Father

The 3-season room at the back of my mother’s house boasts a sign with a clock in it on the wall. The inscription there reads “Jack’s Room,” with a jaunty green Irish chapeau at the top of the J, and a shillelagh playing the role of the apostrophe. It was placed there in honor and memory of Dad by my good brother-in-law. Dad chose this room, looked forward to spending time here, but was called to eternity before he ever could.

To my right at a distance of 150 yards a father is instructing his son on the courts on the mysteries of tennis. “Bend your knees.” “Backhand.” “Take your time.” “Watch the ball.”

Many of this father’s words, continuing at this moment as I write, could become aphorisms for living an attentive and good life. But one encouragement he has called out several times would be less likely, in my estimation, to lead to joy in this life.

“Power!” he has called out. “Come on! Power!”

Today we would be celebrating my Dad’s 86th birthday if he were still where we count and measure time. We haven’t needed to measure its passing for Dad since he turned 72 in the year 2000. He wasn’t perfect. We all inherited that from him, as he did from his parents. He got discouraged sometimes. He worried. He could be pessimistic. But he carried on. Always, without cessation. When I think of Dad, I think of faithfulness. I think of commitment. I think of walking on in the path he recognized as his own, and God-given, to its end. Or in faith, rather, to its next gateway.

He called us to faith, to doing our utmost, to walking on always as best we can, to turning to the Heavenly Father for strength. But in my memory he never called us to seek power, nor to know it as an avenue to life.

Right around this date, fourteen years ago now, I was with him in his room at the hospital. We were just over a week from his death. He was standing by his bed, admiring creation in the form of a gift hibiscus gloriously blooming in the sun by the window. And he spoke simple words then, words that both summed-up life and spoke final appreciation for all of it. “It’s been a good run,” Dad said. “It’s been a good run.”

His last words, only a few days later, were quietly whispered to one of the nurses: “Thank you.”

However long life continues, I want only to echo the same.

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Saturday Morning on Earth

Entering vacation. My first night of vacation-sleep lasted ten unblinking hours somehow. As my grandmother would have said had she been puttering around the kitchen here this morning, “You must have needed it!” I woke with a backache and a languid canine awaiting attention patiently.

I awoke as well with a strong sense that, despite the tragic truth that this human world has worked overtime this past week to reveal the depth of its wounds and the pain of its brokenness, there is a deeper-down wellness indeed, as Gerard Manley Hopkins might in some moments confirm.

Where is the evidence? In simple, small, nearby truths:

The air this morning is cool and light and eager to support life.

The little lady across the street who never burns a light in her house by night and is almost invisible day-by-day, is working her way along the sidewalk with patience and love trimming the hedge that frames her property.

The big rabbit who lives somewhere in the backyard is snooping around with perfect equanimity like she owns the place, much to the chagrin of the formerly languid canine. And who knows? In some profound sense the rabbit may hold the original title to the property.

There is loving family to the south I’ll turn to visit today, and loving family and friends to the north as well. To look in their eyes this week and just to hear their voices; to converse with them on matters timely and out-of-time as well: this is enough. More than enough blessing.

This morning a man of joy who came to this country from Korea will be ordained to the priesthood in Christ. He receives a blessing surely in that, and he is a blessing as well. Rich, mutual blessing among ordinands, community, and Lord.

Hope remains that damnably thank-God stubborn thing. It starts small where it stands a chance: I hope I can vacuum this rug this morning. I hope the traffic is bearable through Jersey. Then hope dares to throw its lovely nature further afield where the dice may be stacked. Hope that the airline downing tragedy might break the Ukraine unrest, that Palestinians and Israelis might look across the wreckage between the rockets and marching boots and catch sight on either side of a living human eye and the heart that lies behind it. Hope that one of the children flowing alone to the US southern border might find their way into the embrace and into the heart of one who never expected it. Crazy hopes, as I say, but damnably stubborn.

That’s this Saturday morning in this embattled world. The trick seems to hug to ourselves these little blessings on the micro level and bring them together into something much bigger. Who in this human world believes such a move might be possible?

Ah but friends, tomorrow is the Lord’s Day. If your heart can squint a glance ahead you might at least surmise what God might purpose.

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You build a society one life at a time.

Society is built on each individual life.

Each society is built on the worth accorded to every life.

Every life highly valued and supported in tangible and intangible ways builds the strength of the society.

Child and border officer

Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

Every life devalued and judged unworthy of support robs the society of strength and merit and worth in itself.

‘Society’ is not equivalent to nation.

The borders of a society are set not by law nor by stone or metal walls, but by culture, by what is shared among people, by what is given value and ultimate value by individual and shared human lives.

If the life of a poor family is of less worth than that of a wealthy, then the society is not richer, but poorer.

If the life of a child on the way to birth is worth less than that of a child already born, then society’s understanding of what it is to be human is wounded.

If the life of a child on one side of a humanly-determined border is judged worthy of food and shelter, possibility and education and future, and the child on the other side is judged only as refugee or invader, then the society is on the run from the beliefs that make life together possible.

The society that judges against individual human lives judges itself.

The society that embraces each individual life as worthy of effort and cost and discussion, of time and money and inconvenience, of stopping to think through the law to the human depths beyond, is built up and becomes more truly itself, more truly human, more completely home for every human life.

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A Christed Life

Just before heading home from a several day conference in support of the life of priests which took place in California this past week, I received the sad news of the death of William Neenan SJ of Boston College. During the years that I was blessed to labor in the offices of The Church in the 21st Century Center at that celebrated Jesuit institution, one of the best daily blessings received was the apparent happenstance that the C21 offices were located in Heffernan House on College Road upstairs from Father Neenan’s office.

In retrospect, this daily good remains one of the lasting benedictions of that time. Father Bill Neenan was already for thirty years a Boston College legend at that time. The welcome, camaraderie, and kindness I found in him from day one is an experience shared likely by thousands over the years of his life and priesthood. Many times a week we would run into one another in our little Heffernan kitchen, outside his office, or on the walkways leading to the building. Occasionally he would climb upstairs to our area of the building and be rightly received as a revered visitor.

Every meeting with Bill Neenan, no matter how incidental, was a moment, a conversation, a celebration in the company of a man who embodied the Gospel of Christ. He was through and through a member of the Society of Jesus. His words and actions and demeanor proclaimed Jesus with quiet, love, and a sense of inevitable goodness.

His story-telling skills brought to life past decades and places half-way across the country, making them present and real. In that same sacramental sense his person made present the One whom he served with great heart, always and everywhere.

Dorothy Day called her autobiography The Long Loneliness. This believer, known as a pre-eminent social activist, recognized an empty place at the heart of life. She also found the fullness that is divinely provided for that human space and spoke of it in these terms:

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other, We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

At the Table of the Eucharist and in the Eagle’s Nest, this beautiful man loved God in us all, invited us to the breaking of bread and to the recognition that happens only there, and helped us not to be alone. Bill Neenan was an emissary from that best of all banquets.

There is a lot of fist-bumping going on around the celestial dinner table tonight.

Thank you, Father Neenan, for every moment. Exult in joy.

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Not Knowing

“I slept well. Deep. Emptied.”
That is good.
“I woke lonely and afraid;
Carrying a burden of anxiety.”
Can you bear it?
The words rang like three bells
In the distance, distinct, tolling:
“I. Don’t. Know.”

4.9.14

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Healing (a prose poem)

Healing

Oh God we break,
Along fault lines you know well
Laid carefully in place from our conception.
The line between wholeness and fracture,
The line between 15 and 85,
Which we picture as broad an open and supple,
But all our lives it narrows and crumbles and crusts
Until it is the most tenuous of Borders
One we can step over without intention at all
And break.

But you are the God of wholeness,
You are the knitting together of what is broken,
You are the healing of what is fractured.
Lift us up gently in our brokenness,
Hold us close to you cheek to cheek
Until our cries subside,
Our tears are dried,
And we are one, complete in you.

3.30.14

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Prayer

There are spaces in life
In which, more than pray,
You become prayer.
It is as if every tiny bit of you
Stretches upward,
Leans forward
In supplication;
Every cell with microscopic hands
Aloft
Yearning.
There are spaces in life
That feel like
You can’t pray
But you are prayer.

(3.15.14)

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