Memento mori.

Sonny’s yearbook from high school
Is down from the shelf
And he idly thumbs through the pages
Some have died
Some have fled from themselves
Or struggled from here to get there
Sonny wanders beyond his interior walls
Runs his hand through his thinning brown hair

~ Paul Simon, “The Obvious Child”

How is it that some days, some hours, some periods of time seem to carry with them an obvious theme, sometimes even a theme song?  These can be happy and light themes or heavier and deeper.

This morning we prayed at our church the funeral of a 29-year old man, Eric, son of gracious parents, oldest of four children, smart, funny, interested in the times we live in, creative and talented, dead of a heroin overdose.  A life too short, one of all too many being ended daily now by the vise of this particular addiction.  Outside after the Mass I watched friends embrace his just-younger sister, literally hold her up as she sobbed in their arms.  I watched his parents lean heavy on each other; faces tired; their son’s whole life and all his love outlined in them.

This afternoon I made my way into Brooklyn, passed through Canarsie, parked and walked through double doors into a school hall and to the front of that hall past people who sat in groups talking.  I stood in front of a casket and prayed over the body of one of my classmates from the North American College in Rome, Monsignor John Brown. Those days, featuring us in our 20’s, John strong and tall, serious and brilliant: they seem only weeks ago.  And they are.  Many many many weeks ago.  We have not been in one another’s company, perhaps since the mid-80’s.  Today, I had to go there.  I had simply to be there for a moment and to pray, in thanksgiving and in hope.  I knew no one there except the deceased.  I prayed, signed the visitors’ book, picked up a prayer card, and left.

As I drove away I thought of both of these men, gone in their own time and in their own way, into the mystery that I can only believe is a love stronger and deeper than most of us ever even intuit here.  My life has intersected with each of theirs in vastly different ways and degrees.  Now they know one another in ways I cannot begin to imagine.  And there is solace.  And there is fullness.

Here we carry on, and we wonder the strangest things.  As I drove away from that school hall where John’s body lay in the midst of his people, a thought unbidden began repeating in my mind like a mantra: “John, I hope they loved you.  Did they love you?  I hope they loved you.  Did they love you?”  I’ve no reason to think they didn’t, that in fact a mutual love joined priest and people in God’s sight.  But still, the question rang.

I carried both of them with me in thought and prayer here to the pond.  I cried for them. It carries more meaning than words,  And then Paul Simon sang in the car on I-684 of Sonny, his ‘obvious child,’ who sits with his high school yearbook and realizes

Some have died
Some have fled from themselves
Or struggled from here to get there.

And as the late winter woods, dry and bare, rush by on either side I realize that each of us, Eric, John, and me, we all appear in those few words.

 

On the way home

I’ll be on my way in an hour to the ordination at Garden City.  Five men and women, each of whom I have worked with to a greater or lesser extent on their way toward ordained ministry, will kneel before the bishop today and begin that good work.  Their personalities are different.  Their backgrounds are quite diverse.   I suspect that their understandings of what might lie ahead differ as well.
But all of them have met Jesus Christ and have been attracted at depth level to him, to his mission.  In there they see something of what their life can mean, where their lives can find and transmit meaning.  It has to do with service.  It has to do with availability.  It has to do with love.
That last is spectacularly important.  It is the central means and mystery.  Is there life at all without love?  Is there such a thing as a real human life that is not touched and embraced and colored and enhanced and energized by love?  Even those lives that seem the most bereft of that blessing, who seem most alone, find their origin – or if not even their original, at least their goal – in love.
What was his name, the young Philadelphia Jesuit who taught at the Gregorian when I was a student there.  Phil was his first name.  Ah yes!  Phil Rosato I am reliably told! He was one of the young faculty then.  I found out last year that he has died.  How silently the years and our lives pass on from us.  But Phil presented to us a marvelous vision, perhaps not devised by him, but passed on by him to us effectively, of the great circle of life.  I suppose it later was set to music in the Lion King!  We come from God.  Our lives are at their best when they are a learning of our origin and a yearning to return to that beginning point and to arrive at last (thank you TS Elliot) where we had begun.
Just yesterday I was reading Frederick Buechner’s book on midlife that he wrote in his early 60’s.  It opens with a beautiful reflection on what ‘home’ is, where in our memories our first home was, and how the greatest depth of home is at the last not found here at all.  The ultimate home is in the presence of that One whom – receiving all our tradition and doctrine and attempts at elucidation – we cannot see or name or domesticate in our presence.
This morning these five at the cathedral will take a big step toward home.  Both for themselves, and for all who will look to them in effect to say, “Can you point the way home?”
The best response of all to that deep human question is something like, “I cannot point it out as well as I would like, but I will walk there with you.”

A shared consideration of friendship as prayer

” … friendship is, at its best, a prayer.

“It is, after all, an act of faith.  It is sacred.  It is an epistle, delivered from one person to another.  In its best moments, friendship is a canticle that celebrates, a parable that teaches.  In the close proximity of a friend, you find a cathedral where promises are kept, and a chapel where tears are shed.  Friendship is a responsorial psalm: one heart speaks, another responds, and in the silences in between we hear something of God.”

~ Greg Kandra,

“Friendship Is a Prayer,” America March 17, 2003

When I read this, the faces and voices of so many friends come to mind. Thank you for helping me to pray.

After the Election

A meditation on the worth of meditation in a big-world moment like the US election – offered by an English (I believe) Benedictine priest and worth a few moments of your time.

The immediate post-election comments by the President, the President-elect and the defeated candidate were more gracious and civilised than anything during the campaign over the past eighteen month…

Source: After the Election

Under the patronage of Canterbury

O supreme and unapproachable light! O whole and blessed truth, how far art thou from me, who am so near to thee! How far removed art thou from my vision, though I am so near to thine! Everywhere thou art wholly present, and I see thee not. In thee I move, and in thee I have my being; and I cannot come to thee. Thou art within me, and about me, and I feel thee not.

~ Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109)

anselm

Saint Anselm (from anselm.edu)

This is Reformation Day, 498 years later.  Luther is reputed to have said (probably inaccurately): “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

This is Halloween, and though I didn’t have an opportunity to provide treats to a group of trick-or-treaters, I have seen some smile-producing photos of friends’ little ones costumed-up for the occasion.

This is the eve of the Octave of Prayer leading up to the national election day, which our Bishop has asked us to keep in all the parishes of the Diocese of Long Island.

And these are the last hours before I officially let go of the responsibility as Dean of Mercer School of Theology, and take up the ministry of parish priest for the Church of Saint Anselm on Long Island.  I spent today in my office at Mercer, packing more stuff than my little auto could carry this evening.  Before those efforts it was fun to cook breakfast for any members of the diocesan stuff who wanted to stop in to the Saint Drogo Refectory at Mercer.  ‘Egg Bake’ and ‘French toast casserole,’ complemented by plenty of bacon, seemed to satisfy the group.  It was fun.

Tonight I am both weary and full of anticipation.  I feel something in common this evening with the ancient Roman god, Janus: “In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus (/ˈnəs/; Latin: Ianus,pronounced [ˈjaː.nus]) is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, doorways,[1]passages, and endings” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus]. He was depicted as having two faces, one set toward the past and the other toward the future. That visual expresses pretty accurately what transition feels like in my life tonight.  Looking both ways it is hard to see clearly, but it is also natural to feel both gratitude for what has been and anticipation for what will be.

janus

A sculpture of the Roman god, Janus, found in the Vatican Museum [wikipedia].

There is another reason why I might feel a camaraderie this night with this ancient heady Roman.  For five years of my life I lived in Rome on the hill named after him, the Gianicolo.

Where do I face now?  This, I think, is the night for letting go, or at least beginning to do so. Tomorrow will be the day for beginning to get my head and arms and heart around a new place, new community, same Gospel, same priesthood, same faith, a different part of the same mission.  There is time, and indeed need, for looking both ways – backward and ahead.

So tonight, as I sit at the table in the dining room of the rectory at Shoreham, it doesn’t any more, already, seem strange to be here.  I stayed overnight here a couple of nights last week. Here I move under the explicit patronage of Canterbury.  But what feels not only extraordinary but unbelievable, is the fact that I am not expected tomorrow morning at Mercer School of Theology.  I never claim to get most accomplished that I see as needed and good.  But I do claim to always make a valiant try. And when the moment comes to stop, to let it go, to move on, to leave it to others, it just feels initially . . . bizarre.  Unreal.

So here I am tonight with Janus.  Not a bad place to be with both good memories of the past and good opportunities ahead.   But nonetheless, looking straight into change with eyes in each direction, a disconcerting place.

The African-American Museum of History and Culture (and a first memory)

african-american-museum

On the road yesterday I listened to the opening ceremonies of the new African American Museum of History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall in Washington.  Every such event, of course, is long-planned and structured.  This museum has been in the process of becoming reality since 1916.  The words offered during the dedication and opening yesterday are worthy of a century of effort.

The Reverend Calvin O. Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York City made a point well that was often emphasized in other ways by speakers who followed: African Americans have not been anything like incidental to the building of this nation.  Rather, in ways chosen and before then terribly unchosen, they have been vital to that ongoing project.  To paraphrase, Reverend Butts said in reference to the heritage of slavery in this nation and hemisphere: “Get me to work for you for nothing for 250 years and you can build anything.”  Undeniable truth.  Slaves, suffering with no rights, generation following generation, were a central part of the engine that drove the growth of the economy of America for centuries, and not only on the cotton plantations of the south.

George W. Bush, who as President signed the legislation to make the museum real, in a fine talk pointed out particular ways in which the existence of this institution both bears witness to the best of this nation and at the same time calls it to be even better.  A great nation, he said, does not hide from its own truth, even the uncomfortable and painful truths that are part of its story.  And he continued by affirming that a great nation can and does change.  And will continue to do so.  The photo, caught by a former White House photographer, of Bush and Michelle Obama embracing, is in itself a beautiful antidote to the present political moment in the ongoing presidential campaign.

And the man whose successor will be decided in that campaign provided a masterful talk. In some sense Barack Obama’s speech yesterday might be understood as a kind of valedictory on the massive issue of race relations and racism in the nation by the nation’s first black president.  He said that the museum’s establishment ” . . .reaffirms that all of us are America — that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves, again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals. I, too, am America.”

President Obama’s Speech

Toward the conclusion of the ceremony, as I continued along the road, an unexpected memory from long ago emerged in me for the first time in decades.  When I was a little boy my paternal grandparents, both Irish immigrants, worked for a time at the stately home of the founder of one of the banks in my hometown.  That banking gentleman had died by then, but my grandmother was one of the nurses caring for his elderly widow at the house and my grandfather was the gardener, coaxing beauty constantly out of God’s green earth.

As a child of four and five years old I would from time to time join them for a day at that (by our standards) great house.  I knelt next to Papa as he worked the earth with his gloved hands.  I talked to Nana when she would come downstairs from the bedroom of the lady of the house.  And, I wandered from time to time into the kitchen.

The kitchen was the domain of Theresa the cook.  Theresa was the first person of color I ever met, and with whom I ever interacted.  She moved around that kitchen like she had designed it.  She cooked and baked and filled that place daily with wonderful aromas.  She had a round and kind face in my memories, often covered in a generous smile.  She let me sit at the kitchen table and partake of her latest creation before even the folks who provided for the feast.

Theresa was likely born, I would guess, in the late teens of the twentieth century.  Her parents may have been, and likely her grandparents were, slaves.  They were defined each as 3/5 of a human person.  I don’t know what Theresa thought of her life.  I don’t know how or if she thought back to the lives of her beloved forebears. I was just a 4-year old sitting in her kitchen.  John Kennedy was in the White House and the civil rights movement was about to take flight.

Theresa and I didn’t talk about that stuff.  She probably didn’t know people had suggested around the time of her birth that there be established a museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

But I do know this, and in a way that I could not have expressed in words I knew it even then: Theresa knew how to nourish people.  She knew how to strengthen people for their journey, different though it was from hers.  She knew how to feed the hungry.

And in that, very truly among us in that big house, Theresa was a sacrament of the presence and the love of God who feeds us daily, when we love each other and when we fail to do so.  From the stovetop and oven, and from a tough history behind her and her people, Theresa was a teacher of loving truth.

She too has a place in the museum opened yesterday.

bush-michelle

(Photo by David Hume Kennerly)

A Wise Reflection on this Sunday’s Gospel (no, it’s not mine!)

“When you give a lunch or dinner, do not ask your friends, brothers, relations or rich neighbors,”

Jesus tell us. “No, when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”

Click on the link for thought and action-provoking truth . . .

via | Saint Louis University Sunday Web Site