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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Christian Cheer Over Wings and Beers...

A little taste of heaven...
"Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there's always laughter and good red wine."  -- Hilaire Belloc.

I have a great group of friends.  We don't always agree on everything.  We may even have different approaches to faith, life and politics.  But, what binds us, most of all, is our sincere love of God, family and, for the most part, one another.

Over the past eight years, some of my closest friends are the guys in my men's church group.  We have become a tight-knit community that share in each other's personal lives; spending time socially with our families, as well as time serving God through our ministry and encouraging, supporting and guiding one another through difficulties.

We joke, we laugh, we even shed a few tears from time to time (me more than others) and we earnestly enjoy each other's company; usually centered around meals, wine and spirits, conversation and an occasional cigar.

Now, some Christian groups might frown upon our mixing of faith and spirits (in the alcoholic sense of the word) because they see the body as the temple of God and are against anything that may defile the body; i.e. liquor.  Fortunately for us, Catholics are not one of them!

That's not to say that the Church promotes drunkenness or overindulgence, and we all walk a fine line between social drinking and going over the edge, but, the way I look at it, God gave us physical pleasures for our enjoyment out of love, and, so, who are we to reject that love, as long as we don't distort it's intent and purposes, where we lose dominion of our senses, end up praying to the porcelain god and can't recall what we did the next morning (not that I know from personal experience!).  Therefore, sharing a few laughs with friends and with some cocktails in hand is definitely within limits!

Let's just say, my friends and I take to heart the advice of St. Paul, who, when writing to Timothy, encourages, "No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments."  Since, most of us are in our 40's and 50's, where getting out of bed to go to the bathroom in the morning is sometimes painful, boy, do we all have ailments!

One of my favorite quotes by Archbishop Fulton Sheen is a reference to Jesus at the Wedding at Cana.  He said, "You've got to love a guy, whose first miracle was to keep the party going."

Partying, celebrating and merriness are part of the Christian identity from the beginning.  In fact, for Jesus, meals, wine and good cheer were part of the human condition and served as a powerful bond among friends; think Last Supper! 

In the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord himself admonishes the Pharisees for their criticism, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" (Matt 11:19)

Moreover, not only did He take an occasional drink, He appeared to be a connoisseur.  He knew the difference between good and bad wine, "no one who has been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, 'The old is good.'" (Luke 5:39)   

In any case, Jesus is a man's man and, while wine was the drink of choice during His time on earth, I'm sure he would enjoy a good brew if he were walking around today (Maybe, like the Most Interesting Man in the World; a Dos Equis or two), as my friends and I do at our favorite watering hole every week after our meetings. (The owner reserves a table for us!)

It is there over beers, burgers and chicken wings (and an occasional lentil soup, since one friend is usually dieting) that we bond and share in friendly banter on sports, politics, life and family.  It is there, however, that we also sometimes share in the most intimate and profound conversations on faith or personal struggles; marriages on the rocks, children who have gone astray, and fears and temptations that appear to consume. 

Christianity is not always rosy; it wasn't meant to be.  Suffering, pain and loss are part of the equation.  Jesus came to teach us about suffering; the ultimate gift of one who loves ("Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.").  Maybe, that's why God gave us wine.

As the great GK Chesterton once put it, "In Catholicism, the pint, the pipe and the Cross can all fit together."  And, to my friends and I, they clearly do...   


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Self-Rejection and the Truth of Our Existence...



“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, 'Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.'... [My dark side says,] I am no good... I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.  Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the 'Beloved.'  Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence." 


-- Fr. Henri Nouwen, internationally renowned priest, college professor and author, who wrote 40 books on the spiritual life, including one of my favorites, The Return of The Prodigal Son; A Story of Homecoming, and taught at the University of Notre Dame and the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard. 

The Dutch-born clergyman and scholar was heavily influenced by hospital chaplain and educator Anton Boisen, Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, Dutch impressionist artist Vincent van Gough and philosopher, theologian and humanitarian Jean Vanier.

During the 70's, Nouwen lived and worked with the Trappist monks in the Abbey of the Genessee in New York.  In the early 80's, he lived with the poor in Peru and Bolivia.  He went on to work with mental and physically handicapped people in France and Canada before his death in 1996.

His books have sold over 7 million copies and have been published in over 30 languages.  Since his death, his popularity has increased among readers, teachers and seekers...


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy and Manly Time with My Son...

It's funny, after having two daughters, I thought for sure our next child was going to be a girl.  I have three friends that have three daughters and I thought I was also destined for what Cubans call, "chancletero" status (a term which a translation could do no justice!).

Still, in all honesty, I always wanted a son.  I was hopeful my first child would be a son, so he could take care of his sisters.  Then, I was hopeful our second would be a son, so he would have his older sister's friends to chase after.  Then I was hoping it would be my third, which my oldest daughter started calling her baby brother but, unfortunately, my wife lost during her eleventh week of pregnancy.  By the time, my wife conceived our fourth, I had accepted that my destiny would be to raise girls and, in sincerity, I was happy as a clam with the prospects.

Then, my son was born.  He was unexpected and a welcomed gift from God.  I envisioned him playing Major League Baseball, growing up to be strong, just and responsible, and, of course, courageously standing up for righteousness and defending the meek.  In other words, like many fathers, I envisioned my son of becoming a superhero; a guardian of the galaxy. 

But then came the first hiccup in my vision; potty training!

We didn't know what to do.  Let's face it, a girl you sit on the toilet when she has to go.  What were we supposed to do with our boy?  How was I going to teach him to stand in front of the toilet, point and release?  It was so easy in the pamper!  He didn't want to learn.  And, when he finally did start going into the toilet, it was like we needed a raincoat and rubber boots to keep dry from his wild and out-of-control spraying (not that I'm suggesting his mini cap gun had any resemblance to a fire hose but you get my drift).  I was perplexed and thus began my novice adventure into raising a son.

Several years into the adventure (He is now seven), and although he is still mastering his aim in the bathroom, I'm learning about as much from him about love, nobleness, humility and the innocent faith of a child, as I am teaching him.  

A few weeks ago, on a random Saturday, my wife and daughters had a busy itinerary planned with dance practice, Zumba class (my wife's a teacher) and then appointments at a beauty parlor to get dolled up for the beginning of the school year.  So, I got to spend a little quality time with my boy or, as he acutely referred to it recently, he was spending time with "the big guy." (which, believe it or not, he meant affectionately in reference to my girth!)

The plan was for the girls to do what they had to do and the boys do our thing and then we would meet at home to get ready for the Vigil Mass at five, where I was scheduled to be a lector.

We all got off to an early start.  Shortly after my wife and the girls left for dance, my son asked if we could go watch the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, which I had no particular interest in watching but I told him if we did a couple of things that we needed to do in the morning, I would take him to the movie at twelve thirty.  He agreed.

Time for a hair cut...
The first stop was at the barber shop for his pre-beginning-of-school haircut.  It's a routine he and I started a couple of years ago, since we have been letting his hair grow over the summer.  During the school year, the school makes him keep it short!  

I took him to a barber shop I go to regularly that is less than 5 minutes from our house, is cheap and you're in an out in about 15 minutes (because there's usually more barbers than customers!).

I like to help the owners out, despite their little Santeria altar dedicated to St. Barbara (aka Chango) in a back corner of the shop, because it's a group of young Cuban refugees, all pretty recent arrivals, who are trying to make it on their own.  Still, in all honesty, I don't think the quality is that great.  In fact, I don't even think most of them know how to handle scissors (which is not a skill deficiency a barber should have!).  They do most of their hair cuts using an electric sheerer.

For me, it's not a big deal because I keep my hair short and tight to the scalp but my wife doesn't like it when I cut our son's hair too short.  So, I immediately had second thoughts as we walked into the place and the youngest guy in the back of the place with the pimples and peach fuzz (not even one of the regular guys I have gone to), jumped out of his chair and said, "Come this way," as he brushed some hair off his chair with a towel (It's one of those places where the barbers take turns so they all get their fair share of customers).  Well, it went downhill from there. 

Sensing he was not exactly the LeBron James of the barber shop world, I told him to just trim a little off the top, cut his bangs off his eyes and even out the rest.  A simple request right?  What could go wrong?  I figured, if it wasn't great, I could take him for another haircut in a few weeks!

Well, about five minutes into the haircut, I noticed he had sheered a beautiful 45 degree line of hair from the immediate top of my son's right eye up to the middle of his forehead over his left eye.  I pointed out the obvious discrepancy and he said he would fix it.  The rest of the haircut was a blur.  He would sheer one side, then sheer the other, then go back to the first side to try to make it even.  It was a disaster. 

He kept saying my son was moving and I would look at my son, who was as stoic as a renaissance sculpture, and trying to give the barber the benefit of the doubt, I would tell him, "Don't move, Buddy." And, he would answer in earnest, "I'm not moving!"

At the end of the exercise in futility, which left my son looking like a punk rocker, who after a night of binge drinking with his buddies, woke up half asleep and still drunk in the middle of the night and attempted to cut his own hair, the barber tried to cover up the evidence by slathering gel on my son's head.  By that point, I just wanted to get my son out and hope it would grow back fast!

It wasn't exactly the best way to start our father son day, but fortunately, my son couldn't tell.  He was as happy as Sylvester the Cat after having swallowed Tweety Bird and I wasn't about to spoil his fun!

"Can we go see Guardians of the Galaxy now?" he asked.

"Not yet," I told him.  "The movie doesn't start for several hours.  First I have to go to Confession."

"Oh, no!," he complained.  "That's boring."  Now, everything that doesn't involve him playing or being entertained is "boring."

"If you want to go to the movie, you have to go with me to Confession." What was he going to do?

We stopped for a quick breakfast at a nearby bakery and when we got to the church, there was already a line of people waiting for Confession.  I told him to sit down in one of the pews and he started playing with several toy figures that he put in his pocket before leaving the house.

It took about 40 minutes and, while it crossed my mind to confess the bad haircut given to my son that morning (which definitely was a sin, albeit maybe not mine, depending on how you look at it!), we were finally heading to the movies.

Don't mess with Rocket...
It was a 12:30pm showing but what I didn't notice was that it was 3-D.  I'll be honest, I had never watched a 3-D movie; mostly because of the price tag involved, since it is usually five of us.  But, because the next regular showing would end about an hour later, which would complicate our plans for Mass, and since it was just the two of us, I splurged.

It was a great decision.  The movie was great.  I enjoyed it tremendously.  It was funny.  It was exciting.  It had a great soundtrack; targeting the older generation that would be taking our kids.  And, the fact that I went in with low expectations only enhanced my appreciation for the film. 

Moreover, it was a well told story of good versus evil.  A ragtag gang of misfits who band together for a greater good and are willing to sacrifice their lives, despite the overwhelming odds, to save the galaxy.  It's the tried and tested formula of Lords of the Ring, Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars and many other films but what made Guardians, very enjoyable for me, aside from the 3-D quality, is that it didn't take itself too seriously.

As we walked out of the theatre and headed towards our car in the parking lot, talking about the movie, my son turns to me and says, "Daddy, we're spending manly time together."

"Yes, we are," I told him but the comment didn't hit me until later that night.

We went home to get ready Mass and wait for the girls.

To make a long story short, the girls couldn't make it in time so I went with him and, since it was a Saturday vigil Mass, and we got to the church early because I was reading, I couldn't find anyone to leave him with so I took him to the first pew in the church and told him to sit there.

It was amazing.  The entire Mass I kept looking at him and he was sitting there quietly.  He sat when he had to sit, kneeled when he had to kneel and stood when he had to stand; all by himself without anyone to tell him.

After Mass, I couldn't be prouder.  We went home, met up with the girls and went to dinner.

Just kicking back on "the big guy"... 
As I recapped the day, later that night before going to sleep; I thought, we had gone to get a bad haircut, he had gone with me to Confession, we watched a movie and attended Mass together.  It was a wonderful day.  I then reflected on my son's comments.  We really had spent "manly time," because a true man is a man of faith, a man of love, a man of sacrifice.

A couple of days later, while watching him go to the bathroom in the morning, I thought; aside from teaching him to point correctly, what kind of legacy of truly important lessons was I leaving for my son? Was I teaching him the importance of faith, integrity and honor, to respect women and authority (not to be confused as one and the same although, sometimes at my house, it's hard to tell), to love his mother, sisters and country, to take responsibilities for his actions, help others, provide for the less fortunate and never be afraid to stand up for truth and righteousness, even, like the Guardians of the Galaxy, in the face of danger?

A few days later, the question was still lingering in my mind and I asked a group of friends, what kind of men they wanted to raise their sons be.  And, one friend, who has two girls responded, "What kind of son should you raise?  You know since you have two girls yourself, raise him to be the type of son that I can trust with my daughters."  And, that in a nutshell is probably the best answer.

And, in a culture that tries to emasculate men by making them more like women and women more like men, that is probably the best any father of a son can hope and pray for.

The fight of good and evil starts in the mundane; the daily battles within against sin and complacency.  We must fight the good fight of faith, as St. Paul urges, and take hold of the eternal life which we have been called. (1 Tim 6:12)

In the words of Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, "So here we are a thief, two thugs, an assassin and a maniac but we're not going to stand by as evil wipes out the galaxy."...