and troubles and personality defects in terms of "it's all my parents fault" or the catch all basket of "society"-- eternal cries of the adolescent mind-- which is where more than one generation of baby boomers and Gen x, y 's and z's have been encouraged to wallow.

At some point we have to grow up and face facts.

We are sinners.

We are sinners with a positive attitude, assertiveness training and seekers of our very own specialness and empowerment.

Yeah for us!

But.

But.

So we give up soda or chocolate or television or potato chips for a couple of weeks. That 's good for our health, so two birds with one stone.

Giving up chocolate is good for us. Giving up chocolate and facing our temptations to indulge is better. And much more difficult.

Which is the point where I usually seek out a bag of Hershey's Kisses tucked away in the back of the pantry. It's just one. Or two. When the evidence of all those shiny bits of foil piles up, I can roll them together and really, that's not so much, is it?

So we either rationalize or we wrestle.

Over they years (I am now the grandmother asking the pesky question) I have come to realize that wrestling is an essential part of Lent. Well, of course, it's an essential part of conscious life, Christian or otherwise, but we take the time now during these weeks when the seasons will change from bare branches and dark to blossoms and light to exercise that ancient skill.

But facing our sins is an exercise in morbidity if there is no hope of redemption and forgiveness. That's where prayer and grace come in. That's where the Holy Spirit and the sacraments come in, and that's where 'the peace that passes all understanding' will fill us.

1 Thessalonians 5:23 ©

May the God of peace make you perfect and holy; and may you all be kept safe and blameless, spirit, soul and body, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Fairy Godmothers and Wicked Witches

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I was in good company last week. I was watching the grandkids so my daughter could work on illustrations for a children's book. So there were cartoons. Lots of cartoons. Since cartoons, like any media, are not created equal, I needed a break. I needed one of those cartoons that kids and adults could stand, I mean, watch.

Enter Sleeping Beauty. A Disney classic that I saw countless times when my kids were small, particularly when my youngest child, John, identified so much with Prince Philip that he carried a makeshift sword of truth and shield of virtue and defended fair maidens (his big sister was granted an aura of royalty that her other two brothers had failed to detect).

This time around I was watching with an eye as to how the story played out not only classic hero journey motifs, but motifs that fall under the category of Catholic fiction.

What is Catholic fiction as distinguished from other fiction?

Well, that's a longer answer than will fit here, but for the purposes of classic tales, there is the element of hope, there is virtue--light-- that can conquer darkness. Yes, there is struggle, there needs to be struggle or there is no story worth telling, but struggle aided by prayer and divine intervention, aka, the fairy godmothers.

The magnificent villain Maleficent-- what a name!!-- whom everyone is obsequious to and dare not provoke-- wields her terror from the christening of the fair child until the hero, filled with the courage that only love can generate, aided by his angels, risks his all to battle through the dark forest to save his love.

I know that all these 'fairy tales' have been derided over the past generation as being too sweet, too perfect, too ridiculous, to be a paradigm for children. But what have we lost in dismissing these stories? What have we lost in dismissing fairy godmothers and hope that goes beyond our limited human resources?

If we accept the metaphor of fairy godmothers standing in for angels, then they are anything but sweet. Angels are ferocious. Think of all the images in our collective imaginations of Archangel Michael slaying Lucifer.

I wonder if there is a correlation to the trend of making 'realistic' heroes for children, heroes who rely only on their own wits and strengths, and the preponderance of angel stories bursting through the fringes of our culture?

Begin Each Day With A Grateful Heart

In the past few days, I have come across a small buzz on Facebook and in conversation with women sharing the word they have chosen to guide this new year. So, in place of doomed to fail New Year's resolutions, I have chosen a word.

Grateful.

Gratitude banged around my head a bit, but it wasn't quite right. Gratitude is a virtue, but I was looking for more action in my word. So, grateful moved the virtue into a state of being, an active state, an active decision.

During a handful of phone conversations I had with my mother, before Alzheimer's stole those moments completely, she often spoke of being grateful. Grateful for her wonderful husband (she said that often), grateful that they had enough, enough to eat, enough to live; enough. I was struck by that because, after all, she was in the grip of a terrible disease, and yet, she was grateful.

I must remember that.

In the years between my mother's death and my father's stroke, my father and I spoke often of how fortunate we each were to have been loved by a spouse who thought we were wonderful. My father recognized these precious qualities in my husband, and that's a pretty good nod from a father-in-law.

Every evening before we fall asleep, my husband thanks me for a lovely dinner, whether I spent real time preparing it, or we had Chinese take-out or even if he cooked (another thing to be grateful for, I married a great cook). When the meal was particularly pedestrian, I laugh, and he responds that he is thanking me because we shared the meal.

How fortunate am I? I cannot possibly calculate that answer.

So instead of counting blessings which stretch out before me and behind me and surround me in every direction. I hope to begin each day with a grateful heart.

Now, before you think I'm auditioning to be Little Mary Sunshine, this word chose me, so to speak, because I need an anti-dote to the creeping hold of ugly vices such as resentment and envy and perhaps greed. (Throw in a little sloth and there's a more complete picture of me.)

They are not called deadly sins for nothing.

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice. — Meister Eckhart (1260-1329)