My Life’s Ambition

Eight years ago, in November 2010, I wrote a post I called Stargazing. It was about asking life’s big questions and how we stop doing so as we age. Within the post I mentioned someone who during my high school years meant a lot to me:

I only took one person to this sacred spot of mine. Her name was…well, I’ll keep that to myself. She may read this and I’d hate to embarrass her. She was a year ahead of me in high school. We were in band together. She was quiet and unassuming, and I thought she was very pretty. Somehow we connected in all the busyness of our teenage years for too short a time and made a try at dating. I was horrible at it and my first love, baseball, ensured the relationship’s death come springtime. But that winter was warmed by the quiet, pretty farmgirl who played clarinet. One night, a night much like tonight, we had gone out for a bit and spent some talking on my front porch. We went for a walk and found ourselves in my backyard where I led her to the place I did all my thinking. I sat down and she sat on my lap for warmth. We talked about the same questions: How will it all turn out? Where will we go in our lives? What will we be doing? We laughed and we talked about all the possibilities before us.

She still means a lot to me. I’m a man blessed to know many people, but I have a very small circle of close friends. I would fight for them in a heartbeat even if we haven’t seen each other in years. I’ll fight physically, if necessary, and always through prayer.

In November of last year, just two months ago, my friend’s husband of twenty-eight years, a fine man, husband and father of her two children, died very suddenly and without warning. No sooner had she finished the grim, sad task of burying him than she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. So aggressive that they started chemo within a week. An elementary school teacher with two children in college, her most pressing concern was for her students and her kids. I know this because we had reconnected by random chance by running into each other in a big box store parking lot of all places, around twelve or so years ago, and have stayed in touch via Facebook or text messages.

Before I’d gone on my retreat last month I sent out a text to several people asking them if there were any intentions I could pray for on their behalf. She responded, asking in part:

“For cancer to be gone for the rest of my life. For (my) children to have peace and be cancer free their whole life, to hear God…”

I responded by offering those prayers at my retreat and after. Understandably her spirits were very low after absorbing all of these blows while heading into the holiday season. I also responded by sending her bad clarinet memes. When we were in high school she played clarinet and I played trombone. Trombonists are notorious trouble makers and forwarders of bad band memes, even those with typos. I like to think I helped her laugh a little.

I text her every week, especially the Sundays prior to her two-week chemo treatment. On December 23rd she texted me first:

“Hey! You should see my bald head … 30 years off my age and with a gazillion more muscles and I could be G.I. Jane.”

Sure enough a few minutes later I saw a family photo taken in front of their Christmas tree. Bald as the proverbial cue ball.

It should be mentioned that she is around 5’5”…maybe 5’6” before the hair loss. It should also be pointed out that clarinet players are not as funny as trombone players, but we laugh at their jokes anyway. I figure you gotta have a sense of humor to play a reed instrument. Trombonists have few faults outside of our propensity for bad memes and being late. It’s why we chose to play an instrument with that slide. It’s a cool, non-chalant way of being a half-beat early or late but eventually getting to the right note. “Bad timing, with style,” is what I’d imagine Buzz Lightyear saying if he played the trombone.

Admit it, you just heard him say it in your head.

Yesterday was the passage of another two weeks and it was time to check in. She responded:

“Feeling good for the last four days. Chemo tomorrow. Would have been my 29th anniversary today.”

Oof.

Before she dozed off (I was up late watching a special about the Red Sox run to the World Series title on MLB Network) she seemed to pick up the conversation we’d begun all those years ago during the time I write about in that post when she texted:

“What is your life’s ambition?”

Jeez…clarinet players are unpredictable and much too serious. Thinking about it for a bit, and recalling a similar conversation we’d had together under a canopy of stars thirty-four years ago, I texted back:

“That’s the million dollar question that I have never been able to answer.”

But as I type this out now a thought occurred to me. Maybe it’s to be there for friends in need. That’s not a bad ambition, is it?

During my lunch hour today I was running errands and buying a few things for my oldest son’s birthday tomorrow when she texted me after her chemo was finished.

“Found out at appt today I have cancer in the right side also.”

Being a master wordsmith who is often too verbose in my texts, I considered my a reply for five minutes before mustering

“Nuts.”

“Better to find out now then later,” she replied.

I think I’ve begun to realize my life’s ambition after all … just a week after turning fifty-one.

Trombonists aren’t known for their timing. Better late than never. A clarinet player taught me that.

Please pray for my friend Clarice.

*******

I quoted this song in my original piece eight years ago but failed to embed it for some silly reason. I’m correcting that grievous error here.

©2019 Jeff A Walker. All Rights Reserved.

After the Election: feasts and fence-mending

Last night I finally had enough and deactivated my Facebook account. I had removed it from my phone but would check in during the day once or twice. But yesterday even that was too much. I simply got tired of all the fake political news articles being posted. More than that however, I’m tired of being told who to vote for. Friends on the right yelling at me to vote for Trump. Friends on the left doing the same for Clinton. Not often in such nice terms. So I said “Enough”, selected the appropriate buttons on Facebook, and shut ‘er down.

Last week I wrote that on Election Night I was thinking of

…inviting over a few close friends I have on both sides of the partisan divide to break bread, enjoy a libation or two, and sit around the firepit. No phones. No politics. Perhaps taking a break from our conversation to pray a rosary or my leading/teaching them to pray Vespers (Protestants have been known to pray a form of the Divine Office) and in our own way we’d still be sanctifying time with our friendship. Common ground.

Soon after writing this I learned that I would be at my son’s junior high basketball game and therefore unable to do this tonight. But that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to doing so on another night. Indeed I’ve attempted this a few times but have thus far been unsuccessful due mostly to scheduling conflicts. But I’ll keep trying because I do feel it’s important to commune with people in a face-to-face environment. There’s something about “the screen” that makes us all a little crazy.

Someone else is regretting his actions on Twitter during this election process and unleashed this 29 Tweet mea culpa last night. And to further this thought process I recalled reading this entry written in the Magnificat Year of Mercy Companion by Monsignor Gregory E.S. Malovetz for November 4:

She learned at her family’s table. The daughter of Hungarian and Slovak parents, my mother grew up believing there was always room at the table. That belief followed her through all the years as a mother, grandmother, and today as a great-grandmother. There is always room at the table to squeeze in another person at Christmas, Easter, or other occasions. When the number grows from eleven to nineteen people, her response is always the same: “How could I say no?”

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is his longest, written to introduce himself and present his message to them. One of the great themes of this letter is the universal call of Jesus to follow him. Jews and Gentiles alike are offered the invitation to sit at the table.

There is something both touching and challenging when we realize that he can never say no. Anyone with a sincere heart is welcomed. Paul writes he has mercy upon whom he wills (Romans 9:18), insisting that in God there is always the spirit of welcome. The followers of Jesus, to live that mercy, must cultivate a spirit of welcome. We must be willing to confront the hard truth: whom do we exclude not only from our dining tables but from the table of the human family? We can understand God’s mercy only when we are challenged by the question, “How could I say no?”

friendsatdinner

As this cycle winds down and we prepare to emerge on the other side, no matter who wins we must find a way to put this behind us and come together at table. In the last few months I’ve upset friends on the left and the right for not supporting “the obvious choice”, i.e. their choice. One woman, a Catholic mom and registered Democrat that I’ve known for over fourteen years and whose son I coached in little league unfriended me on Facebook because of the singular political post I wrote about the leaked emails that showed the Clinton campaign and John Podesta were working actively against the Catholic Church in order to create confusion and cause a “Catholic spring”. (I’m not providing links to the Podesta story because they are legion and I’m tired of it.) This upset her so much that this friend who had been averaging 2-3 political posts a day to my zero political posts accused me of “just posting too much political crap” and blocked me. I like to think that her exiting our church next to me after Mass a week later was more uncomfortable for her than for me.

Actually I don’t like to think that. The whole episode is just a sad reminder of how far our civility and discourse as a nation has fallen. While I’m definitely guilty of Pride when it comes to the “Seven Deadlies”, Gluttony is a very close second. Yet I can think of nothing better to do than to pull people together over a good meal, drink and conversation. Oh, and no screens allowed.

Over at First Things in an article named Cocktail Theology, William Dailey writes:

“God gives us wine to cheer our souls,” sayeth the psalmist—and quite right, too. It was no accident that our Lord’s public ministry began at a joyous wedding celebration, one saved by the generous intervention of Christ in providing the greatest vintage ever poured. There’s a conviviality to a shared libation that draws us together, lifts our spirits, and cuts what Walker Percy called “the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons.”

So on that note I say “Sláinte!” as we begin to hopefully mend some fences in need of serious care. In addition to this feasting and fence-mending, and as this election falls further back in the rearview mirror, I will strive to do as Fr. Longenecker pledged when he wrote:

I will try to say the Divine Office for the good of the world and Christ’s church. I will attempt to pray the rosary every day for the blessing of my family, my parish and the world and for the defeat of evil. I will attempt to promote the rosary and the Divine Mercy for the salvation of souls and for the good of all people.

*******

Photo source

The Heart’s Heaven

The following paragraphs are taken from the editor’s introduction to perhaps one of my most treasured books, Leaves Of Gold. A cooler summer (though there’s still plenty of time for our usual summer simmer) has me casting my eyes towards the autumn chill. Not wanting to wait until late September our family has spent more than a few nights in our backyard around our firepit. We sit staring at the flames, making smores (and re-enact the famous smore scene from The Sandlot) and telling stories. Buster the Beagle has often greedily snatched the wayward marshmallow fallen from a stick, and the yard echoes with the laughter of our family.

*****

The Heart’s Heaven

Civilization had its beginning around an open fire. Here at its warmth gathered the family group to find safety, comfort, and companionship. Trace the origin of our word fireplace and you will find it definitely related to the Latin word focus. There is the explanation of what home has always meant; for home is the center of life,–no mere residence of the body but the axis of the heart; the place where affections develop themselves, where children love and learn, where two toil together to make life a blessing.

To picture in a word the depths of want, we say of a man that he is homeless. True, life is a journey, and we are all on a pilgrimage. But when distance has lost its enchantment and the ardor for adventure has cooled, when danger has been bravely faced and wonder satiated, hearts long for a resting place and find in the ruddy glows of the hearth-fire “the charm from the skies” that hallows life and gives refuge to man’s tired soul.

*****

You do not need a fireplace (we don’t have one) or even a firepit. That’s not my point. But as I told my oldest a week ago when advising him to invite over two of his closes friends before they all journey to their separate universities, military posts and post-high school lives:

You need to remember to celebrate. Not just life’s victories, but life’s experiences. We neglect to mark those moments when we’re younger and take them for granted. When we’re older we wish we had slowed down to savor them more. So too it is with community. We assert rugged individuality and sacrifice a shared communion with family and/or friends. We take each other for granted.

That’s my point.

He thought it over and decided to heed my advice, hosting his friends Monday evening for dinner and ultimately a few hours around the fire at twilight. Late the following afternoon I posted the following to Facebook:

While Nolan, Sam and Ryne were together last night at our house celebrating their four years together on and off the baseball field and high school I couldn’t help but think of their much younger selves as young boys. Each now young men about to each go their separate way: one to UNL, one to UNK, and one to the USMC. Time flew by so quickly. I sent a text to Ryne’s dad that said in effect “I’m not a fan of these three boys growing up, yet it’s pretty damned cool” and he replied with his agreement. But this is what we do and what we hope for as parents: to prepare them (and ourselves) for the nudge (kick) out of the nest and hope they remember to flap their wings. I thought of the recent experiences of dads I know like Chris and David who this spring (and just this weekend) have sat in the back of a church dressed in their tuxedos recalling the birth, first steps, scraped knees, ballgames and graduations of their sons Ben and Ethan as they were about to be wed. All while watching all the joyous madness of planning, rehearsals and photography go on around them. And I realized that, as in all good things, the best is yet to come.

And when it comes the odds are you will find me sitting near a fire, basking in the warmth of the memory whose reflection dances in my eyes as we make another smore.

Pass the ‘mallows.

firepit

*****

A lurking beagle hunting for dropped smores.

A lurking beagle hunting for dropped smores.

*****

A lurking beagle hoping someone drops a morsel of the bacon-wrapped NY strips I grilled for the boys.

A lurking beagle hoping someone drops a morsel of the bacon-wrapped NY strips I grilled for the boys.

Talking to the Moon

Blue-Moon

Scotch in a glass: two fingers of Laphroig;
I cheat and add ice to ease the slow burn.

On my deck in a steady breeze
sitting under a canopy of stars and full moon.

A dull hum of traffic from the distant freeway
alternates with the honking of geese in night flight.

Silent questions that need asking,
only God isn’t answering. Not yet

though over the years I’ve learned
to give Him time.

Henley sang of talking to the moon over thirty years ago.
Tonight I do the same.

History repeats.

__________

Last week I received news that makes it necessary for me to step back from the daily Lenten blogging I was doing in regards to the book Divine Intimacy. I had too many irons  in the fire as it was, and now that fire has been stoked to a volcano. As such I’ve had to stop this series in order to focus on things that matter.

The lines above were a stream of consciousness that I pecked into the ColorNote app on my smartphone late last week after a lengthy conversation with an old friend via personal messages. I was already sitting outside on my deck under the moonlight when she and I began to converse about life, its challenges and possible next steps, and of moving forward. A company vice-president by day she is an aspiring musician and songwriter by night. After sharing a few of her lyrics with me she encouraged me, and not for the first time, to give it a go. I don’t think that’s a medium I am built for but I admit that once you start looking around you do find a lot of possibilities. But in the end I’ve avoided poetry or lyrics because I’m afraid. I’m afraid of the emotions I’ll find buried beneath the rocks and life’s terrain that I laid to rest a long time ago.

Let the dead bury the dead.

My lines above are not meant as lyrics. They were simply my inner musings intersecting on a night in which I was considering the possible future while absorbing news from the present and reflecting on the past.

I was just talking to the moon.

And the wind across the plains
Is all that now remains
And the night shakes loose the names
But they never quite go back the way they came – (Don Henley)

Old Friends

Lost to me are how the lives of friends go
Like autumn leaves in Oklahoma wind

– Nanci Griffith, The Sun The Moon and the Stars

*****

I found myself stuck at home for five days after being diagnosed with pneumonia. After a few days of violent coughing spells I went in to my doctor and had chest x-rays that caused the diagnosis and anti-biotics being prescribed. I still had to spend a few idle days at home which allowed me time to think and to slowly continue with my purging and/or reorganizing of clutter, both in the house and in my mind.

I still have a long ways to go in both areas. I’ve managed to fill each with a lot of stuff.

The longest ten minutes of my doctor visit was the period of time between the x-rays and waiting for the doctor to review them and come back and report to me what he found. I wondered: what if they find a tumor? Due to my age and recent events that saw a friend diagnosed with lung and brain cancer seemingly out of the blue, I spent those ten minutes trying very hard not to think of such things. My friend began her chemo treatments three days after her diagnosis. Life changing. Mind-numbing. I stared at the floor and tried to clear such fatalistic thoughts from my head. I can’t say that I succeeded.

“Is our will good to go?”

“Where would I be buried?”

“What nuggets of wisdom do I need to pass on to my kids?”

“Have I told those who matter most how much I love them?”

And afterwards while driving from the clinic to the pharmacy:

“How much more crap do I need to eliminate from my life in order to focus on those things that matter most?”

Sobering, to say the least.

And after the diagnosis revealed it was merely pneumonia (I say “merely” only half-sarcastically. This is a nasty bug and it has knocked me on my ass more than once this past week) I began to shed those non-essential things in greater earnest. While cleaning up yet another stack of books I spent a few minutes reading through my revised edition of The Royal Path to Life, a book originally published in 1883 and written by T.L. Haines and L.W. Yaggy. I found the following passage at the end of a chapter called “Associates”:

“Old friends!” What a multitude of deep and varied emotions are called forth from the soul by the utterance of these two words. What thronging memories of other days crowd the brain when they are spoken. Ah, there is magic in the sound and the spell which it creates as both sad and pleasing. As we sit by our fireside while the winds are making wild melody throughout the walls of our cottage, and review the scenes of by-gone years which flit before us in swift succession. Dim and shadowy as the recollections of a dream. How those “old familiar faces” will rise up and haunt our vision with their will remembered features. But ah, where are they? Those friends of our youth. Those kindred spirits who shared our joy and sorrows when first we started in the pilgrimage of life. Companions of our early days.

I’m much too young to sit in a rocking chair and bemoan the loss of friends as I’m still in the prime of my life and blessed with more friends than ever with which to continue making great memories. At this point I have only had to bid a handful of them farewell, struck down too early in this life and now buried beneath the ground. True, the friends of my childhood are scattered and I don’t get to see or talk to them nearly as much as I’d like. But I have experienced the flip side to this in this age of social media. I have experienced the sadness that comes from reconnecting with one of those dear friends of youth only to find that today you have little to nothing in common. The boy who spent summer afternoons with you walking through the creeks around the golf course searching for lost golf balls with your bare feet and placing them in your socks for storage? He no longer exists. The other boy who explored fields on the outskirts of town, the ones where bad cowboys and wolves hid behind every fallen tree or patch of weeks, is unrecognizable now. The girl who taught you how to dig a hole in the ground, fill it carefully with water, mix in dirt and stir with a stick to make mud pies which would “bake” in her father’s charcoal grill for the rest of the afternoon when you were both eight years old.

The spirit of play and imagination, daring and fantasy gone, sucked dry by the adult world and responsibility and caution that comes with it.

I harbor no illusion that I haven’t changed as well. I know I have. For I not only miss those boys and girls of youth…I miss the boy who was me, too.

Sometimes
by Thomas S. Jones, Jr.

Across the fields of yesterday
He sometimes comes to me,
A little lad just back from play–
The lad I used to be. 

And yet he smiles so wistfully
Once he has crept within,
I wonder if he hopes to see
The man I might have been.

*****

To learn more about that little boy read Where I’m From, something I wrote two years ago yesterday.

PS: I’ve stayed in touch with Cheryl through the years. She’s a kindergarten teacher now, still living back home, and I suspect still possessing a tremendous imagination and playful spirit. And I bet she can still whip up a mean mud pie.

*****

Warning: Autumn and October always put me in a serenely melancholy and retrospective state of mind. I’ve a few posts started that, if published here, will continue in that vein.

*****

You can read each chapter or the entire book, The Royal Path of Life, online here.

Photo credit

Small steps towards a distant goal

baby_steps

We may look different, but our hearts beat with the same dreams.

More and more I’ve enjoyed posting over here. I’ve been able (so far) to stay on task and limit myself to 500 words or less each and every time (if you’ve read this blog for awhile you know what an achievement that is!). Part of that focus was the result of deactivating my Facebook account and limiting my access to news by attending more baseball games than I can count. The challenge to maintain that focus will increase as I have reactivated my Facebook account in order to post pictures of my kids for close friends and family, I have peeked at the news, and we have just two weeks of the summer baseball season left after our just-finished four day stay in Independence, Missouri for a wood bat tournament.

The glimpses of news I’ve dared to take have been disheartening to say the least. Our nation’s ignorance of their fellow man, our nation’s history, and the inability to avoid having our emotions manipulated by a media and political administration seeking to divide is enough to make me want to pull out my hair. And at 45 I’m blessed to still possess all of my hair. I’d like to keep it that way.

So this post will not be below 500 words. You picked the wrong blog for that.

This post will also not be about any specific headline or issue of the day. I wouldn’t know where to start. Instead this post will be about division, and our seeming all-too-eager willingness to embrace that division instead of just one time considering the position of our neighbor and fellow man. I’m going to employ the use of two items I came across recently: one a video and the other an article I read on the First Things blog.

First, the video which asks us all:

If you could stand in someone else’s shoes,
Hear what they hear,
See what they see,
Feel what they feel,
Would you treat them differently?

You can click here to read about the history behind the development by Cardinal Avery Dulles of the following ten-point “interim strategy” for Catholics and Evangelicals to work together in the cause of Christ despite—and in the midst of—persistent and important differences. My intent today is to look at Dulles’ ten points not as a Catholic or Evangelical, but to take each one in light of who we are as fellow citizens and neighbors in a country that is quickly becoming the Divided States of America.

1. Correct misleading stereotypes.

Ask yourself: Do I stereotype those on the other side of the political aisle from which I reside? Do I derisively dismiss people of faith or a faith different than my own? What about those of no religious faith? Or a different sexual orientation? What do I think or say about people of a different skin color? While it’s true that some ethnicities may hold to that image, they may very well represent a departure from that particular group of people and be an unfair stereotype.

drive-thru2. Openness to surprise.

Ask yourself: When was the last time I talked with my neighbor(s)? Said something to the person working the drive-through window other than “I’d like fries with that.”? Do I hold back for any particular reason? What is it?

3. Holy rivalry.

Ask yourself: Do I strive to exceed my fellow neighbors, friends, or co-workers in wealth, power and prestige? Do I instead try to exceed them in virtues such as honesty, self-sacrifice, or care for the poor? Why not? Have I tried to live my life as an example of what it means to have faith in God’s Word and hope for a life beyond this present one? Am I a visible and silent witness to the counsel of Saint Paul when he said “Love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10)? Can I imagine what the world would be like if I (we) actually heeded those words?

4. Overcome mutual suspicion. 

Ask yourself: Have I studied the past and/or history of a particular issue? Do I educate myself using a diversity of resources and not just what a quick Google search or my favorite cable news channel or celebrity personality says I should think? We must study the past before we can forgive it. Have I looked back upon past hurts in my own life and studied them from a perspective other than my own? Have I sought forgiveness? Have I forgiven myself?

5. Respect each other’s freedom and integrity. 

Ask yourself: Am I tolerant of the fact that beliefs or positions on an issue exist outside of my own? Do I incessantly rant on social media and hammer strangers in the comboxes of the world? Have I rolled my eyes and clucked my tongue at those who disagree with a position I hold? Do I insist that my friends and/or family hold my positions and if they do not, do I cease to acknowledge their existence as a friend or (in Facebook-speak) “unfriend” them?

6. Ecumenism of mutual enrichment.

Ask yourself: Ecumenism is defined as “the principle or aim or promoting unity among the world’s Christian churches.” What does unity mean to me when it comes to our nation? My community? How do I hold on to those things that make me a uniquely gifted individual and still relate to my neighbors/friends? Do I ask or insist that my friends or acquaintances give up their own unique characteristics or heritage in order to conform to my own? Do I strive for unity, or perpetuate the divide?

timtaylor_and_wilson7. Bonds of faith.

Ask yourself: What are the bonds that unite me to my neighbors? My friends? My family? To strangers? Are there basic commonalities we all share that bring us together, not just in times of duress, but also in calmer waters? How do we discover those common bonds?

8. Joint witness and social action. 

Ask yourself: If I believe that all life is sacred, do I hold any positions on various issues that may be seen as inconsistent or hypocritical? If I do not believe in the sanctity of life in any or all instances, how do I feel about those that do? What constitutes justice? How do I define a civil right and is that definition historically consistent or one that changes with the times? Are there things I can do to work towards a justice that is truly equal for all, and not for those whom the media or politicians deem a separate-but-equal class of citizens?

9. Peace and patience.

Ask yourself: Many of the problems that plague us as a citizenry and as a human race are as old as time and it’s easy to become frustrated by our fellow man’s inability to learn from the mistakes of the past…or by my mistakes. Do I grow increasingly frustrated and angry by the seemingly slow process of change? Or do I take the long view and realize that I am working towards improving my immediate surroundings and through a rippling effect changing the world for the benefit of my children, grandchildren and those whom I may never know in this lifetime?

10. Pray together.

Ask yourself: If I profess to be a Christian, do I actually practice my faith? Or is it simply a label I wear to belong to a social group or to use as a networking apparatus in my community to increase my bottom line? What do I pray for? Whom do I pray for? Do I pray alone? Do I pray with and for others and their needs? Am I selfless in my prayers? Or do I pray for the prosperity of myself and that others come to see things my way?

Granted, not everyone is going to relate to #10. And while prayer is defined as “an address (or petition) to God or a god in word or thought” there are those individuals who think prayer a fruitless endeavor. I respect this. It is no secret that as a Catholic I believe in and strive towards consistent prayer in order to unite us all in Christ and His teachings. I do this in the privacy of praying a rosary or the Divine Office, reading Sacred Scriptures, or even the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. I do this publicly in the communal prayer that is the Catholic Mass. I’ve prayed for you, dear reader, though you had no idea until this very moment.

As the article in First Things concluded:

Though first presented some twenty years ago, Avery’s ten rules remain relevant and urgent today. Perhaps, when taken together, they sound unduly modest to some, small steps toward a distant goal, but they are steps that move in the right direction.

I’ve asked you a lot of questions here today. Each of them are questions I have asked and continue to ask myself. Pick one of the set of ten for your own situation. Or just pick one question from one set of ten. But do begin to ask them of yourself.

In an speech given to a general audience on April 24, 2013, Pope Francis said

“In this period of crisis, today, it is important not to turn in on ourselves, burying our own talent, our spiritual, intellectual, and material riches, everything that the Lord has given us, but, rather to open ourselves, to be supportive, to be attentive to others. … Set your stakes on great ideals, the ideals that enlarge the heart, the ideals of service that make your talents fruitful.  Life is not given to us to be jealously guarded for ourselves, but is given to us so that we may give it in turn.”

What have you got to lose? What have you (and the world) to gain?

Summer Vacation

To continue my thoughts from last week

The First Principle
Last week I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that got me to thinking about friendships. In a May 17th opinion piece called “Aristotle Wouldn’t Friend You on Facebook” Meghan McBride writes:

Aristotle wrote that friendship involves a degree of love. If we were to ask ourselves whether all of our Facebook friends were those we loved, we’d certainly answer that they’re not. These days, we devote equal if not more time to tracking the people we have had very limited human interaction with than to those whom we truly love. Aristotle would call the former “friendships of utility,” which, he wrote, are “for the commercially minded.”

She continues:

One thing’s for sure, my generation’s friendships are less personal than my parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Since we can rely on Facebook to manage our friendships, it’s easy to neglect more human forms of communication. Why visit a person, write a letter, deliver a card, or even pick up the phone when we can simply click a “like” button?

Like the Modernists described by John Senior that I cited last week it’s tempting to look at the marvels of technology in our age and consider ourselves superior to men and women of the past, but the differences between us and them are not nearly as significant as the things we have in common. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in Chapter 4 of The Ethics of Elflandthese

things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. […] The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization.

He continues:

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately.

There is much to value in the ordinary. The Modernist will overlook the significance of the ordinary man, woman or child, and look instead to celebrate, well…celebrity. Or the shiny and new. The freakish. These are elevated as the new normal; standards for an age that has no standards.

As Chesterton says it is essential for us to recognize what we hold in common if we are to coexist as a nation, democracy or even a community. Again we overlook these commonalities and instead go for the proverbial throats of those whose opinion differs from our own or the prevailing “wisdom” of the age. Dissenters must be ruthlessly attacked with cynicism and malice. The humanity within us all shrivels for lack of attention and when pressed into a corner to make our own rebuttal we devour our “opponent” because our own humanity has been long forgotten. Why should we remember we ever had it? No one acknowledged it therefore it cannot be called upon.

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis pointed out the effects of such cynicism on our souls when he wrote

“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”

This is where the news and the sensationalistic headlines of the day are taking us. Dividing us. Or maybe it’s just me that can’t handle being inundated 24/7 by the sludge. Whatever the case may be I know enough to know when I’ve had enough. I’m taking a vacation.

Will I ever write again? Let’s be honest…who cares, really? I’m sure I will someday as I am currently journaling my way through a few books and my children provide me endless fodder for reflection. I have a young daughter who told me the other day that she’ll be too big to sit on my lap when she graduates college and becomes a teacher. Every day with my middle son lately is an adventure as he tries out a new card trick on me. I have a high school senior who wants to be a Marine after graduation and serve a nation that no longer recognizes nor values honor, sacrifice or personal integrity. I’m proud as hell of him for being smart enough to know the state of our country and still want to serve it. I admit that the child sees something his father, for the moment, does not.

From Desolation to Consolation
Last week I wrote that I sensed I was in the middle of a period of what St. Ignatius describes as spiritual desolation.

Spiritual consolation is an experience of being so on fire with God’s love that we feel impelled to praise, love, and serve God and help others as best as we can. Spiritual consolation encourages and facilitates a deep sense of gratitude for God’s faithfulness, mercy, and companionship in our life. In consolation, we feel more alive and connected to others.

Spiritual desolation, in contrast, is an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil. We are assaulted by all sorts of doubts, bombarded by temptations, and mired in self-preoccupations. We are excessively restless and anxious and feel cut off from others. Such feelings, in Ignatius’s words, “move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love.”

The key question in interpreting consolation and desolation is: where is the movement coming from and where is it leading me? Spiritual consolation does not always mean happiness. Spiritual desolation does not always mean sadness. Sometimes an experience of sadness is a moment of conversion and intimacy with God. Times of human suffering can be moments of great grace. Similarly, peace or happiness can be illusory if these feelings are helping us avoid changes we need to make.

Discernment of spirits is a challenging task. It requires maturity, inner quiet, and an ability to reflect on one’s interior life. Discernment takes practice.

Step one is realizing that there are periods of each in your life. Step two is to recognize when you’re in a period of desolation. Step three is to not freak out over it. Ignatius taught that when “in time of desolation one should never make a change, but stand firm and constant in the resolutions and decision which guided him the day before the desolation…” In other words, stay the course. The temptation is to run around like our hair is on fire and radically change something anything in order to stop our suffering. But in times of desolation we must remember that God is there and given us sufficient grace to endure it. For this persistence we must practice the virtue of patience. We must strive ahead and think long-term. And we must starve the desolation by increasing our spirituality.

Making the Break
To accomplish the above I have decided to take a holiday. I have deleted all my photos, save a handful, from my Facebook profile and will be deactivating my account soon. I’ve flirted with this idea before but always cave, especially in the summer during our baseball seasons. But each time I’ve wanted to do it I haven’t and things do not improve. So like it or not this summer I’m going to make the break. I had also planned on closing this blog down by “locking” it behind a password protected firewall for the summer. I’ve been tinkering with other blogs, or redesigns of this one, and from behind that firewall I can experiment with a little privacy. The jury’s still out on whether I’ll do this. In the rare times I have left Facebook my creativity goes through the roof and I may want an outlet here. Sunday was the feast of Corpus Christi. The Body of Christ. During the quiet moments after receiving Holy Communion and on my knees in prayer an idea for something to write about came to me. A whisper from God? Perhaps. All I can say is it made perfect sense and I’m excited to work on it this summer.

In the past I’ve set out each summer to read an overly-ambitious summer reading list. This summer I have a goal to read just one book: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I got 100 pages into it the last time I attempted to read it. This summer I’m going to get through it all.

The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia.

Just some light reading, no? But just look at some of the wonderful quotes from a novel many consider to be the greatest book ever written.

A summer of increased spirituality through prayer and reading. More time spent with family and the people who mean the most. More time singing songs like this one with my daughter.

Actually, I should have said “more time getting earworms like this song out of my head.” But Lily Collins was cute-as-a-button in this movie as Snow White and Sophie loves to sing her song. Works for me.

When you can’t see the forest for the trees,
Follow the colors of your dreams
Just turn to friends their help transcends
To love, love, love, love, love

The Fruit that Endures
Before he was Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger said:

“All people desire to leave a lasting mark. But what endures? Money does not. Even buildings do not, nor books. After a certain time, longer or shorter, all these things disappear. The only thing that lasts for ever is the human soul, the human person created by God for eternity. The fruit that endures is therefore all that we have sown in human souls: love, knowledge, a gesture capable of touching hearts, words that open the soul to joy in the Lord. So let us go and pray to the Lord to help us bear fruit that endures. Only in this way will the earth be changed from a valley of tears to a garden of God.” – Mass ‘Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice,’ Homily of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Dean of the College of Cardinals (April 18, 2005)

My writing may not be my legacy as I once thought. It sure as hell won’t be whatever I’ve posted on Facebook. My legacy will be the fruit I’ve sown in human souls. While that could occur through something I write someday I think the best way to accomplish it will be through the personal one-on-one time…with a visit, by writing a letter, delivering a card, or picking up the phone…that we know as friendship.

What’s not to “like” about that? Have a terrific summer everyone.

Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure.
Faithful friends are beyond price, no amount can balance their worth.
Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; those who fear God will find them.
Those who fear the Lord enjoy stable friendship,
for as they are, so will their neighbors be. – Sirach 6:14-17

Summer vacation: Happy man near sea