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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Words of Wisdom from Hans von Balthasar...

"To be a child means to owe one's existence to another, and even in our adult life we never quite reach the point where we no longer have to give thanks for being the person we are."

-- Hans Urs von Balthasar; Roman Catholic priest, author and considered one of the most important theologians of the 20th Century. Balthasar is said to have influenced St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, among many others and was once called, "perhaps the most cultured man of our time." The Swiss born scholar priest published over a thousand books and articles and sought to offer an intellectual response to Western modernism. He died in 1988, at the age of 82, just two days before he was to become a Cardinal.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Politics of Pride, Death and Family...

Selling his soul to the Devil...
In one of my most memorable movie lines, at the end of Devil's Advocate, just when it looked like Keanu Reeves' character, Kevin Lomax, was going to get a fresh start in life, after all the mayhem, death and destruction caused by his selfishness, lust and greed, Al Pacino's character, aka Satan, taking the form of a reporter, coaxes Reeves into giving him an interview, saying, "This is a story that needs to be told.  It's you. You're a star," which hearkens back to where the movie started; a little known defense attorney trying to make a name for himself and pursuing all the things that St. Thomas Aquinas once said are man's substitutes for God; money, pleasures, power and fame. 

Lomax looks at his wife, looks back at the reporter and says with a smile, "Ok., Larry.  Call me in the morning," and walks away.

As the young attorney and his wife leave the scene, the reporter becomes Al Pacino, who looks into the camera, smiles broadly and says, "Vanity.  My favorite sin!"

Vanity, which at its core, like all sins is rooted in pride, the sin that led to the fall of man in the Garden of Eden and continues to plague and destroy souls, marriages, families and societies.

Yes, I know.  Most people today abhor any thought of sin because it reminds them of sin's consequence; hell!  And, they prefer not to think about hell, since it means having to change their ways, almost as much as thinking about death.

Last week a friend told me about the estranged relationship her husband had with his parents, despite living about ten blocks away from them.  For no apparent reason, except for stubbornness and pride, they hadn't spoken to each other in over a year.

I was thrown aback.  My friend and her husband have two little kids.  A year has gone by and they haven't seen or talked to their grandparents!

I said to her, "I have to take your husband to a retreat," and before she explained how difficult his parents were, I told her, "It doesn't matter what may or may not have happened.  We are called to honor our fathers and mothers and sometimes have to swallow our pride because one day, they are not going to be there and then he will regret it." 

Several weeks ago, I was making a similar point at a men's retreat.  I was giving a talk about the need to nurture the relationships with those we most love and approached my talk where most people think life ends; death.   

I got the idea from a phrase Peter Kreeft uses in his book, Before I Go; "Momento mori," which is a Latin phrase meaning, “Remember death.”

The cusp of my talk was this; life is short and extremely volatile.  We are all just an accident, an illness or a random act of violence away from checking out of this world at any time. Therefore, we really have to make an effort to mend, heal, forgive and restore our relationships before it's too late.

Pride is like a decease that festers and grows, if we let it.  It's that little voice in our ear that says, "It's not your fault.  They are the ones that have to call you.  They are the ones that did this or that.  They are the ones that were disinterested and let the days, weeks and months go by.  Why don't they call?  Why don't they apologize?" (For more, see C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters)

Bad intentions; Jake on the warpath...
And, it's easy for that year to turn into two and then into three and so on. Sometimes, the people involved forget what started the fight in the first place but they have too much pride to say I'm sorry; too much pride to appear weak in the other person's eye; too much pride to let the other side win (in their mind). So, they wait, ferment and rot inside, until the day comes when somebody dies and then they wonder why they wasted so much time. (Of course, if you're Joey LaMotta, who's brother, Jake LaMotta, aka Raging Bull, beat the living daylights out of you in front of your wife and kids in your own house, it may take a little longer but forgive we must, not so much for the person we're forgiving as for us.)

Although, I never had a bad relationship with my parents, I can identify with my friend's husband because I myself wasted a lot time absorbed in my own life.

For many years, I neglected my father and mother. 

I loved them dearly.  I was just too busy; too busy working, too busy hanging with friends, too busy playing baseball, too busy on vacations, too busy watching the Mets, too busy watching Seinfeld, and so on.  A week or two could easily pass by, if not more!, without me as much as picking up the phone and calling to check how they were doing.  They were the ones that usually had to call because; I was too busy!

During a retreat I attended in 2006, one of the guys talked about his relationship with his parents and how for many years he resented his dad for not being able to provide all the things his friends had and he wanted; again back to vanity and pride.

His father died unexpectedly and then he regretted all the pain and grief he had caused his old man; all the disrespect, all the anger he had shown, all the sleepless nights and turmoil.

It was a contrast in humility.  All the father had done was work hard to provide for his family, sometimes taking on two jobs to ensure his son would attend one of the top schools in Miami, even if it meant sacrifice and struggle.  And, all the son had done, as he explained it, was to reject his blue collar dad and curse him under his breath because of his pride for not having the fancy car or money, like most of his friends.

His pain and regret were evident and very moving, however, there was also redemption and hope in his story.  After his father's death, his mother was left alone and he did not want to have the same regrets when she died.  So, he started spending more time with her and one of the things he started doing, which left a profound impression on me, was to stop by his mother's house everyday on his way to work to have a cup of coffee.

I started doing that.  
The binding power of cafecito...

Almost every morning, for the past about nine years or so, whether I’m running late to a meeting or not, I sidetrack from my way to work and spend at least 5 minutes having Cuban coffee and sharing in brief conversations with my parents.  

My friend, whose husband hadn't spoken to his parents, asked if I can help her in writing a text message to her mother-in-law, which I gladly agreed.  

Since I didn't know the lady and wasn't tainted by all the baggage that may have led to the deterioration of the relationship, I wrote from a faith and outsider's perspective; whatever happened happened, it's time to heal.  It's time to put the past aside and focus on reconciliation and restoring the relationship.

There were several exchanges after that.  The mother-in-law said she wanted to move on but kept bringing up unresolved issues.  And, again, I answered with the same, "let's get past the blame and focus on the future."   

A day or two later, after a couple of more text exchanges, which I didn't take part in, my friend shows me a message that came from her husband to his mom stating something along the lines of, "Mom, I love you and I want you to be part of my children's lives."

It was pretty powerful stuff.  A year of animosity and strife appeared to be melting away and a new air of peace and reunification loomed.  

It's a lesson we can all learn from, but, in our humanity, we would be wise to stay alert, since that same vanity that resurfaced in Kevin Lomax's life at the end of Devil's Advocate, can raise it's ugly head at any point in our life as well.  

The key is to catch it, understand it is the sin of pride, remember that our family members are not going to be there forever and humble ourselves for the sake of love...  

Friday, May 15, 2015

Laughs, Tears and My Son's First Communion...

The Body of Christ...
"Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread." 1 Cor 10:17.

It was at the most solemn and sacred moment of the Mass.  The entire congregation fell on its knees in silence and reverence (with the exception of a crying baby in the back of the parish), as the priest began the prayer of consecration to turn the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ; the Eucharist, pinnacle and summit of our faith as Catholics, and, the reason we were gathered at church that Saturday afternoon for our children's First Holy Communion.

All of a sudden, in what looked like a scene from a Peter Sellers or Mel Brooks' movie, a little heavyset boy (to be politically correct) sitting in his tight white suit in the pew in front of us, slipped on the kneeler and started sinking into the abyss underneath the bench he had just been sitting on, as his body and face contorted in despair, while the boy next to him ducked for cover to avoid being dragged down by the grasping hand of the first boy, trying to keep himself from going under.

A teacher nearby, quickly lunged over a couple of other students in the way, reminiscent, I suppose, of when Jesus reached for Peter, as he sank while trying to walk on water.  She got him just in the nick of time and was able to lift him back unto his knees before the pew monster swallowed him hole and, as she let go of his arm, the boy's other knee slipped and the process started all over again. 

Only this time, the teacher couldn't control her laughter and had to turn her face so that the boy didn't see her laughing at him, as everyone around us chuckled, while the poor chubby kid tried to regain his balance and finally pushed himself up and got both knees firmly planted.

It was a brief moment of levity amidst the tears during the Sacrament.  Sort of like the first time I watched The Passion of the Christ with my wife during Holy Week in England (Come to think of it, when she was pregnant with our son!), and, just as our emotions were pushed to the limit during the scourging at the pillar scene, and, with her hormones out of whack, she worse than I (although not by much), there was a commercial break, which allowed us to breathe and gather ourselves before continuing to watch the rest of the heart-wrenching film.

Then again, I love a good cry!  In his book, Great Expectations, Charles Dickens wrote, "We need never be ashamed of our tears," and, those that have gotten to know me over the last several years, know that I'm certainly not ashamed of mine.  In fact, I embrace them whenever caught in the moment.

I can't help it.  Especially, when it comes to faith and family, the floodgates are just a minor tug away from opening up at any time.  In fact, it's a running joke around the home-front about whether Daddy is crying; again!  Even my seven-year-old boy likes to rib his old man! (No, I'm not going Bruce Jenner any time soon!  But, since when is it wrong for a middle-aged man to show a little emotion, for goodness sake?)

I cry at movies.  I cry with books.  I cry during sentimental Christmas commercials and sad songs on the radio.  I cry at weddings (including my own, and not just because life as I knew it was over!).  I cry in the talks I give at retreats for my men's group (In fact, they usually bring up Kleenex tissues before I begin, although, I must say, there's another guy that beats me in the tear department and a couple of others that can stand toe-to-toe with me!).  I even choke up at awards banquets, as I did recently while I introduced a great friend being honored with a lifetime achievement award in television news. (There's nothing like shedding a few tears in front of a room full of hard nosed, cut-throat, veteran journalists, I say!)

Needless to say, I lost it at both of our daughters' First Communion, and, the only thing that kept me from crying at our older daughter's Confirmation was the fact that they called her by her saint's name, Elizabeth, as in St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and I kept waiting for the Bishop to say her name, so I missed the entire ritual, only realizing what had happened when she was heading back to her seat! (I don't even want to think about their weddings!).  So, of course, it was only a matter of time before the tears started flowing at my son's.

Styling in the cool shoes...
And, it didn't take long, as I saw him walking up the center aisle wearing his white suit, much to the chagrin of my wife who wanted him to wear one of the several blue blazers he has in his closet (which turned out to be what most of the boys in his class wore), but no!  He wanted to wear white; suit, shirt, vest, tie and fashionable slip on leather shoes (which would have made Gaylord Focker, male nurse extraordinaire from Meet the Parents, envious!).  I guess it made him feel holier and holy was the name of the game for him that day.  In fact, a few weeks earlier, after his first Confession, he told me, "Daddy, I feel really holy.  I want to do this every week!"

Shortly after the homily (and the chubby kid's near debacle), the second graders started going up one at a time to receive the Sacred Host and, those that wanted, to drink from the chalice.

When it was my son's turn, he walked into the center aisle, bowed his head, as I'm sure he had rehearsed with his class dozens of times, and walked up with his left hand cupping his right.  Oh, wait, it's supposed to be the right hand cupping the left (He quickly corrected his mistake on the fly), as the Eucharist was placed in his hand.  He put it in his mouth, walked up to the chalice, taking a small sip, before returning to his pew.

Yes, that was when the floodgates opened up.  I felt the tears running down my cheek, as I tried to avoid my wife's look so that she wouldn't laugh.  I've been there before!

For me, to think that he was receiving of that One Bread, as St. Paul stated in First Corinthians, that unites us, not only with the same Jesus that walked the earth two thousand years ago, and the Father and Holy Spirit, since God is One and cannot be separated, but with me, my wife, my daughters, parents, family and friends in the most profound way, including relatives that have gone to their eternal rest like my wife's dad and my grandparents and the entire Communion of Saints; past, present and future, well, it's a bit overwhelming.  Don't you think?

I always think of St. Therese, "The Little Flower" at her First Holy Communion.  She wrote in her memoirs, Story of a Soul, that she overheard several nuns commenting about how sad it was that Therese's mom had died and wasn't there to see her receive her First Communion.  Even at her tender age, Therese was perplexed, since she knew that by receiving the Blessed Host, she would be closer to her mother than ever before! 

Our holy roller with Fr. Martin and Deacon Parlade...
So, there I was feeling the knot in my throat with tears of joy streaming down my cheeks and then, I saw the chubby kid go up.  He was cupping his left hand correctly but as the priest went to place the Eucharist in his hand, he reached out and snatched it (I'm sure to the horror of his teacher, after all the weeks and months of practice!) and then came the clincher.  He goes up to the chalice, takes a sip, turns around and makes the funniest bad taste grimace I recall having seen!  The kid was a riot.       

After having received Communion myself, as I knelt there praying and reflecting on the moment, the kids were asked to get up and recite an affirmation of faith and then it was the parents' turn.  I had forgotten my reading glasses and, halfway through the first sentence, my voice cracked, which made my wife laugh, and I got so teary-eyed that I couldn't make out the rest of what I was supposed to read, which may have been a blessing, since it would've probably have been worse if I had actually seen the words! 

As the ceremony ended, and my son walked down the aisle the same way he had walked in towards the door, I looked at the husky kid again and couldn't help but smile.  It had been an emotional roller coaster for me but, thanks to a fat little boy (There you made me say it! Are you happy?) in his ill-fitting white suit, there were interludes of laughter that made an already memorable event even more so ingrained in my memory forever.

Thank you, God...