Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page


The first time we visited was in his living room.  He was 27 years old and a paraplegic.  Shelves on the wall behind his wheelchair were filled with trophies and pictures marking the progress of a young athlete from Little League to college sports.  You could also trace the development of his grin, beginning on the face of a shy 10-year-old and blossoming into the confident, tooth-filled smile of an able-bodied collegian.

We talked about faith in God and faith in Jesus.  He said sometimes he had difficulties with faith and had to fight against doubt especially when he felt himself sinking into depression as he fought against succumbing to the temptation to feel sorry for himself.  He told me that so many things were coming his way before the accident.  People who should know had told him he would have a career in professional sports and someday would be a wealthy man able to have at his disposal all the luxuries money can buy.

As someone who has never been accused of being an athlete, such possibilities fascinated me.  He showed me different trophies and autographed pictures of himself with nationally known sports figures.  Each item had a story.  I’ve noticed that athletes can recall significant moments in their games with great precision and vivid detail.  He could do that as if the games in question had been played just hours ago.  He had pictures of himself with priests and sisters.  He said when he was growing up being a Catholic was important to him.  He never missed Mass on Sunday and prayed every night before going to bed.

Then one night during his senior year in university his life changed forever.  He was walking along the street toward his apartment.  Rain fell and it was later than he liked to be out.  It never occurred to him to be frightened.  He liked people a lot and to this day still can never resist the urge to greet passersby, strangers though they be.  Someone walked up behind him, swung a club and hit him in the small of his back and, as he was falling, in the head.  No words.  No warning.  Days later he woke in a hospital bed in an intensive care unit, paralyzed from the waist down.

Those were terrible days, those first weeks following what he called the accident.  He was humbled to suddenly be completely dependent and terribly vulnerable.  In the beginning he had hoped his condition was temporal and someone would be able to do something to help him get his strength and motion back.  He began to experience phantom pains that he thought meant life was coming back to his limbs.  The phantoms passed.  Sometimes well-meaning people told him not to give up hope because they were sure a cure was not far away.

Time passed and hope faded.  One cold night he lay awake in his bed and wept.  He knew he would never walk again.  He would never be an athlete again.  Through his tears he cried out to God, “Where are you?  Why did you let this happen to me?”

We sipped coffee and nibbled cookies as his emotions cooled.  He had a way of laughing to ease tensions.

“Imagine,” he said, “I actually blamed God for this just before the thought occurred to me that all this must be my fault and a punishment for having committed some sin that I could no longer remember.  Or maybe I was being punished for sins my ancestors committed.  You know, the sins of our fathers.  But all that passed.  Even though I doubted, I never lost my faith.  Or maybe I should say that after the dark days of depression that preceded my crying jag, I got my faith back.

“I remember the morning.  I had finished my shower and was shaving.  I stopped and stared at my lathered face, my razor poised to square my sideburn.  As clear as I can hear your voice, I heard a voice within me say, ‘Suffering is part of the journey.’”

He rolled his chair to the window and looked out at his children playing in the yard.  His wife, their mother, sat on the porch and watched the youngsters, giving us privacy for our conversation.

“You know,” he said, “sometimes I wonder about the person who did this to me.  I never saw him.  I never heard the sound of his voice.  The police never caught him to punish him for the crime.

“I have fantasized about meeting him someday.  When the phone rings and the caller says he dialed the wrong number, I wonder if it is the culprit suddenly afraid to admit to what he did.  I’ve thought about how I would react were he one day to ring the doorbell and introduce himself as the one who changed my life and spoiled the chance for me to achieve any of my dreams.  It isn’t that I long for revenge.  What would punishing him accomplish?  But I would like to ask him why he did this to me.  Because if I knew why, maybe I could forgive him and I would be free.”


Isaiah 2:1-5

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:37-44

A year doesn’t take long.  Believe it or not, neither does a lifetime.  Both go by in what seems to be a moment.  It is the height of naiveté to think that there will always be a tomorrow in which to do the important things we ought to do today.  This is not meant to be depressing, to begin our reflections for this new Liturgical Year on a downer.  Just the opposite is the truth.  If we live in faith, then this is the day the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad! This First Sunday of Advent challenges us to do it right this time, that is, if we didn’t quite do it that way in the last year.  That last year is over.  We cannot undo anything we did in it.  We can’t go back and do what we didn’t get around to doing, either.  This Sunday marks a new beginning, a new season in which to hope.

There are not many who would say that these are the best of times.  Each day’s news is filled with stories that attest to the opposite.  Huge numbers of people are unemployed and many of them have lost their homes in foreclosure.  Wars still rage and each day we hear of young service people of have lost their lives in the battlefields.  The victims of the Haitian earthquake these many months later still live in squalor and are now suffering the scourges of cholera.  Add to that list the daily stories of violence in our streets, the innocent ones being robbed and gunned down, and the tales of domestic violence and it would be easy to conclude that these are the worst of times.  They would be, if we did not have faith.

In the gospel that is proclaimed this Sunday, we will hear Jesus urge us to stay awake! That might sound ominous.  Given the parable that he tells about how differently the owner of the house would have acted had he known when the thief was coming, we could interpret the reading that way.  But the reality is that the Lord is telling us that we ought to live life in the here and now prepared.  We don’t want to miss the important event that is happening.

Our history is replete with tales of those who did not pay attention to the signs.  Usually the reason they didn’t notice what was happening around them was because they were preoccupied with themselves.  The Lord speaks of the days of Noah, the one who was open to God, and who was surrounded by a people so taken up with eating and drinking that they ignored the signs of the impending flood.  How different the story would have read had they too heeded the signs and prepared for the onslaught.  What will be our excuse?  The signs are all about us.  Some will notice and act on them.

So, what are we supposed to be about during this Advent Season?  It is a very busy time of the year for many of us.  The frenetic schedule that many people keep exacerbates the anxiety they feel as they hear how few shopping days remain until Christmas.  And this year there will be heightened anxiousness felt by those who have been out of work and have very little money to spend on Christmas gifts.  It is insidious the way advertisers link the proof of love with the purchase of expensive items.  Do you love enough to give the very best?

How the world spends the weeks before Christmas is not necessarily the way we ought to spend these days.  We are moving toward the Feast of Christmas.  The litany of terrible things going on can weigh us down and depress us.  Even the days themselves get shorter and shorter.  Darkness threatens to envelop us.  These December days can prompt us to despair.  What if the sun doesn’t return this year?  Ridiculous, you say.  Then we ought not act as though it won’t.

Christmas celebrates the Incarnation, the Word of God taking on the flesh and blood of humankind.  The chasm that separated to two realms has been bridged and the human and divine have come together in Christ never to be severed again.  This is the day for us to put on Christ, to yield to the reality of faith and live what we believe.  We believe that when we were baptized, we put on Christ and became identified with Christ.  We ought to believe that that identity is so complete that God loves us with the same love God loves Christ.  We ought to.

Take a moment to live under the Word.  What is this gospel saying to you?  What is the challenge the Spirit invites you to meet?  So many of us are preoccupied with our selves.  I would hate to use the word egomaniacal, but that might not be far from the truth.  Even when we are locked in the mindset of how sinful we are, or how weak, or unproductive, untalented or unworthy, that amounts to being locked up in “I”.  If we start to live the reality of having put on Christ, then that “I” will be liberated and we will not be so closed in on self.  We will be free, then, to say Yes to God’s invitation to walk with God in love.  That means that we will be able to say yes to living in God in the here and now, where we are and among those with whom we share being.  Then we can begin to love.

It is true that that reality is something that has happened to us.  We were baptized.  The Holy Spirit was poured out on us and has come to live in our hearts.  But that is not enough.  Each of us must make the decision to live the reality, to say yes, Amen, let it be!

I am newly taken with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, having just read a magnificent biography of the great man who was executed in a Nazi prison camp one month before the Liberation.  Here is a quote that seems apt.  …God today adds his “yes” to your “Yes,” as he confirms your will with his will, and as he allows you, and approves of, your triumph and rejoicing and pride, he makes you at the same time instruments of his will and purpose both for yourselves and for others.  In his unfathomable condescension God does add his “yes” to yours; but by doing so, he creates out of your love something quite new.

To accept the implications of what we say we believe means that we will break down the walls that isolate and segregate us.  There is a reason why we have been called to love.  It is in love that we experience our union in Christ with God.  We gather every Sunday to celebrate Eucharist.  We can’t do that if we are locked in the isolation of self.  Fully, actively, and consciously entering into the celebration of Eucharist means actively loving those with whom we gather and recognizing them to be one with us and together being the reality that is the Body of Christ.

To accept the implications of what we say we believe means that we will be ambassadors of love to those who are most unloved.  God expects us to continue Christ’s work.  Or, better put, Christ’s work cannot go on unless his body, the people of God, does it.  We cannot close our eyes to what is going on out there, remain inactive, and say that we are living the faith.  We must love the way Christ loved.

In the gospel Jesus talked about the two men in the field, one taken, one left.  He talked about the two women grinding wheat to flour, one taken, one left.  In each case, the one taken was the one who stayed awake and recognized the moment and yielded to faith.

The Lord’s house, in the first reading, is on the highest peak so that all from afar can see it and make their way toward it.  If we as Church let the reality of the feast we will celebrate in a few short weeks transform us, if we begin to love in the reality, hope would be rekindled even in those on the brink of despair and they would say: Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain. And we just might see swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  There just might be a renewed hope for peace.



Try to Remember

Dear Jesus,

In an evening some time ago I stood by the water and remembered.  The pool in cruciform shimmered in the twilight streaming through the stained glass windows above.  Water cascaded from the raised basin to join the moving waters below.  This was where my life had changed, where I died because of you and rose to live in you.  What a journey it has been.  The font has always been a place where I can meditate and find comfort and consolation and experience refreshment.

A dad carrying a little child came to the pool that evening oblivious to my presence.  He whispered to the tyke in his arms about the importance of the place and these waters.  “This is where you met Jesus,” he said.  “Your mommy and I brought you here to meet Jesus.  Touch the water.  Touch the water and try to remember.”

With one arm around the child’s waist, with his other he moved the boy’s hand through the water and then helped him make the sign of the cross, carefully touching the little fingers to the forehead, the chest and each shoulder.  Then they moved off, leaving the space and reentering the evening outside.  I couldn’t hear their conversation as the doors closed behind them.

Tears welled in my eyes and my throat tightened.  In reverie the mind can dart back and forth in time, and from place to place.  How many people, little ones and adults, had I lowered into those waters?  It could have been hundreds by then, maybe even thousands.  Each one was invited to die to everything but you and rise out of those waters one with you to live your life in God.

That evening I remembered my own rebirth.  My childlike naiveté at that time amazes me now.  I was a second grader then.  I remembered saying to those with me as we walked home after the rite that I would never commit a sin again so that I could always remain innocent the way my baptism had just made me.  Did you laugh at me then?  Or smile, remembering others who had boasted as I had of their own strengths and their ability to live with you and do your will?

I remembered my innocence even as I recalled the stumbles I have taken since that day of initial encounter.  A pattern emerges.  Every time I forgot you, every time I was smug enough to rely on my own powers I realize how self-absorbed I became as ministry became a burden.  I lost sight of you and couldn’t recognize you in the poor I was supposed to be serving.  Then would come the morning.  As I would sit in prayer, somehow grace would startle me and I would remember you and what it was all supposed to be about.  Sometimes that reawakening has been painful.  I would see you looking at me and your gaze always pierces me to the core of my being.

The hard part has been not the returning from mistakes made, but living a life in imitation of your own.  Sometimes there has been the comfort of being part of all those others who are alive in you who make a difference in the world because of their life lived in union with you.

Sometimes, though, there has been the surprised realization that I stand in opposition to people who once were my friends.  Their values are different from mine now, or better, mine have changed, making me a stranger to those with whom I used to walk and play.  How did that happen, that change in attitude and vision that seems so natural to me that I can’t imagine living any other way?

I watched that father draw his son’s hand through the water, inviting him, urging him to remember.  Then they walked out of the church into the scarlet light of the setting sun.  In all the dawns that follow for that child he will be challenged continually by those waters of rebirth to keep his eyes fixed on you as he listens to his father’s voice reminding him.

When will it occur to him that that remembering one day has to translate into his being sent?  Will it be the first time he holds out his empty hands to receive the Bread?  Will it follow his first sip from the Cup?  Will it be then that he finds the courage to walk with others on the way, and by his life and the very otherness of values born in you, say “yes” to the invitation to pour himself out and help other little ones know the love that you have given by your life and death and new life?  And one day will he arrive at a moment when he wonders if he has the strength to go on, even as he knows for him there can be no other way?

What will happen should he wander off to other lands like that other son whose story you told and squander the gifts you have bestowed on him?  In that darkness, when he remembers, will he have the grace-inspired courage to crawl back to you and feel the strength of your embrace as you invite him to stand and know what forgiveness means?  Will he recognize that there will still be a place at the table for him and that you will ever rejoice at his return?

That night, as I sat by the pool and remembered, I traced my hand through the waters and I wondered.