Friday, January 29, 2010

Rites of Family, Rites of Faith

The first funeral homily I ever preached was for my grandmother on the Tuesday of Easter Week during my final year of seminary in 1986.  I had just been ordained a deacon in February and was to be ordained a priest in June.  Grandma had cancer.  I don’t remember if she was able to make my diaconate ordination but I don’t think so as she was so sick and weak for the last few months.  She was a lovely woman who loved her children and her grandchildren very much.  Over the last few months of her life, we all had a chance to visit with her.  I remember one time I went to see her late at night in the hospital to bring her communion.  The ward lights were dim but she was still awake, praying her rosary, waiting for me as I had told her I would be late.  While we were visiting after I gave her communion, she told me her one regret about dying was that she was not going to live long enough to see me ordained a priest.  She died on Holy Thursday morning.  That afternoon, I got word that the Cardinal was calling me to holy orders.

You can well imagine how different the celebration of the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday was for my family and me that year.  The images of death and resurrection, the empty tomb, the light of the Easter Candle, all had a particular immediacy for us.  While we gathered for Easter Sunday, it wasn’t the happy occasion that it had been in the past.  One thing we did do though, was we told stories of grandma and grandpa and all the times we had been together as a family and all the meals that we had shared and all the holidays that we had celebrated and all the stupid funny things we had done, talking about all of the stuff that made us who we are as a family.  We shared a meal and watched the youngest hunt for easter eggs and washed the dishes and cleaned up and headed home, knowing we would gather the next day at the funeral home to begin the task of laying our grandmother to rest.  Even in the midst of death, life went on, sustained by ritual.  We gathered, we remembered, and we shared a meal, something we had done many times in the past and have done many times since, but each time, a bit differently.  Sounds an awful lot like Mass, doesn’t it? – remembering, sharing, praying, feeding.   Whether it’s the Eucharist or a family meal, circumstances change, situations are different, people enter and depart our lives, new generations begin as older generations fade, but still the rituals of family and faith perdure, shaping and giving meaning to our lives.

Last spring, the last of my father’s siblings died, my uncles Randall and Charlie.  After Charlie died, I called one of my cousins up in Maine to give her the news and to ask her to let her father and mother know.  Her parents are in their eighties, the same generation as my father and his brothers.  As our conversation continued, she began to talk about how time was getting short for her parents as well.  Each day there seemed to be another visit to the doctor, another body part failing, another medical condition to confront, but they were still hanging in there.  She talked about how each day was becoming more and more precious to her.  I asked her, “Have you noticed how as you get older, the day seems to go by faster and faster?”  She laughed and said, “Absolutely, that’s why it’s so important to make each day count.”  She asked for my father, how he was doing.  She was not the last to do so over the next few days.  At both the wake and the funeral, everyone, especially Charlie’s children, seemed to offer particular care to my Dad, constantly coming up and asking him, “How are you doing, Uncle Billy?”  Most of the time my Dad probably couldn’t hear them with all of the noise and his deafness, but he still got the picture, loud and clear.  All around him was his family, different people, different lives, different stories, but doing what families do – loving each other, supporting each other, caring for each other.  The funeral ritual, from the prayers as one lay dying, to the moment after death, through the wake, the Mass and the burial, served as the framework upon which the stuff of our lives and faith was hung, allowing us to remember, to mourn, to hope.

Our faith does ritual well.  Whether it’s the Mass or Confession or the Rosary, the repetitive nature of ritual allows us to easily move into the familiar  rhythms of prayer and gesture and lose ourselves in it.  Whatever the circumstances may be at that moment, whether we are in a “good place” or not so “good place,” ritual allows us to express and find meaning in our lives.  But, I’m also sure that the rituals of family and friendship do so as well and just as we take care to make sure our faith rituals are maintained with care, we have to pay attention to the rituals of family – gathering together, eating together, and laughing and sometimes crying together.

I’m sure in your life there have been different Easters, years when the holiday took on a different meaning because the “stuff” of your life was different that year.  I’m sure that Easter was different for my Dad this year.  But I’m also sure that there was a lot that was the same for him as well – his family was still there, we all came to Easter Sunday Mass together here at St. Margaret Mary, and we all gathered for Sunday dinner and an easter egg hunt for the youngest, washed the dishes, and head home late in the day.  We even heard the same old stories that we hear each year, even the ones that may have been told back in 1986, but that was okay.  No one seemed to mind.  In fact, everyone seemed to enjoy it.

"Are you going to eat that?"

I have some very dear friends from my first assignment - I’ll call them Mark and Claire - with whom I still keep in touch.  I don’t see them very often but when we do get together, it is as if we just saw each other last week.  Mark is a very successful businessman who likes to live large, eat and drink heartily, and have as much fun as possible when he is not at work.  He is a bit of a daredevil and has often asked me to go sky diving with him or take a ride on the back of his Harley.  I always decline as I remember the time he tried to kill me while I was waterskiing behind his boat.  Now in fairness, he was trying to get even with me as I had sandbagged him about never having water skied before.  I actually had been the head lifeguard at a camp for four summers and used to teach kids how to water ski but I didn’t tell him that.  Mark wanted me to try skiing and I ‘reluctantly’ agreed.  I got in the water, struggled with the skis, and made sure I fell down the first few times I tried to get up.  Once I finally got up, I skied bowlegged, ready to fall, for one loop of the bay and then as we came by the dock, I dropped a ski, and kicked into the slalom toehold.  I then started skiing in and out of the wake and doing a few ‘minor’ turn-ins.  That’s when Mark hit the gas and proceeded to try and dump me.  When that didn’t work, he tried to kill me by wrapping the rope around my neck so I dropped the tow line.   He then refused to let me back in the boat and made me swim to the beach, a good two hundred yards in that stupid ski vest all the while gunning the boat menacingly as if to run me over.  Imagine and me a man of the cloth!

When I see them, it is usually at their house as Mark likes to cook these great meals of steaks or lamb chops on the grill or lobster thermidor or anything else that you can think of that is so good to eat but so bad for your waistline or cholesterol level.  He’s one of those guys that if he knows early enough ahead of time, he will order the food for the feast from some internet specialty shop or butcher that he saw on the Food Channel as having the best cut of meat or food anywhere in the country.  I swear if I asked for Kobe beef from Japan someday he’d probably find a way to get it.  There is always lots of beer and good wine and I usually end up staying overnight in the guest room so as to avoid becoming a guest of the state police.  Oh, by the way, Mark’s wife is lovingly long suffering.  I’ll say no more.

So imagine my surprise and consternation when I walked in the other day and was met by St. Claire of Perpetual Patience and told that Mark was out “running.”  “What?” I said, “for public office?” “No,” she answered, “Mark’s got religion when it comes to fitness.”  I was stunned.  Mark exercising?  This was a guy whose idea of full body workout was drinking his scotch while standing up.  “Why” I asked Claire, “did he have some kind of health scare or something?”  “No, he’s fine.  He just turned 50 and he thinks he has to get more exercise.”  As I poured myself a very unhealthy bourbon I said, “Surely this kick doesn’t apply to food too?”  The look of pity and regret that Claire threw my way confirmed my worst gluttonous fears. Now, Mark is one of those fortunate souls who seem to have the perpetual metabolism of an adolescent boy. I mean the man can eat and drink anything and never put on a spot of weight or raise his cholesterol level beyond numbers that a vegan would be proud of and here he was wasting this gift from God by exercising!  I must have looked crestfallen as Claire quickly said, “That’s why we’re going out to eat tonight.  He can get what he wants and we can get what we want.”

As she finished, the back door flew open and Mark appeared in all his heaving, panting glory.  I looked at him with astonishment.  It was January, it was cold and windy, in the 20s and he was dressed in some running shorts, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt.  That’s it. (So much for being on a health kick – we’re talking pneumonia possibility here).  “Padre,” he said, “how you doin’?”  “A lot better than you right now.”  “Whadda ya mean?  I haven’t felt better in my life.  You should try it.”  Now you have to understand whenever I get the crazy thought in my head that I might go for a ‘run,’ I go lie down until that thought goes away.  Everyone talks about how running is good for you and all that and they even mention this thing called ‘runner’s euphoria’ and such but I believe panting and gasping for breath and ‘euphoria’ are not synonymous or even temporally contiguous.  As Mark reached for a Harry and David pear, I turned to Claire and said, “You wouldn’t happen to have any unhealthy cheese and pepperoni around to snack on, would you?  She said, “It’s in the fridge just behind Mark’s organic carrot sticks from the Napa Valley and his Himalayan spring water.” Mark went upstairs to change.

The rest of the night was a hoot as Mark had obviously taken on his new fitness lifestyle with the same fervor as he pursued everything else in life.  At the restaurant, Claire and I ordered our drinks and food without any fuss, while he drove the waitstaff to distraction by asking every little detail about every dish that he may or may not eat – “What kind of greens do you use in your salad? Where are they from?  Can I just get the fish broiled with only a light spray of oil and no salt and pepper and the veggies on the side with no butter? etc. etc. -  and then picking apart our choices as so unhealthy and bad.  Neither Claire nor I was really bothered by it as we knew it was just Mark being Mark and he knew that he was only doing what we expected him to do and so forth.  Good friends make allowances for personal quirks and idiosyncrasies, probably enjoying each other’s company more for them.

Yet, after I saw Mark and Claire, I did start to exercise more and watch what I was eating.  I have not taken it as far as he has but he did convince me to make changes.  So here’s my point: I think we need the ‘large’ people in our lives – even the fanatics, the extremists, the people who push the envelope in a good way.  I am not talking terrorists or people who are unreasonable, but people who by their fervor or by their ability to challenge the status quo call us out of our complacency and move us a little bit more in a good direction.  This is especially true in our church.  We need the prophets, those men and women who say the things we may not want to hear, who ask tough questions and push for answers or change.  While we may not agree with what some may be saying about and within our Catholic faith, we have to at least listen.  Who knows, by listening and engaging in dialogue as friends who make allowances out of charity for each other, we may even move our opinions a bit, one way or the other.

Starry, Starry, Night

Last week, I was up in Maine for a couple of days of skiing.  The temperature never got above single digits but there wasn’t a lot of wind and the snow cover was excellent.  After a few warm-up runs, my buddies and I began to really swoop down some black diamonds and let our edges grab some good turns.  I was reminded about how skiing is like riding a bike; no matter how old you get, your legs always seem to remember how to do it, although, truth be told, not for quite the extended runs of younger years.  As it was a weekday, there really weren’t a lot of people on the mountain so we did a lot of top to bottom runs where you almost ski right on to the lift without a break.  My face was frozen and my beard was iced but I was having a blast.

We took a break at lunch and entered a nearly empty lodge where we proceeded to unpack our brown bags We try and avoid buying food in the lodges because you need to rob a bank to pay for the prices – it’s like Fenway Park prices squared and tasting even worse.  The funny thing was that even though every table around us was completely empty, four women of a certain age decided to sit right next to us at our table.  I thought it might have been that maybe their bags were stashed under the table or something but, nope, they had to go across the room and get them from under another table and bring them back to us.  It was weird, kind of like when you go to a movie in an empty theater and the next people in decide to sit right in front of you.  Anyway, these ski-nanas (ski-grannies?) begin to carry on a conversation about all of their recent medical conditions and procedures, in great detail.  I started looking around for the candid camera guy, it was that crazy.  Well, as they say, in for a penny, in for a pound, so one of my friends began to talk about his “man issues,” in great and hilarious detail.  Did it faze our neighbors? Nope, but it sure made for a lot of laughs.

After a few more runs on the mountain in the afternoon, we called it an early day and headed back to the house.  My friend’s parents own a nice place about a fifteen-minute drive from the mountain.  The house is down one of those winding Maine dirt roads and sits up on the side of a hill with lots of open fields all around.  Aside from one house just across the road, there are not a lot of neighbors close by so it gets pretty dark and quiet at night.   Later that night, I decided to go outside for a little stargazing.  There were no clouds, no wind, and no ambient light in the area.  I put on my ski pants, gloves, and jacket and tromped up to the middle of the upper field.  When I got there, I pulled up my hood, stretched out my arms and flopped backwards into the snow, not to make a snow angel but to arrive in the best position to look at the stars. It was so quiet and cold I could hear the steady beat of my heart and my breath formed frozen clouds that hovered in front of my face.  All above me were glorious points of heavenly light, in all their varying brightness and colors, gathered in the great constellations.  I could see Orion with his belt, bow and arrows, Pleiades (or Subaru if you like) with its five small stars and one large star, the “W” shape of Cassiopeia, and of course, Ursa Major, the Big Dipper.  While I didn’t see any shooting stars (wrong time of the year), I did catch sight of a satellite as it made its slow orbital progress across the sky.  Yet for me, the most marvelous sight in the sky is always the Milky Way itself, that band of light that hovers in the background of the stars seeming to stretch on forever into infinity.  Every time I see it, I can’t help but be caught up in just the wonder of what God has wrought for us in the beauty and immensity of His creation.

Physicists and astronomers have posited the Big Bang theory in order to explain the nature of things, that sometime back billions of years ago all the matter that makes up existence was compressed into one single mass that suddenly exploded out in one great bang and that the universe is continuing to expand outward from this one central point.  While this theory seeks to explain the nature of things from the point of the “bang” onward it does not explain how all this got started.  No one has been able to offer any scientific theory to explain this.  This is where faith steps in.  We believers see the work of God as the primary mover in all of this.  We gaze up at the evening sky and all its starry splendor and see not scientific theory but the fingers of God’s great hands spreading out further and further across the heavens.  In that moment, God can seem so far away, so huge, so transcendent.  Yet, this is the same God who became a man for us in the person of Jesus Christ, no longer transcendent but present in the flesh.  God created the world anew through the actions of his Son, the new Adam, calling us each to join in the creation of the Kingdom of God on earth.  As I lay there in the snow that night, I held my own hand up in front of my face and traced its black silhouette across the sky thinking of how that hand can be a creative hand as well – a hand that blesses, a hand that embraces, a hand that welcomes, a hand that helps.  I didn’t linger there very long.  Modern clothing insulation can only do so much and I was beginning to become one with the snow.  Still I stayed there long enough to say a prayer, thanking God for the day – the skiing, the laughs, the joy of just being alive – and I left the snow feeling a bit closer to God even as I pondered the mystery of how far away he can seem.

Hello world!

This blog is intended to simply publish one Catholic priest's thoughts, writings, and ideas on life and faith.  I share them with the wish that the reader may find them interesting, helpful and hopeful.
Bishop Coyne on Facebook
Follow Bishop Coyne on Twitter
Follow Bishop Coyne on YouTube