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Friday, May 18, 2018

My Daughter's Probing School Project...

Like a deer in headlights... 
My 13-year-old daughter gets home from dance one night this week and says, "Dad, I need to record you on video for a project I have for school.  You need to tell me in ten seconds what it means to be a Christian."

"Excuse me?" I gasped, almost spilling my wine on the couch.  C'mon!  I was comfortable with a glass of Pinot Noir in my hand, my feet up, after a long day at work, and settling in to watch the Mets' game.  Now, she wants me to think!  Are you kidding me?

"Think about it for a minute and let me know when you're ready," she stated as she walked off into her room, clueless to what was running through my brain.

My mind started racing.  What do I say? What does it mean to be a Christian?  That's a huge!  In ten seconds?  Why does she always come to me?  Why not ask Mommy?  

Then, I caught myself and paused.  I should be honored.  She came to me, as she's done for other projects and I've come through.  She trusts me and, moreover, I'm supposed to be the spiritual leader of my household!  She's giving me an opportunity to lead!  Either that or my wife said to her, "Ask your Dad!" and I was the default guy.  In either case, the question remained, what do I say?

I thought for a minute and gathered myself.

About two minutes later, I yelled out, "OK., I'm ready."  I got up quickly and wrote down some notes so I wouldn't forget what I had come up with.  I'm better at remembering when I write things down (but don't tell my wife or she'll have me writing all day!).

My daughter came back into the living room with her school iPad in hand and pointed it at me.

I told her to sit in front of me and she did.  She said, "Remember, you need to say it in ten seconds."  Pausing briefly, she started rolling and then asked, "What does it mean to be a Christian?" 

"To be a Christian," I answered, "is to be children of the light.  To live in hope and in joy because, no matter what we're going through, no matter what hardship we may face, we know we'll get through it with love and faith. That's what it means to be a Christian."

I'm sure there are many other approaches I could have taken.  I was reminded later of Pope Benedict, who wrote that being a Christian is not about a book.  It's not about a creed.  It's about an encounter with a Person.  But, the children of the light route is the one that came to mind and I was able to expound upon quickly and succinctly.

"Great!" she exclaimed.  "That was perfect."

"Really?" I asked, trying to sound humble, while envisioning the choir of angels saying, "Go Carlos, Go Carlos, Go Carlos..." and my 10-year-old son dancing the floss.  I didn't even have to glance at my notes!

"Yes.  You were about 18 seconds long but you were the best one!"  (As if my ego needed any more stroking!)

Aww.  Thanks, honey.  Hopefully, my reward will be in heaven.  Then again, I may need to work on that humility thing!... 

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Crooked Legged Lady and People I Meet Around the Golf Course...

Around the golf course... 
I was beginning to wonder. Did she change her routine?  Did she move away?  Did something happen to her?  Or worse, did she die?  If so, did she have family to mourn her?  What about her dog?

For six months, I had been running into her (pun intended) every morning on my 3-mile jog around the golf course.

She was hard to miss; an elderly woman, probably in her mid-80's, with a crooked leg, a cane in her left hand and her dog on a leash in the other.

The crookedness most likely the result of a rare condition called Paget's Disease, where the tibia starts to bend (Not that I'm a doctor but I do have internet and slept in a Holiday Inn last night!).  In her case, it was a pronounced curve on the right leg between her kneecap and ankle.

Yet, even with her crooked leg, she was always out and about; walking with her white Maltese or leaning on the exterior wall of her yard enjoying the morning sun.  She was like the golf course matriarch, who people approached for conversation.  I always made a point of saying, "Good morning," as I ran by and, she always reciprocated (unlike other people who don't even look at me!  Courtesy is a lost art, but I digress).       

Then, one day, she vanished; nowhere to be seen or heard from again.

One week went by and I didn't really notice.  Two weeks went by and I thought she may have gone  to visit relatives out of town.  By the fourth week, I took notice.

It's funny how we become accustomed to the sights and sounds we experience every day.  I have been running the same route around the golf fairways and greens near my house four or five times a week for months and, each time, usually see the same people, either running or walking along my way.

Aside from the crooked-legged lady, there's the full-bosom lady with the short hair, who always smiles as she walks by; the good-looking big headed man with the square jaw and thin body, who wears sunglasses to run and looks like a life-sized emoji; the fit-looking couple in their 50's who always say hello; the Ernest Hemingway look-a-like, who sometimes walks with his wife, sometimes with a friend or sometimes with both; the strong-nosed man with the curly white hair, who always seems to be running at the same pace no matter where I run into him around the course; and, the countless men and women walking their dogs, or getting exercise on any given day, including an occasional friend or acquaintance that go by.

Then there are the people that come and go, who I never see again; like the older man with the powder blue sweat suit opened just enough to reveal his chest hair and herringbone gold chain.  To cap off his caricature look, I noticed him holding a cigarette in one of those long plastic holders like Cruella De Vil in his hand.  He looked like a character in Steve Martin's My Blue Heaven!  He obviously left an impression.  I only saw him once (Hopefully, he's not swimming with the fishes!).

Despite not knowing these people and not even uttering a word to them beyond a greeting, as we cross paths, they become a familiar part of my day; the landscape that comforts and keeps me company through the punishing 35-minute runs that take an obvious toll on my svelte 230 lbs. frame.  Needless to say, when they're not where they're supposed to be, I feel their absence.

To some extent, it might be due to the fact that we are social beings.  Yet, in the frenzy of life, and with new technology which has made the world smaller but humanity grow farther, it's the brief contact with others, outside of work and family, we sorely miss.  Many people don't even know their neighbors!  Hence, the people we see regularly fulfill our need for connection.     

GK Chesterton once wrote, “The modern world is a crowd of very rapid racing cars all brought to a standstill and stuck in a block of traffic.”  Everybody is in a hurry to get somewhere but we sometimes find ourselves stuck going nowhere and turning inward instead of outward.  The key to happiness is getting outside our car doors, walking around and meeting other drivers.    

I don't know what it was about the crooked-legged lady.  Maybe, it's the fact that she reminded me of my great grandmother, who had leg issues as well, or because, despite her obvious disability, she was still very active.  Maybe, it was the aura of warmth about her or the feeling that she, like others that cross my path, are there for a reason; like palettes of an artist bringing color to my life.  But, I missed seeing her.

Then one recent morning, I was coming around the corner where I usually turn unto the golf course  and, in the distance, saw a woman walking a white Maltese.  Her slow deliberate gait was familiar but her legs were perfectly straight.  Is it?  Could it be?  About two months had gone by since I had last seen her.

As I came around and got closer, I realized, she looked much younger but it was her!  She was crooked-legged no more!  There was joy in Mudville and in my morning runs once again.  I have been seeing her four or five times per week again ever since...


Friday, May 4, 2018

A Ballad to Mary by Eric Clapton...

August is Clapton's biggest-selling album... 
It's amazing the things you learn on social media.  While scrolling through my Twitter feed recently, I came across a post on an Eric Clapton song, named Holy Mother, that I had never heard of.   

Not that I'm familiar with every Clapton song but the Blessed Mother is not a subject usually reflected in rock-and-roll music, save maybe U2's Magnificent.

Holy Mother was part of his August album in 1986.

In doing a little research, I found that it was written shortly after Clapton's life hit rock-bottom from drugs and alcohol addiction.

He reached a point of great despair, when the rocker wrote in his memoirs, Clapton: An Autobiography, he was in his room one night, got on his hands and knees and, in tears, started begging, someone, anyone (he didn't know who) for help.

The lyrics came to him shortly afterwards and he openly admits, since then, not letting a day go by without praying for help in the morning and expressing gratitude at night.

Since May is the month of Mary, I wanted to share the words he wrote on my blog.  Below, you will also find his performance of the song with opera great Luciano Pavarotti during a benefit concert for Bosnia in 1996... 

Holy Mother, where are you?
Tonight I feel broken in two.
I've seen the stars fall from the sky.
Holy mother, can't keep from crying.
Oh I need your help this time,
Get me through this lonely night.
Tell me please which way to turn
To find myself again.
Holy mother, hear my prayer,
Somehow I know you're still there.
Send me please some peace of mind;
Take away this pain.
I can't wait, I can't wait, I can't wait any longer.
I can't wait, I can't wait, I can't wait for you.
Holy mother, hear my cry,
I've cursed your name a thousand times.
I've felt the anger running through my soul;
All I need is a hand to hold.
Oh I feel the end has come,
No longer my legs will run.
You know I would rather be
In your arms tonight.
When my hands no longer play,
My voice is still, I fade away.
Holy mother, then I'll be
Lying in, safe within your arms.

Friday, April 27, 2018

My Morning Prayer...

Lord, thank you for another day and opportunity to serve you and to serve others.
Let me serve you and serve others today.
Give me a servant's heart.
Let me fulfill your purpose for me today and everyday.
And, let my words and actions be for your glory not mine.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Friendship, Faith and Reason...

A dark and lonely world... 
"Nothing will shake a man--or at any rate a man like me--out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself."  -- CS Lewis, A Grief Observed.

Affliction; agonizing affliction from the depths of the soul.  

Emptiness; not the void some people feel at crossroads in their lives but one bordering on despair.  The kind of emptiness that wells up like a knot in the heart and makes even breathing uncomfortable.    

Confusion; where nothing seems certain and nothing makes sense.

That's the torture Lewis was referring to after the death of his wife and there is much wisdom in his words.  

Excruciating hardships and sorrow are possibly the greatest equalizers in the human condition.  Nothing is the same before they come and nothing can ever be the same afterwards.  

It is at these times when some people either turn to God or lose their faith.

I have a friend who experienced that kind of torture.  His teenage son, who was excelling in school and the apple of his eyes, committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree in the backyard of his house.  It was the house the family had lived together before my friend and his wife got separated and eventually divorced.  

My friend partially blamed himself but mostly blamed God.  He says he went into a depressive funk, locking himself in his room and refusing to come out for over a year.  Up to that point, he had always been caught up in the vanity of the world; concerned about appearance and what people thought of him.  But, after his son's tragic demise, he let himself go.  He gained weight.  Nothing seemed to matter.  He lost his reason for living and in the process, his faith.  In fact, he said he hated God.  

It wasn't until a group of high school friends talked a former classmate turned Catholic priest to dedicate a park in his son's name, and coaxed him into attending the ceremony, that hope began to peak through the dark clouds that enveloped him. 

Another good friend, an attorney at a large law firm, experienced a debilitating depression that left him useless; to the point where he couldn't sleep and reading a sentence, much less, writing one, was impossible.  He couldn't concentrate.  He couldn't think.  He couldn't function.  He hid in his office overwhelmed by torment and despondence.  Only guilt kept him from doing what he wanted to do; take his own life.

Life is difficult, as M. Scott Peck writes in the first line of The Road Less Traveled.  Even Jesus experienced the depths of human desolation.  While hanging on the Cross, He uttered, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

In Jesus' case, He was reciting the words of Psalm 22, which Jews of His time knew very well.  He was letting them know that He was the fulfillment of the prophecy and would be vindicated.  In our case, it's a little more diluted.  

An old high school friend is in the midst of his own Calvary.  For three years, he has been mourning the death of his mother and, not long afterwards, the quick deterioration of the health of his father to the point where he doesn't recognize his own son.   

He's an only child and, despite having a wife and kids, the loss of the two people he most revered, one through death, the other through illness, was hard accept.  Life lost its meaning; its flavor.  

He was a Born Again Christian, devoted to the Lord and the Bible.  However, after his mother's passing and his father's decline, he started to drift from his faith and eventually started questioning it.  

It apparently started with finding inconsistencies in what was being preached and what was being lived at his church.  He also experienced the scandal of denominationalism; where one Christian group breaks away from another over disagreements on interpretations of the Bible, which is one of the many consequences of the Protestant Reformation.  Soon doubt began to creep in and grew into bitterness.  

His journey and search for "truth" led him to modern skeptics, the Atheist scholars, many of whom are teaching at major universities, who are aggressively turning believers away from their faith.  Instead of embracing the Cross, he turned against it; maybe unwillingly, I'm not sure, but he admits his heart has hardened.

Now, he doubts, among other things, the validity of Sacred Scripture, whether Jesus ever claimed his divinity and whether Heaven and Hell exist; which, in effect, is doubt on the existence of God.

Doubt is good, as long as we are willing to work through it to find Truth, with the capital T, and meaning. 
Karol Wojtyla with his students...

St. John Paul II once wrote, "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."

The Pope knew a thing or two about hardship himself, having lost his mother, sister and brother at a young age and his father by his early 20's, then experiencing the wrath of Nazism and Communism that ravaged his native Poland.  He turned to his studies and God; reason and faith.

He was a brilliant thinker and scholar, having himself been a college professor, who understood that faith without reason is left wanting at best and reason without faith is deficient.

Blind faith or cultural faith are houses of cards, which is why so many modern scholars are turning young believers into "Nones" (Not affiliated with any religion in the Pew Research Studies or Atheists).

Christians can't be afraid of delving deeper, seeking answers and challenging their doubts.

We have the example of St. Thomas the Apostle who said he wouldn't believe until he saw and touched the wounds and once he did, said, "My Lord and my God."

Bishop Robert Barron harps on this issue.  He says for far too long, we've been plagued with dumbed-down Catholicism and dumbed-down Christianity because clergymen have been afraid of engaging truth and losing their faithful on intellectual discussions.  Instead, young Christians are finding intellectual arguments against the faith, on social media and in stacks of books hitting book stores, compelling and leaving churches in droves.         

Some of the arguments are nothing more than unsubstantiated "theories," which have been around since the Enlightenment.  Others date back to early Christianity and Arianism or other heresies.

I'm not going to get into details here but, suffice to say, there are answers, in the Church's case, two thousands years of answers by some of the greatest minds in the annals of time, if we want to find them.  I'm praying my old high school friend doesn't stop searching and opens his heart to the real Truth that every man and woman on the face of the earth is looking for, whether they know it or not.

As for my friend who lost his son, he is now much stronger.  You never quite get over the loss of a child but he has learned to cope and his faith is what keeps him going; the hope that one day he will see and embrace his son again.  

In the case of my lawyer friend, his depression was after his bout with alcoholism and before his heart attack!  He now jokes that the only way that God got through to him was by putting him through the rigors of alcoholism, depression and a heart attack (the torture that brought out truth).  He too restored his life, got married, had a family and is living his faith.

I love the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, "The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort.  You were made for greatness." 

For the once Atheist scholar CS Lewis, the Truth of Christianity was irrefutable, and despite the pain and grief he felt with the loss of his wife, when he questioned God, he also wrote in the same book on his grief, "beneath the fragile and very human veneer of the organized churches of the world, there lies a truth so real and so pristine that all of man's concocted philosophical posings tumble into ruin beside it."

The father, whose child Jesus drove the unclean spirit from, said it best, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief."... 


Friday, April 6, 2018

The Table is Set and We're Invited...

“Faith's table is always laid, whether the invited guest sits down or stays away with a thousand excuses and pretexts.” 

-- Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss theologian, author and priest, who Pope John Paul II nominated as a cardinal three times.  The first two, Balthasar rejected.  The third, he finally accepted in 1988.  However, he died in his home two days before the ceremony at the age of 82. He is considered among the most important theologians of the 20th century and was once called, "perhaps the most cultured man of our time."  Balthasar was a consummate writer, publishing over a thousand books and articles and influencing countless of Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, over his lifetime and beyond, including Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Road to Emmaus...

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio 1601... 
This is one of my favorite stories in the Bible.  It is the Gospel reading today.  Notice that they recognized Him in the "breaking of the bread."  We too recognize Him and encounter the Risen Lord in the "breaking of the bread" at every Mass...
"That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus' disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. 
And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them,
but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, "What are you discussing as you walk along?" They stopped, looking downcast.
One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?"
And he replied to them, "What sort of things?" They said to him, "The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,
how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him.
But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place.
Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning
and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive.
Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see."
And he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!
Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures.
As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther.
But they urged him, "Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over." So he went in to stay with them.
And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.
With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.
Then they said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?"
So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them
who were saying, "The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!" Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread."  (Luke 24:13-35)