31 Mar

The Prodigal Son

This posture of the prodigal son in prayer, from John Macallan Swan's 1888 painting, is one no person should be ashamed to make.  It is a posture of authenticity.  The boy is in "dire need" (Lk 14:14). He has hit 'rock bottom.'  Does he suppress his agony?  No.  He admits his life has become unmanageable and enters into the depths of the abyss.  He bundles his darkness, shame, and uncertainty into a little gift the outline of his fists, and lifts that gift to God.  He cannot see it, as he raises his meagre offering in trusting torment, but the Father delights.  A heavenly light shines on the prodigal son's exposed back.  In the desolate, early spring landscape, flowers have bloomed.  There is beauty in the vulnerability.

The prodigal son "comes to his senses." He makes the decision, in the words of the Third Step, "to turn his will and his life over to the care of God."  He does not know how his story will end, but he trusts God.  There is no greater experience of love than remaining with the Father in pain.  This sets him on the path to awakening—to resurrection.  He will journey home.

It was only because the prodigal son entered into the fullness of pain in prayer that he could be healed.  We might not have 'watershed moments' on the level of the prodigal son or a recovering alcoholic, but there are experiences of darkness we all face.  The choice is to suppress the situation or embrace it.  When we embrace it, we turn it over to God.  He will accept our gift.  What exactly he will choose to do with it and make of it, we are not sure.  It turned out well in the prodigal son's case.


24 Mar

The Edge of Sadness

The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1962.  Set in a New England town, it is a story of priesthood and an Irish-American family scenario with which most people could probably resonate.

Father Hugh Kennedy is the protagonist of the story.  He and his best friend, Father John Carmody, are middle-aged pastors.  They battle their demons of darkness, both related to their fathers.  Kennedy slipped into alcoholism after his father's slow and painful death, and Carmody a general misanthropy stemming from his father's challenging nature that meant a difficult upbringing.  You might already be thinking, 'This sounds depressing. Why would I read this?' Because it is a beautiful story that provides profound psychological insights.

Kennedy realizes that a genuine prayer life was non-existent in his active life as a young priest.   He was not tapped into the "continuing current of love," as he describes it.  Kennedy says:

What the priest may not see is that he stands in some danger of losing himself in the strangely engrossing business of simply 'being busy'; gradually he may find that he is rather uncomfortable whenever he is not 'being busy.' 

The problems of priesthood are not all that dissimilar from the married or single life.  The heart of a priest's identity is his love of God.  Everything else in his ministry comes second.  If he falls away from his heart, his life will begin to disintegrate.  Likewise, if a married couple falls away from the essence of their love and is swept up into the current of 'busyness', their relationship will deteriorate. 

The story is hopeful, for Kennedy is able to re-center himself in God and persevere in the priesthood.  If we find ourselves on the edge of sadness, may we do likewise.


17 Mar

Create Your Own Prayer

It can be beneficial, every now and again, to create your own blessing or prayer.  We do not always need to rotely recite the ones provided by the Church.  Creating your own prayer, which is certainly a valid thing to do, puts you in the company of the Trinity.  God, of course, is a creator and a ‘blesser’.  If we are called to be like God, then we can create our prayers.

Here is an example of someone's created prayer.  Maybe it can inspire you.  It is "A Blessing for March's Saints" by Andrew Greeley:

May you dance a reel for St. Paddy's sake

And toast the many united in one

May St. Joseph guard you as soon as you wake

And safely lead you home when day is done

From Aquinas may you learn wisdom and truth

And from Gregory tradition's faithful way

May Casimir teach you courage and hope

And Gabriel surprise you each new day

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Or, "A Blessing for March Seventeenth" by the same:

May it be a grand day for all of you

Be ye Irish or as Patrick as you'd like to be

May your jars be limited to just a few

May you revel in God's great diversity

In a land where Moslem, Protestant, Catholic, Jew

Enjoy a constitutional variety

Modestly raise a quiet cry and hue

To give thanks for peaceful ethnicity

And praise for pluralism's brightest jewel

Drink joyous toasts, in all sobriety

To the one from many ‘neath red, white and blue

And may God bless you this glorious day

The Father who holds the world together

The Son who walked among us

And the spirit who makes each of us unique

10 Mar

Death Comes For the Archbishop

Death Comes For the Archbishop is one of my favorite novels.  It was written in 1927 by Willa Cather, and it tells the story of a young priest, Father Jean Marie Latour, who is made bishop of the 'New Mexico Territory' in the 1850s.  We hear about Latour's encounters with the rebellious local clergy, his travels on horseback through harsh terrain and storms and so forth, his dealings with the Indian population, and much else.  The story is captivating, the descriptions of nature are beautiful, and the witness of the missionary priest is inspiring.

Allow me to provide a little sample.  The story appears to end just as it is beginning.  The bishop is lost in the desert and has run out of water.  We read:

The traveler dismounted, drew from his pocket a much-worn book, and baring his head, knelt at the foot of the cruciform tree.

Under his buckskin riding-coat he wore a black vest and the cravat and collar of a churchman. A young priest, at his devotions; and a priest in a thousand, one knew at a glance. His bowed head was not that of an ordinary man,--it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence. His brow as open, generous, reflective, his features handsome and somewhat severe. There was a singular elegance about the hands below the fringed cuffs of the buckskin jacket. Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth--brave, sensitive, courteous. His manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished. He had a kind of courtesy towards himself, towards his beasts, toward the juniper tree before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.

The book, while a joy to read, has a melancholic tenor.  It affirms the statement that the priesthood, and Catholicism in general, is hauntingly beautiful


03 Mar

Ruth Pfau

Ruth Pfau was a German medical student. Inspired by a concentration camp survivor who dedicated her life to promoting forgiveness, Ruth converted to Catholicism.  In 1957, she joined the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary, a medical missionary order.  In 1960 she visited a leper colony in Karachi, Pakistan.  Struck by the site of the inhabitants, she made the decision to remain in Pakistan and serve the lepers.  "Not all of us can prevent a war," she said, "but most of us can help ease sufferings of the body and the soul."

Ruth would go on to treat over 50,000 patients over the next 35 years. Her work in Pakistan was finally over when, in 1996, the World Health Organization declared leprosy in Pakistan to be 'under control.'  Ruth did not ease into retirement, however. She migrated on to Afghanistan, where she tended to victims of land mines and other disabilities.  "Leading a life committed to service does protect the soul from wounds," she wrote. "These are the workings of God." 

When Ruth Pfau at last passed to her eternal reward in 2017, she was given a state funeral and hailed as a national hero in Pakistan. 

There are parallels we can make between this modern-day Ruth and the Ruth of the Bible.  When Ruth's husband dies and her mother-in-law Naomi returns to Bethlehem, Ruth accompanies her, though the land is foreign to her.  Ruth will literally labor in the field, alongside men, to provide for Naomi.  The owner, Boaz, notices Ruth and her virtue, and marries her.  They will be the great-grandparents of King David, and the ancestors of Christ himself. 

The name 'Ruth' means 'companion.'  These Ruths, like the Blessed Mother who inspired them, brought God's comfort to many souls.