The falling rain
Persistent hum of arrival from above
Blanket of life
Emblem of the grace of God
Onto the face of the earth.
First look today.
The light plays
On the water’s face.
Forget to play
Never knew how to dance
So much weight is upon us living.
But the celestial music chords
The water light plays
Despite the whole weight of sky spread over.
Could then there yet be days of dance ahead?
There could, plays the light.
When I was a boy, if I had something to be up for in the morning – be it school or a special event – my Dad would appear by my bed early in the morning. Very quietly, almost silently, he would whisper my name, “John,” just that, and I would awake right away. I have many memories of mornings exactly like that.
This morning I set an alarm a bit later than usual. Two minutes before the alarm would’ve chimed, more clear than a bell, just by the bed, I heard my father’s voice. “John,” he said, as on those mornings long ago.
I’ve not heard his voice, of course, since his death in August of 2000. But there it was. Unmistakable. And calling me to wake up.
To what, I wonder?
Today has been your typical American pastoral day, in some ways. It has been full. There were significant encounters with a few people, and passing meetings with more. There were two many minutes spent staring at a screen and communicating in a way that the Evangelists might have less-than-approved. Who knows?
Two moments stood out.
One was a conversation with the son of one of the finest priests of the diocese who has served all his priesthood here, and now lies in his home, cared for gently by hospice. He did not move or open his eyes while his son and I stood around him and spoke, but his spirit of caring love and pastoral intelligence filled the space. Big hearts do that, even when they are low.
The second was a visit to a parishioner. She is a wonderful lady in her mid-80’s who, as I told her today, is more active in these years though limited by age and illness than are many of us who are younger and more able to get around. She has just come home from a week in the hospital; a week by the way, in which she and her roommate became good friends and by the end of which the other woman was expressing a wish to join us at Saint Anselm’s. File that under true and natural evangelism/evangelization.
This morning I brought this dear lady communion at home. We heard Sunday’s Gospel, stopped to converse (!), prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and then she received Christ where he must feel very much at home. Then the most extraordinary and yet seamless thing happened.
My hostess told me that she belongs to the Order of Saint Luke the Physician and asked if I would mind if she prayed for me, laid hands on me, and anointed me? I replied that I would not mind at all. Her question grew from the fact of my ‘bum’ knee, currently awaiting the healing hand of one of Luke’s heirs in the trade.
With this, she opened her prayerbook and prayed. I leaned in and she laid hands on my head and prayed. I lifted my brow and she prayed and anointed me with a fragrant oil, apologizing then that she had applied too much. Instead, I would applaud her sacramental sense: let the sign speak!
All this from start to finish took maybe two minutes, two of the most moving minutes of 35 years of ordained ministry. I can put it this way, and then leave it there: I brought Jesus, as I am ordained to do. And lo, I found him already there, in prayer, and aching to heal.
Can I hear an Amen?
I spent a good deal of August 21st poised somewhere between fear and wonder. Fear that I was going to look upward with the naked eye and lose the sight remaining in these eyes of mine. And wonder at the sight, legitimately tremendum, of the darkness that crossed the Republic at a speed, beginning in Oregon, reported at some 2500 miles per hour.
Fear, and living outside the path of totality, kept me mostly concentrated on the various media providing images and words of the eclipse as it swept over the land. And remaining there kept me in touch with a sense, a deepening sense, of wonder. I didn’t know it would happen, though I thought it might and it did, that when the darkness over Madras, Oregon filled the large screen in front of me, tears filled my eyes. And silence filled the television screen for the better part of two minutes. When does silence ever get that much space to stretch and make its presence felt in 21st century America?
And that is only one of the day’s wonderments. Adjectives were extended, lengthened, their syllables overtaxed to the breaking point in a continental attempt to do justice to what was being experienced. But the silence, and the cries of emotion, the hands stretched upward – these said it best.
Many remarked, after old Sol had taken up his usually uninterrupted course again that this was an event that invited us to know ourselves, at last, as one again. It is a measure of the divisions with which we hobble across the land these days that it took, truly, a cosmic event to get us to take notice, to look up, and to realize who we are.
That rushing darkness, framed by ordinary light on one side and extraordinary on the other, spoke at least two truths to our hearts. The first: “We are so small.” The second: “We are one, integral, with the one celestial beauty of the universe.” Within the combination of these two whispered an invitation: You need only be humble to be the beauty you are.
The runup to that day recalled the last total eclipse to touch this land, in 1979. I read again, for the third time in my life, Annie Dillard’s extraordinary essay on that experience, “Total Eclipse.” In doing so, I repeatedly asked myself why I carry no memory of that earlier event, though I had reached adulthood and was in college that year. This in turn opened a reflection on arguably one of the greatest differences between that moment and this, thirty-eight years later.
That difference is the entirety of the internet. It is that web within which we all move. It is the variety and the omnipresence of social media. None of this existed except in science fiction when Annie Dillard and her husband drove to the Yakima Valley to experience the 1979 eclipse.
Today, that web embraces us all as a community united in the moment, in the wonder, in stillness. It has proved also, more than once, a web that grabs us hard and creates in us a community of sorrow, of anger, of disgust as we witness innocents die in terrorist attacks and as we faceoff from staunch ideological stances on left or right. The net reveals who we are, both for good and for ill. It exposes the most lovely notes of our caring as well as the most primitive shrieks of our anger and fear.
Usually, of late, we see mostly the worst of ourselves and our world in the fractured community the mirror of social media holds up to our tender eyes. During the eclipse we saw something else: a human community that is both aspirational and real, both tenuous and strong as steel, both linked to our Republic’s past hopes and, we can pray, uniting us in a shared future.
Two meals from the last two days of the voyage to California stand out. A dinner, and lunch the next day. They stand out less because of the food (which indeed was excellent) or because of the hospitality (which was warm and genuine) than because of the waiter. At dinner on the first night in the Coachella Valley, we got into conversation with our waiter. He was efficient, friendly, and knowledgable as to his work at the Bella Vita. But, as is blessedly also the case when we can allow ourselves to open up and see it, he was also a real human being. In conversation during one of his visits to our table late in the meal, he shared with us that he works two restaurant jobs, almost constantly. He does so for one reason: he is saving money for his childrens' college education. He came from Mexico to the USA and has worked to make a life here, not first of all for himself, but first of all for the next generation.
Though the backgrounds are different, I looked into his eyes and listened to his voice and I saw and heard my father, born in this nation after his parents arrived from Ireland, a man who worked most of the daylight and many evening hours for decades for the love of his family. We are. We are. We are all the same. There is, in the end, never, a them and us. When we seem to see that division, let us shake our heads and hearts free of that devilish delusion and see one another clearly, all made in the image and likeness of God. It is an image that remains whatever be the story of a given life. It is a likeness that is burnished and shines over the lifetimes of those who choose to live for others, to live for love.
The next day, Sunday, after church, we sought out a place for a brunch/lunch. I remembered a place from a prior visit as providing good, fresh, healthy fare. We arrived and got settled, met our waitress and placed our order. Then someone stopped at the table and said happily, "Good afternoon!" I looked up into the face of our waiter from the evening before. Of all the (very many) eateries in the Coachella Valley we had found our way to the second of the two in which he works. I asked him if he had any time off this coming week. He said he would have Sunday afternoon and Monday morning at home. For a total of six days he would be standing next to tables like that one, inquiring what might be provided for the nourishment of those guests. And in the vital background, he does so to provide nourishment of body and mind and heart, now and into the future, for his children. I pray they will grow to know, if they do not already, the wonder they have been given in their father, and I suspect, their mother as well.
I do not know whether, in his constant efforts, this new friend ever finds his way to church to praise God with community. I hope he does. But whether or not he does, here is another walking embodiment of sanctity. God works and walks and converses among us every day. We have only to listen and to see to know this is true.
This day concludes in the city of Brush, Colorado, incorporated in 1884 (or was it 1894), 2.56 square miles in size, and currently at a population of some 5800, up considerably over the last 10 years. We have just returned from a great steak dinner at True Grits on Edison Street. The place is entirely (and quite visibly) given over to the honor of the actor John Wayne. It has been owned by the same woman for the past two decades. Tonight, as is always the case on weeknights, her father acted as the greeter, from thence retiring to the bar and the Broncos-Bears preseason game on TV. He was born on a farm in central Kansas. They didn't have electricity and the summer days and nights were almost unbearable to a kid who didn't like the heat. Grown up, he headed out and came to Brush during the bit of an oil rush they had here in the 50's. He arrived in '54, saw the nighttime temps drop so much from day that you needed a light jacket. By his own testimony, in a tale likely 'oft told, that was enought to sell him. He decided to stay, and has been here ever since. He married, raised, a family, did odd jobs, worked maintenance for almost 30 years at the hospital and now, in retirement, he is the welcoming face and voice of True Grits.
His daughter is not only the owner. She is the waitress. She is not only the waitress. She is the cook. She is not only the cook. She is the bartender. And damn it if she's not really good at every one of those roles. We had the place entirely to ourselves, arriving at 6:30 and leaving about 2 hours later. This made me worry, as she and I had conversed about the high cost of running and maintaining and insuring the place. But lo! As we left a van arrived with a huge, hungry, and young'un-heavy family arriving to do the American deal. You give me food. I give you money. God was arriving with them.
This morning we had risen at Clive, Iowa outside Des Moines, having slept like a forest (never mind a log) following a very long day of travel. We traveled long again today, through unrelenting miles of Iowa corn, and unrelenting dozens of miles of Colorado openness (and an official speed limit of 75 mph). Every state, I keep remarking, is distinct in so many ways. As soon as you cross the line, the very texture of the roadbed changes, as does the sound the tires make rolling on it. And you immediately know: 'Ah! Infrastructure counts here,' or 'Cheap as hell this bunch.' And your tires whine their agreement.
Brush, Colorado is named after an early Lt. Governor of the state of Colorado. He never lived here, but liked to come often to visit 'his town.' But you know what, rather than being his town, I really think Brush truly belongs to the man on the barstool who came long ago from Kansas and stayed, and to his daughter born here, slaving away to make a business work for 20 years and still smiling. She feeds the public as much as they need, and does it again and again. There is some Eucharist in there, let me tell you.
Tomorrow: on through Colorado, through the Rockies, and emerging (one hopes) into Utah.
Today the road stretched from Amsterdam NY to Westlake, Ohio, just west of Cleveland. The weather was absolutely gorgeous with blue sky and fair weather clouds dotting the heavens. The traffic was moderate, with the exception of our arrival in Cleveland during rush hour. That was rather heavy and slow, but it gave a moment to take in the view of Lake Erie as we moved along I-90. It is majestic.
When you have known someone for 51 years, since you were a child, experienced them in the strength of their adulthood and at the fullness of their powers, traveled with them when their knowledge and confidence made the going seem simple, it is an adjustment, sometimes a challenge, and a revelation of God's faithfulness, to be with them in their old age. To witness limitations that were once unimagined pressing on everyday life, at each moment. To see weakness and the noble effort to adjust to it. To hear the echo of the call that has come to them to let go, to surrender, to release – for some people the hardest call of a lifetime perhaps. I have seen that today. I have seen it before, and continue to do so, in people that I love, who mean worlds to me. It is not easy to see. Sometimes – no, often – it is not easy to accept with patience. It becomes necessary to call yourself back in quiet moments to who you know you are called to be at this moment in this friendship, to remind yourself of what you are called to do and to contribute (as best you can) hear and now.
It is all a part of the rhythm of life. Sometimes that rhythm is pleasing. Sometimes it is jarring and unpleasant. But still and all, it is life's rhythm and who should not desire to say yes to life, whatever she offers?
And still more, it is instructive to have my own 'crabby knee' as I now name it, which has been bothering me occasionally for months, bloom at this precise moment – while crossing the continent – into at times almost crippling disability. What a teacher about my own future, my own letting go, my own necessary surrenders, whatever they may turn out to be.
Jesus asked that we who are his apprentices take up our own crosses and follow him along the way. We never have to look for our own crosses. We should not even ask to know what they might be. They will come, without fail. And we will know them by two signs – by how regrettable their coming seems, and later by the bright, otherwise unseen places they reveal.
Tomorrow, onward again toward Iowa, Nebraska and news of threatening weather.
I am writing in bed in a Super 8 Motel in Amsterdam, New York. This town has a road system that feels too complex for its size, all the 21st century American retailers just outside of the historic town, and rows of beautiful old, and well-kept, Victorians. It also has tonight plenty of silence and dark spaces and pouring rain. Returning from a simple evening meal at Panera I got out of the car to the unmistakable smell of cow dung. Bovine excrement. Call it what you want and it smells just as . . . [fill-in-the-blank]. The thing about it is this (which I share at the risk of offending everyone I know and don't know), is that I love that smell. Oh my God I am serious. I do. It brings me back to my uncle's farm in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo, Eire. It somehow reminds me powerfully that I am part of this earthly reality, and that that fact, and that reality itself, are very good things indeed. It reminds that all of this is God-honest, dirt-rockin' real. This planet smells, and therefore it is alive.
I began this day in New York and end it now in New York. The day began in Shoreham on the north shore of Long Island. The ferry from nearby Port Jefferson carried the dog and I to Bridgeport, Connecticut. From there I drove to Somerville, Massachusetts, to visit my mother who is recovering from a recent fall. My brother Terry and I had lunch with her. It felt good. Then off to my friends in Arlington and to the barber and into the car with my traveling companion, and westward ho!
One thought beams brightly clear from this day: from the sky, so various in its aspects, cloud shapes changing, light pouring down followed by rain. Myriad greens blooming either side of the road on superhighways and little byways. Human faces of every age and background at rest stops. Smiles and tears. Conversation waxing and waning. Recollections of the past and hints of possible futures. The one thought is this: how stunningly beautiful is creation. All of it and everything in it. What gifts God gives us. How do we even come to terms with it? How do we forget its forever-newness? How do I cry out with joy every time I step outside? How?
Thank you Lord.
Tomorrow: from Amsterdam to . . . .
[Below; Mary and John McGinty today at the Jeanne Jugan Residence in Somerville MA; and below below Mary and Terence McGinty at the same locale].
At noon today I made a first-ever visit to the Abbey of Regina Laudis at Bethlehem, Connecticut. Sweeping east to west from Portland I arrived within about an hour. Entering the monastery grounds off Flanders Road I drove slowly uphill, keeping my eyes on the signs. I spied the Chapel where I knew prayer would be taking place at noontime. I was there early and settled into the simple knotty pine chapel while one of the nuns arranged flowers and plants near the altar. Other visitors came in for prayers, only one other male among them, a boy of (I would say) about 6 years on the planet. He was there in the company of his older sister and two women.
[Photo: Father Jack SJ MD]
As the place was so quiet, the pre-prayer conversation of that little group was heard by default. The boy turned to one of the women and raised a perceptive question: "Do the sisters," he asked, "ever get bored?" I do not recall his mom or aunt's response, but the question got me thinking. "Do the sisters ever get bored?"
First of all the question implies (and not for the first time) that one of the worst things that can happen to us in the 21st century is to be bored. I suspect, in fact, that living as human beings together in community, there may well be boredom as well as excitement, contentment, wonderment, and all the other quite human responses to living in the experience of the nuns.
But my next thought was this: what a wonderful thing! To be bored. The very possibility, in the context of the 'real world' (as it is sometimes called outside monastic enclosures) strikes me as heavenly. In a world situation in which, within hours of our gathering there at Bethlehem to pray, north Korea launched their second intercontinental ballistic missile of this month, evidencing capacity to reach many of the major metropolitan areas of the USA, according to news reports including Denver, Chicago and New York; in this context, boredom sounds like a blessing. In a world in which, I cannot at this point say different or less, the USA itself boasts a chief executive who, if at all, is revealed in his stream-of-consciouness tweets to be only marginally less bizarre than north Korea's Kim Jong Un, yes, boredom is worthy of embrace, welcome, and thanks, were it to arrive.
The word 'bore' and its eventual application to human persons showed up only in the very late 18th century. Decades later the variant 'boredom' was born apparently from the pen of the great Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House of 1852. And boredom has been more and more in our daily speech every since. And more and more dreaded. Its origins may include the work of a drill, a hole-boring tool, which methodically and without excitement produces a hole in a material. And so the piece of wood is 'bored' by the drill.
Which brings us back to the nuns of Regina Laudis, who gathered this midday and gave praise to God in sung psalmody for some twenty minutes in gentle Latin. To some, I suppose, that gathering itself might seem boring. But underneath the chant melodies, below the syllables of the words of Scripture, deep within the daily round of ora et labora that characterizes the daily life of the sisters as it does Benedictines around the world, it may well be that the finger of God is boring a hole through the hearts and minds and souls, through the humanity of the women who make up that monastic community. Day by day, hour by hour, syllable by syllable, they are making themselves available to the work of the Sculptor who bores where humans in their freedom allow, and there creates Christs who live and teach and love and pray and offer themselves every day for the love of this crazed thing that the rest of us call the real world.
Only the end of time will reveal where reality really kept its house.
A sweet addendum: as prayer ended today in the Chapel at Bethlehem, one of the adults accompanying brother and sister looked toward the nuns praying beyond the altar, behind the grill (a kind of rood screen) and beautifully noted, "We serve Jesus on this side, and they serve Jesus on that side." In Jesus then there is just one side. And when we pray together, it is all 'real.'