Morning Comforts

For some, it’s a piping hot cup of coffee.  For others, a brisk walk in the cool morning air.  Even more, the first bite of their hot breakfast.  Apparently, as the dawn breaks, we all need some comfort.

Here’s mine:  The final stanza of the Canticle of Zechariah from each day’s morning offering in the Liturgy of the Hours:

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Beautiful words, a felt promise from God and a comfort to start a new day.

A priest-acquaintance of mine once talked briefly about the morning and evening offerings of prayer.  He stated simply:  

“We pray at night for protection in the darkness.  And we pray in gratitude in the morning that we woke up!”

He was wry in his wit here, but also spoke volumes to many. A person I served a meal to one day at a shelter was asked a simple “How’s it going today?” And his response was epic:

“Well, since I woke up this morning, I’d say I’m doing pretty good!”

Indeed.  And how much more does God give to us with today’s dawn?  But what about those who did not awaken this day?  Are they doing any less good?

A friend lost her father this week and I have been praying for her family.  The canticle of Zechariah, the first words spoken by John the Baptist’s father, after he was silenced for so long speak to the joy that we are offered not only with each sunrise and each breath, but also each moment beyond these.  For those left behind, God provides compassion, of course, especially those of us who feel like we are in the darkness.  But also, for those called home, God guides their journey into everlasting comfort. God’s gift at the end is in fact, Himself.  God calls us to union in the end and in that, we are offered the gift of everlasting peace.

In his final years, Cardinal Bernadin wrote a book called  The Gift of Peace.  It’s content is well worth reading, but the title alone speaks to his own acceptance in his final days, coming to see God’s guiding his last steps on earth into the way of God’s peace.  It betrays a believer’s joy, that in dying, he found comfort beyond the usual coffee cups and scrambled eggs. Laying to rest in God and the want for nothing more was a last great gift indeed.

I pray for that gift for those who have died this week, especially for my friend’s father and also for those who find peace at a distance this day.  Peace is indeed a gift and we often need guidance to not only find it, but accept it when it may very well not feel like peace, but more of an unwilling resignation into what is.

My morning comfort today is trust.  Trust that God indeed does guide my feet into the way of peace.

And more importantly, that God always will.

Lord, May I Be Patient When I am Old

I went to my gym the other day and came out feeling refreshed after an amazing workout with my trainer Scott. I’m losing inches on my waist and feeling stronger and more alive after each workout. “You’re putting years back on your life.”

Agreed.

As I left the gym a number of elderly gym-goers were heading out the door. They had just gone through their daily regimen of exercise and were now slowly walking towards the door. Step by step they made their way out to the parking lot ever so slowly.

I was in my usual rush and I ambled past them and it occurred to me that I was fortunate to be able to still be able to walk at such a fast pace. I imagined it must be frustrating to have to walk slowly and that it takes longer to get places and to have more time for people that you love and for activities that you wish to engage. I found myself praying for those who are old and awakening myself to their needs. This is especially important because my parents are now old, no longer are they “getting old”, but now well into their 80s (86 to be exact), I think we can seriously state that they ARE old.

And that, as you can imagine is frightening to their son and daughters and daughter-in-law, especially when health and caregiving are no longer matters to be taken for granted.

It is difficult to be so far away and to stay in the conversation regarding doctors and health care and living situations. I remain unaware of so much because work and ministry keeps me busy and the calls are less frequent than I would like.

So today I am particularly praying for those who are old. My 86 year old father will soon need surgery, which is always risky for a man his age. My mom is also not in great health and so it causes great concern on many levels as my dad has continued to be dedicated to her care even in his advanced age along with my sister.

So today we pray for Dad and his doctors who seem baffled at the moment. May they care for him well and may he be patient with all of them. May God continue to watch over him and all those who are sick and need care.

And if you’ve got a prayer or two…toss one this way.

Peace…Amen

Being Led

Looking through an old retreat notebook I dug up a morning offering and thought I would share it today.

Where O God, am I being led
by Your love?
By My love?
By Your pulling and pushing,
prodding and pestering?

Teach me my heart’s deep desires
These moments that awaken me
To my truest self
Bring me to those moments
With an open desire to meet you
in the eyes of others.
Others who do not merely need me
but rather others who I need to be able
to see your presence within
and to whom I can offer a hospitable word or two.

Where O God, am I being led?
It matters not where
Nor to whom
Instead all I desire
Is to be led by your love
To know you more
And to never desire anything more
Apart from that. Amen.

A Prayer for Sarah

This morning my friend and colleague, Sarah Signorino will likely give birth to a daughter, whom she has already named Clare. So I’ve dedicated my morning prayer to her and her family, Jarrod and her little girl, Mary who is going to be the best big sister ever.

If I’m honest with myself, it’s sometimes hard for me to be happy for people when they have children because I have none myself. With each new birth, I revisit the feelings of not being a father and it has made me weary at times. Ignoring the feelings isn’t going to help. So I have met them head on and prayed with them often this week.

Sarah is very clearly called to motherhood. One moment spent with her and her daughter, Mary betrays her vocation to motherhood clearly. A glance at her Facebook page shows literally hundreds of “Mom and Mar” pictures.

As she often notes, there are people who “live to work” and others who “work to live” and she is seemingly the latter, while I am very clearly the former. She’s one of my best workers on this staff and she makes us all look unorganized with her own sense of being hyper-organized, as only a working mom can be. I am grateful for her work and she does a great job for us. But she very clearly works in order to provide for her family. And when she is home with her family, work is very clearly in the background. She’s the mommy for Mary and now Clare and that is primary in her life.

Not being a father, provides me with the opportunity to really thrust myself into my work and my marriage. Sure, we have a dog, but he can be alone for stretches at a time and he gives us some of those “parental” feelings, but he is far from a human child. I love him dearly, but it is clearly different. I get to be as one of my favorite students, Kaitlyn calls me, “a campus dad” a surrogate of sorts, someone who is there when parents cannot be there. Someone who gets concerned when students seemingly make bad choices and helps to guide or pick up the pieces for someone else’s kid.

When people ask if Marion and I have children I usually say “Yes, 5000 of them and they are all in College.” That comes from a friend who noted that it is good that we don’t have children because indeed I have a bunch of students who depend on me, often at a moment’s notice.

I now also have a staff that depends on me. Fathering a group of people in a new way. Deciding what is best for us and negotiating for what I think the ministry needs with great colleagues who are often eager to help us.

As I sat an meditated on my feelings of loss an overwhelming feeling of joy came to me this week. I realized that the pain of not being a father has in fact led to understanding how great my life has become. How I wouldn’t have half the joys that I have discovered if life were indeed different and how God has shown me my vocation more clearly in reflecting on how well Sarah and other parents live out their lives.

I am grateful to those who parent and work. They do that balancing act with grace and with care for all they meet. But I am also great that there are those of us who have a different energy–who can dedicate time and effort in other ways. It is our way of being “life giving”. And for me, it is more than enough.

So today, I pray for Sarah and am filled with gratitude for her motherhood. She mothers many of us with her great skills of organization and with how she cares for our students and our colleagues. But that is only a shadow of her love for her daughters. And I find God deeply in witnessing that experience of her motherhood. It gives me the opportunity to find my own deep love for the campus, for my wife and for a furry puppy and I find that life is better than I would have designed. Somehow God knows what he is doing and Sarah and I have great trust in that.

So welcome to the world today, dear Clare. You are in good hands with your mother. She will care for you with great love and it will fill you with gratitude.

As Sarah “the mom” has done for us all.

A Dog’s Morning Prayer

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Today’s morning prayer is translated from the dog.

In the morning, it’s cold,
but when we pray
together in the morning
with me on his lap,
Sweatshirted
I can feel the warmth
Of my best friend
Who is my favorite heat source
On these cold mornings.

He rescued me
But he says that
I really rescued him.
Because like you
I can love him unconditionally

Help my pal to see others
As you see all of us
As creations called to love
One another
As you love us

And on these warm mornings
That he provides me with
May you warm my Paul’s heart
So that his heart
May be warm for others.

Amen

Can We Heal Wounds?

When the horror of September 11th came upon the United States my friends with children fought vigorously to keep their children away from the television screen. Others even fought to keep themselves away from the images we know all too well from that day. Many wondered what to tell their kids when they returned home from school and some even hoped that their teachers hadn’t spilled the beans.

I wondered to myself if this were a healthy approach? It makes sense that we don’t want people, never mind children to be exposed to horrible images that could have traumatic effects on their psyche. But what about telling them about what happened? It seems that many of my friends tried to seal the information from their kids for at least some time, usually before one of their friends remarked about the dreadful news.

I started to think about other things that people don’t tell their kids because they don’t want them to worry. Finances are hard. Mom’s got cancer. There was an accident. Your dog went to heaven. It seems anything that is bad is taboo for children at times and people only tell them things that they need to, only when absolutely necessary.

Slate had a great article today that got me thinking about this. They claim three real reasons that college students (and the rest of us, they claim) are more stressed out than ever before. I’ll riff on each here and add a fourth that stems from them and will add some thoughts about what I see amongst my own students and colleagues.

The first is a lack of community. One colleague of mine said: “I knew there was trouble when I found two student residents in their room arguing with one another–but they weren’t yelling at each other, they were TEXTING and IMing while in the same room! I put a stop to that and made them hash it out.”

Human contact and kinship help alleviate anxiety (our evolutionary ancestors, of course, were always safer in numbers), yet as we leave family behind to migrate all over the country, often settling in insular suburbs where our closest pal is our plasma-screen TV, we miss out on this all-important element of in-person connection. As fear researcher Michael Davis of Emory University told me: “If you’ve lost the extended family and lost the sense of community, you’re going to have fewer people you can depend on, and therefore you’ll be more anxious. Other cultures have much more social support and are better off psychologically because of it.” Another factor that adds to this problem—especially among young people—is our growing reliance on texting and social media for community, which many psychologists say is no substitute for real human interaction. When you’re feeling most dreadful, you don’t run to your Facebook profile for consolation; you run to a flesh-and-blood friend.

I think about my own students with this one. One of the most popular clubs on campus is our Christian Life Communities, a weekly prayer group of sorts that invites people to do a short form of the Ignatian examen in community. We discuss the highs and lows of the week and provide a meditation and a time for affirmations and prayer requests. It’s one of the times in my week that I feel I can really connect with our students and I start to hear just what people are carrying around with them. This is safe space and sometimes when I hear what people are dealing with I’m surprised they are walking and talking, never mind getting a degree. I feel the same way about the students I’ve seen in spiritual direction. And I often feel that they are unprepared for all that life is offering them and impressed that somehow they are still able to function at such high levels.

Professionally, I notice the texting more amongst outside younger colleagues than amongst my students at Canisius. I communicate with many people via text. And sometimes it’s inappropriate. There are some who try to conduct business via text when it would be faster and easier to call and have a conversation. Indeed texting is somehow more efficient but then again, it can lead to problems. My staff does this well. We text when necessary. When we need to get a message to someone quickly and think they are in a meeting or can’t talk. Or when the message is a quick one that requires some kind of action “Can you grab cider for the meeting?” would be an example.

The second is information overload which I discuss at length in my book, Googling God. There’s so much information out there that you can’t possibly consume it all. Our students often ask for bullet points and other quick soundbytes of information and I often give it to them because they just don’t need one more thing to read and information is bombarding them at high rates all the time. I don’t ever not recommend reading and I give them plenty to chew on when I think there’s a book or an article that is worth their time, but I also try to encourage that there’s not a rush to consume this information–to savor the reading process and to enjoy reading and gaining information. I often feel that college would be more enjoyable if we just let students finish when they finish. Now that’s an impossible business model to sustain, but from my own perspective I was able to work and do two graduate classes per semester and I enjoyed that immensely. I found it difficult to take 5 undergraduate classes and hold all that information together while working at the radio station and socializing and all of my campus ministry involvement.

I find my present students are great at balancing their time. Many are involved in much and have heavy duty science majors or are working on a big time business degree. I never knew how the medical students kept up at UB and the pre-meds are just as impressive at Canisius. But I do notice their anxiety. I do notice that it is not easy for them. And I do see them when they get overwhelmed by their to-do lists and the pressure of being good students and having a social life and trying to figure out what they would most like to be and do with their lives.

Some are brilliant: They’ve realized that they are never going to know everything that someone else thinks they should know. It took me years to get that idea through my thick skull.

Finally here’s the last major point:

Put simply, Americans have developed habits for dealing with anxiety and stress that actually make them far worse. We vilify our aversive emotions and fight them, rather than letting them run their own course. We avoid situations that make us nervous. We try to bury uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and stress with alcohol or entertainment or shopping sprees. Psychologist Steven Hayes, creator of a highly effective anxiety treatment formula called acceptance and commitment therapy, told me that we’ve fallen victim to “feel-goodism,” the false idea that “bad” feelings ought to be annihilated, controlled, or erased by a pill. This intolerance toward emotional pain puts us at loggerheads with a basic truth about being human: Sometimes we just feel bad, and there’s nothing wrong with that—which is why struggling too hard to control our anxiety and stress only makes things more difficult.

Amen! We protect ourselves way too much. And we protect others from our sadness and what we perceive is their sadness way too much.

Interestingly enough, comedian Louis CK hits the nail on the head with this: (warning: vulgar at times).

Perhaps our call is not to remove our student’s sadness or stress, but to help them more appropriately deal with that. We often do this in community on retreats, prayer groups, spiritual direction and on more than a few occasions by collaborating with our counseling center.

Our students need us and more importantly, they need community, they need time to chill to detox from information and they need to share their fears in a safe space where they can actually feel their emotions and be supported by peers and ministers.

In a world that is marked by terrorism all too often, anxiety is ever present globally and we have fewer resources to turn to because everyone is so busy that we have a hard time paying attention to those who need us. Older Americans might note that they were afraid of the Russians or of the bomb–but their community structure was much more intertwined with one another than our students’ lives are today.

This is our call as higher ed professionals and as Catholic Campus Ministers. As Pope Francis put it in the recent interview in America Magazine:

“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

Heal the wounds… the wounds that are felt deeply and all too easily pushed away. Help people to feel their wounds and then to not be afraid to place your hands in the wounds of Jesus, like Thomas and allow the healing that God has to offer to take place through you, even in small and simple ways. This is ministry.

And it is where we always encounter God waiting for us and asking us to heal wounds.

From Trauma to Forgiveness

About a week ago I commented on the Treyvon Martin/George Zimmerman case and tried to look at it from both sides. I also brought up the fact that I lived in a neighborhood where I was often afraid to walk down the street alone. I was “jumped” in front of my own house once for a lousy $2 as three teens tailed me from the grocery store.

The truth is that I still have nightmares about it.

What’s more is that I remember when I walked to middle school and back each day, I had to travel through a particularly bad neighborhood. There were a few “crews” as we called “gangs” back then in the 80s. Drugs, violence, you name it were all hallmarks of the walk home. As I left my Catholic middle school I often thought “Maybe today is the day I get jumped?” Or worse. I got used to walking fast and it was all uphill.

Some of the gang members knew me from when I went to public school from Kindergarten through 6th grade. I loved that school. When Middle School arrived it seemed as if everything had changed. The middle school in the neighborhood had a bad reputation.

And that scared the hell out of my parents. So they sent me to the parish grammar school instead for 7th and 8th grade. And that pretty much made me a target walking home in a shirt and a tie each day. Might as well have had a sign that said “Come and beat the heck out of me for whatever loose change I might be carrying.” What was worse was that I was at best a “tolerated guest” at the Catholic School and didn’t even have allies to walk home with most of the time.

The anxiety would build until I arrived home and got behind that door–and even then I worried at night about someone breaking into the house.

I was taught that fear, taught to be afraid of my neighborhood. And there is good and bad in that. Because let’s face it there are good and bad people of all races. Even in good neighborhoods it is good to notice your surroundings and be aware.

But we can also overdo it.

I remember the “two dollar” incident as if it were yesterday. One guy grabbed me and threw me against a car. The laughing started then. Then someone grabbed my hand and another went through my pockets. I got pushed around and then they ran when they got the money away from my clenched fist. It sounds simple–but the truth is that it was all rather frightening.

I have been wondering why I still have the nightmare and why I had one when this story that has captivated the country hit center stage. What are all of these memories now stirring in me about? Why have they rushed to the surface now some 30 years later? I began to feel silly about holding on to this, but I also knew that there must have been something significant about this for me to keep having these subconscious thoughts. I even went to facebook and tried to see if I could find one of the people who was part of the incident. And when I did I became even more worried.

So I went to Christ the King Chapel, our campus church at Canisius and simply asked God what all this was about. And when I did I re-lived that fearful moment in Examen. I saw my own fear. I heard the laughing again. I looked into the eyes of the one who was known to me, who set me up for the others. And then I imagined that it was much like that night in the garden when Jesus was betrayed by one he knew well. And I saw Jesus standing there with me shaking his head at the absurdity of it all.

And as they scattered, I too, was left alone. I found myself pushing Jesus away and embracing my own hatred. While I wasn’t hurt much physically, the emotional scars were deep and I was just so, so afraid it would happen again.

Something inside me in the darkness of that chapel finally saw Jesus on that cross and I said the words:

“Father, forgive them.”

And I realized that I was safe now, perhaps safer than I have ever felt. Forgiveness is truly freeing and I don’t think I ever truly forgave those three from that moment.

The tears came and then I heard the chapel door open. It was one of our public safety officers who was checking on the building and locking the doors for the night. She was a woman and for some reason she made me feel somewhat safer because she was. Some students were meeting me in the undercroft, the church basement soon and I let her know that. We introduced ourselves and as she left I found my students entering for our prayer service.

I never really finished that prayer, much like I never really finished freeing myself from that memory. This week I served some folks who looked very much like those three who took advantage of my weakness those 30 years age. I was able to look them in the eyes and see their pain, their dignity, their poverty and yes, their fear disguised as bravado.

I was not afraid of them. I’m sure that many of them were not exactly stellar citizens. I’m sure it was easier for them to band together with others than to stand apart and face the fear of walking their dangerous neighborhood alone, where the fear of being killed is actually a real one. And so I gave them each something to eat and talked with them and hoped that just maybe for a moment I could be someone that they need not fear and that had no need to fear them.

And I realized then how strong God made me back then, how brave I was to simply walk home alone each day. And how God continues to make me strong today for those who are too weak to walk alone. For those who have no voice. For those who don’t have enough to eat. For those who live fearful lives.

Eventually I resumed my prayer days later and realized that I had been sitting by the foot of the cross in that chapel.

Staying by our cross and facing it, even the ones from old neighborhoods, or playgrounds, or bedrooms, or schoolhouses is indeed very hard for each one of us. But Christ calls us to stay with Him at His cross, to face our fear and to go the extra yard of sitting with Him in His pain just as God always stays with us in ours.

That’s how we overcome those wounded moments.

And each time we do, God raises us to new life.

A New Serenity Prayer

Lord, grant me the patience to keep my mouth shut when I am annoyed.
The Strength to not let anger get the best of me.
And the Wisdom to seek peace always in all things.

I know I can be mean to people, even those close to me.
I know I can take my frustrations out on others.
I can be short-tempered and have high expectations
That nobody could approach satisfying.

But as Merton says:
I do believe the desire to please you
Does in fact please you.
So walk with me and further cultivate that desire for peace
Peace in the world
Peace in my heart
Peace above all.

For peace is not merely the absence of violence
Rather it is what keeps our hearts open to love
To not give others half a heart
When our whole heart is what we can offer.

Help me to stay open-hearted
When I would rather close the doors to my own heart.
For your bleeding heart offered all it’s blood for us.
And hoped to create more hearts to bleed and beat for others.

May that desire you had for us
Become my own today.

Amen.

A Morning Prayer

Lord, images

The ankle is throbbing…
It hurts to walk…
But others have much more pain than I do.

My mother lives with pain and has…
For more than 30 years.
Be with her this day as I share in
just a touch of what ails her body.

There are people, Lord.
Who must walk all day long
Despite tired and hurt feet.
Forced to move from place to place
Without a place to rest their feet.
Be with them …as they journey through life
In the sometimes dangerous streets.

When I am cranky and frustrated today, Lord.
Remind me of these people.
Remind me of my mom.
Remind me that I will heal, slowly and surely.
And remind me to care for myself in these silent days
As you care for me with your love.
Amen.

A Prayer for Peace

The sound of a bomb
The screaming, the running
Chaos

Boston cries as do I
For the senselessness of it all

God cries too
As he did at Lazurus’ grave
He does again for the little one taken too soon
For the others dead and injured.

He cries too that someone sins gravely
Does not value life, or perhaps is in too much pain themselves.
He cries but does not hate.

That is hard for us.
Hard to imagine loving a killer, a murderer.
He carefully planned this
And it sickens me beyond all health.

So I pray for peace
Peace in my heart
For my prayer for peace must start with me
With my moving towards peace and not hatred
Not more violence
Not more death
But a quiet justice
and a vision of God making all things new again.

It is a righteous anger that we all feel
But our response needs to come from a deeper place.
One that calls us into a better way of being.
A way that ends violence, or at least ends our thoughts of it.

Boston is often a sleepy city.
I have found it to be peaceful,
The harbor beckoning me to it’s boats
It’s Common calling me to sit and wonder at God’s creation all around.
It’s history reminding me of those who longed for peace, for freedom
From tyranny.

So my prayer begins with me
For me to be changed
To bring me to a place of healing
So that I might help others heal
and they help others heal too.

That is God’s work
May we all be called to do it.

Amen.