In March, before COVID became a full-blown pandemic, I ordered four icons from an Orthodox icon shop I’ve used in the past. They were able to ship two of the icons before needing to close their shop due to state restrictions and for the health of their employees. The other two would be shipped at a later date, as they were able to re-open and continue production of the icons.
When I got an email a few weeks ago, it said the icons were shipping and would arrive the middle of the next week. The situation was humorous since I had been home for weeks on end and during the one week of the summer I was away, the long-awaited icons were delivered to my doorstep, where they waited for my arrival a few days later. Of course, I exclaimed, to anyone who would listen to me, of course the icons arrive when I cannot be there to get the package.
A couple of days later, I learned of the death of a dear friend of the family. There are dozens of memories of my childhood and young adult life that I can return to and find this man filling the scene with his lively personality. He and his wife were friends of my parents. They were present for important sacraments and were the babysitters for my younger sister and me on occasion. Later, they were my bosses as I worked for them during the late-summer and fall. So many reflections on their frequent presence in my life and the unique role they had in relation to my family. Over the next few days, my family and I reminisced over the eccentricities and humor of our beloved friend.
When I returned home a few days later, I retrieved the package on my doorstep, grateful that it wasn’t damaged by rain or heat. I opened up my package and saw the two delayed icons.
I found this poem through a podcast that has a “poem of the day” that they read and analyze a bit. While I often forget, reading and learning more poetry follows a desire I have to immerse my life in more beauty.
The poem is called “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo.
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
Continue reading “Perhaps the World Ends Here”
Humans are surprising creatures.
They have the unique capacity for acts of tremendous, selfless good. Yet they also carry within themselves the capacity for unspeakable acts of horror. Perhaps even more significant, though, is the capacity humans have for change and transformation.
I spent this past weekend helping with a retreat at a men’s prison.
Several times, I was asked by the inmates and the volunteers if it was what I expected. The truth was I didn’t quite know what to expect from the weekend. I was a bit nervous to enter in. Not nervous for the gate to slam behind me or to be locked into the prison. Not nervous that a riot would start. Not nervous that I would be injured or harmed. Rather, I was uneasy about how I would be received. What would we talk about? What would the men be like? Would they make me uncomfortable or would they be kind?
In the reality, humanity inside the prison is very much like humanity outside the prison. Some of the men were very kind and genuine. Others seemed to want an unhealthy amount of attention. Some wanted to share their hearts. Others wanted to stay only on the surface. Some admitted they made mistakes. Others insisted everything was fine or that they weren’t treated fairly. Some respected authority. Others used each opportunity they had to poke at the officers responsible for them. They reminded me an awful lot of my students and the world around me. Which isn’t all that surprising, but it was different to experience it instead of just think about it.
There was a unique point in the retreat when the group reflected on how God uses all for His good. In our small group, my sister mentioned that God uses everything and that even though they were in prison for something wrong they had done, they were still encountering Him on a retreat. Maybe this time in prison was a good, because God can use all for good. And it was beautiful to see at least some of them agree. They talked about how it was likely that they could have been dead if they weren’t in prison. If they continued on their previous course, it was easy for them to see how it would have led to their demise.
Continue reading “Amazing Grace: A Weekend in Prison”
Lord, what are you saying to me in this situation?
I was in the chapel with a class of students as we prayed the Stations of the Cross. Only a few were actually praying the words out loud. Others were loudly flipping their papers every time they needed to turn a page. Some acted like genuflecting was a gargantuan task when I know they will go work out at the gym after school. Others were barely alert, kneeling and standing only because the people around them were doing it.
Frustrated and a bit angry, I wondered what I should do about it. It wouldn’t go well to stop them all to tell them to pray louder or ask for more of them to pray. Telling them to not act like kneeling was difficult would only draw attention to it if they continued to carry on in that manner. So I tried to forget about their indifference and enter into the Stations myself.
Interestingly, the words of my spiritual director kept coming to mind. He mentioned that teaching and following the Lord might look like the Stations of the Cross. My life might have to resemble that suffering if I was to do the Lord’s will. And here I was: actually praying the Stations and feeling so done with the antics of teenagers.
Lord, what can I see in this?
As I watched them mechanically perform the proper actions, I thought about how they don’t care. Ah, Lord, sometimes I don’t care, too. I imagined myself on the couch watching a movie and the Lord inviting me to pray yet not caring enough to do so. I pondered the Lord asking me to love my neighbor yet realizing that I do not do that very well at all. The very thing I was lamenting in my students was rooted deeply within my soul, too.
Continue reading “Learning the Way of the Cross”
I love when I am able to find secular examples that point to spiritual realities. When shown explicitly religious media, my students often give what they think are the correct answers based on their years of Catholic education. Yet when it is something that seems a bit unrelated to the class, they tend to have a greater openness and willingness to interact with the material.
On the second class day of the new spring semester, I showed them a TEDx talk called “500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair.” (Feel free to take a minute…or 19…to go and watch this video.) The image of strangers taking the time and effort to carry a man in a wheelchair up a mountain seemed to obviously gesture toward the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven.
“Through the power of community, I climbed mountains.”
At one point near the end, Justin says. “Through the power of community, I climbed mountains” and it resonated so much that I had to write it down. So many conversations lately have pivoted around the need and desire for community and authentic friendship. While some say community cannot be built, I disagree. I believe community must be built. While we cannot choose to magically connect with people, we must be intentional in how we use our time in order for community to be successful.
This community that Justin and Patrick found was possible because others were willing to be intentional with their time and energy. The pilgrim duo they met in the cathedral in Burgos were willing to wait for them before climbing the mountain leading into O’Cebreiro. Then other people heard the story and decided to wait, too, without ever meeting Justin or Patrick. Community requires intentionality and it reminds us that in this pilgrimage of life we cannot walk alone.
A priest friend of mine often said, “You can be damned alone or saved with others.” I think he was quoting someone but I was never certain of the source. The idea is that Hell is isolation, but Heaven is necessarily communion. Communion with God and with others. The reality of this can be revealed in the many “saint pairs” that have arisen over history. St. Francis and St. Clare. St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. St. Louis and St. Zelie. St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius of Loyola. The list could go on and on. St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II? Saints live a foretaste of the heavenly communion through their authentic friendships with one another. They “carry” each other up the mountain, using friendship to encourage the other to enter into deeper relationship with the Lord. Continue reading “I Climbed Mountains”
The first homeless man I truly met was Tony.
It was cold and we were all bundled up, but I made a concentrated effort to not mention the coldness. I had only been outside for a few moments and this man had no home to seek refuge in against the frigid weather. My perspective of the cold was altered in the presence of a man who stood before me after successive days on the streets.
Tony was tall and kind. In situations where he easily could have been bitter, he chose to not be. I was with a group of pro-life university students and he never once made me feel privileged or self-indulged. One Saturday, a student bought Tony a coffee and I watched him graciously accept it, even as his cold hands shakily caused the coffee to spill on his fingers. My face was etched with the concern and sadness I felt as I watched the scene unfold, but Tony sought to comfort me in this situation. He told me to not be sad because even in his difficult situation he was still happy. That momentary exchange made such a significant impression on me.
In a couple of hours, I would return to my dorm room after a filling breakfast and Tony didn’t attempt to guilt me for the luxuries I had in life. Rather, he came to the cold streets of Pittsburgh to spend time with us. He accepted money or coffees when offered, but he said he didn’t like to look homeless. We wouldn’t see him pushing a cart around or laden down with luggage. Dressed in the warm clothes appropriate for the cold, he didn’t want to accept extra things that he would have to carry with him during the day.
Tony was the first human face I saw of homeless in a personal way. I heard him talk about how fearful he had been early one morning when the intense cold made it difficult for him to get out of the chair in an abandoned house that he had accidentally fallen asleep in. The reality of not being able to move for a couple of hours shook him as he faced the reality that he might die alone in the cold someday. Yet he was also very happy and enjoyed being around a bunch of young college students. He wasn’t near us because we always gave him things or because we were popular in the area. Tony enjoyed being with us and some of the students became his friends. Continue reading “What That Homeless Man Needs Is What I Need”
I love what snow does to humanity.
Granted, I am not a fan of driving in snow, but I get a strange exhilaration from the experience. In the midst of snow or after a heavy snowfall, I find myself willing humanity to work together. Even though difficulties can sometimes bring out the worst in us, it can also bring out the best in us. Last night, I encountered people driving cautiously and courteously. People were more patient as their fellow drivers struggled to stop at lights or took a couple extra seconds to gain traction.
The snow forces me to be concerned about the other, even if for nothing other than my own self-preservation. I am particularly aware of how far their vehicle is from mine or what I can do to make their commute home a little easier. Instead of only being concerned if I get through the light, I am instead considering what will be best for those with whom I share the road. It is good for humanity to experience the gift of working with each other for the good of all. Continue reading “Snow and Humanity”
October is known as “Respect Life month” in the Church, but it is important to not reduce this to merely life in the womb. Pro-lifers are sometimes accused of being only pro-babies and at times that accusation rings a little too true. Babies, you see, are easy to love. They are adorable, helpless, and are fun to shower with affection.
Yet while babies are a delight to love, it is the other people I struggle to love. To be pro-life, though, means to be for the lives of every person, regardless of their personal appeal or state in life. Such a worldview is one that is hard to cultivate. However, if we claim to be pro-life we must work to achieve that broadness of heart.
When I was in college, I had multiple encounters with a living pro-life saint, Msgr. Reilly from Brooklyn, NY. Few can rival his dedication to the pro-life movement. He stands for hours outside abortion clinics, praying for the people who enter and offering alternatives accompanied by a genuine smile. While he is located outside an abortion clinic, he is not simply offering love to the pregnant mothers and fathers. He is loving the doctors, nurses, clinic escorts, men, women, and friends. Each person who enters or passes by the clinic is shown an authentic witness of love.
My heart is much smaller than Msgr. Reilly’s heart, but I learned quite a bit from him. Initially, I was all about the babies. Through his words and witness, my heart began to be changed. I began to feel love for the mothers and fathers who entered the clinic. Then I began to experience an authentic love for the clinic escorts who thwarted our every attempt to offer help and compassion. Finally, I was moved by love to encounter the doctors who performed abortions. Continue reading “An Encounter of Love”
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands it will become our spiritual drink. (Preparation of the Gifts Prayer)
I’ve been to Mass thousands of times, but I don’t believe these words ever stood out to me before. Yet as Father said these words, I was struck by the beautiful interplay between God and man. It is through the Lord providing the sun, rain, and nutrients that we have the grapes of the vine. But the work does not all fall on God. We tend to the vines, we harvest the grapes, we change them from simple fruit into wine. Then we offer it back to the Lord and He transforms it into something far beyond us. Continue reading “Co-Workers”
There is something about truth that attracts.
It isn’t because the truth is always what we want to hear. Many times, it is the exact opposite. Truth, however, spoken ardently and sincerely can be a powerful force, a compelling and crushing beauty.
Challenging someone with unadorned truth can provoke change. And it can be a testament to the great love and respect the truth-teller has for the other. These reflections I’ve had spring from a rather unlikely source: I watched a movie. Continue reading “Speak Truth”