Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Happy Birthday; Happy Thanksgiving

Many thanks to everyone who wished me a happy birthday yesterday. I had a terrific day made better by so many wishes of good health, happiness, and new life.

My email exploded with messages in the morning when I woke up. I had to force myself to write my Sunday blog entry before I did anything else. Tuesday morning's are always homily preparation time. I finished right at 11:30 a.m., just in time to head out to Chestnut Hill for lunch with Fr. Bill, a dear Jesuit friend.

When I returned, I finished my homework and then visited some teachers in the school to wish them a happy Thanksgiving. Block parties were going on as the holiday season was beginning. Then I returned phone calls (so I would not be tempted to do it while driving.) Then a friend from Amman came over for a visit as her husband is in town dealing with an illness. After a nice visit, I dropped her back at her hotel to get to class.

What joy when I stepped foot into the class and everyone started singing, "Happy Birthday." We had a neat class. At one point, we had to start a drawing and after five minutes move to the next student's easel and assist in their drawing. The results were amazing. We each contributed something but each drawing was amazingly distinct.

As class ended, the streets were eerily quiet. I knew it was not the pre-holiday lull. The Grand Jury indictment was released for Ferguson, Missouri and many Bostonians were civilly protesting in solidarity with the African-American community. At some point, our nation has to address race issues because they are very real. We are simply afraid. Anyways, state police cruisers, one after another, kept coming down Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue. Passage back home for me was very easy, but so many drivers were erratic. I thought it might be a full moon because of some of their antics. We need at address driving violations in our Commonwealth.

Once I arrived home, I set out to reply to the over 250 Facebook well-wishes I received during the day. At one point, Facebook responded to me and told me to slow down in my typing. I am a fast typist. I chuckled. I'm probably one of the few people of Facebook to answer each one individually. This was a monumental effort, but well worth it. I was touched by so many good words and such kindnesses. Some people shared with me stories of their heartaches, deaths, and memorials. This is all part of the sanctity of life that we hold so dear.

I love that my birthday is in the Thanksgiving season because it heightens the celebration and I always have plenty of reasons to be thankful. It also overshadows my birthday and I'm pleased the attention is place on the goodwill day that is Thanksgiving. All I know is that I have a lot of love in my life and I'm grateful.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I think I will draw more Thanksgiving images and just enjoy the slow day. I've tidied my room, reorganized my painting space, enjoyed a healthy lunch, and chatted with a few friends.

I even went grocery shopping. It was very festive. People were in a good mood, free food was offered, everyone was pleasant and cheerful, and the cashier looked at me straight in the eyes and said, "Thank you, dear, and have a happy Thanksgiving."

The wind is howling, the rain is steady, few cars on on the road and people are settling in for one of the most pleasant holidays of the year. Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Feeling Good

It is a great time of year. November is always warmer in New England than people think. Though it is cold these past few days, the temperatures are often invigorating. The cool nights prepares the trees and bushes for winter. The child in me comes out because I love crunching the unraked leaves that fall to the ground. The sounds of the crackling has the effect upon me as bubble wrap has upon others. I can't resist.

The only difficulty with this time of year is the lessened sunlight. Darkness comes too soon. We do not notice it so much because of events around the holiday, but it encroaches upon our day. I cannot imagine life a century ago when electric lights were becoming widely available.

However, the darkening days helps us to be reflective about the direction of our lives and the last things. We begin the month with All Soul's and All Saints Days and it is a fitting time to remember the dead during this last month of the church year. The whole month is dedicated to memorializing our dead who are still alive to God. As we consider our own mortality, we reshape our actions and make adjustments to those things we most value. We cannot help but see ourselves in closer relationship to God, and fortunately we end the month with Thanksgiving, which helps us to be grateful for the ways we are blessed.

In light of the way we focus upon our relationship with God, I feel truly grateful for the ministry of reconciliation - confessions. Last week, I heard the confessions of high school students on a KAIROS retreat. My absolute best prayer is in the first moments when a penitent leaves the confessional. God's presence seems magnified in that period. Above all, I want the person to know of God's far-reaching love for the person before me. Once the person leaves the room, I pray silently for that person to receive God's love, and I know God is also communicating abundant love for me. It is one of the best experiences of priesthood. It is often the feeling one has when leaving an 8- or 30-day retreat.

Speaking of the end of the year, the feast of Christ the King is powerful to me, and I fear that many people do not quite understand the rhythm of the liturgical year because the feast is superseded by Thanksgiving and the beginning of the Advent season. Our entire year is collected by Christ and presented to the Ancient One for blessing and final (positive) judgment. All our struggles and joys from our lifetime are blessed by God and given new meaning. Christ is given by God power over all living things and he has defeated our great enemies - sin and death.

To celebrate this reality, I had a crown put on a molar this week.

Something that I have missed the past week and a half is yoga. I had meetings scheduled during times that yoga classes were offered and my body had been missing the stretching. However, when I arrived for class this morning, I recognized that I missed the guys a great deal too. They have been a bit of a community for me this semester. One guy, as soon as I arrived, invited me for Thanksgiving dinner. That was so kind of him.

During class, I kept thinking that I ought to cook a meal for some of the old-timers because they live alone. One guy will have Chinese food on Thursday. I tried to ask them if they wanted a meal on Wednesday night, but with their lack of hearing and their propensity to talk over one another, I never received a satisfactory answer. I'll try to figure out something to make sure that they have a special day. It is nice to have a holiday home cooked meal.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Fine Start to the Day

Since this November morning is absolutely brilliant, I decided to go for a walk fairly early in the day to get my exercise. As I stepped outside, a man in his late 30's approached me with beads of sweat pouring down from his neatly trimmed head. He had a pleading look of desperation and he seemed to be beating himself up.

He asked me for directions to a place on Morrissey Boulevard, but the numbers did not correspond to anything logical. He took the train from Quincy so that he would exit the JFK/UMass subway stop by 8:30 giving him a full half hour before the start of work at 9:00 a.m. He walked up and down the street in quite a quick pace just looking for his destination. In exasperation, he found me.

I started to give him directions and then said, "Jump in my car." He did not say a word. He just sat down. I drove him to the place called the EMK Institute as he stared at his work permit. I asked, "Would you like me to vouch for you?" He said, "Please. I tried my best to get here early, but this is so confusing. I walked onto the University campus, but I wanted to respect their grounds. I did not want to meet Campus Security" I realized what a different experience I have as a Caucasian male. He felt fear he would have been questioned as an African-American, but I assured him that he would be very welcome on Campus. I learned that his name was Cedric.

I said, "I see you are going to the Ted Kennedy building." He said, "Actually, I'm going to the EMK Institute." I replied, "The Edward M. Kennedy Institute is a fine building and it is due to open very soon. Most of the exterior work is complete and it looks stunning sitting next to the JFK Library and Museum." He said, "Oh, EMK, the Ted Kennedy building."

We found our way to a door where he was to arrive and I vouched for him. He sighed a deep breath and explained his situation. The work supervisor was very understanding and said to the man, "Come on in." Then he turned to me and said, "I did not catch your name." I replied, "Fr. John," and Cedric seemed to lose his breath again.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Early November Foliage

To see photos of an early November Day in Massachusetts, click on the link below:

Friday, October 31, 2014

Law of graduality: living with the imperfect

Thomas Reese  |  Oct. 31, 2014Faith and Justice

During the Synod of Bishops on the family, the bishops in Rome struggled to find a way that the church could be a loving mother while still being a clear teacher -- something all parents can relate to. If when the kids come home for Thanksgiving, they are met by a nagging parent, they will not return for Christmas.
No child wants to be greeted at the door with questions like, "Is that a nose ring?" "You got a tattoo?" "Who are you sleeping with now?" "When are you getting married?" or "When am I going to get a grandchild?" No, what they want when they come home for Thanksgiving is a hug, a welcome. "I am so happy you are here!" "I love you!"
The bishops realized that a very large percentage of the faithful are either in "irregular" unions (cohabitation, divorced and remarried, gay relationships) and/or are practicing birth control. How to pastorally deal with these people was one of the central questions at the synod.
The bishops made clear that they were not going to change church teaching on these matters, but they realized that threatening hellfire and brimstones was not working. In fact, it was driving people away from the church. Numerous bishops admitted that terms like "living in sin," "intrinsically disordered" and "contraceptive mentality" were alienating.
On the other hand, overemphasizing the loving mother, they feared, would give the impression that these were minor issues that could be ignored. People would conclude that all sexual unions are equal, and there is no reason to be married in the church.
One solution to this quandary was the "law of graduality," proposed by some bishops. For many bishops, this was a whole new concept, even though it had been around for a while. In A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century, Jesuit Fr. James Keenan reports that after Humanae Vitae, confessors were hearing from penitents who accepted the encyclical's teaching but strove unsuccessfully to observe it.

These people were confessing, with great frequency, but still asking: were they sinners each and every time they practiced birth control, even though they tried to adhere to the church's teaching without excuse? In particular, they wanted to know were they to absent themselves from Communion, even though it could help them grow in the moral life?

In response to these queries, confessors recommended the practice known as the law of graduality.
"Through this law," Keenan writes, "confessors encouraged the laity to understand that gradually they would make the law a reality in their lives and that in the meantime the sacraments could accompany them along the journey."
Keenan notes that Pope John Paul II referred to the law of graduality favorably in Familiaris Consortio (1981), although he differentiated it from "the gradualization of the law, that is, moderating the universality and/or force of the law itself." The law is clearly expressed, but "it was for the laity to gradually adhere to it," Keenan explains.

This was not a left-wing, liberal idea, as can been seen by its support from John Paul, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, and Cardinal Alfonso L√≥pez Trujillo, whom Keenan cites. Tettamanzi even extended the idea to homosexual persons.

The law of graduality was a pastoral response to concrete people, not a softening of the law. "Pope John Paul and Tettamanzi had argued that using birth control was always in itself wrong," Keenan writes, "and that failure to acknowledge the truth of the teaching would 'gradualize', that is, 'relativize', the church's law."
Not all moral theologians saw this solution as a convincing remedy. Keenan cites Jesuit Fr. Josef Fuchs, who argued that "if the demands of the couple's marriage meant that they 'had' to practice birth control, then the morally right act would be to use birth control." For Fuchs, there was no need for them to go to confession in the first place.
Still, the law of graduality is not as huge a change as progressives hope or as conservatives fear. There is no change in teaching, but in how individuals are pastorally cared for. But many, if not most, of the bishops at the synod were unfamiliar with the law of graduality, and they knew if they were confused, then so would be their priests and people. As a result, reference to the law was dropped from the final document. Don't be surprised if the same idea returns next October and gets a better reception.

Where the law of graduality becomes pastorally critical is on the question of Communion. The traditional approach has been to say that people practicing birth control or in irregular unions are in mortal sin and destined for hell. As a result, they cannot receive Communion.
Rather than seeing sins as going into two boxes (mortal and venial), most moralists would see actions on a continuum of lesser to greater evil. In addition, a person might be imperfect in one area of his or her life and better in other areas. Thus, a divorced and remarried couple might be exemplary in their faithfulness to one another, their care for their children, and their contribution to the community.
Under these circumstances, could not a confessor tell a person in a less-than-perfect relationship that they may go to Communion as long as they are struggling to live the best possible life that they can? As Pope Francis has said, Communion is not a reward for the perfect, but medicine for the sick.
At the end of the synod, Pope Francis reported that zealous traditionalists were tempted to "hostile inflexibility," while progressive do-gooders were tempted to treat symptoms rather than causes. Finding the happy middle ground of compassion and truth is what the bishops will be looking for between now and next October.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Changed Holiday

Halloween has taken off commercially like never before. Stores are filled with costumes and decorations of all types. Zombie movies and horror stories are all the rage and even radio stations play Halloween music. It is incredible how this holiday has evolved.

Growing up in the middle of a state forest, I absolutely enjoyed Halloween because it was a fall holiday that celebrates the splendid colors of the fall season. I appreciated the religious overtones to the reflective final weeks of the liturgical year that were being ushered in after one last blast of faux-scariness. Peace would descend upon the last as the last leaves would fall from the maples, elms, and poplars. Halloween always conveyed to me that something more final was afoot.

I think the appeal today has more to do with dressing up as one's heroes than it does putting on the gore. My nieces and nephews and their friends are trying to look authentically like their favorite cartoon characters or as someone who is filled with goodwill. The older crowds likes the gory stuff of the undead, but it never seems like pagan worship, just a masquerade party whose limits are surreal. Most however dress as fashionably as they can.

The store decorations are to welcome people into a festive time rather than to scare demons away. Halloween wreaths and greeting signs are becoming much more tasteful. They blend in with the autumnal atmosphere. I'm sure school children are taught that the origins of this festival was to scare away the evil spirits in order that the souls of the faithful departed may rest eternally in peace.

One of the mainstays of the Halloweens of my youth was the abundance of candy, most which were artfully crafted by neighbors for Trick or Treaters. Those days of community distribution of baked goods are now replaced by in-house parties where the sweet and salty goodies can be traced back to parents who staff the events.

A few traditional candies remain on the market shelves: the all-sugar candy corn, jellied pumpkins, waxed lips, and other former penny-candy delights. Halloween storefronts seem to have more decorations than they do candy.

Pumpkin has certainly taken off as a seasonal speciality. Pumpkin saturation is everywhere from coffee, to muffins, candles, air scents, and whatever else enhances the season. These days, you cannot avoid pumpkin.

Candy was once a rare treat in 19th century America. They were produced by confectioners to be sold in pharmacies. Confectioners would confect prescription drugs and sometimes these medicines were imbedded (to everyone's knowledge) into candy. The old saying holds, "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." Candy was meant to treat common infirmities. I recall some candies even tasting like medicine, Necco wafers, cough drops, clove gum, and other unique candies.

With the easier access to sugar, entrepreneurs found that offering candy was a marketing device to get people into their stores. Universal dentistry was not yet in place and some people developed a dietary moralism about the evils of candy. Halloween was a special time of the year in which candy could be distributed more freely.

Today, it is not easy to tell what is candy and what is not. Energy bards like Fiber One and those that are covered in memory-enhancing dark chocolate seem to have the same quality of chocolate bars, but they are sold as something different. We abhor candy, but love these treats. Fruit roll-ups and juice drinks are filled with the sugar we love and hate. Candy has simply taken another form in our consciousness. Candy bars are so much smaller than a mere 25 years ago, but they are new and improved. Bite sized morsels are designed for us to indulge, but delicately respecting our diets. The landscape, like the Halloween holiday, has changed.

For me, I focus on the pumpkins and gourds, the falling leaves, and the apple picking. I like the long walks in the great outdoors with my camera as the fading light encroaches upon the land. I begin to think about those who have gone to God during the past year and I ask them to pray for us during these troubled times. Halloween is the setup for the real holiday. I simply begin to remember and to prepare for what lies ahead and I want to enjoy life in Christ as he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I want to feel the communion of saints, living and deceased, and I want to take the time to feel alive again. Halloween appeals to my sensory world and it feeds my imagination and gives meaning to a redeemed world of goodness.

Saturday, October 18, 2014