Sunday, December 24, 2006



I have been scanning old family pictures. Many are of photographs that my dad took when we – my two sisters and four brothers – were little. I showed them to my oldest brother, Johnny, not too long ago and I could feel him absorbing as many details as possible. He lingered a long time over each picture. He said, “If I look at these in the quiet stillness of my room, I know I will start to cry. It has all been so beautiful. And all so good.”

The passing of things hits home as we grow older. Mortality begins to exact its claim when we have been given a lifetime to remember and look back – and wonder as to the beauty of it and its loss.

I mention this today because there is a space in the human heart that yearns for what was and what will be on Christmas. Expectations are heightened by the joy that surrounds us this Season. We look back and hope that all that was somehow still lives. We look ahead and hope that God will be good to us, to those we love, and, on this day, our hopes and desires for goodness reach out to the whole world. For that is what we are, in fact, as church. We span miles and history. We celebrate a birth that binds us all as brothers and sisters.

I have thought about what my brother said that day, when he felt loss looking at the photographs. He did not say as much in so many words, but is it not true that he was speaking out of a sense that the past had become a real and living part of his heart? Over the years, sisters and brothers, a mother and father, aunts and uncles and grandparents became more than simply other people. They shared life with him, with me, and somehow became a part of us. And when they pass from this life, it is as if a piece of us is missing – but something of them still lives within.

I do not know why that is, on simply human terms.

So let me try the Divine – a word or two from Revelation.

Let me try to speak of the Gift that is this Child whose birth we celebrate this day.

As he grew, people drew near to him. They loved him and wanted to be a part of him, a living part of his life. We all know what that desire is like, from the love that we feel for each other. And so it was that in time, he gave himself to them. His spirit was poured into them and he gave himself to them as food. God made his home in us. Something – Someone – lives in us and is God.

These are words we hear over and over again – but they come alive and take on a power when we hear ourselves – when we listen to our hearts, and what we say of love and longing – to each other or in the privacy of our rooms when we pray – or look at old pictures and hope that our heart’s wishes comes true.

The Abbot recently said that we have barely come to understand the meaning of the Incarnation. I had the image of my brother touching the surface of a photograph, hoping to better remember, love, and hold a person no longer present in this life.

Yes, we scratch the surface of life with our words, with trying to fathom the meaning of God becoming one of us.

But it is Christmas – and as much as we try and pick out the best gifts for those we love – be it something you can buy or say, write or hope – we do so from the love of a God who is making us a part of each other in much the same way that he has become a part of us – for that is what love does. That is what love is.

Yes, Johnny – it all was and is beautiful. And it has all become a part of us – and will live forever. It is the Gift of Christmas – and it always was. We just kind of feel it better and more deeply the older we get and the more it all becomes us.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Christmas City

The Christmas City

Route 17 is a highway that winds its way past Newark and goes through Lyndhurst and then up through Bergen County. I am familiar only with that particular stretch. I am sure that it is longer than that little piece, but I've never had reason to go that way. It is one of northern New Jersey's more colorful highways, but the scenery isn't what lends the color to this long slab of concrete and macadam. The color hits you from all sides, from all the stores and malls that are situated all along the highway. Route 17 passes through many municipalities, many of which have banned the use of neon lighting. Nevertheless, there are lots of lights along the way. Gas stations, shopping malls, computer stores, dog kennels, rug stores, automobile dealerships, diners, fast food places, fancy restaurants and nearly whatever else you can imagine existing along that particular ten or so miles of 17.

Advent is quite the season for travelers who frequent Route 17 in late November and through December. The smaller stores along the highway are all decorated for Christmas. These stores bask in the wonderfully decorated shops that constitute the Malls that exist on both sides of 17.

There is even a place called Christmas City. During the pre-Christmas season, it sells all sorts of Christmas decorations. Therein, in that City, is a forest of artificial trees, ornaments, wrapping papers of all colors, Season's Greeting cards, fake reindeer and Santas, aerosol snow, plastic wreaths, concrete elves, twinkling electric lights, polyester or red plastic Christmas stockings, indeed, everything that one might need for Christmas. Almost magically, the City appears out of nowhere right after Thanksgiving. But, as any faithful traveler on Route 17 knows, the transformation is not the stuff of enchantment or dreams. During the “off season,” a.k.a. “Ordinary Time,” the place is a humble dealership that barters swimming pools and lawn furniture. After Christmas is over, a first time pilgrim, heading his or her way up 17 toward the New York Thruway, would never dream that the collection of pool pumps, chlorine tablets, linings, portable cabanas, metal chairs, in-ground pools and other swimming pool necessities give way every Advent Season to tons and tons of manufactured Christmas stuff. The transformation happens so fast, one would swear that out of the dark skies of a late November evening, it all just plops right out of the heavens and hits the earth, right smack on 17 North, nestled lovingly among the huge, sprawling Malls that draw hundreds of thousands of people each Holiday Season.

I am writing this in Ordinary Time, according to the liturgical calendar. To be specific, it is July 29th. It is a hot, humid afternoon. I just finished having lunch, which consisted of a peanut butter sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, a Coca-Cola and an olive. I am in Covington, Louisiana, visiting my parents. There really isn't much to do here, except read and write and go for a few walks. My father is watching a baseball game with the sound turned all the way off. I never realized that is a not all that unusual practice with some people. Funny, I wonder if people get tired of all the words that hit them from all sides, including homilies or religious words. After sixty some-odd years of hearing and speaking words, I guess people can easily grow weary of them. Perhaps, in varying degrees, we all grow weary of interpretation and just want to look and see. My mother is either reading a book or writing a letter. I'm not too sure which. I can't see her from where I am sitting, but I know that she is at the desk just off the living room. No one is thinking about Christmas, or Advent, or shopping or phony elves. No one is thinking about swimming pools, either. But I have been thinking about the Incarnation and about what all this means here. Maybe one shouldn't be so direct about such things. I just don't know. My mother's eyesight is failing and my father is recovering from recent surgery. He does not have the strength that he used to, but looks well. I leave for home on Tuesday evening, and will tell them that I love them and will call when I get home that night. And I will write letters, and make phone calls. I am pretty good at keeping in touch. But it never seems enough. We cannot seem to love enough, to say enough. I cannot keep back the inevitable passage of time, and cannot deny within myself the pain that I feel seeing my mother and father experience the indifferent blows that come with simply growing older. It all seems to have happened so fast, so fast.

In a matter of months, I will be one of the multitude that drive past Christmas City and will probably feel an ache. The lights, the accompanying music on the radio, the surrounding square mile after square mile all beckoning to be as bright, as joyous, as expectant, will all bring to the surface of my mind the lingering thought that I am not fulfilled, not all that bright, not as joyous. My heart will not be able to match in depth and intensity the cultural creation that is Christmas City and the surrounding power of the magnificently lit Malls. The lights will make me squint. I will feel small, not up to the occasion, but will continue on and buy presents and try to look my best and fit into the whole rush of it all, and look forward to the near return of Ordinary Time.

On one of my recent visits down here, I was on my way to bed and passed my parents' bedroom. I looked in and saw my father in prayer, kneeling by his bed, saying his night prayers. I am sure that my mother was right across from him, quietly saying hers. From the earliest I can remember, I recall their doing that every night before going to bed. There have been three ongoing channels of communication in their married life: with God, with each other, and with seven children. It is a microcosm of all that is truly life. Our conversations during the day touch on so many, well, ordinary things. Relatives, the church, my getting a haircut, what's for dinner. Nothing all that profound. But I will say a prayer this night, for all things ordinary. I will give thanks for peanut butter sandwiches and hot July afternoons and the deep feelings in my heart, spoken and unspoken. I will thank God for the night prayers of my mother and father. I will pray for the wisdom to trust the Incarnate Word in such things as ordinary as this hot afternoon in late July, when Christmas is so far away on the calendar and yet as intimate as my breathing, as near as my mother straining to see, to understand. And, if I feel estranged this Advent season as I drive past Christmas City, I pray that I will remember this July afternoon, an off season, an unmemorable day, a day unadorned and yet a day that is the very stuff of human living, a day of lunch, talk, idle chatter and night prayers. A day imbued with the sacredness of ordinary things, each in their proper place, awaiting the same glorious disclosure that awaits all seemingly small things. I may feel no less estranged, but may feel a bit heartened in knowing that is precisely why he came: not to remove human estrangement, but to sanctify it and give it hope, to move it all along toward himself, in Covington, on Route 17, in Christmas City, and on this otherwise uneventful day in July.

Mr. Reilly

Mr. Reilly

My brother and I used to take the Public Service bus to get to high school. The school was in Newark, about a forty minute ride from Montclair, where we grew up. The buses back then were not as sleek as they are these days. The windows were much smaller and the greens and grays of the buses were not kept as shiny. But it seems to me that they had a homier feel to them, a used and worn feel to them. The seats were softer, slightly indented by so many thousands upon thousands of unknown and forever anonymous fannies. The ads that lined the ceiling were more local and not as cosmic as today's bus ads. And there was a nice familiar wheeze to the buses back then. I could hear the wheeze from blocks away, giving me enough time to take a few more drags om my cigarette and scramble in line to board the bus.

We took the #60 bus, which came down tree lined Park Street and then turned onto Bloomfield Avenue, the main street that passed through several towns, and headed on down to Newark. There were and still are all sorts of stores on Bloomfield Avenue. I used to like to look at them as the bus passed them by. The bus came at roughly 7:05 every morning, and Mr. Reilly was our bus driver. He looked quite old back then. But a lot of perhaps younger folks looked older then. He was small and had a tanned, leathery face. There was to him a wheezened look. He kind of looked how the bus sounded. He wore the typical bus driver hat, which was very well worn and had a public service emblem on it, right above the little green sunshade. Mr. Reilly hunched over the large steering wheel as he drove, as if to get a better look at what lay ahead down the road. The steering wheel of the bus was large, and he gripped both sides as if he had to do that to keep the bus on the ground. I do not think that I ever heard him say a word. He just looked up and nodded to each person getting on the bus, eyeing your hand to see if you had the proper ticket or money. I do not remember him ever looking directly at me, but do remember his small eyes in a mirror that hung off the top of the large window directly in front of him. We sat in the rear of the bus and every so often I would look to see if he was watching what we were up to and nine out of ten times my eyes met his. I cannot say it was a fond or endearing look that I saw in his eyes. It was more of a beady, watchful squint, something like that of an old tired snake. But there was a tired friendliness to him, as quiet as he was. I think that he had seen a lot over the years.

Snake eyes don't necessarily mean a thing as to how a person truly is. But his eyes were steady and beady and watchful.

I can remember a few people who got on the bus every day and I remember where they got on. There was a lady who boarded in Bloomfield and she was very severe looking. Everything about her seemed strained and taut. She was encrusted with heavy make-up and wore her hair in a tight bun that sat on her head like a hard bread roll. Her pursed lips were a deep colored red and her face was heavily powdered. She often had little whisp of powder on her lips. I could not tell if it was sugar from a doughnut or freshly applied talc. She never looked at anyone once she sat down and almost immediately opened a paperback novel and no matter what happened around her, she never looked up from that book. I can still see her reeling back and forth as the bus rolled down Bloomfield Avenue, never once taking her eyes off the page.

There was a man who sat near us in the back of the bus. He always headed straight for the rear seats and usually found one near the back door. That was the area where we sat. He always smelled like fish and wore the same clothes every day - brown baggy and oversized corduroy pants, brown shoes and an old worn green jacket. His hair was thick and oily and combed straight back. He always had a stubble of growth on his face, as if he had last shaved the afternoon before. I imagined that he worked in a factory in Newark and lived alone somewhere in Montclair. He boarded the bus in an affluent section of the town and that made me wonder even more as to where he came from. Funny thing was that I saw him about five years ago on the bus, going the same way. He could not have had the same clothes that he wore thirty years ago, but he still favored brown pants and brown shoes. He had a different jacket on. He still had that fishy odor to him.

The bus passed a Burroughs adding machine store in Bloomfield, not far from the Newark line, and every morning there was a fat lady drinking coffee and standing in that store, looking longingly out the window. She must have worked there since she was always there before opening hours. I saw her in the same spot every school day morning for four years. The Burroughs place is now a car dealership and yet when I would pass there over the years I would always think of her and what she thought about during all those coffees and all those hours, standing there looking east, towards the hazy skyline of Newark.

Just inside the Newark line there boarded a woman who was so pretty. She was then in her early thirties and had a European look to her. She dressed very simply and wore her blond hair neatly brushed, with a part. It hung just down to the collar of her coat and she had a habit of brushing away what she thought might have been little flecks of dandruff, but I never saw any. Her hands were soft looking. She had a small scar on her left cheek. She never wore make-up and had a morning puffiness to her face, as if she had woken up just a short time before getting on the bus. She always looked worried or hurt, perhaps melancholic, and yet I thought that everything about her made her beautiful, even whatever pain she may have had difficulty hiding. She seemed so human to me.

And so it was, for four years. We had a lot of fun in the back of the bus and got in trouble for our antics more than once, when annoyed passengers called the school office and filed a complaint. Whereas they were more tolerant of smoking in those days, we did cross the line when we opened a can of marbles and let them roll hither and yon down the aisle. A few times there were fist fights and they created a panic, too. But the worst was when Bogey Murray set the back seat of the bus on fire. It was a cold day and he later said that he needed warmth. That is the only time I remember Mr. Reilly stopping the bus and complaining to the supervisor, who was at his post in Montclair center. We were thrown off the bus and got in a lot of trouble at school. We were allowed back on the 60 bus the next day, and Mr. Reilly never said a word about the incident. Well, he never said a word anyway about anything. He just shook his head and glared at us as we boarded the bus.

Several days ago, an obituary in the New York Times caught my eye. A guy I went to high school with was killed riding a motorcycle in New York State. I immediately recognized his name. He used to board the bus near the Newark line. He was at one time the chief of surgery in a New York hospital. He was only forty-nine years old. I had not seen him since the day we graduated in June of 1966. I see his face in my mind's eye as I knew him back then, friendly and warm. He had blond hair and blue eyes and even back then we all knew that he was exceptionally bright. But it was his personality that so easily won people over to him. He became so successful, and now he is gone. His death saddened me, even though we never kept in touch. I would like to write to his wife to express my condolences but there was no mention of where she lived. His death made my mind wander back to those days, to him and others who seem so fresh in my mind, so fresh, as if we were together just yesterday riding the bus again.

I am sure Mr. Reilly, too, is gone now.

I wonder if there are buses in Paradise. Are there roads, and people in need of a ride to near and far places? Is there such a thing as travel? Does the pleasure of taking a trip, and gazing peacefully out of a crystal window to vast realms of Paradise await us? I hope so. I hope there is the chance to people watch, to look with wonder at how different we all are. I hope that there are growth and movement and so many things that enchant us in this life and that for some folks seem to provide a touch of heaven right here on earth.

Mr. Reilly, can you hear me? I am older now, and do not move much from this monastery. Oh, we move around quite a lot during the day. But we do not travel much out of the cloister. I don't mind. I kind of travel a lot in my head and heart here, back and forth in time and memory. I think back on those many days when you drove the bus, when you drove us and we drove you crazy. I want to apologize for that. Dorothy Day believed that prayer was powerful enough to change even the past. So, I pray this day for the you and us that were back then. Maybe just one little prayer saved you a bump or two on the road to Newark, on your ultimate way to Paradise. I hope so. I mean that.

Mr. Reilly, it is Christmas and my Dad will is gone two years now I am sure the two of you never met in this life. He worked in New York back then and took the train every day, not far from where you picked us up. My brother died right before graduation. You may have heard about it since it the car accident happened just about a block from where you picked us up on Park Street every morning and everyone was talking about that accident for weeks. I heard people talk about it on the bus, when you drove the bus past the tree that the car slammed into.

Do you drive a bus up there? If you do, keep a lookout for a two young men who look very much alike. I am sure that they will be sitting together, catching up on old times. They would love to meet you. Pull over and give them a ride, showing them the best that Paradise has to offer. Someone who came from there said that there are many mansions, so there must be places, such nice places, places to go and a need to somehow get there.

When I, too, get there, I will look for you. Perhaps we will even be neighbors, on a beautiful tree lined street, like Park Street. There must be such wide streets in Paradise, Mr. Reilly, because there are so many people who have wanted their whole lives to reach Paradise and settle in for the long haul. They may like to take their time and walk.

My Dad would like you and I am sure that you would like him. When I, too, get there, I will look for you. Perhaps we will even be neighbors on a tree lined street, like Park Street.

We can catch up on things.

Oh, and Mr. Reilly, just one more thing. Some day, you will be driving by, and you may see a young pretty woman, with dark hair and blue eyes. That's my Mom. She does quite well with new situations, but on that day she may need just a bit of help. Tell her you've been in touch with all she loves and she'll like that, and know just what you mean. She'll be anxious to start a new life with those she loved and missed while here. She and Dad gave us a touch of Paradise while here, with the way they loved us and each other. They probably never realized while they were here how good it all was. They gave us life, fed us, clothed us, watched us all the way, and it went so fast, so very fast. Maybe you can tell her, Mr. Reilly, how good it was. She will worry about that.

Yes, it is good and has been good. It sometimes takes me time to realize that, to look back and see that it has always been that way. God manages to get us all where we need to go, like you did, Mr. Reilly. And I thought so little of it all back then. So I thank you again, and ask that you remember me in your travels up there. Thanks for all those miles, those times we traveled this life together and did not think much about what all that meant and how good and truly sacred it was and is. I send my love and prayers and deep gratitude to you, Mr. Reilly, to the man you were and the man you now are.

A blessed Christmas to you, Mr. Reilly.