Saturday, November 28, 2009

My 35 Year Old Son

My son, Andrew, turns 35 tomorrow. Don't know how he got that old; I surely haven't changed much! Then, again, Andrew has been through so much in his 35 years, particularly in hospitals, that it's a wonder he doesn't look as old as me!

My son, my friend, is an unusual young man, if I dare say so myself. I mostly base that, actually, on what others have said and told me about him through the years. He's been blessed to have had a career as a ballet dancer for over 20 years, studying with great men and women of the dance: Natalia Makarova, Paul Sutherland, Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Winthrop Corey, Ben Stevenson, Alonzo King, Ivan Nagy, etc. He performed as a member of some of the best companies in the world: the Joffrey (both apprentice and regular company), Richard Alston Dance Company, Pennsylvania Ballet, Ballet de Santiago, The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Tulsa Ballet, and Ballet Florida, to name a few. He toured one summer with Phyllis Diller and Georgia Engle in Cinderella. He was an original cast member of the Broadway production Movin' Out by Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel. In 2000 he was Honorary City Councilman for the City of Memphis, TN. He has been an American delegate for Council of International Dance (CID-UNESCO). He's also completed all but the last few requirements for certification as a chaplain in Clinical Pastoral Education. And, up until his most recent illness, Andrew has been a successful producer, helping to raise $800,000 for Ballet Florida last year alone. Andrew has had more experiences and done more in his 35 years than I will ever do in a lifetime. And in all this he has remained one of the most gentle, gracious, sensitive, and giving human beings I've ever known.

All that being said, Andrew has also seen the downside of life, and in a big way! He's been stricken twice with autoimmune brainstem encephalitis, most recently in December of 2008. He has spent literally months in hospitals both in 1999-2000 and this year. Still recovering, sometimes in a wheel chair, sometimes able to get around on his own, he was declared officially disabled in July. He has seen and experienced first-hand the brokenness and horrors of what we call a health care system in the U.S. The reality is such that I can barely speak about it anymore without becoming completely enraged! What many of the politicians and their cohorts, on both sides of the aisle in the Senate and Congress, are saying and doing (or NOT, as the case may be!) is not only an outrage but, IMHO, truly sinful. Again, Andrew's grace and wisdom astound me when he frequently and simply reminds me that "God is driving the bus!"

I got to thinking this evening about where I was and what I was doing when I was 35. Through habit, I'm one of those who hangs on to a lot of "documents" from the past for posterity's sake (whose I don't know!). Originally, it wasn't much of an intentional exercise, but in later years it's become one of my de rigeur practices. I keep a folder handy into which I chuck the latest copy of a relevant "document" as it emerges from the printer. Andrew, for some years now, has called the folder(s) my "Holy Grail file".

Anyway, my "Holy Grail file" tells me that in 1972, at age 35, I was married and had a two-year-old daughter (now 39), and was living in Kenner, LA, just outside of Metairie, and outside of New Orleans (and I DID learn how to pronounce that properly while there - NOT "New Orrléens", but "Newh Óh-le-ahns"). Sure glad I'm not living there now! We lived right on the edge of a swamp in a new apartment development. The price was right and the apartment was adequate, but the bugs were BIG and plentiful, the humidity constant, and the water...well, my daughter was often sick for unknown reasons!

I was working at that time for Silver Burdett Company, a newly formed division of General Learning Corporation, owned by Time Incorporated and General Electric. As a subsidiary of GLC, Silver Burdett published educational materials of all sorts and in all subject areas, including Catholic religious education. My niche was as sales representative in the Educational/Religious Division for the Southeast, servicing all the Catholic religious education offices and the schools/parishes of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

1972, when I was 35, turned out to be a tremendous banner sales year for Silver Burdett, both in the religious and non-religious school divisions: so much so, that the GLC mucky-mucks flew some 200 of us reps down to Nassau, in the Bahamas, at the end of the year for a 5-day sales conference -- all expenses paid! For a little ole Catholic boy from Ohio, and an ex-priest at that, my eyes were bulging and my mind boggled by the extravagance of life in (at least the corporate) Bahamas! I retain several wonderful memories, however: 1) the exquisite aqua waters and the sand beaches; 2) the lush blossoms and fragrant smell of flowers; 3) and my first and only adventure of deep-sea fishing, with a salty Scottish skipper, who took us out and explained the technique. I must have listened well because, with his assistance, I landed a 15 lb. wahoo. I also remember one day meandering around an outdoor market where I listened in on big, dark black mères with their babies, sitting with their crones, weaving baskets and making, partly in English, partly in patois, sometimes with amazingly unambiguous innuendo, subtly suggestive comments. It was delightful.

Well, I sold books and then became a priest again and then retired! That process took another 35 years! Andrew danced and was stricken with a devastating illness, then recovered, and now has been stricken again! And he's only 35! Who can predict what the next 35 years will bring him? I certainly can't. Realistically, he'll have to manage most of that time without me; at almost 73 now, I simply won't be around.

Whatever is ahead, Andrew, you've taught me that, indeed, "God is driving the bus!"
Happy birthday, son, and many, many more!

Addressing Advent's Frustrations

The liturgy which opens the season of Advent tomorrow celebrates our waiting in solid hope for God's coming at the end of human history when Jesus will reign as Sovereign. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, one of the Eastern Fathers of the Church, writes: "We proclaim the coming of Christ -- not just a first coming but another as well that will be far more glorious than the first...At his first coming, he was wrapped in linens and laid in a manger; at the second, light shall be his robe...Let us therefore not stop at his first coming but look forward to the second..." (Catechesis 15,1)

However, we need to be realistic about Advent's full meaning: we do wait for and celebrate Christ's birth with all its tenderness, beauty, and majesty. At the same time we take seriously the liturgy's assurance: "Christ will come again." But, in the meantime, there is the painful necessity of the cross, for Jesus and just as surely for each of us.

Advent spells out for us two frustrations with which, I suspect, most of us are familiar. 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, tomorrow's second reading, alludes to one of these. Paul prays that God and Jesus may bring him back soon to the Thessalonian community. He asks that Jesus make this gathering of Christians "increase and abound" in love for each other and for all others. In effect, Paul is praying for the Lord's true presence among them until his final presence, his parousia or advent.

We're asked during Advent to enter into an expectation and longing that you and I may never, or rarely, have actually experienced. The hope we're to have in Advent can't be feigned. Neither can we replicate the longing which Paul had and which he prayed that the Thessalonians might have. We have to experience our own 21st century kind of hope.

I suggest that a way in which you and I might come to this kind of longing and hope is by living the next four weeks in deeper prayer for one another, and in exerting ourselves to reach out in love to each other to whom we're often physically present, but often not so much present in Christ.

It seems to me that our goal during Advent is to experience Jesus' being with us, his coming to us, in whatever context we find ourselves. We search for his presence through each other and through God's Word proclaimed in power and received in grateful hearts willing to give that Word flesh in daily life and ministry.

As bearers of God's Word and Sacrament you and I have a vocation, a calling, to be with each other in Christ, in this moment and in our unique context. Only then can we believe that Jesus will come to be with us in glory at the end. God's Word is a surrogate for God, and you and I as persons who set our hearts on it are called to be its designated bearers.

Advent is a reminder that there will be another advent, a coming of our God, in-breaking into the world in a way it has never experienced: through Jesus the Christ in the fullness of glory. When Paul speaks to the Thessalonians about "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints" he's speaking of the kind of hope and promise depicted so beautifully in Isaiah 61:11: "For as the earth brings forth its shoots and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations." It echoes a phrase from the liturgy's first reading from Jeremiah: "...I will raise up for David a just shoot..." (New American Bible translation) In Christ's coming at the "day of the Lord", the world will have its first inkling of true justice and peace.

Which raises the second frustration of which Advent makes us aware. This waiting upon the future, this attempt to keep our spirits, souls, and bodies "sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" has everything to do with longing for a God who will vindicate and "comfort all who mourn", as Isaiah says: a God who works justice and peace.

Only a person out of touch with reality our times can presume to call him/herself "Christian", yet not take personal responsibility for the human work of justice and peace in the context in which he/she lives. But how?? How?? -- That's the question with which we all struggle. Though I can't cite the exact author and source from some 20 years ago, I jotted down this relevant quotation: "In we are coming to a fuller awareness that a response to the call of Jesus is both personal and demanding...We live in a world that is becoming increasingly estranged to Christian values. In order to remain a Christian, one must take a resolute stand against many commonly accepted axioms of the world...Values we call 'Christian' rest ultimately in the disarmament of the human heart and the conversion of the human spirit to God, who alone can give authentic peace. Indeed, to have peace in our world, we must first have peace within ourselves...When we accept violence, war itself can be taken for granted. Violence has many faces: oppression of the poor, deprivation of basic human rights, economic exploitation, sexual exploitation and pornography, neglect or abuse of the aged and the helpless, and innumerable other acts of inhumanity..." Such an evaluation, written 20 years ago, is incredibly compelling to read today!

Just as our Thessalonian sisters and brothers many years ago, we believe and understand, at least theoretically, that peace and justice are gifts of God. For us as for them, this belief prompts us, sometimes even shames us, to pray and work constantly, personally and together. By looking into Scripture, into the Tradition, and into our God-given reason, we seek the wisdom, as they must have, to search for justice and peace in our times. We, too, during Advent seek the courage to sustain us in bringing Christ's hands-on justice and peace to the world.

Theodore Ferris has written a beautiful prayer for this Advent season of hope and work which we begin this week:

Sharpen our mind, O Lord; humble our spirits,
and open our hearts to take in the love
that once became flesh, that comes amongst us
again and again, that we may not only
take him in, but show him to others
and let others see him in us.
And we ask it in his name, and by his power,
and for his sake.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Blessings and good wishes to all of you and your families for a holy and happy Thanksgiving. I'll be away from the blog for a few days, as I imagine some of you will be also. Godspeed (not literally, i.e. the "speed" part!) to all of us who may be travelling.

"Thank You, God"

You cannot pour twelve months of thanks --
The saints have surely made this clear --
Into a cup of just three words of praise,
Unless you fill it often during the year.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Reign of Christ

(11th cent. mosaic, Church of San Frediano, Lucca
Photo: Georges Jansoone, 2005)

The liturgical lessons for today bring to a conclusion once again the cycle of the Church Year. As we now stand at the beginning of a new year, beginning with the season of Advent next week, the coming of Jesus, we’re confronted with two images: that of the reigning Christ and that of the newborn Jesus. We celebrate both Christ’s ongoing reign in our everyday lives and in the world, and his coming in the flesh to initiate that reign. In either case, “the time has arrived; the reign of God is at hand.

We can’t know the glorified Christ without first knowing the Jesus of Bethlehem. Yet, it would be mistake to let oneself be seduced by a “sweet-Jesus-in-the manger” image. The Carmelite St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), an Auschwitz martyr, in her magnificent spiritual essay The Mystery of Christmas (which I have read annually for 53 years) observes: “
Darkness covered the earth, and He came as the Light that shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend Him...This is the bitterly serious truth which ought not to be obscured by the poetic charm of the Child in the manger. The mystery of the Incarnation is closely linked to the mystery of iniquity...The Child in the manger stretches out His small hands, and His smile seems to say even now the same as later the lips of the Man: ‘Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened’...These Child’s hands say ‘Follow me’ just as later the lips of the Man will say it...Ways part before the Child in the manger. He is the King of kings, the Lord of life and death. He speaks His ‘Follow me!’, and if [one] is not for Him, [one] is against Him. He speaks also to us, and asks us to choose between light and darkness...

There’s a cartoon depicting a little man with long hair and beard who is carrying a placard with the words: “
Repent, the end is near!” One passerby with a worried look on his face stops to inquire: “When?” The little man replies: “Oh, in a billion years or so!” Today in the liturgy the Church is a little like the man with the placard, reminding us of the necessity to give serious thought to ultimate matters. A number of the Christian liturgies use the phrase: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” It’s that last phrase that we’re bidden today to contemplate, even as we liturgically anticipate Christ’s coming in the Advent/Christmas mystery.

The whole question of “when” Christ will appear has been the favorite focus of self-proclaimed prophets and doomsayers for centuries. It happened as the year 1000 A.D. approached, throwing people into mass confusion and terror. People sold their possessions and fled to the hills to be safe. Our generation heard a little of that as the year 2000 approached, but, of course, it came and passed without incident. More recently the prophetic pundits are at it again, “foretelling” global upheaval and destruction in the year 2012, according the Mayan calendar. (Dang it, that’s the year I finally pay off my car loan!) It’s a little like the Charlie Brown-trying-to-kick-the-football syndrome, only to have Lucy pull it away at the last minute. Jesus tells us: “
The reign of God is within you”. The “when” of Christ’s coming shouldn’t be our focus. Faith bids us to be busy about the work of loving God and one another.

The other temptation during these next four or five weeks, of course, will be to lose ourselves in getting and spending. The surrounding society is already playing upon our national addictions and bombarding us with the glitter and tinsel and talk of the “bottom line”. If we choose to buy into all this, it can be a colossal distraction and diversion from awareness of the realities of the needs of real people around us, and even of our own real inner needs: those who are jobless, those who’ve been ignored and shuttled aside in the health care system, LGBT sisters and brothers about to be victimized, even killed, by proposed legislation in Uganda, those who live alone and in despair.

Today’s liturgy and those during Advent bid us to enter a deeper, more serious reflection on what’s really ultimate in our relationships, both with others and God, and in our living.”
The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.” “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come...who loves us and freed us by his blood.” “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

We’re called to be participants in the reign of Christ, to enter into it intentionally, and the Advent season ahead is as good a time as any. The reign of Christ bids me to live each day as if it were my last, to realize that there is only the “
day of the Lord", and that it is every day.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Erzsebet of Hungary: Wife, Mother, Saint (1207-1231)

Though I knew little about St. Elizabeth of Hungary in 2002, I'm pretty sure I prayed to her. November 19 that year was the day I experienced the most major medical procedure of my life (so far!): a quadruple cardiac bypass. At that point, I'm sure I was enlisting the intercession of every saint I could think of! I know that I particularly asked the prayers of Gaspar del Bufalo, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Edith Stein, all long-time favorites of mine. At any rate, their prayers and those of many, many of my friends and acquaintances supported and comforted me during the 4 + hour surgery. I also had the surgeon of surgeons: Dr. Keith Korver, whom I often describe as being only a step down from God! Every two years he and his staff invite all of his cardiac bypass patients to gather for a reunion in Santa Rosa, the last one being this past summer, at which each of us wears a name tag bearing the number of our surgery. And to anticipate your next question, my number was 206; there are currently more than 1000+ live, healthy, happy patients with numbers!

Getting back to St. Elizabeth, I've learned a little more about her over the past seven years: enough to be extremely impressed and in awe of her. She was betrothed through an arranged marriage at four and was sent to the court of Thuringia to be raised by her future in-laws. They were not happy campers, and treated her accordingly. She lost her mother at six; was married at 14 and raised three children: a boy who died at 19 (ten years after she died); a girl who became a duchess; and her youngest girl who entered a convent. She was widowed at 20, after which her cold-hearted brother-in-law literally drove her and her three children out of the castle in the middle of winter. For the rest of her short life, she lived in poverty as a member of the Franciscan Third Order and continued her hands-on ministry to children, the sick, the needy, and the aged, which she had been doing, with her husband's blessing, during their time in the castle. Then she died, at age 24.

How did it come about, I wonder, that this young woman, hardly older than some of the college kids I see around town, became so utterly attuned to the core message of the Gospel: "...just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me"? And not only became attuned, but acted on it consistently. She had a depth of spiritual maturity and faith in her 20's that I'm only still hoping and struggling for in my 7o's! Perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised. God works as God wishes in each of us, regardless of age. And I find myself thankful that God, through Dr. Korver's skills restored my heart so that I could continue learning how to have such spiritual wisdom.

Not long ago I had a vivid reminder of this. A young woman, an acquaintance, shared a personal reflection with me that just about blew me away. Come to think of it, maybe she's Elizabeth of Hungary reincarnated! She said: "...I never thought before about how brave it is to be open to loving even after being hurt..." (as Elizabeth certainly must have been). She goes on to talk about being present at a conversation wherein the people were talking about persons being strong enough to open themselves enough to have their heart broken. This hit her like a ton of bricks because, as she continues, "As a child (!!) I prayed for God to break my heart. As a child!...I would pray to God because I felt like I had so much love to give that it was spilling over...I was scared and trusting and full of faith as I wished for a broken heart...I still pray for a broken heart...Please break me open so I may hold more of Your love to share..." Like Elizabeth of Hungary, this young woman is in her 20's!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mother Hild of Whitebay

Streanesshalch, also known as Whitebay or Whitby

St. Hild[a] of Whitby (614-680)

The Venerable Bede of Jarrow records much of what we know about St. Hild(a) of Whitby: "All who knew her called her 'Mother', such were her wonderful godliness and grace." Of her passing he writes that she "saw death with joy." Now that I'm aware of Bede's comments, I realize why I have been attracted to St. Hilda for awhile. What greater ideal could be held out for any Christian's way of life!

Banner of St. Hild in the Priory Chapel at Sneaton Castle

For all her impact on the Church and on Christianity, St. Hild has left us only a few fragments of her words and wisdom:
Trade with the gifts God has given you.
Bend your minds to holy learning that you
may escape the fretting moth of littleness of mind
that would wear out your souls.
Brace your wills to action that they may
not be the spoil of weak desires.
Train your hearts and lips to song which gives
courage to the soul.
Being buffeted by trials, learn to laugh.
Being reproved, give thanks.
Having failed, determine to succeed.

Whitby Abbey, looking north

The great missionary, Aidan of Lindisfarne, commissioned Hilda, a young woman of royal blood, to found a monastery on the north bank of the River Wear, where she lived for about a year, drawing only a few women to join her. Aidan then sent her to become abbess of Hartlepool, a monastery of men and women on the North Coast. A few years later she founded another double monastery at Streaneshalch (Whitby), based on St. Columbanus' Irish Rule. Hild's wise governance of her community caught the attention ordinary people and royalty who came to her for spiritual guidance. Bede tells us that she was demanding in this regard, requiring her devotees "to attend much to reading the Holy Scriptures and to exercise themselves freely in works of righteousness..."

North Transept wall and windows

Remains of one of the 4 tower pillars

West Entrance & Ceremonial Doorway

Site of the Old Monastery Cloister

St. Hilda Priory at Sneaton Castle, Whitby

Today the Sisters of the Order of the Holy Paraclete staff St. Hilda's Priory, carrying on a ministry of prayer and teaching.

Mural of Hild's Anglo-Saxon shepherd, Caedmon

According to Bede, Cædmon was a lay brother who worked as a cowherd at the monastery. One evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early because he was embarrassed that he could sing no songs in the vernacular. While asleep, he had a dream in which quidem = someone approached him and asked him to sing about "the beginning of created things." After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short poem praising God, Creator of heaven and earth. Upon awakening the next morning, Cædmon remembered everything he had sung and added additional lines to his poem. He told his foreman about his dream and gift, and was taken immediately to see the Abbess Hilda. Once Hilda and her counsellors had discussed Cædmon's vision with him and were satisfied that it was truly a gift from God, they gave him a new commission, this time for a poem based on “a passage of sacred history or doctrine”, as a sort of test. When Cædmon returned the next morning with the poem, he was directed to take monastic vows. St. Hilda ordered her scholars to teach Cædmon particularly Scripture. Bede says that after a passage had been explained to Caedmon, he would, after a night of thought, turn it into a sweet and joyful ballad in his native tongue. Cædmon was responsible for a large collection of splendid vernacular poetic texts on various Christian topics. Here is a transcription from an 8th century Northumbrian text of Caedmon's hymn after his vision:
Now [we] must honour
the Guardian of heaven,
the might of the Architect,
and his purpose,
the work of the Father of glory
— as he, the eternal Lord,
the beginning of wonders.
He, the holy Creator,
first created heaven as a roof
for the children of men.
Then the Guardian of mankind
the eternal Lord,
the Lord almighty
afterwards appointed
the middle earth,
the lands, for men.

In 663-664 St. Hilda was asked to host at Whitby Abbey, and to preside over the proceedings, a significant meeting of the Celtic and Roman factions in the Church in order to resolve two main issues: 1) determining the date of Easter; and 2) the style of the monastic tonsure (or "haircut", as we used to call it in seminary!). St. Colman defended the Celtic position, and St. Wilfrid championed the Roman cause. At the end of the discussions, King Oswy declared that the Roman customs would be observed in Northumbria. Colman and others still couldn't accept this, and so returned to Iona, effectively ending Celtic missionary work in north England. St. Hild, on the other hand, displayed graciousness and great humility in accepting the decision, though it was not her personal preference. Nevertheless, she remained at Whitby Abbey until her death.

I'll never forget my first sighting of Whitby Abbey from the tour bus in 2007, the beauty of Whitby Bay and of the monastery grounds, and the peaceful "vibes" of Mother Hild's presence. Even to this day there's "a North Country legend that on Trinity Sunday [which occurred only 25 days after we were at Whitby Abbey] the form of an ancient nun is seen to pass the windows of the Abbey Church at Whitby..." (Fr. John Julian, OJN, Stars In A Dark World)

The very form of Hilda fair,
Hovering over the sunny air.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"The Most Beautiful Sacerdotal Figure"

The title above is from a statement by John Ruskin (1819-1900), English art critic, author, poet, and artist. It would seem to ring true, given the homage paid to St. Hugh of Lincoln (1140-1200) at his funeral, attended by 3 archbishops, 14 bishops, 100 abbots, the Prince of South Wales, and the whole Jewish community from the Lincoln ghetto. Among those carrying his casket were John, king of England, and William, king of Scotland.

David L. Veal, in Saints Galore, describes Hugh of Lincoln as "thoroughly attractive and able sportsman, a lover of children and of animals, an excellent administrator, and a man whose humor and kindness charmed the English court..." Bear in mind that, prior to his becoming bishop of Lincoln, the second largest diocese in England at the time, Hugh of Avalon [in Burgundy, his birthplace] had lived with the Augustinian Canons for 11 years, becoming a professed Canon in 1155. At age 23 he entered the Carthusians at the Grand Chartreuse and lived the rigorous life of a monk for 16 years -- a total of 27 years in religious life!

Hugh died peacefully at 60 years old in London after a two-month illness, laid upon a cross of ashes which he had traced upon the floor, just as the choir began the Nunc Dimittis = "Now you set free [your servant]..."

Loving God, as your servant, Hugh, fed your sheep by his word,
and guided them by his example, so may we.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Unhappy Man With the Wandering Heart

A couple of days ago my right hand was afflicted with what I think is a mild case of carpal tunnel syndrome: the bane of bloggers, inveterate computer geeks, Twitterers, and various and sundry texters, perhaps even vigorous "sexters"! Nevertheless, I feel compelled to suck it up, enduring the slight pain of my hand, now securely bound in an elastic flesh-colored (sorta!) hand wrap.

The 99th Diocesan Convention which ended yesterday afternoon with a magnificent Eucharist at which Bishop Beisner was celebrant and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached. All the clergy of the diocese were vested, the first time in several years, and an organ was even brought in for the music, which ranged from traditional to Gospel spiritual to contemporary. The ad hoc choir, composed of anyone from around the Diocese who wanted to sing, did a fantastic job. Even though some Convention participants had to leave early, the hall was filled the other participants and people from the immediate area. In a touching moment Bishop Beisner, in the name of all of us in the Diocese, presented an icon to Bishop Katharine. He'd had it done by Kathryn Burelson, an artist and icon writer from Trinidad, CA. + Barry noted that + Katharine probably had lots of pictures on her wall already, so this was a two-panel unfolding travel icon of the Annunciation, to remind her that she and all of us are "servants of the Lord". I wish I'd been able to photograph the expression of surprise, amazement, quiet grasp of the symbolism, and deep gratitude on Bishop Katharine's face as she looked at the icon, but that would have been indiscreet, given the fact that we clergy were sitting on each side of the altar facing the congregation!

This morning, at the final hymn of the Eucharist at St. John's, Petaluma, I was struck anew at the closing hymn ("anew", since this is one of my favorite ones) Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, sung to Nettleton, a melody named for Rev. Asahel Nettleton, an early 18th century American evangelist, and composed by John Wyeth, an 18th century printer and lay musician. The hymn first appeared in Wyeth's collection, A Repository of Sacred Songs, published in 1813.

The words to the hymn were written by Robert Robinson [see picture above] (1735-1790). He was born into a poor family in Swaffham, Norfolk, England. His father died when he was eight. At 14 his mother sent him to London to become a barber. He fell in with a gang of young men who became notorious, and lived a less than becoming life. When he was 17 the gang decided to attend one of George Whitefield's preaching revivals, for the purpose, it is said, of "scoffing at the poor, deluded Methodists". In a classic case of "divine gotcha", however, Whitefield's strong message so impressed Robinson that he converted to Christianity. Several years later he felt called to preach himself and became a Methodist minister. Instability plagued him, however, and he eventually left the Methodist Church, moved to Cambridge, and became a Baptist minister. He gained the reputation of being a creditable theologian through his written theological works and several hymns.

This particular hymn, Come, Thou Fount, was written when Robert Robinson was 23. The following version is found in several shape-note hymnals of the American South, with the Nettleton melody :

1. O Thou Fount of ev'ry blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me ever to adore Thee;
May I still my goodness prove;
While the hope of endless glory,
Fills my heart with joy and love.

2. Here I raise my Ebenezer:
Hither by Thy help I've come;
And I hope by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wand'ring from the fold of God;
He to rescue me from danger
Interposed His precious blood.

3. O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I'm constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wand'ring heart to Thee.
Never let me wander from Thee,
Never leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

Our Hymnal 1982 version has a slight variation in the second stanza. Robinson's expression "Ebenezer" is taken from 1 Samuel 7:12, where the Ebenezer [Stone of Help] is a symbol of God's faithfulness. The third verse was somewhat prophetic in that Robinson seems to have, in later years, reverted to his old ways, instability and was even accused to taking to Unitarian doctrine, although that seems unlikely. There is a legend that one day Robinson was riding a stagecoach and noticed a lady deeply engrossed in a hymn book. They conversed awhile, then she began humming a hymn and asked him what he thought of it. Tears streaming down his face, Robinson replied: "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then."

Nevertheless, for myself, noting the mention of blessing and mercy and the Precious Blood of Jesus, and the apparently genuine humility expressed by the writer, I can't imagine that the God of Love could ever forsook Robert Robinson -- or us! Which is probably why my heart was "struck anew" this morning!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Taking a Break

For the next three days I'm taking a break, so there will be no blog. I'll be visiting my son, Andrew, in Chico today and tomorrow morning, then going on to Redding for the Convention. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori will be the keynote speaker at the annual Convention dinner and will also preach at the Eucharist on the Saturday. You can imagine the excitement in the hearts of your sisters and brothers in Northern California! See you again on Sunday, God willing.

A Veteran's Story - St. Martin of Tours (c.330-397)

Loving God, you clothed your servant Martin the soldier with the
spirit of sacrifice, and set him as a bishop in your Church to be
a defender of the catholic faith: Give us grace to follow in his holy
steps, that at the last we may be found clothed with righteousness
in the dwellings of peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Young Martin, son of a veteran who'd been an officer in the Roman army, was required to begin service in the military at age 15. He was stationed at Amiens, in Gaul, when the most important incident in his life occurred. He was riding towards the town one winter day and noticed a poor man near the gates. The man was barely covered, shivering in the cold, and begging for a handout. Martin noticed that no one passing by went out of their way to help the man.

The only things Martin had on him were his own clothes, so, drawing his sword, he cut his large woolen cloak in half, giving one half to the beggar and wrapping himself in the other half. Legend has it that the following night Martin had a dream of Jesus, surrounded by angels, and dressed in in the half of the cloak which Martin had given away. A voice bade him to look at it well, then asked if he recognized it. He then heard Jesus say to the angels: "Martin, as yet only a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak." Martin's friend and biographer, Sulpicius Severus, relates that as a consequence of the vision Martin "flew to be baptized."

Martin, the military veteran, lived happily as a monk until 371 when the people of Tours, needing a new bishop, demanded that Martin be consecrated. He refused, but not to be denied, the people arranged for him to go on a "sick call", and on the way captured him and brought him to the church to be consecrated! My, how the selection process for bishops has changed!

In his Stars in a Dark World, Fr. John Julian has an interesting historical note: "...over a thousand years after Martin's death a child was born in Germany on November 10, 1483, and on the next day when his parents took him to the baptismal font in the local parish church, realizing that it was the feast day of Martin of Tours, they named him after the holy Saint Martin. The child's family name was Luther!"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Hometown Pope

I can just imagine the headlines in the Acta Diurna in Rome the morning of September 29, 440: "Local Hometown Boy, Deacon Leo, Makes Good -- Elected Pope!" As Fr. John Julian, OJN notes in his collection of stories from the saints: "In Rome he was born; in Rome he ruled; in Rome he died." St. Leo (c. 400-c. 461), who would later be tagged "the Great", happened to be out of town at the time his predecessor, Sixtus III died, mediating a spat between two VIP imperial officials, Aëtius and Albinus, in Gaul. Obviously, Leo had been well liked as a deacon in Rome because the clergy quickly and enthusiastically chose him to be the next Bishop of Rome, even though it took them over a month to get him back so he could be consecrated!

A prolific writer (some 96 sermons and 143 letters which we still have), he was known for that, but particularly for his uncompromising stance against a variety of heresies of the day: Pelagianism, Manichaeism (in which St. Augustine, a friend of Leo's, had been involved), Priscillianism, a controversy with Pope Dioscorus of the Copts, Nestorianism, and various other "isms". When Emperor Theodosius butted in on ecclesiastical affairs, in cahoots with a renegade abbot who'd been excommunicated for heresy by the patriarch of Constantinople, called for a Council at Ephesus (later called "The Robbers' Synod) and exonerated Eutyches, Leo stepped in, letting Theodosius know he should mind his own business, and nullifying the entire proceedings. Two years later Theodosius died and Leo called his own ecumenical Council, one of the most important in Church history: the Council of Chalcedon, in 451.

Leo had prepared a long theological refutation of Eutyches' heretical ideas, called The Tome of Leo, for the "Council" in 449, but his delegates were prevented from reading it by Eutyches' cohorts: kind of a "Don't confuse us with the facts -- our minds are made up!" The famous Tome was a Latin text, a letter or statement of the faith of the Roman Church repeating, in close adherence to Augustine, the formulas of western Christology. It was a clear expression of the Catholic faith regarding the two-fold divine and human nature of Christ, as well as a clear rebuttal of the claims of Nestorianism that there are two Persons in Christ, divine and human and of the view of Eutyches, who said that Christ had only a divine nature, but no human nature. 600 of Leo's fellow-bishops not only concurred with him, but exclaimed that he'd been guided by the Holy Spirit in expressing what was the authentic teaching of the Church. Included in Leo's Tome was the acknowledgment also that Mary is the Theotokos, "God-bearer", "Mother of God". You can find all this documented in the Book of Common Prayer among "The Historical Documents of the Church" on page 864.

Leo the Great experienced many exciting and interesting times during his reign of 21 years, none more so, perhaps, than his meeting with Attila the Hun [see picture above]. When Attila and his Vandals, running amok in Italy in 452, threatened to sack Rome, Leo, along with two high civil functionaries, went to meet Attila. According to Prosper of Aquitaine, Attila was so impressed by him that he withdrew. Jordanes, who represents Leo's contemporary Priscus, thinks there were other reasons. Pragmatic concerns, such as the large sum of gold which accompanied Leo, or logistical and strategic concerns, may have been the true reason for Attila's mercy. Attila's army was already quite stretched and full with booty from plunder, and the Pope's plea for mercy may well have merely served as an honorable reason for not continuing on and sacking the city. Catholic hagiographical sources frequently cite as another reason that, as Leo approached him, Attila saw two ghostly figures visible only to Attila: one with keys and the other armed with a flaming sword -- the Apostles Peter and Paul -- who threatened him and his army with annihilation. Unfortunately Leo's intercession could not prevent the invasion of the city by the Vandals in 455 under Genseric, although he managed to prevent the Vandals from murdering the populace and burning the city. When the Vandals had finished their plundering rampage, Leo used his own resources to restore the basilicas and churches and to replace what had been stolen.

The significance of Leo's pontificate lies in the fact of his assertion of the universal jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome, even then not accepted by everyone, particularly the church in Alexandria. Leo's assertion is commonly referred to as the doctrine of Petrine supremacy, which holds that the Church is built upon Peter, "the rock", as St. Matthew expresses it in his Gospel account [16:16-19]. Peter participates in everything which is Christ's; what the other Apostles have in common with Christ they have through Peter. What is true of Peter is true also of his successors. Every other bishop is charged with the care of his own special flock; the Bishop of Rome, the "Holy Father", has care of and responsibility for the whole Church. Other bishops are only his assistants in this great task. In Leo's eyes the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon acquired their validity from his confirmation.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Elizabeth of the Big Feet"

As a young lady, Elizabeth Catez described herself thus: "Without pride I think that I can say that my overall appearance is not displeasing. I am a brunette and, they say, rather tall for my age. I have sparkling black eyes and my thick eyebrows give me a severe look. The rest of my person is insignificant. My 'dainty' feet could win for me the nickname of Elizabeth of the Big Feet, like Queen Bertha! And there you have my physical portrait!..."

Her friends agreed that Elizabeth, or "Sabeth", as they called her, wasn't pretty in the accepted sense. She normally wore her thick, dark brown, waist-length hair caught back and hanging loose, or in a long braid. Her close friend, Françoise de Sourdon (whom she nicknamed "Framboise = Raspberry"), observed that her mouth was too large and her nose turned up a little too much. Another friend said that her dark piercing eyes were her most special feature, and that she displayed a radiant smile. Elizabeth, when she was somewhat older, noted: "I have put my hair up and it has made me look very grown-up."

From the age of seven Elizabeth displayed quite a talent for the piano. Her mother enrolled her in the Conservatory of Dijon. Her sister, Marguerite, whom Elizabeth called "Guite", joined her some years later at the Conservatory. It appears that their mother, widowed in 1887, saw the girls' musical training as preparation for careers as piano teachers. Elizabeth, however, who demonstrated her strong will on numerous occasions, knew from the time she was seven that she wanted to be a nun. Her mother was adamantly opposed, although she herself had considered the idea in her youth, and was clear with Elizabeth that she couldn't bear the thought of her entering religious life. Though Elizabeth, with great frustration and sadness, temporarily accepted her mother's decision, she never once lost sight of her true desire. Two weeks after her 21st birthday, in 1901, much to her mother's chagrin and even her aunts' accusations that Elizabeth was being "heartless", Elizabeth entered the enclosure door of the Carmel of Dijon.

Even before Elizabeth entered the Carmelites she'd begun to sense that during prayer she was being "dwelt in". This was around 1900, the year she was introduced to Père Gonzalve Valleé, O.P., prior of the Dominicans at Dijon. When she asked him what it meant, he gave her a rather theological explanation, using 1 Corinthians 3:16: "Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Holy Spirit dwells in you?" God's meaning, based on this human explanation, became progressively clearer to Elizabeth as her spiritual life deepened. After she entered the Carmel, she was bowled over by reading anew a passage in Paul's Letter to the Ephesians (1:11-12): "In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory..." This phrase struck a chord as summarizing all that she wished to be in relationship to the Holy Trinity in one God.

In the notes of one of her last retreats, Elizabeth spelled out what it meant to her to be God's "praise of glory":

- "'In Heaven' each soul is a praise of glory of the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, for each soul is established in pure love..."
- "A praise of glory is a soul that lives in God, that loves Him with a pure and disinterested love, without seeking itself in the sweetness of this love..."
- "A praise of glory is a soul of silence that remains like a lyre under the mysterious touch of the Holy Spirit so that He may draw from it divine harmonies; it knows that suffering is a string that produces still more beautiful sounds; so it loves to see this string on its instrument that it may delightfully move the Heart of its God..."
- "A praise of glory is a soul that gazes on God in faith and simplicity; it is a reflector of all that He is...A soul which thus permits the divine Being to satisfy in itself His need to communicate 'all that He is and all that He has,' is in reality the praise of glory of all His gifts..."
- "Finally, a praise of glory is one who is always giving thanks. Each of her acts...are like an echo of the eternal Sanctus..."

Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906) lived as a Carmelite less than five years after her entry into the Carmel. She lived silently, simply, suffering immensely, not just from the customary rigors of Carmelite life in those days, but additionally from Addison's disease, which eventually killed her at age 26. Addison's disease (also known as chronic adrenal insufficiency), named after Dr. Thomas Addison, the British physician who first described the condition in 1849, is a rare endocrine disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough steroid hormones (glucocorticoids and often mineralocorticoids). It may develop in children, adults or some species of animals, and may occur as the result of many underlying causes. The condition is now generally diagnosed with blood tests, medical imaging and additional investigations, and treated: medical procedures not readily available to Carmelites in those days.

Elizabeth's last words were: "I am going to Light, to Life, to Love!"

Today's Our Birthday!

Believe it or not, this is the first year anniversary of The Good Heart blog!

I began the blog a year ago today with these words: "For a good bit of my adult life, folks and colleagues have been urging me to write more. Until now I've been somewhat fearful, for whatever reason. But over the past few weeks that little voice inside has become more and more insistent, so here goes...For the ancient Hebrews wisdom wasn't just about "head" knowledge. It encompassed, more or less, what we mean by philosophy and theology all thrown together. The bottom-line meaning seems to be something like knowing how to live every human aspect of life well: academically, emotionally, socially, ethically, artistically, psychologically, spiritually...So it seems like a good day to launch a blog, to begin to "write more", for whatever it's worth, to share among all the "good hearts" out there."

My good friend, Fr. John Julian, OJN, deserves a "Blog Cheerleader" award for his constant encouragement and promotion of the blog among his friends. There appear to be 13 regular "followers", although seeing that term reminds me of the old saying: "Don't follow me: I'm lost!" I've heard from some of you, and I deeply appreciate your support and kind comments. Occasionally I've even heard from folks out in cyberland whom I don't know at all, but who have a connection with one or other of the persons I happen to mention.

Coupled with the good response, I'm now in the swing of the discipline of writing every couple of days and find myself energized by it. "So it seems like a good day to launch" into a second year and see how it goes. You might have noticed that the blog is kind of an eclectic mix: personal musings/reflections/meditations, events of interest, some politics, stories and observations of saints of the Church calendar and feast days. Though I had doubts originally if anyone else would be interested in these sorts of topics, I've found that some are, enough at least to continue.

I can only offer you some "virtual cake" for the celebration (shown above). As for myself, I'll confess that I started early by having a luscious piece of German chocolate cake last evening! (Dr. Coleman, don't read this!) Ad multos annos!

Sunday, November 8, 2009


This is the only picture which I have of Father John "Jack" Petuskey (1938 - 2003), and unfortunately it's half cut off. Jack didn't change much as he grew older, except to look more distinguished. Imagine him with all grey hair, and you'd have an idea of how he looked when he died six years ago.

Jack and I met at St. Joseph's College in 1956. He arrived as a newcomer to the class below us. I happened to be available when he, his mother and his sister arrived at the Administration Building, and gave them the grand tour of the college campus, particularly of Xavier Hall which was the residence for the Precious Blood seminarians. For the next several years Jack remained in the seminary with us, and he frequently said through the years how much he and his family had appreciated my taking time with them that first day. I couldn't say that we were ever "close" friends during all that time, but we were friends and got to know one another to some degree. In some ways, we were like oil and water in terms of some of our personal characteristics. Jack was gregarious and very at ease socially; I was an introvert. Jack was unapologetically one of the staunchest Republicans I know; I was a rabid Democrat, and we would often have lively "discussions" on politics. Jack was Lithuanian by descent, and I'd frequently tease him by calling him my "rotten Lithuanian Republican". I'm sure he had a comeback for me, all in good fun, but I honestly can't recall it now.

After we got to the major seminary, St. Charles, it became more and more obvious to Jack that he wasn't called to the Precious Blood Community, though he was very bright and got along well generally with the other seminarians. Looking back, I think Jack had a creative streak in him and a vision of how priestly ministry, Christian education, etc. could be -- and, at the time, it was a bit different from what the seminary folks had in mind. His later career and the many people he served surely confirmed that Jack had made the right choice. He eventually was ordained as a diocesan priest, and spent almost all his priestly career in the Diocese of Oklahoma City. He taught at Bishop McGuinness High School there, and in 1970, "saved" my life by getting me a job there also after I'd been let go at Pflaum Publishing Co. in Dayton. My wife was seven months pregnant, and my daughter was born at the end of July, 1970, a month before I began teaching at McGuinness! Jack also baptized Nicole [see picture above] in September, 1970. He also saw to it that I had some pastoral outlets, having been laicized a year earlier, as Eucharistic Minister and adult education teacher at Christ the King Parish where Jack was the assistant.

What surprised me constantly, particularly after I had left the Community after ordination and gotten married, was Jack's persistent and faithful efforts to stay in touch. It really surprised me, and frankly, I wonder if I'd have done the same if the roles had been reversed. Many times, out of the blue, he'd call just to say "Hello" and fill me in on his latest project. That persistence had its effect, and over time I began to treasure his friendship more and more. He came every few years to California, staying up on the coast near Albion at the magnificent seaside home of one of his monsignor friends in Santa Rosa. He'd always call and arrange for me to come up, and over multiple glasses of scotch we'd compare "Catholic" and "Episcopal" notes and proceed to offer our solutions for all the problems of the Church! Jack was extremely ecumenical, and from the get-go was always respectful of my choice to transfer to the Episcopal Church. We were very simpatico in our theology and I always learned something from conversing with Jack.

Jack's family had been certainly comfortable, if not wealthy, and I'm sure Jack did okay as pastor of several large parishes in the Diocese. He was able to travel a lot all over the world and he would bring back lovely furniture, etc. from his travels. One of the last I remember was his trip to China.

Then around 2002, Jack was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent all sorts of treatments for it, but was one of the unlucky folks who wasn't able to beat the disease. I'd kept in regular contact with him during his illness, and when he couldn't answer, often because of the effects of the illness, I'd leave a message. In the fall of 2003 I hadn't heard much from him and the couple of times I called, there was no answer. I finally called the parish secretary in early November, and sadly learned that Jack had died peacefully a couple of days before.

God's peace, dear friend, on this annivesary of your entering new life!