Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bearing Down

The old saying goes, "March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb," but today will not be the case. In fact, we are due to receive 6-12 inches of snow tonight into tomorrow. It makes for a nice April Fool's Day joke by Mother Nature upon us. However, the snow won't stay around long at all. Temperatures are to be near 50 over the weekend and into next week. We might as well just sit back and enjoy this one. Winter is coughing one last breath. Spring can come. I'm happy to turn the calendar's page.

In that spirit, the Boston Red Sox begin their new season tomorrow. Spring is surely here - even though they will be far away from Fenway Park. They travel to Dallas-Fort Worth to play the Rangers.

We finished a retreat this morning. Though it was a light one, I needed a two-hour nap at the end of it. So much energy is wrapped up in caring for others that it takes its toll on my energy. It was peaceful around the retreat house when the office staff went home. The silence was so enveloping. I made myself a cup of French Vanilla coffee and sat in the silence.

We are getting ready for Holy Week. We have one more 8-day retreat that begins next week and then we slow down for Holy Week services. The pace will not be frenetic and I'll have a chance to feel engaged in Christ's movements. I'm hopeful that it will be a reflective time where I can process all the things that went on within the past year.

My project of clearing the vines at the Stations of the Cross is progressing. It is difficult work. I have opened up much space so that the sun and wind can get into the thicket of bushes to dry it out. Many picker bushes are now cleared and the property looks really nice. A thick area of bittersweet vines is almost impassable in some areas. I take a little piece away each day. It doesn't seem like I am making a great dent though I exert so much effort, but over time I can see some slight improvement. Once I break through a certain area, the worst part will be over. I'm delighting in the smaller areas that seem to be thriving with the sun that hasn't reached the area in years. Why do I take on such projects?

This weekend I'll attend a conference on Reconciliation at Boston College. I suspect it will be very engaging. I'll also catch up with some good friends and take in a concert: St. John's Passion.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Snowing Lightly

I have returned to the retreat house after venturing forth on a few parish retreats. It is the first full day of spring and it is lightly snowing. Over the weekend, we had the nearest rotation of the moon in many years. The clear skies provided refined lighting on the placid ocean.

I traveled to two Maine parishes this week to give a parish retreat. At the Augusta parish, one woman said to her pastor, "he didn't give us fire and brimstone. He told us God is gentle and loves us." The pastor considered this a triumph.

The church in Maine is doing a remarkable job in light of their present reality. Essentially, two priests are covering seven parishes. They have an exhausting schedule. With only seven (or nine) seminarians, the outlook for retaining many parishes is dim. Young priests might question why they would enter into such an undertaking when many of the active priests are 8-10 years away from retirement. For many, it does not seem sustainable.

Remarkably, the spirit of the people is still strong. They still want a sacramental experience of God. Many of these people are an older crowd and demand will be much less in a few years. Fewer marriages are celebrated in the church; baptisms and funerals are still relatively high; confirmation has dropped in numbers.

The retreat was on "Beholding the reconciling Christ."

The other church was likewise remarkable. They have a vacant rectory and are not afforded daily Mass. They provide all the para-liturgical functions that a pastor once did. The laity run all church functions, like the St. Patrick's Day Dinner, the Friday-night Stations of the Cross, the RCIA and catechetical program, and spiritual counseling for others. The sister-church in the parish is 20 miles away. In the absence of a priest, the people are doing quite a good job in keeping their pastoral life vibrant.

I was pleased to attend a Stations of the Cross once again. I typically make this a private devotion, but there is something beautiful about doing it with many others. About thirty people prayed the stations while another six served as presiding ministers. I was well pleased.

The parishioners can talk with one another about their concerns. They grieve together; they hope they can get a priest some day; they realize they are lovable and that a pastor could/would love them too. In the end, they are actively acting as church. They have much beauty to them.

Now that I have returned from a week of ministering (Georgetown and two parishes in Maine), my body is telling me that I need rest. I have a cold and flu-like symptoms. I know I will recover quickly, but until then, I'm just sleeping, watching the light snow, and getting caught up on emails.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Photo: Friends

To see photos of people playing and relaxing in Washington, D.C., please click on the link below:

Pics of Friends to one another

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Warmer Times

I spent a week with my community at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts to plan for our 2013 calendar. The hospitality of the community was very warm. They went out of their way to welcome us and to make us feel very comfortable.

I was particulary impressed with one senior professor who began to study the art of giving spiritual direction a year and a half ago. He is thrilled with the added dimension it brings to his life. He is honored in learning about spiritual seekers to a greater depth. As he was energetically speaking about it, I could plainly see that it brings him much joy.

I am now in Washington, D.C. and it feels terrific to be in a place that is so warm. Outside of the dining room windows at Holy Cross, two feet of packed ice and snow remains. At Georgetown, spring is just around the corner. I can smell it in the air. The temperatures are around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Flowers are surely to come soon.

I am impressed with the work of the Jesuits at our colleges and universities. The building programs are quite good too. The College of the Holy Cross is building a stylish and sensible student residence with a capacity of 200. When it is complete, ninety-five percent of the student body will live on campus.

Boston College is erecting Stokes Hall in the former dustbowl. It will have a dynamic architectural presence. The City of Boston has presented many obstacles for development of residences and classrooms. I don't understand why city governments fail to see the positive effect these universities have for its citizens. The contributions of an educated citizenry is enough, but the economic, cultural, and sports contributions provide many intangible benefits.

Georgetown University has changed greatly in the eleven years since I lived here. They have reshaped the campus and it is a tight little city that has a bustling energy throughout each corner of the property. Restaurants and gathering spaces complement the stately building that continue to rise. Jesuits are rightly proud of what the university has built.

My time here is merely to relax and to take a break from the retreat house and to visit some friends and family. I also want to take in a few museums and walk the mall. It will help me prepare for the two retreats I give in Maine next week.

Finally, the rehearsals for Carmina Burana are going very well. It is a great piece to sing and our performance ought to be as stately as the new buildings of Georgetown, BC and Holy Cross.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Monday, March 7, 2011

Take up the Wood: A Green Lent

As a spring thaw moved into New England over the weekend, I arose today with determination to get outside into the vast nature preserves around the retreat house. Scents from the soil told me that the earth was awakening from its enforced frozen slumber. Tree buds were becoming swollen giving hints of their soon-to-be fullness. I stood and mused about the direction I would take on my early morning walk. I decided to forego vigorous walking in favor of doing a little spring cleaning.

As Lent is upon us, I decided to take a traditional route of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. I tried to be creative over the past few years in my Lenten observance and while my practices have been meaningful and personal, a traditional approach can never hurt. Therefore, I will fast on Ash Wednesday and Fridays and I will abstain from meats on Fridays. Actually, I do that every year. This year I am making grand plans to abstain from meat for the entire season and to limit my portions more strictly. The biggest sacrifice will be to abstain from snacking on certain types of foods in between meals. I plan to do it, not because Christ asked me to do it, but because I need a more sensible dietary practice. O.K. So much for holy sacrifices. I could put a holier spin on it, but that is dishonest.

I decided that my greater Lenten devotion this year is to clear the brush away from the Stations of the Cross at the Retreat House. The woods are overgrown and the Stations are inaccessible. Insidious bittersweet vines are choking the life out of hardy trees. I want to liberate those trees from the attachments that suck the life out of them. I want to make the Stations available for retreatants who come to walk the way of Christ.

Each of us has to pick up his or her cross and heave it onto less than sturdy shoulders. What better way to go through Lent than picking up dead wood and hauling it away? It is difficult work. I am already cut and bruised by the branches that refuse to give, but I am determined to clear out what no longer belongs.

The Stations of the Cross are located in a swampy tract of land at the entrance to the retreat house. The thick woods look foreboding and many a retreatant has asked, "where are the Stations?" From the retreat house, you cannot tell there is anything but a menacing, uninviting overgrown forest. Pruning has not been done in many seasons. No one can walk the Stations because the metal posts have rotted and the markers have fallen to the ground.

My first pass through was to clear a passageway that could provide a devotional worshipper with a clearer path of entry. I began to trim some of the overgrown bushes. Cutting them back makes them look manageable in scale. Then I trimmed the edges of the pathway that are sprouting new growth that covers any signs of tracks.

My plans were soon enlarged when I became entangled in the insidious vines that are choking creation. On some bushes, I can't even figure out where to begin because the formidable vines cut into me. I think about walking away because that would be easier. No one has paid attention to the mess in years. Why should I do so now? What sort of masochist am I? I don't want to be defeated.

As I tear into the vines, I discover that I am most effective if I take the tinier parts of the vine first. If I clear out a passageway, I can soon discover where the roots are located. Eventually, I can strike the root and check the vines' progress. Patience with my methodology will tell me if I'm on the right track. I realize that it will take much time, more than I want to give it, because it is designed to ensnare. It builds duplicate feeding systems so that if I sever one artery, another one will nourish the plant. This is going to be a project where I commit many hours of my resources knowing that the deck of cards is stacked against me.

I see that these vines are representing the sin of the world and that sin is so endemic to our human institutions that no one person can be victorious. Each of us is defeated because of sin. No one can save himself or herself from the deconstructing spiral of sin. Even a large dedicated group of people seem to have no commanding effect upon sin. The vine will also find a way to come back in new and clever ways.

Addictions are extremely devastating. Many people will say that becoming sober was the most difficult act they ever did. Others say smoking was horrendous to beat. Gambling is a silent killer. Sex and love addicts struggle to retain control over their behaviors. The newest forms of addiction seem to be pervasive and the most virulent: technology addictions, including online pornography. Each of these addictions go to the root of our human strengths and weaknesses. We seldom give much respect to the power of our sexual natures.

In the church, many people are unwilling to talk about our sexual nature unless it is only discussed within the extreme ideals of church documents. Being at ease with sexuality helps us dealing with our predicaments. Many penitents confess the sin of masturbation over and over again without a deepening examination of their belief systems. Many penitents focus on the clinical act he or she committed without a more expansive regard of the relationship system that was violated. Sexual sins are sins because they affect human relationships.

Disordered attachments are also like vines. Life's experiences form us. Each of us has some part of our formation that is incomplete or undeveloped. We get hooked by our psychological and emotional needs and we act out of them. We sometimes don't even know why we act in certain ways. We are blind to areas and if we do have sight and insight, we may be powerless to do anything about it. We are wounded in some way. If we don't allow our wounds to be transformed, then we transmit them.

When we add my personal sin to your personal sin, we have social sin and these larger sins are more difficult to transform. Social systems, institutions, governments, and all human infrastructures are besieged by our social sins and they are as unrestrained as the vines that choke the healthy plants beneath them.

Why do we try? Because a beautiful tree lies underneath it. The solitary tree is worth saving. It has beauty (especially if it is damaged) and dignity and potential. It deserves to live as fully as it can, even if it cannot reach the height of a California redwood. Life is better lived when it is unimpeded and cleared of unwanted obstacles. This is why I try.

I realize I am not doing this work alone. I am standing together with Christ - face to face, arm in arm. He has a dream for each of us where there is no more violence, killing, or starvation - of plants or people. Nothing is to waste away. Sure, it is just an idea, but an idea needs flesh, and the time is now.

Christ can hear his brothers and sisters cry out, "I want to live. I want to grow. I want to see. I want to know. I want to share what I can give because I have something good to contribute. I want to be beheld and respected. I want to do more than dream. I want to take steps to make my dream come true."

This is why I try.

This is why my boots get muddy and my feet get cold from the soaking ice puddles. This is why I get scratched and wince in pain. This is why I tug at the thick tree-like branches that wrap parasitically around a defenseless tree. My blisters will heal. My cuts will fade. My feeling of being "a fool" will cease when Christ and I look back on our efforts and we see a tree standing taller, standing straighter. My folly will seem like wisdom when people can see Christ in his Stations and realize they too have to one day pick up their own cross of wood. My delight will be when others can see a clearer pathway to him.

At the end of this day, I'm tired. New muscles ache, but it is a good pain. It is a pain from knowing that the possible results will be worth the effort. Striving is always the better route. As I look at the approaching Ash Wednesday, I realize my Lent will be green. If I can pick up one more stick each day, the forest will be clearer for me and for others. It seems daunting right now. I dream of what it will look like on Easter morning.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Marching On

I'm so glad we have left the month of February. The old age runs true, "March comes in like a lion and leaves like a lamb."

This month seems like it will be good. The provincial comes for a visitation today and tomorrow and then our community goes away for a few days for planning and prayer. After a quick trip to D.C., I'll give a few retreats in Maine and then prepare for the last retreat of the month.

We received about 6 inches of snow the other day, but the torrential rains the next day washed away 5 inches. With a few days above freezing, more of the ugly snowpacks will melt. Buds on trees are showing some color and insidious vines are already green. They are getting a head-start. I won't be able to keep up with them.

I am, however, sawing some vine trunks. As I remove them, some of the trees will be able to come back to life. Some of the trunks are four inches thick with bark around it. I'd like to remove them so people can pray the Stations of the Cross during Lent. I like to make things fresh, to prune, and to allow the proper life to grow around me.

I gave blood this week. I always feel that I'm contributing to the greater good when I do this. I do not like the thought of needles going into my veins, but I'm more at ease with it each time I go.

I collected my St. Patricks' Day decorations and will wear green for the next two weeks in preparation for this feast day. I'm sure we will have lots of soda bread for desserts.

Well, off to see my retreatants...