Saturday, February 22, 2014


Original sin is alive and well, and continues to define our experiences here in Silver Spring, as throughout the world.
No, no, I am not talking about actual sin.  I am not going to point fingers or name names, not even my own, for anyone’s most grievous fault, in thoughts or in words, in what they have done, or in what they have failed to do.
No, right now I am basking in the afterglow of a perfect example of what I have preached and written about: that whatever we build will crumble, whatever we fix will break, and everything we do, with craft and pride, will be undone.  Sometimes it is a bitter thing when one’s own words prove true.
The winter storm that graced us last week with a thick blanket of snow was welcomed by many for the deliverance it gave from school and work.  I have already warned of the costs of such liberty, which will needs be paid in summer. 
But it proved to be the gift that keeps on giving.  As the temperatures climbed above freezing, a zone they have not much visited of late, the snow and ice began to melt, and slide.  And Monday night, slide it did from the slate roof of our fine school building, with roar and crash, all of a piece, and of a sudden. 
Smack into our brand new heating and air conditioning units for the school.
Two of the outdoor exchange units of our heat-pump system for the school were destroyed.  Of course, this meant that part of the school went unheated, and although all that masonry does hold heat, the cold quickly gained ground.  When I visited the middle-school on Wednesday and found Mrs. Riazi, our science teacher, clutching a cup of hot water to keep alive the flame of hope in her heart, I realized that something had to be done, and soon.  The kids, for the most part, were fine (they run hot); but the teachers were the canaries in the coal mine.
So, portable heating units have been brought in, and new machinery will be delivered and installed soon -- much sooner than we originally thought possible.  But, dang!  All that beautiful work!  That transformative, marvelous change in the (literal) climate of our school, all that effort and cost, undone -- in an instant.  Fie!
Yes, we have insurance, and yes, that will cover most of it.  But it just stinks to be reminded of the ultimate futility of our every effort to perfect the circumstances of our life on earth.
This is why we need Jesus.  If you build it, it will fall down; but if you call upon Him, He will come – and He will at last stand forth upon the dust, … (and our) own eyes, not another’s, will behold Him.  (with apologies to Field of Dreams, and Job 19:26).
Father McDonell would be better than I am at characterizing the Scotsman’s take on life, the universe, and everything, but I can echo Robert Burns in his 1785 poem, To a Mouse, on turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft agley,

An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,

For promis'd joy!
To that insightful summary of the reality of our lives, I shall add only that the encounter with the mouse, herein described, occurred in winter.  God deliver us!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Shipping & Handling

Among the great questions of life in modern America, When will it get here? is right up there with Are we there yet?.
My 11-year-old niece quickly already had a list of things she wanted when she received the Amazon gift card I sent for her birthday.  She immediately ordered earrings, an egg cooker, and a book (the last meeting my own stipulated criterion for the use of the gift).  My sister informed me that the morning after she placed her order, she began to pace, check the windows, and stalk the UPS man, asking often, When will it get here?
This comes to mind because I just checked the web to learn the progress of several packages that I had ordered.  Yes, I am one of those people who orders even the simplest of household goods online.  Shampoo, socks, and vitamin pills all come in brown boxes; kitchen tools and catechetical books alike arrive at the door, often eagerly anticipated. 
Just like any American kid who could sleep until noon any day of the year except Christmas, once I have ordered something, I can’t wait until it gets here.  So the Track your package option is my favorite on numerous websites.  Arrived at facility; departed facility; arrived at facility; out for delivery.  Oh Boy!  Even the US Postal Service finally has brought its system up to speed with updates at every step, which is a big improvement over before, when they only let you know that the package had been mailed, and not much else until it had been delivered.
So, just now as I checked the progress of another package (right after I checked on the progress of the impending winter storm), I wondered to myself: What if we could track everything that we have coming?  How interested would we be?  What if we could track what we have coming from God?
We know that God is a God of mercy, eager to sustain and help us.  So looking for that grace and sustenance to come would be most rewarding.  But we also know that God is a God of justice, and as such will not alter the basic content of our own choices and actions, but will allow their consequences to reverberate into eternity unless we actively seek his remediation.   
So if we could log on and check our account and see what grace, mercy, and peace were coming our way, we might have fortitude and perseverance no matter what difficulties we faced.  On the other hand, if we could see the scheduled deliveries of the results of our every selfish action.  I think that, too, might have a salutary effect on our dispositions as well as our actions.
But if we had access to an accurate answer to the question, When will it get here, we might just be inclined to postpone doing anything to revise our orders, so to speak – to change our actions better to conform to the eventual results and delivery we desire.  Maybe that is why Jesus explicitly declined to reveal the day of delivery.
When it comes to everything that God has in store for us, it is important that we remember, You know not the day, nor the hour.  So the question about which we should be busying ourselves is not When will it get here? but What will we have coming? 

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Play now, pay later

This morning, fully expecting to learn that a two-hour delay had been declared to the start of the school day, I got up and checked the web site of Montgomery County Public Schools, whose weather-based decisions our own schools follow.  Much to my shock, I saw that school had been cancelled for the entire day.
Of course I was not entirely displeased, as a school closing often heralds a quieter day in the offices here at Saint Bernadette Central.  Sometimes, it indicates that even the staff will be unable to report for work, which means our house stays a home instead making its daily transformation into a hybrid between office space and a commuter railway platform. 
This day, however, the bad weather must have been up-county, as all the staff reported on time, and the phones and doorbell rang at least as much as they do any other Wednesday.  Morning Mass attendance was lower, of course, but hearty souls still arrived for their daily Bread of Angels.  At the 8:15, I even had two valiant lads report to serve at the altar!
Standing ready and waiting for the Mass to begin, the boys were circumspect.  They were pleased to have the day off school – who wouldn’t be?  But they were aware of a creeping consequence to their unearned liberty: soon each day won now for sleeping in and goofing off because of weather real and perceived will have to be repaid months hence with a day forfeited to desks and tasks, while the green fields of summer beckon. 
One of the boys half-heartedly assured me that he would rather have the day free now, and face the consequences later; but the other was less sure.  I was only just beginning to realize this future cost to my own present pleasure, and admit that I am unhappy at the prospect of extra school days in the spring. 
Our own Father Nick issued an internet plea this week: To whomever among you has been praying for snow:  Please stop!  But of course none of us can influence the weather, or even the decisions of the Montgomery County School Deciders. 
Still, it forces the question to be asked, how much are any of us willing to grab some good thing we crave now at the cost of some future sacrifice or suffering?  Heck, it’s a constant challenge simply at the table or refrigerator; how much more so as those decisions grow in import and consequence?
Jesus puts before us this weekend the joyful reminder that everything we have been given is ours so that we may do with it what is good.  Without referring directly to the eventual cost of selfishness, he encourages us to avoid satisfying our present pleasure but rather seek the good beyond our own.  In that light, we have to ask ourselves about far more than just snow days.
Speaking of cancellations, I regret to tell you that I have had to cancel the special Mass I had announced for this Tuesday, 11 February, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.  Logistics difficulties forced me to call it off; please do not, however, neglect to do something festive and faithful to celebrate the 156th anniversary of the first time Our Lady appeared in the grotto outside Lourdes to our gentle young Patroness, Saint Bernadette Soubirous.  May they both bless you with their loving intercession!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Face it

You know what I did to restore myself after the demands of the Christmas season?  I looked at faces.  Well, that’s not all.  First, I slept.  Only thus refreshed did I go into the city with Fr. Nick for a New York Philharmonic concert.  (Shostakovich – a personal favorite.  Excellent.)  That was very restorative; I hadn’t been to the symphony in ages.
Later, it was on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and not just to wander around, for I knew what I wanted to see: the Spaniards.   Working my way toward Velasquéz, Murillo, and Zurbarán, I had to ask an usher where they were.  He was very helpful, even concerned.  After I spent over an hour walking three rooms, he found me to tell me about another part of the museum that would have things I would enjoy.  

Saint John in the ecstasy of Revelation; a cardinal with round glasses and a beard like my dad’s; Jesus carrying his cross, raising his eyes to heaven.  All of these El Greco, “the Greek” who painted in Spain, revealed in a style that could be modern, but is timeless.

He and several others of diverse ages and places painted Saint Jerome.  Piero della Francesca showed the ascetic holy man’s sharp edge in the eyes he levels on a supplicant, the painting’s donor.  How could a man so prickly also be holy?

Bronzino, the Florentine, portrays a handsome young nobleman is black silks.  Staring confidently at the viewer, his direct gaze disguises his wandering wall-eye.  Erasmus, that most Renaissance of Renaissance men, is every bit the match, intellectual and personal, of his friend and correspondent Saint Thomas More, even though the same painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, gave him a smaller and sketchier portrait. 

In wood as well as oils, every face reveals a life and character.  A bishop raising his hand while raising a point; one of the Magi, focused and impatient, looks more like the Habsburg heir apparent who was his imperial inspiration than he does an adoring royal.  Those anonymous Germans who carved wood seven and eight centuries ago knew the contours of life!

There is nothing in nature or manufacture more beautiful, more powerful, more revelatory, or more arresting than the human face.  True art plumbs its depths and reveals its reality, an exploration that will never be completed.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)  He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. (Col 1:15)  Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor 15:49)  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (Jn 1:14)

Even amidst the sought and unsought anonymity of the big city, where eyes are averted and faces downcast on sidewalks and subways, when I am wearing my priest’s collar, people make eye contact with me.  Business-people, laborers, waiters, ushers, cops, train conductors, tourists, and natives; it’s as if they know that it’s okay if their eyes meet mine.
Even in New York City, when you look into people’s faces, you can see how they resemble God. 

Monsignor Smith