Friday, March 25, 2011

Eternal Morbidity?

I am getting old. I have been getting older every second since I was born, but now, I am getting old. I have become increasingly aware of this since returning to Portland and coming to the parish, yet the creeping awareness has nothing to do with my being here. The work is not any harder and the hours are not any longer than before. My age sensitivity is not caused by some external factor or circumstance. It is just the natural order of things: we get old. Old people were always “other people” to me. Now, they are beginning to be me!

While my father was alive, I knew that I was almost exactly 25 years younger than he, and that was my safety net. But he died a year and one-half ago, and now I am only 23_ years younger than he. That weighs on me. And there are other factors.

I work with a staff on which I am the senior member. That has never been true before. There are not many children around. There always had been. My doctor says the aches and pains so new to my too, too solid flesh are due to degeneration. He laughed. I did not. I received a list of my grade school classmates recently because of our upcoming reunion. I was shocked to discover that almost a quarter of them have died.

As all the above truths collide, I am forced into the realization that I am growing old. I don’t accept it, I just realize it. I realize that young people see me the same way I saw people my age when I was their ages. I realize I cannot do some of the physical things I used to do, at least not without painful consequences. I look in the mirror and see my father. I forget words. I forget things. I forget where I put my keys, but I’ve been doing that all my life!

I’m stumbling through the first four stages of grief: denial (check), anger (a bit), bargaining (I think I’ll be skipping this one—I know better), and depression. Acceptance is the only stage remaining before I complete that cycle.

We are in Lent, and we focus on Gospel passages in which Jesus tells his disciples about his impending death. We contemplate the end of our lives, at least lif e as we have known it. Jesus was pretty matter of fact about the end of His life, or at least the evangelists portray him that way, yet His time in the garden that final night does suggest his own conflict: “Let this cup pass…”

It might be 23_ years away, but the end of life as I know and love it is now more real to me than ever before. When I compare my insides with my peers’ outsides, they seem to be handling the whole thing a lot better than I am. So I know it’s time to grow up, to say, “not my will but Yours be done.”

Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice: His body and His blood given to all to rid the world of sin, of separation. Is that what I need to do in order to accept the ultimate truth of life? Is it in giving my body and my blood as pastor that I will escape morbidity and enter into eternal life? If so, come on Easter!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A letter came from the State Prison. “Dear Pastor, I read somewhere in connection with St. Andre Downtown Chapel, “to provide hope and healing to the most marginalized members of society”. Through my own fault, for the most shameful of all sins, I was marginalized out of society itself. Here in prison I am the lowest scum, the object of the most violent hatred. I deserve no better.
But I will be returning to society in 24 months…for twelve years of post-prison supervision… I am very afraid. It would have been better for me to have had a millstone …anyway, one of my fears is that I won’t be able to find a Catholic parish that would even agree to interview me for membership. If there might be a door open for me to meet with a priest at St. Andre when I get back to Portland I would count it the greatest kindness to have your reply. If you must decline your service to me, I will understand. Perhaps you could refer me to another Pastor or you might have some other suggestions. If I survive the next two years in prison, the first thing I want to do when I’m back in Portland is fall on my face before the Blessed Sacrament in tears of adoration.
He fears he won’t be able to find a Catholic parish that would even agree to interview him for potential membership. I fear that he speaks from experience, an experience that would add to the rejection he is finding in prison. He fears my reply, so prepares himself for yet another rejection: “If you must decline I will understand.” He shouldn’t.
He must be used to such responses as, “Perhaps you would find yourself more comfortable at another parish.” In other words, “you are too much on the margins for us. We’re Catholic, but really…”
I think of how he will feel when he receives my reply. He will open the envelope with fear and trepidation. He will slowly pull the letter out of the envelope, not sure that he is strong enough. Then he will read: “of course you are welcome here, as is anyone! We do not interview for membership, but we will register you as a member. You do not need to wait two years for that. I am enclosing a registration form.”
Those who visit us during the week are used to rejection. We might mumble: Lord, I am not worthy, but they believe it. Every day some “guests tell us that they are grateful for what we provide, but even more grateful that we offer them some few hours of welcome, where they feel worthy because they are smiled at and called by name. At first I thought it was only a matter of feeling connected. But now I think it might also be a matter of agreeing with the prisoner: “I deserve no better, than what I receive on the streets, from society as a whole and even from some church groups.” That’s not our way of welcoming!
Yes, you do deserve better. We all do. We deserve to be loved simply by virtue of the fact that we exist. Lent is a great time for loving, for opening doors to everyone who comes our way. Keep those doors open!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Let's Give it Up for Charlie!

Maybe we should give up popularity for Lent. I would guess that you have heard of Charlie Sheen. From what we read, he seems to be a man on the way to ruin, because of his many addictions. We might say that he seems to be the logical conclusion of the Hollywood dream: financial success; destructive life style, infidelity; self-absorbed; convinced of terminal uniqueness. This is what we read. And read. And read. “…two wars are in an endless state of sorrow. Egypt about burned to the ground, and all you people care about is (me)…? "Shame shame shame.” Yet he seems to love every sound bite of it.

I am in no position to judge Charlie Sheen, or to make a long distance diagnosis. But I can reflect on what reports of his escapades might say about the human condition separate from the grace of God. Because I have been there. Perhaps you have been, too. Not with Charlie’s money or fame or connections, although I would not have minded those additions to my own depravity!

For a portion of our lives, there is no one in the Universe more important to us than ourselves. We are the center not only of our own world but, we imagine, of everyone else’s, too. If only people really knew us or understood us. They would never be angry with us. No matter what we were to do, they would love us! Sheen again: “Don’t be special; be one of us. Newsflash: I am special, and I will never be one of you.” Adolescence, anyone (sorry adolescents, but you will grow beyond it!)?

If we are honest with ourselves, if we have that capacity, we know at some level that the lies we tell ourselves about our importance are just that. Perhaps our truths are so unbearable that we cannot face them, even obliquely. Yet we instinctively know that we are worthwhile human beings at the deepest levels of our being and that we are loved or, at least loveable. That sounds to me like what Charlie is trying to tell the world and himself.

So we have Lent: A period of time during which we are invited to focus on touching those truths we fear, knowing that the one whose love is unconditional but whose wrath we fear will welcome us in our fear, trembling and honesty without reservation, without rancor or punishment. But it is not the turning back that is the thrust of Lent. It is not repentance that is the goal. The goal of Lent is Easter. When we turn away from the pretense, from the self-deception and the rational lies we tell, we can enter into the life that never ends. Eternal life with Love, more than any fame or fortune, is what our hearts truly desire. Why settle for less?

Look at the faces on our “Faces of Friday” Lenten aid ( Can you tell who is most needy, who is most blessed? Who is most despondent and who is most comfortable? I could not, at least looking at the faces of people I do not yet know. All the faces are the face of God. All are the face of love. Be sure to put your own there. That is where we all belong.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Attitude of the Spirit

St. André Bessette Church offers enormous challenges of the spirit. To all appearances, our ministries are very well planned and organized, but spending time with our guests really raises extraordinary thoughts and feelings. I again experienced this last week, as we began a new program.

I advertised the program as “Spirituality Sessions,” and described it as an opportunity to gather each Thursday morning, hear a presentation on some aspect of spirituality and reflect on it as a group. We began the first Thursday of March. I set up the chairs, announced when we were ready to go and made a second announcement when no one showed. No one showed after the second announcement either, until one young man came in, looked around and asked where the others were. My question exactly!

We sat and talked, he and I, with him saying he didn’t think he would stay without others present. He said it is by listening to others that he grows. We were together for about one half hour. I listened; he talked. Of course, the subject quickly became his life. When he left another guest came in. I felt awkward in the situation. Both guests articulated their own profound spiritual quest quite well. But I was thinking about their homeless condition.

I did not ask how they became homeless—I preferred to let them direct our conversation. But I did wonder about the value of offering a spiritual conversation when they have no place to eat or sleep or call home. I had been in their circumstances—perhaps even at their age—but for a very short while and many years ago. I was most definitely not thinking spiritual thoughts at that time. I was thinking about how to get out of it all, whether dead or alive.

All these years later, I wanted to fix things for them. What do I have to give them? Should I say: “God’s ways are mysterious?” “Your suffering now will earn you a great reward?” How condescending! In my mind, they needed food and shelter before they needed me.

But, it seemed, not in their minds. Both of them felt the reality of their own circumstances, and accepted what is. Thursday, they wanted meaningful, engaging conversation. They wanted to talk spiritually when the opportunity to do so arose. They seemed to instinctively know that their spiritual attitude is the greatest possession they have, and that it will sustain them in any circumstances.

I had prepared a topic for discussion with the group that didn’t show. It was ‘spiritual attitude.’ Too bad we never got to it!