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.

 

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Receiving Christmas

Merry Christmas to all this day!

Light and fog are having morning-long conversation over the surface of Job’s Pond this morning.  Directly across the water there  is a rounding of the land where it presses out toward the water.  There, every morning, there seems more light than elsewhere.  The light appears to congregate there.

Christmas2015

(Job’s Pond, Portland CT 12/25/15)

It is, perhaps, a ‘thin place,’as the Celts would describe it.  As travel writer Eric Weiner described his recognition of such places in a New York Times piece in 2012, “They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever” (March 9, 2012 Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer).

Weiner on finding ‘thin places’ around the world.

Whatever one might call it, I am blessed to look out directly at such a place as the light is reborn each morning I am here.  And today, today is such a thin place as well, a thin moment? Christmas Day is a thin memory of a time and place long ago whose import for every other time and place cannot be overstated, nor over-sung, nor over-felt (though I will not rule out over-thinking or over-preaching :-).

The preacher I heard last night* made a point that is saving and true.  We do an awful lot to ‘prepare’ for Christmas.  We all know what those various activities are.  There is never enough time to do them all, and at last we collapse into the day, this day, itself.  Among the most laudable things many of us do is to give.  We give to charities.  We give to relief organizations.  We give to churches.  We give to one another.  All this we do, and rightly so the preacher noted, to honor the Christ.

But there is something amiss even within this best of what we do. Ultimately this thin place is about receiving first of all.  Before anything can be given, we must receive.  As the old theological dictum has it, “Nemo dat quod non habet” | “No one can give what they do not have.”  And what we receive is not given by human hands or mind or heart.  What we receive at this thin place comes directly from the hand and heart and mind and will of God, from the Center of all that is, from the beating Heart of Love that is what is.  Yes, it comes by the cooperation and the courage, the faith and the openness of a young woman.  Praise God for her.

Bethlehem-Palestine-Milk-Grotto-Mary-Jesus

(Painting of Baby Jesus nursing from Mary in the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem)

But there would be nothing to accept, nothing to receive, were it not for the initiative of the Divine.  “All is grace,” murmurs Bernanos’ Country Priest as he breathes his last.  Therese of Lisieux’ last words were “Grace is everywhere.”  But that doesn’t mean any of this is easy.  It does mean that at any and every moment, at the thinnest places and the ‘thickest’ as well, all that is needed is being provided.

Quite often we need to redistribute what is received, as the food doesn’t often come first to the plate of the hungriest, nor the saving therapy first to the body of the one whose health insurance is inadequate.  But still, enough is given freely, in profligate fashion, at every moment this old universe rolls on.  We have enough.

Not only in preparation for Christmas Day, but across our majority culture, this at first apparently comforting truth is an affront and a challenge.  We speak and act and work and run for office as if there were no grace at all, as if all things were done by our hands.  As if we can accomplish whatever we will.

We establish borders so that, if there might be grace after all, we can receive it here and prevent its flowing over to ‘them.’  We strengthen those borders to render a clear boundary as to who is deserving of whatever gifts might be received, if any there are.  We send bombs and missiles and ships and drones to accomplish our will far away.  Even in terms of violence we are too busy giving to ever imagine that we are sowing the seeds of violence to be received as well.

This Day, as comfortable as we have rendered its point of arrival, is meant to be a point of departure.  Every year on this Day, as we stand on the brink of the year’s ending and beginning we need a radical restart.  We need a rebirth.  And every year the need becomes more painfully clear.

Our instinct, if we accept that assertion, is to begin to plan how we will begin again.  And again, we have missed the point.  The beginning point is not to begin again to do.  The beginning is to be.  The beginning is to receive.  The beginning is to accept the gift of rebirth on this day of birth. The beginning is to let go of what we have believed we ‘know,’ and to open to the possibility of knowing something else.  Something ever old and every new.  Something hidden in plain sight in the Gospels.  Pick up one of them (Mark is a quick read!) and let it enter you tonight in the waning hours of this Christmas Day, as if you had never heard it before.

This is as real, or moreso, than the campaign for the presidency or the latest efforts to protect ourselves from terror or anything else the news cycle will bring us even today.  Once you look for it, you see it and hear it everywhere.  One example came last week in the words of Martin Sheen in conversation with Krista Tippett at “On Being.”  Deep into their dialogue, when the heart of the matter in his life and faith is revealed as love, as community, as belonging, he speaks these words:

It’s like giving back. But just that embrace — it is so overwhelming, at times, this reality of loving because one is loved that it just brings you up short. You just sit and stare sometimes into a vacuum and say, where did this come from, and why is it so clear, and why is it so simple, and so powerful? And one of the great mysteries that I experience at mass is the reception at communion. How do we embrace that? How can we possibly, consciously understand what that is? And I don’t have a clue. I just stand on line and say, “I’m Ramón, called Martin, your friend, you’re welcome here. And I’m with them.” [laughs] Whoever the crowd is, I’m getting on line with, you just look at the people who are on that line, that community, that is the greatest and simplest expression of overtly trying to explain this mystery I’m talking about, because it is a mystery. It is probably the most profound mystery in all of the universe, this love. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed just watching people on line to embrace that sacrament. It is the most profound thing. I never ever can get over it. It’s just something you have to surrender to. And just saying yeah, I’m with them. That’s the community of saints.

They are on line, together, to receive.  To receive first, so that later, transformed over a lifetime of Christmas Days, changed by their travel past thin places throughout life’s geography, they may finally give.

And even then, the only gift to give is grace.  Pass it on.  Pass on the invitation.

“All Is Grace,” by Shaun Groves, from Third World Symphony

  • At Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford CT

There is an end. And a beginning.

Forty minutes ago I arrived at Job’s Pond at Portland, Connecticut. I got out of the car and just breathed. Blue cloud-marked sky. Green grass. Quiet waters of the pond. Absolute silence. Just the kind of moment I love. Just the kind of moment I need much of the time.

But tonight it is different.

Across the water is the local YMCA summer camp. It is still set up as it has been since June. Kayaks and peddle boats upside-down along the shore. The enclosed area marked out where it is safe for the kids to swim. But the sounds of their summer joy have drifted away.

Everything felt different. What was it?

Ah! Obviously. It is the first time this year that I have felt the summer slipping away, pulling away from the dock and beginning the trek to wherever summer’s spend their winters. That must be somewhere deep in the heart of God.

I stepped out on the deck and sat down. I looked over at the empty camp. Although I interact with people all day every day, as individuals or in groups, I also make sure that a certain amount of the time I am on my own. In those latter times I almost never feel what I have felt on this beautiful evening. Alone. Without. Alone.

I am glad that this does not come to visit me much. This feeling of emptiness which teams up tonight with that sense (true sense!) of the passing nature of all things. The camp and the kids were here. Now they are not. The summer was here. Real and bright and loud and happy. And now, it is passing away.

The passing nature of the present moment – as my friend Marina McCoy drew it forth skillfully from her love of Saint Augustine in her post on this, his feast day [see graceinmidlife.wordpress.com – is always true. But there are some “now’s” when that truth can almost take your breath away.

I have been privileged (sometimes in very difficult circumstances over the passing years) to stand with families, to pray and cry and hope with them when a loved one has left this world. In all that time I have managed somehow to almost never think of my own mortality. Maybe the time was not right, although I believe in my heart that to live with a sense of the reality of one’s own passing nature through this life makes life infinitely richer and love (actually) possible at all.

But tonight, I do think, not in a morbid sense but truly – and unexpectedly – I am going to die. I am going to die. There is going to be a day, and indeed hundreds, thousands, likely millions of days, when I will be a memory if that, a part of the past, here no more.

The thought makes me want all the more to live this evening, and this night, and tomorrow. To live them fully and humanly and lovingly and well.

Out on the deck one of the neighbors greeted me as she swam by, as she does the length of the pond every morning and every evening. We each commented on the beauty of the evening. And of the truth that summer is passing, and of our hope for an easier winter. And then my next-door neighbor, out on her porch, unseen through the century-old yew tree between us said, “And then spring will come, as it always does. A new spring. Thank God for that.”

Indeed. Thank God for it all. For the coming of all, for its growth and blooming, for its life and color and noise, for its quieting and weakening and moving toward divine silence, and for the rebirth of new things that are also the same.

Thank God.

Job's Pond, Portland CT
Job’s Pond, Portland CT

At the Tomb with Mary Magdalene (Easter Homily 2013)

Easter Day 2013

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Throughout the latter days of this Holy Week, the church in every corner of our world has been focused on Jesus, walking with Jesus, praying with Jesus, witnessing his suffering and his dying, standing by his grave in the silence of death.

 

This morning, on this 3rd day, one woman (according to John’s Gospel) has gone in the darkness of early morning to the place where Jesus was buried. Mary Magdalene has gone there alone, but as the representative of all of us who have ever known loss, of all of of us who have ever seen the life drained out of someone we love more than life itself, of all of us who have seen violence from afar or up-close and have not known how to respond. Mary went to the tomb representing all the human tears that ever have been cried.

 

What she saw there, as the gospel recalls, is the tomb open and the stone rolled away. Now humanity has suffered so much at the raw hands of death, and we have learned through war and cruelty and dread sickness so to respect death’s reign, that Magdalene assumed only one thing when she saw this, one final indignity: that someone had come and stolen Jesus’ lifeless body and carried him away to God knows where. And so she ran.

 

She did what anyone would do faced with a radically new and unexpected situation. She ran to friends, to share her news, to ask them to help her to understand. And so Peter and the other disciple (likely the author of the fourth Gospel himself) ran to see for themselves. Mary Magdalene returned to the cemetery as well. They were all running toward a radically new situation. They had no idea how radically new it was. They had no idea they were running toward the scene and center of the re-creation of hope, the revealing of true life, the re-creation of humanity and creation itself.

 

When Peter and the other disciple arrived, their eyes could tell them only these things: the tomb is empty; Jesus’ body is gone; and the wrappings that had been gently placed around his wounded torso and head are still there, some of them carefully rolled up. What was there to believe? Was it only what they could see? Or was there something more?

 

Magdalene’s friends returned to their homes. She remained. She remained crying. She remained confused. She remained on that spot, because love would and could not allow her to go anywhere else. Love, I think, whispered in the ear of her heart that there was something more to understand, something more to know, something more still to believe. And so she remained.

 

For me, one of the most important questions we have before us this Easter morning, and indeed on all the mornings of our lives as the light dawns and we come back to life, is this: as she remained there at Jesus’ empty tomb, how did Mary Magdalene come to understand? How did she come to believe?

The question is so important because like us, Mary Magdalene is a human being; and like her, we have faced, and will confront many times again, situations that seem to proclaim only death, only silence, only despair, only emptiness. How can we, like Mary, come to know in those moments

that wrapped in the silence is song,

that behind the despair hope shouts,

that every emptiness will be filled,

and that beyond death is – always – yet more life?

 

What does the Gospel this Easter morning teach us in the very words it uses, and the story it shares? Listen to the words again:

 

“As she wept, she bent over into the tomb.”

 

What was Mary doing? She was taking a second, a deeper look. Before, she thought she knew and assumed she understood when she saw the stone rolled away and the tomb open. Now, she looks deeper, and perhaps with some more profound expectation.

 

“She saw two angels in white.”

 

There is more to every moment, to every question, than we can humanly recognize. There are advocates and helpers nearby that we do not always see and almost never recognize. But they are there.

 

“They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’

 

The seemingly most obvious questions are worth asking, and worth asking yet again whenever we feel alone and undone and overwhelmed by death. In their answer may be hidden more than we thought we knew.

 

“She turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.”

 

We need not presume that we are at first going to recognize the best of all gifts by our side, even when the Word made flesh is there and living and visible and speaking to us. First there must be conversation – some call it prayer – and perhaps misunderstanding. But it needs to be spoken, and we will be heard.

 

“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!'”

 

To be known by name and to be called by name are transformative experiences in any human life; to be known as who we are, and valued and loved as we are: this is what opens up the deepest human possibilities in us, and reveals the presence of the divine in our time and place.

 

“Go to my brothers and say to them . . . ‘I have seen the Lord.'”

 

When we come to recognize Jesus risen and alive and loving and speaking to us, to our hearts, as Magdalene did that morning, we are inevitably given a mission. Somehow, in a unique fashion for each one of us, that mission will mean: Go, and share what you have experienced, what you have come to know, what has changed your life, what you believe.

 

This morning we stand at the tomb with Mary. She is the first evangelist, the first to proclaim the truth of resurrection. What do we learn from her? What will we carry from this beautiful church this morning back into the corners and crevices and the darker moments of our own real lives? Maybe simply this:

 

  • Take a second and a deeper look. Expect to find more.

 

  • Look for the advocates and helpers, God-sent, who may not be immediately obvious.

 

  • Allow them to raise the simple questions that you told yourself were answered. Hear them again.

 

  • Know that God’s own risen and living answer to every situation of death is standing directly by our side, even when we cannot recognize him. He is there. Talk with him.

 

  • Hear Jesus call you by name; hear him recognize both your need and your goodness; allow his recognition of you to open wide your eyes and your understanding.

 

  • Accept the mission he gives you: to share the good news you know by heart with the world around you. This particular telling of the Gospel of Christ can only, uniquely, come from you.

 

And finally, in and through all this, rise with Christ! His birth, his words and works, his suffering and death, and today his rising, are all for you. For all of us. As the Creed puts it, “for us and for our salvation.”

 

My friends, ‘this is the day that the Lord has made! Let us be glad and rejoice in it!” For Jesus is risen from the dead, and he lives forever. Alleluia!

 

(c) John P. McGinty

Caring . . . and Health

I’m at Sears car care this afternoon, joyfully buying two new tires for the car. They have 58,000 miles on them, so I guess as they say, they don’t owe me anything.

When I checked in the gentleman helping me – he says he is on Medicare, so he’s 65 or more – asked me if I knew if Congress had decided on the healthcare bill or not. I answered that I didn’t know, but that they’d been in session since 1pm. It was then 3pm. He went on to say how he believes the bill is unneeded and fears that it will mean higher insurance premiums and less available for him through Medicare.

As I wandered through the Square One Mall waiting, I thought about what he had said as I passed hundreds of people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. The diversity of the nation was right there with me (and me, the middle-aged white guy part of it!). I wondered as I looked in their faces how many of them have faced or are facing stresses related to getting adequate healthcare for themselves, their children, their parents.

There has been much debate, some of it overly loud and impolite, as to whether or not healthcare is a right. In terms of Catholic faith, it is. The question then for those who accept the Catholic viewpoint is whether the present bill provides healthcare as it should be and in accord with the dignity of each person and each life.

Another constant in the public debate over healthcare reform over the past year has been cost. I’ve heard everything from “those who can afford care will buy it, and the rest are on their own,” to “it’s just too expensive and so we can’t do it.” I hear this in the context of our national priorities as reflected in how we are spending our money. Some time ago the war in Iraq – a war that Karl Rove now says George Bush would not have begun if he knew the truth about no-weapons of mass destruction – had cost the USA in the neighborhood of $700,000,000,000. This is without mentioning the cost of the war in Afghanistan, nor the human cost on which no dollar amount can be placed. Little is said about whether or not we can ‘afford’ this cost as a nation.

But if we can, can we not also ‘afford’ or rather do we not have a communal responsibility to provide care to all? We belong to one another and are responsible to and for one another. This is fundamental Christianity. If fundamental Christianity has nothing to do with the decisions we make, we as individuals or as a nation, then the worth and significance of our professing Christian faith needs to be carefully considered. What I mean is this: the question of cost is not the final question here. There are more fundamental questions at hand.

As I write pro-life democrats have agreed to the measure. I emphasize: this is not a perfect law, but it moves us toward what we owe one another in justice. Will it need revision in the future? Undoubtedly. Will i$perfections in its provisions become apparent? Of course. But I ask you: if we waited to act in this world until we had the perfect answer and absolute unanimity about anything, would we ever move at all?

This is the time to move.