Monday, October 27, 2008

The Bear
His name was John, but everyone knew him as “The Bear.” The nickname had nothing to do with his personality. It had to do with his low, gravelly voice and his short stocky frame. He was one of five or six men who hung out in a small Italian grocery store across the street from a church where I served. I stopped in nearly every morning for a cup of coffee and was greeted by a chorus of “Hi, Father!” from the rear of the small shop. The Bear could always be found leaning against the counter, with a cup of coffee in his hand. Every morning he asked how I was, and what was new, and if I liked the Pope. As the days stretched into weeks and then years, the Bear became a living part of my mornings. I developed a deep affection for him and I suppose never really thought about it all that much, until one afternoon when I received a all from Matt, the owner of the store, who told me that the Bear had died. He was crying on the phone and had closed the store and gone home, which is where he called me from. He gave me what details he knew, that the Bear had suffered a heart attack and that this family wanted me to say the funeral Mass.
I never thought to ask the Bear about his family. I realized that I knew little about his life other than how friendly he was and genuinely funny.
At the wake, I met his sister and found out that John, as they knew and loved him, lived with her and her husband and their children uptown in a very nice house. She told me that he loved children, had never married, and that their children brought him so much joy. He lavished them from the time they were very little with gifts and tales of his own youth. Looking around the room, I spotted the children, now young adults, and their loss and grief were deep and obvious.
At the funeral, I started to choke up while speaking of him. I did not realize until I had lost him how much a part of my life he had become, how his goodness and simplicity were something that lived in me far more deeply than I realized. His capacity for being good was as natural and as deeply touching as any friendship that I had ever known.
His buddies from the store stayed in the rear of the church, except for Matt, who sat behind the family. I could not help but see the similarity between the church and the store as regards the position they took. Always in the rear, out of the way, on a friendly kind of fringe.
Late that afternoon, hours after the cemetery service, I was driving back to the rectory and drove over the train tracks that ran right next to the little grocery store. Stopping before I crossed the tracks, I looked to my left and saw a man standing down a ways, his head bowed and crying, his face buried in a handkerchief. He never saw me, and shaking his head, turned and walked into the rear door of the grocery, where Matt and the others were gathered, mourning the Bear. I will never forget the sight of that man crying.
It was Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote that “truth is buried in the earth.” He meant that truth is of being itself, that God is in us and of us. We do not have to go digging all that far, or all that deep.
I saw such a sublime truth that day, in that man who loved and lost a friend, a good friend. The Bear never knew what he left behind, never knew how far his goodness entered the hearts of other people. He would have laughed and scoffed if he had been told that. And then asked me quickly, once again, how I liked the Pope.
How good life is.
How wondrous are those who live that goodness, and in so doing help us to love, and to cry by the railroad tracks only to return to the company of friends, a gathering of the gifted.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Is There Coffee in Heaven?

Recently, I read an article in a newspaper about a place called the Southbury Training School. The school is in Danbury, Connecticut and it is home to about five hundred men who are mentally challenged. It has been in existence for a long time and many of the men have lived there most of their lives. A small group is bussed every morning to a rest area on Interstate 84, where their job is to keep it clean. They remove the garbage, clean the bathrooms, polish the floors.
One man’s name is Bobby. He loves coffee and always carries a plastic cup with him, attached by a string to his belt. One day, while the men were being driven back to the school, their conversation revolved around a cemetery that the van passed. For a little while, the men wondered aloud where would they go after death, and would anyone remember them, and would there be coffee up there. It was Bobby who asked the last question about the coffee and when he did he was promptly told to shut up by the others. Their attention span is very brief, and Bobby did not seem to mind the rebuff. He found immediate delight in the raising of his plastic coffee cup to his lips, gazing out the window as he took a gulp.
Anthony worries about death, since several friends of his have died. They were life-time friends – men he lived with ever since he came to the school fifty years ago. On his small refrigerator he has taped their pictures and obituary notices. He hopes that someone takes care of him when he is dying and has left a note to that effect on the same refrigerator door.
It is a very small world, that school, and it is a world that reveals a facet of poverty. It is a world that offers windows through which we can glimpse the grace of God.
The men are well cared for and they also care for each other. Their poverty is not one of lack of income. It is, rather, a poverty of roads that they could have taken if they were born normal. Their choices were severely limited by mental illness. They could never live out the kind of dreams that come to so many others, like those who pass through the rest area every day. Yet they keep the place clean and the grass mowed.
The gospels often portray Jesus as speaking of things that are hidden and secret. Jesus speaks in this way and his disciples do not understand. They cannot grasp what he is saying and are afraid to ask. Jesus does not clarify things for them. Life moves on and they stay with him. They trust him enough to stay, even though they are afraid and do not understand.
Our lives are not much different. Beneath the wealth of our words sleeps wonder, and every now and then it awakens and beckons us to look about at the passing beauty that is life and those places where something of God might be more clearly seen. Maybe some day, one of you will enter a rest area on Interstate 84 and will see a man there, dressed in a yellow work vest. His name is Bobby – buy him a cup of hot coffee, a taste for him of heaven on earth and an image for us of God in this world.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Little Girls at the Carnival

There was a carnival in town and I watched from the sidelines as Carmelita the Clown spoke to a small group of children. The group stood in a short line. The boys and girls waited their turn for Carmelita to speak to them individually. Two little girls watched and waited. They had their hands folded, as if in a prayer or expectant anticipation. They listened carefully to what Carmelita was saying to the children ahead of them. I suppose that they wanted to say the right things when their turn came. The look on their faces was beautiful – they both smiled in wonder and in awe at the woman who played so well the role of a caring and loving clown. Carmelita was very kind and patient with each child as she or he responded to the questions that Carmelita asked them. The questions were very simple – where they were from, what their favorite colors were, did they like being at the carnival.
All around the group, for as far as I could see, were the delights of the small-town carnival. Big and small rides swirled in the distance. A Ferris Wheel rose and turned majestically in the late afternoon sky. All colors and shapes of bright neon lights adorned the rides and the chance and food booths. The walkways everywhere were lined with colored posters of fairy-tale lore – dragons, princesses and princes, lions and bears, palaces and distant planets. The posters enshrined the doorways and walls of the rides, as well as the food and game chance booths and “shooting galleries” with their moving plastic ducks and water guns.
Directly behind the two little girls as they stared entranced at Carmelita was a large work of art. They could have touched it; it was that close to them. It was a palace that rose to the sky, its turrets reaching to the clouds. On the turrets there were men and women, dressed in their medieval finery, waving and smiling, as if they could really see Carmelita and the wonders she was working with the hearts of the children. But of course it was all make believe and the only things that moved were the line and the smiles and eyes of the two little girls. Their hands stayed folded.
“Life is a Carnival,” or so goes the title of the song by the Band. And I suppose that it is, for young and old alike. Our ways get more expensive and fantastic as we get older. The stuff of make-believe gives way to what is real and what we can buy or invest in. We learn to seek out midways near and far, lined with all that life can bring, and we of course hope to get something good for free, be it a stuffed bear in our youth or a later lottery winning. .
But every now and then, someone can and should make us open our eyes in wonder. And like those two children, the looming promises of dreams may rise within our reach, but we are so absorbed in what is right before us that we pay it no mind. For someone is then speaking and our hearts are moved, we smile, and our eyes open wide. Perhaps it is when the meaning of life reveals itself to us, and we are stopped dead in our tracks with the delight of it all, and realize that it was everywhere, all around us and within us, awaiting the right time to speak. It is that close to us. We can touch it.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Not long ago, we had a wonderful evening here at the monastery. We shared a meal with a gathering of long-time friends of our monastic community. Our Abbot, Francis Michael, wanted to express his gratitude to those who came, to thank them for their love and support. He spoke warmly about how much the community values their friendship and presence. I sat at a table and listened to Francis Michael as he spoke and looked about at the people at the other tables. I was asked to take pictures, and I got up a few times, taking some pictures. They came out well – I think I captured as best I could the kind and receptive expressions on the faces of those who listened to him. After one such stroll around the room, I returned to my place and noticed a strange light to my right and when I looked that way, I noticed a slight opening in a large curtain. Through the opening I saw the light – it was a brilliant blend of oranges and reds, purples and golds of the setting sun. I quietly excused myself and went outside to the cloister area and that was when I saw it. A gorgeous rainbow arched across the sky, seeming to begin or end in our lake area and stretching with an endless beauty toward our abbey church steeple. I took a few pictures and then headed back inside and returned to my place. Our night prayers were to begin in just a few minutes, and I knew I would go to them with a sense of gratitude for the evening. I also felt an excitement for having been able to photograph a rainbow.
It is a safe bet that every person who has ever lived has been enthralled by rainbows. The rainbow enjoys a prominent place in folklore, mythology, in religious texts. It is a rainbow that God sends to let Noah know that the deluge was over and that his wandering on the flooded earth would come to an end. It is a rainbow that some have followed, hoping to find at its end a pot of gold. It is a rainbow that arches over the Emerald City when Dorothy sees it for the first time after a long journey in the classic tale “The Wizard of Oz.” Perhaps a common theme beneath such variations is that despite all the turmoil of life and amidst all its sorrow, something beautiful comes and we look up and take the hope that it offers – that God is leading us all somewhere. And every now and then he sends a sign. And so it is that we take heart in whatever comes that may promise something good. We gladly follow a yellow brick road, or the sight of land, or look real carefully for that pot of gold.
Rainbows are high and elusive. There is a song about the seeking of lasting good in this life being like chasing rainbows. Rainbows recede as we move toward them. And they do not last very long. They exist through a prism like crystallization of moisture and sun, or rain and light. When the sun shines through the rain, a rainbow appears.
We often look to brighten the rain of our lives through whatever light we can bring to those darker times, but we are not too adept at creating our own rainbows. We do not have that kind of artistry.
The Incarnation is the Word made flesh, the belief that something of God not only shown through a man but in fact lived through him. People all over the world have looked heavenward since the beginning of time for a sign of divine life or activity. The rainbow is one of many such portents or omens of God’s presence and artistry. The Incarnation brings the artistry of God very close to earth. A light shone among us, and it still shines. It shines in a special yet ordinary way.
I was happy when I walked back to the table that night, with my camera and the picture of the rainbow. I showed it to Jim, our business manager, and he smiled and said “All we need to find now is that pot of gold.” I looked about the room at the small gathering of those who were still absorbing the words of gratitude from Francis Michael. I saw smiles and expectancy on their faces, a thankfulness for his words and, presumably, for being a part of our monastic life.
I looked again at the small opening in the curtain but it was dark and the light was gone. And I am sure that the rainbow was no longer there, high in the sky. But I looked about at what remains of God’s presence in this world, right here in our monastery, in the lives of those in the room that night and in every person who comes to this place.
Later that night, it started to rain. I came up here to this third floor room where I am now, where I write. There was a lot of water on the floor and when I looked up at the ceiling, I saw the leak and the dripping of water. I called Augustine right away – he is familiar with the trouble spots in our many walls and ceilings, and he came up right away. He said it could be easily repaired. I asked him where the water came from since I knew that above this ceiling is an open space and he smiled and said, “You never know with the rain. It has its own way of moving through any crack it can find.”
And you never really know with God. The Incarnation is like a tiny opening through which God came to us, through the Yes of a young woman whose very body carried the Light of the world. And when we extinguished that Light through our own blindness, the Light became even more, and became a living part of Everyone. And it shines and shines, through what we know to be of love and hope and goodness. God finds a way to seep through the openings in our hearts. It cannot be fixed or stopped or rerouted. In time, the whole world will shine with Eternal Light. It will be like a rainbow coming to the ground, laying down a path for a path for everyone, the gold of God’s love within easy rich, his Light dancing at their feet.