Friday, May 28, 2010

Tidal pools and tidal change

Pine Point, Maine. The beach has really changed this year. Over the winter there were at least three Nor’easters that settled off the coast and dumped all that rain on New England. The storms produced abnormally high tides and surf that flooded many of the coastal towns and did serious damage to the shore line. At the southern end of Saco Bay, the Ferry Beach area seems to have been hit particularly hard and lost a lot of its sand, much of which appears to have come across the bay to the north side where Pine Point lies. The beach here, which used to be a nice gradual slope from the edge of the sea grass down to the high tide mark, is now a pretty significant drop from high to the low tide flats. The flats used to dry out fairly quickly at low tide, allowing for games of softball, touch football and the like to be played on the hard sand. Since the last of the storms, low tide is really low and the flats seem to be perpetually wet, crisscrossed with meandering streams sliding into new tidal pools. Where you used to be able to walk for miles along the beach in a simple straight line at whatever pace you chose, you now have to choose your steps carefully, jumping over waterways and pools so as to keep the sneakers dry. To go barefoot is not really an option yet for a long walk or a run as the sand quickly does a number on the soles of feet only just appearing from winter hibernation and not yet summer hardened.

I find the new tidal pools to be of interest not just because they are something new to the landscape. They hold all sorts of critters that haven’t been regular low-tide visitors to Pine Point beach before. Small crabs, miniscule shrimp, snails, brown and furry sand dollars, tiny clams, even a hermit crab or two surprised perhaps to find themselves this far north have become trapped for time, awaiting their parole with the arrival of high tide. There are a few other things that I’ve never seen before, mollusks and water bugs and such. Next time I come up, I’ll make sure to pack my “Field Guide to the New England Coast.”

I almost wish I was a young boy again, able to play in the pools, digging them deeper and adding canals upon which I could sail bright plastic boats transformed by the whim of imagination into any sort of water-bound vessel sailing from lagoon to lagoon on goodness knows what adventure. That’s why it’s so nice to have nieces and nephews as company on the beach. One can indulge in play by proxy by watching them and their imaginations take flight.

The town has been cleaning the beach this week. When I first saw the large caterpillar tractors and front end loaders further down near the town beach, I thought they were going to regrade the sand. While on a walk later on I asked one of the workers if that was the case but he said it was illegal to regrade since state law requires the beach to stay natural. All they were doing was picking up the old seaweed, trash, and logs that had come ashore over the winter. With a bit of wry smile, he said if the beach happened to get flatter as result that was not intended. Where they have finished, the grade was a bit flatter but not by much.

I found myself further on leaning against a big log that hadn’t been removed yet. It was an unseasonably warm day for late May, hot even, as the wind was still a land breeze. I started thinking of all the years I had been fortunate enough to come to this beach with my family. This is the first year my parents will not be coming to the beach for summer vacation. Dad is at an age now where he is only really comfortable at home. Mom will be able to come up for a few days here and there but she doesn’t like to leave him for very long even if my sister is at home with him. One of my dad’s cousins and her husband came out the other day for an afternoon at their cottage. It sits next door to ours. She’s in a wheelchair now and even though they are Mainers and don’t live that far away, her visits are less and less frequent. Like my parents, her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren now have the run of the cottages.

Much like the effects of the tides and winter storms, we can’t stop the inevitability of change in our lives. As family and friends populate our lives, there is loss and grief but also life, new birth, and new generations, all a wonderful gift from God. May His Name be praised.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"And lead us not into temptation ..."

A recent article in the New York Times entitled “The Science of a Happy Marriage” describes recent scientific studies on the dynamics on faithfulness and fidelity in marriage. Beginning with the question as to why some men and women cheat on their partners while others resist the temptation, the article discussed a growing body of research that is focusing on the science of commitment. “Scientists are studying everything from the biological factors that seem to influence marital stability to a person’s psychological response after flirting with a stranger. Their findings suggest that while some people may be naturally more resistant to temptation, men and women can also train themselves to protect their relation-ships and raise their feelings of commitment.” One study out of Sweden has raised questions about whether genetic factors may influence commitment and marital stability. It seems that among the many chemicals in the brain there is one called “vasopressin” or the so-called “bonding hormone.” This hormone may encourage behavior towards bonding with or relationships with others. It appears that men who carry a gene variation that limits the production of vasopressin are less likely to be married and when they do wed, they often have serious marital problems and unhappy wives as opposed to men who have normal levels of vasopressin present in their brains. (No study has been carried out on women yet.) While some call this gene the “fidelity gene” studies on it are limited at this time and its use as a predictor of future marital happiness unknown. So, wives, no need to rush out to your local genetic screening company with a swab of your husband’s DNA to check for the gene.

Yet “while there may be genetic differences that influence commitment, other studies suggest that the brain can be trained to resist temptation.” Studies conducted by the psychologist John Lydon of McGill University in Montreal offer some interesting insights into how people in a committed relationship react in the face of temptation.

“In one study, highly committed married men and women were asked to rate the attractiveness of people of the opposite sex in a series of photos. Not surprisingly, they gave the highest ratings to people who would typically be viewed as attractive. Later, they were shown similar pictures and told that the person was interested in meeting them. In that situation, participants consistently gave those pictures lower scores than they had the first time around.

When they were attracted to someone who might threaten the relationship, they seemed to instinctively tell themselves, ‘He’s not so great.’ ‘The more committed you are,’ Dr. Lydon said, ‘the less attractive you find other people who threaten your relationship.’”

Shakespeare once wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall.” Apart from questions about how some of us may or may not be more biologically inclined toward fidelity or infidelity, the fact remains that we all know right from wrong. When a man and woman marry, the understanding is that their relationship will be an exclusive one and that the days of “playing the field” are over. The same applies to myself as someone who has taken on the vow of celibacy. Nevertheless, we are all human beings and we are always going to be tested by temptation. Like those men and women in faithful relationships in the above study who responded to temptation by downgrading the attractiveness of the tempters, we seek to develop good habits when tempted at all so as to not fall into sin. This applies not only to matters of fidelity to ones vows or spouse but in all things of the moral life. One may be tempted to engage in gossip, but instead one turns the conversation to something else. One may be tempted to fall into rash judgment but instead considers that there may be another side to a matter or situation that one may not know about.

One strategy that may be find helpful with this is to not fall into the “what if” game. When tempted, one seeks to avoid the kind of self-deceptive thought that goes like this: for a married man - “Well, what if I just go out for lunch with her. Even if she is married and I do find her attractive what’s a little lunch? or a married woman - “What if I just send these flirtatious emails?” or “So what if I talk to him two or three times a day? He’s just a friend.” Do you see where I am going with this? If you give into temptation a little bit, what we used to call “entertain” temptation, the next time it just gets easier and easier to take it a little bit further and further until you get to a place where vows are broken, people are hurt, and sin is part of your life.

I don’t think it is any accident that when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, the words of the “Our Father” which followed contained the phrase “and lead us not into temptation.” Notice, Jesus did not say “and lead us not into sin.” He well knew that the first step towards sinfulness is the encounter with temptation to sin. Avoid sin, avoid temptation. Seems easy enough. Yet, while we can lessen the temptations in our life by avoiding those situations that are ripe with temptation - like going to singles bars if you’re married say or singles chat rooms on the internet – developing good habits that include prayer and the frequent use of the sacrament of reconciliation to deal with temptation is also a good idea as well.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Eucharistic Presence and First Communion

From the very beginning, the Christian community understood that in some wonderful and mysterious way Christ was present to them when they gathered for the Eucharist. It wasn’t just in their gathering as the Body of Christ. It wasn’t just in the words of Scripture. Somehow, someway Christ was present to them in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup and that the bread truly became His body and the wine His blood. The earliest account of this is found the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 11:23-27 where Paul writes that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we find the institution of the Eucharist at the last supper where Jesus clearly says that the bread is His body and the wine His blood. Even more so, the language in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6 makes quite clearly that the Christians understood the presence of Christ in the Eucharist to be a substantial reality and not a symbolic one. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a given for the Christian community. They didn’t ask how this came about in the sense of what happens to the bread or the wine so that they became the Body and Blood of Christ. That was a later medieval endeavor which led to the theological development of theory of transubstantiation. The early Christians just knew that that Christ was present to them under the appearance of bread and wine.

In the mid-2nd century, a man named Justin Martyr wrote a series of “Apologies,” two of which we still have copies. An “Apology” was a form of writing which was intended to inform or persuade the reader as to facts of the matter or issue being discussed. In his “First Apology” Justin writes to the Roman Emporer Antoninus Pius regarding the unjust treatment of Christians throughout the empire and he seeks to set the facts clear as to who the Christians are and in what they believe. Regarding the Eucharist he writes: “And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the
remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

This understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is one that remains with us right down to today in our Catholic faith. We understand that somehow, someway in the celebration of the Mass, the resurrected and glorified Christ becomes truly present to us under the form of bread and wine, not in symbol, but in reality. The Eucharist is not a reanimation of the body of Jesus Christ the Word made man. Over two thousand years ago, God chose to become man and be present among us in human flesh. From the time of Christ’s ascension into heaven until today, God continues to be present among us not in the form of human flesh but in the form of the Eucharist. Among many things, this is a wonderful gift to us because it allows us to receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation under the appearances of bread and wine without feeling any revulsion as to what it is we receive.

This weekend, a number of our children will receive their first communion. They will process into the church, the little girls in their white dresses, the boys in their white suits, as spotless and clean as their parents could get them. They will receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time and move one step further along in their full initiation into the Church, begun with baptism and completed with confirmation. They, like all of us who receive the Body and Blood of Christ, will be encouraged “to become what it is they receive.” They will do so with help and encouragement of their families, their friends, their teachers, and all of us present in the community of St. Margaret Mary parish. May they grow in their for love God and their love for the Eucharist each and every day.
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