Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT –  A – March 22, 2020

A reading from the first Book of Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians 5:8-14
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 9:1-41

 

My dear Friends in Christ,

I encourage you to read the Scriptures for this fourth Sunday of Lent before you read my reflection.  My hope is that the application will resonate with you.  These many years later, the experience is still vivid in my memory.  We can be surprised by grace and the Holy Spirit.

Years have not dulled the impact of that encounter.  The mother had come to see me to ask if I would visit her son. I was embarrassed by her anxiety as she pleaded with me. I told her that she did not have to beg with me, I would be happy to visit her son.

“Are you sure,” she asked?  “My son is dying from AIDS.  I was baptized Catholic ten years ago.  I go to Mass every Sunday.  I love the Lord.  But I am sad when I think about my son and those like him who are judged as evil and deemed destined for eternal damnation.  

“I remember the first time I held him, moments after his birth.  He nuzzled me to nurse, and as he suckled, his little hand reached up as if to caress my breast, the source of the nourishment that would sustain him.  Oh, how I loved him.

“I watched him grow and remember his first steps and his first words.  He is an only child.  There are no others’ beginnings for me to compare with his, no others to rival for my affection.  His father left me, abandoned us when my son was barely a year old.  My son was my joy and my consolation.  He excelled in every facet of school.  He was a fine athlete and a linguist.  He painted and he acted in plays.  He was popular.  And he carried his secret.  I didn’t know.  It was years after he was away from home that he told me, when he introduced me to the one he said he loved.”

She paused, looked down, and drummed her fingers gently on the desk.  “I’m watching you,” she said, “to see how you will react.  If I see revulsion, I will thank you for your time and be on my way.  I am not looking for pity.  I am looking for a representative of my church to go to my son and tell him that God loves him and that Jesus’ dying saved him.  He doesn’t need any more rejection.  There has been more than enough of that in his life.

“Do you think that God hates my son?  Do you think God will send my son to hell because of who he is?”

I had not said anything.  All I had done was listen and feel the pain in the woman who sat across the desk from me.  In those days, I had a picture of my parents on my desk that had been taken at a reception given in my honor.  As this mother talked, my eyes drifted to the picture of my own.  I knew how she would have suffered if my brother or sister or I would have  experienced the condemnation and rejection this woman’s son had endured.  I could feel my mother nudging me and whispering, “You know what you have to do.”

“Where is your son,” I asked?

“Not far from here.  Will you go to him?”

“Of course,” I said.

“But I have to warn you about what you will find.  They live in a little house that is kept neat as a pin.  It is small but airy, with windows that look out on a sweeping seascape.  They are fortunate in that regard.  My son can still sit in his chair and look out at the sound and watch the gulls and eagles soar.  There is not much left of my son.  There are odors.  There are signs that death is approaching.  He is fragile and can do very little for himself.  I thank God for the devotion of his partner.  I don’t know where my son would be without him.”

“I think we should go,” I said.

The house sat on a knoll overlooking the sound, just as the mother had said.  It was autumn and a chilly wind tugged golden leaves from the maple trees and deposited them, sending them swirling across the lawn.  The late afternoon sun created angled shadows and haloed the house against the sky.  We walked up the path.  I felt my stomach tighten, even as I prayed that no would would notice that.  Before one of us could ring the doorbell, the door opened and a young man ushered us in.  He embraced the mother and, after her introduction, he shook my hand.

He whispered that the son had just awakened and seemed to be doing much better than he had done the day before.  “He has been agitated,” he said.  “He keeps pulling on a button on the front of his shirt as he looks out the window.  He hasn’t eaten today.”

He led us down a short hall to a doorway that opened onto a rather spacious room, spacious, given the size of the house.  A small gas fire burned in the hearth in one corner of the room.  Next to it sat the son.  He did not turn to us at first.  His mother said, “Hello, dear,” and moved to kiss him.  Then she introduced me.  I shook his emaciated hand.  He was gaunt, with deep-set eyes that still sparkled, giving the evidence of his alertness and wit.  He was nearly bald.  We talked.

These years later, I marvel at the journey we took in that room on that October afternoon.  When I first sat opposite him, he studied me.  I remembered what his mother had said to me early in our conversation.  “If I see revulsion, I will thank you and be on my way.”  There was no revulsion.  Sicknesses, sores, even bleeding wounds do not make me squeamish.  The smell of cancer might make me queasy for  a moment, but I am soon able to block out the smell and be present to the person at hand.  I do not know why this is so other than once in my childhood, when my brother gashed his knee and I panicked at the sight of blood, my father told me to get over it.  “This is not about you.  It is about your brother.  You must take care of him.”  And so it has been ever since.  It is not about me.

In the first few minutes we made small talk – the weather, how fast time goes, who would win the football game on Saturday.  Abruptly he said, “I’m dying, you know.”  His mother protested.  So did his partner.  I looked at him and was silent.  “What do you think about that,” he asked?  I told him I was sorry that he was dying at such a young age, with what should be so much life yet to be lived.  “But death is not the end.”

He asked me what I thought the other side would be like.  I told him I had no idea, only that it would be beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.  I quoted the scripture that says, Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, it hasn’t entered the human heart what God has prepared for those who love God. 

“Will I be aware,” he asked?  “Will I know and be known?”

“Eternity is not like anything we have experienced,” I said.  “We only know time.  But one thing is for sure, it will take all of eternity to know the God who loved you into creation and sustains you in existence.”

His gaze shifted back to the view outside the window.  How long was the pause?  The only sound was the ticking of the wall clock that chimed the quarter hour.  As a listener, I have learned that every pause does not have to be filled with another’s words.  I am not afraid of silence.  I waited.

There was a sudden intake of air and a shudder, or rather, something like a shiver that comes with a thrilling insight, or when the beauty of a symphonic phrase is almost unbearable.  He looked back to me and said, “Do you think so?  Do you really believe that?  Is that what death will be like?”

“Oh yes,” I said.  “And Jesus will be there.  You will recognize him among those others more familiar to you.  They will gather around your bed to encourage you.  You might not recognize him at first because he probably won’t look like any of the romantic pictures of Jesus that you have seen.  But from the crowd, one will speak up and begin to thank you for all the good that you did for him when he was hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison or hospital.  You will notice that all those standing about your bed will be nodding.  And when you ask, ‘When did I do these things for you?’ The answer will be whenever you did it for one of these you did it for me.  Then the Lord will reach out and take you by the hand and say, arise and come.  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.

Tears rolled down his cheeks.  He did not stop them from falling onto his shirtfront.  His chin didn’t tremble.  His hands didn’t fidget.  They lay relaxed in his lap.  Then he sat up and leaned toward the window.  “Look,” he said.  I followed his gaze.  Two eagles, with wings outstretched, soared on the early evening currents, rising and falling like the waves far beneath them.  “I have a friend,” he said.  “He told me that when the eagles gather, it is the angels come to take you home.

“Can I be baptized,” he asked?  There was no transition, no preamble.  “Can I be baptized now?  My mother would like it.  I have thought about it, and so would I.”

Silly the responses we make when taken by surprise.  I started talking about a preparation course and the proper time of the year when an adult Baptism should happen.  “Usually adults are baptized in the course of the Easter Vigil.”  I talked about the night and the fire and the Candle lit from that fire.  I spoke of the church shrouded in darkness and the people assembled, and how they would break into song proclaiming Christ to be our Light as the Candle is carried in procession to the font.  And on that night the story of God’s love from the beginning is proclaimed in passages from Hebrew and Christian Scripture.  In the Candle’s glow, the Candle that is the sign of the Lord’s resurrection, the Baptisms take place in the Font.

I found myself jabbering on, unleashed by the opportunity to talk about a favorite topic.  The Litany of the Saints invoked to pray with us, the Saints who are our ancestors in the faith.  The oil.  The white robes worn by the newly baptized.  I wasn’t really mindless of him.  I thought the information was important for him.  But still, he was fragile.  His medications might make him drowsy and unable to follow.  Instead, he was riveted as I talked about the Font as tomb and womb, that in the early church those being baptized stripped naked, leaving the old self behind as they entered the font to die and rise.  He thrilled when I said that the person dies in the waters to be born anew in Christ.  I told him that when he would be baptized, all of creation would respond.  The earth would quake.  The waters would part.  The heavens would open and God would call him by name and say that he was God’s beloved son.

“Oh,” he said.  That was all.  “Oh.”  And he sat back in his chair and closed his eyes long enough for me to think that he might want to sleep.  I looked at his mother and partner, meaning to apologize for having gone on so long and exhausting him.  Their eyes were fixed on him.  Each seemed to barely breathe.  The clock chimed.

He didn’t open his eyes.  “Can we do it now,” he asked.  “I don’t think I will see Easter from here next year.”

I thought about Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  They met and took a chariot ride together and talked about Jesus.  One ride.  One day.  And when Phillip was about to leave, the Ethiopian said, “Look, there is some water right there.  What is to keep me from being baptized?”

I asked his partner to fill the tub with warm water.  In what seemed like a moment, he returned and said the tub was ready.  I went into the bathroom to check the scene for myself.  I worried how awkward this might be if the tub were too small or too high or too deep.  None proved to be a concern.

I went back to the bedroom.  He stood naked, framed in the window by the light of the setting sun.  His robe and pajamas laid in a heap nearby.  His body was gaunt and covered with sores and dark splotches.

“Are you ready,” I asked?  I reached my hand out to him.  He took it, tripped and faltered and seemed about to sink to the floor.  I moved toward him and caught him in my arms and lifted him.  His arm went around my shoulder.  I marveled how light was the burden.

We made our way the few yards to the tub, now the font.  His mother and partner knelt on the floor.  Tears streaked their cheeks.  His mother’s hands were clasped in a tight grip beneath her chin.  Her eyes were closed as her lips moved in what I was certain was a prayer.  “Don’t kneel,” he said, with a sternness in his voice I had not heard before.  “Stand and witness this.”

I held him over the font and asked him, “Do you believe?  Do you want to be baptized?”  And to each question his answer was “yes.  Yes, I do.”

His mother and his partner supported my arms as I knelt to plunge him into the water.  As he began to enter the water, he looked up and with his right arm he seemed to point to the heavens. 

“Lazarus, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

We watched as the casket was lowered into the gaping grave.  His mother and his partner stood and watched.  Strange how silent the moment was.  I looked up and wondered if the eagles would gather.  I thought there should be a prayer to cover the moment.  Only silence.  Eternal rest…we prayed.  And may perpetual light shine on Lazarus forever.

We walked back to the waiting cars.  His mother held the crucifix that had adorned her son’s casket.  She stooped to enter the car, but then stood and faced me.  “You will never know,” she said.  She kissed me on the right cheek and touched the spot with her hand.  “You will never know.”

SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER – C – April 28, 2019

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 5:12-16
A reading from the Book of Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 20:19-31

 

My dear Friends in Christ,

Isn’t it strange how memories of past events surface?  For me, those memories seem to be triggered by similar events, similar to those in now distant years.  I woke with a start and his name flashed through my mind, a name I hadn’t thought of for over forty years.  I remember the shock I felt when I first heard the news that he had been murdered by a shotgun blast as he peered from his front door on a snowy night in 1969.  He was a black man who lived in a mostly white neighborhood and was an activist for racial equality.  The killers had thrown a snowball against a window.  The sound alarmed his wife.  She peered through the bedroom window and saw the intruders hiding behind her husband’s car in the carport.  He went to the front door to investigate.  She cried out too late to alert him to the danger and heard the blast that killed him instantly.

I think of the historical events of those years and they seem remarkably similar to events in these times.  Violence ran rampant in the country.  Riots and demonstrations on college campuses and in city streets demanded that race relations and war be reconsidered.  John Kennedy’s slaying in Dallas ushered in an era of change the way, in the same year, that Vatican Council II opened windows and let the wind of renewal and change rush through the Church.  Then Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  Watts, Detroit, Selma, and other city’s found new fame as places where citizens banded together and stood in the face of police batons, snarling dogs, and the rush of water from fire hoses.  Kent State and other campuses experienced sit-ins.  Student demonstrations led to valence and bloodshed.  Pictures of anguished students crying out in the camera’s eye haunted all who saw them.  So did the picture of the naked and napalm-seared young girl running down a Viet Nam street shriek of the horrors of war.

Those years are distant now.  They were the years of my formation and the beginning of my priestly ministry.  It seemed that the church for which I was prepared in the seminary years ceased to be with the Council’s closing and the issuing of new foundational documents called Constitutions that called the Church as the People of God to a new springtime, a new Pentecost.  Pope Francis renews that call as he urges us to be a servant church, a poor church that ministers to the needs of the poor.  He challenges the bishops to be shepherds in the midst of the sheep.  Bishops and clergy should not see themselves as being over the people, but among them.  It seems to me that the pope is inviting that new Pentecost, that reformation that was proclaimed by the Council.

From this vantage point, Pentecost seems the most apt analogy.  We are used to sanitizing and tranquilizing Scriptural scenes – Pentecost among them.  There was the sound of a violent wind blowing in the place where they were, and over their heads appeared tongues as of fire.  Yet when we see stained glass or holy card representations of the scene, everything looks tranquil and serene without a hint of violence.  Looking back on those years and remembering the violence in the streets and the upheaval in the Church, I believe the world experienced the rush of the Spirit in those winds of change.  The winds continue to blow through the violence of the present times.  

Nothing would ever be the same, following the Council, no matter how nostalgically some would come to think of pre-conciliar days.  Those times may have seemed safer with people kept in their proper places, in an established hierarchy, and with roles carefully defined according to sex and race.  The evils of sexism and racism wore sanitized masks.  But the violence and the wind tore away those masks and Justice and Equality became the new catchwords to define the emerging era, and continue to define.  Pentecost is dangerous, as are hurricanes and forest fires.  We must remember that those who emerged from the first Pentecost could never go back to what they were before.  They had been transformed forever.  So were we who matured in the 1960s and experienced the new Pentecost.

Which brings me back to the man whose name came to me in the night 50 years after his murder.  He and I had appeared on a panel together to address the question of racial equality.  The Council document, The Church in the Modern World, called for us to be involved in societal change and to be engaged in the plea for justice.  To speak as part of that panel before an all white audience seemed like the right thing to do.  It was a packed house.  My co-panelist was the only African-American person in the room.  Several of us spoke in turn of our desire to see this new era of justice emerge and to see the crime of racism cease.  I cannot remember what I said.  I am sure it was safe and sanitized.  I was new to speaking out, new to the Church’s role as an implement of change in society.  I did not want to rankle the assembly.  Polite applause followed my remarks.  Then he spoke last.  I remember sitting in stunned attention as he lashed out at the establishment and at the Church for tolerating the abuses against which he now spoke.  It seemed like a call to anarchy for which I had not been warned.

He finished his speech and called for an intermission.  To this day I do not know what possessed me.  Without forethought, I reached over and pulled the microphone back to myself and asked everyone to wait a moment.  Then I turned to the speaker and acknowledged his pain.  I admitted that I could not understand the pain because I had not experienced it.  But also I said that anarchy was not the answer.  We, he, those like him, and the Church, all of us ought to work together.  Together we could be a leaven for the change he longed for.  Apart and at odds, hostility and chaos would be the only results.  I pledged to work with him and never be complacent with the status quo.

I remember our conversation during the break.  He apologized for what I had taken to be a broadsiding.  I pledged my support of his cause.  We promised each other that we would remain in contact and parted that night as friends.

Three weeks later, Edwin Pratt was shot to death in a snowy night in the neighborhood we shared.  It has been years since I have thought about him.  His name came to me in the night.

Now I remember and wonder how far have we come?

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,

 

Didymus  

EASTER SUNDAY

A Remembrance

 

Sometime afterwards he told someone that when the phone had first rung he felt a twinge pass through him and he caught his breath.  Odd that he had held his hand over the receiver and listened to the rings, counting them, knowing how many he had before the answering machine would take over.  He lifted the receiver to his ear and paused before he spoke the single word, “Yes.”  Afterwards he tried to remember how many words it had taken the caller to deliver the news that changed his world.  Had time really slowed, putting everything into largo, so that there were cavernous pauses between each staccato word, letting him hear the beat of his heart and the sound of his own swallowing?

Replacing the receiver, he sank into the chair and studied the face of the clock on the living room wall.  He wanted to etch the exact moment into his memory.  The precision of date and time seemed important.  He thought it fortunate that the date had no other significance.  It wasn’t a major holiday.  No member of the family had been born on the date.  He wondered if he would live to see the return of the date on which his eldest son had died alone in a crosswalk on a dark street in a town on the other side of the country.  What was it that the officer had said? Oh, yes.  It had been raining.  Rain might have contributed to the accident.  But so had speed, the caller said.  “Your contact information was on a card in his wallet,” the voice said.  “It is hard to determine what your son was doing, walking on that lane at that time of night, alone in the rain.”

A child is not supposed to die before the parent, he thought, even if the child is estranged.  How can reconciliation happen then?  He looked at his son’s high school graduation picture that hung amid the family memorabilia on the dining room wall.  So much promise, so much hope in those eyes.  He remembered their last conversation on a park bench, while children played tag and sunbathers lolled on blankets.  Why had he been so closed to his only son?  He held his clenched fist to his forehead as he remembered saying, “I do not want to hear from you again until you come to your senses and get your life back in order.  You are throwing away your future.”  He hadn’t meant what he said and had wanted to take back his ultimatum.  Instead, he had sat on the bench and watched as the young man, with slumped shoulders, shrugged, raised his arm in a wave, and wandered away, disappearing among the other strollers on the path.  

He knew he had to call the others in the family, the boy’s sisters.  But he needed time to sit with this before bringing in his other two children.  What could they do about it at this time of night?  He would wait until morning, he thought.  Let them have their rest.

He went to the basement, to the room that had been his son’s; to the room that remained just as it was the last night the young man had slept there.  He sat on the edge of the bed and noted how strangely barren the room was.  There were no trophies for sports achievements, no awards or accolades in frames, nothing that celebrated the remarkable student he had been.  

A crucifix lay on the pillow.  An icon of the Mother and Child hung on the wall opposite the foot of the bed. Why hadn’t he been able to understand his son’s fascination with religion?  Why had he laughed and dismissed the interest as a passing fancy that would fade with the coming of maturity and the next season?  He gazed at the icon and wondered what it would be like to pray and to believe that there was someone who would listen and care.

He picked up the crucifix and weighed it in his hand.  Why would anyone want such a grim reminder of humanity’s cruelty?  Where was the consolation?  All he could see was defeat in the body that sagged from the crossbeam, and the thorn-crowned head slumped to the side.  Then he saw his son’s body on that wet roadway and wondered if, with his last breath, he had reached out, if he had prayed then and experienced its folly.

He carried the crucifix as he climbed the stairs and padded his way to the sofa, where he sat and wondered if there had been a reunion between the son and his mother as life left his body.  His wife had grieved the estrangement between her husband and their son and had distanced herself from her husband after that separation in the park.  He suspected that there had been clandestine meetings and secret phone conversations.  He had told her he didn’t care as long as he didn’t have to hear about them.  Why couldn’t she have understood that he could not accept a son who chose to live like a vagabond, a beggar, content to be a street-person, and for what purpose?  To walk with poor people, to be with them and share their burden.  The father was embarrassed.  Why wasn’t the mother?  Then he wondered if there had been a son and mother reunion, did they pity him now?  Would they forgive him? 

The clock chimed.  He was startled to note that it was nearly dawn.  Had he dozed?  He thought he must have slept because the night had flown by so quickly.  He was hungry.

 

Brown bread broken lay on the plate before him.  A mug of last night’s coffee steamed as he stirred in the sugar.  He spread a bit of honey on the bread and tasted its sweetness and swallowed.  Such simple things give comfort.  For a moment he could hear the laughter and conversation that used to emanate from the kitchen table when his family sat to meals in those days before his son’s strangeness emerged and the family fractured.  He could hear the voices and feel the presence.