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.

 

 

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.