Love him, hate him, or somewhere in between, one thing is certain. Pope Benedict has more courage than any leader in the western world at the moment, more than spineless western politicians deluded with utopian political correctness, and certainly more than any of the screaming fanatics burning his effigy.
How I wish we had his like among the Orthodox!
Let me explain.
There are three major ways back to St. Paul from LaCrosse. The first is the open road on the open prairie, interestate 90 and highway 52. It's fast but in the late afternoon the sun beats down mercilessly on the left side of your face and rolling down your window only makes a small difference. On the Wisconsin side there is highway 35 which snakes along the Mississippi river and is astoundingly scenic, a road with twists and turns and small towns clinging to the sides of the bluffs. Between them is highway 61. It, too follows the river on the Minnesota side but it doesn't have as many twists and turns. Best of all, on a hot fall day it offers the cool mottled sunshine of a mountain valley as it meanders under the bluffs on its way north.
Sometimes people think all the driving bothers me but, in truth, I enjoy the time in my car. There is a peace there, the sense that the world can only come in as far as I let it. I often turn my XM radio on to channel 14, "Bluegrass Junction", and spend a few hours drifting with the music through the valleys and small towns.
Once in a while I listen to baseball, the one game that just can't be rushed yet remains full of poetry and drama.
I suspect that refuge is in short supply these days. We've created a world where words and images are being constantly dropped on us, a never ending blitz of pandering chasing exhibition that at its best leaves us exhausted. We've become caught somewhere between our inability to live without it all and our deep yearning for a moment of peace and quiet. Even when we go on vacation we bring a laptop along.
It would be interesting to see what would happen if everyone in the world would simply take a day off from it all. Turn off the TV, unplug the computer, leave the cell phone at home and the car in the garage. Listen only to beautiful music, or better yet just the sounds that nature provides. Perhaps read a book, not a stupid trashy one but something classic, something that makes you think.
Either we would probably all go nuts or a revolution of the best kind would break out in a planetary scale.
The ironic thing is the younger you are the more folks there are who know you, remember you, or simply are alive to attend your funeral. Whole high school gymnasiums are full for victims of tragic teenage car crashes and grand old people who lived long and done much are sometimes attended by only those who've been hired to carry the pall.
My brother was somewhere in between.
We're grateful for it all, that wave of care and support and kind words and fond memories that washed over us again and again. Even though standing under it exhausted us it left an indelible imprint on us, an image that we can draw on again and again when the harder times, the questioning times, come.
And they will.
I suspect that one day it will hit me, the randomness of it all, how unfair it seemed, the struggle of what lies ahead for his wife and children. And God and I will talk. Actually we'll argue, or rather I will. I will shout and cry and pound my feet on the floor because I am finite in the face of infinity. I will lose the battle, I certainly hope to, but I will make my stand anyway.
Until that time I will rest and try to get my soul untangled from it all. People are counting on me and that gives me a framework from which I can hang the threads of my life. I plan to take the weekend after next off and a quiet lake, a mandolin, and the cool fall winds will be restorative.
I suspect, too, that my own life will change in all of this. Not simply the obvious loss but rather the trajectory of things will be different. I want to write more. I have new responsibilities. Old ideas about what I wanted to be when I grew up have an increased urgency. What it means to be part of my family has changed.
Death takes away and adds in a curious arithmetic.
In the next few hours a plane will land and the trip that started out so routinely and ended so unexpectedly will be complete. The usual hugs and unpacking and catching up that mark the end of a business trip have been replaced by baggage handlers taking his body to a quiet hearse, but more than ever we are glad, in our tears, that our Paul is home.
Some decades ago our parents took a leap of faith and moved the family to Minnesota in pursuit of a better job and a better life. And over the years it has become home, first because our parents were there, and now because it is where we bury our dead. We are fixed to this place by life and death and Wisconsin seems so very distant although the border is an easy day's walk away.
Paul will be buried in the same cemetery as my father on the edge of Mahtomedi. It is a remarkably quiet place that had once been the country cemetery for the city of North St. Paul. Now its a remnant of an earlier time, a place surrounded right to the edges by suburbia yet remarkably calling to mind how this area was once a deep woods and a resort town on the edge of the Twin Cities. The old country road is now a busy four laner but there is still a peace there and a sense of the sacred in the middle of cookie cutter townhomes and conformity.
Our name now joins the list of the familiar Mahtomedi family names who have been gathered in this place. If we were not part of this town in life we are, now, in death part and parcel of its life. Whatever the years bring this small piece of land, more than any houses we buy, will mark us as belonging here.
In my mind as I write this I envision the passage of the years to come, the gentle movement of seasons over the resting places of those we love. I imagine standing by the graves of my father and brother in my old age if God so allows thinking of all that has gone before, all that could have been, and how close and how far away are those I love in a place made holy by thier rest.
The sense of loss will be pronounced, but so will the sense of peace. We spend a few short days wandering this earth in temporary shelter and then, and only, in death do we come to a permanent place, and end to the travels, and where heaven and earth will one day meet we find our home.
Two things you should always avoid saying.
First never say "It was God's will..." because we simply don't know that with any specificity.
Second avoid saying "It's a blessing..." because it never is. Death is grotesque even at its best and all those who experience it would much rather trade thier "blessing" for whatever your "blessing" is any time.
Now, that being said all of us are grateful for the prayers and letters and calls and emails that have come to us in this time. We literally feel a certain peace and strength in this time because of it. We are humbled, as well, by the outpouring of love and affection for Paul. Our loss is terrible but these things are a sweet balm of healing and we thank you.
She's the genuine article, a real person of faith who tries to make it matter in a very confusing world, but something she said took me back. "It's going to be alright" she said "It was God's will". Now I know she meant well but...
No, it was not God's will!
It was not the desire of God's heart that my brother die in a hotel room in Los Angeles. Or that anyone for that matter suffers and dies. If anything it is Satan's desire, with each death and each pain being a way to stick a diabolical finger, as it were, in God's eye.
Yes, but God could have prevented it!
And the answer is yes, God could have, and I don't understand why providence chose this time and place and way for my brother's earthly life to end. I may never. And right now its everything I can do to hold on to the idea of a plan and a guidance to all of this, a meaning that's real but just escapes me at the moment. I trust it all makes sense to my brother already yet it's only honest to say if any belief or faith is present in this time its not rooted in what I see or feel.
Remarkably, in all of this I know in a place beyond my emotions and my logic that God is still working to make all things new and somehow this dreadful thing, this epitome of all that is broken and wrong with humanity, has a place in it all. That is God's will, and somehow my brother leaving this life is part of it.
It makes no sense at all but at the same time it seems very true.
I will ask, no even demand, that my heart be checked out and not just with the once over via stethescope.
You see after he died they discovered that my brother had advanced arteriosclerosis, an enlarged heart, and possible evidence of a prior heart attack. He was a non smoker, moderate drinker, golfer, bicycle rider, and not anyone you would have looked at and said "There's a heart attack waiting to happen..." The only symptom that something was wrong was the heart attack that robbed us of his life and made the world poorer by one decent man.
So off to the doctor I go and if you have a history of heart disease in your family (and mine does) or you have those tell tales signs of heart distress don't wait and don't let the doctors use their conventional wisdom and tell you you're too young or its all in your head. Go, get it dealt with, even if you have to cancel that meeting or miss that appointment.
There is so much at stake.
Even as I write this it seems unreal and so out of order for the way things should be. And so unfair.
Apparently he, and we, and all of us did not know that his poor heart was fading away even as he seemed to remain so very strong and alive. And while he was talking to his wife on the phone before going off to work it just stopped. Now its our hearts that are broken.
I make no sense of this because in my mind I see none. Nothing about this fits any logic I know and part of me is angry and frustrated in a primal way. I should not be crying with a widow in her early 40's. I should not be trying to help a 12 year old kid make sense of it all. But it is what it is and all hope that this is a bad dream was shattered when I woke up this morning and came to realize that I have been denied the terrible comfort of this all being a nightmare.
Yet I do not fear for his soul as I know he loved the Lord. And even as he will miss in an earthly way all the joys of this life, the graduations, the weddings, the grandchildren, all the things he deserved he will also never grow old, never grow broken and sad and tired as is the lot of all us who remain. Time and its pains have no hold on him anymore, only glory remains and the incredible life of heaven in which we all are what we should be, where we should be, and in the presence of Love in its purest form.
I would be selfish to deny him this.
Yet my pain is so deep that I am nearly unable to function and I cannot imagine that of his wife and children and our mother who now has to face the indescribable task of burying her own child. Faith rises like an instinct and there is a very calm place in the center of things in myself and in all of us despite the intense bitterness of these days but I still hurt in ways I never imagined.
God, the river is deep and cold, the current is swift, and I fear for the crossing. Yet stay with me and I will walk on.
Around here we call it "good sleeping weather" when the evening air is cool and the humidity of the summer has passed. You can keep your windows open as the temperature drops in to the 60's (farenheit) and just a light blanket is all you need for a good night's rest.
September is Minnesota's way of apologizing for weather that always seems to be wrong somehow. Too hot, too cold, too rainy, too snowy, too much of something nearly always and its unpredictability has made TV meteorologists stars and the rest of us gripers. But somehow September is different. Everything is basically steady and pleasant as if nature herself has taken a rest from making war on us and we celebrate the truce.
The colors will appear as well. At first they will be just touches of orange and red in the leaves but by the end of the month and the early part of October the hills will seem to be on fire with the glory of fall. The drive to LaCrosse, through the Mississippi River valleys through the bluff country, is particularly remarkable. Tourists come from literally all over the country to see nature's last show before winter. The locals call them "leaf watchers" and they descend on the area with the whirring sounds of cameras and fill the local registers with cash.
There are tangible benefits to being a traveling Priest and this season reminds me of them. Whether I was on the road through the woods to the prairies of North Dakota or along the river to LaCrosse there are moments of beauty in the quiet of the car that are real but cannot be perfectly explained. You just know. I cherish them and look forward to the drive south even now as I am typing this as part of the last details of work before I head out.
This change in the weather also brings out the best in me. I like it cool and wish that September's weather was the standard for the whole year. With all due respect to the Floridians I do like to visit but would probably turn into a maniacal killer if forced to live there all year round. I even like Fargo, high and wide on the North Dakota plains and driven by winds that come unchecked from the steppes of Canada.
With the change in the weather my pace quickens, the sleepy days of summer pass, and the preparations for the winter come in earnest. The church, diminished by the vacations of summer, returns to life again and the horizon expands even as the daylight shrinks away. All in all it is a good time of the year.
And I must be on my way.
My wife told me on the phone that a plane had struck the World Trade Center and I assumed some crazy pilot had taken his Cessna into one of the buildings. TV coverage would later, grimly, correct that assumption.
I remember, too, watching as the towers fell live on TV. I can't imagine that anyone expected it and the great unblinking electric eye passively observed as 1000's of lives ended in a collapse of steel and fire. The world stood still for a moment and then my thoughts went to the whereabouts of my sister, then living in Connecticut. She was okay. She could see the smoke, but she was okay.
Two days earlier I had flown from Pittsburgh on my way home from the Antiochian Village. I remember joking with an acquaintance named Ibrahim about what trouble I could get in to if I told people my luggage was handled by an Egyptian guy named Ibrahim. We laughed. I presume he made it safely to Los Angeles and then home to Brazil, but I don't know. I do know you can get a nasty body cavity search and maybe a few years in prison for that joke now.
I've not been happy with the world since that time. Its not about fear but more about what the five years since that time have brought out in me and all of us.
I remain disappointed in our leaders for whom this incident continues to evoke not the noblest of the arts of statecraft but a continual and crass game of political advantage. At times it does not seem fair that several thousand innocents were killed while several hundred politicians were spared. And still the actions of the rescuers in New York and the passengers of flight 93 are by far more decent, more noble, more brave, and more pure than anything that has come out of Washington before, during, or since that time, all parties, no exceptions.
I remain puzzled, as well, as to how blind we are to the reality of evil, how desensitized our therapeutic culture has become to the idea of the diabolical. Some things in the world are not about the trauma of youth, or the results of economic disadvantage, or some vague form of improper care but reflect a very dark part of us that is always prone to disorder and violence and needs to remain in check. Even still there are those who cannot understand that there is evil in the hearts of men, an empty hole that cannot be filled with any amount of empathy or understanding.
And finally I mourn the loss of the greatness of the American spirit in all of this. How quickly the kindness, the generosity, the sympathy, and the collective sense of our being a people evaporated. Days, months, weeks?Who knows? But even the sight of thousands of people dying in dire circumstances has done little to change the terminal velocity of our selfishness. We pay official homage but our hearts are no different. We have no time for anything else because our noses are jammed into the trough or obsessed with the idea of how we can get into it.
Yet there is some light. We saw again how short and fragile life is and how the things that have mattered for all of time still do. The people in the collapsing towers and falling airplanes spoke, as much we know of it, little of business or work or deadlines or tasks or politics but rather of love, family, faith, and how to face the end. Thier voices are prophetic although sadly we'll probably need to have a few more doses before the message gets through in a substantial way. And some really did discover faith, either in some final moment or upon reflection of the events. Perhaps some have been freed from the tyranny of the transitory by all of this. Is it worth all the deaths? No. But it may have opened some doors and only God knows where that will lead.
An external order can aide or hinder that peace but it cannot create it.
People place hopes in some utopian system or structure to create peace but since they are all created or populated by humans they can at best only ensure compliance but not peace.
The Muslims who think there will be a golden age when all the world is forcibly islamicized ignore thier own history of war and chaos and the current slaughter of Muslim against Muslim that is part and parcel of our world. But they aren't alone. Christians living in Christian cultures have killed each other as well.
I think that's why Jesus tells us that he leaves us peace of a kind that the world cannot provide, a kind of kingdom that lives inside of us and from there manifests itself to the world and not something outside that tries to force our life into compliance.
Without that understanding everything will just be endless cycles of darkness punctuated by shadows.
It's not the fanciest one around, I've seen them on sale for over 20 k but it's good to start and each time I play it I'm reminded of why I purchased it in the first place. Even in the worst practices there are these moments of sweet sound that break through and nothing is as sweet as a mandolin properly caressed.
I've also been scanning all kinds of mandolin websites and even found a site www.live365.com where you can hear all kinds of music on a fast connection and a web station that plays only mandolin so I can hear what's possible and aim high.
Interesting, though, what the mandolin sites have to say about how to develop as a player. Practice every day. Strive to master the basics and then your other skills will come along. Don't forget that the relationship between a player and the mandolin is long term.
Sounds a lot like what Christian discipleship should be.
Amazing that I can grasp that with something made out of wood and wire but forget it so easily when it comes to faith.
Its about money and freedom.
I like our system here in the United States. The government declares no religion to be the State Religion (the real meaning of that often contested phrase "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion...) and each religious body has to thrive on its own, carried only by the support of its adherents. This idea, unique at the time of the founding of this country, is pure genius because it allows for religious diversity and the effect has been that the United States ranks as one of the most religiously observant nations in the Western World even though no person is compelled to directly support a religious body by taxes.
So we have to raise our own money at St. Elias, the goodwill and generosity of the community is all that we have. And for a smaller church that often means making a hard choice between the support of a Priest and other vital ministries. Thankfully most Parishes will scrimp and save and work overtime to afford the costs related to a Priest but then important things that would help the church grow get left behind because all the resources are used to care for the clergy. Its a terrible cycle and can trap a church in a place where it is always spinning its wheels as it were and never moving ahead.
Ideally everyone in a Parish would give very generously and much of this problem would be eliminated. More support for missions and small parishes would be appreciated but quite frankly its just not there. So there is one more way as old as the New Testament. The Apostle Paul, a tentmaker by trade, did just that at various points in his ministry to support himself and build the church as well. Quite literally he had two jobs.
Now if St. Elias is going to make it that seems to be the only way to break out of being trapped by neglecting important ministries to direct resources to the support of a Priest. So I work here in Minnesota and draw a small salary in LaCrosse. The rest of the money goes in to the bank where it is invested for the future. Each dollar given is a little bit of freedom from the tyranny of having to neglect important ministries due to a lack of resources. Some time in the future when the financial padding is thick enough I can move down and not have to worry about our Parish being able to follow the call of God because we don't have the cash.
By the way, there is nothing noble about this on my part. The travel is easy, the people of St. Elias are good, and having the "wolf away from the door" also allows me to not have to call the Bishop at some future date and ask for a transfer because there is no support left. Its a win win thing built on the cost of a little fatigue and wear and tear on my car.
Now some people complain, a lot, about thier parish and how they seem to always be asking for money. And some parishes are living in luxury and still find a way to gripe. To the first I can tell you that I know every Bishop or Priest would love to never have to mention money ever again, but that requires people to giving willingly, generously, and without prompts. The laws of economics also apply to the parish and Cadillacs can never be bought at Yugo prices, what services come out are directly related to what resources go in. To the second I would ask you to be thankful and use your wealth as a parish for good things in the world. To whom much is given much is required.
I've seen so much of Interstate 90 in my year as a traveling priest that I can start to tell when the billboards change along the road. The folks at the Microtel Hotel in Onalaska know me by face. The car is coming very close to being able to drive all by itself through sheer repitition.
But the cycle of poverty at St. Elias is also starting to break. A few years from now that will make all the difference.
I know that officially summer starts and ends later than those dates but between those dates is vacation time and people scatter to the winds on various trips and then reemerge in early September. It's a kind of curious migration.
Churchwise we usually expect the weekend of Labor Day, this past weekend, to be a time of small numbers at church as people get in thier last fling. Ironically if a church is in a vacation area Labor Day weekend marks the last Sunday of good attendance as the vacationers head back to the city and only the locals are around until sometime next May.
Regardless, there was a good number for our little parish on Sunday, almost full, and the choir sang with a certain vigor and even a few new people came to visit. Not bad for a Labor Day weekend Sunday when it normally looks like aliens came from outer space and abducted your parishoners.
The older I get the less I know truly about they whys and wherefores of people. But in a world where people don't always understand who you are and why you do what you do a good crowd on weekend when it isn't supposed to happen is like cool water in the desert for a Priest.
Don't ask why. Just accept.
If you want to be a Priest because you crave comfort or appreciation or status or power forget it, there's not enough there to make it worthwhile. You're at war, you're a soldier, and there's no place to rest from the battle.
Frankly I don't recall a year that has been worse for war in my thoughts, war in my soul, war in my body, and spiritual assaults then in this time. The power aligned against any who wish to serve God is formidable, cunning, and relentless and any lull in the action has nothing to do with success and everything to do with your enemy regrouping for another round.
And some blows I can withstand but I also fall more than I should, more than I wish, and always by my own hand.
Every Sunday I stand before an altar I do not deserve attempting to lead a liturgy I am unworthy to partake in and speak messages that spring not from my standing but from my own need. And deep inside I know who I am and how far away I am from being what I am supposed to be and the miles yet to travel.
It's all about war from the time the chrism hits your forehead to the time they put sand and oil on you in the casket. Your enemy, damned as they are, has nothing to lose and everything to gain each time you struggle, each time your faith withers, each time your actions betray your words or your heart.
I'm beginning to understand why great saints who struggled long and hard in the faith had no fear of death.
And I'm just beginning to understand the nature of this fight and why its important to stand even if your heart is pounding, your voice shaking, and everything inside of you says "run".
I don't know what the future will bring. Are these the last days? I don't know. If the Apostles didn't know then you don't know either.
But if they are there should be joy, not at the troubles of the world because they are a call to action to God's people to reach out and serve and heal and proclaim and work, but rather on the return of the one who loves us and the world and desires that all things be made new.
When I was a child the end of time was often presented in dark and foreboding terms, a eschatalogical hurricane of sorts and our best hope was to be "raptured" out of it all before the storm hit with its full fury. The second coming of Christ was even used as a tool of evangelism, get saved so you can get out before everything hits the fan.
But the biblical images, as stark as they are about the end of time, also speak to the faithful of bridegrooms coming for the bride they love and birth pains before the arrival of life renewed, the return of heaven to earth and earth to heaven, a creation stopped from its groaning, and a great and holy feast in creation transformed.
Should there not be some joy in that?
Should we not also see that as well as the sad state of the world?
I'm trying, Lord knows I'm trying.
I say, that those who are suffering in hell, are suffering in being scourged by love.... It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God's love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love's power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it.
(Homily 84 of Saint Isaac the Syrian)