Saturday, December 31, 2011

End of Year Reflection


         It is New Year's Eve day and I am getting ready to meet a friend who is visiting from Australia. It is his first time to visit Boston as he completes his round-the-world trip touring Jesuit communities on his sabbatical year. I look forward to my time with him because he is such a lovely man. I have been waiting all week long to spend time reviewing my Christmas cards to honor and pray for each person in my life who holds a special place. (I even pray for those who send online greetings and for those for whom I did not get to send a card.) Now is the right time. Now is always the best time.
         
          I just finished directing an End-of-Year Christmas retreat with a good friend and we are pleased with the outcome. Most of the retreatants left Eastern Point with a wide smile on their faces and a jubilant jump in their steps. We tried to modify the traditional retreat by extending the Christmas graces with some festive activities and some relationship building while providing greater space for silence and freedom. While for some it was a deviation from what they knew and expected, most let us know of their deep-felt pleasure of ending their year this way.

          I tell God I am blessed every day to be able to work and live in Gloucester's retreat house. I enjoy it. I am changed by each retreat because I become a kinder, better man. I find this work makes me better able to reveal my care for others more openly. God helps me love more easily. While the beauty of the ocean is breath-taking and the landscape work grounds me and helps me search for natural beauty, it is the lives of others that inspires me to want to live each day to the fullest.

          I've had one of my best Christmases in years, if not the best. My soul is very light and happy and my heart beats with great fervor. I'm grateful for all the miraculous work God has done with me throughout the years. At times, my heart feels ready to burst open because of the great goodness I see in others and it hurts when I see someone in deep pain. Mostly, I'm grateful for the love I am given by many. I merely want to return that gift abundantly to them and to God.

          I am overjoyed at the goodwill I experienced with my family during the holidays. I am grateful for the desire I feel in wanting to spend time with them. I cherish the fraternal care I receive from brother Jesuits and our Ignatian companions, especially the pilgrims from our journey to Spain. I'm honored to receive great friendship and revelry with my new friends on Boston's North Shore, especially from the choruses, and of course, I am extremely enriched by those who share their stories of faith at the retreat house.

          My longstanding friends remain my longstanding friends because I like them and they are nice. To honor my 50th year of life, celebrated around Thanksgiving, I was in touch with many high school classmates and childhood friends. I even connected with my high school teachers because they did remarkable work preparing us for life and I am very appreciative of their skills in forming us and guiding us in those initial steps of life. Yes, it has been a good year and a good life; all I have to do is look around me and be amazed at the good people who are part of it. God has been more generous to me than I deserve, and I spent time in prayer telling God that my heart is so moved by the goodness I receive.

          As I review my Christmas cards, I am touched by the many stories told to me from friends and loved ones. I am honored by the friendships, some of which are difficult to maintain because of distance and time, but we persevere because our stories together are worth holding up to the Lord.

          Mind you that many of these stories are filled with heartache, loss and suffering, and they are filled with perseverance, bountiful grace, and hope. I find it a great grace to be able to hold these stories in silent respect. I want to hear more of these stories because it helps me grow in compassion and care. The key to my response is a loving presence - just being silent with one who is suffering and in pain.

          I find it quite extraordinary when someone honors my experience by letting me know they feel what I am feeling. Everyone's story needs to be told, heard and honored. Everyone needs to be seen. I gain greater insights and understanding when I allow others to feel - and feel what they are feeling so I can experience being in the place of another. It is risky. Compassion is risky because we risk being hurt in the process of showing solidarity, but it is the place in our hearts where we are moved to greater love for one another. For me, the risk is worth it.

          I am convinced that Christ's compassion can change our world. It has mine. If we can hold one another's story more reverently, it will create an environment in which less hurt and harm is created. It will create a world that is more sympathetic, understanding, and tolerant. It will help a person feel connected and become more whole. We live in hope that people can see themselves as more beautiful gifts to themselves and to others.

          We hold quite a gift in our hands. Christ has blessed us with the gift of compassion and he needs us to work with him to transform the world. We cannot put a stop to all the nonsense that creates more suffering and sorrow, but perhaps we can lessen the insanity when we hold one suffering person in front of us. We give them an incredible gift of solidarity and understanding and it eases pain. We live in hope that this goodness will be remembered and passed onto others and that life will be built up rather than destroyed. Love and compassion will reign. It will have the first and last word, and it is good for us to see it in the midst of ordinary life.

          I am content at this end of the year to spend time in silence at this beautiful retreat house to remember your life and to present you to God. Thank you for who and what you have been to me. May God bless you now and in the coming year with spiritual (and financial) prosperity, good health, and a great deal of hope.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Christmas Season

I am still thoroughly enjoying the Christmas season. This year has been my best Christmas in many years. All of those little things seem to be going so well. This is a year that I will cherish for a long time.

I said Mass on Christmas Eve at a MetroWest parish to assist a good friend. I was glad to help him out. Following those two Masses we visited a mutual friend who married into an Italian family. We therefore had the full seven course fish (including lobster) meal. The generosity of this family was super-abundant.

During one of the conversations, a young woman approached me to tell me how grateful she was for the simple homily I gave at Mass. She said that it spoke to people of her generation. We were able to talk about what moved her. I was touched that these words helped out a group of people who seldom feel so connected with the larger church.

The next morning I visited my mother and siblings. We had a nice roast beef meal and a nice time having our traditional Christmas food. My brother and his girlfriend showed up, which was a pleasant surprise. I played Wii with my niece and in one of the games I held my own against her. My thumbs don't work as quickly as hers. She is always helping me out and dragging me to the right places. It was fun to play in a game where I was not the anchor weighing down the progress of the game.

I then spent an evening dinner with friends in Rockport. Their son and daughter were with them and it was a pleasure to have a nice evening with them. They are very generous and loving people. I even attended breakfast the next morning when other mutual friends showed up.

All in all, it was lovely.

I spent the following days preparing for the End-of-Year Christmas retreat, which is going on right now. The Lessons and Carols needed major effort and I think it came out well. I love singing Christmas carols and we seldom get to sing them unless we are at church for daily Mass. The End-of-Year retreat is always a special time to unpack the gifts of Christmas and letting the season unfold over the octave. Too many people see Christmas as only Christmas Day. In this retreat, we get to enjoy it and let the words of Christ speak to us.

Two particular treats for me was being able to watch "Going My Way" with Bing Crosby as the priest and "The Polar Express." I have developed into a Bing fan because he sings so effortless and beautiful words sail out of his mouth. It is amazing how he technically does that. "The Polar Express" was likewise touching. I will never look at a single jingle bell in the same way. This fall, I've been able to see movies that I've never been able to afford myself time to watch previously. I loved "Gone with the Wind." I saw "White Christmas" for the first time last year. "The Bishop's Wife" was also fun and stellar.

As much fun and imaginative that the movies are, real life is even more unbelievable. Newspaper articles are filled with surprising stories of events you wouldn't think possible. Sometimes just having a simple, uneventful life is worth more than a life of adventure.

This Christmas, as Bing sings in "White Christmas," I am just counting my blessings. They are very many.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Crawling Ants

Yesterday and today, I was a bit amused at the sight of small ants in my room. Not many were there, but I thought they would be long in hibernation by December 22nd. The warm weather must have awakened them from their slowed-down hibernating state.

I guess they came inside on my clothing. I was fortunate enough to do some outdoor work both days. It has been downright balmy at a time when the earth is typically frozen. The soil is still warm and loose.

The warm temperatures inspired me to get outside and cut down some trees and vines that have gone wayward. I used the brush-mower to cut down vines that have entangled themselves around each other. They encroach upon a pathway with thorny pickers. I mowed down a patch twenty-five feet wide and fifty feet long. I did not want to go overboard because I tend to bite off more than I can chew. There's tons of work to do around the retreat house and I have to be patient with myself because I want to do it all quickly. There's plenty of time to savor the work.

Today, a friend came over to cut down some trees that we problematic. Vines crept up tree upon tree creating a thicket of a mess. It was a lot of work to cut one particular tree down because the vines would sting us. It does open up the area to light and air.

Unfortunately, yesterday was the day of the year in which the shortest amount of daylight is seen. The early sunset curtails my activities even though I have boundless energy. I sleep so well at night and I want to do more, but it is coming along fine. I have all winter to clean things up and get them ready for a beautiful spring.

Today is the first day of winter. Only three more months until spring. Hurray!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Messiah Concerts

We performed our Messiah concerts last night after months of rehearsals. Our conductor, Sunny Pryor, was very pleased with the results. Both churches were jammed packed and we had to stop selling tickets because we ran out of seats. The sound was crisp and the 18-piece orchestra was well-trained.

The Honors Youth Concert did a fine job singing. These boys are girls range from age 9-16 and are drawn from the North Shore communities. We were impressed with the clarity of their voices and the precision with which they hit their notes. Their parents were beaming with pride as they watched their sons and daughters perform.

The soloists were a soprano, tenor, and baritone. They were terrific. One piece was stunning, "The Trumpet Shall Sound," which announces the Resurrection of Christ. The baritone has great energy and it was wildly matched and exceeded by the trumpeter. I'm still blown away at the excitement of it.

One of my favorites is still "For unto us a child is born." Handel certainly favored the alto sections and our women rose to the challenges easily. It is an incredibly fun piece to sing, and yet the meaning that is conveyed in words and music brings many to tears.

I was fascinated as I watched people close their eyes and absorb the music or they thumped their head to the music or they just sat there smiling or with their mouths agape. The spontaneous applause at the conclusion told us that we did an admirable job.

Chorus North Shore is 140 strong. With such fervor, we must have shaken the rafters of the churches. It is a tremendous grace to sing with people who enjoy their avocation. The more I sing, the more confident I am and the more intrigued I am with musical arrangements. Music is opening new channels of enjoyment.

Afterwards, a number of us retreated to a friend's house where we had plenty of munchies before we sang carols. What a blessing to know people who love to sing and bring beauty into the lives of others. Bravo!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sunset

To see photos of ocean sunsets, please click on the link below:

Pics of ocean sunsets

Friday, December 9, 2011

Russian Icon Museum

The Russian Icon Museum in Clinton is worth the trip. Clinton is a small town fifteen miles northeast of Worcester, Massachusetts. It sits next to Central Park, which is America's oldest public park. It contains a world class exhibit of Russian Icons that is professionally displayed. It appears to be well funded. The entry fee is only $5.00.

I was pleased with the layout and the professional courtesy I received. The main exhibit spans three floors with the top floor designated as the main exhibit hall.

A new wing off the main floor expands the space for the permanent collection. The lower floor contains a small exhibit room, individual research caves, a lengthy conference center, and a Russian tea room. The main floor has the exhibit hall plus a well-stocked gift shop and a new wing designed for temporary exhibits. The staff and docents were very welcoming and kind. The museum is handicap-accessible.

Since it was the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, icons of Mary dominated the space. I was impressed with the number of programs offered for feast days and the Advent/Christmas seasons. I wanted to see the subtle differences in the icons between the eastern and Roman churches.

In some icons, the Christ-child appeared as a man in smaller form. Some appearances showed his legs, while the Roman church covers his legs. Sometimes he is holding a scroll or book, while in many western icons he is holding a globe. The Russian icons don't appear to have the subtle face halves that are customary in the west.

I was surprised to learn that Catholicism reached Russian in the 10th century. Shortly afterwards, Muslims pushed north from the Ottoman Empire to extend their reach into Russia. When I asked about some of the general historical events in Russia and Europe, I was disappointed in the lack of conversation with the staff. The staff could say something of the particular icon, but could not go more broadly than that. I was looking for some variations in the eastern and Roman traditions and the depth of knowledge of either tradition was superficial, however, it did not diminish my very positive experience of the museum and the courteous staff.

Two of the most enlightening icons about Russian religious sensibilities were "The Last Judgment" and "The Ladder." So many stories are being told in each icon. They are rich and filled with activities that inspire a person to do good deeds and they caution the observer to stay away from evil thoughts and deeds. Both illustrate how the forces of good and evil are at work in the battle for a human soul.

Afterwards, I spent the afternoon at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. I was able to attend a few liturgy of the hour services that celebrated Mary. My conversations with the monks showed me how good God is to us.

Then I went to visit friends from the area in Rutland. I haven't been in Rutland for over a decade. It is a charming town. We had a nice dinner and conversation about prayer and Ignatian Spirituality. It was an Advent evening.

Quite nice. I have nice friends. Everyone I met yesterday was so happy and lovely.

Russian Icons

To see photos of Russian Icons in the Clinton Museum, please click on the link below:

Pics of Russian Icons

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A full Week

One of my regular practices is to pause during the day and ask the question, "Where were you, O God, in the morning (of afternoon) of my day?" I always enjoy the answer. I am less surprised than when I first began doing it. In fact, I come to expect God's nearness in certain events, but all the same it is nice when God confirms it.

I had a pleasant time visiting family on Thanksgiving Day. I enjoyed the Friday after Thanksgiving for a couple of reasons. First, I attended my first-ever Black Friday venture. It was quite pleasant because I went to Home Depot - one of my favorite stores. Among my small collection of purchases was an artificial Christmas tree that was reduced by $110.00 to $45 dollars. I bought the last one with the multi-colored lights.

It is my first bought Christmas tree. I was in the habit of merely getting a pine branch and decorating it because it meant I did not have to store many tree ornaments and a single strand of light would work well. It always fits a small place. However, since I have such a large room, it beckons for a tree that speaks of fullness. I am still able to collect pines and place them in my fireplace. I still decorate those pines with lights. I also like getting a strand of purple lights and pink ones to keep the Advent feel about the commerical Christmas season.

One of my first jobs was at Mr. Christmas where I assembled tree branches. It was not a happy job and I lasted only two weeks because I was going out of my mind in boredom. It hurt when the crossing branch whipped around the main stem. I recall proudly hitting a high of 2,200 branches a day during one of my first days and being scolded for not reaching 2,500. I don't recall any reason why I would stay at that job.

The second reason I enjoyed last Friday was that I could get outside to do some landscape therapy. The weather had better beautiful the entire month of November and yet I could seldem get outside to do any work. On this pleasant 60 degree day, nothing could stop me. The retreat house was quiet and the air was fresh.

I knew this day would be the calm that precedes the storm.

Saturday was the first day of our concert with the Cape Ann Symphony. It was quite festive. We did a good job, and I think we improved for Sunday's concert. When I stepped into Fuller Auditorium, I recalled that the flutist and principal cellist were married a year ago. I bought them a small cake so they could celebrate the fact that someone else remembered their first anniversary.

As soon as the retreat ended, priests from across the country began arriving for their annual retreat. We look forward to this retreat all year long because these men value the time to be with the Lord with the gifts of comaraderie and Ignatian spirituality to guide them. We are grateful to journey with them and listen to their stories. They inspire us.

As the retreat ended, I donned colorful clothing and headed to nearby Rockport where I would join he Dock Square carolers at the arrival of Santa Claus for the tree lighting ceremony. The entire town showed up. It was quite an extraordinary event.

My heart was warmed when I saw so many children lining up to get a glimpse of Santa, but what was surprised me was the expectant looks on the faces of adults who still feel Santa's magic. People want to be seen and heard by Santa. They want his jolliness in their lives. They want to touch the hem of his garments. Yes, people still believe and they become much happier people.

Yes, I feel content today. I'm in a loving Christmas spirit. Thanks, Santa. Now let's wait for the advent of our Lord.