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Moving Mountains

St. Cecilia, Cleveland

St. Cecilia, Cleveland

Because Father Dan wasn’t the formal celebrant on St. Cecilia’s last day, he couldn’t deliver the homily. That’s a rule. According to canon law, the Bishop says the last Mass and gives the homily.

Father Dan was leaving his neighborhood, his life, and his job of over 30 years. He, like us, was losing his community. He felt sometimes that the Church was telling him that his efforts in the city had been worthless, vain, something to toss aside. He had put on a good face for all of us, but I heard later from friends and family that he was so depressed they were worried about him. “It was worse for him than facing his death,” his sister Donna told me.

No doubt at that final Mass he felt bereaved and angry. This was the end, and he had no choice. On Sunday, April 25, 2010, he was entitled to only a short statement at the end of Mass. This is a transcription of his remarks (which you can watch here).

 

Let me tell you something I’ve noticed about my opinions. (Pause. Raised eyebrows. Laughter from the congregation.) I had a friend, Jerry, a brother really, who lived out in Las Vegas. I was raising kids here, and I brought them out there to stay at his house where they’d see a family working together. A fine gentleman, he was fun to be with and healthy and had all kinds of good things going for him. (Father Dan leaned forward and stage whispered conspiratorially.) He was a Republican. I said, “Jerry, how can you be such a fine human being and be so messed up politically?” And he said, “I was going to ask you the same thing!”

Along the line, I’ve noticed that the authors who write the things I believe in are the smartest authors in the world. The greatest artists paint the things I like. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own opinion. Sometimes in time, working together, we can see what was the right decision. Sometimes we can’t. Our life is a process of moving on. We are called as Christians and we are called as Catholics to be a pilgrim people. A pilgrim people, we’re called to build a world that is worthwhile, and that world is everywhere. That world is in your place of employment. That world is in your school, in your home, in your neighborhood, in your community, and then we need to look a little farther out, because the Word has to be brought there, too.

As you go forward from here today, I know you’re sad. I’m sad, too.  But don’t embarrass me by being a Sunday-go-to-meetin’, sit-in-the-back-of-the-church, don’t-bother-me-because-I’m-hurt kind of Catholic. We don’t need those! The world needs, I need, we all need for you to go out there and join parish councils, join liturgy committees, and look out for the social justice activities going on. Don’t forget this neighborhood. Don’t forget the plight of the people who are suffering from so many things. Yesterday they marched from here to Luke Easter Park praying for peace, for justice, for empowerment. We can make a difference wherever we go.

Go. Go with a spirit of joy. Go with the Spirit in your heart. Go with the belief that we are seeds just waiting for potential to be unlocked. Grow and bloom where you are planted. Grow by nourishing yourself with the sacrament of Eucharist. Go with the strength of the Word. Go with the power of all you are and all you know, and go with the power of all we have been for each other. As we go forward, as we grow, we can trust that our God is going with us.

Our life is too short to be bothered with resentment, with negativity, with any of that kind of stuff. Shake the dust. Shake, shake, shake it off!

And if there’s anything you’ve learned from me, I hope you’ve learned that in all circumstances we are called to be the Christians we are, and we are all ambassadors, and where we go we bring healing. We bring His Word, and when they see us, they ought to see Him.

I’ve picked the songs for today, so they would be my real sermon. Take those songs home. Sing them. Sing them at the top of your voice. Listen to those words. The words will speak a message to you of what we need to do and where we need to go and how we need to get there.

There’s one other song I always like.

 

Father Dan broke into song. The choir and congregation joined in, and so did JT’s saxophone. The clapping started, and the people rose. This was the song.

 

Now, Lord, don’t move my mountain

But give me the strength to climb

And, Lord, don’t take away my stumbling blocks

But lead me all around

 

Oh Lord, you don’t have to move the mountain

But give me the strength to climb

And, Lord, don’t take away my stumbling blocks

But lead me all around

 

Lord, I don’t bother nobody

I try to treat everybody the same

But every time I turn my back

They scandalize my name

 

But, oh, Jesus, you don’t have to move my mountain

But give me the strength to climb

And, Lord, don’t take away my stumbling blocks

But lead me all around

 

Now when my folks would slay me

 These things they will try to do

But, Lord, don’t touch ’em

But within their heart

Make ’em give their life to you

 

Oh, Master, you don’t have to move my mountain

But give me the strength to climb

And, Lord, don’t take away my stumbling blocks

But lead me all around

If Nothing Ever Changed . . .

Google proved a goldmine of information for Father Dan’s homilies. On Epiphany, he would explain the Star of Bethlehem this way: the astronomical conjunction of planets in about 6 BCE lined up in Pisces, a constellation special to the Hebrews, sparking the Magi’s trip to the manger. Discussing the Good Samaritan, he’d provide a lengthy historical explanation of the enmity between the Jews and Samaritans. I always figured Google was behind his frequent references to caterpillars, butterflies, and imaginal discs, but it turns out he heard about them from his sister Laura.

Laura remembers describing this process to her brother while walking the Towpath Trail a few years ago, one of his favorite hikes. “He looked it up online later. He always double-checked whatever you told him,” she says drily. The metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies was one of Father Dan’s favorite metaphors, and it frequently came up in eulogies. Someone who heard one of these gave Father Dan a chrysalis, so he could observe the whole process.

Everyone knows that caterpillars transform into butterflies, but you may not know that the caterpillar digests itself into a goopy mess first, by exuding enzymes to dissolve its tissues. Resilient cells hiding in that mess grow into adult butterfly body parts. These cells, called imaginal discs, form the eyes, legs, wings, and all the other structures a butterfly needs. A perfect analogy for death and resurrection.

“At every moment,” Father Dan would say at funerals, “something dies, something changes, and something stays the same.”

Last summer, when Father Dan told me about his cancer and the tough times ahead of him, he found comfort in this image. The caterpillar goes away. It dies. A butterfly arises in its place. He described the whole process to me once again. It’s a dramatic illustration of death, transformation, and hope.

no butterfliesSoon after this conversation, I went to Nashville for my daughter’s wedding and in a little gift shop found this tiny framed quotation: “If nothing ever changed,” it says, “there would be no butterflies.” Wiping away tears, I bought it, packed it in my suitcase, and stopped in at Father Dan’s when I returned to Cleveland.

He was just pulling in at his rectory and asked me to help carry some bags into the house for him. They were light, but he had not eaten much in weeks and was already suffering the effects of chemo. He looked at my gift, smiled, and said, “Ah. That’s great.” Then he set it on a table and changed the subject. Giving Father Dan gifts was never very satisfying. He liked reading Atticus, the novel by Ron Hansen I’d given him years before, but we never got around to talking about the great ending, evocative of the Prodigal Son story, which was why I wanted him to read it in the first place. When I gave him a cd of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, I hoped he’d listen as he drove to his home in West Salem, but then learned he didn’t have a cd player in his car. I never heard what he thought of the music. Material items, even cds of great music, were not what he wanted.

We sat in his living room for awhile talking. He gestured to his dining room table piled high with food and books and comfortable clothes and every other manner of gift. After learning about his illness, everyone wanted to give him something. “What do I do with all that stuff?” he asked. “I can’t even sort through it. All I can do right now is sit in this recliner and nap.”

“I knew you wouldn’t want my little thing,” I said. “Too bad. I wanted to give it to you.” In the months following, I often thought of it sitting in his living room, and it reminded me of the hope of rebirth. My friend Anita, who works at St. Mary, rescued it from the rectory the other day and returned it to me. It was always really more a gift for me than for him, as he could have told me a year ago.

The Power of the Spirit

maxresdefault        That power of the Spirit is what transforms our goals from the things that are here today and gone tomorrow to the things that last forever.

 

Father Dan delivered this homily in May, 2009. The quotes are from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

 

Think about everything the apostles and the disciples went through with Jesus. They probably hated him a lot of the time! They must have thought sometimes, “What are you doing to us?” Think of all that happened to them in the short span of three years!

Most of them were minding their own business. Peter and Andrew and James and John were just fishing. Matthew was collecting his taxes. They were all simple people, minding their own business. They didn’t come looking for Jesus. Jesus came looking for them and said, “Come and follow me. See what I have to offer.”

What did they find? At first, it was great. It was wonderful. He changed water into wine. He walked on water. He healed people. He made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk. It was the greatest thing in the world to be a friend of Jesus. People would probably say, “Hey, can you get me a quick audience with this guy?” They had thousands of people coming from all over to meet Jesus.

Now, that sounds like it might be a good thing at first. But it’s not a good thing. Probably every movie star, every famous rock musician would tell you that at first it’s really exciting when the crowds come. Later on, the crowds are a nightmare, because you no longer have a personal life anymore. You’ve lost it all.

Jesus said, “Peter, I’m going to stay at your house.” How exciting! Jesus is going to live in my house! Oh, my! His wife and children and mother-in-law didn’t know what was in store! The crowds came. They cut a hole in Peter’s roof. They dropped a man down to get healed. What crazy things went on! There were even crazier things. The authorities told Peter and the other disciples, “You’re no longer one of us. You’re not welcome to be with us. You’re following a man of sin.” Jesus had started breaking laws. He cured people on the Sabbath. He didn’t respect their eating habits and kosher laws. Now, they were in trouble, trouble, trouble, and more trouble.

All of a sudden, the disciples were filled with questions. Just like all of us — in our early days what we’re taught about God, about faith, about the laws we’re supposed to follow, about what’s right and wrong, imprints in our head. When what we’ve learned seems to change, there’s a shock to our system. I can tell you one of those shocks to my system was when I found that every word in the Bible wasn’t exactly like it’s written — to find out that the story of Jonah was a story, meant to teach a message. Jonah wasn’t really swallowed by a whale. God didn’t create the world in exactly seven days. This was a poem. What do you mean, that’s a poem?  I didn’t like that! I had enough trouble losing Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, and now all of a sudden I had to deal with my Scriptures going away.

The apostles had the same struggle. Everything they learned, they had to unlearn because of this new guy who came into their life and said, “It’s not about that. It’s about loving your God with everything that’s in you and loving your neighbor as yourself. And the goals you seek are very short-sighted, and they’re not leading you to anything but a bubble in the air. The things you want with everything that’s in you are just things that are here today and gone tomorrow and in the long run very meaningless.”

It was as difficult as it is to explain to a little child that someday you won’t need that dolly anymore or someday you won’t need that binky anymore or you won’t need that thumb anymore, that someday you can live in a different way. You might not even need that cigarette anymore! That’s a hard thing to learn for us! It’s hard to learn that there really is happiness when you’ve let go of that very short-sighted thing that makes you happy, the short-sighted thing that fills you with wants, the short-sighted thing that makes you want to go back to the way it used to be. When you start to discover this exciting and vibrant thing that’s right before your face, you choose each moment as a moment to be alive, to celebrate God’s presence, and to just look at everything as God does. Then you go out to share the message. The message comes from the Spirit, enters inside you, and then it goes out.

In the meantime, the disciples were struggling to unlearn what they thought they knew. As Jesus was getting ready to ascend into heaven, they asked him questions. Was He was going to restore the reign to Israel? They were still caught up in political systems.

They doubted. They came with him, they did what he said, but they doubted. They came filled with all kinds of questions and doubts. They asked him their questions, and he said, “You don’t need to know about that. Don’t worry about that.” Their people were oppressed! How could it not be their problem? They were taught forever that they would be the rulers of the world. How could it not be their problem? Unless there was something more. And Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Spirit comes.”

That power of the Spirit is what moves our “short sight” into “insight.” That power of the Spirit is what transforms our goals from the things that are here today and gone tomorrow to the things that last forever. That power of the Spirit broadens our understanding of what happiness is about, so we gradually begin to assume, “I’m happy and I’m going to be happy using whatever I have because God has already given me enough.” That power of the Spirit says to me that my power is not what I can personally do on my own, but my power comes from the One Who can do all things and invites me to be a part of God’s life and love and Kingdom.

Some of this happens naturally. The older we get – at least I’ve found — the fewer things seem important. I think back and wonder why I let myself get so excited about so many things. After fifty, life got much easier in a way. Before that, one of my kids would tell me about a traumatic experience, and I would worry about it all night while they were partying with their friends or playing basketball. I would worry about it day and night, week after week. They were done with it; they had dumped it on me. After I turned fifty, they could tell me about their trauma, and I would say, “That’s a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into. What are you going to do about it?” I would explain what I could realistically do for them and then go to bed. What a marvelous transition. We move into these stages of life.

What God is calling us all to is to do everything with prayer. So Jesus told the disciples, Stay in Jerusalem together. Pray, and seek, seek what is God’s will for you. Seek what is the gift you have to give to the world. Seek this Christ, not looking up in the sky. Seek this Christ within, challenging you and calling you to recognize that you have all that you need right now. When we start doing that, then Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians becomes a prayer for us: “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of Him.”

Wisdom allows us to look at what we have and figure out what we can do with it, rather than thinking of what more we want. Wisdom gives us direction to use and treasure all the experiences of life. Wisdom and revelation  allow us to understand that God’s picture and God’s purpose are so much bigger than ours. Gods’ eternity is  bigger than each single moment of time.

And Paul’s prayer for us goes on. This is such a beautiful phrase: “May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened.” Think of your heart having eyes.  Your real eyes can only see so much. What we see now, every time we turn around, is different. Every time you turn around, it’s a different day, it’s a different moment. The eyes of the heart see beyond the physical to something, beyond time and space, that is so much deeper. And the eyes of the heart, even when the heart is sad, can bring the light and the peace that we need.

“So may those eyes of your heart be enlightened,  so that you will know the hope that belongs to God’s call.”  It’s a hope! It’s not a reality yet! Heaven is coming! The hoping and the anticipation should be as exciting as the reality. “Pray that you may also know what are the riches of God’s glory.” What do we have to do for the riches of God’s glory? You don’t have to do a thing. He says, Come to the water, come with open hearts, and come let Me love you.

Paul goes on, “We know what is his inheritance among the holy ones. And may we know what his surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe in the exercise of his great might. This is the God who worked in Christ, and He raised Him from the dead.”

Whatever the evil is, it’s not a threat to us, because even death is not a threat. Because Jesus showed us that death has no power over God’s way and God’s will.

“Above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, every name that is named, not only in this age but the ones to come, He put all things under His feet and gave Him over as head of the church.”

This is the Jesus that we claim. This is the Spirit that brings that Jesus to us. This is the Jesus that we’re not going to find up there. But the eyes of our hearts will be able to seek Him, to find Him, and to bring us peace.

A Funeral

I posted this essay about seven years ago, when the Diocese of Cleveland was in the process of closing St. Cecilia and Epiphany churches in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. I don’t know why I didn’t name Father Dan Begin back then, but I still like it this way. 

 

Today I attended a funeral mass celebrated by a priest who has lived and worked in the same neighborhood for over thirty years. Four generations of the family were present, and the priest knew them all. He knew the great-grandmother who was being buried at the age of 92, her daughter who’s been disabled by a stroke, her granddaughter, and her great-granddaughter, a lovely girl of college age.

He had spent the preceding days visiting the hospital and sitting with the family as they decided to remove the ventilator that was keeping the woman alive. He was there and prayed with them when the ventilator was removed. He met with the family to plan the funeral. And he had met with the elderly woman more than once, discussing illness and end-of-life matters, but mostly joking and cheering up and telling stories.

In his homily, the priest referred directly to the great-granddaughter’s birth, saying that he knew the family before she was around. Everyone had been so excited, he said, anticipating her birth and wondering what she would be like. Her great-grandmother’s death was a little like that, he said. It was a great labor, like the labor of giving birth. It was a labor that all of us, even the men, would have to undergo. And it was similar to birth in this way, too:  in our final labor we give birth to our true selves, our spiritual selves.

At the end of the homily, he hesitated for a moment and then commented on the travails of several generations living in the same house, as this family had done for many years. He himself had grown up in his grandparents’ house. Sometimes he would hear other kids talking about the fun they had visiting their grandparents for holidays, and he would smile ruefully. Not quite the same thing, when your grandfather had yelled at you that very morning for stepping on his well-manicured lawn. Such a living arrangement creates inevitable tensions, and the priest knew that this family had endured some of these tensions. So, he advised, let all those grievances go, if any are still nagging at you. The person who has passed has let them go, so we should do the same.

All these gentle remarks the priest was able to make because he knew the family and had known them for decades.

Now, as the Cleveland Diocese reorganizes, this priest may be removed from the neighborhood where he knows dozens and dozens of families, their family stories, the relations, the histories, the tragedies, and all the rest. He may be moved so far away that he’ll be unable even to attend the weddings and funerals and baptisms in this neighborhood.

Instead, the families will probably have to rely on strangers,  unfamiliar priests, no doubt kind and well-intentioned, who will administer the sacraments and perform the rituals as well as they are able. But they won’t be able to say they baptized your mother, or that they married your parents and your aunts and uncles, or that they sat by your great-grandmother’s deathbed and remembered the day you were born.

 

Love the One You’re With

Whenever I asked Father Dan for advice, I’d feel some sympathy for Jesus’s disciples, because I usually had no idea what he was talking about until much later.

Once, many years ago, I sought his advice about my high-school-aged daughter, who was doing something I thoughtdan preaching dangerous. I wanted to know how to stop her. Instead of answering my question, Father Dan started talking about me. He said my kids’ growing up was unsettling but could really be an exciting change in my life. I thought he must not have heard my actual question.

So I repeated it, this time emphasizing my child, and in response he began laughing about some of his own kids’ misadventures. That’s not reassuring, I thought. That’s exactly what I want to avoid.

I asked a third time (like the boneheaded disciples), and at last he offered some concrete suggestions. I could ask my daughter why she was doing what she was doing, which, to be honest, I had never thought of. I could also share my worries with her as I had just done with him. He quickly returned to talking about the empty nest and feeling bereft and dealing with changes in your life.

I left the rectory more confused than when I went in. Where was my foolproof solution? I thought, “Oh, well. Father Dan’s not perfect. He must not have understood what I needed.”

Only after days and weeks of pondering did I finally begin to understand. He was saying what he consistently said—that we can’t change other people. We lose control, eventually, even of our children, and we have to accept their choices. This is part of their growing up and our growing older.  What I could address and needed to address was my own confusion and fear. My daughter wasn’t in the rectory seeking his advice, so instead he gently counseled the person sitting front of him, who had a few blind spots.

Review

Thanks to Ethan Boatner for this very nice review of Missing in Lavender, a Twin Cities publication addressing LGBTQ issues.

 

Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother
Kathy Ewing
Red Giant Books
$14.95

If you didn’t grow up with a Borderline mom, you’ll find Ewing’s narrative hard to believe; if you did, it will be painfully accurate. The word “missing” is the key. Someone you love — or want to love — just isn’t there, yet is all too painfully a family presence. Ewing inserts just enough scientific and professional information on Borderline Personality Disorder to ground the reader and to give him or her a firm footing on which to stand and observe, while avoiding making Missing what she terms a “jargon-laden tome.” The already-chaotic family dynamic was deeply affected by her father’s illness and paraplegia. Ewing’s long journey, which she is still traveling, is told vibrantly and intimately, and can help others directly or indirectly affected by BPD.

Welcoming the Stranger

One of the most noteworthy things about Father Dan Begin was that his words and his actions were almost perfectly in sync. This quality made his sermons especially powerful; if you knew him, you could hear his advice and immediately think of in-the-flesh-examples from the speaker himself. You would think, “Oh, yes. I see. That’s exactly what you do.”

My minister friend Roger (see the comments here) has recently put me on to Phillips Brooks, a 19th century preacher, who espoused the idea of preaching as “truth through personality.” Christianity. Brooks said, was not essentially based on a text or on ideas but on interaction with others. By this light, Jesus converted the disciples and followers not (or not merely) by his teachings but by his actions. Father Dan was, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus, so it makes sense that he would pursue the same model. His prime purpose was to, as he frequently said, “fix himself,” not others. He saw himself as a lifelong project—to morph into something more like Jesus all the time.

So when at Mass Father Dan preached about carrying the Gospel message with you, bringing Jesus to every situation, trying to bring a smile and lighten the load of others, you could observe him after Mass doing these very things.

welcome3I’m thinking back to a recent sermon, I think from last fall, which spoke to me explicitly about the current politics of immigration, with indignation seething just underneath the words. Father Dan was talking about the unequivocal teaching of Scripture about welcoming the stranger. There are no sub-clauses about looking out for one’s well-being, no vetting, extreme or otherwise, no hesitation or moralizing. If someone is in need you let them in. That’s it. That message is throughout Scripture.

As I listened, and pondering later, I tried to count the ways I had observed Father Dan welcoming the stranger. There are too many examples, but I’ll give it a start.

First, from my own selfish perspective. When I began attending St. Cecilia, I was in effect a church refugee. I had previously attended the Hallinan Center, the Newman center at Case Western Reserve, with a bunch of other (not to put too fine a point on it) white people. My cohort had all happened into Hallinan from varying directions. Some had an actual affiliation with CWRU, and some with the hospitals in the neighborhood. Others like me had followed friends there and found a congenial, activist, liberal congregation, mixed up with the students who attended regularly. The Diocese of Cleveland looked askance at this little outpost and felt we should instead invest ourselves in a normal Catholic parish. So they canceled our Sunday Mass, non-renewed the regular staff there, including the priest, and made it clear we weren’t a church and shouldn’t act like one.

A large group of us decided to go find ourselves another church and so began the Summer Church Tour. We visited parishes that were convenient for most of us or that friends and relatives had recommended. Apparently some pastors found this an arrogant enterprise (as I learned later from Father Dan). How dare we visit and evaluate their Masses? Anyway, St. Cecilia wasn’t even on our original list, but one of our number had tried it and liked it and suggested we add it.

At most of the churches we visited, we were unacknowledged. At a couple, the priest hung around afterward and chatted with us. At St. Cecilia, Father Dan welcomed us from the pulpit, saying something like, “Our visitors today from Case’s Hallinan Center remind us that we are all pilgrims. All of us are on a journey.” I remember tears stinging my eyes as he spoke. At the sign of peace halfway through the Mass—a perfunctory hand shake at most Catholic churches—the parishioners, mostly African-American, poured out of the pews and shook hands with or hugged almost everyone else in the church, including us. I had never felt so welcome in a church.

So that’s my first example. Father Dan welcomed us strangers to St. Cecilia, as did the congregation.

Father Dan also welcomed visiting priests. African priests frequently stayed in the rectory. He befriended them and gave them jobs and served them meals and laughed with them. More recently, a young priest named Chris worked with Father Dan at his first post-St. Cecilia assignment, and when Father Dan moved to his own churches in Bedford, he invited Chris there, too, hoping to give him a better educational and spiritual experience.

Examples back at St. Cecilia and Epiphany abound. He helped institute an annual Community Fair so that the neighborhood could stop by and get food and play games. He spoke often about the doors of our church going both ways—opening out for us to become part of the city neighborhood and opening in to welcome the neighbors in.

A Narcotics Anonymous group met in our parish basement once a month. Sometimes, our members would gripe about the dirty ashtrays and messy sinks they left behind. Father Dan would resist any suggestion that we disinvite the group. At one Parish Council meeting, he became stern. “As long as I’m here,” he said, “we’re going to have that NA meeting in our basement. No more discussion.”

Father Dan had learned the welcoming habit from his family– known for taking in outcasts, having them for dinner, and inviting them to stay for awhile. His mother encouraged her children to bring over friends who were different from them. “How much can you learn from someone who’s exactly like you?” she would ask. “Make friends with people who are different so they can teach you something!” His friend Father Paul Rosing said of the Begin home on Cleveland’s West side, “Everyone, everyone was welcome there.”

Most tellingly, Father Dan adopted and fostered children in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. They became his own children, though he would be quick to say he co-parented them with their biological parents. Their children became his treasured grandchildren. When St. Cecilia’s was closing, his fellow priests slyly cautioned him, “When you get to your new assignment, don’t start talking about your kids and grandkids right off the bat! The parishioners won’t know what to make of it!” When kids had to escape abuse or an uncomfortable or unsupportive home, or needed things an overwhelmed single mother couldn’t provide, they came to stay at St. Cecilia. Father Dan took them to school, bought their food and uniforms, interceded with the law when necessary, cooked their meals, and provided a happy home life.

The stranger, the outsider, was the exact person Father Dan was drawn to. I observed it over and over. Sometimes he’d even leave off talking to me (me!) in order to attend to someone standing alone and looking forlorn. As a Christian, he took the words of Scripture seriously, and his actions illustrated the words of Leviticus: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

A Perfect Day for Bananafish

bananafishCulling an old folder just now, I ran across a copy of Time magazine dated July 10, 1939. On page six, there’s a letter written by my father, Martin R. Miller, dateline Fairport Harbor, where he lived before marrying my mom and moving to Canton. He was employed at the Painesville Telegraph then as the Fairport Harbor correspondent, a title I always found amusing. His letter, apparently a response to an earlier Time letter, will provide a nice break from my recent blog posts, so I’ll just quote the letter here verbatim. I believe J.D. Salinger owes a debt to my dad.

Sirs:

The superlatives used by Reader Lawrence Griswold [Time, June 26] in describing a bonefish (i.e., “world’s greatest gamefish,” “most elusive speedster”) called to mind a tropical piscatory phenomenon known as the “banana fish.”

The usual elaborate fish-catching methods all fail with the banana fish.

This is the way it is done. A banana is submerged half its length, vertically, by hand, from either beach or boat in any tropical waters.

The bright yellow of the banana and the almost metaphysical taste or smell it imparts to the water in its vicinity lures the banana fish, which strikes with lightning rapidity. As the fish flashes at the submerged half of the banana, the fisherman instantly pulls the fruit from the water. Now comes the time when the sportsman must outsmart this denizen of the sea.

The momentum of the fish hurtles it out of the water through the hole left by the banana. Quick as a note coming due, the fisherman plunges the banana back into the hole through which the fish has come, cutting off the only possible opening through which it could return to its native habitat.

My friend told me the trapping of banana fish on the surface of the water in this fashion is one of the most highly regarded skills in the South Seas.

Martin R. Miller

Fairport Harbor, Ohio

 

Reading this, my son somberly commented it sounded like something my sisters and I would find funny. “Well,” I responded, “that makes sense, doesn’t it?”

 

Father Dan on Grieving

Father Dan delivered this homily on Palm Sunday, March 23, 2009, the week after Bishop Richard Lennon announced the closing of his churches, St. Cecilia and Epiphany.

 

I think as we watch Jesus struggle, it affirms in us that grieving is natural and grieving is necessary in order to move forward.

maxresdefaultThe whole process of life is trying to get our minds and hearts and bodies in touch with what we know and feel. It’s trying to get what we can’t see in touch with what we can see. But this won’t happen just because we want it to. It doesn’t just happen. There’s a whole process that we have to go through—even Jesus himself had to go through—in this struggle that we call grieving, recognizing that in each moment of life something has died, something stays the same, and something is new. There’s this constant change going on. And each passing thing, good or bad, has to be reckoned with—that it was here, and now it’s not here. The child that was me is not here. He’s turned into the teenager that’s me. The teenager that’s me will turn into the young adult that’s me. Each stage of life passes on, and each stage needs to be recognized for what it is. Each dream needs its own time to call us forward.

As Jesus came into Jerusalem, he was not anxious to get there, because he knew when he got to Jerusalem, people were waiting to kill him. The apostles knew it, too, and didn’t understand why he wanted to go there in the first place. But then he got a message. The friends he hung out with in Bethany, where he used to kick up his heels, a nice place where he could get away from the crowds with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, sent word: Lazarus is sick. He needs you. Your friend needs you now.

And he didn’t go. I don’t know why he didn’t go. He didn’t go. That upset them, as we hear later on in the reading, but he didn’t go then. Two days later, Lazarus was already dead.

And then he went, and he came into Jerusalem, and there was all the triumph, and he said, “Unless a grain of wheat dies and falls to the earth it remains a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” He said this, and he knew it: part of him and his life and his message was about dying. This is what he said to his disciples over and over. He made three clear predictions in John. I am going to die. I am going to be lifted up. I am going to chase out the ruler of this world, and I am going to build a new world. They didn’t understand, and even he didn’t understand fully. He just said the words.

And finally when he got close to Jerusalem, what did he do? He wept. This wasn’t just a few tears. This was really weeping. He looked at Jerusalem and said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often I would have gathered you together like a mother hen gathers little chicks! But you stoned all those who came to you. Every solution I had you threw away.” And he mourned the loss of Jerusalem and mourned the death of his friend Lazarus.

Grief doesn’t come with just one thing to hurt about. It’s cumulative. It keeps building up. When it rains it pours. You lose somebody who’s significant in your family, and all of a sudden you lose your job. And then someone steals your car. It goes on and on.  We all have that experience over and over and over again.

We see Jesus going through the grieving experience. When he got close to Bethany, Martha, in her typical way, came running up to him like a child and said, “Lord, why didn’t you come? If you would have come, I know you could have done something.” She still had so much faith. She could still say the words: “I know he‘s going to raise up on the last day.” We see her whole struggle there. Jesus assured her, “Martha, put your trust in God. It will be okay. What is needed is trust, not fear.”

But both sisters were mad because he didn’t come. Mary hung back, seeming to say, “I ain’t getting up off my chair for him! He can come to me.” And he came to Mary and got into the same conversation. He told her that he is the life and the resurrection and that even if someone should die,  our life is life everlasting. So when he came to Mary and saw she was upset with him, he accepted her struggle, but he knew he wasn’t going to do things their way. They had a plan. They had a vision, and they had a confidence that was now was shaken, and in that moment they had nothing left to stand on.

Then Jesus said, “Where is he buried?” He went to the tomb, and what did he do? Once again he wept–wept uncontrollably at the tomb of Lazarus. All the people were saying, “What gives? Why is he crying? Surely he could have done something if he wanted to. What is wrong with him?” What was happening was that catching-up process. His flesh, his body, his human self was catching up with the divine message, a divine message of hope. That does not happen easily or quickly or the same in anybody’s life. It happens over and over in different ways for different people.

There’s a church in the Holy Land right above Jerusalem called Dominus Flevit, which means “The Lord wept.” They have a whole church built to say that Jesus wept. He wept several times. He wept in the Garden: “If it’s possible, take this cup away from me!” It was hard for him to deal with all the loss. All the losses–big and little. Sometimes you can have five big losses, and your pet canary will die and it will throw you over the edge. It just keeps building and building inside. I think we often don’t know what to do with grief.

We see what Jesus does: he calls everyone to a belief. He calls himself to believe. He calls himself to believe in the power to bring Lazarus forth from the tomb. He says, “Roll back the stone.” In the seminary, when we used to read the Scriptures in Latin, we’d read this expression, “Iam, iam fetet.” That’s what Martha said when Jesus asked to open the tomb. It means, “Surely he stinketh.” (Or, “she stinketh,” or “it stinketh.”) Well, we found that was a very useful phrase for a lot of life. “Iam, iam fetet!”  It became our mantra when a whole lot of bad things would happen, one after the other.

Martha, saying, “Iam, iam fetet,” was still stuck in her old way of thinking. She was saying, “It’s not going to be pretty. It’s not going to be the way that we want it. It’s not going to be something we want to deal with.”

But Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out.”

And we see Lazarus coming out. And Jesus said, “Untie him.” For a moment, just for a moment, they could celebrate that the power to bring life to those who were dead was in their midst, that Jesus was who he said he was. For a moment, they could see that there truly was something more to life.

But what you see doesn’t necessarily change your heart. Very soon, they had to deal with the crucifixion! Probably by the time of the crucifixion, Lazarus was dead all over again. Jesus had to mourn his apostles going different directions, as the Zealots were going one way and Judas another. He had to mourn all the people who hated him and wanted him dead. All of these things just kept piling on and piling on and piling on.

I think as we watch him struggle, it affirms in us that grieving is natural and necessary in order to move forward. Tears or rage or whatever it is–we need to share it. But there are some parameters. I don’t deal with grief a lot in our community, and I have been made aware that I can be a real pain in the butt when other people are trying to grieve. I can be so positive, and I can be so far ahead that I can’t deal with the reality of the present, and I know that.

I also know that over the last thirty years, especially, I have developed a terrible, terrible fear of grieving. I’ll tell you what my fear is. Grief should not make us change everything in our life and our way of thinking. We ought not to change what we know about  who we are and whose we are, regardless whether it’s easy, regardless of how angry we are with God. Whatever happens, we still know God is there. And we still know who we are, as people called in his name. I think that is so important.

What scares me is something I have watched over and over and over. A young man grieving the end of a relationship with his girlfriend went to her house and shot himself with a rifle and blew off his head. A young man who was having struggles with his family and lost his job hanged himself. I’ve known people to run their cars off the road, or punch their fists into walls so they damaged their hands permanently, or walk away from their jobs because things were so horrible. They complicate the lives of their family. I have seen grief act in these ways, because of the emotions of anger and depression, and so that makes me afraid.

And at the same time I’m afraid, I also know we need to call each other to a healthy grieving like Jesus, a grieving that catches up our body with our mind. I can tell you something about my own grieving process, something I haven’t developed easily. It’s been over the long haul. I can tell you that the way I am today is purely, absolutely purely, thanks to the elders of the African-American community, who showed me how to deal with the grieving that they went through in their lives.

One of the things they taught me is to repeat certain mantras no matter how bad you feel. Many of those mantras are songs, like “Blessed Assurance” and “Yes, God Is Real.” Many of those mantras are things like Harry Robinson used to tell me, from my very first day in this church: “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.” And he would keep saying that to himself. Even in the nursing home, as his mind is fading, it doesn’t matter. He still says, “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”

They used mantras. They got together, and they sang and they prayed about who they were, and that carried them through. In that singing, in that praying, which came with weeping, which came with all kinds of different emotions for different kinds of people, as they came together, sometimes in the midst of the pain, as with Lazarus, there were glimpses of hope, glimpses of a vision of where we can go from here.

You know, I often shed tears when I’m talking. That’s happened to me a couple times at funerals this week, and it will happen over and over again. It will happen in all kinds of strange places. But the tears help me by reminding me to take time to grieve. If I can clear out one grief, at least for a moment, then I can move on to the next one, and one thing that helps me a lot is music. I’ll take songs like “The Way We Were,” the songs from Fiddler on the Roof, along with so many of the spirituals, like “Come Ye Disconsolate” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” so many of the spiritual songs, as well as songs that really bring up memories. That’s another one, “Memories.” I’ve been playing that a lot lately.

Anyhow, I’ll play a song until I can’t play it any more. Because I start crying, and that’s okay. And I try to let the loss sink into my life–what it means and what is lost. I try also to remember and to treasure what has been lost as a story that is finished. Every time a story is finished in my life, I try to look back and write that story, sometimes just for myself. Look at the story as it’s finished, and it can bring up whatever emotions it brings up.

There are times where I am overwhelmed and so unmotivated to answer the phone, to answer the door, to do any of the things I’m supposed to do. In those times, then I have to look to Jesus, and again I have to remember who I am and whose I am. Then I say, “There is a person out there at South Pointe or at Charity or at University Hospital that is dying. Waiting for somebody. And I can sit here in a snit or I can make a difference.” And so I ask him to use my sufferings, to let me take up that Cross and push me forward where I don’t even feel like going, and I go, and he’s always there.

Those are just a few thoughts today, as we move into Passion Week. The things that we’ve lost, the people that we’ve lost, the youth that some of us have lost, the figures we’ve lost…all of those, everything! It’s all important, what we lose along the way! But if we can find a way, then let our spirits speak, share the loss with one another, and take what we’ve lost, look at it, and keep it as a story, because it exists forever. Tell the story. Share the story, and maybe somewhere  in the midst of the sharing of the story, maybe somewhere in the midst of our tears, a smile comes out, because we know who we are and whose we are, and we know that, yes, our God is real.

Exuberance Is Beauty

Father Dan Begin and I never talked about William Blake, the English Romantic poet, which may sound pretentious, but we were two old English majors who enjoyed hauling out our tattered copies of the Norton Anthology of English Literature on occasion. T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” would make an appearance in Father Dan’s Epiphany sermons, and he enjoyed reading Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” during the Easter season. So we probably could have talked about Blake. We just never got around to it.

William Blake

William Blake

Two lines keep bubbling up from my superficial acquaintanceship with Blake. One is this post’s title: Father Dan was nothing if not exuberant, and his exuberance created beauty everywhere among both plants and animals. The other line is “Damn braces. Bless relaxes.” You brace yourself against being damned, or even criticized, while blessing and acceptance put you at ease. Father Dan never condemned people. He could damn wars and racism, for sure, but not people. He chose them instead. He blessed them. He was unshockable. In a religion known for its rules, recriminations, and binding strictures, Father Dan pursued other priorities.

“My job,” he would say, “is to lead people to freedom.”

After St. Cecilia closed, Father Dan spent a few years at another urban parish, St. Philomena in East Cleveland. Soon after he started there, he told me this story.

Courtyard at St. Phil's

Courtyard at St. Phil’s

One day, after celebrating Mass and attending meetings at St. Phil’s, he decided to take a stroll around the neighborhood. He was, uncharacteristically, wearing his priest’s collar.

A mail truck pulled up next to him, and the carrier leaned out his door and asked, “Are you the priest at that church?”

“Not the priest, but a priest. I just started here,” Father Dan answered.

“Father,” the driver said, “I’ve been out of the church for a long time. I haven’t gone to Mass or had the sacraments for years, and I don’t know how to get back into it.”

Father Dan replied, “Well, do you want to get out of the truck, or do you want me to get in?”

The man hopped out of the truck, and Father Dan gave him absolution on the sidewalk. “There you go,” he said. “Now you can come back to church whenever you want.” Hugs were no doubt exchanged.

The mail carrier kept on laughing as he climbed back into his truck. Shaking his head, he said, “I didn’t know it was that simple! That was all I needed.”

“I didn’t tell him, of course, that he didn’t even need that,” Father Dan told me. “He could have come back to church any time. All I did was show him what was possible.”