Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas 2012

                 Hardly know where to place the focus this year. Bad news stories landing in our awareness like exploding grenades - oh boy, there is an apt image.

                Before Newtown and before Rochester and before the NRA calling for the arming of teachers (I am waiting for their call to arm firefighters), and before the government of Canada again quietly playing into the hands of the gun lobby by eliminating regulations for gun shows in Canada, what was coming into focus for me was the visit of  Mary to Elizabeth.  

                What a peculiar contrast.

                I know. You pretty much cannot think of all that at the same time. They parts don't work together.

                The reason for the focus on Mary and Elizabeth started out being the preaching schedule at St. Paul's: I was on for the 4th Sunday of Advent. Read Luke's account, and was quite taken with it. I could imagine two cousins, both pregnant, greeting each other with affection. This year the image of Mary bringing the news of Jesus to the world was tweaked in my mind just a little, to focus on Jesus being received by the world - represented by Elizabeth. And just as Mary is the model Reed of God (title of Carryl Houselander's 1944 book) who emptied herself to be the reed through which the Piper's breathe, unobstructed, made beautiful music, so the world - us - really needs to make space for Jesus to be born in our hearts.

                The image is so compelling to me. It changes the focus from the pathetic struggle we - I, anyhow - sometimes put forth to deal with sin, and instead concentrates on making room. I like that, it works. Because it focuses so much better on the relationship we have with Christ. When I care about someone and they are coming to visit, I make sure nothing gets in the way of that visit. When I really love someone, I do my very best to open my heart as wide as possible for everything about them to have a place inside me. When you are crazy about someone, that is what you do. You don't have to convince anyone about that, right?

                The image sticks in my mind. And things immediately get complicated. Because there are all the bad news stories, the heartbreaks that occupy all kinds of room in my mind.

                I think about that. How does it work, then? I realize that the space Jesus comes into is our everyday life with everything in it - good and bad, no exceptions, otherwise his birth, his death, and his resurrection are a collective joke. What crowds Jesus out are not those events but our giving them pre-eminent place. When you think of it that way, anything can crowd Jesus out, even the good things in our life, if they continue to be all about us.

                No, we make space for Jesus to be born when we acknowledge the brokeness of the world we live in and then with honesty and humility, invite him into that space. The events are no longer all about us and our fears, our possessiveness, our despair. They are about the relationship we have with him. The act of handing them over to that relationship transforms the space and makes the room he needs  in order to be born within us, in order to guide and animate everything we do.

                I think the clincher is that when you invite in someone you love like that, it does not stop there. You keep on making more and more room for them to be in your life. Great image for our relationship with Christ I think.

                And so I hand over the bad news to him also. Ask him to come and heal the world and show me what part I should play in it. And while we are talking, I ask him to do the same for our countries, Canada and the U.S., both founded with deference to God, but both rapidly withdrawing that deference and crowding out the room God needs. Pray that people will see the impossibility of figuring this all out on their own. Pray for God to be received with anything close to the joy that Elizabeth had when he came into her presence.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Far from simple

Politics, religion, and just plain everyday life intrigue me for their lack of simplicity. Wouldn't it be nice if politicians just served their people..... if religious leaders just lived holy lives of prayer .... and if your friends never ever betrayed you or let you down?   I've been thinking about the complexity of things in the real world of people. Another word you might use to describe that world is contradictory. Or perhaps hypocritical. In the end, it is messy. It gets that way every day before coffee, and yes we contribute to it.

So it was, an article with the 'm' word in it caught my eye  -  "Life is often messy - just like a good biography" by Jim Coyle (Toronto Star, Nov 18, 2012). He was talking about the enterprise of biography writing. His jump off point was the biography of General Petraeus by Paula Broadwell.  Needless to say, a story meant to be pretty straightforward became very complex - messy. This apparently is what emerges in the biography writing business, though the author does not often become part of the story as in this case. Mr. Coyle writes: "Mere mortals are seldom as simply heroic as presented. Life is about relationships. Relationships involve other people. They can get messy. And even heroes do astonishingly selfish, self-destructive, seemingly irrational things. A fully realized biography should reveal humanity in ways becoming and otherwise, as it exists in all of us. In the process, it should usually evoke conflicting reactions."

"As it exists in all of us." Indeed.

I think Ignatius Loyola had that in mind when he wrote the Spiritual Exercises. The underlying assumption is that no matter who we are, we humans are frail and complex on good days, and a mass of contradictions on other days. All of this is played out in relationships, wherein we leave those who know us and love us, standing breathless watching our antics. Didn't St. Paul ever nail it: 'I fail to do the things I want to do, and I do the things I do not want to do."

Never mind the way we confuse other people. What must it be like in our relationship with our God? God has to watch us go all over the map while we say we want to honour him, want to do things in his name, want to come home to him one day.

So Ignatius has that intriguing meditation image of two camps in the distance (I keep coming back to this image, it is a good one). One camp flies the standard (or banner or flag) of our Saviour, one flies the standard of the false or evil spirit.  Both leaders want dominion over the world. The meditation is on the deceits used by Satan who will lead us to destruction; and on the gentleness of God who invites us to follow him to the home he has prepared for us.

Such a meditation would never have had to be written if everything were simple for people who want peace and holiness in this life, and unending joy that awaits us in the next. But things aren't simple. God knows that, and just keeps inviting us. Will never withdraw the invitation. Gave us his Son to lead, to give us another chance, and to reassure.

All in all a very good offer in a world whose messiness we help to create. A very good shot in the arm for us in a world where we might despair of ever getting it right. The thing is, we won't. Jim Coyle got this part right: biographies are messy. Even ours. They will remain that way. 

But I will add a footnote to Mr. Coyle's reflections. Relationships are indeed where it is all played out. Listen to Christ calling us. That relationship, if we choose to enter it, anchors all the others. The messiness remains but is not a problem. Our hope is in the banner over the Saviour's camp. I'm in.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

New Life and New Life

So grandson Liam Patrick arrives 6 weeks ahead of his scheduled time. In a sense that means you get to see a baby 'in utero'. And there is no mistaking what you are looking at, this is a baby. New life. A person. And he is already looking like he is his own man. Fascinating to see this, and fascinating to watch modern medicine do its thing. First impression of the machinery monitoring and feeding him was that the blinking lights, the dials, the lines, were reminiscent of the inside of a 747 cockpit. Of course when we realized that Liam was born on October 1, we knew there was another helper. That day is the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux  (great saint, known as the Little Flower, and designated a Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II)who before she died at 24 said that she intended to spend her heaven 'doing good on earth.' We have a devotion to her in our home, and we give Liam into her hands to watch over him. We believe, however, that she already beat us to the punch.

You get reflecting on life at times like this. Watching the delight of the new parents even through the anxiousness of the first hours of Liam's life. Wondering what kind of big boy he is going to be, what kind of contribution he will make, how the world will be a better place for his having been here.

Apropos of nothing at all, we went over to Holy Cross Cemetery in Thornhill during a break in proceedings at the hospital. Went there simply because it was nearby, and it was an opportunity to visit graves of parents, grandparents, and several friends of ours. Lo and behold, the same questions arose in my mind. What did people wonder about when these folks were born? How were they loved, how much did they love? How did they deal with adversity? How was the world left a better place by their being here?

I guess if you do not have  faith, the questioning ends there. But in a faith context, the next question is, how are they spending their new life? New life. The one promised to us, the one we live for, ultimately, on this planet. Birth, life, new life. That reflection helps to anchor things - for me, anyway.

So God bless you Liam. St. Therese is looking out for you, buddy.  May you have a happy long life doing good on earth just the way she does.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Angels in a truck and Vatican II

Had the neatest experience a few days ago. Still scratching my head, and still saying a little thank you prayer. Here`s the story. I am sitting in my car in a little town north of Kingston. I am between meetings, and am having my lunch at the edge of a park. This is my regular pattern on this particular consulting day. Listening to the radio in the car, eating my lunch, doing the crossword. For an hour. Go to start the car. Nothing. Had I left the ignition in the on `position for an hour, rather than 'accessories`? Difference is that the air conditioner would have been running on battery for an hour. Anyway, time is up. Have to get to the next meeting. Car won't start and I can see it is battery. I panic a bit. Have to phone CAA, call to the meeting people and tell them I will be late. I no sooner get the CAA card out of my wallet - not even time to start dialling - and a County Utilities truck pulls in behind me. Two workers going to have their lunch! Never happened before in many many times there. I hop out of my car, and ask, you wouldn't happen to have jumper cables would you? Answer is yes, and three minutes later my car is going, I am on my way, and I am only 5 minutes late for the meeting. Ok, you tell me .........
Vatican II. Lot of discussion happening these days, around the 50th anniversary of the great Council. The one that my generation were amazed and thrilled at. John XXIII's call to open the windows of the church and let fresh air and sunshine in. Those were heady days. We got the vernacular and we got the restoration of the permanent diaconate. We got an updated articulation of 'church', the people of God. Liturgies very quickly became interesting in a way they never had been - not because the mystery or theology of Eucharist had changed, but because we felt free to celebrate up close to the sacrament, intimately connected with the presence of Jesus in the Bread and Wine, in the Word, and in the people gathered there. The latter captured our imaginations and we became a whole new Eucharistic people.

So what happened? Rome subsequently pulled back. Some priests have said in our own day - 2012 - that Vatican II is destroying the Church. Rome missed an opportunity to further the language engagement in the liturgy and instead pulled us back as close to Latin as they could. And as recently as June 17 at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Pope Benedict said by televised message that many in the Church were missing the true spirit of Vatican II by mistaking what we do in the liturgy, for the true intention of Vatican II which was to deepen our relationship with Christ. In other words, tone it down, get serious, get solemn.  There are those in Rome who would see a return to Latin as accomplishing that purpose directly. And at that point, Vatican II would be retracted for the average worshipping Catholic. Just saying.

But look at what has between happening. Vatican II is not going to be wiped out, it is just too good. It still speaks to the people of today and in doing so, preserves the mystery, the beauty of the Eucharist, and the sense of Christ's presence in the assembled people.
An recent article by Robert Blair Kaiser  quotes Jesuit Fr. John O'Malley, who says that Vatican II moved us to a new vision of the church:  

... from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to service, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to ongoing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault finding to appreciation, from prescriptive to principled, from behavior modification to inner appropriation.

Sr. Joan Chittister, also commenting on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, wrote from the perspective of religious communities (she is a Benedictine sister). Here is a powerful excerpt that both picks up on Fr. O'Malley's hopeful tone, and gives a bit of a heads up to those who would continue to obstruct the renewal of Vatican II. Read between the lines: 

                The continuing task of Vatican II is to sharpen the edge of religious life again. What religious did for past generations, they must now do for the forgotten peoples of our own generation. A whole new global population must be carried beyond the limitations of their lives, become visible to those who see them not, be heard by those who are deaf to their tears.

The fresh breeze of Vatican II, the one that Pope John XXIII let in the open windows, is still blowing. It won't be stifled. If you are not involved in your parish, start now. Twenty and thirty-somethings, this is maybe especially for you. Read up on Vatican II and help carry it on. You will like what you find, I promise.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Summer reflection: Facebook and swimming upstream

 I decided to get back into Facebook. I felt a great liberation being out of it for a few months. As I reflected on what that was about, I realized I had developed a disturbing sense that if an alien spaceship landed and our visitors tuned in Facebook on their computers, they would be convinced that all a lot of humans do is drink alcohol, get silly, and show pictures of rumpled bedsheets when they and their boy/ girlfriend act really 'grownup' and go away on trips. Too depressing for me, both as it relates to the culture at large and especially to kids who grew up Catholic. Who know better. But my email tagline says 'Remember, we are in the hope business.' So a bit hypocritical of me to get too judgmental. We all had to grow up, right? And went through some twists and turns along the way. So I am back, but will be more thoughtful about how I approach the whole thing now.

And you know what? It is not all bad news. For example, I read a great article today on Alanis Morissette in the Toronto Star. How wonderful to see a person willing to swim upstream in the cultural river. To no longer accept what the culture tells you have to do in order to be self-fulfilled or whatever. Listen to some of what she had to say:

Well, I think I was sold the same bill of goods that everyone’s sold, which is that fame will afford high self-esteem, great friends, constant bliss — and I quickly found that to be hollow,” she notes, looking happy, fit and svelte, brunette strands of hair framing her long face as she occasionally flashes a beaming smile.

“I grabbed the brass ring and saw that it was disillusioning, to say the least.

“So I think in the late ’90s I saw that fame could support me as a tool to support my agenda, my agenda of uplifting, and comforting, and titillating — just engaging in conversations that I’m so passionate about.......

But my whole activism is around intimacy and commitment and the healing that comes from monogamy and intimacy and long-standing relationships, so the one with my son is exactly that and the one with my husband is exactly that. 

Monogamy, intimacy, and long-standing relationships. Oh my goodness, I hope our alien visitors read that. There is a balance for all that Facebook stuff after all.

More than that, however, is the point I made above. I fear that our young folks are growing up being fed on the Facebook wisdom and believing, trusting, buying into the notion that, well, this is how it is. No it isn't.

Johnny Carson once said "If you buy the premise, you will buy the bit (ie, the joke)." An internet commenter explains: "In comedy, it means that if the audience grins when you're setting up the joke, they'll laugh when it pays off........ The translation is along the lines of "If you agree with or like the setup, you'll go along with with the rest of the proposal." For our contemporary culture, this means that if you like the fun you see in the Facebook pictures, you will easily believe the notion that fun is what we are about. Other values you might have held will easily be set aside.

You don't have to buy the premise, because in this case the joke unfortunately is on you.

Think of Alanis. I believe there are more people swimming upstream or who are willing to swim upstream, than we get to hear about. That's the good news for today.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Reflection on Ireland trip

So I need to do a wrap-up on the Ireland trip. We got back on June 19 having left on June 1. In-between was friendship, breath-taking scenery, wonderful hospitality, and a retreat-like experience at the Eucharistic Congress.

First a little digression. The trip stumbled out of the gate when one of the  women in our group tripped getting off the bus at Toronto Airport. She seriously dislocated a finger, and feared missing the flight to Dublin. A Westjet employee saw the distress, and stepped in to help even though we were not Westjet customers. He called Emergency services and stayed with our member until they arrived. He later checked back to see she was ok. I told him we really appreciated what he was doing, and his employer would hear about it. I noted his name, and I wrote them when we got back. Here is the reply I got:

 It is wonderful to hear that one of our Customer Service Agents, Alexander, was able to provide such excellent service and help your travel partner.  We are grateful for both positive and negative feedback, but comments such as yours truly encourage all of us to do our WestJet best every day.  I have happily passed your feedback on to our Team Leaders so that the employee you mentioned can be recognized for his efforts.  I know that he will appreciate you taking the time to share your story.

The moral of the story is, let someone know when you have been treated 'above and beyond.' There is a happy employee in Toronto today, I think.

Back to Ireland. We returned from our eight-day tour of the south and west on Saturday June 9. We saw gorgeous vistas and much history. 1600 pictures, and yes we kissed the Blarney Stone. We have our sweaters from the Blarney Woollen Mills, and our pieces of Waterford crystal and Belleek china. Now back in Dublin, we spent the next week walking the three-km route to the Royal Dublin Society where the Congress was being held. (Go to Archdiocese of Kingston website for a sample of the pictures I took: Eucharist%20Congress%20-%20photos%20by%20Deacon%20Carney/index.htm ). I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but the program was a mixture of 'Catechesis' or teaching talks by Bishops from around the world, workshop sessions, and liturgies. The 'Eucharistic' theme allowed a focus on unity, ie communion, in the Catholic Christian community. Communion through the sacraments, the family, reconciliation, and so on. Bro Alois Loser, head of the ecumenical community Taize in France gave a great talk on extending communion outside denomination bounds, by focusing instead on our common Baptism. Insightful and thought-provoking. By the way, a lot of the talks are available from the IEC (International Eucharistic Congress) site, and are additionally on You Tube. Bro Alois is one of them.

Another focus was the sexual abuse scandal - crisis - in Ireland. I had no idea how badly the Catholic Church in Ireland had been rocked by this. Falling church attendance and deep cynicism have been the result. Against that, Archbishop Martin of Dublin established a tone of openness and sincere apology. What he and Cardinal Brady added - that all Ireland were waiting to hear - was an apology for how badly it had all been handled, ie with cover-ups and so on. Archbishop Martin has been very open since he came on the scene, and I would recommend you have a look at an interview he did with CBS a little while ago ( . Archbishop Luis Tagle of Manila, Philippines, gave a very thoughtful talk at the Congress in which he said the crisis in the priesthood is way bigger than the sexual abuse scandal. There is a systemic element to it that includes handling of finances, rudeness, bad preaching, and abuse of trust in general. He had recommendations for screening, formation programs, post-formation programs, and education of Bishops. (Here is a link to the text of his talk:

Here is a link to the IEC directory of talks that are available for download:

There were in the order of 15,000 people per day at the Congress, and I understand 20-25 thousand at the opening ceremony. The closing Mass and ceremony were at Croke Park, and it was filled close to capacity of 80,000.  A dawning awareness over the week was how big the Catholic community is worldwide. We sat next to people from Australia, Kenya, England, Germany, USA, and Killarney just down the road. A wonderful shot in the arm of reassurance and strength and confidence that we all believe in this and the Holy Spirit is leading us. Whatever would we fear? The sad thing is that we are so capable of screwing it all up.

Last note of historic significance. Myself became a senior citizen whilst in Dublin. Have the official picture of the Guinness in hand, taken at the Hairy Lemon Pub. As they say at the bar, "And for yourself.....?"