Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

07 October 2014

God in the Docket

The "Local" section of my former local daily, the Reading Eagle, has a "Daily Docket," which includes a list of local births and marriage license applications, and, at the top, the "Daily Thought." The Reading-Berks Conference of Churches annually invites about a dozen local Christian clergy to compose a month's worth of Scripture verses accompanied by very brief reflections. The token Catholic priest (however he, or anyone, gets on the list I don't know) very kindly asked me to fill in for him.

It was a delight to put my Thoughts together, because I like people to read my writing and I like the aphoristic mode of communication for purposes of humor and insight. Some of my favorite authors (including Hans Urs von Balthasar) have penned pithily, to good effect. I try to think and talk that way when the Spirit moves me and when I'm drinking enough coffee.

Since many of my readers don't get the Reading Eagle, and now that my month is over, I decided to air my Daily Thoughts, one whole month at a pop--here goes!

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"If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead." (Luke 16:31) –“There’s no telling some people,” they say; but what is your “deaf spot”?

 “He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.’” (Luke 15:31) –Chrysostom said of St. Paul, “Above all, he knew himself to be loved by God”; what else is there, really?

 “Better…if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than…to cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luke 17:2) –People are paying attention to you. If that’s scary, good.

 “Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be visible through him.’” (John 9:3) –Ask not what God has done to you; ask what God can do through you.

“When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled.” (John 11:33) –Allow yourself to become appropriately affected by the people you encounter in life.

“Peter said to [Jesus], ‘You will never wash my feet.’” (John 13:8) –Don’t be embarrassed when you need forgiveness or assistance. Everyone benefits from it.

“Peter began to say to [Jesus], ‘We have given up everything and followed you.’” (Mark 10:28) –In moments of self-pity, we might think so; but there’s always more, and God will wait for it.

“Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then ear, then the full grain in the ear.” (Mark 4:28) –We can’t fully know, and therefore control, God’s action in others or ourselves.

“Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.” (Mark 9:50b) –You can learn and grow from interesting, stimulating conversation.

"Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits…and the last condition of that person is worse than the first.” (Matthew 12:45) –Regular spiritual housecleaning prevents the infestation of devilish habits, and demonic inhabitation.

"At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30) –Even our most nourishing earthly relationships abide in the context of our primary relationship with God.

"Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” (Matthew 6:27) –“No, but that never stopped me before!” Time is short.

“’See, he said, ‘now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.’” (Isaiah 6:7) –Make a point of eating something healthy today, and consider its salutary effects on your soul.

“You have preserved my life from the pit of destruction, when you cast behind your back all my sins.” (Isaiah 38:17) –Consider the power of forgiveness in your own life, and pay it forward whenever possible.

“Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many.” (Isaiah 53:11) –Put your hardships to good use by connecting, even spiritually, with someone else in distress.

“Put not your trust in the deceitful words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord!’” (Jeremiah 7:4) –Authentic believers don’t rely solely on external manifestations of their devotion.

"Then the virgins shall make merry and dance, and young men and old as well” (Jeremiah 31:13) –Remind your face that occupation with God is well worth your time and effort.

“You have become for me a treacherous brook, whose waters do not abide!” (Jeremiah 15:18) –From my perspective, God can seem rather unreliable; what adjustments must I make today?

“If you warn the wicked man…and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.” (Ezekiel 33:9) –There is value to fraternal correction, but don’t ignore your own errors.

“I will…[take] from your bodies your stony hearts and [give] you natural hearts.” (Ezekiel 36:26) –Empathy is one of God’s greatest blessings and man’s greatest needs.

“You shall have honest scales, an honest ephah, and an honest liquid measure.” (Ezekiel 45:10) –Your time and resources are not your own, so use them well.

“I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart.” (Hosea 2:16) –God often reaches us best when we seem at our worst.

"We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands” (Hosea 14:4) –What idol(s) ought you set aside in favor of your first, true Love?

“My people perish for want of knowledge!” (Hosea 4:6) –Spend time with informative books, periodicals, websites…and people.

“What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me!” (Exodus 17:5) –Don’t be afraid to share your exasperation with God.

“The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Exodus 18:18) –Lending a hand, or an ear, lifts a burden from another’s back.

“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) –Treat the people you see today as sacred, not as means to an end.

“Let those who seek you, God of Israel, not be disgraced through me.” (Psalm 69:7) –Positively put: may my life give honor to God and hope to people!

“Is it in vain that I have kept my heart clean?” (Psalm 73:13). –Only if your obedience is motivated by human respect. God’s respect is most necessary, and most reliable.

“I gave them over to their hardness of heart” (Psalm 81:13). –Some say to God, ‘Your will be done,’ while God says to others, ‘Have it your way.’

“Those who follow the way of integrity, they alone can enter my service.” (Psalm 101:6) –Being the same person with everyone makes us fit for God’s employ.

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Since I'm not living in Berks County anymore, I probably won't, and shouldn't, be asked to submit another month. But there's always the social media. No promises or deadlines (and they can be helpful!), but stay tuned for more Daily Thoughts!

05 October 2014

Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel--Requiescat in Pace

I note with mingled sadness and gratitude the death of Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel, C.F.R., Ed.D. For many years he was the director of Trinity Retreat in Larchmont, New York: a place for priests to make their annual retreat and, in the case of a good number of us over the years, a place to stay while taking extended time for reflection and self-care. Such was my case for a few months in 2006 and 2007.

I had met Father Benedict before that time, when he gave a retreat to us seminarians during our Spirituality Year in 1998-99. Not long into a confession I made with him during that retreat, he looked intently at me, put his hand on my arm, and said: "You are a card-carrying member of the self-haters club." Dead right! Seven years later our acquaintance would be far more extensive--and intensive--because of my stay at Trinity, where occasional meetings with him were one of several therapeutic initiatives in the program. 

Father's life of prayer and years of experience with priests gave him a knack for recognizing the truth. Because of his Jersey City upbringing, he also had a knack for stating the truth as he saw it without ambiguity. His upbringing and personality were perhaps tempered by his life of prayer and suffering, though they were also bolstered by his sense of humor. He would often joke about the town of his youth and its regional accent, using a pronounced version when quoting bygone slogans such as,"When you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer." This saying applies, of course, to the Catholic Church as having been invested with the fullness of the means of grace.

In our meetings Father would mention various priests he knew from our diocese, often with a story and a keen observation. He didn't forget a face. (I just accidentally typed, "fact"; that was also true.) But the bulk of the conversations centered around the concerns that led me to request the time away. I will contend with most of them for the rest of my days; but my perseverance, and God's grace, will redound to my salvation and to that of my charges. Father believed that I would "make it," and encouraged me several times to that effect. From his warm smile and quiet tone I wouldn't have known that he'd almost died from a bus accident a little over two years before. He knew that every moment subsequent to that event (and every moment before it) was a blessing. Sitting with him in his wisdom-infested office, I knew, was also a blessing.

Our final encounter took place at the episcopal consecration and installation of our diocesan bishop, John Oliver Barres, who grew up in Larchmont. Considering that this might be (and was) the last time I'd see Father Groeschel, I wanted to get a photo with him. As Father was caught in a maelstrom of well-wishers (as many for him as for Bishop Barres), I didn't get to say much more than my name and the reason for our acquaintance, if he even needed my reminder. Since the modern media have made it easier to allow no personal data--thoughts, words, and deeds--to go unpublished, I conclude these remarks with that photo, and a Deo gratias for Father Benedict's life and ministry.

CMZ and BJG, 30 July 2009

17 September 2014

Books I Have Loved

One of the latest "challenges" being issued over the Internet is to name ten books that wielded a particular influence in your life. Most people just list them without any commentary, which is to be expected on Facebook. Until a few years ago a person's status wasn't allowed to exceed something like 420 characters. I suppose it is best to save the commentary for the blogs.

Therefore, in order of recollection, I present with exhausting commentary these ten books, along with an eleventh because I miscounted:

1. Existence and the Existent, by Jacques Maritain.
On our first day in the seminary, we had an ice-breaking exercise in which we were to obtain others' answers to various questions. I can remember only one question, to which I could give no answer: "Who is your favorite pre-Socratic philosopher?" (Today I can tell you without hesitation that my favorite pre-Socratic philosopher is Heraclitus of Ephesus.) Existence and the Existent is a rich treatise, addressing the "Problem of Evil" among other subjects. It demonstrates Maritain as a man of deep faith and reason. Around the same time, and in the same philosophical context, I encountered the second book.

2. I and Thou, by Martin Buber.
This work opened me up to the mystical relationship of philosophy and her mistress, theology. Before first reading this book, one of my seminary professors introduced us to the term "reification," from the Latin res, "thing." There is the perennial and pernicious temptation to treat our fellow human beings as things, means to an end. Engaging the other as a sacred experience, a "Thou" and not an "it," is the primary mode of human interaction, not to be ignored amid scientific, informational pursuits.

3. Light of the Word, by Hans Urs Von Balthasar
One seminary professor used a volume of Von Bathasar's Theodrama in class. Some seminarians wanted no part in his work—or maybe the prof's interpretation of it; others ate it up and hungered for more. I was closer to the latter, but wished for a "For Dummies" version. One day as a younger priest I visited a classmate in Philadelphia. At the now-closed Pauline Books and Media store on "the [Roosevelt] Boulevard," I came across this book. It is no "For Dummies" adaptation, but rather a reflection on the Sunday readings. Very handy, very Balthasarian. It's good to have around.

4 Lift Up Your Heart, by Fulton Sheen
My first church job outside of St. Clair was as an organist for the now-defunct St. Francis de Sales Church in Mount Carbon, a suburb of Pottsville. The pastor, Fr. Edward B. Connolly, became a mentor and friend. He is known for owning many books. Once I asked to borrow this book. I read it quickly and savored every word. (Whatever is happening right now with Archbishop Sheen's cause for canonization, I hope they just knock it the hell off.) I wanted a copy for my own. This was before the days of the Internet, so I called every bookstore from Dan to Beersheba, to no avail. Then, when I had just about given up, I went for a walk over town to the St. Clair Emporium (a.k.a., "Zerdy's"). Now the Emporium is a hole-in-the-wall purveyor of staple items, most notably Sunbeam bread, Guers products, cigarettes, lunch meats, penny candy, and Italian Water Ice. The foremost source of revenue, for as long as I can recall, has been the Pennsylvania Lottery. Mr. Zerdy is not known for selling reading material, except for outdated magazines (all clean). I think the most recent Sports Illustrated issue on the shelf--to this day--features Mary Lou Retton's gold medal. Anyhow, that day he had a few shelves full of books, from an estate, I think: mostly romance novels, cookbooks, and late-1800s readers that would put our third-grade textbooks to shame. The only religious book in the whole lot was...a hardcover copy of Lift Up Your Heart. Checkmate, Atheists!

5. Death In Literature (?; a textbook used in a high school elective)
Mr. George Repella taught at Natvitiy B.V.M. High School for just over 50 years. A number of parishioners from past assignments, as well as some of the hospitalized I currently visit—even if they graduated thirty years before me—all share with me the auspicious experience of Mr. Repella. He taught "Death in Literature" with the eponymous textbook, introducing us to the literary perspectives of Dorothy Parker ("Résumé"), E. A. Robinson ("Richard Cory"), Jessica Mitford ("The American Way of Death"), and others. I did my class project on the Scripture and oration options from the Church's Order of Christian Funerals.

6. Marathon, by Hal Higdon
Several blog posts have treated my love of running. Although I started running in 1999 as part of a four-square fitness frenzy, my recent return happened a decade later. Per custom, I bought many books on the subject to make sure I was doing it right. Joe Muldowney's Running Shorts would have qualified for this list--runner-ups come to mind for several entries--but Higdon's fourth edition has served as the Bible to my running devotion. When I barely thought that 26.2 miles would be possible, Hal Higdon showed me how to start, what kinds of problems I might encounter along the way, and something of what it would feel like to cross the finish line.

7. Joey Adams’ Speakers’ Bible of Humor, by Joey Adams
In fourth grade I took the bus each morning to the former Blythe Township High School, then the site of several grades of the Saint Clair Area School District. (The building now houses the Simon Kramer Cancer Institute and the county Coroner's Office.) While browsing in the library I came across this dated tome. I rented out that book for the rest of the school year. I don't think anybody missed it. If the school knew some of the jokes in that book, I think they'd have pulled it. "And the eyes of both of them were opened...and so they hid themselves" (Genesis 3:7). I carried it around as if it were a textbook and I were a nerd. The Speakers' Bible was a perfect complement to old Match Game and new Hollywood Squares episodes.

8. Complete Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins
I first found Hopkins in the appendix of the Liturgy of the Hours. The "standard" religious ones: "Pied Beauty," "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord," "The May Magnificat." But then, thanks to this omnia opera, "The Wreck of the Deutschland" became my favorite. A line from it is the basis for this blog's very title: "Is the shipwrack then a harvest? Does tempest carry the grain for Thee?" I learned many things about Hopkins: It turns out that he was equally skilled in Welsh, Latin, and Greek. It further turns out that his family struggled with his embrace of Catholicism, and he himself struggled with same sex attraction. Here I can identify: His years as a teacher didn't go so well, at least from his perspective. Anyone who can retain a knowledge and love of God and the Engilsh language, yet be able to toy with both so adeptly, is my man.

9. People’s Mass Book (1970s), World Library Publications
In my earliest recollections of going to Mass, our parish used this hymnal. In the mid-1980s, we acquired a newer edition--though not the one specially commissioned for our diocese, the one that had "Here I Am, Lord" and several other Glory & Praise songs. As a little kid, I would sit upon my grandfather's knee and play the "Old PMB" hymns on my little Casio that didn't even let you play more than one note at once. Many of its tunes seem dated now, more suitable for a hootenanny than for the Sacred Liturgy, but I have a soft spot for them. While attending a retreat a few weeks ago I sat at the Hammond organ in the chapel and played these songs for about a half an hour. I count that time, and times like it, sitting at an organ bench and "letting my fingers (and feet) do the walking," as a spiritual experience.

10. The Ugly American, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer

Through this book I learned of the term "Ugly American" as embodied by certain disrespectful characters. Raised in a local culture that understandably and justifiably promoted love of country, and never having visited a foreign land until that point (either junior or senior year in high school, when American was a summer reading option), I did not consider the possibility that not everyone around the world adored Americans, or that Americans didn't deserve respect or deference simply because they were American. I felt bad that I couldn't fluently speak a modern foreign language. I still can't, but at least I see that as a deficit--especially when many visitors speak more than enough English to get by.

BONUS 11. Anguished English, Richard Lederer
One of my favorite pastimes as a kid was to sit on the floor in a bookstore and read a book until justice would demand I pay for it. (I'll bet the way they work that kind of thing out in purgatory will be interesting.) One of the first books I read in that fashion was this gem of Professor Richard Lederer, the first of a series. Replete with words, word origins, and wordplay, Anguished English increased my respect for my English teachers, and for anyone else whose command of the English language was such that they could fool around with it. That's the kind of person I wanted to be when I grew up. So far, so good!

14 September 2014

A Mirror of our Sinfulness, A Window to our Salvation

            Once again, a special feast trumps a Sunday in Ordinary Time—this one honoring the Holy Cross. This is not a celebration of planks of wood. It has been said, with no small amount of snark, that if someone assembled all the existing relics of the “True Cross," they could form a giant redwood. True or not, that statement betrays the great devotion Catholics have shown throughout the centuries to the Cross.

On every liturgical day the Church is celebrating our Incarnate Savior. In his letter to the Philippians Saint Paul reminds us that, by becoming man, God the Son set aside the glory of divinity (though not divinity itself). That “emptying of self” is what enabled Jesus to live a full human life, with the full array of joys and sorrows—in particular rejection and scorn, and above all the pains of His passion and death.

And yet God also experienced much of this from us prior to the Incarnation. Take, for example, the Israelites’ rejection of God at various points along their trek in the wilderness. Time and again Israel set aside the true God by worshipping foreign gods and treating people unjustly. Israel understood her chronic tragedies as God’s response to their sins, while in reality those tragedies were the consequences of participating sinfully in a sinful world.

While it is not accurate to portray God as fickle and sensitive as we human beings often are, this much is true: God is not pleased with sin, and He wants it out. In the account from Numbers, God instructs Moses to mount a bronze serpent on a pole so that the afflicted can look upon that serpent and be healed. What is really happening in this transaction? God is holding a mirror up to the people’s faces, so that they can see what their sin has done to them, how it has disfigured God’s image in them to the point of nearly becoming unrecognizable. Only then can they acknowledge their sins and turn to Him who would restore them by His mercy to a greater beauty than before.

There is the wonder of the Cross: it is the instrument of our salvation because on it our Savior was lifted up in mingled shame and glory, thereby allowing us to perceive the double truth of our alienation from God in sin and God’s drawing us to Himself in love. With joy and gratitude we draw near to the Cross, and to its Occupant, for by that Holy Cross He has redeemed the world.