Thursday, September 30, 2010

Signs of the Season

Well, autumn is definitely upon us. Here are shots from the yard just to prove it:

Plague of acorns. I am not kidding. Acorns are dropping in epic proportions. Walking around the yard is like walking on ball bearings. The clatter of acorns dropping on the roof and deck from our very tall and mighty oak trees makes it sound like a war zone. Come by and visit, if you like, but wear a hard hat.

Inching along. This fuzzy little fellow almost ended up on the curb in a barrel full of acorns, but I rescued him at the last minute and moved him to higher ground. Someone out there may be able to look at his stripes and give us a winter weather forecast. Although I'm thinking the plethora of acorns is probably all the forecast we need. Prepare for snow.

Toad lilies. These delicate little flowers are autumn-blooming lilies. And the best part? Deer don't like them. Don't ask me why, but even with all those acorns to feast on the deer are still decimating the rest of my garden.

Autumn rose. This little beauty surprised me yesterday.

Last blooms. The stonecrop (or sedum) are among the last of our flowers on the scene each season. Pumpkins and Indian corn can't be far behind when these beauties show their heads.

Still waiting for the trees to turn, but that will come soon enough...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Rome Moment: Wrong Turn, Right Location

Throughout my Roman adventure, I found that the most moving moments were often the hidden ones, the moments when I met someone or ended up somewhere that I hadn't planned or expected. So I thought I'd begin to share some of those moments that make for my most lasting memories of Rome.

On my second full day in Rome, I struck out on my own to try to squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible before the "Church Up Close" program began the next day. So after a delicious breakfast of cappuccino and cornetti, I went to Mass at the Gesu, the Jesuit church near my hotel, and visited the rooms of St. Ignatius. Then I made my way to the Vittorio Emmanuele Monument, the Imperial Way, the Colosseum, and, eventually, the Roman Forum. And although I could clearly see the Roman Forum from where I stood outside the Colosseum, getting inside the gates wasn't so simple. I began walking up a hill, only to find an entry point closed with an arrow pointing me toward another hill, where I assumed I'd find the correct entry gate.

So, on this 90 degree afternoon when I was hot and hungry from wandering all over and skipping lunch, I began the long slow climb up Palatine Hill. And I climbed. And I climbed. And I wondered, Am I going in the right direction? But it was beautiful and there were some others making the same climb, so I trudged on, passing the beautiful cloistered monastery of San Sebastiano on the way up. Finally, I got to the top. A dead end. Wrong turn.

But there in front of me was the simple but stunning Chiesa di San Bonaventura al Palatino, as seen in the photo above. And it was open, despite the fact that it was siesta time. So I went in and found a little oasis in the desert. In that lonely, darkened church, a lone voice sang Gregorian chant, and as I knelt there, grateful for the mistake that led me to this place, I was reminded again that pilgrimage is not about checking off a list of destinations visited but a journey meant to take us to places we have never imagined.

There were so many moments like that on my Rome trip, moments I hope to share with you in the days ahead. And it makes me wonder, how many of those moments do I miss in my everyday pilgrimage through life here at home?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Day by Day with St. Ignatius

When I opened up my Word of God Everyday email this morning and saw the quote from St. Ignatius of Loyola, I have to admit I was surprised:
grant that I may see you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
follow you more nearly.
Do you know how many times I sang those words back in the 1970s at folk Mass? We were pretty regularly doing the songs from Godspell in those days, and 'Day By Bay' was one of the all-time favorites among teens and parents alike. But back then I didn't realize the words of that song were taken from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

I think I'll break out my guitar and give this one a reprise. Does anyone have a tambourine?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Join me for an online retreat

Through the recommendation of a friend (Thanks, Deacon Al), I am beginning an online retreat sponsored by Creighton University. It's a free, 34-week program designed to help busy people fit sacred, silent time into daily life. Although you can start it at any point, if you'd like to follow the liturgical calendar throughout the retreat, you should start this week. It's the official first week of the retreat. You can easily jump in now. I did just that today.

It's quite lovely. There are online guides, prayers, Scripture readings, and even a weekly photo that can be used as a screen saver if you want to immerse yourself in the message. The retreat takes its cues from Ignatian spirituality, which makes sense since Creighton is a Jesuit institution.

The retreat starts this week with "Our Life Story." It's a very un-intimidating way to enter into a retreat mindset, starting with what you know. If you're interested, click HERE to go to the main online retreat page. From there you'll see links on how to get started. If you prefer to read hard copy instead of a screen, all of the guides are available in a printer-friendly format. And there's even a book form of the retreat if that's more your style.

If you decide to do the retreat, please email me or let me know in the comment section so we can touch base and share stories. And so we can pray for one another. Blessings as you begin!

Being catholic with both a big and small "c"

My recent post on experiencing Mass from a new perspective, garnered (as expected) some comments both here and on OSV Daily Take, and it got me thinking. So much so that I decided I needed to write another post, not just another comment.

Some of the reaction to my positive experience of attending Mass with the priest facing away from me suggested that I was looking for a return to the old ways, to the days of Latin Mass. Which is kind of funny because even as some -- particularly on the OSV blog -- were reacting to what appeared to be my traditionalism or conservatism, others were reacting on a completely different matter to what appeared to be my progressivism or liberalism. And all of it just made me chuckle.

I seem to confound people because I cannot be defined. I cannot be pigeon-holed. Not as a Catholic. Not as a political being. Not as a person. I do not -- and will not -- fit into someone else's mold of what they think I am or should be. But it's a little frightening how quickly people want to slap a label on someone, to create another person in their own image, or -- as is too often the case -- in the image of the thing they dislike or oppose. Can't we all just get along?

What I find most beautiful about the Catholic faith is its diversity, its ability to include so many different styles and traditions and cultures and spiritualities under one roof. And my spiritual life reflects that diversity. I am as at home listening to Gregorian Chant as I am the St. Louis Jesuits or Christian pop music. I can see the beauty in attending a Mass where the priest is facing away from me or a Mass where I've helped make the Communion bread. I can just as easily fall in step beside people from Opus Dei as I can people from Sant'Egidio. My faith is not in any way limited by a certain style or tradition or a feeling that I must or must not do something in order to stay true to a particular vein of Catholicism. I am Catholic and I am catholic, with a small "c," which, as you know, is part of our creed and reminds us of our call to be "universal."

But, in this age of political -- and I guess spiritual -- purity, the middle road is often the one less traveled. I don't fit in anywhere, really. My way is a blend of what I see as all the very best things of this amazing Catholic faith, as taught by our Church and practiced by our people. I am not afraid to venture into new territory to hear about or experience a new perspective, an old tradition, or a cutting-edge philosophy. I can pick up a set of Rosary beads or pray before an icon just the same. I can recite the foundational prayers of our faith or sit in the silence of centering prayer. All of it leads me to Jesus.

I would love to hear from others who find themselves in this middle ground, who appreciate and bask in the many different traditions of our faith, regardless of what "side" they fall on. There should be no sides here. Just the never-ending circle of God's all-powerful love. Can I get an "Amen"?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The first review of 'Walking Together'

Catholic columnist Therese Borchard wrote a review of my new book, "Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship," which has been published in various Catholic newspapers.

Here it is:
By Therese J. Borchard

I've long known the truth of Martin Buber's line: "When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them."

It's the same message that Jesus speaks in Matthew 18:20: "For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them."

I have always been intrigued and fascinated by the classic stories of spiritual friendship, especially in the Catholic tradition: Francis of Assisi and Clare, Thérèse of Lisieux and Maurice Bellière, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and Peter Abelard and Heloise.

It was with great interest, then, that I read Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship, by journalist Mary DeTurris Poust. Her text examines examples of spiritual friendship from well-known saints, writers and modern religious leaders and gives instructions on how to cultivate meaningful relationships in a world where people feel increasingly isolated despite all the technology and social networking tools designed to keep us connected.

Why are spiritual friendships important?

Poust explains, "Spiritual friendship(s) (are) connected to our God-given mission, our calling to live out our faith in the everyday world. ... They are not about possession but about transformation."

However, these bonds aren't entirely up to us to form. Poust quotes Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, who reminds us that God chooses our companions for us. Lewis asserts, "The friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others...Continue reading HERE.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A book about spiritual friendship for a bishop who lives it

It was perfectly fitting that I would get the chance to present my newest book, "Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship," to Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany at the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville this past Saturday.

Bishop Hubbard was kind enough to sit down and share with me his own story of lifelong spiritual friendship with Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester. Their friendship opens chapter 10 of my book, a chapter that focuses not only on pilgrimage to sacred places but pilgrimage to an interior place. In that chapter, I talk about my first pilgrim visit to Auriesville. So things came full circle on Saturday when everything aligned to bring us together in that beautiful spot along the Mohawk River.

Thank you again to Bishop Hubbard for being so honest and open about his own faith journey, his friendship, and his spiritual struggles. I know his story will inspire others.

You can pre-order my book by clicking HERE for, HERE for Ave Maria Press, or HERE for B& Its official release date is Nov. 1.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

From Italy to Auriesville: A pilgrimage closer to home

I'm in a pilgrim state of mind, so it seemed like a natural segue to go from sacred places in Rome to sacred places in upstate New York. One of my favorite pilgrimage sites only 45 minutes from my house is the Shrine of the North American Martyrs (above), where Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was born and where Jesuit priests Isaac Jogues and Rene Goupil and lay missioner John LaLande where martyred. It's a beautiful spot soaked with a spirituality that resonates with every step.

I was there this weekend for a Boy Scout Mass, where Noah received his Ad Altare Dei award along with seven other boys from our troop. It was a beautiful day at a beautiful place. Here are a few photos from the visit.

In the ravine, where Isaac Jogues buried the body of Rene Goupil. You can read the story in Isaac Jogues' own words:

Our Lady of the Way:

One of many crosses on trees around the shrine:

The end of the ravine trail:

Along the path:

Heading to Mass through the main entrance of the shrine:

Stopping for a moment of prayer:

Seven Sorrows of Our Lady:

A reminder of the shrine's importance in Catholic history:

Our group with Bishop Hubbard after Mass:

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A new perspective on the Mass

Having come of age in the era just post Vatican II, I never experienced the "old" Mass. Although my parish did have a Communion rail in its chapel, where I received Communion often, my general experience of the Mass growing up was of the groovy variety, with lots of Kumbayas and felt banners. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

So when I got to Rome, I was in for a little spiritual culture shock. Because the churches are so old, the altars are built into the wall under the tabernacle. What does that mean? It means the priest has no choice but to celebrate Mass with his back to the congregation. If you had asked me before my recent pilgrimage to Rome how I would feel about this change of positions, I probably would have expected it to be a little off-putting. Turns out it was anything but.

At the risk of setting myself up for a wave of comments, I have to say that I LOVED attending Mass this way. Why? Because I felt it was a great equalizer. Rather than seeing the priest in a position of power, facing me, almost as if performing for the congregation, I saw him as praying with me. He was facing God as I was facing God. We were in it together, looking heavenward as one rather than looking at each other.

I was fortunate enough to attend multiple Masses in Rome, but the ones with the most impact and where the priest-facing-away situation felt the most powerful, were in St. Peter's Basilica and in Chiesa Nouva at a Mass celebrated in front of the body of St. Philip Neri. Both had an intimate feel -- the Mass at St. Peter's was in a side chapel to Our Lady of Perpetual Help -- and both made me feel as though the priest was one with the congregation, even when the congregation was just me and an OSV colleague (as in St. Peter's).

So that's my new perspective on an old tradition. Let's hear how you feel about this in the comment section?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Letting go and loving God first

My most recent Life Lines column:

A couple of recent events have forced me to focus on the idea of "detachment," letting go of those things that threaten to control us, consume us, or, at the very least, use up a lot of our energy and time unnecessarily. In our world today, detachment is most often talked about in reference to material things. In fact, it's almost a bit of a fad. People want to live more simply, downsize their houses, buy local, go green.

For me, the material stuff isn't so much the issue. I don't need the big TV or expensive shoes. It's the less tangible things that I seem to have to disentangle myself from. It makes me think of the passage from Luke 14:26, when Jesus says, "If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." For a long time that reading just didn't resonate with me. How could we "hate" our mother and father, our brothers and sisters? But, as usual, Jesus wasn't talking literally but in story form, trying to teach us a bigger concept.

Putting messianic prophecies aside (because so much of what Jesus said meant more to the Jews of his time than any of us can understand without a Bible scholar on hand), this passage is a reminder to us of where God needs to be in our lives. Of course we're not supposed to hate the people close to us. After all, Jesus told us we were to love everyone, even our enemies, so I think it's fair to say we're supposed to love our family. But those relationships cannot become so all-consuming that they get in the way of our relationship with God.

So that's what I've been thinking about these days. We go through life trying to fulfill certain roles in our immediate families, our extended families, our circle of friends, our community. Sometimes we don't even stop to think whether that role is good for us or for anyone else; it's just what we do because, well, aren't we supposed to do it? No, as it turns out.

Our job is to love God first and let everything else fall into place. Detachment, I think, is a natural byproduct of the God-centered life. So, when we can't make a family member love us, we find a way to love them anyway and let go. When our children start to spread their wings and we have the urge to mold them in our own image, we find a way to pull back and let them choose their own path. When we can't be all things to all people, we find a way to step aside and quickly realize that things move forward without us.

Still, it's not an easy thing to do, this detaching. Human nature makes us want to hold on for dear life, whether it's to our possessions, our children, our larger family, or something even less tangible than that — our fears, our expectations, our self image.

I think I learned the greatest lesson in detachment when my mother died more than 22 years ago. Despite our physical separation, I realized — perhaps slowly as the initial grief began to fade — that the bond we shared transcended time and space. It remains for all time, and that's a beautiful gift and a powerful lesson.

It's only when we let go of our need to hold onto people and things that we finally experience the depth of love we were hungering for. It's only when we remove the mask we put on for the world and face our true selves squarely in the mirror that we finally have the opportunity become the people we were created to be. It's only when we love God first that we finally learn to love those around us more perfectly.

To read previous Life Lines columns, click HERE.

Chance encounters turn Rome into home

When I arrived in Rome, I expected to be awed by the sheer spectacle of the scenery. How can you walk though the Roman Forum or stand in the Colosseum or pray in St. Peter’s Basilica and not be bowled over by the magnitude of where you are and all that came before you? And then there is the beauty around every corner – the churches that house the Caravaggios and Berninis and Michelangelos as if they are just ordinary works of art in any neighborhood church. Rome really is a feast for the senses, even before you get to the fabulous food.

But more than the art and the food and the buildings, Rome will be seared into my memory because of the smaller moments of grace that seemed to come one after another as I made my way around the Eternal City. God really is in the details, especially when those details take the form of human encounters that make a place or a meal or a church come alive with a real spirit of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood.

During my recent 10-day visit to Rome, it was the chance encounters that made the overly scheduled trip the success that it was. Like the night two colleagues and I -- after a busy day at the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum -- set out in search of a specific restaurant. We walked for more than a half hour only to find it closed. Then we went in the opposite direction to find yet another restaurant we’d heard about. We couldn’t find that one at all, and so we “settled” for La Pilotta, a small restaurant with a view of the dome of St. Peter’s. There at a long table in the center of the restaurant was a group of men, who were talking and laughing and eating. A good sign. Locals, we thought. We sat down and ordered pasta cooked to perfection and a house wine better than anything I’ve had at home. As we ate, the men at the next table began to sing at the top of their lungs, first in Italian and then in Polish.

They were seminarians from Belarus, there with their bishop and pastor. They were so filled with joy, and they sang extra loud once they heard our applause. We were sad to see them go as we shook hands and tried to communicate in parsed together Italian and English.

The next morning, I stood in Piazza San Pietro with thousands of other pilgrims waiting to get into the papal audience. I was lucky enough to get a special ticket, and ended up in the front row, next to a Jesuit priest and his sister. Since I was hours early, I got out my Magnificat and began to read the Scriptures for that day. A few minutes later the priest asked if I’d like to join him in Morning Prayer. And so we prayed amid the joyful noise all around us, and it was another grace-filled moment.

A little bit later, as Pope Benedict welcomed different groups in attendance, the camera panned to a group of young men. When the pope said their name, they stood up and started singing a familiar song. I looked at the jumbo video screen and saw the seminarians from the night before, our seminarians. Alone in a throng of thousands, in a city where I couldn’t speak the language, I felt at home and in close connection to those seminarians, making me realize that what I had thought was aimless wandering the previous night was really the road I needed to take to meet those particular people in that particular restaurant.

Yes, I saw the pope and reveled in the joy of the thousands of pilgrims who cheered and sang and prayed, but what will stand out most from that morning will be that time of shared prayer, that moment when strangers become friends, and that instant when a song resonating across the Pope Paul VI Hall made me feel as though I was part of a very large family. Which, of course, I am. A family of Catholics who cannot be separated by language or continents.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rome: Arrivederci, Day 10

After attending 8 a.m. Mass in the side chapel of Chiesa Nuova, in front of the body of St. Philip Neri, I decided to bring this journey to a close by going full circle -- back to where I began on my very first day: Campo di'Fiori. Make sure you get to this bustling market if you visit Rome. And bring cash so you can haggle and buy. Here are some scenes from the market this morning...

A little store with dried sausage hanging from the door. This one is especially for Dennis, amore mio, who would love this little market. I'll bring you here when we visit.

This imposing and mournful statue dominates the square. It's a monument to the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burned alive as a heretic in 1600. Not one of the Church's shining moments.

Lots of chili peppers:

Preparing the vegetables for market:

Wish I could take that garlic ring home with me:

Another shot for Dennis, meat and cheese right in the piazza. What more could you want?

Roman zucchinis. I did not get my stuffed or fried zucchini blossoms because they were out of season, as were the carciofi (artichokes). So now I have to come back at least two more times in order to hit both of those seasons.

A square within the square, bustling with coffee drinkers this morning.

Arrivederci, Roma. Now I understand the song.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rome: Subiaco day trip, Day 9

Today was my last full day in Rome. Well, that's not really true since we left Rome and spent the day in Subiaco, about 90 minutes southeast of Rome. Spectacular scenery. That's the view (above) from the Monastery of St. Benedict.

So here's a quick run down of how things went. We started with Mass at the university in Rome. Then we took a bus to Subiaco where we went to the monastery that is built on top of the cave of St. Benedict. This is the actual cave where St. Benedict, father of western monasticism, spent three years living as a hermit. Amazing. That's the monastery below. It's filled with beautiful frescoes, including the only fresco of St. Francis of Assisi painted while he was alive. (They know that because he did not have the stigmata or a halo in the painting, so they date it to 1223, which is when the monastery's records show St. Francis making a visit there.) That was a really great moment during the trip. To know I was walking where both St. Benedict and St. Francis once walked? Wow.

After St. Benedict's Monastery, we went down the hill a bit to the Monastery of St. Scholastica, which is one of the original monasteries that St. Benedict founded and the only one that is still a working monastery. But before we went on a tour, we had lunch at the monastery restaurant. Amazing.

A Meal in Five Acts...

Act 1: Antipasto (quite a plate, no?)

Act 2: Primo (pasta alla'Amatriciana)

Act 3: Segundo (some sort of pork loin with rosemary potatoes)

Act 4: Dessert (cheesecake with raspberry sauce, I think)

Act 5: Espresso

After that giant meal we went to the monastery. Over the door is the heart of Benedictine thought: Pray and work, Ora et Labora.

OSV's Sarah Hayes with me at the monastery:

And a few more monastery shots from the various courtyards and cloisters:

Finally, back in Rome, we cannot even imagine eating another meal.

Gelato: It's what's for dinner.