Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Last Days of December

The clean-up from this week's blizzard continues in Gloucester. A seawall was damaged in the Lanesville section of town. The weather reached 35 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) so much of the ice on the roads has been cleared up. Tomorrow is to be warmer so all the pathways will be cleared.

We conclude an end-of-year retreat tomorrow. We had a day of conferences and a few points and we closed with a moving reconciliation service tonight. From my experience, people still desire this sacrament - perhaps just not at the parish level. Students on KAIROS retreats have found the sacrament to be healing and powerful; retreatants find it likewise. Environment and atmosphere can lead to an increase in the desire for the sacrament. Also, a proper type of relationship with the penitent and priest needs to exist for the sacrament to flourish. It seems that I am often involved in this ministry and I like it. I wish more people had the space in their lives to receive the graces that are offered.

I watched the 3-D version of the Dawn Treader (Chronicles of Narnia) today. I think Edmund and Lucy have evolved quite well over the years. I missed their older siblings, Peter and Susan. I find these stories very emotional. I am also amazed at the goodness that exudes from these characters and the Narnian creatures. It is not a pious goodness, but a real goodness that comes from discernment based on their relationship with Aslan. I want to reread the Chronicles again.

Tomorrow I say goodbye to a Christian Brother who has been visiting the past week. He is a good guy. He is studying gerontology in Canada and has come to the Boston area to meet with us three guys who made the long retreat with him in Australia in March. It was his first experience of the Spiritual Exercises and he was impressed. He made a comment today that struck me: this will be the last time on this earth that we will see one another. We do have to use our time well. We do need to take care of one another. This is all we have.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Photos: Snow and Creches

To see photos of Winter Snow and Christmas creches, please click on the link below:

Pics of Lights and Sights

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Christmas Season

Christmas Day has come and gone and all-in-all it was a rather pleasant day.

As I've mentioned before, I really don't mind the commercial season's build-up to Christmas. Many of the more popular Christmas songs are songs in preparation for Christmas day. It seems fitting to hear them before Christmas and not after.

At the same time, it is nice to fully celebrate the liturgical Christmas season. The Twelve Days of Christmas begins, not ends, on Christmas day. The Church also receives the "Gloria" back as it was omitted from use during Advent. It returns again when the angels in heaven sing "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" (Glory to God in the highest). The angels sing at the nativity and in the presence of the shepherds who come to visit Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Certain Christmas songs make sense to be heard only in this season. Music is designed to help us appreciate the movements of our church year. It helps us worship aspect of God's work in and through Jesus.

Christmas is celebrated in the Octave (eight days), but also lasts until Epiphany, which is somewhere around January 6th when the magi from the East follow the star to Bethlehem to see the infant king. This part of Christmas makes up the Twelve Days of Christmas. This year, the Christmas season is truncated and Epiphany is commemorated on January 2nd.

In the Christmas Octave, we celebrate Stephen, the first martyr; John the Evangelist who was close to Jesus; the Holy Innocents who were slaughtered by Herod, the Holy Family and their flight into and out of Egypt, Thomas Becket, and Sylvester I. The rich readings highlight the major moments of early days of Jesus and his family.

In days of old, the Presentation of the Lord (February 2nd) concluded the Christmas season. Christmas ends and Ordinary time begins at the Baptism of the Lord, which is on January 9th. This means we have quite a few weeks of ordinary time before Ash Wednesday (March 9th) and Lent (March 13 - April 21st.)


One of the guys in my community mentioned that one of his favorite movies was "Come to the Stable" with Loretta Young and Celeste Holm. It was made in 1949 so it was in a very different era. It was a cute movie and made me feel good. It portrayed a very different aspect of religious life, but the two women were endearing in their attempts to build a hospital in Bethlehem, Connecticut.

I will try to watch two films that have passed me by: "Going My Way?" and "The Bells of St. Mary."

Lastly, on Christmas night I was determined to get to bed early because of the impending blizzard. I decided to have two cups of decaffeinated coffee as a way to just savor the moments of the day. So I retired early, jumped in bed, and was awake until four in the morning as the coffee I made was extra bold with caffeine. Ughh!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Photos: Lights and Sights

To see photos of Christmas lights and other sights, please click on the link below:

Pics of Lights and Sights

Christmas message 2010

Yesterday morning, we had a Christmas party for the retreat house staff before they went home for their holiday vacation. It was a festive gathering as the retreat directors prepared a hearty brunch for the staff and their families. Throughout the morning of good cheer, light snowflakes blew delicately to the ground. A gentle wind made the flakes dance and swirl before landing on the bare ground. It gave us a preview of the white Christmas we long for. The purity of the snow makes us feel as if everything will be O.K. and that this Christmas will be like a happy day like the ones in our memories.

Throughout the day, the unexpected snow and winds picked up. Roads were slick and driving was somewhat dangerous. Fortunately, few cards were on the road. I think many people settled in early and enjoyed the safety of their homes. I drove a short distance to the blood collection center so I could give what may be perhaps a life-saving gift to someone.

Now I'm hunkered down in my room in a very silent retreat house. Guests are gone and I can hear the ocean's gentle roar. Occasional taps on my bedroom window tell me it is still snowing. A glance outside tells me the incremental snow will not pile up but that it will allow the earth to slumber. The lampposts cast a glow on the snow along the driveway that guides a person to the warm confines of this house. The presence of Christ is reserved in the adoration chapel directly below my room and his presence also recalls in my memory all the people who have graced the halls of this retreat house. We often say the prayers of retreatants are captured in our porous walls of wood. It thoughtfully holds their unexpressed longings. Though stillness deepens the silence, the stillness groans for its completion in God.

As I ready myself for Christmas, I am taking the time this week to appreciate the many stories I've heard during this past year. Finding time to listen to another's story is a profound gift to that person. I can't think of a richer way to live out my priesthood. I am enriched by a person's journey and his or her efforts to meet Christ along the way. With each story I hear, I find that I am more able to put on the mind and heart of Christ and to love the way God loves. I feel like I become a kinder, nicer man who can love more freely. I want to be in solidarity with those who are still searching, still seeking a more intimate relationship with God. I like who I am becoming.

I think of the powerful German movie "The Lives of Others" that shows the transformative power of listening. Lives are saved when we listen. We are forever changed.

I've listened to stories of many people across the world this year. I've developed a great affection for them and I want to honor them by remembering them well. I've directed many retreats and made my own 30-day retreat, which healed memories and opened my heart to Christ's abiding presence. I've grown in the ability to forgive others, and I hope this makes me more understanding and compassionate. I continue to be astonished with the miracles God has worked through my life. This week I intend to spend time recalling these significant events.

What do I want for Christmas this year? I want to hear more stories. The other day I passed by a shopping mall filled with thousands of people shopping for Christmas and I contrasted this with the 45 people residing at our retreat center. I want to hear their stories and I want them to hear the story of Christ. I want thousands more to come and spend time with the Lord. I want people to come and relate to God in a way that fits their unique style. May they discover Christ's presence in their lives as meaningful and satisfying.

I want people to be open to the possibilities of life. We close down too easily - often for petty reasons - and we shut out others with broad strokes. I want people to become enriched by others - by giving them positive regard, by honoring them and their positions (even if they fundamentally disagree), and engaging in a dialogue that allows a person to go beyond the words to deeper meaning and longings. We need this in partisan politics, in our fractured church, in our work and friendships, and in our broken families. When we give the gift of listening to one another, we create many new exhilarating possibilities for each other. We can see new potential and garner new hope when we allow Christ to liberate us from ourselves.

Our prayer can be flat or two dimensional. We think that our options are "either-or" instead of "both-and." We may go into prayer thinking that we want one thing and if Christ doesn't ratify what we want then he must not want us to have it. We lose sight of the fact that there might be ten other possibilities that we haven't yet considered. We can explore those nuances and dimensions that might further clarify God's will for us. Be open to new options that could surprise you. This openness will lead to greater satisfaction in your relationship with Christ. Conversations with your friends are not two-dimensional. Let your prayer conversation become as enriching.

Be bold enough to ask Christ for what you desire. As a child, you told Santa Claus what you wanted for Christmas and most of the time you received what you asked for. Try it out with Christ who is more generous than Santa Claus. It is not selfish or self-centered. Ask for what you want before your pray and check in at the end of prayer to see if you received the grace.

I want people to come to know Christ. He brings a lasting peace that we all want. He brings about a stillness within one's soul that helps make sense of all the swirling tumult of our lives. He brings about the real opportunity for us to be good and loving people who are generous and happy. He can do much more for us than we imagine.

Consider what our Christmas celebrations can be like if we can allow Christ into us as he would like. Our family gatherings could be meaningful, happy occasions marked with our listening to one another with respect and reverence. We will be delighted when it is reciprocated in return. If we listen for meaning rather than content, we become enriched and we develop a greater positive regard for the other. In honoring them, we become honored - and this is a tremendous gift.

If we can hear the stories of others and be moved by what we hear, imagine how our souls will be moved when the Word of God is born into the world and we listen to the soft voice that reaches out to us and tells us what we need to hear in the silent stillness amid the world's noise. Listening will fundamentally change you, and you will like it. I pray that I may grow in my ability to listen better to all who need to be heard.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Irish Christmas Music

Tonight I met a friend at Manchester-by-the-Sea to listen to a holiday version of Gaelic Christmas music. I had a terrific time. It was nice to be with my friend and I was very pleased with the atmosphere of the Landing restaurant.

The Session was conducted by eight musicians, mostly with fiddles. My friend played a recorder. All around the room people would get up and begin singing a song - mostly about their native Ireland. The crowd was primarily a middle-age gentle crowd that appreciated the good efforts of everyone who participated - good voice or those needing some help. Each person felt safe enough to sing and mostly they were good - and passionate. The Session leader was egalitarian. He wanted everyone to feel welcome to contribute.

The host could not have been nicer. He led a participatory version of the Twelve Days of Christmas that brought every table into the action.

The crowd reverenced each's effort at playing or singing. They were simply there because they enjoyed the music of their land. The tales were of old; duets were harmonized. I felt like I was in a folk singing cafe of the early 1960's. I can see the attraction of those venues because, even though the room was packed, an intimate setting was established.

Mostly, people came together because they were having fun. It was an non-traditional way for me to enjoy Christmas music and it was certainly moving. I will go back there again soon.

Friday, December 17, 2010

White Christmas?

I have made some progress on decorating my room at Gonzaga Eastern Point Retreat House. It is festive with a few odds and ends. I'll post a photo of my pine-decorated fireplace soon. I can sense Christmas is right around the corner.

We ended a terrific Advent retreat this Wednesday. I feel so privilged to hear the stories of incredible men and women who are yearning for intimacy with God. I feel like my entire year has been one of grace. I feel so inwardly silent and settled. It's a great feeling. It helps me be present to others on their journey to Christ.

Earlier this week, I began watching "White Christmas." It was the first time I watched the film. I had no idea it was of long duration. It is a great story line. I watched an hour and a half before I had to stop watching it. Since it was on continuously the entire week, I knew I would have a chance to watch it again but ironically the satellite receiver's hard disk failed and we waited the week for the set to be repaired. However, once it was back on, "White Christmas" was continuously playing. To my delight, I saw the last hour and a half. It is the sort of movie that you make popcorn for a snack.

I hadn't been out to see a film in a theatre since I was in Australia. I went to see Harry Potter and thoroughly enjoyed it. Though it was dark and serious, it felt like because of the solid companionship of the three stars. When the last film comes out, I want to sit through a marathon of each movie and then re-read the series. My next film is going to be Chronicles of Narnia. I'm told the latest film, The Dawn Treader, is certainly worth taking in.

The retreat house has a little bit of break in schedule this week. We begin an Advent weekend retreat tonight that ends Sunday, then we have an off-week because of the Christmas holidays. I have an entertaining weekend planned. Friends from college will visit on Saturday and I will see other friends from the Boston area on Sunday. Then I have to cook a Holiday Strada for Monday. I don't even know what that is. I'm thankful for AllRecipes.com.

Hope you are all enjoying your Advent. I hear it is humid in New Zealand and rather hot in Australia. It is at the freezing mark in Gloucester, but a friend gave me a nice quote from the Scandinavians: There's never bad weather; there's only bad clothing. (or something like that.)

It is December 17th and we've already broken a record. We have not had any measurable snowfall in the area - a first! The weatherpersons say we might get some snowfall on Sunday night or we might not.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Ice is building up quickly on Niles Pond - a freshwater pond near the ocean. Gulls sit atop the ice while the swans still manage to find a few warm water spots. The temperatures have been below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) so several days straight and tonight the temps are expected to drop into the low teens. The days are sunny so while it is brisk, it is still pleasant if you bundle yourself correctly.

The setting is right for our Advent retreat. Darkness comes early and people huddle inside at the fireplace (though the house is warm.) The house is very cozy.

Our Canadien geese have returned. They seem to leave for two to three weeks and then return. The female had a leg injury but is getting stronger.

The two adult swans are pushing the signet out of its territory. He keeps getting isolated while the adults are trying to launch him into adulthood.

A coyote startled me the other day and quietly ran up the road into the thick brush. He was so nimble that I could scarcely hear his paw-steps.

It is a rich week of memorials and feasts - St. Nicholas, Pearl Harbor, the Immaculate Conception, John Lennon's anniversary, and plenty of events in the news. People need prayers.

Photos: Early December Day in Maine

To see photos of an early December day in Maine, please click on the link below:

Pics of Maine in Early December

Sunday, December 5, 2010

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas

Last week, the Cape Ann Symphony Singers performed a Christmas concert at Fuller Auditorium in Gloucester. We sang in the second half of the show and we provided a fairly good rendition of the Alfred Burt Carols, a Hebrew song that yearns for good fortune in the new year, a musicological survey of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and the Hallelujah Chorus. All went well except very few people stood up for Handel's Tribute to Christ our Lord.

Singing is part of Christmas and it puts me in a light mood. I like listening to Pandora.com. You can listend to over twenty plus genres of Christmas music. Today, I listened to the peaceful Christmas tunes. Lovely. Outside the U.S., Pandora is not available, but New Age on Sky.fm does the same thing. It makes radios almost obsolete.

It is getting colder in the Northeast and very dark. The sun sets around 4:15 p.m. and it looks so bleak outside. The skies are often grey and I feel like it is time to hibernate.

Anyways, we just completed a six-day retreat for priests. I was inspired by their commitment to prayer and their devotion to their priestly ministry. They represent much of what is good with the church. I wish more will come next year - even though we had a full house. I feel strengthened by their faithfulness to their prayer.

Today, I set up many of my Christmas decorations. I cut down some pine branches and lined them in my fireplace so that I get a healthy scent of pine each day. I placed some miniature lights on the pine which makes it look like a fire is radiating in the fireplace. I hung my stockings and a few Santa hats and I placed some decorations at the base of the fireplace. It looks fun.

I set up my Fontanini Creche too. The purists will chastise me for having the infant Jesus in the crib already, but I see the matter differently than them. If I followed their method, poor Joseph and Mary would be looking at an empty manger until December 24th. Then, miraculously, the infant will appear - as if it came down trascendently from heaven rather than from Mary's womb.

I figure Mary is pregnant at this time. If she and Joseph are in the creche, it is because she just gave birth to Jesus. He shouldn't be separated from the scene. He doesn't magically appear, but Mary bears him from her flesh. I like to contemplate the Nativity with the child in it - even if it is only Advent. His birth is what makes the season make sense so I won't hide him. I'll gaze upon him each day.

I attended my sister's wedding yesterday. She is in her early 40's and this is her second marriage. I wish her all the best. She looked beautful and she was so happy. I've never seen her be at such ease with her friends before. I'm happy for her.

I gave the last of my Australia gifts to my friends and family yesterday. I'm glad to have them all delivered. I bought a bunch of small stuffed animals. They added such space to my luggage, I had such a hard time getting everything delivered.

We begin another retreat on Tuesday. It is a lovely time for retreat as we are in the thick of Advent. Prayers and liturgies take on greater meaning for people during these fast-paced weeks leading up to Christmas.

Retreats make me pray much more thoroughly for others.

Advent peace!