The Searchers

I started to write this a few years ago, when the strains and pressures of a former job and lifestyle were fresh in my mind. Thankfully this is no longer the case for me. My blood pressure is down and the ulcers are gone. I now face a new adversary, very much different yet in a way born of the same cloth, that I engage in battle.

But that is a story for another day.

I have wanted to go back to my childhood home for years. To take a day off from work and just wander around all the old places, backstreets, etc., that I used to roam, whether by bicycle or car. I had the opportunity to do so a few weeks ago but decided against it. I turn 50 in six weeks. I’m still too young to wallow in the past and search for the ghosts of youth.

Not yet. I’m still sailing on the ocean of life. Still searching.

*****

Martin Sloan, age 36, vice-president in charge of media.

Successful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives.

Trying to go home again.

And also like all men, perhaps there will be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past.

And perhaps across his mind there will flit a little errant wish that a man might not have to become old. Never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth.

And he’ll smile then too because he’ll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory, not too important really.

Some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind.

That are a part of the twilight zone.

Walking Distance, The Twilight Zone (1959)

*****

Some people do not have to search. They find their niche early in life and rest there, seemingly contented and resigned. They do not seem to ask much of life, sometimes they do not take it seriously. At times I envy them, but usually I do not understand them. Seldom do they understand me.

I am one of the searchers. There are, I believe, millions of us. We are not unhappy, but neither are we really content. We continue to explore life, hoping to uncover its ultimate secret. We continue to explore ourselves, hoping to understand. We like to walk along the beach, we are drawn by the ocean, taken by its power, its unceasing motion, its mystery and unspeakable beauty. We like forests and mountains, deserts and hidden rivers, and the lonely cities as well. Our sadness is as much a part of our lives as is our laughter. To share our sadness with one we love is perhaps as great a joy as we can know – unless it be to share our laughter.

We searchers are ambitious only for life itself, for everything beautiful it can provide. Most of all we love and want to be loved. We want to live in a relationship that will not impede our wandering, nor prevent our search, nor lock us in prison walls; that will take us for what little we have to give. We do not want to prove ourselves to another or compete for love.

― James Kavanaugh, There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves (1970)

There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves

There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who prey upon them with IBM eyes
And sell their hearts and guts for martinis at noon.
There are men too gentle for a savage world
Who dream instead of snow and children and Halloween
And wonder if the leaves will change their color soon.

There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who anoint them for burial with greedy claws
And murder them for a merchant’s profit and gain.
There are men too gentle for a corporate world
Who dream instead of candied apples and ferris wheels
And pause to hear the distant whistle of a train.

There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who devour them with eager appetite and search
For other men to prey upon and suck their childhood dry.
There are men too gentle for an accountant’s world
Who dream instead of Easter eggs and fragrant grass
And search for beauty in the mystery of the sky.

There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who toss them like a lost and wounded dove.
Such gentle men are lonely in a merchant’s world,
Unless they have a gentle one to love.

(source)

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Friday Five – Volume 121

— 1 —

Two videos this week. The first one is for you to listen to while reading the rest of the Five. The last video will be #5. As you will learn in the second video this piece was composed by a member of the Canadian armed forces deployed to Afghanistan.

Veteran’s Day is November 11. In other nations it’s called Remembrance Day. I don’t know at what point the significance of the poppy and its relationship with this day went out of fashion…perhaps it’s due to the fact that those who remember WWI are no longer with us…but it saddens me. For the first ten or so years of my childhood and school experience, the poppy was prevalent. I won my first (and only) art contest in third grade when the Women’s Auxiliary held a Veteran’s Day art contest and my rendition of poppies on the graves, alongside flags, at our local cemetery was chosen as the winner.

— 2 —

I’m a nerd, so things like Existential Comics makes me laugh. The image from this comic is too large to paste here so I’m just going to include a link for those who are nerds like me. The rest of you can skip to #3.

Existential Ad Agency

— 3 —

In “Lonely Old Men”, today’s column from Sean Dietrich, I catch a glimpse of my future should I be unfortunate enough to outlive my wife. (If you aren’t already receiving his daily column in your inbox via email you should be.)

His wife died two years ago. She was the quintessential woman. She took care of him.

She cooked big breakfasts from scratch while he piddled. Then he’d piddle through lunchtime. And every night after supper, he piddled some more.

Then they’d play Gin Rummy.

“Started playing when our kids were in high school,” he says. “They’d stay out late, neither of us could sleep until they were home safe.”

The couple kept a scorecard going for thirty-some years. When she passed, Mister Dan was ahead fifty-nine points.

“If I’d known she was sick,” he said. “I woulda been letting her win. She probably woulda murdered me if I EVER intentionally lost.”

Her death nearly killed him. His house became a tomb. His kids live out of state.

What good is piddling when there’s nobody to piddle for?

— 4 —

If you had $86,400 in your bank and someone stole $10 would you spend all the rest of your money trying to get revenge?

Exactly, so if someone puts 10 seconds of negativity in your life don’t spend the next 86,400 seconds of the day thinking about it.

(Source)

— 5 —

The story behind Cap Trinity: From the sands of Afghanistan, to the concert hall in Budapest, this is the story of composer Martin Lapierre on his journey to realize his lifelong dream.

What’s Deepest in Us: Three for All Souls Day

After watching Game 7 of an exciting 2017 World Series and a few post-game interviews I shut off the TV. It was just after midnight and since November 2 is All Souls Day I decided to pray Matins from the Divine Office. I began:

Open my mouth, Lord, to bless Your holy name; cleanse my heart from all vain, perverse and distracting thoughts; enlighten my understanding, inflame my affections, that I may be able to recite this Office worthily, attentively and devoutly, and may deserve to be heard in the presence of Your divine Majesty. Amen.

For the next 45 minutes I did my best though I’m sure I slurred and nodded off at some point.

I have written on the subject of All Souls Day before, both in 2011 and 2014. When I learned of that this morning I wasn’t sure I felt the need to write about it again. In fact I think both of those entries hold up well. But I read a few things this morning while browsing Twitter over breakfast that I wanted to share on the occasion.

20 Ways

The first is a commentary written by Gretchen Filz called 20 Ways to Pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Now before my non-Catholic readers roll their eyes Ms. Filz includes a section called “Church Teaching on Purgatory” at the beginning of her piece. It’s only four short paragraphs long, and includes just one link, but serves as a tidy introduction for those who are open to learning about something before casually dismissing it.

Moving on, she then lists her “20 Ways.” I usually perform number 11, 13, and always 16. I’m going to also do #5, the Holy Souls Rosary, tonight for the first time.

“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let the perpetual light shine upon them. And may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”

All Souls Story

Next I read a story written by Fr. Dwight Longenecker back in 2008. It begins:

I was living in England as a young Anglican priest when my younger brother came to live with me. Some weeks after his arrival he learned about the death in a plane crash of a young friend of his we shall call Tom.

Tom was about 5’2″ with a shock of blond hair, a round tanned face with freckles. He was brought up as a Baptist, but had never been baptized and he was in a state of rebellion against the faith when he died unprepared.

My brother Daryl told a priest named Fr. Philip about Tom and the priest said, “We must have a requiem Mass for Tom.” So the two of them got together with another priest named Fr. Roger. Fr Roger agreed to celebrate Mass for Tom’s soul. They decided that it would be best if the Mass were a semi-private celebration, so they went into church and locked the door and proceeded to say Mass for Tom.

Fr. Philip was an extraordinary man with a gift of second sight and the ability to read souls. This spiritual or psychic gift was a benefit to him in an active healing ministry. As the Mass proceeded my brother was overcome with emotion, and at the point of kneeling to receive Holy Communion he felt that Tom was actually there with them and that he was disturbed and confused by what was going on. Daryl (my brother) said that he felt as if Tom was there next to him at communion and he re-assured Tom that everything would be alright and urged him (in his mind) to simply accept the gift he was being given.

After Mass Daryl recounted his feelings to the two priests. “It was like Tom was actually there!”

“Oh he was there.” said Fr. Philip, “I saw him.”

I encourage you to read the rest.

In his homily for All Saint’s Day yesterday at my parish, Fr. Eckrich talked about what Catholics believe regarding those present at each and every Mass on earth and the communion of all saints, not just those formally recognized as those canonized by the Church. I once had it described to me in the following beautiful and simple manner: the Mass is when the Church Militant on earth gets together with the Church Triumphant in Heaven to pray for the Church Penitent in Purgatory (more on that here).

“There it is.”

Some of you are sitting back with arms folded and muttering “Jeff, Jeff…enough with the supernatural hocus-pocus.” Ok, I’ll close with this.

“The lack of transcendence in secularism is its greatest weakness, alongside its carnality and its hubris of man-as-god. It fails to satisfy what’s deepest in us.” – Fr. Arne Panula

I read that quote this morning in an article commemorating Fr. Panula who had died this past July. I’ve had many a conversation with those who are Catholic, Protestant, liberal or conservative about the loss of the sacred and the transcendental in our modern age and the destructiveness it is having on our society. “But Jeff, that was a softball. You quoted a Catholic priest.” Fair point. So I’ll close with these words from Paul Kingsworth, former environmental and conservation activist. I read them on Rod Dreher’s blog this morning via Twitter as well. Kingsworth is not a religious man, but he has a religious sensibility. In his essay “In The Black Chamber” (which I recommend as a good read) he writes:

I wonder if there has been a society in history so uninterested in the sacred as ours; so little concerned with the life of the spirit, so contemptuous of the immeasurable, so dismissive of those who feel that these things are essential to human life. The rationalist vanguard would have us believe that this represents progress: that we are heading for a new Jerusalem, a real one this time, having sloughed off ‘superstition’. I am not so sure. I think we are missing something big. Most cultures in human history have maintained, or tried to maintain, some kind of balance between the material and the immaterial; between the temple and the marketplace. Ours is converting the temples into luxury apartments and worshipping in the marketplace instead. We are allergic to learning from the past, but I think we could learn something here.

The rationalist delusion has a strong grip on our culture, and that grip has been getting stronger during my lifetime. Every year, it seems, the areas of life that remain uncolonised by scientific or economic language or assumptions grow fewer. The success that science has had in explaining what can be explained has apparently convinced many people that it can explain everything, or will one day be able to do so. The success that economics has had in monetising the things which science can explain has convinced many that everything of significance can be monetised.

Environmentalists and conservationists are as vulnerable to these literalist trends as anyone else, and many of them have persuaded themselves that, in order to be taken seriously by those with the power to save or destroy, they must speak this language too. But this has been a Faustian bargain. Argue that a forest should be protected because of its economic value as a ‘carbon sink’, and you have nothing to say when gold or oil of much greater value are discovered beneath it.

Speaking the language of the dominant culture, the culture of human empire which measures everything it sees and demands a return, is not a clever trick but a clever trap. Omit that sense of the sacred in nature – play it down, diminish it, laugh nervously when it is mentioned – and you are lost, and so is the world that moved you to save it for reasons you are never quite able to explain.

I’ll say it plainly, because I’ve worked myself up to it: in ‘nature’ I see something divine, and when I see it, it moves me to humility, not grandiosity, and that is good for me and good for those I come into contact with. I don’t want to be a god, even if I can. I want to be a servant of god, if by god we mean nature, life, the world. I want to be small in the world, belong to it, help it along, protect myself from its storms and try to cause none myself.

I know there are others who feel like this, and I know there are others who don’t. It is not a position to be argued from. I don’t want to try and convince you if you’re not already convinced. If you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it. I do, and I can’t argue it away. There it is.

(Feast of All Souls Day, 2017)

The Power

Scandal. Crime and corruption at the highest levels of church and government. Wars and rumors of wars. Incivility everywhere you look. The talking heads hone in on it all and shout with glee: “Look at it! Look at it and despair! How awful! LOOOOOOOOK AT IT!!!”

“More news after the break.”

Father Z, a prominent Catholic priest and blogger, relayed how one recent morning he received the following message from a friend:

Motus in fine velocior.* Our faith in the indefectibility of the Church is soon going to be tested and good people will legitimately choose different sides. I am neither an alarmist nor a conspiracy theory cook, but these people are evil.  …  It’s going to get SO much worse before it gets better. Brace yourselves and cling to your beads, catechism, Breviary and Mass.

His friend was not talking about the public scandals of our day that surround our celebrities or elected officials. That is all bad enough by themselves. Instead he was talking about those within the Catholic Church who are purposely sowing confusion and ambiguity.

But that’s not the subject I’m writing about today. Today I turn to Fr. Longenecker writing on his Suburban Hermit blog:

I was on retreat at Quarr Abbey once many years ago, and when I came out of the church after Vespers a teenaged kid was slouching on a bench outside smoking.

Denims, punk haircut, nose ring.

So I asked him what he was doing there.

“I’m just hanging out here.”

“Do you come here often?”

“Yeh.”

“Do you ever come into church to hear the monks sing?”

“Yeh.”

“Why do you come here?”

He grinned. “This is where the power is man.”

Then he got up and walked down the lane to the road beyond and the outside world.

This is where the power is man.

The English teenager gets it. Fr. Longenecker and Fr. Z get it. And so do I.

In describing these Benedictine monks Fr. Longenecker writes:

The monks are ordinary men who have realized that their lives are sacrifices which oil the wheels and cogs of the cosmos. They keep the furnace stoked. They man the engine room of the great ship.

Hidden from the world, they are the beating heart of the church. Why does the Catholic Church keep going on its everlasting roller coaster ride? Because the Benedictines don’t give up. They’re like weeds. They come back.

Their vow of stability is one of the most important vows they can offer the world. We think times are tumultuous. They have always been tumultuous. We think the world is on a knife edge about to tumble into the pit. It has always been so. We think there is corruption and strife in the church. Read church history. It has always been a battle. Isn’t that what you signed up for when you decided to follow Christ the King?

Motus in fine velocior.

It’s going to get SO much worse before it gets better.

This is where the power is man.

Fr. Longenecker writes that he returns to the monastery because “there is stability in the turmoil and peace in the midst of battle.”

It strengthens his resolve. It refills his spiritual tank. It gives him hope.

St. Augustine wrote:

“Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.”

It is because I am so familiar with the two daughters that I know their parent Hope. Hope is what keeps me going in these times. It would be far too easy to join the world and be angry all the time. To become so consumed in rage that I lash out on social media, while driving, in public or in the home. But anger is only one half of the equation. People who give in to their anger do not have hope because they do not know courage. Courage is what we have when we turn off the talking heads, disengage from our mobile screens blinding us with the anger and vitriol on social media, roll up our sleeves and go to work righting the ship.

For some, it’s through direct action. They get off the couch and get involved.

For others, like me, it’s through prayer. As I’ve observed the descent into madness on all sides of the political aisle consume family, friends and acquaintances, my prayer life is the thing most keeping me sane. While I do get angry, I have courage.

I’ve never been particularly good at being the hands of the Church. It’s true that I’ve taught a little. I serve by doing various things during the liturgy or with the Knights of Columbus. As it is I’m much better, or at least more at home, in helping be the heart of the Church, keeping it beating regularly each day in prayer. In turn I receive the courage to deal with my anger and perhaps it is because of this the hope I receive not only helps me but helps others as it continues to inspire me to write bits and pieces on this blog, or on my social media. Things that I hope both teach and inspire others.

The word “courage” actually derives its meaning from a Latin root word “cor” which means “heart.” (Remember what the Cowardly Lion needed to gain his courage in The Wizard of Oz?) It means we are never more courageous than when we “have the courage of our convictions,” that is, when we live from the heart, remaining true to who we really are.

Choosing this path is to some, I’m sure, quite boring. The heart is hidden. Some of us have buried it and cut off all feeling to it, perhaps telling ourselves we do so as a means of survival.

Thump-thump

As it’s not visible it’s not relevant.

Thump-thump

It’s not obvious.

Thump-thump

It’s not sexy.

Thump-thump

We don’t take selfies of ourselves praying, but doing things.

Thump-thump

Things like eating a meal…hanging with friends…meeting celebrities…attending a concert. You know. Stuff.

Thump-thump

It’s not something we can show off to those who follow us on Twitter or Instagram for the almighty “like”.

Thump-thump

A heartbeat is regular. It maintains a rhythm.

Thump-thump

The rhythm and timing of praying with the Church though the daily Lauds and Vespers of the Divine Office. Through the Mass. The Angelus. The rosary.

Thump-thump

It is because of that heartbeat that I have hope.

Hope strengthens my resolve. Hope refills my spiritual tank.

I know you’re angry out there. I understand. Allow me to help give you a little hope. Allow me to introduce you, or re-introduce you, to courage.

It’s where the power is.

Thump-thump


*[Motion accelerates when the end is near] The latin motus in fine velocior is commonly used to indicate the faster passing of the time at the end of an historical period. The multiplication of events, in fact, shortens the course of time, which in itself does not exist outside of the things that flow. Time, says Aristotle, is the measure of movement (Physics, IV, 219 b). More precisely we define it as the duration of changeable things. God is eternal precisely because He is immutable: every moment has its cause in Him, but nothing in Him changes. The more one distances himself from God the more chaos, produced by the change, increases.

In this Season of Fireside Chronicles

[I began to write a year ago as we neared All Hallow’s Eve and All Souls Day.]

I had meant to have something written for All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints Day. Alas, I was unable to finish what I began and so they will wait until next year. I did come across the poem All Souls by Edith Wharton due to this story in Dappled Things and wanted to share it below. Her poem reminds me very much of the themes behind one of my favorite pieces of music, The Danse Macabre, by Camille Saint-Saëns.

But first a quote I found in this article by Sean Fitzpatrick that holds true for my own shelves at home.

There is a cobwebbed corner in every heart and in every library for the things that go bump in the night. Whether thrillers, shockers, or flesh-crawlers, the haunted volumes of literature and the chilling fireside chronicles are venerable indeed, and will remain beloved so long as human beings have lives to lose and souls to save.

That particular shelf holds for me books by Poe and Washington Irving. When I was younger it consisted of a lot of Stephen King’s books from Carrie to It. I haven’t read any of King’s works since around 1990 other than his non-fictional On Writing.

Author Karen Ullo writes along the same vein as Fitzpatrick does in The Spiritual Purpose of Horror Stories, part 1. Writing about this maligned and marginalized area of serious fiction, Ullo points out that:

The purpose of a horror story is to personify sin, often but not always in a supernatural form. Such stories allow us to take the part of ourselves that is the ugliest, the most malignant, the most intransigent and terrifying—the part that is already dead—and give it a shape with which we can grapple. The literary monster comes in varying degrees of embodied-ness and varying degrees of evil, ranging from Quasimodo, malformed but still capable of goodness, to the pure evil of Blatty’s demon (here she’s referring to William Blatty’s book The Exorcist). But the literary monster is always an outward projection of some part of the brokenness within our human souls. This remains true whether or not the author is a believer; it requires no religious conviction to be disgusted by the hideous deeds of which mankind, and one’s own self, are capable.

It is the nature of the literary monster to represent sin, the fallen state of man, which is a spiritual truth; therefore, it is the nature of horror stories to be vehicles for portraying spiritual struggle.

Fitzpatrick closed his article with these words:

At that time of year when nature doffs its seasonal splendor for a dress of decay, man’s mind turns to the end of his own life and those gone before him: the after-life and the supernatural mingled with the tingling fear of the unknown. During the autumn, when the world suffers a seeming death in aspects both wondrous and withering, men spy strange shapes across the moon and women tell strange stories over the fire. Paradoxically lively traditions were born that declared a need to know more about the composition of the world beyond sight. Was death a mere sleeping or the awakening from the dream, and life an agitated expectation? As their cathartically entertaining ghost stories suggest, such haunting folklore arose from the natural piety of simple folk whose thoughts were bent on the spirit of things.

The ghost story chronicles man’s understanding of himself, death itself, and the condition of the soul after death. They highlight man’s keen instincts and healthy curiosities. The tradition of the rural god, ghost, and goblin can be seen as historically rooted in a healthy, human, and even holy mentality rather than a heathen one. Tales of fear, like Washington Irving’s The Spectre Bridegroom, draw people closer, as around a life-giving fire, warding off the chill darkness reminiscent of death. The shadows thrown by flames are ominous, but they dance as well. This is the realm of ghostly escapades, haunted castles, and flitting phantoms—and it is a dance that keeps the worlds around us alive with the thrill of the unknown.

This is always a beautifully melancholy time of year for me. There’s just something about the fall. Baseball playoffs. Memories of raking leaves and burning them (when that was allowed), and driving around town with friends. At this time of year I also pull off my shelves a book by Poe, Irving, Shelley or Stoker to read some good 19th century tale of horror. This fall presents challenges as I deal with all that comes from having a son deployed overseas and the impending “big five oh” in a few short months. I pray with and for the souls in purgatory, and the Office of the Dead.

I’m planning a trip to my hometown soon, this week or the next, while we are enjoying these beautiful autumn days. My parents having moved away years ago I haven’t much reason to visit anymore. But a long-time friend who grew up across the street from me has moved back from Hong Kong with his wife to care for his elderly father, now over 90 years young, and I am drawn to visit and say hello once again to the ghosts of my past. Perhaps I’ll spy a strange shape across the moon. Maybe I’ll tell a chilling fireside chronicle. Or, perchance, I’ll dance.

But…lest you think me depressed or morbid I will point out that I’m far from those things. This is merely a part of the season of life and the cyclical calendar of the Church. And I’ll add that every day I am reminded that the light overcomes the darkness when I pray daily at Lauds the following from the Benedictus, or Canticle of Zechariah from Luke 1:68-79:

Through the bottomless mercy of our God,
one born on high will visit us
to give light to those who walk in darkness,
who live in the shadow of death;
to lead our feet in the path of peace.

Just as Death calls forth the dead at midnight once a year to dance under the moonlight until the cock crows at dawn and sends them back to their graves to sleep another year, I welcome the autumn to remind myself both where I have come from and where I am going.

And every day, no matter the season, I am reminded of the Light.

(Image source)

========================================

All Souls
By Edith Wharton

I.
A thin moon faints in the sky o’erhead,
And dumb in the churchyard lie the dead.
Walk we not, Sweet, by garden ways,
Where the late rose hangs and the phlox delays,
But forth of the gate and down the road,
Past the church and the yews, to their dim abode.
For it’s turn of the year and All Souls’ night,
When the dead can hear and the dead have sight.

II.
Fear not that sound like wind in the trees:
It is only their call that comes on the breeze;
Fear not the shudder that seems to pass:
It is only the tread of their feet on the grass;
Fear not the drip of the bough as you stoop:
It is only the touch of their hands that grope —
For the year’s on the turn, and it’s All Souls’ night,
When the dead can yearn and the dead can smite.

III.
And where should a man bring his sweet to woo
But here, where such hundreds were lovers too?
Where lie the dead lips that thirst to kiss,
The empty hands that their fellows miss,
Where the maid and her lover, from sere to green,
Sleep bed by bed, with the worm between?
For it’s turn of the year and All Souls’ night,
When the dead can hear and the dead have sight.

IV.
And now that they rise and walk in the cold,
Let us warm their blood and give youth to the old.
Let them see us and hear us, and say: “Ah, thus
In the prime of the year it went with us!”
Till their lips drawn close, and so long unkist,
Forget they are mist that mingles with mist!
For the year’s on the turn, and it’s All Souls’ night,
When the dead can burn and the dead can smite.

V.
Till they say, as they hear us — poor dead, poor dead! —
“Just an hour of this, and our age-long bed —
Just a thrill of the old remembered pains
To kindle a flame in our frozen veins,
Just a touch, and a sight, and a floating apart,
As the chill of dawn strikes each phantom heart —
For it’s turn of the year and All Souls’ night,
When the dead can hear, and the dead have sight.”

VI.
And where should the living feel alive
But here in this wan white humming hive,
As the moon wastes down, and the dawn turns cold,
And one by one they creep back to the fold?
And where should a man hold his mate and say:
“One more, one more, ere we go their way”?
For the year’s on the turn, and it’s All Souls’ night,
When the living can learn by the churchyard light.

VII.
And how should we break faith who have seen
Those dead lips plight with the mist between,
And how forget, who have seen how soon
They lie thus chambered and cold to the moon?
How scorn, how hate, how strive, we too,
Who must do so soon as those others do?
For it’s All Souls’ night, and break of the day,
And behold, with the light the dead are away.

St. Paul and the Painted Ladies

For almost three weeks my oldest son was home prior to deploying overseas. At least twice a day I’d go outside to our covered patio behind the garage and find him there, sitting with Buster his beagle, iPhone in hand, smoking a cigarette. Just three years ago I’d have been mortified by the sight of him sitting with no shirt, tattoos on his shoulders, smoking a cigarette. But there are battles to fight in this life that are worth fighting and as he left for boot camp later that October in 2014 I knew those were two skirmishes to be avoided. Three years later I find myself not minding so much.

And as was the case the last time he was sent overseas I’d go outside and be met by the starkness of his absence. It was like being struck in the face to go back there where I prayed a rosary or the Divine Office every day and have that image so fresh in my mind of him occupying that space. Yet I remind myself on a regular basis that he’ll return, or at least that’s the hope. I know there are hundreds and thousands of parents each day who face an empty patio chair, couch or bed of a loved one who will not be returning as they have left the earth. This sobers me and I’m able to keep myself together.

Yes, I take pictures of ash now.

The Sunday we took him to the Omaha airport to fly back to his base a few days before he deployed, we returned home to a house once again occupied by the four of us. Five counting Buster. I walked slowly outside and stared at the place we he’d sat just hours before and had “a last cigarette at home” and talked to me about “just stuff.” Sitting in his spot I looked down and saw the remnants of his habit: cigarette ashes. When he left for Iraq last year I’d swept the patio rug clean right away. This time, however, I’ve left them to linger. In a few weeks we’ll be sweeping the rug before rolling it up and putting it away for the winter. But for now I decided they could stay. Two years ago he promised me he would give up smoking when his four years were over, and he told me on that final Sunday morning that he was going to use his deployment to do so. Where he’s going cigarettes will be hard to come by, so he figured it would be the best time to do it. Right now I don’t care. I just want my son back.

The days before he arrived home for his leave my wife had clipped the dying flowers off the row of Black-eyed Susans we have near our deck. During his visit one small, defiant flower emerged and stood watch. I checked this morning in the rain and note that almost a month later it’s still there. For reasons I cannot explain this has brought me much comfort and every day when I’m outside praying I focus on that burst of yellow among the drab hues of autumn: the dark greens and the browns.

At her post.

On this, a gray, rainy day, and feeling down, I took my breviary to the Pink Sisters chapel as I try to do each week. I prayed for my family, friends, for peace but most especially for my son and his fellow soldiers. The following passage in the Office of Readings caught my eye and I spent the next 15-20 minutes re-reading and meditating upon it.

There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving, and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honor, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise. Keep doing all the things that you learnt from me and have been taught by me and have heard or seen that I do. Then the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:6-9

The nuns have a little bookstore at the front entryway and I paged through a book that caught my eye. A Mind At Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction  contains a forward by Fr. Paul Scalia, son of the recently deceased Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. He writes:

But we live in a schizophrenic culture. As much as we might want that peace, we still desire the world’s distractions. We love the gifts of the digital age: “Big Data,” connectivity, constant streaming, and so forth – even as we sense a need for quiet, for relief from information and communication overload. We want both the promises of the digital age and the habit of recollection (“mindfulness,” as it is now fashionable to say). It is increasingly clear how difficult it is to have both – to be at once digitalized and recollected.

Finding myself guilty of the above I decided to get the book.

As I wrote earlier this week social media…connectivity…all of the noise has finally gotten to me. I longer care to participate. While I have not deleted my Twitter account I’ve started with baby steps and “unfollowed” any and all political pundits or media people outside of one or two. This significantly reduced the clutter on my Twitter feed. It is now mostly comprised of baseball-related organizations, coaches and the like that I follow as well as Catholic priests, authors and media. Facebook is a beast I aim to tackle in 2018 once and for all. I’m also three years in to my old iPhone 5s and early next year am going to “downsize” my phone into a lesser model. Because the opening paragraphs of that books Introduction asks the same questions I’ve been asking myself for over a year.

Have you ever regretted sending an e-mail, a text, or a post? Have you recently forgotten an appointment that a year or two ago you would have had no difficulty remembering? Do you catch your mind wandering when you should be attending carefully to the task, or the person, right in front of you?

What about the way you have been spending your time? Is it difficult to refrain from checking your phone or e-mail every several minutes? Are you uncomfortable being alone and quick to look for relief from boredom? Do you find yourself browsing websites or trying to keep up with the latest news? Do you fall into binge-watching television shows, or playing just one more round of a video game? Are you preoccupied with social media to the point of compulsively checking updates, statuses, and likes?

Are you more often ill at ease or anxious than in the pasts? Are you uncomfortable with your own thoughts? Do you feel unfocused, distracted, restless? Are you finding less joy in conversation, reading, and prayer than you used to?

Yes! To all of the above. I remarked to my wife the other day that in 2017 I’ve read fewer books than I have since we were married almost twenty-five years ago. My lack of sustained focus and ability to read for more than twenty minutes annoys and also scares the hell out of me.

Feeling somewhat buoyed by what I read from St. Paul and the pages I’d scanned in the book, I went outside where the rain had momentarily stopped. While walking to the parking lot I was suddenly surrounded by little butterflies. They bounced off my face and head and I noticed that I had walked right by a flowered area. We’ve been enjoying thousands of these little visitors throughout Lincoln this fall and have a few dozen that have been squatting on some flowers in our yard as well. They are called Painted lady butterflies and our local paper wrote about them here. I watched them for several minutes and snapped a few pictures. Even after it once again began to rain I stood there watching them. It’s a fluke that they are even here this fall and I’ve not stopped to really notice and appreciate them. I recalled what I’d read by St. Paul in Philippians in the chapel:

…fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honor, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise.

And so I will. Tonight I’ll look at a lone Black-eyed Susan in my backyard.

I’ll watch the Painted ladies.

And then the God of peace will be with me.

– Oct. 6: feast of St. Bruno

Painted ladies on Pink Sisters’ flowers.

Blank screen

Over the past year I’ve occasionally been asked why I stopped writing.

[stares at blank screen for six minutes]

There’s the answer. Or part of it.

I don’t know what the root cause is to be honest. I started to sense it last year at this time as the final month before the US election reached its fever pitch. It continued past the election as the losing side began to throw a big heaping tantrum of crazy. I figured it would be bad if Trump won, but I had no idea the lengths to which people would go, even those I know personally.

The only dog I had in that hunt was the United States of America. And I figured that no matter which candidate won, she (America) would lose. Not because either of the candidates was horrible (though they were both deeply flawed) but because I knew that the losing side would pitch the hissy fit of all hissy fits. And they did. Still are, in fact. I was called a “c*nt” not once (when did this word become so accepted among supposedly grown men?), but six times by an acquaintance and self-identified liberal from my own parish (and father of one of my daughter’s favorite classmates) because I dared to say both sides were at fault regarding a particular issue. Just a week ago another admitted liberal wrote a message on a rare post that I made public on Facebook that “your son is a member of a horrible murdering terrorist organization and tool of a corrupt and illegal government” kind of took the wind out of my desire to engage anyone at all. That he’s deployed yet again into a dangerous part of the world for a nation of ungrateful and unworthy sons of bitches that spit on him and others like him? That might explain yet another staring contest with a blank screen.

And yes, I know that both sides do this. One of the disadvantages of having an open mind, staying above the fray and observing people of all political persuasion is to see that rotten fruit on either side of the fence.

The result of knowing that friends of mine, or those I thought were friends, refuse to support him, the child of a man they personally know, so as not to be seen in conflict with the collective hive mind of their political ideology and party? Can you imagine what that’s like? My gut reaction is to tell them to go to hell and then block them out of your social media and your life. I have ignored my gut. For now.

[Blank screen]

After that I removed my post and resolved to keep everything locked down and private as before. To hell with these people and their sickness. I am a sinner, and admit that my mercy and understanding falls woefully short. I am a work in progress. Psalm 38 this morning speaks to this for me and is why the Psalms remain my favorites:

I said, “I will watch my ways,
I will try not to sin in my speech.
I will set a guard on my mouth,
for as long as my enemies are standing against me.”

I stayed quiet and dumb, spoke neither evil nor good,
but my pain was renewed.
My heart grew hot within me,
and fire blazed in my thoughts.

I’ve always tried to write about seeking out the good in the world. Finding joy. For the past year I’ve struggled at times to see those things despite the fact that I know they are present. It’s just that the fog and smoke of this age have managed to obscure a lot of it from my eyes.

Every morning I use a special cloth to clean my glasses before putting them on for the day. It helps to clear away the grime, film and smudges accumulated during the previous twenty-four hours. For almost twenty years I’ve received the same sort of cleansing by using prayer to keep my eyes clear. Admittedly that has been a struggle this year. I can’t seem to keep them clear and God unobscured no matter the prayer. That once fertile plain has become arid and dry. But I continue to work that land knowing that one day the rains will come again.

So I’m going to try to write once more in the hope that the clouds will burst.

It worked today at least.

[looks at his screen]

This screen isn’t blank.

Oct. 4, 2017 – Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (my Confirmation patron saint)