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First A-Month Equals

We shouldn’t play favorite with the months. Every month has something special going for it, some unique talent that calls for our admiration. June has the sun. July has the heat. August has the humidity. March is rainiest, April windiest. Even little February, shortest of them all, has Presidents’ Day. Let there be no sibling rivalry among these twelve children of the year. There is no comparison.

Except, of course, October. October is the best. Everyone knows that.

I mean, look at October’s list of bragging rights. There’s the gentle Autumn sun putting a comfortable glow onto the world. It’s jut breezy enough for a light coat, just warm enough for long meditative walks, just bright enough to enjoy the bursting kaleidoscope of colored leaves. October is the first smells of wood fire and pumpkin spice. It is Harvest time and Halloween. October rocks.

Already at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish we’ve had quite a few enjoyable October activities. At the school the kids have been making their apple and pumpkin crafts, spreading the hallways with paper foliage, and to add fab to abulous, we are in the middle of Cross-country season, which is my definition of awesome.  Our Harvest Festival rebounded with music, games, and the Bouncy House. It is always a joy to be with the larger parish community celebrating the season together. Plus there were caramel apples. And pie.

Finally, we had the Feast of St. Francis which makes October truly a high point of the year. Whether celebrating the Transitus service, joining in the Mass for his feast day, or participating in the Blessing of the Animals in the prayer garden, we stand close to this saint who teaches us to enjoy all the good things in life as gifts from God.

October rocks. Enjoy.

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About Snapping Turtles

One day my dad brought home a snapping turtle.

“Kids!” he yelled from the back of his pick-up truck. “See what I found!”

We knew that whenever dad found something it was either alive, or edible, or an antique of some kind, and always highly interesting. We ran over.

“What is it, dad? Is it alive? Is it a treasure? Can we eat it?”

Dad leaned into the bed of his pick-up and pulled up the snapping turtle by the tail.

“Here it is!” he said, grinning at us. We screamed in admiration.

There was a lot to admire. If you’ve never seen a snapping turtle up close, you’ve missed out on a terrifying and satisfying piece of the grand tapestry of life. A huge black shell tough with spikes and bony ridges houses this big and ornery member of the turtle species. When Dad held the monster by the tail and lifted it in the air, the black, slimy head poked out of its fortress shell and waved around and snapped at us with its hard, beak-like mouth. The legs squirmed as if it were tying to escape toward the ground. I’m sure it would have run all of us over on its way back to the bog from whence it came. We loved it. Every scary snapping ounce.

After Dad was done thrilling us with the turtle he drove it back to the pond and let it go.

The thing about being a turtle is, no matter what happens to you, no matter what human father kidnaps you from your watery neighborhood to amuse his easily amused children, you always carry your home with you. If you are a snapping turtle, your home is a fortress, a huge shell into which you can hide when things get rough. Other turtles have different style homes. Painted turtles have a stylish artistic shell. Box turtles basically have a trailer home, box-style. And turtles don’t even have to hand in mortgage payments or electric bills. Their homes come with them when their born, complete and ready for the furniture.

As Christians, we also carry our homes with us. Jesus tells us that God comes to dwell in us whenever we open ourselves to him. If our true dwelling place is in heaven, our true home wherever we find the Lord, then we do not have to look farther than our own hearts if we want to live where we truly belong. Like turtles, we carry all we need with us. And if we need Him, God waits in our hearts for us to turn to him.

So be you snapping, painted, box or whatever — keep your true home with you always.

 

 

 

(Image:  Jarek Tuszynski  via Wikimedia Commons)

Fireworks: Close Encounters

How close can you get to fireworks?

A lot closer than you’d think. At least that’s what I found out when we went to see the Derry town fireworks for the Fourth of July. The spot was right next to the park where the brave souls were lighting the fuses and sending the rockets skyward. We had a front row seat, up close and personal. And that was Up Close, let me tell you.

It had been years since I’d seen a really good fireworks display. This was better than anything I’ve ever seen. Explosions of red, blue, and green diamonds filled the entire night sky with blinding light. Gold fire rained down almost on our heads. Some rockets were shooting out long arms like glittering starfish, others burst into swarming
yellow dots as if a giant beehive were let loose in heaven. And the Grand Finale — the final two minutes when they send up everything they’ve got — turned the night into a massive Disco Ball of flashing brilliance. I still have the piece of cardboard rocket shell that hit me on the head during this Finale: a souvenir of a Close Encounter of the Awesome Kind.

I say Awesome, and it really was Awe-inspiring — I mean, you can’t help saying “Oooh and “Ahhhh” at an incredible fireworks display like that. You might feel silly, but you can’t help it. There are just some things that fill us with Awe, whether it’s the Ahhhh of fireworks or the Awwwww of a newborn baby (or the Aggghh! of an insanely fast roller coaster). Some philosophers call it the mysterium tremendum, the Awe-inspiring mystery of life that leaves us feeling amazed, humbled, and hungry for more. And the Close Encounters keep coming, whether fireworks or babies. Life loves an encore.

That’s probably why, as the song has it, “Our God is an Awesome God.” God — the ultimate Awesome Mystery — speaks to us in every Close Encounter of the Awesome Kind. God is the stage manager who keeps sending out those encores of the true, the good, the beautiful. God loves to rock our world. And like that flash of fireworks we see even after we close our eyes, God’s awesomeness remains burned on our hearts every time we encounter it.

So say it with me, and don’t feel too silly.

Ahhhhh.

Franciscan Blues

Let’s talk about the Blues.

You know what I mean — that sad, sweet music played on the jazzy swing of the saxophone or the hum of a sighing harmonica. It’s the music about those little troubles in life, those small sorrows that sneak into the soul and sit there like an old friend you thought you’d forgotten. The Blues are a prayer, brother. Uh-huh. There’s only one station on the old FM radio of life and it’s playin’ the Blues.

We all have our own way of singin’ the Blues — of living out those little troubles that knock on our heart’s window panes. And sure enough we have our own Franciscan Blues. They’re very different than anyone else’s. There’s the Dominican Blues. There’s the Jesuit Blues. There’s even the Benedictine Blues (which maybe they sing when they get up for the Midnight Office). But only we friars have the Franciscan Blues.

You know what I mean, brother. You’re standing in the church in your habit, locking up, and some guy comes up to you and says: “So, are you some kind of monk?”
And you say: “We’ll, I’m glad you didn’t say Jedi, first of all. But I’m not a monk – a monk takes a vow of stability and lives in an enclosed monastic community but we are friars who live a more mendicant lifestyle in order to preach the Gospel –” But the guy’s already wandered off and you’re left alone just singing the Franciscan Blues.

Uh-huh.

Or how about the fact that nobody cares if you wear sandals or not until it’s February and ten degrees out with three feet of snow and you decide to slip on the black dress shoes and everyone you meet points to your feet and says: “I thought friars were supposed to wear sandals. What’s wrong with you?” And you just smile and start singing those good old Franciscan Blues.

Yes, we’re surrounded by the Blues. It’s not the color most often shown on the vocation posters, where joyful hearty Brown predominates. As it should. But Blue shows up an awful lot in our Franciscan lives. We may be wearing Brown and be singing the Blues.

Some things are just Blue. Tears, for instance, are Blue. That’s the way we color ’em in as kids and that’s the way they are. Our own tears . . . the tears of those we meet in ministry . . . the tears of a gritty messy world. That’s part of Franciscan life.

Also Blue: our failed hopes and expectations. You know what I’m saying, brother. You’re driving into the parking lot at Best Buy. There’s one last space. You race to it. Victory is yours. Then at the last second a Blue Prius apparates out of nowhere and takes your spot. It’s always a Blue Prius. Those cars were made to steal the last spaces in a parking lot. And so your failed expectations, also Blue.

Finally . . . Death is Blue. It’s true. Ask anyone who’s used an old version of Windows. The Blue Screen of Death. One of the scariest colors Death can wear. And yet as Franciscans we must live often with our sister bodily Death. She hums beside us like a worn-out harmonica, sighing the sad song of the Blues.

You may be saying, “Brother, enough of this depressing music. Isn’t it Easter time? Play us some hallelujahs, man.”

We are Easter people. We are Easter friars. So yes, we may have to put the Blue with the Brown and figure out a way to harmonize the medley. But God gives us His own set of Blues to inspire us and fill us with Franciscan joy.

First, there’s the Blue of sea and sky — the Blue of Creation. Our world hangs in space like a little blue marble and it is this world that shines with the radiance of God. St. Francis praised creation even on his sick-bed at San Damiano, when he could have been writing a bluesy song about how disgusting mice are. Instead he composed the Canticle of Creation. That’s his gift to us, his boundless optimism and trust in the Creator’s glorious universe.

The second Blue: again, tears. This time, though, the tears of Jesus. The tears of Christ show us his humanity more than anything else about him. The Gospels never depict Jesus laughing, only crying. For we could imagine a distant God who laughs at us; only a God who became human could every really weep with us and suffer with us. St. Francis loved the image of the poor, suffering, weeping Christ because it is in this Christ that God bends down to touch the very heart of humankind.

Lastly, the Blue of the Mother of God, the Blue of Mary. In this month of May we see her Blue everywhere: May crownings, Marian consecrations, Fatima processions. Her Blue is a Blue of hope, the hope of the most faithful disciple of Jesus, willing to follow and watch and wait silently for the redemption of the world. This Blue of hope is our flag, our banner — our song.

These are the Blues God gives us, brother. These are the Franciscan Blues that are ours to sing. Even when the little troubles and the bigger sorrows tap our shoulders, stay for dinner, move right into the third floor guest room — let’s still sing those good old Franciscan Blues that are God’s gift to Francis and Francis’ gift to us.

Mmm-hmmm! Amen. Uh-huh. You know it, man.

Close the Stable Door

Spring is here . . . I don’t want to say that too loudly for fear that Spring will get spooked and take off, as it seems to have down once or twice already. Like a skittish horse we’ve had to coax the nice weather out of its winter stable. First a wet nose of melting snow. Then two deep black eyes of icy water on the long muddy-brown face. A shake of a grassy mane. Then the long legs of trees stepping out with the first tentative buds. And with a swish of a crocus tail Spring cantors out of the stable at last. Now we’ve just got to wait for its slow cantor to speed into galloping summer. The winter stables are closed for another year.

Anyone with horses will forgive my fanciful depiction of Spring. Although I have never myself ridden one of those beasties (though it’s on my bucket list) it’s easy to imagine the growing sensation of flight and power as the unstoppable force beneath you rides over the earth like liquid air. That’s how Spring feels. A slow appearance — a few shaky steps — growing confidence — and the giddy release of energy as the faucet of joy gets turned fully round. It’s enough to make you look back at winter and laugh. Softly. Don’t spook the horse.

Easter time holds the same promise of unbridled joy. After the slow steady steps of Lent, we’ve ridden together on the quickening power of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. And suddenly as Pentecost rounds the corner we find the earth rushing underhoof. A wild ecstasy hovers just out of reach, ready to envelop us as the gifts of the Holy Spirit are renewed in our hearts.

Don’t spook the horse! Keep a tight grip on that solid power which supports us in our mad rush towards Pentecost. For once we pass that gate there will be new worlds of adventure and grace to charge into with the joy of the children of God.

If Wood Could Talk

Have you ever stumbled into a woodworking shop or an antique refurbisher’s studio? Those places are magic. Old wooden frames lie stacked against tables laden with drills, chisels, carpenter’s planes and dozens of other metal tools. Half-finished chairs sit patiently in the corners, waiting for the touch of the master’s hand to be made whole. Maybe an old lathe hums busily in the background. Your stealthy footsteps won’t make any noise; the floor is carpeted in sweet-smelling sawdust. This is the room of a creator. Perhaps God had a room like this when He made the world.

What would the wood say, if it could? Sounds like a first-rate tongue twister. Yet you do feel that these chairs and frames and grandfather clock cases must have some fascinating stories, if they are antiques — or some bright hopes for their future lives, if they were brand new. What does a picture frame hope for out of life? Probably to contain the most beautiful image possible inside it. What could a grandfather clock have to say about its past? Perhaps the times when it’s metal gears chimed for all the events of the family who owned it — the comedies and tragedies that only grandfather clocks remember.

But, I think, the most powerful stories would be about what takes place right there in the shop. If you asked the chairs about their most thrilling moment, the grandfather clocks about their most sacred memory, their voices would hush and they would whisper as one telling a holy secret. They would whisper about the touch of the master’s hand.

St. Joseph must have had a workshop like this one. He must have filled it with the simple tools of his trade. The rustic plows and the broken tables would have been brought to his carpenter’s bench and laid there like the crippled and the blind and the lame. And to all of them he would give the masterful touch of his hands.

Where did Jesus get his master’s hands? How did he know to touch the blind man’s eyes with steady care, to make smooth again the mute’s tongue, to give the crippled back their sturdy legs and new life to Lazarus and the widow’s son?

Only a master can pass on his master’s hands. In this woodworker’s shop of creation and repair, you can just make out young Jesus at the bench, watching with wide-eyed wonder, as his foster father Joseph chisels away and makes a new creation of this wooden flesh. And the wood, like the paralytic so many years later, repeats the grateful phrase: “He has laid his hands on me, and now I may stand again!”

Who Do You Run With?

Running has always been a big thing in my family. We might not have done too much with organized sports — if you give me a ball I won’t do anything with it except fall over it — but put us in the starting line and shout “Run!” and we’ll run. Middle school, high school, college and beyond have all seen us running on one team or another or just lacing up the shoes and going on our own.

My dad helped me get started. He loves to do everything on a family-sized scale, so when he decided to start running that means any children in the immediate vicinity would be running too. I was in seventh grade and didn’t know better. One mile with dad became two, then three. Pretty soon I was running more than I ever thought I could — even though some of those three-milers could be pretty tough. Now I run regularly on my own and (almost) always enjoy it.

You need help getting started with anything in life. Dad helped me get started in running, and he also helped me get started in faith. That was another family-sized activity: Mass together on Sundays, praying the rosary in the evenings, talking about God and grace and trying to love as Jesus does. Dad helped us to run and helped us to have faith, and there’s a lot of similarity between the two. Like running, faith takes work — it takes a little more each day, one mile becoming two, then three. Faith moves you in a direction, like running — towards living more fully in God. And faith, like running, is better when you do it with somebody.

Who do you run with? Don’t forget — Jesus is the running buddy who never gets tired out. Lace up your shoes with The Lord — get ready, and go!