Journey to Bethlehem; A Christmas Prayer

There is no room at the inn.Since 2006 the good Christian folk of Mountain View Baptist Church have been kind in allowing Cathy and I to participate in their interactive drama Journey to Bethlehem.  The play runs four nights each December and typically draws between four and five thousand guests.

The guests are gathered into groups of approximately 40 people and introduced to the character of Gadielle; a working-class resident of first century Nazareth, devoted family man, and occasional target for Roman harassment.  Following a run-in with a local centurion, Gadielle tells the assembled guests that they will be safe if they become part of his family for the evening.  He takes them from the streets of Nazareth to his home where they meet his wife Naomi and their only child, hear a brief speech from the local Rabbi, and once again come face-to-face with the Romans.  On Caesar’s  orders, the “family” must travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be numbered in the census and to pay the Roman tax.

Having no alternative, Gadielle and Naomi lead the family south to Bethlehem.  Along the way they encounter more Romans, meet the magi, experience an angelic visitation with the shepherds, receive interpretation of prophecy from another rabbi, encounter more Romans, shop in the busy Bethlehem marketplace, fail to find room at the inn, and — finally — catch up with Mary and Joseph who are caring for their newborn in the stable.  The journey covers nearly a mile of the church grounds and ends with a brief gospel message at a simple wooden cross followed by a visit to the “cocoa tent”.

The logistics of the drama are complex, requiring close coordination among the 150+ cast and crew.  In addition to the cast members at each of the “stations” along the journey, there are eight or more Gadielle/Naomi couples.  At any given moment there are between four and six “families” somewhere along the journey with new groups starting out every ten minutes.

Cathy and I got involved through my parents who are long time members of Mountain View.  Mom got stepped up first and later Dad joined her.  They recruited us to be a Gadielle/Naomi couple in 2006 and we’ve been in every production since.  Up until Dad’s death in 2011, my parents tended the inn.  Mom continues to be involved as a greeter who hands out Jewish passports to the guests as they register for the journey.

During our participation with the production, Cathy and I have seen some remarkable things.  When the angel appears to proclaim the birth of the newborn king, we kneel in awe and reverence.  More than once, we’ve had our entire family spontaneously kneel with us.  At the manger we’ve seen small children creep forward for a closer look at the doll representing the infant Jesus.  Memorably, this year, Cathy had a brief interaction with a tattooed-and-multiply-pierced young lady who hung to the back of the family during the entire journey.  “Thank you for letting me come along,” she said as the journey ended, apparently grateful to have been included.

At the end of each year’s production, the cast and crew are utterly spent.  The long nights of performance in cold and wet weather have taxed people’s reserve and the final farewells are delivered in raw, hoarse voices.  The guests themselves are no less hardy.  People of all faiths and none travel from all parts of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming.  They wait in line for hours for the opportunity to spend an hour walking through the darkness experiencing the journey.

I’ve thought a lot about what drives us — cast, crew and guests alike — to go to such extremes.

I think it’s simply the experience.  Journey to Bethlehem is incredibly visceral.  From the first moment of the journey to the last, the family is on the move.  The trail is full of sights, sounds and smells.  The light from a campfire reflects off the polished Roman armor.  The smoke drifts past as the angel proclaims his message of peace.  The merchants of Bethlehem call out to the guests, offering goods for sale and begging for news of the promise messiah. The dark and the cold contract close, convincing everyone that we are indeed travelling through the ancient world.

Human beings, I think, crave an experience of faith.  The journey gives that to them.

One of the problems with religion in America (and perhaps the western world in general) is that we have over-intellectualized it.  We treat belief as a subject for academic study; something that can be gained or given through mental exercise.  In so doing, we have traded away the best part of faith.  It is little wonder people are wary of religion; we talk to them about God, but never show Him to them.  We are like professors trying to frame a scientific explanation for love and completely missing the point.  Faith isn’t subject to rational evaluation.  It is a suprarational act.

Perhaps it is time we remember that and invite the world to share in the experience of faith rather than endlessly debating it.

Which brings me to my Christmas prayer for all of you.

God, creator of all things,
grant us the grace to encounter Your infinite love
through our experiences with Your bountiful creation.
In the name of the Father,
And of the Son,
And of the Holy Spirit.
Amen

— Dad

Visiting the King in Memphis

St Mary's Memphis

Last Saturday found me in Memphis, Tennessee at the tail end of an educational conference.  My colleagues took advantage of the the opportunity to head off to tour the king’s home, Graceland. I stayed behind for the vigil Mass for the Feast of Christ the King at St. Mary’s parish.

 

From the outside, St. Mary’s is a sturdy, unassuming brick building built along familiar lines.  A cornerstone near the front door anchors the parish in 1864, the start of the post-Civil War reconstruction.  Classic column-and-arch architecture lends the compact interior the feeling a European cathedral.  Fitting, as it was built originally as a German parish.  The hand-carved wooden pews, confessional and altar give the space a sense of weight and dignity; the earthly embodiment of the heavenly ideal.

There is no denying the beauty of the church and its parishioners are justly proud of having just celebrated the parish’s sesquicentennial.  What struck me most — and moved me during my time there — was the sense of community beyond the walls of the church.

As I entered, a small group near the front prayed the Rosary.

Hail Mary, full of grace…

Their public prayers formed a sort of Greek chorus behind my own private prayer before the Mass, reminding me that I am loved by God individually and as part of a larger community.  The modest crowd that filtered in was a visible sign of the universality of the Church.  Across the world, in thousands of other parishes, hundreds of thousands of people were celebrating the same Mass with the same Liturgy and the same readings.

It was comforting and moving, sitting in the company of other believers whom I had never met and would likely never see again; yet sharing the experience of the Eucharist.  It was a moment both commonplace and profound.

And that, I think, is what I took away from the experience.  Not the homily (although it was a good homily), not the music, or the readings or even the beauty of the space.  The gift I received from the King that day was the simple truth that none of us is alone; we are all pilgrims on a journey toward heaven and there is great comfort in knowing we that none of us is alone.

First Promises Mass 2014

Fr. Eric Andrews delivers encouraging words to the novices during his homily at the First Promises Mass.Last weekend we made our first visit to St. Paul’s College in Washington, DC.  Taking advantage of a Utah state holiday, we left early Thursday morning and returned on Sunday.  The occasion was the 2014 First Promises Mass.

As I understand it (and if I get this wrong, please let me know and I’ll correct myself) the novice year is explicitly a time of discernment — both for the candidate and for the community.  As the end of the year approached, all four of this year’s novices were evaluated and a decision was made about their suitability for the community and their readiness to continue their formation.  It is also the point at which the novices become full members of the society and earn the privilege of putting CSP (Congregation of St. Paul) after their names.

All four of this year’s novices were invited to make their first promises.  This involves promising to be faithful to the Paulist Constitution and to fully engage in the community for the coming year.  (Aside: While they are students, the promises are renewed each year up to the point that these men are ordained as Transitional Deacons.)

This year's novices promising to obey the Paulist Constitution and professing their belief that they are called to be missionaries.Fr. Eric Andrews, the newly elected president of the Paulists, traveled to DC to celebrate the Mass and to receive the promises from the students.  Director of Novices, Fr. Rich Colgan, con-celebrated the Mass.

It is difficult to capture the Mass using the written word.

 

There are moments that stand out strongly in my memory.

In his homily, it was clear that Fr. Andrews knew each of the novices and could speak to the experiences they’d had during the last year — both inside the community and out.  Working from the readings (the 17th week in Ordinary Time Year A) he wove the story of Solomon asking for wisdom with Pauls’ firm belief that we are called according to God’s purpose with the parable of the Pearl of Great Price.  Each of the readings reinforced the idea that following God’s call is worth the cost.  (Aside: Evan and the other novices asked me to serve as one of the lectors for the Mass and I was honored and humbled to be involved.)

As always, the promises took place after the Liturgy of the Word and before the Liturgy of the Eucharist; the same place you’d find a Wedding or Baptism.  The novices stood, enunciated their names and joined their voices in making their promises.  (They had crib notes to work from to ensure they got the words right.)

The four moms presenting the gifts to Fr. Andrews.To her great surprise, Cathy found herself weeping when Evan took his promises and then signed the book recording the event.  I’ll have to admit it was a more powerful moment than I had expected.  (Note to self: bring tissues for future significant liturgical events.)

When it came time for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the four mothers were asked to bring up the gifts.  This  was especially powerful.  It spoke to the fact that these women had made gifts of their sons to God — much like Hannah giving Samuel to God.  For me, this was a profound sign of their faith in God.

After the Mass, there was a reception in the common room with finger foods and good company. Of course the families of the novices were present including parents, siblings and more distant relations; our own contingent consisted Cathy, Ian and I as well as Cathy’s parents and sister from Erie.  The priests from St. Paul’s college were in attendance as were the externs — priests who are living at St. Paul’s while they work on their studies at the nearby CUA.  Although the students are all away on summer assignments, many of them returned for the Mass.  That gave us the opportunity to meet Stuart Wilson-Smith, Michael Hennessy and Matt Berrios (who was the cantor for the Mass — he has an awesome voice and an epic beard).  We also got to meet several of the Paulist Fathers including Fr. Frank DeSiano, Fr. Charlie Donahue (who was very kind and supportive when he talked to Cathy and shared his vocation story), and Fr. Steven Bell (Busted Halo and shortly to be re-assigned to Ohio).  We met so many people it was hard to keep track of them all and I apologize if I missed anyone.

Not remembering all of them is a shame because what we found was an incredible community filled with light and the joy of a shared mission.  As guests of the house, we were able to participate in the life of the community by attending the Friday morning prayers and Mass and by taking our meals with the community.  (Aside: The cooking staff at St. Paul’s college does an incredible job of providing great meals for all who live there.)  Everyone we met was genuinely welcoming and we had some fascinating conversations over our meals.

Likewise, it was great to meet the other novices and their parents; to hear about their spiritual journeys and how their experiences were similar to our own.  It made me wish we lived in a more Catholic part of the country so that we might be able to form some sort of parents’ group for vocations.

We also managed to fit in a few tourist-y things; the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the monuments of the National Mall, the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

All of these were wonderful moments during the trip, but what I most remember is the joy of having our family together to celebrate this important moment in Evan’s formation journey.

Evan, Cathy, Kevin and Ian at St. Pauls' college after the First Promises Mass, July 26, 2014.

— Dad

God In All Things

Taken from Wikipedia, provided by Piotr Bodzek, MDIt’s been a rough couple of weeks at our house.  Cathy already hit the highlights of when things started to go south.  There’s more to the story, though, and I think it’s worth sharing.

The trip to the ER followed a week of belly pain and the onset of a fever.  In short order they recorded my vitals, poked and prodded my abdomen, gave me an IV and ran me through a CT scanner.  Everyone was caring and efficient and shortly after the scan one of my nurses said, “It’s appendicitis.  If there’s a surgeon available we’ll operate tonight.  If not, we’ll admit you and operate in the morning.”

Oh.  Okay.

Mystery solved, I guessed.  The health team was clearly feeling some urgency, but nobody seemed to be panicking.  I took that as a good sign.

Sometime around midnight a doctor came into the room, introduced himself, and started talking about the procedure.

“I take it you’re the surgeon?” I asked.

“Yes,” he laughed.  “I forgot to mention that.”

He ran through what was going to happen and said he’d see me in the OR.  On the way out, he said, “They found a tumor in your bladder.  You’ll need to see a urologist about that in the next week or two.”

Oh?  Not okay.

My father died in 2011 of a type of bladder cancer.  Hearing that I had a tumor was somewhat alarming.  (Although I have to admit that my feeling of alarm may have been attenuated a bit by the morphine they’d pushed through my IV.)

When they let me go mid-morning on Monday, the discharge instructions included a reminder to contact a urologist as quickly as possible.  The night before the surgeon had provided some referrals on the back of his business card.  Both of us were exhausted having only gotten a couple of hours’ sleep the night before, so we didn’t even think about the card again until Tuesday.

We researched the providers, selected one, and made an on-line request for an appointment.  By Wednesday we’d had no reply, so I called the Urology Clinic and they said they could get me in late on Thursday — the day before the holiday weekend.

The urologist we chose is an enthusiastic young doctor who had already reviewed the CT images by the time we got to the clinic.  He outlined the various scenarios from worst (metastasized cancer that would require extensive, aggressive treatment) to the best (low-grade non-invasive cancer).  Then he had us go to his procedure room so he could check the tumor visually.

“That’s a classic smoking-gun cancer,” he said when it showed up on the screen.  He snapped a couple of reference images and told me he had an opening on his surgical schedule for Monday morning.

Another Monday, another surgery.  (Cathy has asked me to try to break myself of the habit of having surgery on Monday mornings.)

I was in the OR less than an hour and when I emerged from the anesthetic, the urologist told me that it was a low-grade cancer with a very small footprint and that it hadn’t invaded the bladder wall.  Under the circumstances, it was the best of all possible outcomes.

The pathology report (my healthcare provider has a web portal through which I can access my own medical records) officially declares the tumor as “low-grade non-invasive” and notes that it is “negative for involvement of muscularis propria”.  Confirmation that it was the best of all possible outcomes.

In less than two weeks I went from thinking I was healthy to having had two surgeries and an official cancer diagnosis.

Increasingly, I find myself drawn to Ignatian Spirituality with its finely balanced integration of the practical and the spiritual.  In particular, I appreciate how the Ignatian approach encourages us to find God in all things.

I find myself looking back over the past two weeks to see threads of Grace woven through the experience.  Certainly the brightest of the threads is the tumor diagnosis itself.  Had it not been for the appendicitis (unusual in a man my age) there would have been no reason for me to have an abdominal CT.  I was completely asymptomatic for the cancer, so it might have been years before we found it.

Another moment of Grace was receiving the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick between the Masses last Sunday.  Our pastor is on vacation and the recently-ordained Fr. Christopher Gray is filling in.  Fr. Gray performed the long form of the sacrament and it was a beautiful and moving interlude in the midst of all of everything else that was going on.  The reading for the rite was Matthew 11:25 – 30, the same as the Gospel for the Masses last weekend.

Fr. Gray noted that we should take that a sign of providence and I smiled.  I think, perhaps, he thought I wasn’t taking him seriously, but it was quite the opposite.  I did see that as a sign; yet another in the long line of signs of Grace.  (Fr. Gray also noted that I had now received six of the seven sacraments and only lacked Holy Orders to make it a full house.)

The Grace came me through the event itself and its marvelous timing; through my wife’s care and resiliency in getting me to and from the hospital and appointments and standing beside me the whole time; through our friend Amy who urged us to go to the ER; through the care provided by the many different professionals I’ve interacted with in the last couple of weeks; and through the support and prayers of my friends, family and community.

God truly is in all things and these past two weeks I’ve had the privilege of getting a glimpse of some of the unexpected places that reveal God’s presence.

The Iron Pen

P6292084Last Sunday was a day of contrasts.  As you already know from Cathy’s post, it ended with a trip to the ER that resulted in early-morning surgery is a nearly deserted hospital.  Definitely not the day we had planned.

The day had started on a considerably brighter note.

Cathy was at St. Rose, registering students for the upcoming (and first ever for our parish) VBS.  I was at home, puttering about on the computer.  The phone rang, signaling a call from Ian.  After we’d exchanged “good mornings” he said, “I was awakened by a very strange call.”

“Oh?”

“Apparently I’m the honorable mention in the Iron Pen contest.”

The Wasatch Iron Pen Literary Marathon is sponsored by the Community Writing Center in Salt Lake.  It is timed to coincide with the Utah Arts Festival.  The contest rules are fairly straightforward.  Prospective contestants register in advance.  On Friday night at 6:00 p.m., the contestants assemble at the Community Writing Center office and they are given a prompt for their writing.  They have twenty-four hours to conceive, execute and submit some piece of literature which relates to the prompt.  The categories include fiction, non-fiction and poetry and there are youth and adult divisions.  The completed texts are submitted on Saturday and judged by a panel of Ph.D. candidates recruited from the writing program at the University of Utah.

Ian is a talented writer who has done well in NaNoWriMo and is developing a good voice.  He’s entered the Iron Pen before, but never been able to find his place among the winners.  Nonetheless, he persists and entered again this year.

Friday night, just after getting the prompt, he called for a quick brainstorming session.

“What’s the prompt?” I asked.

A woodcut of Monument Valley by Everett Ruess,” he said.

Everett Ruess is a somewhat romantic figure who travelled the southwest writing and creating art until he vanished into the canyons.  Ian had already dug up a bit of information about Ruess on the web and we kicked around a few ideas about how Monument Valley has become the visual icon of the west for many people and what Ruess might have made of that; what the people and land were like in that part of the country, and what really might have happened to Ruess.  I went off with my wife and mother to see Jersey Boys and Ian set to work.

When we talked on Saturday he outlined what he had written and seemed satisfied with it, so he whipped up the mandatory cover page and turned it in.

All of which brings us back to Sunday morning when he called.  Not only was he the runner up in the fiction category, there was to be a reading of all of the winning entries (by the winners) that afternoon at two.  For entering he got a ticket to get into the Arts Festival that afternoon and he had two guest tickets.

I called Cathy, she arranged for someone to cover registration at the last Mass of the day and we made out way down to meet Ian, take in some of the festival, and see his reading.

As parents, we are very proud.

From a literary point of view, Ian’s story is a lovely piece of character work that gives a strong sense of who Ruess was as a person.

After the reading, we all went out to dinner to celebrate.  Which was when my stomach ache really started to get bad and you know the rest.  If the day had to end in the hospital, I’m grateful for the interlude with family before then.  I love watching Ian develop his writing and it’s nice to see him get some affirmation.  (And the bag of swag he got was pretty cool too!)

The winning entries will be posted on the web at some future point.  When that happens, I’ll provide a link.

— Dad

Private Prayer in Public Places

Your mileage may vary but for our family, prayer tends to be a more private experience. We pray with the community in Mass or at Church events of course, but for the rest of the time we pray in our heads or quietly as a couple at home. When we were a younger family Kevin and I would insist on have a thanksgiving prayer before a meal, even at restaurants (we still do). This action, complete with the sign of the cross, caused more than one stare from other tables and some feeling of discomfort for us. The majority population of Utah does not use the sign of the cross in prayer so it marks us as outsiders the moment we make that motion. But we are Catholic and we were not going to hide it. Occasionally it brings a smile from a fellow Catholic, mostly just questioning eyebrows, but we do it anyway.

If the sign of the cross marked you as different, you can understand that a rosary was positively scary to the local population.

Sunday evening Kevin complained about an upset stomach, he had been mentioning it since Monday so we thought he had “a bug”. What was different now was a fever that was rising rapidly. My suggestion of going to the hospital was countered with offering to call a good friend who is a registered nurse. A telephone consultation with a few abdominal probes brought the response “Go to the ER, NOW!” Never one to ignore a girlfriend (his, not mine, long story, totally innocent) we were in the car and on our way.

A couple hours later it is one in the morning and I am alone in the waiting room outside surgery.  You guessed it, appendicitis. A very well renowned gastroenterologist was on call and putting  Kevin out for the count. The waiting room is actually a hall way in the hospital I use to work in. At one a.m. it is very quiet but also very public. The TV has a picture but no sound. A quick search reveals no remote. The buttons on the TV give no results. I find the only none chair (a small two-seater couch with metal arms) I pull out my rosary and curl up. Out in the quite public hallway.

There is a chapel on the same floor but on the other end of the hospital. It’s pretty but non-denominational and filled with literature for the local culture and not much else so I opted not to go pray there. I also didn’t want to be far from the OR when anyone came looking for me. It was probably my most private prayer in a most public place.

Thankfully surgery went well and  Kevin was discharged by mid-morning and recuperating at home. Since it all occurred late at night we didn’t notify anyone till the next morning. Even without having family or friends it was okay. I could handle being by myself because I never am really alone. The Lord is always at my side.

– Mom

Gloria, Grace & the Temple of the Forbidden Eye

100_2708-001

Evan is in the middle of a two week vacation.

(Aside: Yes, the novices and students get vacation time every year.  With the Paulist Assembly complete, they were all free to knock off for a couple weeks and travel.)

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for him; he traveled with us to Disneyland and was attending a wedding between two of his good friends from college.

The Disneyland trip was a gift from my mother who wanted to spend some of her money on a multigenerational family trip with all of the grandkids and her one great-grandchild.

Evan arrived in Utah on Friday and we all took off for California on Saturday morning.  The trip went brilliantly.  Cathy, Evan and I attended Mass on Saturday night at Holy Family Cathedral.  On Sunday, we hit the park hard, taking in as much of it as we could.

That evening, something extraordinary happened.

100_0598My niece (who had never been to the park before) asked to stop in at a gift shop to purchase a Minnie Mouse tank top.  As she was checking out, we struck up a conversation with Gloria, the helpful cast member behind the counter.  My niece commented on a tutu hat that someone outside was wearing and Gloria seized the opportunity to show us where the hats were stocked.  She decked out Cathy and our niece with the tutu hats and got the boys and I to wear Sully hats while we all posed for a picture.  It was one of those silly-but-fun moments that so endears the park to Cathy and I.

Then something remarkable happened.

Gloria asked about our visit and how long we were staying and then she said, “Stay right here.  I have a surprise for you.”

Oh?  She vanished into the back for a few minutes and I started to wonder if she had gone for security to deal with an excessively exuberant family.  She reappeared, handed Cathy a slip of yellow paper and said, “This works just like a Fastpass for the Indiana Jones ride.  Enjoy!”

We stammered a thanks, hurried out the shop and across to the Indiana Jones queue.  We had wanted to ride it a second time that day — my niece declared it one of her favorite rides — but at that point the wait was approaching 60 minutes.  At the end of a long day on the park, that seemed a little bit too long to stand in line.

Gloria’s generous gift got us to the head of line and on the ride in no time.

All of which actually got me thinking about the sacraments and grace.

You see, I think Gloria’s gift to us makes a pretty good object lesson on the sacraments.

Let me start with a couple of definitions and I’ll see if I can make my case.

In the summary of the section on the sacraments, the Catechism states:

(1131) The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. the visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.

Which calls back to the Catechism’s definition of grace:

(1996) Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.

(1997) Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,” in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church.

(1998) This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature.

Go back and take a look at that phrase buried in the middle of 1996 — free and undeserved help.

The gift that Gloria gave us was freely given and undeserved.  There were thousands of people on the park that day and we were no more deserving of special treatment than anyone else.  In all honesty, I’ve no idea why Gloria picked us to be recipients of her generosity.

Which is the same paradox every person faces when confronted with God’s grace.  Why should God choose me?  Why am I granted the gift of faith when others aren’t? It is — as they say — a mystery.  The only thing we can really control is our response to the gift.

And that brings me to the sacramental parallel.

Gloria’s gift was embodied in a piece of paper.  It bore Cathy’s name, the name of the ride, and a few other points of data.  On it’s own, the paper was unremarkable; just another of the thousands of forms that corporations generate.  It became personally powerful to us when we accepted it and used it for its intended purpose.  More than a mere slip of paper, it moved us to the head of the line.  We had to claim the reward by being in the right place and ready to act.

In the same way, church affirms that the sacraments are a mechanism of conferring God’s grace.

(1127) Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. the Father always hears the prayer of his Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.

(1128) This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.

(1129) The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. “Sacramental grace” is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. the Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. the fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.

Like the slip of paper (only in a much deeper and more meaningful way) the sacraments give physical and visible form to the grace of God.  The sacrament flows from the power of God who can act through the sacrament regardless of the righteousness of those involved.  At the same time, the fruits of the sacrament — whether or not there is a some individual outcome — depend on the “disposition of the one who receives them.”

Just like Gloria’s gift to us, the sacraments are valid regardless of our actions.  Yet, for the sacrament to yield some sort of fruit in us, we must be properly disposed to make use of the grace it imparts.

Finally, the gift was a reminder that you never know how much of an impact you might have on other people.  Gloria’s generosity certainly made this a memorable vacation for us.

— Dad

Still the Father

DC_Map

Last Sunday I was sitting at the computer when my phone rang.

It was Evan.  Unusual for him to call on a Sunday.

“Hi,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“I need an exit.”

“Huh?”

“I’m lost in DC and need help getting back to the college.”

“Ah…where are you?”

“Ummm…Ord and…hang on…there’s a cross street coming up…4th.”

“Okay…stand by…”  I called up Google maps and felt a little like an air traffic controller in one of those disaster movies.  Here I was, thousands of miles away, guiding Evan in with my voice.  “Got you.  Tell me the next cross street.”

“Okay.  Here is comes…45the Place.”

“Bingo.  You’re headed west.”  I asked Google for directions to St. Paul’s college and it obligingly tossed up a cheerful blue line tracing a path across the city.”

“Okay.  I can guide you in from here.”

So I stayed on the line, giving directions, tweaking the route when real-world road conditions didn’t match my tidy-bird’s eye view, and easing Evan back home.  While he drove, he filled me in on just how he’d come to be in an unfamiliar part of the city.

As part of his training, he is encouraged to attend other churches.  In his novice year he’s attended services in churches where English is never spoken, he’s taken some of his classmates to a Mormon ward meeting, and he’s developed a particular fondness for the spirituality of the Eastern Rite churches.  This past Sunday he went to a Ruthenian church.  Like many of the Easter Rite churches, it is considered to be in full communion with Rome.  The rites are different, though, from those you’d find in the average Roman Catholic church in the U.S.

Evan enjoyed his visit, but got turned around on the way out and needed a little help finding his way.

Which reminded me that — even a continent away — I’m still the Dad.

Both of my sons still seek my advice on matters small and large.  (They don’t always take my advice — that’s the beauty of asking for advice.  Just because somebody gives it to you, you don’t have to accept it.)  While he was an undergraduate, Evan frequently asked me to review his papers and make suggestions as I saw fit.  Ian has sought my advice on school projects, his novels and various job situations.  And, at various times, I’ve served as their personal OnStar.

(Aside: I don’t blame Evan for getting lost.  Out here where Evan grew up, the cities are laid out in nice, square grids.  Addresses tend to be things like 550 East 300 South.  If you know the city and the E/W and N/S coordinates, it’s almost impossible to get lost.  Especially if you know that the Wasatch Mountain range lies to the east.  If your destination is to the east, drive toward the mountains.  South?  Keep the mountains on your left side.  By contrast, the roads of Washington DC appear to have been laid out after a night of heavy drinking by contractors who were unclear on the concept of “the shortest distance between two points.”  Of course, that could just be my western bias.)

All of which got me thinking about my relationship with God.  You know, God the Father?

(To be clear — and to avoid giving offense — I’m not suggesting that I’m God or even particularly God-like.  The situation just gave me pause to think.)

When we call out to God for help, it’s usually because we’re lost somewhere.  We’ve gotten stuck or confused or overwhelmed and need to find a way back home.  And God is still the Father.  Still there.  Waiting to give us guidance and advice.

Even though I don’t follow that advice as often (or as closely) as I should, I still find the fact of God’s presence comforting.

— Dad

P.S.

For a more elegant exploration of this idea, I suggest you click over to the Ignatian Spirituality blog.

Back from the Desert

There’s a delightful bit in Pixar’s “Up” in which Russell (the eternally optimistic scout) is trying to assemble a tent.

Tents are hard!

The scene ends with the tent sailing over the rain-soaked horizon with Russell dejectedly declaring, “Tents are hard.”

A few years back Cathy and I adopted that as a family meme during Lent.  Whenever our Lenten sacrifices seemed particularly difficult, we’d look at each other and say, “Lent is hard.”

This Lent turned out to be unexpectedly difficult.  Not that I’m complaining, mind you.  It just wasn’t the Lent we anticipated.  But, I guess, that might have been the point.

Of course we were busy with the formation classes we were teaching and the Catechist Formation course we were taking.  For me, spring is always a busy time at work as we wrap up one fiscal year and plan for the next.

That was expected.

Cathy’s accident on St. Patrick’s Day was something of a surprise.

She fell and broke her right arm.

Too much merriment?  Nope.  She was at work and tripped on the sidewalk while crossing between two buildings.  She’d been holding an empty box and had her hand curled under.  When she fell, she landed on the back of her right wrist.  I’m not medically trained, but if I understood the doctor, the official diagnosis was that she “crunched the bone up, but good.”

Good enough, anyway.  The next day she had surgery to put in a T-shaped bit of titanium and seven screws.  (Oddly, when you compare broken arm stories with people, they want to know exactly how many screws you got.  Perhaps there’s some secret club you can join when you have enough screws in your bones.)

She was out of work for the better part of two months.  She’s had casts and braces and physical therapy appointments and doctor’s visits. Her medical clearance was granted this past Wednesday and she’s pleased to be back on the job — even if she’s discovering some unexpected limitations.  (Who knew staplers required so much force to operate?)

Cathy was a trooper and did well.  Still, we had to shift some of the household responsibilities and some things had to go by the wayside (including the blog) while we sorted things out.

Evan’ sojourn in Austin was spirit-filled and he came back with a better idea of how parish life looks from the priest’s point of view.  He also had a chance to visit old friends, new friends and distant relatives whilst in the weeks leading up to Easter.

And, as part of my Lent, I designed a new website.

It felt, in many ways, like a sojourn in the desert.  Not what we had expected; and more harsh than we anticipated.

There’s power in the desert imagery, though.  Cathy and I love the desert wastelands of southern Utah; the intimidating rock formations, deep canyons, and surprisingly stubborn life.  The desert is a hard place, but that hardness makes the life there all the more sweet.  Like grace born of suffering.

Easter was lovely, though.  The Vigil Mass was beautiful and moving as always.  Cathy has been restored and life is settling back into something resembling routine.  In the end, it was worth the journey, but I think the phrase “Lent is hard” may mean something a bit different to us from now on.

— Dad

Newsiness

A quick post with a couple of updates from St. Paul’s college.  If you’re looking for deep insights today, wander on over to the Catholic channel on Patheos.com.  Today’s post is just a metaphorical postcard from DC.

First up, this past weekend the college held a “Come and See” weekend retreat for men contemplating a vocation.  Evan reports that it went well.  If I understood him correctly, there were about fifteen men in attendance.  I pray that in calling those whom He will, God invites many new members to join the Paulist community.

The other news is that Evan will be travelling to Austin, Texas later this week to serve his Lenten Apostolate at St. Austin Catholic parish.  As part of the novice year, the novices spend Lent working in a Paulist parish.  This gives them a taste of pastoral work away from the rarified air of the seminary.  While he’s there, Evan will be giving a presentation on (I think) food and spirituality.

Have I mentioned that Evan is a great cook?  This past week when the snow was thick on the ground and folks couldn’t get in to prepare meals, he was called on to fix the evening meal.  He made kebabs with a strawberry sauce.  He says they were good and well received…and promised to make them for us on his next visit.

We’re looking forward to hearing about his adventures in Austin and are already grateful to the priests and parish there who will be part of his formation.

— Dad

Coffee, Catechism and a Black Apron

P2020473

Our oldest son, Ian, works as a Starbucks barista and trained as a Coffee Master.

“Coffee Master?” you ask. “What’s that?”

Coffee Masters are the Starbucks equivalent of the geniuses in the Apple Stores.  They’re the ones who know exactly what makes a blonde roast different from a dark roast and why sun dried Sumatra tastes so much better than it’s more mundane cousins.  They’re distinguished from other Starbucks partners with a black apron.  The Starbucks Melody blog explains it this way:

If you are a customer, and you have a question about coffee, look for the Starbucks baristas in black aprons:  They can talk to you about the four fundamentals of great coffee (water, proportion, grind, freshness), or if you want a low acidity coffee, a black apron Starbucks barista might steer you in the direction of Italian Roast, or if you want to try something fun and new as an espresso shot, again the barista can help answer those questions.  (The new Yirgacheffe works beautifully as a shot of espresso!).

Earning the apron was no easy task and, along the way, Ian taught me a lot about coffee.  I learned (for example) that coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity.  (Oil takes the top spot.)  I also learned to identify the various component flavors of individual blends and to articulate what I like and dislike about each.

P2020471As part of the training, Ian hosted a series of coffee tastings in his store.  These involved selecting and pairing different coffees with different foods to explore the ways in which flavors interact and strengthen one another.  In one surprising match, Ian paired a blonde roast (which I find a bit bitter) with some smoked gouda.  To my delighted, the cheese smoothed out the coffee and improved the flavor of both.

I’ve also learned to sound a bit snobbish when I say (in all sincerity) that the new Ethiopia blend has a smooth flavor that lingers on the back of the the tongue and has a chocolaty aftertaste.

I bring all of this up for three reasons;

1) I’m proud of Ian and how hard he worked to earn this distinction

2) It reminds me that the created world is good and God meant for us to enjoy it

3) There’s a link between this and the importance of catechesis

Really.

I’ve been a fan of coffee for since I took up the habit in college more than a quarter century ago.  And, for most of that time, I drank whatever was available.  I’d occasionally say something like, “That was a good cup of coffee.”  Except, I only said that because it tasted good to me.

I had no real understanding of coffee.  No appreciation for what it took to go from raw coffee cherries (they’re not really beans, I learned) to the dark liquid in my cup.  The language to describe the coffee in any meaningful way — to be able to communicate with others what I was experiencing — was beyond me.

Once I started to learn, though, a whole new universe of appreciation opened up for me.  The coffee hadn’t changed, I had.

I think the same is true for catechesis.  Cathy and I have been taking a catechist preparation course this year based on the Echoes of Faith series.  At the start, I assumed that teaching religious education was more-or-less like teaching any other subject.  It was about getting the students to understand the content.  They needed to be able to answer the questions appropriately and demonstrate some knowledge of the material.

As the class goes on, I’m rethinking that.  Certainly the knowledge is important.  Understanding is the basis of appreciation.  More importantly, though, my students need to have the experience that comes of out that knowledge.  If Ian had simply described different roast profiles to me, I’d still be stuck at the “Gee, that’s good coffee” stage of development.  By coupling the knowledge with the experience of tasting and giving me the opportunity to articulate what I was experiencing, Ian helped me to expand my appreciation of coffee.

That’s not to say that the knowledge is unimportant, but it’s too shallow a way to share the Faith.  The Catholic church isn’t a series of rules or historical anecdotes.  It is a living faith which should be experienced and integrated into daily life.  It is a way of being which fundamentally alters the believer.  Perhaps we’ve overlooked that in the past.

My “coffee formation” (if I can use that phrase respectfully) has brought me to a place of deeper understanding of and appreciation for coffee.  Bad coffee (which is sadly abundant in Utah) has become nearly intolerable and I’m willing to expend time, energy and money to get good coffee.  Imagine what would happen if our catechism programs made people turn away from lukewarm faith and made them willing to work hard at what they believe.

— Dad

Luke Live – A Paulist Mission!

Luke-Live

The first Paulist priest that we met — at least knowingly — was Fr. James DiLuzio.  Fr. James performs a mission called “Luke Live” which is built around a recitation (from memory) of the book of Luke along with popular songs and an invitation to personal reflection.

Our pastor, Fr. Clarence, invited Fr. James to bring his mission to St. Rose two years ago.  This was a few months after Evan had told us of his discernment toward the priesthood and, specifically, the Paulists.  We jumped at the opportunity to meet Fr. James and to get to know him.

He’s a great example of the Paulist charism, using his talents as a performer (his resume includes SAG/AFTRA membership) and storyteller to make the Gospel of Luke meaningful and personal.  Interspersed with the performance, he walks his audiences through a series of exercises designed to bring deeper understanding of the scripture.

We’ve attend the past two years and are looking forward to attending this year’s presentation.  It’s difficult to capture in words, the feeling of refreshment and spiritual nourishment that we’ve gotten from attending Luke Live.

If you’re in the area — or in any of the areas that Fr. James will be visiting — it’s worth your time to attend this mission.

I’ll leave you with a press release describing the mission in a bit more detail and with the hope that you’ll be able to attend Luke Live some day.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Live Gospel Proclamation to Return to Davis County Parish

Layton, Utah — January 5, 2014

Residents of northern Utah will have the opportunity to hear parts of the Gospel of Luke proclaimed live, from memory, along with Broadway-style singing and guided reflections.  Paulist Fr. James DiLuzio from New York will offer the presentation on February 3, 4 and 5 with sessions at 9:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. at St. Rose of Lima parish in Layton, Utah. The event is free to the public and is fitting for all ages — Families with children age 10+, teens, singles, and seniors.

The event is part of the “Luke Live” mission which is performed all over the country.  Fr. DiLuzio has committed the book of Luke to memory and performs it as a one man show, incorporating popular music along with reflections on the meaning of scripture in relation to modern life.  The performances come naturally to Fr. DiLuzio who once dreamed of becoming a professional actor and completed a masters degree in drama at the University of Southern California.

In the early 1980s, when he was working in customer service at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, DiLuzio began attending Mass at the church of St. Paul the Apostle.  He found himself drawn to the Paulist mission of evangelization through engagement.  The attraction drew him into the order and he was ordained a priest on May 8, 1993.

After serving nine years in parish and campus ministry, he wanted to find a way to integrate his dramatic training with evangelization.  Returning to the early days of the church — when the Gospels were shared from memory — he developed Luke Live.

“It’s not the kind of evangelization that says, ‘I have the truth and I am going to convince you’,” DiLuzio says.  “It’s really about sharing, about dialogue.  It’s about transforming not only the listener, but the person who is doing the sharing.”

Luke Live is ecumenical in nature, respectful of people of all faiths and creeds.  Although the majority of Fr. DiLuzio’s performances have been in Catholic parishes, this past year he was invited to share the Gospel at St. Luke’s United Methodist church in Memphis, Tennessee and his audiences have included people of many different faiths.

The program has resonated with audiences.  Speaking of a performance at St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Logan, St. Rose pastor Fr. Clarence Sandoval said, “It was interesting to watch the people listen — maybe for the first time — to the Gospel, God’s Word.”  Members of other parishes who have participated have described Luke Live as “a new and exciting way of hearing the book of Luke” and “inspired and inspiring.”

This year’s presentation at St. Rose will continue the work, focusing on Luke chapters 13 through 18.  Each day of the mission will focus on two chapters with the morning and evening sessions offering the same content.  The event is free to the public.

— Dad