Monday, February 28, 2011

The Bus Trip: 30 years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 6 out of 30

This wasn't our actual bus... but it didn't look too different. 

There was a moment when I was 15 that began to unfold some 20 years, or more, earlier. It was a beautiful summer day, and my mother told me to pack my bag because the family was going to the house that she shared with her sisters down in Rhode Island for the weekend. That much was true, the family was going to the house in Rhode Island for the weekend, and I would go to the house in Westerly for a couple of minutes and then get back into the car to go to the Church. When we arrived at the parking lot of St. Pius X parish I saw a large coach bus. The lot was also filled with a bunch of high school kids, some looked excited, others reluctant, and there was one with a surprised look on his face.
            That surprised look on my face came from the fact that I really knew very little about what was going on. I knew that the parish that we used to go to during the summers in my mom’s hometown had an active youth group. I knew that they went on a trip to Ohio every year; I had heard that it was 15 hours, one way, on a bus. I also knew that at that time that I wasn’t sure that I wanted much to do with it. My mother shoved into my hands a small box that had my well under-used rosary in it and a bible that had been bought a week before (which still sits on my desk to this day) and I was off.
            15 hours there, on a bus. Connecticut seemed endless, Pennsylvania, infinite. Initially out of boredom, I began talking with a few of the other kids on the bus. It turned out that one, who subsequently became one of my better friends in High School, was someone I had played with as a child and that his family lived across the street from my grandparents. Two others whom I befriended had my opinions about the weekend, if we were on a bus at least there were cute girls along for the ride too. (A thought shared by many 15 year old boys on that bus I am sure.) Very quickly I started noticing that the last names were names that I had heard growing up, it turns out that these were all the children of my Mom’s friends… and we were all being shipped off together to Ohio.
            Somewhere about 11 hours into the trip we stopped as a Shoney’s outside of Pittsburgh for Breakfast. Among the deliriously tired was my friend Mike, who when asked whether he wanted chocolate or white milk could only respond “White is nice!” My friend Colin laughed so hard that I thought the milk that they had just brought him would end up shooting out of his nose. My friend Frank was too asleep to even notice. So we sat and ate what was the greasiest, least nutritious, meal of my life and laughed and enjoyed ourselves. "Well," I thought, "at least I got some new friends out of this."
            About four hours later the bus crossed the river from West Virginia into Ohio. I looked down at the brown, muddy expanse of the river, and up at the hills on the other side, and as the bus pulled in I saw a giant Red and White Circus tent, and a couple of thousand of other teenagers mulling about. Most were surrounding a Domino’s pizza trailer that we were told had free pizza for everyone. It was then that I thought that this actually could be ok.
            We got off the bus, unrolled sleeping bags on a racquetball court and took showers after our long bus ride. Then we all went down under the main circus tent, and people were singing about, of all things, Jesus. Almost immediately I began to be afraid, I called my mother later that night to tell her that I had walked into some kind of cult… I asked what I was doing there, and more importantly told her that I needed to come home, quickly.
            I suppose that at this point this story warrants some explanation. Yes, I was still an altar boy in the summer between my Sophomore and Junior years of High School. Yes I did always do well in theology class, and yes I would have comfortably described myself as Catholic. However, there was something comfortable about my Catholicism. Being an altar boy meant $20 every other Saturday for serving weddings. Getting good grades in theology was just what was expected in my house growing up. Sure my Dad prayed with us before we went to bed, but as a high school kid this was quickly replaced with the new ritual of watching TV before bed. I was Catholic, sure, but it was comfortable. It was just easier to be Catholic than not and more than likely,  at the pace I was going, once college rolled around Sunday mornings would become a time to sleep in rather than go to church.  My parents could sense this and they turned to an old friend to help.
The Padre himself. 
            When my parents were both attending Providence College they had a friend named Ray Suriani, and while they were planning on getting married, he was beginning to think about entering the seminary. As fate, or rather providence, would have it he ended up as the associate pastor of my mom’s home parish years later, and they reconnected instantly. Fr. Ray came to a parish that had had two very holy, but very old, priests. Instantly he was able to connect with the young adults and teenagers of the parish, and began taking groups on pilgrimages. When one of those pilgrimages fell through they started taking this bus out to Steubenville, Ohio every year for the youth conference. My mother turned to an old friend that she had met years before for help, and he invited me along.
            Given this, it is not surprise that my mother told me to stick with it when I told her over the phone that I was at a cult meeting. I thought she was the worst mother in the world when she told me that I couldn’t come home immediately. In truth, I am not sure how exactly I would have made it home anyway; 15 year olds don’t think this stuff through. So I stayed, and the next morning I sat next to Colin, Frank, and Mike under the big tent, and started dancing to the music at first to impress some random girls who were nearby, and then I found myself actually letting go and beginning to enjoy it. Later in the day I listened to some talks about living a Catholic life as a teenager and went to confession. Still hedging my bets, I thought to myself: "Sure I will go to confession I haven’t gone in a couple of years and this priest will never see me again so why not?"  Then Saturday night came.
            One of my Christology professors at the Gregorian says that all faith begins in an encounter, and he is right of course. If faith begins with an encounter, then in a real sense, my faith began that night. I am not sure if I can explain or describe what happened that night under that tent. There is a famous story that one day St. Augustine was walking along the shore taking a break from writing a book on the Trinity and saw a young boy using a shell to pour water from the Mediterranean into a little hole that he had dug in the sand. When Augustine asked the young boy what he was doing, the boy responded, “Trying to empty the sea into this hole.” Augustine smiled and told the boy gently that that was impossible. The boy responded, “so is trying to understand the Trinity.” That Saturday night is much like what the story describes, it would be impossible to really say what happened, other than that for the first time in my life I had an encounter with God. There was Eucharistic adoration and singing, but somehow I just became aware that God was alive, real, and wanted to love me, if I would let him. That moment was a turning point in my life without which I would not be here. I knew in my heart who the living God was, and at 15 I wanted to follow Him, whatever the cost.
One of the youth group meetings, I am not in this picture,
though I recognize the miscreants who are. :) 
Of course the truth of life in faith is that it is not sustained by one simple moment, and as much as faith is a response of commitment to the one who we know loves us, that commitment is not without struggle. I needed to find some support. I began going to the youth group meetings, and made some friends that helped me to sustain me through high school and college. Beyond Colin, Mike, and Greg, there I would meet my friends Adam, Stephanie, Kara, Greg, Kristin, Melissa, Jaimie, Maria, Kendra, Lisa, and Beth. The truth is that for most of my teenage and college years, my mother’s friend, Fr. Ray, was there to help me sort it all out. Even now, having been a Jesuit for 8 years, his support and prayers have helped to sustain my vocation. I am also certainly not the only person to come from St. Pius X Parish, where he has been Pastor for a while now, with that story.
        At the beginning of the book of the Prophet Jeremiah, God says to Jeremiah. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” It is amazing to think that before my parents were even married their simple decision and Fr. Ray’s decision to go to Providence College shaped this crucial point in my life. This was one of the most important moments of my life, without which I very much doubt that I would be who I am today. In each of our lives there are those people and those moments. There behind it all is providence, the divine hand of God, leading us in love to those moments even long before we exist, where we can choose to find him, to know him, and to love him. From that knowledge and love comes a service, and like Fr. Ray couldn’t have known that saying yes to taking this non-chalant kid from outside of his parish along on a retreat for the weekend would have meant that that kid would become a Jesuit, none of us can never know the immeasurable good that God wants to work through us.  

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Famous Foosball Table (Version 2, now with video evidence) : 30 years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 5 out of 30

I can’t remember when it occurred to us that putting a foosball table in a college dorm room would be a good idea. What I do remember is that we found one on eBay, and then had to pay a courier company to lug it up Mt. St. James to our dorm room in Lehigh Hall. The day that the table arrived a large green 16 wheeler somehow made its way through the windy streets of campus and to the street behind the dorms known as Easy St., because it was one of the few flat streets on campus, to drop      off the foosball table. Once it was dropped in the middle of my bedroom, the assembly happened rather quickly, and the ball dropped for the first game of foosball. My roommate John had a table as a kid, and was already very good. I played my first game on crutches; I was just recovering from a broken ankle the story of which I will tell later on. From then on, however, the foosball table played a central roll in my life for the next couple of years.
 Yes, for Junior and Senior year of college, I had a foosball table in my room with all of the immeasurable joy that it brought with it. Thursday nights during senior year, the guys would assemble in my room, drink beer, and play foosball. Rather than hitting the bars or partying, we stayed in my dorm room, and enjoyed each other’s company. Quickly these nights became known as foos and booze (though the sheer amount of booze wasn’t really all that much) and we would often times invite special guests. The games really became a medium for something much more important though, it was an excuse to get together, to talk, to share what was going on in our lives. As the real world began to encroach upon our idyllic existence at college students at Holy Cross, it gave us a few hours every week to stop thinking about the future and just live in the present. 
For my friend Brian and his roommate Tim, who would become a Naval officers at the end of the year, it meant that they didn’t have to think about the possibility that they could be deploying to war after the summer was over. For my friend Joe P, it afforded some time off of thinking about his Senior thesis. For my friends Pat and Tom, it was a time when they didn't have to worry about their applications to PhD. programs (Both of them, being super-geniuses, have long since become Drs. Pat and Tom) For my roommate Joe H, it was a time just to enjoy college, and for my friend Matt, it was a time when he just didn’t have to think about the next step. For me, this was a time when I didn’t have to be “the kid becoming a priest” and just be with my friends.
We were often cautious about who we invited, in fact some friends of ours once told us that they were bothered by the fact that they were never invited, but the truth is that this wasn’t ever about exclusion. What these Thursday nights were about a time to be together, and just be. There was a sense that among us, in our own group, we could just be ourselves, and be real and honest with each other, and more importantly just have fun. What made the whole thing so enjoyable, though ,was that in a period of time in someone’s life where their every thought is supposed to be in the future, we were living in the present, if only for a few hours every Thursday night.
There can be something very dangerous about living in the future. Certainly it is irresponsible not to make plans and it is equally irresponsible to not live up the commitments that we have made today tomorrow, but if one lives one’s whole life in the future, one risks missing the most important moment, right now.  St. Therese of Lisuex once wrote in her spiritual autobiography, Story of a Soul, that: “When we yield to discouragement it is usually because we give too much thought to the past and to the future.” The truth its that the past is over, and sometimes when it has been, like it has been for most of us, an imperfect one we can give ourselves over to worrying about it too much. Given where I was heading back then, if I had thought too much of the past and all of the things I had messed up in my life, I am not sure that I would have had the courage to go forward. At the same time, if I had put too much thought into the future, I could have had the doubts that even St. Ignatius had at the beginning, and would have asked myself how I intended to live this kind of life for the next 70 years.
The irony is, that if we can just focus on the present, then we can see our past as grace history, not because it was perfect or that everything went perfectly, but because of the people and experiences that have made it precious. In that moment we can be grateful to God for having brought us this far, even if we are in the middle of a tough moment, because we have made it this far. The other irony about focusing on the present is that we can live in hope, and not in fear, because if we can see how good God is in the present, even in the most mundane of realities, we can trust that that will hold true no matter where we go, who we meet, or what we are to become.
       On those Thursday nights, I could be grateful for having met Joe P on a service trip to Narrows, VA. I could remember with joy meeting Brian at the incoming students reception for students from near Hartford. I could put faith in the fact that God could put people in my life who would have been unlikely friends because of the different social circles that we had been in the first three years of college in Matt. I could be grateful for a great roommate like Joe H. This was a graced history. It was also because of those little moments of the present that when that foosball dropped onto the table for the first time every Thursday, the years ahead became all the more hopeful.  

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Purple Birthday Cake: 30 years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 4 out of 30

What most Americans can remember of their 21st birthday, if in fact they can remember it, does not include a particular emphasis on their birthday cake. I remember mine well, however. It was purple, and had a bible on it. It was specially made for the occasion and ordered by Dean Joe Maguire, a man who was legendary in his own right.
Dean Joe Maguire
Joe had been a Dean at Holy Cross for years, and lived in one of the residence halls. He wore purple, the school’s color, everyday. He had his own table at the local Chuck’s Steak House that they had painted a purple Holy Cross banner above, and was such a fixture at Holy Cross that alums from years before would stop in to visit with him all the time. He counted the local bishop and most of the local clergy among his friends. In so many wonderful ways Joe was larger than life, and it was his work that would establish an education department at Holy Cross, and guide many young people through the years to be excellent teachers. 
The morning of my birthday, my phone rang, it was Dean Joe on the other end “Young Man.” the voice bellowed, “there is something here for you.” The night before my friend Kelly had taken me out for my first legal beer at midnight at Mahoney’s in Worcester, so I was still a little groggy when I picked up the phone. “Umm ok Joe, can I get it when we go out for dinner??” A loud laugh came over the other end of the phone “Enjoying our 21st last night… were we??”
Later that night my family drove up to Holy Cross from Connecticut and we went, along with Joe and my two friends Matt and another Joe, to O’Connors Restaurant in nearby west Boylston.  I had the fish and chips and the beer sampler, which conveniently put 4 beers on one shamrock shaped tray for you to sample the various kinds that they had. Before, though, we picked up Joe from the house he was living in nearby in Auburn, and there on his coffee table was a large cake box.
My 21st Birthday Cake. 
Joe was famous for his ordering of cakes. A friend of his was very talented at making them, so whenever one of us had a milestone coming up, Joe would order a cake that had some sort of significance for us, but they almost always were purple. The cake itself was chocolate, and melted in my mouth as soon as I took a bite. This was the sort of thing that Joe was famous for, unwarranted generosity and love and a desire to celebrate the very best things in life. When Joe died the following October, the Old Testament reading at his funeral was the vision of the Kingdom of God from Isaiah that included “choice wines and juicy meats,” and it was all too appropriate.
Sometimes we assume that the image of the saints is supposed to be of austere people, the ones who fast, who always look just a little discontented because they are here on earth and not in heaven. That does the saints a disservice. Sure there is time to fast, and certainly, as St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” but we need to pay attention to the moments in our lives where if we were just conscious enough of the world around us, we just might be able to rest in God in the here and now.
What we always knew about Joe was that, for no particular reason, he loved us. He would say it all the time, and it was so apparent that he was that way with the students who chose to befriend him that it often was uncomfortable to a world that didn’t want to believe that love could be genuine and without condition. These moments of joy that we shared with Joe proved the opposite to be true. All of this was rooted in Joe’s deep faith, and the simple truth is that is was his relationship with God that gave him the strength to love and that also gave him a joy to be able to celebrate.
        That purple birthday cake is the one detail that stands out from my 21st birthday, not because of its unique color, the bible painted on it, or even the amazing taste. What stands out most in my memory is the lesson that a great teacher taught me through it, that when we can love without condition, there is always something to celebrate.   

Friday, February 25, 2011

30 Days, 30 Years, 30 Stories... Day 3 out of 30.

Catcus, Pizza, and Listening for God. Day 3/30

The Cypress Forest on Monte Pellegrino
I stopped for just a second to take a picture. The sun was setting beyond the horizon of the small mountain that was maybe a quarter of a mile away. The wind was sweeping up the hillside from the Mediterranean below, whispering through the cypress trees. The last rays of light caught a small cactus by the side of the road and turned its needles to gold. It was quiet, and when I looked up I saw that the group that I was with had moved on and were already 200 yards ahead. There in the quiet, on Monte Pellegrino, high above the noise and confusion of Palermo, I found a moment of peace, and it was like a salve to my soul. There in the whispers of the cypress and the golden needles of the cactus I sensed the presence of God, and it was all because I stopped for a second to take a picture.
The Cactus by the side of the road. 
            Often enough in each of our lives we have invitations to these moments, and it doesn’t need to be in an exotic location. Sometimes in my house I walk by one of our small side chapels and feel drawn in. Other times I could be walking to school and stumble across a quiet, empty, beautiful little piazza in Rome. When I lived in Boston, it would often enough be the in the sun rising in the morning over Dorchester Bay, lighting up Umass Boston across the street and turning what I thought was otherwise an architecturally ugly building a bright rose color. At my parent’s house it can be something as simple as looking up at the stars as a fire is burning in the fire pit. Sometimes we just have moments where we’re invited into the quiet, and we need to relish them, particularly in our noisy world.
            I often brag to people back home about being able to see the Campodoglio out of my bedroom window, or that I live right in the middle of Rome. The truth is, though, that despite the ideal location, it is very noisy. When I was in high school and college I would fill every spare moment with noise. When Napster came on line, and before I was self reflective enough to know it was stealing, I was one of the first to have filled their computer’s hard drive with music, which would be playing all the time. (All of it has long since been deleted.) When I went out around campus, I would almost always have headphones on, or want to be talking to someone. Now, in many ways I have discovered that I can be jealous of those moments like the one I had on top of Monte Pellegrino, spaces of quiet, where I can just listen. St. Rosalia left Palermo, found a cave on the mountain, and lived and died there as a hermit, in the silence with God, and I understand why she might.
This is actually a picture that I took in that moment with my
old camera by Lake Casenovia. 
            Rewind to a moment in the summer of 2003, in Casenovia, NY. After having just made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, having just spent 30 days praying in silence along the Atlantic Ocean in Gloucester, MA, I was just learning how to appreciate these quiet moments. Sitting by a beautiful lake at sunset, I was soaking in the silence and listening for the voice of God when I heard:  “ROGERS!!!!! PIZZA’S HERE!!!!!” Rather than hearing the voice of God I heard the voice of another novice yelling down to me to come up and get dinner. I have to admit that in that moment I was annoyed with my brother in the Society, but later that night I realize something important. The dinner that I ate with those guys that night was wonderful. We laughed; we talked for hours, and all of this over a few slices of pizza that could have been eaten quickly. The truth is, I enjoyed that night more than I might have otherwise. Communion with God draws us into communion with others. If we can take those moments to enter into the silence and listen to God, we can find the way to embrace that same silence with others so that we can genuinely hear them and listen.
            Back to the present. Ignatius prayed on the roof of this house, in the dead center of Rome even back then, every night. Even with the bustle below, he heard the voice of God when he would go out of the door from his room on to the small balcony that was over the roof to pray.  Now I often go to a spot nearby to do that same thing, and when my phone rings and it is a friend inviting me to go watch a movie or sit and talk for a while, I can do so knowing that I am being drawn into much the same reality I had just been enjoying. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Little Chocolate Donuts: Day 2 of 30.

30 Years, 30 Days, 30 Stories.

Day 2/30

Little Chocolate Donuts, the Breakfast of Champions.

         When I was in high school, I would be woken up every morning at a quarter 'till six by my father. During the baseball season, invariably there were two things that were options for that day to wake me up. Either "Sox Win, Sox Win!" or "Sox Lose, Sox Lose." Immediately every morning, I knew the result of the baseball game that had been on too late for me to possibly consider staying up for it. On rare occasions, when my favorite team had lost in a particularly horrendous manner, as they had the tendency to do when I was younger, I would hear simply.... "Poor Red Sox." That was just how my day would begin.
My Breakfast in High School. 
          After this greeting I would shuffle into the shower, attempt to gain consciousness, get dressed and head downstairs. On a daily basis there, wrapped up and on the counter for me already, would be one and a half little chocolate donuts, a glass of Orange Juice, and to make up for the donuts, a vitamin. I would always chug the juice and vitamin, grab the donuts wrapped up in silver tin foil, and head out the door to the already waiting car. Every morning on his way to work, whether it was warm or cold, dry or raining, my dad would drive me to the bus stop, so that I could get 20 minutes more of sleep, and then stay there with me for another 10 minutes or so until the bus came, in the warm heated car so that I would never have to be cold. Every morning we would listen to the local morning radio show from 96.5 WTIC FM, and then when the bus came rolling down the street, I would hop out of the car and on to the bus. Not, however, before consuming that little chocolate donut, which Jon Belushi had declared years before to be the breakfast of champions. 
                  When you are in high school it is hard to realize what someone is doing for you, and even heading into college it is very easy to forget that you're really not entitled to much of anything yet in life. None of us have really earned anything when we are young, everything in our life is gift, and I suspect that God is trying to communicate something about the world and about his love for us through that. It is pretty easy to focus on the big things in our lives, the dramatic moments, and the grand gestures. I wouldn't dare not thank my parents for paying for college, and it's not hard to be grateful to the friends who organize birthday parties, or be grateful when someone gratuitously takes on a burden for you. It is harder to be grateful in those small moments though. It is harder to be grateful when it is something routine, something that we come to expect. In fact, I am not sure if I have ever, before now, really expressed my gratitude to my father for all of those mornings waiting for the bus to Northwest Catholic High School.
            So, thank you Dad. Thank you for getting up earlier than you had to to get me up. Thank you for going downstairs and wrapping those little chocolate donuts in tin foil for me so that I could take them to the car. Thank you for convincing Mom to buy little chocolate donuts because, despite Jim Belushi's wonderful claim, they weren't exactly full of the kind of sensible nutrition that caution would call for, but boy were they tasty. Thank you, most of all, for not making me hike up that big hill or stand in the cold every morning before school, and more importantly for enjoying that time in the car with me early on weekday mornings.
          It is unfortunately all too often the case that we aren't really grateful for the little things that we take to be routine. I wasn't as grateful for those mornings as a kid as I should have been. Yet, what I took to be routine I know now was really anything but. Waking up earlier than me, being ready when he woke me up so that he could move me along, putting out breakfast, sitting in the car rather than getting to work. I now realize that this was no small feat. St. Therese of Liseux, in her autobiography, points out that what she really wanted to do was what Bl. Mother Theresa would later paraphrase as "little things with great love." In fact, every one of those mornings was a little thing done with great love, which in and of itself made it a great thing.
        It strikes me that this is precisely how God deals with us, a million little things with great love at every moment of our lives. From the air I breathe as I write this, to the room I sit in to write this, (which happens to be the room where St. Ignatius lived and died) to the food that I will eat later, right down to the light which will fill my window tomorrow morning to wake me up so that I can head over to the university for classes. God constantly bombards us with a million little acts of great love. The key insight of St. Ignatius here is that we have to take time each day to step back and see exactly where it has happened.
         Maybe that is the point, maybe we have to learn first in our lives how to accept grace by having everything given to us, the question then becomes one of how it is that we respond. Maybe, just maybe, if we can learn how to be grateful for those gifts we will be able to see even more where God is present in our lives. Maybe even more we can be so aware of that love that we participate in it, and that could mean something as simple as taking tin foil out of a drawer and wrapping up a little chocolate donut, which is, after all, the breakfast of champions.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

30 years, 30 days, 30 stories, Day 1.

30 years, 30 days, 30 stories.

On March 23rd, I will cross a big threshold, 30 years old. It has occurred to me lately that all of our stories are ultimately, if we pay enough attention, stories that are ultimately stories of grace.  Over the course of the next thirty days, I want to share 30 of those stories with you.

Our Lady of the Way, Who has Always Watched My Way. Day 1 of 30. 

In the beginning, for me, there were six simple words which have ever since shaped my life: "Let her bring it with her," but in fact those word were more something like "let it be."  These are words the power of which I am not sure that I would ever fully realize the significance of for me until just now, "Let her bring it with her." The reality is that these thirty years that I am grateful for almost didn't happen. 
The Madonna Della Strada
            When my mother became pregnant with me it was dangerous to her health. The doctors cautioned bed-rest, and many doctors likely would have told her that for the purposes of her own health that she should have had an abortion. My mother never would have even considered it for a millisecond, and so it was bed rest for her, for months.  The truth is that my mother's doctor likely never even mentioned the possibility that she should abort me, he was an alum of Holy Cross, where I would later go to college, and a man who had at least a sense of faith. My mother went on bed rest so that we both could live.
            My Father, one day during his lunch break from work, went to the Catholic bookstore in downtown Hartford and bought a small plastic resin statue of Mary holding Jesus and put it by my mother's bed. This is a beige statue, no more than 6 inches tall that still stands in my parent's bedroom. Mary's veil is smooth, and she cradles Jesus in her arms. So when my mother was on bed rest, she would pray in front of this simple statue of Mary which stood on her night stand, and when she went to Hartford Hospital for the last days of her pregnancy, the statue came with her.
            Some time early on the morning of March 23rd, 1981, my mother had a stroke. There was a code blue in the maternity ward, and rather than being taken to the delivery room, my mother was taken to the operating room. As they were taking her out of her hospital room she reached out with her good hand to grab the statue, which stood there by her bed. The nurses said "no you can't take it" but my mother clung fast to it.  She had prayed. She was convinced that the Blessed Mother would hear her.  Even now when her life was in danger, when she could have lost her first child, and when everything seemed at its darkest, she clung to fast to her faith, and the belief that with Mary's intercession, God couldn't refuse her what she had asked for.
            It was at that moment, above the nurses objections, Dr. Stavola, her doctor, said "Let her bring it with her." Let it be... at 8:03 that morning I was born. Thirty years later my mother is still alive, still doing well, and much to the chagrin of some, she still has the gift of fortitude that allows her to stick with things through tough times, and the grace to not give up. If the story ended here, it would be a great story, but later in life, that day came to have even more meaning.
            When I was young I asked my mother about that statue, because from a young age I knew how important it was to her. She told me "That is Our Lady of the Way." Whether I knew it or not, from the very beginning of my life Our Lady of the Way has been interceding for me, pushing me along, and now I live in the same building in which the ancient Icon of Our Lady of the Way is housed.
            When St. Ignatius came to Rome in 1540 Pope Paul III gave him the chapel of Our Lady of the Way and from that point on, the Society of Jesus has held her as our patroness. My mother had no idea about this, she didn't really know the devotion all that well in fact. All that she did know was that she had a statue that she was told was Our Lady of the Way. That statue was always around in my house growing up, and at two other key moments in my life, it was the intercession of Mary that guided me.
The Church of the Gesù. Where the Icon is housed
and where I live. 
            When I was at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City after my junior year of college, praying in front of the tilma of Juan Diego, I had a deep interior sense that all of the things in my life were leading me to this life, and a little under a year later I was accepted into the novitiate. There was a moment as well when I thought of packing it in and giving up on being a Jesuit, and then it was listening patiently to the words of Mary in the gospel of Luke having the courage to say "fiat," Let it be done to me according to your will, Let it be, that I knew I couldn't do anything other than be who I am today. Years later, finally reaching the near end of this path of formation to priesthood I have come here, finally, to the Church of the Gesù to the Altar of the Madonna Della Strada, and finally with peace I can say back to the Lord along with Mary, let it be done to me according to your will.
            Our histories are graced histories, if we pay enough attention to see where God has been moving. From my first moment there is a sense in which Our Lady of the Way has been watching out for me. I like to tell my mother that she has only herself to blame for me being a Jesuit, though in fact she is proud of me.  The truth is, though, that reflecting on stories like these make me realize that from my first moments, providence has conspired for me, and not against me. Our Lady has watched me and prayed for me, and somehow I have been given just enough grace to realize it and be grateful. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

From the Altar of Incarnation to the Altar of the Chair.

      When I was in 5th grade Fr. Johnson the parochial vicar at the Church of the Incarnation, our parish in Wethersfield, CT, asked if any of the boys in 5th grade and up would like to join his training sessions to become an altar server. It was a group of 10-15 of us who committed to learning the different exotic names for things like "Chalice," "Ciborium," or the ever outlandish "Monstrance," and memorizing the confiteor, and I have to say that in those afternoons in the parish I probably learned more about the liturgy than I have in the almost 20 years that I have been studying and participating in it since.
       I remember that I wasn't supposed to serve the first time that I did serve the mass. I was supposed to have one more week of training, but Fr. Johnson saw a bunch of us there in the church that Sunday with our families and pulled us back into the sacristy to get ready. I also remember being terrified, because Fr. Johnson wasn't saying mass, it was Fr. Crawford.  I now know that Fr. Crawford was a great man and an excellent priest, but when I was 10, all that I knew was that he was the pastor... and I didn't want to screw it up. So I stood there, on the altar, biting my lower lip, trying to remember all of the prayers. I made it through well enough, and after to celebrate my family went out for brunch. I remembered that nervousness again this past November, though.
Processing in to the Mass. I am without my customary facial
hair here, because we weren't sure whether or not it was ok at
St. Peters, and we knew that JPII wasn't a fan.
    The call came on a Monday night, one of the Jesuit Cardinals in town had died. St. Peter's Basilica had called the college looking for acolytes. (altar servers) Could we do it? It really wasn't out of any sort of merit or seniority, but really just dumb luck that meant that I got to serve on that morning. The main criteria for my selection to go to St. Peter's? I was one of only a few guys who fit into one of the collection of cassocks that we have in the house for just such an occasion. So on Wednesday morning, I put that cassock on and met up with the other guys who were serving. We got on the 64 Bus, and went over to St. Peter's.
    After a VERY brief rehearsal, we went into the sacristy of St. Peter's and waited for the mass to begin. Watching the Cardinals assemble is something to behold. Despite the large "SILENCE" sign posted in the sacristy, the moments before a mass in St. Peter's is something of a social hour for many of them, and rightly so, particularly when they are mourning one of their own. There is obviously a time for the prayer and reflection that that sign is asking for, but there are also times when it is ok to abrogate that silence for the time being. In the spirit of that, I went up to greet and congratulate one of the new Cardinals who had just been made a Cardinal the weekend before. As the immediate preparations for mass began, though, I was handed the thurible, the thing in which the incense is burned. The coals were already lit, and I was told to take the incense to the Dean of the College of Cardinals for him to fill the thurible... All of the sudden the 10 year old boy was back, my heart was racing, and I was biting my lower lip.
    I will not pretend that this mass was my finest hour liturgically. I didn't screw anything up too badly, but I wasn't in the sort of sync that I would have wanted to be. If you watch the video, you can even see a place where I almost fell down while holding the chalice. One little nudge led to another, and another, and another, and I could almost hear the old tennis coach inside my head saying "don't snowball because of a dumb mistake, just focus and get back to it." Then something remarkable happened.
   At the end of communion, the Holy Father arrived to give a homily and the final benediction, and everything just became calm. There I was three feet from the Pope, holding the thurible that he was going to use to incense the casket, and everything just calmed down. In that moment I realized something, that so many moments in my life had led to this one. While this wasn't an end point, or the climax of a story, or even necessarily one of the top ten most important moments of my life, I realized something very important. God calls me as I am.
Serving Mass in St. Peters, I am third from the left, right next to
my friend Gvidas, who is holding the Pope's Mitre. 
    Maybe it is because I am approaching 30, or maybe it is because I am (God-willing) getting closer to ordination, but lately I have been thinking about how so much of our lives lead us to bigger moments. The nervousness I felt that day serving mass for the first time came back on the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter, when I was serving Cardinal Navarette's funeral, and getting ready to hand a flaming hot thurible to Pope Benedict XVI. I think it is good to remember sometimes that no matter where we go, or what we end up doing, that God calls us as we are precisely for who we are. There is no reason to doubt that from the first moment of altar server training at Incarnation that God was planting the seeds of the moment on the Altar of the Chair, and more importantly of my vocation to the priesthood. It is also important to know that I am still that same person that God began calling all those years ago. I am that same person with the same ability to be nervous, and even some of the same nervous ticks, and I think God rejoices in that.  No matter how much I learn, how I grow, or how this formation for priesthood takes hold in me I am discovering that I am still that same person He called, with all of my weakness, nervousness, all of my fears and frustrations.
      Nothing in following God's call in our lives says that we become someone different, whether it is to married life, single life, religious life, or priesthood, what God is calling us to is to become more and more who we are. (A great insight of my friend, Jim Martin, S.J.)  The psalmist reminds us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and Jeremiah reminds us that God knew us before He formed us in our mother's wombs. Of course we are free not to follow that call, but trying to follow it at the very least helps us to become more fully alive, because we are more fully ourselves. As I was standing there in the midst of that mass at the Altar of the Chair nervously biting my lip I couldn't help but ultimately rejoice just a little, because I realized that I was perhaps in that moment, and in others like it, more than ever myself.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Teddy Ballgame, The Science of Hitting, and an exam on the Gospels.

Spring training, surviving the first semester, and realizing that I haven't written in a long time have all gotten me thinking..

Ted "The Splendid Splinter" Williams in his first at bat as a
member of the Boston Red Sox at Fitton Field at the College
of the Holy Cross.. He hit a homerun. 
When I was about 12 years old I tried out for little league baseball. I have to say that the simple truth is that I wasn't very good, and I was almost immediately placed in the minor league division. In any event, a big part of the reason why I wasn't very good was that I discovered that I could hit the ball pretty far when I really got a hold of it. Now, for those of you who are baseball fans, this may seem to make absolutely no sense, but the simple truth is that once I got a mere taste of hitting the ball hard, I never again saw a pitch that I didn't like. It could be high, low, fast, slow, I was going to swing at it, and I wasn't just going to swing at, I was going to crush it. This lead to a batting average that was well south of the feared mendoza line, and a baseball career that ended very abruptly as soon as my parents decided to put a Tennis racket in my hand.
            I was still a huge fan of the game though, and this week the wisdom of one of the greats hit me hard. Ted Williams wrote a book called The Science of Hitting, and the most basic, and best advice that the Splendid Splinter had in that book was that you should wait for your pitch. At the foundation of this is a basic humble admission, you can't hit every pitch, so you wait for the one you can and go with it.
            So often in my life I know that I can still be that 12 year old kid out on the Highcrest School Little League field, wanting to destroy every pitch that comes my way. The difference between now and then is, of course, that I have learned to hold up on swinging at a pitch that I can't hit (and now of course I am speaking in metaphor) and wait for what I can. The clearest example came only a couple of days ago in my Synoptic Gospels final. I walked in, and as with all other exams here, I had 10 minutes to prove to the Professor what I had learned over the course of a semester, the professor gave me two questions that I could answer. Question 1: Talk about  a question about hermeneutics according to the pontifical biblical commission. I hadn't anticipated this one. This was a pitch that was low and at my knees, nearly unhittable. I held back, strike one. Question 2: Do exegesis (explain) of the passage on the primitive Christian community. This pitch was a little high, I could hit it, but it was risky, no swing. Strike 2. I asked for a third pitch, and it was graciously given. Question 3: Exegesis on the Parable of the Lost sheep in Luke. Fastball, 90 miles and hour, right down the middle of the plate... swing, contact, over the fence... Homerun!
            You see the simple truth is that somewhere, deep down, I didn't want to wait for that last pitch. I wanted to try and answer one of those first two questions to impress the professor, but I held back, I was humbled by the fact that I didn't know the responses to the questions well enough to try to answer and do well, I would have had to fake it, and in the name of protecting my own pride, I may have lost out in the end. So often it is the case in our lives, we hesitate to do anything that might demonstrate that we are weak, and in doing so we can find ourselves undone. I had to ask for that third question, I knew I couldn't do the other two justice, and when I did, when I admitted my weakness, I was able to wait for a question that I could. Jesus once said that the truth sets us free. The truth here was simply this, sometimes we need to be honest about who we are and where we are at to have any hope of success, even if that truth is that we can't hit a given pitch.