Saturday, March 17, 2018

How Long, O Lord?

Winter and Lent have at least one thing in common, and that is that the experience of both is a matter of duration as well as intensity.
Winter gives us no choice or chance for input.  The official duration of winter is strictly marked out on the calendar as three months, whether by astronomical markers (winter solstice to spring equinox) or so-called meteorological ones (December through February).  The problem is that the subjective, experienced duration is not fixed, but similarly thrust upon us.  Whether it be harsh cold, or unrelenting sunlessness, or frozen precipitation that closes roads and schools, winter weather spreads all over the calendar without regard to official boundaries rather like old schoolbook maps of the expansion of the Roman Empire.  Some years autumn ends in a matter of weeks, or it seems as if spring will never come at all.
Similarly the intensity of winter, which takes no requests and respects no preferences.  Remember that long blast of arctic air that settled over us for so long in January?  Nobody requested that; at least nobody I know.

Lent also has a fixed duration, from Ash Wednesday through Passiontide, until Easter breaks the penitential setting.  There is a particular genius to this aspect of Lent. These forty days, no more no less, can seem quite interminable, but because we know precisely when they will end, we can bear almost anything, undertake almost any penance, with confidence that we shall at least survive.
It is the intensity of Lent that is open to our preference, and our input.  Oh, sure; the Church sets an official baseline: two days of fasting – two whole days!!  And abstinence from meat on Fridays (seven days, but two of those were already in the first group).  Beyond that, what?  Unlike winter, the intensity is up to us.  I have undertaken intense Lents, and I have allowed myself easy ones. 
When it comes to winter, I long ago determined that I am much better able to withstand and even enjoy intensity than I am duration.  Bitter cold is bracing, a challenge to my Boy Scout preparedness, and makes me feel vigorous when I get used to it.  Plus, I get to wear my Russian rabbit hat.   A long, drawn out winter reduces me to a quivering heap, discouraged, forgetful of what daffodils actually look like.
So, what about Lent?  The pinpoint precision with which its duration can be predicted should give me confidence to measure out a right proper level of intensity; but no.  It is the duration I can stand, and the intensity which fluctuates with my so-called resolve and fortitude.
This weekend we have reached the limit of my tolerance for winter’s duration, so rather than try to change the weather, we have simply changed the bulletin cover to do away with the snow.  But Lent is moving into the home stretch now, the hardest part: Passiontide.  We have veiled the statues and crucifix to remind us how grim our lot when God’s face is covered over.
Spring is coming, but it will pass into the endless cycle of seasons.  So, too, will Easter come, but the Resurrection that great festival brings will endure forever.
Surviving winter til the sun’s warmth break through brings us joy and fills us with a feeling of having overcome adversity.  Making it through Lent leaves us confident not in our strength or achievement, but in the mercy and great love of God.  Other than that, they have a lot in common.
 Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Casualty and Causality

This year as we mark the seventieth anniversary of our foundation as a parish, it is interesting to note some of the markers along the road of our history.  So much of what we enjoy every day on our beautiful campus is the fruit of the dedication and generosity of faithful and foresighted people many decades ago.  Some of what we enjoy, though, predates even those hearty first parishioners.
Last Friday’s Nor’easter brought record winds to the region and did more than a little damage.  While our area seems to have been spared a power outage, many things were toppled or torn away by the gusts, including a few slates (yes, slates) from the roof of our school.
But the biggest casualty was a beloved and central figure in our parish, especially among CYO athletes and their families: the large, ancient holly tree near the swings at the edge of the sports field snapped its trunk and toppled.

Most folks have no idea how old that holly was.  All I know for sure is that it was full grown in 1958, because it stands out clearly in photographs taken of the campus as site preparation for the new church was just beginning.  That indicates to me that it was at least a century old.

The tree was such a popular gathering spot during games that a few years back some folks put in benches and a garden around it in memory of parishioner Tom Bernier.  I was worried about losing the beauty of the spot, but Jen Bernier has already contacted me about replacing the tree.  We aren’t sure yet what type to plant, but we want to get at least one hundred years of shade and beauty out of it.
That way, during the sesquicentennial anniversary celebrations of the parish, in 2098, attentive parishioners will enjoy its mature splendor, and marvel at the dedication and generosity of faithful and foresighted people many decades before.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Spirate in

Sometimes the ghost eludes who helps to write some thought to serve and bring you close.  When mind’s eye fails to fall upon a subject suitable within the week’s short course, I look to someone, something already full inspired: to art.  So here, that you may catch a breath, two poems for these forty days, the bright Spirit’s flash in words to aid your flight.
Monsignor Smith

To Keep a True Lent (1648 ) by ROBERT HERRICK
Is this a Fast, to keep
The Larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?
Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh,
1 yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?
Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d go,
Or show
A down-cast look and sour?
No: ’tis a Fast to dole Thy sheaf of wheat And meat
Unto the hungry soul.
It is to fast from strife And old debate,
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Via Negativa (1972) by R. S. THOMAS
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm.
1 We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

1 A reference to the disciple Thomas, who was absent on Jesus’s first post-resurrection appearance and thus found it difficult to believe that he was actually beholding the risen Christ until he put his hands in Jesus’s wounded side (John 20:24-29).

Friday, February 23, 2018

Detective work

The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is that our God does not remain hidden and distant, but reveals himself in His Son, and comes to dwell among us.  The life and ministry of the Lord presents a series of encounters in which Jesus, God, engages people, revealing something of Himself, and revealing something about them.  Each encounter is an invitation, but to what?  Conversion.  Turn toward Him; change your life, leave something behind, move toward Him.
After Mass today, what say we take a tour?  Let’s visit our “comfort stations” – no, not the old euphemism for rest rooms, but rather the little places we all have where we touch down when we need a break, when we are anxious, agitated, under stress, or just plain bored.
First off, on the way home, how about the car stereo?  Is it on whenever we are in the vehicle, providing distraction and entertainment?
Then let’s go home.    Do you have a favorite chair?  What do you use it for – watching the TV or a DVD, maybe reading your favorite magazine or catalog?  How many things are there in that entertainment center?  And over there in the office, the computer:  does it have games?   The endless parade of the internet?
Ooh, look:  right there next to the computer – the credit card bill.  Let’s look that over!  Urgh.   Beyond the car repairs and school shoes for the kids (and maybe the tuition?), how many of those purchases were impulse buys?  How many for our amusement or distraction, or just indulgences, to feed our vanity or to pamper ourselves?  How many reflect shopping trips, just for shopping’s sake?
On to the kitchen.  Where are the snacks?  What’s in the fridge?  Where do we reach, so we have something to gnaw on or sip, when something is gnawing at us?  Cookie jar?  Candy stash?  Anything we keep where the kids…or anyone else…won’t find it?
Okay, so maybe this tour is a far cry from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”  But we can be amazed at how many “crutches” we have methodically built into our day, and come to depend on. Sweep them aside, and find that you can get along just fine without them – if we replace them by leaning instead on the Lord.  He will not let us down!  Our lives will be filled with joy, not stuff.  So what say that this Lent we rearrange things a little? 
Let’s take that favorite chair.  Let’s leave it for one in a quieter part of the house, and make it one we won’t fall asleep in.  Can you see the crucifix from there?  Good.  Then let’s put our Lenten reading next to it – Sacred Scripture, of course, and maybe something else too, like the biography of a saint or a novel by a good Catholic author.   Maybe some poetry, or other spiritual reading. Then, rearrange the plan for the day so that we get a nice chunk of time in that chair, every day. How about that rosary?  Is it nearby?   If it’s not here, it should be in the car, to make good use of our commute for a change.
Then let’s take all that entertainment.  How much of that it just makes us want more stuff anyway?  Turn away from that stimulus to acquire, and we won’t find ourselves craving things we never needed before.  So, no more window-shopping in shops or online or clicking on those ads the algorithms have targeted at us, much less magazines or catalogs.  Let’s see how many machines we can leave switched “off” for all of Lent. 
Now the hard part.  Stay out of the kitchen, and empty out all those secret stashes of goodies.  Nope – don’t head off to Starbuck’s, either.  If we can just stop jamming things into our mouths at every whipstitch, we might realize what it is we are truly hungry for:  God.  And He so desires to fill us!
And let’s not forget the other part – almsgiving.  All that money we are not spending on ourselves and our amusement is not just for our own later use.  Let’s give it to someone who needs it, shall we? 
Lent.  It’s not just about chocolate anymore; in fact it never was. 

Monsignor Smith