Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

Glorious Morning Muffins

It was the start of a new day. With a cup of the best tea in the world, Taylors of Harrogate. All week long I had been eating “glorious morning” muffins. From Jerry’s Super Market.

taylor of harrogate tea I had chosen this day a mug I was given from the Jesuit Retreat House at DeMontreville. The mug was stained by the tea inside. Not badly. But often I had to work at it to remove the tea stain. It reminded me a bit of myself over the year. DeMontreville was the place where a lot of stuff happened quietly. On one weekend spent annually over the past 14 years, on retreat. And I ended up there by accident. I never knew that I was in for 72 hours of silence.

Even When He Is Silent.

The word “accident” is both statutorily and judicially defined, construed to mean an unexpected or unforeseen identifiable event or series of events happening suddenly, with or without human fault, and producing at the time objective symptoms of injury. For the purposes of this case study, the statutory definition is appropriate.

An accident? The synopsis was, based on credible testimony, something like he slipped from grace, fell in the mud or in some horrible pit, and felt a pull. In his groin, in this case, and the human race and humanity had been trying to recover ever since. Such is a sudden, unforeseen incident with objective signs of injury. The accident caused the pre-existing defect on the right side of a relationship, like in the groin to become symptomatic, requiring some kind of repair. And because of the surgical repair, the supplicant is limited in lifting and bending and has lost some ability to achieve all possible human potential.

In 1989 I had to spend some vacation days or lose them. I flew to London to Christmas shop. At this time of year I often recall the Saturday night I had dinner alone in a London restaurant. A couple was out dining at the next table. And a woman of about 30 was telling her significant other how much she hated Christmas. Hers had been a secular life. The UK was just slightly ahead of the United States as to where the world was moving. There was stress in her family. I now know a lot more people like her than I had at the time. But for her, the holidays were painful.  Stress, as defined, is not wanting to be in the place she would be spending time.

For me Christmas is an exciting time.  It was an accident for the most part. The original Christmas. Certainly this was an unexpected or unforeseen identifiable event, except to a handful of people. And my beliefs also are an unexpected or unforeseen identifiable event or series of events happening, based upon the environment where I grew up.  I had no real choice.  I have kept following what I was born in to.  Other people get knocked off horses.  Every baby is born suddenly, with or without human fault.  Without any belief.  Actually, I barely made it through that first day.  Life is like that.

When it came to belief in God, there are different degrees of witnesses, bystanders, participants. And I have come to hear of the pain in life, of those with doubts.  Whether there is a God. Those with doubts about people.  Those with doubts about themselves.  Those with doubts about Santa Claus.  Doubt.  Doubt had been the focus of the two people with an apple.  In the garden.  When I returned from the UK, I spent the Friday night before Christmas in a Chicago pub. Either Red Kerr’s or Jameson’s at the corner of Clinton and Adams.  Only this time I was with 3 coworkers, approaching the pain of Christmas.  One was an agnostic from Omaha.  Another a graduate of a Catholic high school and Northwestern University.  And the third, an Irish Catholic from Detroit, with a Jesuit education.  But the latter friend, the oldest guy present, had lost his faith.  And there had been voiced pain in his struggle as he approached the age of forty. And he wanted to discuss his own wrestling match with God.  Maybe because his struggle ostracized him from people he loved.

I have a long-time friend from high school who is going through the same struggle, though his faith struggle is accompanied by clinical depression.  He has dropped out of the social circles we had shared.  And in his case, it is painful to see the affect on relationships he had had since the age of 14.

Last night was the last curling match for 10 days. And last year’s skip came to substitute.  He is a retired school teacher.  With a parochial school education.  He said as the evening wore on that he wished he had had a public school education.  And it turned out that he was one of many at war with a God they once had believed in.  And his battle had started over the last 12 months.  The other Irish Catholic at the table, from the other team, was frightened by the discussion, departing the discussion expressing out loud his fear to extend a Merry Christmas.  The skip wanted to talk about it.  He said he goes to Mass with his wife, though he has started to watch at the communion. The skip, this friend, with great doubt, but who loves the church he still attends across the river… this friend with great belief in a political party, in social justice, and with great hope in the next president. But without really offering an answer “why.”

Why social justice, without belief?  Social justice without belief seemed to me superficial, like going through the motion.  Fleeting, not unlike castles built by the wealthy.  It seemed good at the time and then one day it was gone, with only images and stories left behind, for people who shared a generation or two.  A lot like haunted beauty.  Like good health.  Fleeting.  I asked him about the issue of evil in the world, about trust, about people like Mr. Maddoff, when you had no belief system to substitute what had once been there.

It is inevitable. Endings, that is.  The world had awakened in 2008.  What had we done with wealth?  The wealth that had all suddenly vanished?  Ended.  And now, what would we do with social justice?  And could we afford social justice in difficult times if we could not afford it over the last 20 years?  This was earth and, it seemed to me, no one could believe in perfection.

At the only time that the world pauses to celebrate God’s arrival, His is a struggle this year.  With doubt.  Men and their need for answers.  Sensitive men.  Was it anger over endings?  The end at retirement age is now visible and it had come so fast?

Of evil.  Of goodness.  Of music.  The mystery in people.  My skip had given up curling this season for singing in a choir.  He is still wrestling.  I am not sure how often he speaks about it to people.  He seemed to like the chance to talk.  And he chose this topic.

Men and their need.  To know the relationship between matter and gravity.  In sport.  Chasing the wisps of smoke.  In music.  Wanting to hold onto a note.  Wanting pure air.  As in days gone by. When there had been, in days of youth, belief.  Something solid.  Before residual soreness had set in.

So who is this God that my friends were looking for? Who had gotten this single girl pregnant?  Her name was Mary.  And only Mary really knew who was responsible.  Who could believe her? The divine?  Who could believe in His silent presence?  She needed a husband or she likely would have been stoned to death in those times.  What a lover!  Most girls would have left him right then. The divine.  Almost silently, God had visited.  Or sent an angel to explain.  An “immaculate” conception.  What a guy!  “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son. And you shall name him Jesus.”  And then!  And then in her 41st week of gestation, she had been forced by the Powers That Be to make a trip to Bethlehem.  The divine.  Always and everywhere.

This to a woman God had professed love.  Who was looking for a God like this?  For someone who had believed, looked what happened!  “Do not be afraid!”  The angel Gabriel is giving out such advice?  Where was God when you needed Him? Then almost silently to the world, the Messiah had come. A God who seemed to be Father, treating his own beloved during the pregnancy, in violation of the letter of the Hippocratic Oath where physicians do not deliver their own babies or treat family members. Not even in a decent room, for God’s sake! When induction of labor occurred, naturally. In damn Bethlehem. Not with any kind of warmth. In the dark. Joseph’s hands had to be cold, if he could see anything at all in what — if you have ever been there — is described as more a cave structure. (Because God had just really never made an appearance, until now?) In damn Bethlehem! Mary had to be thinking that. Look to where her belief in God had delivered. Damn Bethlehem. You did not hear many homilies criticizing God. That was why I loved Judaism. And Mary was a Jew. So this was some kind of demonstration of God’s love?

And it got worse. Just like the Passover story. Almost silently, the Messiah had come. And almost silently the Chosen People had better fly out of there. Like Passover, and those damn plagues. Mary and her new family had better take flight before the Messiah got too comfortable. It was as bad as getting kicked out of a hospital these days after any illness. Always. Everywhere. Unconditionally. To go about your routine was to too often ignore the prevalence of love in the course of the day.

No wonder these guys I knew had doubts in God. With no explanation of what was going on. Like the struggle of every young guy, trying to communicate something. God seemed to have His with a girl. Or the struggle every person has with belief in each other. Have you ever had to tell a girl you loved her? And in most cases, there was a damn good chance she did not believe you. And to tell a lover like God that you love Him? I always expected the same response. From God. From the girl. And if by some miracle you feel like you have developed some knowledge of this God, or the girl, well I still did not feel real confident in my profession of love. I somehow always feel like I have fallen short. In what I have done and what I should have done. That was the human condition. That was the male condition in any relationship. To feel you have come up short. And say some pretty dumb things.

It reminded me when I used this DeMontreville mug with the coat of arms of Ignatius of Loyola, that I needed space like a cave to go into, in retreat from the world. To think of some kind of an action plan. Just like when I went Christmas shopping. To think about what to buy. To think about what to say. Because I should have done more. But who would not have doubts? After what He asked of, what he did to Mary.

It was not so much a season of hope as much as it actually was a season of true love. I was at another place, another location. To tell a lover that you love him/her. With gifts that actually meant something. About the present times. About the lover. The one that you had come to KNOW. Even though the human condition was to feel like you have fallen short. Maybe because 10 million years after creation, after dealing with people all this time, even God had come to have doubts. But as in any relationship, an everlasting one, you kept celebrating. A true love. And you kept trying. With this tea and the “glorious morning” muffins. And with a desire for more. The human desire, a divine desire, for more.

Merry Christmas.

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Whom you were related to: For the Irish, it still seemed all about relationships.

The dialect was always heard from those far away. Family and friends never heard it. Unless you moved to a place far away. But others heard the dialect. Every day.

Faith, belief, religion was some kind of inner voice, unnoticed in daily life, silent to me, like some kind dialect. But apparent to others.


Ireland was one of the first European countries in which a system of fixed hereditary surnames developed. Up to the tenth century, surnames in Ireland were not hereditary. Or so I read over the weekend. The church was the origin of a lot of those names. If you ever studied Gaelic, the influence of the church can still be seen in many common modern Irish family names, dating from the eleventh century. In the Irish language, the morning greeting, “Dia duit ar maidin,” is literally “God be with you.”

Brian Boru, possessing no surname at the start of the eleventh century, was simply “Brian, High-King of the Irish.” His grandson Teigue called himself Ua Briain in memory of his illustrious grandfather. And so the name became hereditary thereafter. The church is the origin of all of those names starting with “Mul–” a version of the Irish Maol, meaning bald (applied to the monks because of their distinctive tonsure). Thus Mulrennan (Ó Maoilbhreanainn) means “descendant of a follower of St. Brendan.” Names beginning with “Gil–” or “Kil–” (the anglicized version of the Irish Giolla) mean follower or devotee, and thus Kilkenny means “son of a follower of Cainneach (Saint Kenny).” Though common in English, place names among Irish names, in the toponymic category of a name derived from a locality name, are extremely rare. For the Gaels, whom you were related to has always been much more important than the place from where you came. Such was life on an island. The island.

Cainneach.  Kilkenny, the capital of the Irish Confederacy.  The Irish Confederate Wars.  The conflict in Ireland which essentially pitted the native Irish Roman Catholics – the indigenous people, like in the Garden – against the Protestant British settlers and their supporters in England and Scotland, over who would govern Ireland.

Pilgrimage.  Looking for roots.  Connected to the past.  The descendants.  In silent cemeteries.  At Ellis Island.  In Irish churchyards.  Connected to a family.  Connected to a city.  Connected to an institution.

In 1994, I visited Rathdowney.  In southwest County Laois, not far from Kilkenny.  It is quite small.  To get out of town I needed to catch a morning bus.  I found myself on a Saturday killing an hour at a pub.  Mrs. O’Malley’s.  With Irish coffee.  But no booze.  There were 3 area farmers in the pub.  And in came a 40-year-old man from Philadelphia.  He had been in here, he said, before.  He asked the barkeep if Mrs. O’Malley was around.  She came out.  She had no recollection of the Yank who had been here once before.  Once in these parts his family had lived around here.  Those American dialects all sounded a like.  The Yank brought in his mother from the car.  And then they were gone.  The Irish farmers then reacted.  “Ah, Mrs. O’Malley! It is great to see you again!”  It was about feigned friendship.  “Ah! Looking for roots.”  Doing the mock-erania.  Then they realized I was there.

It was the end of the season.  Ireland becomes like Disneyland all summer long.  It was October.  And these guys were happy the never-ending tourists were gone, and the season was at an end.  O’Malley’s Pub was once again theirs.  So many long-lost cousins.  Too many.

Names.  Roots. The opening chat about a place where your family once had been rooted.  Forever.  Who is still here that you might be rooted to?  The reason why you left was at the bequest of the oldest generation who were willing to sacrifice a young life at this age – would an eighty-nine year old lady survive a voyage? In famine.  So the belief, like in the story of The Akedah, to give everything up about this place called Ireland, that your descendants might survive.  In a new place.

Tonight there was a show on the Public Broadcasting Station about archaeology. Archaeologists were always looking, in excavation.  Looking always for the past.  In a place, in this case in Jerusalem, a city defined by the power of religion.  A place where whom you were related always was more important than the place from where you came.  And so the digging by archaeologists, looking in excavation, for the historic Jesus.  Archaeologists looking in places for the historic Jesus, but unaware of the significance of place names.  So many places which sounded like going through just another museum, looking for a remnant from a dinosaur – those dinosaurs, for me anyway, that seemed so hard to believe in.

Oh, the sweat involved in the digging… for the past.  By people unconnected to the reality of the people. In the search for the answers, searching site after site, day after day, never was there mention of the mundane.  Like just another museum, and after a while, if you have seen one, you have seen them all.  Not much different than the advice which I got from the farmers at O’Malley’s Pub, about where to head next, about seeing some church that St. Patrick had founded.  “Have you never seen a church?”  Hearing the mock-erania, about missing the real meaning from the past, I took their advice and headed to Kilkenny.

Missing in the excavations of archaeologists, with oh so sterile gloves, was what was left in the holes, now covered up.   The things that once happened here, which was the reason for my come-back.  Perhaps like the realness of the people of a time …the arrangements at the time, with their unknown stress, their conflicts.  Worries, along with an excitement, connected to these comebacks.  Behold the now forgotten  fear about the survival of those who left!   Archaeologists, looking in a place to find the miracle, in the spirituality always connected to the missing, as men vied for power based upon names, after the Age of Discovery.

There is something painful in the search — as painful to see as in the search I witnessed in the guy from Philadelphia, looking for something in O’Malley’s.  As much as I enjoy history, places like a church in Cashel leave me cold, unless I had read something, knew something, about the people in the place… and all of the Unsettling.  Was it the missing inheritance that is what I sense in the search for the Historic Jesus?  How is the study by secular historians of the remnants of historic Jesus relevant, if you carried no human feeling?  About the real Jesus.  In Bethlehem?  Human . . . divine, sharing and overcoming human suffering, and sharing human relationships with other humans.  How were historic remnants, European cathedrals, museum artifacts, relevant to my life?  Mostly there is emptiness these day in so many European cathedrals where it is more usual than not that this generation is godless.

To find a place?  Archaeology was looking for a place that people might be moved by THEIR discovery? Archaeologists looking for some kind of missing piece of a puzzle, looking in layers below, if not within, to validate themselves in their place of work?  Archaeologists looking for the historic Jesus, to help find a modern miracle, for those who had missed the story, or missed the meaning of the power in a true relationship?

The constant digging.  To find a miracle in the historic?  Or now … this year?

The annual revolutions of the sun always found me in new places, listening for an inner voice. The comebacks.  Searching for God, in search to whom you are related, in the longing to be Irish, in the tradition, from the beginning.  That perspective, in a humble old world sense.  From out of recognizing my own longings, and naming these desires – in the longing – there is a Messiah … The Desire of the Nations to be saved … from human cruelty, everywhere.  Like in that heritage there at O’Malley’s Pub, with that question, “Have you never seen a church?”  A heritage never quite felt unless you moved to a place far away, while hoping and wondering if Mrs. O’Malley had any recollection of the Yank here once before.

It was the season about connections.  Looking for roots.  Connections to family and friends.  To come back each year.  Like the seasons revolve.  Changed in the annual revolutions of the sun, by the mundane.  What was always here.  The food grown with the power of the sun, sold in the food markets.  By the power of the annual revolutions, celebrated at year’s end.

It was the season about connections.  Tagged with the power of and in relationship, to whom you were related always has been much more important than the place of origin. On December 24th, the reading which comes from Matthew, Chapter 1, is about the genealogy of Jesus, son of David, the son of Abraham. And so it goes…..Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.  Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar.  Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab. Amminadab became the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. Boaz became the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth.  Obed became the father of Jesse, Jesse the father of David, the king.  The unlikely king.  

Relationship.  The season was about connection.  The genealogy of.  And the meaning from the stories. The mystery behind Christmas, and the lights of Christmas.  The power in the real stories…. where an Irishman gets power.  The power in relations with connection as the essence of Presence, to whom you are related.  .As your newly-wed wife in her 40th month of gestation carried your shared past on the back of a donkey, based upon the directive of the dominant power.  Bringing people together, through/with/in fertility. The connection of the past to the present, as you acquire an elevated power above others, by lowering yourself.  Taking a name, as a sign of power, with the humbleness of being born meant there would be a humbleness of dying.

Taking a name, keeping a name.  In this focus on the House of David, bringing all of creation together.  Yet it was the humanity not of the male, but of Mary where God suddenly focused.  Suddenly.  With all the innocence again connected to Creation, God was like a guy falling in love.  And changing all of His plans? In the mystery of the House of David.  As the power of not of one culture but a civilization of many cultures was in the things shared.


The Morning Show

The morning was about endings.  I was trying to find 2 names in the obits, in the local news, to know more about a death.  The bad thing about obits was they never always told you how the death happened.  I was wanting to know more.  About the end.  Over what was sacred.  Newspapers.  Sports.  Music.  News.  It was about the common bond.  Cheering for the home team.  The news thereof. 

Mortar.  As found in brick.  The Morning Show.  Neal and Leandra.  “I am rich. You’ve given me your name.  You call my name.  More than my wildest dreams.  This wasn’t what I expected.  I always wanted more….let the world go on believing….the world can dry up all my dreams.  Your love is the water…I waded into….the holiest of streams.  More than my wildest dreams.  Rich beyond…my dreams.  I am rich. I am rich.” 

“The Morning Show” on Minnesota Public Radio.  A newspaper near you.  The end was coming, to an institution which was I had loved as part of the routine. 

Peace in my life.  Worry how long there will be peace.  The birds never worried.  The dog doesn’t worry.  You only had to read the news about Somalia and the pirates there, to know that peace was owed to something.  Law that for the most part that was honored.  Law was supposed to be moral.  Thus the fight over Roe V. Wade.  Over gay marriage.  Over what was moral.  Over what was sacred.  There were armies that fought for belief in moral law.  There was a police force here to maintain the order.  In Greece, there seemed to be a question about how moral every day life has been. 

Newspapers read on-line.  It was a lot like hearing Neal and Leandra, those local performers.  People were looking for a free lunch even in the days before unemployment.  Like in 2004 when the financial industry was said to have made 30% of all profits on Wall Street, when nothing was broke.  As Leandra wrote about performing at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis this year: 

“Financial reality. The Minneapolis Park & Rec Department stopped paying performers over 10 years ago. We continued doing the concerts because we knew our audience loved the venue and the Park & Rec helped us pay for the mailing we would send. They stopped doing that a couple of years ago, so the past few years we have been paying to play at the bandshell hoping to offset the expense with CD sales. Last year with the rain, we got soaked. Literally, too!”   

Mortar.  As found in brick.  When it is gone.  “The Morning Show” was a show that started 40 years ago.  This was where Garrison Keillor got his start and moved on.  When I tuned in by chance at 7 am there was Greg Brown who, with his own special lyrics seems to have redone the Crosby, Stills & Nash  “Long Time Gone” song, asking the question “What good is the radio without you?” Baseball scores.  Wanting more.  When it poured. It was the end.  I had first tuned in by chance in the mid-1990s.  It was now the end.  Unless you had high definition radio.  Whatever that was.  This was hearing Etta James 15 years ago.  Irish music before the Celtic tiger.  Neal and Leandra, of “Old Love” fame.  Where the song was first played.

The kindness.  The morning kindness. Dale Connelly and Tom Keith (with a stage name of Jim Ed Poole) had brought a unique blend of music and personality and kindness to “The Morning Show.”  Minnesota Public Radio had canceled the show with Tom Keith’s retirement from “The Morning Show.”   He will keep working as the sound-effects guy for “A Prairie Home Companion.”  Connelly will continue with an online version.  This was not a rainout. 

Peter Mayer:  “Everything Is Holy Now.”  A musician looking for the perfect piece to play.  When someone writes a song about your show’s end.  That was humbling to listen to.  It was love.  Endings.  For long-time entertainment, endings were bittersweet.  Contraction.  Loss.  Of what seemed mundane.  There was an insignificance of the significant.  Until it was over.  The audience.  The human animal not knowing how to react.  To the bittersweet.  Laughter like always.  

Neal and Leandra, and their lyrics this morning at 8 am:  “You brighten up everything I do.  Walk out that door….whatever you do.  The joy that is you.  My world is still up.  ‘The Morning Show.’  From all I’ve been through….the joy that is you.  ‘The Morning Show.’  I feel joy…all that I see.  The stream….the beautiful stream.  The joy…the dream…that was you. They’re smiling too…for the joy that is you.”  




Songs without lyrics.  Where the strings did the talking.  Of the sorrow.  Of the joy.  And the audience sat dumbfounded by the subtleness of the chords. 


“You are my sunshine…..”  The thought that went into the final song.  The thank you’s.  The music.  The audience.  The bond.   We are out of time.  …don’t take my sunshine away.” 


The sadness of endings:  Why does the sun go on shining?  Why does the sea rush the shore?  Why do the birds go on singing?  What do the stars glow above?  Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?  I wake up in the morning wondering.  Why —everything was the same it was.  I can’t understand.  No I can’t understand, how life goes on the way it was. 


A song about endings…. The way life goes on the way it does.  Why does my heart go on beating….it ended when you said ….good bye.  Everything is the same it was.  Don’t they know it is the end of the world? 

Endings.  Rembrances.  A real weeper, at the end. Looking for burial places. 

Dealing with change.  A bit of mortar in the Minnesota day, as found in the brick, had become loose.   At the foundation called morning.

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Great Expectations

I went to bed last night amidst a discussion of Nixon, on release of a movie about the David Frost interviews.  The discussion by the author who played Nixon in what first must have been the Broadway play:  Nixon and his immortal leanings, his desire for greatness……and the loneliness.  The vast loneliness.

God in his vastness. I had struggled yesterday with a liturgy at a cathedral in the neighborhood.   I always struggled at this place of worship, in its vastness, in its darkness, with its emptiness visible.  There must have been a message left by the architecture.  It was the empty tomb effect.  The same message left throughout Europe in their vast cathedrals. 

God  who in His subtle ways appeared every day, however fleeting. God, in the darkness.  God, visble at dawn and again in the sunset.  God in the night, before the days of electricity.  It was the time of year, in darkness that we decided to let God come closer and closer. In need of me and you to fill the emptiness. 

God, in his subtle mundane ways, was in the food.  The food that I had had each day of my life.  There was an intimacy to the food.  To eat is to intimately trust.  Trust that the food was not tainted.  There was care-giving in food preparation.  I heard on Sunday a radio show where an author of a bookd spoke of teh aftermath of melamine-tainted baby formula.  The same things had happened here in the middle of the 19th Century in North America, with swill milk.  

Food.  Grown.  Distributed.  Purchased.  Prepared.  And shared.  It will nourish and ideally do no harm.  Even to a human who did the cooking, there was a mystery beyond the ingredients that went into the food, of the things we put in our mouths.  There was a trust every day, and that food determined for a large part our health.  That was the intimacy of food.  Of health. 


Within my own home, there was a realness of food in the struggle amidst all His mystery, to know God.  Whether in this cathedral, his home, or even my home.  In His vastness, with my emptiness.  To feel the hunger.  Babies cried over the lack of food.  I think that humans did the same, over issues of spiritual hunger in their lives.  From those who have never heard that God is love.  Those without hope.  In tough time, the seriousness of all varieties of hunger was better understood.  The lack of understanding was the cause of conflict.  The secular versus the religious.  The Crusades and the crusaders.  There was not much generosity in war.  Sharing food, real food, involved a grace that comes from food.  Generosity.  From where ever it had come.  Humans had little control.  Mostly food came from the earth and favorable climate conditions. 


Last week I watched a movie on the Turner Classic Movie channel.  I have never read Great Expectations, so I watched the movie.  In one scene, in attempting to become a gentleman, the main Charles Dickens’ character, poor as a peasant, asked a sponsor who sent him to London, “Why have you done so much for me?”  And after he was recognized in his adulthood to be a gentleman, he felt like too many gentlemen of his age, that he had become a snob.


It made me reflect on the strangers along the way that had helped to try to form me into a gentleman.  When I was very young for most of those years it had been by nuns.  In my experience, these nuns had welcomed the stranger, given their gifts, shared their lives, so that a bunch of kids could be educated as gentlemen and ladies to learn the same generosity.  It seemed pretty mundane to teach kids each day, year in and year out.  Too many of us with our desire for greatness had become snobs along the way, blind to the splendor of their generosity, blind to their vastness, with our own emptiness too often filled with materialism.


It was a week that the church used to ask for support for the retired nuns who in their old age did not have much.  And they have been on my mind each day.  By 2023, religious orders may face more than $20 billion in unfunded retirement liabilities.  There had been no special collection this year.   The sadness was that too many of us had become snobs along the way.  And there no longer were many nuns.



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The Human Condition


T’is the season of gifts.  To be successful in giving was to present a sentiment behind a gift:  the totality of the gift was in the sentiment.  That was the sacramental.  The significant was more than the material thing.  The outward sign. 

At a young age, I spent a fair amount of time dealing with folks at times of loss.  There had been people crying about losing a ring, however the circumstances.  Weeping.  Somehow in comparison to the magnitude of real loss after an experience, I never could quite appreciate the loss of just sentiment.  Not after what I had witnessed in a community somewhere near Devils Lake, North Dakota.  The worst loss I ever had to attend to was a man who lost his home and 5 sons in a fire about 4 days before Christmas about 20-some years ago.  I don’t recall ever seeing his wife.  That day was heart breaking.  I have thought of that event each December ever since. 

People pray a lot for “blessings.”  God is asked day in and day out to “bless us.”  The request is nothing but for a share.  To have a share, of Him and His goodness.  To be a shareholder in this planet was to be invested in what happens.  To read a quote from Father Karl Golser in the National Catholic Reporter from December 5, 2008 from John Allen, Jr.:


“All of creation must be reborn and presented anew to the Father through Christ.  In their cosmic dimension of the faith, the Eucharist is about offering the earth itself back to God, in the consecration of bread and wine.  Sunday is the day we live the joy of redemption.  Sunday is the day we also express a new relationship with space and time.  It’s about the return to God.  It is about the return to Christ, the parousia.”  

God was, as always, just waiting.  It was the Advent season.  In the cosmic dimension of things, the nights were long in real life.  When did God mostly meet people in real life?  In critical times:  in birth, in death, on a wedding day.  But in the stories of the New Testament, Jesus mostly met people in conditions that people wished they did not have.  Sick.  In sacramental encounters.  In conditions of sin—when most people wished they were different.  With a bit of shame.  In real life.  Seldom did Jesus meet people in the temple.  That bit of shame was why half the world did not worship much.  I had my own sense of shame about the past.  How could I have missed so much?  Wrestling with the question, Who am I?  Am I good enough?  And coming to realize that it was I that needed a savior.  Yeah.  Even me. 


This time of year was one about sentiment.  In the reality of things, sentimental gifts took some thought to touch the heart of someone of significance.  It was not until the days just before Christmas when we trimmed the tree on Grandma’s birthday, celebrating people in the past, in an ornament from a year remembered, that the sentiment hit home.  I did not care to do Christmas things too early.  It was hard to remember the sacredness of each ornament, the stories behind how they got here.  Those symbols of Christmas for adults only worked with sentiment.  People whose lives I had had a share.  And true sentiment could not be lost. 

There was way too much to take in, with imagination, with this Incarnation.  I seldom think of it until the horns blare on Christmas Eve in church at “Oh Come All Thee Faithful.”  And then my heart leaps.  Each year. 

Larry Gillick, S.J., describes Advent as “when we were waiting for His taking birth in our stables, taking flesh in our persons.” God in human form.  Visible.    Approachable.  In real life.  

She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

When I was in the 4th grade, we had neighbors named Ringo.  A guy one year older who seemed pretty normal until the Beattles came to New York in 1965.  Then suddenly, Jim started just using his last name and he was a superstar.  His name got pronounced differently.  With a lot more screaming.  Ringo went to Fuller School.  I just never knew Catholics went to Fuller.  I thought they all went to school with me.  1965 was the year I learned that not all the kids in public school were non-Catholics. 

That same year I had my first lay teacher.  Up until then, it had been all nuns.  My experience with nuns was the same one my parents had before me.  I am not sure if my grandparents all had nuns.  Three of them were Catholic.  My paternal grandmother was non-Catholic as a youth, in an age when she practically had to petition the Vatican to get married in the Catholic Church, as I understood it.  She eventually converted.  Her ancestors had come from the North of Ireland – before the partition – and somehow, for reasons I never quite understood, she did not consider herself Irish but Scotch Irish.  And she never drank Scotch that I could tell.  But I think that might have been why she was the only Catholic in Minnesota who had voted for Nixon in 1960.  Her father was the fire chief here 100 years ago when I imagine the fire department still used horses, when she was a child.    

Belief was always personal.  A possession like your own body.  Only it was in your mind.  Or maybe deeper.  I owed a lot of my belief to nuns. 


A lot of people throughout the times were born without belief in God.  At birth there was no real belief.  So belief had to be   either discovered, as Abraham discovered it, or it had to be taught.  In my case it was taught.  At home.  In parochial schools.  At a Jesuit university.  And my own curiosity then pursued it.  Belief is an interesting thing.  The measurement of belief, how much you had, really was a lot like family medical history.  It was based upon not genes. Seemingly, it was not in the chromosomes.  But I had owed it to someone.  Belief was formed by the degree of time that I went in search of my own curiosity, a lot like those nuns had in their lives. 


Concerning the amount of time spent, in challenging times in pursuit of that curiosity, I went about at this time of year to hear one priest I had heard about on retreat on a Saturday morning ten years ago.  I eventually had that priest on retreat.  His morning was spent talking about the Examen which he had learned of through the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola.  It was a prayer that was based upon the day.  My day.  So it was a personal prayer.  In a sense, this Jesuit spoke about prayer which was found in just thinking about the wakening hours.  


Today I awoke to the thought how God’s appearances in a day seem mostly fleeting.  Last night I found myself home alone, cooking a hamburger for dinner, using an electric fry pan.  A pretty mundane moment in the week.  But it caused me to think about my grandmother both at the end of the night and the start of today.  That electric fry pan had come from her home.  She gave it to me when I took my first job.  I had not used this frying pan in more than 15 years.  She had died in 1988.  In April 1987 I had moved to Chicago.  And almost at the time of my move she had had a severe stroke where she never was able to talk again.  That frying pan made me think of how I had failed her in the time of need.  In the period between April 1987 and July 1988.  The failure was not so much in not being there.  But when I came home to visit.  Oh I always stopped in.  But she couldn’t talk.  And it was difficult for this young man to say anything in a one way discussion.  Young men mostly always had answered questions, at least at that point in life.  And I did not know what to say in just a monologue.   True conversation, like true prayer, took a while to learn. 


I wasn’t much good in those days talking about what stirred my soul.  It took a while to find out.  Her eyes moved indicating full knowledge of anything I said.  But as she was every day, she was trapped in her bed, unable to say anything.  This was a woman who had never questioned me like a mother.  This was the woman whose unconditional love I had felt each time I had seen her.  Every time.  I see a couple grandkids who have that kind of relationship with my own mother.  In the old world when a mother’s job was at home, there was little need for the conflict that developed between mother and a male child when it came to a grandmother.  This was the woman who also was my godmother.  One thing I had learned about mostly all the Irish, Irish don’t like verbal expressions of love as much as those shown in action.  I never really expressed what this lady always had meant to me. 


That Examen taught me a lot about myself and my life and the authentic way to pray.  In a lesson which only had been on my mind for 20 years, that Examen yesterday had ended with me thinking about an electric fry pan when the broiler did not work, and giving thanks for a hamburger.  That electric fry pan was also an outward sign of the past, which had lain dormant around here for more than 15 years, a sacrament a lot like Wonder bread, which helped build bodies 12 ways.


In a subtle way, God appeared every day, however fleeting.  With love like that, you know you should be glad. 


Every day you met people from all over the world in a quest, along the path of St. James, at el Camino de Santiago de Compostela.  In A Vanished World, Chris Lowney questions as he travels across Spain why three religions that worship the same God and deeply respect human dignity have so often turned on each other.  It was on my books to acquire list. 

What is spiritual direction? I had read an article about this pilgrimage in Spain. In any life, we all had a spiritual direction, though few talk about it. Maybe that was why people went on pilgrimage. Mostly, alone. To find a direction. It is said that God is constantly making approaches to our defenses.

It was a bad week for books, in a bad year for sales in bookstores.  People were not buying newspapers or books.  Me either.  I probably owned 100 great ones that were still waiting for me to get to.  A library says a lot about a person, speaking of spiritual direction.

My sister was back from Israel and Egypt. She reports that “the burning bush” is still in Egypt.  Yup, Moses’.  I saw the pictures. I could not believe it was still in Egypt. She reports that the Catholics have possession of the bush — Coptic Catholics, I think.  It could not be transplanted, though it had been tried — over and over.  I missed the subtleness of those who had tried to transplant it.  Because Jews never had been much welcomed much in Egypt since the time of slavery, and of Moses?   But the place of revelation to Moses, why Y*w*h’s name is spelled as it is in Judaic tradition, all started at the burning bush.  Speaking of spiritual direction? 

My sister was back from Israel and Egypt, where she had been assaulted in the night, by bed bugs.  Apparently bed bugs are an old problem that Minnesotans are awakening to after about 100 year period of dormancy.  I did not read the article in the Star Tribune last Sunday as to where they having been sleeping in the interim.   My friend the exterminator just took out $160,000 loan to store his company equipment, and those bed bugs will be helping him make payment.  God is constantly making approaches to our defenses, as my favorite Jesuit in Omaha wrote this week.  My sister kept any bedbugs that returned with her in her suitcase in sub freezing temperatures for a week, expecting that would kill her new Egyptian plague.  The quality of life is often determined by temperature.  In Canada, in Minnesota, in exodus, those temperatures can protect us in ways I never had contemplated — as an invisible weapon.

Speaking of spiritual direction — moving forward … expanding — why would economies expand in parts of the world with diminishing populations?  Is there irony that people in Western Europe quit having children for economic reasons.  Like in Spain.  People who dreamed of population control, to have more material wealth, end up shooting the next generation in the foot. Whether in riches, in markets of Wall Street, there is a mystery in all of this direction.  Wall Street was fighting the invisible spirit of the market.  It is said that the ticker does not lie.  There is something holy about the market. 

Maintenance.  It was the week I had snow tires put on.  If I wanted movement and traction this winter.  This meant walking through downtown after dropping off my car.  As I passed a lady with a seeing-eye dog, I thought of the training that went into that dog leading the blind.  When that dog woke, up, it really had a purpose in the morning.  The formation and training of that dog was not that much different than the effort put into a kid like me, I thought, as I walked by the corporation that had first hired me out of college, gave me training, and then sent me in exodus.

What is spiritual direction?  In the real world where people have to eat each day, who has time?  In the real world when people have to work.  Or get their snow tires on. 

It was another Advent season.  Why?  Why in the Christian world is there another season of Advent.  In a world of commercial celebration of the birth of Christ, in the world before Christmas Day, was not a part of the world saying, “Forget the waiting”?  Put up the tree now.  Go to the parties now.  Turn on the house lights for the neighbors now.  Why would anyone wait?  So was there still an Advent?

What was the dynamics of spiritual direction?  Of this redemption?  Did Jesus of Nazareth have to find out the subtleness of God for himself?  The kid lost in the temple at 12, ready to engage the elders.  Why did this redemption have to wait?  Why did it have to wait 10 million years from the time of creation?  And who could wait?  Who could look at the hunger in the world?  The refugees from war?  The refugees from unemployment?  The immigrant moving in a direction, in exodus?  The descendants of all the transplanted here. Who could look at the news stories each day of a world in tough times?  Did it seem like a time for action?  Now? 

Spiritual direction.  From age to age.  In your kids.  It was just so slow to watch develop.  Painfully slow. A lot like this creation.  Or a lot like making a pilgrimage.  Or like that burning bush.. the burning bush which is real.

Speaking of spiritual direction, there was African proverb about a journey:  If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together. 

In a seemingly Vanished World, this Creator is constantly making approaches to our defenses, sending a son to learn some of those defenses, understanding the world.  Jesus learning the human struggle with spiritual direction.  Jesus born in the cold.  Coming to grips with what he saw on this earth.  Jesus, lost in the temple, not really having yet found his global position in history. Jesus growing up human, and coming to ask why.  Why?  Why in the Christian world, with a savior, did he have to learn how to use his own creativeness, like any other kid?  And then how, in the name of God?

How in a world of hunger each day, to grab people’s attention.  How in the name of God to act, like any human who had a life to live?  Spiritual direction was deciding the how.  In a world with such an urgent need, why did it have to wait? 

It was a car maintenance morning with a spiritual direction. My mind was on maintenance, in a down market. The theme of the day, maintaining what I had.  In an all too vanished world. In a spiritual direction,maintaining a purpose. A lot of us were blind, and in need of a well trained dog leading in a spiritual direction.  Toward God.  Almost silently. Religion Blogs

Care in Health Care

A doctor did not cry, not if he/she was a real professional. 

Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, was on the radio over the weekend.  When she studied medicine, pphysicians were taught not to respond emotionally to the suffering around them.  Physicians as scientists pay a terrible price for their objectivity.  Some of the highest rates of depression in America are among physicians.

Dr. Remen said that physicians’ objectivity is an appliance that separates them from life around them and within.  Too often physicians  are wounded by their scientific objectivity.  Cognitive objectivity was the price of another dimension, and keeping a mental distance, for objectivity sakes.

There is a lot of burnout among oncologists, a profession that treats cancers day in and day out.  I could never do it.  Dr. Remen said burnout among physicians was due to the objectivity, from not immersing themselves in the grieving process.  Residency was an ongoing process that changes the vision of a young person and the way the resident thinks.  Over time, some thing fade, others are over-developed in medicine “until I forgot a lot of important things.”

The first response of a physician is to try to fix the broken, the ill.  When a doctor is immersed in suffering, he/she has a small strategy—to fix the broken.  I have a one friend who is a physician. He went through chemical dependency treatment about 8 to 10 years ago.  His problem was drinking.  I would see him weekly in the winter, but for 4 weeks he was gone.  He never really talked about his absence but in my case he knew that I knew.  Over the years, he has joked about the change where he no longer drinks, but other than a few people outside his family, few seem to know about those 4 weeks of his life.   From hearing Dr. Remen on the radio, I understand a bit more the struggles in his life.  Physicians seldom talk about their own problems, their pressures, outside their fraternity.  They pay a terrible price for their objectivity. 

A couple years ago I gave a book to my own doctor written by a Hinsdale, Illinois physician about his years as a resident at the Mayo Clinic in orthopedics.  After both he and his wife read the book, he passed it on to his daughter who is going though a residency in orthopedics.  Those residency programs are a lot more humane than they were 30 years ago.  But the real change deals with doctors who are immersed each day in suffering. 

There is a lot of burnout especially among oncologists.  It comes from a sense of failure over the inability to cure.  Medical schools have always been for the best and the brightest.  Many of these physicians have been good athletes, great competitors who are not used to failure.  And theirs is the disappointment on having a person die.  A patient who looked to them to be cured.  There is a tremendous validation for a physician each week to cure the sick.  These days people like Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, are offering grief theory to medical students.  Often in the past, when a doctor was immersed in suffering, he/she was left with his/her objectivity, with the restraints of time, to not really share in the grief of the patient’s family, to continue about his/her rounds, with a denial of his/her own loss with a patient’s death.  A doctor too often was filled with loss, with no room to care. 

The spiritual dimension of grief theory is now taught to medical students to remind them of their own power, and the human connection of medicine.   There was always a destructive dimension of science, in just the facts, without a purpose.  There was always a destructive dimension of medicine, of learning how to cure.  It was that dimension that seems to have accounted for the need for 4 weeks in the life of my friend to recognizing the limitations in science as well as him own.  There was learning that comes from suffering.  The power to be present in difficult times did have to be learned in order to be passed on to the young. 

( The Healer’s Art is a medical school curriculum which has been taught annually at UCSF since 1993 as a 15-hour quarter-long elective, designed by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness at Commonweal at UCSF School of Medicine Professor of Family and Community Medicine.

The Fear of Weiner Dogs


Because the immediate future does not look very perfect, there is a lot of palpable fear around these days.  There is a lot less use of the future perfect tense theses days.  Fear generally should be written about in the future tense.  Fear of the Lord is written about since the time of the Torah.  Fear almost always involves the future, sometimes the present, and never the past. 


Fear was a lot like the people I knew.  Once you knew someone, there was, more times than not, nothing to fear.  Now if you knew the people in charge, and had done nothing wrong, that is.  The majority would seem to agree that the fear for the next 6 weeks was about the people in charge.  I was fearful about the affect on bailouts.  And more bailouts. 


Fear and failure go hand in hand.  If you never have failed at anything, you might not understand.  But self-fear is the worst fear, something that grows over time.  It was the fear of the aged when they can no longer care for themselves.  Maybe that was the fear around today.  A fear we can no longer care for ourselves. 


Since I was 12 years old, I took great pride that we had one of the best lawns on the block.  I cared for that lawn.  My grades then were always splendid, though in college I should have studied harder.  Years later, I was always proud of my work product.  I have worked with people whose thinking, whose work, I wondered about.  Often the innocent were pulled down with the guilty.      


Joe the plumber seems symbolic of the past few months.  He was someone who actually could fix something.  Like all those financial leaks on Wall Street.  How in a democratic country could taxpayers be asked to provide financing for all those private Wall Street ship repairs?  The ones that should have been allowed to sink. 


Faith & values:  the interconnection.  For the past 15 years the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has had a Faith & Values section of the newspaper.  On Saturdays.  So did the Charlotte Observer.  Karl Marx is credited with calling religion the opium of the masses.  Whether it was the value of your home, where you kept your money, there always was faith that it would be there when you went to get it, went to sell it.  Suddenly, belief if not faith was being challenged.   This was all an illusion? 


Values.  Based upon a faith.  Maintaining value was the basis of the current crisis.  That and forgiveness.  As in debt forgiveness.  I heard following a curling match that the values in my neighborhood aren’t falling.  Yet. 


I heard a piece on NPR about a teen-age kid sailing alone around the world.  So far he has learned that once every 3 days there is a storm in the Pacific.  From one storm he just met in the Indian Ocean, he also has gotten acquainted with his God.  I think with all the fear around, we were all going to get better acquainted in 2009 with God.


Belief.  Fear.  The religious leaders I knew never really preached fire and brimstone.  I think it was because they weren’t strangers to this God.  And their knowledge reflected a certain amount of understanding.  Like in the old days when most politics was local, when candidates had to look for support from around here, when the newspaper was locally owned, when we were all pretty familiar with each other.  The world seemed a lot friendlier then.  People never had as much money, but there also was a lot less fear.  True value never really fluctuated, and you never could put a price on it. 


As a young kid, I had a fear about dogs.  Big ones anyway.  And weiner dogs.  Until I got to know them.  Then my fear evaporated.  Except of weiner dogs.  Fear almost always involves the future, sometimes the present, and never the past.  Except of weiner dogs. 

Larry Gillick