Monday, June 22, 2009



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Adding Things Up

I had an uncle whose name I cannot recall – he was actually my mom’s uncle and he lived in New Orleans. I can ask my sister Mary and am sure she would remember his name. What I do remember about him is a gift that he had and I heard stories about him when I was growing up.
The gift had to do with counting numbers and doing so in a flash. He would sit in a bar in New Orleans and not far from the bar were railroad tracks. He would gather patrons around him and boast that he could walk to the tracks and as a freight train passed, he would be able to look at all the freight car numbers as the train moved by and count them without need of pen and paper. The bets were on and off marched the group to the tracks, where they waited for the next train. When the train came, everyone looked at my uncle as he stared at the passing numbers. When the caboose faded into the distance, they all marched to an area where the train always stopped and several counted the numbers, which must have been a painstaking task. They jotted down the sum on a piece of paper and asked my uncle the final number he came up with. He told them and they reportedly gasped as the number matched the one they had. The bets were collected and off they went back to the bar, perhaps waiting for the next train in the hope of recovering their losses. I do not think that train ever came.
My uncle could apparently “read” numbers and as the numbers lumbered by he “read” them up without the need to “carry over numbers” and the like. His brain worked like a calculator – it seemed to have a chip that most of us do not have or perhaps do not know how to access.
I like the story because it brings to mind the fact that we all have gifts. Some may be admittedly unusual and can be quite profitable if we know how to summon the wagers. But, for the most part, our gifts tend to be of the ordinary kind. Some folks have a gift for putting people at ease. They are simply accepting people, and others sense this and feel comfortable in their presence. Intimacies are more readily shared. I once know a bartender named Owen who worked at a place called “Jimmy’s” in Manhattan. His nickname was Father Owen the Confessor.
Others are gifted with a positive nature. You simply feel better in their presence. A positive nature can be like sunshine on a wet road. It dries what we can so easily slip on – making the walk a lot easier.
Mechanical know-how is another gift. I remember a man named Claude Zarang, from New Orleans, who had an uncanny gift for locating the problem in a malfunctioning car engine and fixing it with a smile and a very reasonable fee. He was known all over the city.
People write songs, or poetry, or a novel. Words come easy, at times with a catchy melody. Some folks can prepare a meal fit for a King. Others can make a dress fit for a Queen.
I recently read of a woman who spent most of her life in an iron lung. She was so loved by all who knew her. Her gift was her ability to move into the hearts of many people. She deeply missed when she died. Her gift was one of making inroads of love into the hearts of people even though her body was confined to a machine. The iron lung enabled her to breathe air. Her heart inhaled people and their stories.
Everyone has a gift. If you have trouble seeing the gift of someone, seek out one who loves him or her. They will tell you. And I will bet that you will make some wondrous discoveries. We can go near the tracks of life and do our addition. The sum of the gifted will always be the same.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Pentecost 2009
On Sunday, we will celebrate the feast of Pentecost. It is the feast of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and, by extension, us. As the story goes, tongues of fire appeared above the heads of the disciples and they were able to understand all the different languages that were being spoken in their midst and, by extension, all the languages of the world. The fire of God spoke. The fire spoke a Word of love, a Word of understanding, a Word of living with and through the differences of language and custom and time and place and seeing the heart of all of these through the fire of love.
Pentecost, this year, also happens to be my sixty-first birthday. Another step toward or perhaps into geezerhood.
Pentecost is a very heady theme, especially when there is a flame burning on top of it.
Tradition celebrates Pentecost as the birth of the church. Happy Birthday Church, Happy Birthday James. Light the candles. Let the flames burn and let them speak.
Hopefully, I can share with you what I hear.
I was born into the Catholic Church and have seen a lot of changes over the years. I was born into a loving family and have seen a lot of changes there, too. It has been an interesting ride. A Catholic ride with a wonderful family. My grandmother, Julia Rose Preto Behrens, was a Lutheran and she was with us all the years that I was home. Her husband, Henry, died when I was a baby. Gram lived in New Orleans and when Grandpa died she asked my dad if she could stay with us up in Brooklyn for a few weeks and he said sure and drove down to pick her up and she ended up staying with us for more than forty years. What a bright flame she was – I learned more about ecumenism from her than from all the books I ever read on that theme.
I guess I have looked for God all my life. In one way or another, that is nothing special. We all do. Everyone does it. And we do it every day. Even a hard boiled atheist is looking for something that makes sense and has lasting value. The search for God is like looking for the right door, in all its existential variations. A door to goodness, sense, salvation, happiness, freedom from pain and sorrow and, for some of us, the attempt to ease human life of whatever hurts.
I have come to learn, and to try and understand, that there are tongues of fire all over the place. Lots of extensions. The Spirit descended, and, like my grandmother, stayed for good. And, also like my grandmother, there are lasting and wondrously revealed blessings from so long a residence above us, within us, all around us. Everything has something lasting and everything is on fire with God’s love, God’s presence.
Recently, a friend of mine was telling me about one of the basic insights of physics. He was telling me that no matter is ever lost, no matter what its form. Matter and energy have a wondrous relationship. As they interplay with each other, things may look different, even seemingly lost – but in truth there is only a change in form or appearance. Nothing you see or are can be lost – it can only be transformed into something else. Creation was made for and is in the process of transformation. Admittedly, we love to hold onto things as best, as lasting as we can. But the fire at the heart of things has the last word, and that word is change.
When we were kids, we used to wait in the backyard till dusk, when the fireflies or lightning bugs would appear. The fading light of an August day would soon give rise to the night flights of hundreds of lightning bugs, their phosphorescent lights twinkling off and on, making the whole yard look like a big Christmas tree. And we would chase the bugs, catch a few, and place them in Mason jars and watch as tiny creatures glowed with light. Little did I know that I would be chasing after light my whole life, trying to capture its beauty.
I am older now and in this 61st year of my life on this Pentecost day, I am grateful for the life of the church and the life of my years. There have been so many lights, all along the way. I look back and see them, twinkling in the past – lights given off by people of different religious beliefs, people old and young, people soft and hard hearted, people who gave me reason to love, to have faith, and to catch something of the light that they were and are. For I believe that it all still burns in this night of life, for nothing is lost. It just shines in a different yet alive way.
And I wanted to catch so much of that light, and keep it in the jar of my heart, and tighten the lid and keep it. But that was not to be. I moved on and so did those who taught me love by how they lived. On this Pentecost day, I am grateful for each of them, these wondrous lights of my life. And they are in your life, too.
We celebrate the birthday of the church, when the Spirit came and decided to stay. Whether the Spirit resides in a jar, a human heart, a smile or a kind word, the light is the same and it is forever. I may have run to catch it in my youth. I am older now, and will perhaps blow out the candles of the cake, let the lights go, and know that they must, to make room for all that is yet to come.
Sacre Coeur

On Friday we celebrated the Feast of the Sacred Heart. It is a beautiful feast, celebrating as it does the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The affinity between the heart of God and the heart of the human is one that is known all over the world in many cultures and religious traditions. The heart has a language everyone knows. Variations in age, culture, or intelligence do not impede the directness of the heart’s meaning and what it holds for each of us. It is kind of like God’s Valentine. Everyone can open it.
Many years ago I went on a trip with Bill, friend of mine. We first went to Paris and spent a few days and then flew on to London. It was my first trip to Europe and I took a lot of photographs that I still have and occasionally linger over.
Paris was and is beautiful. We did the customary tours of the great sights. One tour was to a large church called Sacre Coeur. It is high above the city and there are a lot of steps leading from a lower area up to the church itself. I remember looking out over Paris at the many buildings, the Eiffel Tower, the thousands of rooftops. Sacre Coeur is a
“must see” place for tourists and I was glad I went. Yet I was thinking earlier this morning that I cannot remember in detail any conversations or people related things that took place while I was in Paris. Perhaps the reason was that it was a whirlwind stay and we were anxious to see the sights. There was not much time to get into the lives of other people.
London would prove to be quite different. We stayed with a family in the Muswell Hill area of London. Later I was to find out that Muswell Hill is where the Kinks grew up. Little bit if trivia there. Anyway, we stayed with a couple and their three teenage children. Mick and Susan Swift were a delightful couple. Their children – Heather, Michael and Martin, took off from their normal routines and showed us around London. We usually spent the evenings at their home, sitting and chatting about many things over a drink or two and countless cups of tea. I took photographs those evenings, using black and white high speed film and available light. I look at the pictures now and there is Heather pouring a cup of tea, smiling as she looked at me. Mick and Susan are sitting comfortably on a couch, listening intently to someone who must have been speaking. There is photo of Mick which I like a lot – sitting in a chair with such a beautiful, pensive look. And Michael and Martin I photographed as we rode horses one morning at a stable not far from where they lived.
It was many years later that my friend Bill, my traveling companion, told me that it must not have been easy for Mick and Susan to host us. They did not have much money and so the goodness they showed us was not easily affordable to them. Food was expensive and so was “petrol” or gasoline.
I remember going to bed one night and from my window I could see a lot of the rooftops of the nearby row houses. I was more at peace staying with a family and, looking back, cannot help but think about the places we saw and what I remember most of all while in London. I remember the voices of the Swift family and can even recall snatches of conversations. I suppose the photographs that I have help my memory but I tend to think that the evenings, when there was nowhere to go but into the lives of each other made some kind of lasting impression. I know for sure that we did not speak of the Sacred Heart, though we may have said a few things about the great shrine in Paris. But chances are the conversation would have moved on to other things, to family and human interests, to warm sincere hopes for goodness and life and, at the end of our stay, words of a safe trip home.
We all see many places in life and some are near. Some are far, and we need save for such trips. But no matter where we go, what will last from our journeys are those with whom we stayed and who shared their hearts with us. Andre Dubus has a delightful title of one of his short story collections and it is “Voices from the Moon.” Is it about love that seems far away? I cannot remember. What I remember this morning are the voices over drinks and tea in Muswell Hill, voices that are clear as if they were spoken yesterday. And I like to think that in God’s heart, maybe that is really true. The language of love is always clear, always near, no matter how long ago words of love were spoken.
I took pictures to make something last.
Mick and Susan gave much from the little they had, and that has lasted longer.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009