the harvest

Here’s a short story I wrote in college; the assignment was to write about death for a younger audience.

Copyright 2012 Cian FentonAs Kevin stepped out of his family’s two-story Victorian home on Auburn Street, bright red maple leaves were soaring across the blue October sky like sparks from a roaring campfire. Kevin felt a tinge of sadness on this crisp Saturday morning. Although he enjoyed the colorful shower of leaves, he knew that it would soon give way to the bland skies and bleached earth of November.

After strolling seven blocks down Auburn, he turned right onto Melrose Avenue. The public library, a red brick building with a large clock tower, sat comfortably upon the curb of the avenue two blocks ahead. It was almost nine-thirty. Remembering that the weekly puppet show began at that time, Kevin quickened his pace and soon found himself inside the library’s main entrance. As he stepped inside, he noticed an unusual silence. Much to his surprise, the children’s corner of the library was vacant—no puppet stage, no puppets, no people. He hurried to the librarian’s desk.

“Where’s the puppet show today?” he asked anxiously.

“There is no puppet show today,” explained the librarian in an even whisper. “We have puppet shows all summer, but not in the fall. They’ll start up again next spring.” She smiled apologetically.

Disheartened, Kevin turned around and slowly headed home, kicking leaves off the sidewalk and secretly wishing it were summer again.

Suddenly, his eye caught sight of several orange pumpkins peeking out of a lush garden on the corner of Auburn and Melrose. An elderly man in red overalls with a white baseball cap was milling through a jungle of squash vines. There were many other vegetables in his garden—tomatoes, corn, cabbage, carrots, peas and potatoes—but Kevin’s eyes shot instantly toward the large pumpkins resting in the shade of their vines.

Pumpkins fascinated Kevin. Every October, his father would drive him and his sisters to a roadside stand outside of town to find pumpkins for Halloween. Without fail, Kevin would search out the largest and roundest pumpkin available.

The old man in the garden waved to Kevin and, noticing the boy’s interest, motioned to him to come into the pumpkin patch. Kevin was overjoyed.

“Hello, young man,” said the gardener, removing his cap to wipe some sweat from his brow.

“Hi,” said Kevin in a distracted tone of voice. “These are the hugest pumpkins I’ve ever seen. Did you grow them yourself?”

The old man smiled warmly. “Not really,” he replied. “I planted them, weeded around them when they were small and watered them, but God did the rest.”

Kevin stood in silent admiration of the pumpkins. Finally, he could contain himself no longer. “Can I have one?”

Laughing softly, the old man replaced his cap. “Sure. They’re not quite ready to be picked yet, though. In another couple of days they’ll be ready. Come back sometime next week and I’ll let you choose one.”

“Thanks! I’ll stop by after school sometime,” replied Kevin as he turned back toward the road.

The old man called after him. “If I’m not in the garden, I’ll be up at the house. My name’s Sidney.”

Kevin turned toward Sidney. “I’m Kevin. See ya later, Sidney.”

The days flew past like migrating geese and soon it was Wednesday. When class was dismissed that afternoon, Kevin hurried home to his garage, padded his wagon with some leaves and headed toward Sidney’s.

When he arrived, Sidney was out in the garden picking squash. The garden had changed drastically since Saturday. All of the vines had wilted into limp brown clumps and the colorful squash sat exposed atop the withered foliage. Kevin was horrified by the change.

Sidney stopped his work and greeted the boy. “Hi, Kevin.”

“What happened to all the vines?” asked Kevin. He surveyed the garden with knitted brows.

“We had a hard frost last night. The vines can’t handle that kind of cold weather. The chilly nights are right on time; they always arrive just when the pumpkins are ready,” said Sidney.

“You mean it’s meant to happen like this?”

“Yep. Every year it’s the same. God has a pretty good plan for growing things. He waits for the plants to finish their work and then he puts them down to sleep.”

Kevin thought about this for a moment. “It’s sad, though, isn’t it? I mean, the dying plants and the falling leaves.”

“It all depends on how you look at it, Kevin. Look at this pumpkin here, for example. The pumpkin seed I planted last spring had one thing in mind when I put it in the ground; its task was to grow into this pumpkin. All summer long, it grew into vines to absorb the sun and water so that it could produce a pumpkin. Then, when the pumpkin was ready, the vine was no longer needed. So the cold weather came and took the vine away so that everyone could see the beautiful pumpkin. So it’s not really sad, Kevin. The vine did its job and the pumpkin is the result of its hard work.”

Kevin thought he understood what Sidney was saying. He had another question, though. “But why does the vine have to die?”

“Vines aren’t meant to last forever. Although they grow and spread through the garden, they’re mostly interested in making a pumpkin. That’s the important thing. When the pumpkin is ready, the rest of the plant isn’t needed anymore.”

Satisfied with this answer, Kevin began to survey the pumpkin patch. He soon discovered his favorite pumpkin; naturally, it was the largest. Sidney helped him twist the pumpkin from its vine and put it gently into the wagon.

“You sure know how to pick ‘em,” said Sidney. “Why don’t you come inside and have a cup of cider and some cookies? Then you can meet Judy, my wife. I told her you were coming, and she baked a batch of cookies yesterday so I’d have something to give such a hard-working pumpkin picker.”

Kevin had no objections. As they entered Sidney’s house, the aroma of cinnamon and apples wafted through the door to greet them. Judy, a kind woman with a face full of smiling wrinkles, greeted them as well. The old couple chatted with Kevin about the garden and the neighborhood and pumpkins. “If you’d like to help me plant my pumpkins next year, I sure would appreciate the help,” said Sidney. Kevin thought it was an excellent idea.

Soon, Kevin remembered that he had homework waiting for him. He thanked the old couple for the snack and stepped out onto the porch. “Stop by any time,” Sidney offered. “Enjoy your pumpkin.”

As autumn turned to winter, Kevin made regular visits to Sidney’s house. Sidney and Judy treated Kevin like a grandson; they had no grandchildren of their own, so they always enjoyed his company. Whenever Kevin visited, Judy would bring out a set of finger paints and then Kevin would create a masterpiece for the front of their refrigerator. By Christmastime, the refrigerator was covered with his artwork.

One day in February when Kevin stopped by, Judy came to the door and told him that Sidney was sick and couldn’t get out of bed. Kevin asked if he could see him. “Well, since he’s not asleep, I don’t see why not,” replied Judy.

Kevin entered the bedroom quietly. “Hi, Sidney.”

“Well, it’s Kevin!” Sidney exclaimed weakly. “It’s nice of you to stop by. How are you?”

“Okay,” Kevin replied. “Are you real sick?”

Sidney smiled. “Oh, it’s not so bad. I went out to get the mail without my coat on last week and I think I just caught a little cold. If I rest up, I should be healthy again in no time.”

“You look awfully white, Sidney. You sure you’re all right?”

“I think so. I went to see the doctor yesterday and he’s supposed to call me if it’s anything serious. Hey! Guess what? I’ve got a surprise for you,” Sidney said, reaching for a small wrapped package in the top drawer of his nightstand. He handed the present to Kevin.

Kevin unwrapped the present recklessly. Inside, he found a package of pumpkin seeds. “Mammoth pumpkins!” Kevin exclaimed after examining the label. “Wow, I bet these’ll be huge!”

“I guess we’ll find out next summer,” said Sidney. “I’ve never tried that kind of seed before.”

After visiting for a little while, Kevin returned home. He could hardly wait for the arrival of spring when he could plant the seeds. Arriving in his bedroom, he stowed them safely in his sock drawer.

Later that week, Kevin went back to visit Sidney again. This time he brought some of his mom’s chicken noodle soup. Judy greeted him at the door. She took the soup graciously and gently placed it on the stove. Her wrinkles looked different today, Kevin thought—they were stretched more tightly, almost stretched into frowns.

Sidney was still in bed, and he wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, he told Kevin that the doctor had asked him to go to the hospital where doctors could take better care of him.

Kevin sat in frightened silence for a moment. “Are you gonna get better?” he asked with a quivering voice.

Sidney paused for a moment. “I’m not sure,” he said softly. “I’m getting pretty old and I don’t fight off sickness like I used to. I’m sure they’ll take good care of me at the hospital, and maybe I’ll be coming back home real soon.”

Kevin winced, trying to hold back tears.

“Kevin, it’s okay if you want to cry. I cry sometimes too.”

Kevin was sobbing now. Sidney reached out to embrace him.

“You know, I’m not too worried about going to sleep and not waking up again. You know why? Because I’m kind of like that pumpkin plant I was telling you about. God planted me one day and has taken care of me for seventy-five years. While I’ve been here, I’ve branched out to see many things and meet many people, including you. I think maybe God’s getting ready to harvest me, though. He’s been waiting a long time for me, and I think maybe I’m just about ready.” Sidney chuckled gently through the tears that were now in his own eyes. “When I am ready, God will take me to his house for all time. So I’m not worried about dying.”

“I’ll miss you if you go,” Kevin blurted out between sobs.

“I’ll miss you too, Kevin. But we’ll be together again one day. Someday you’ll be ready and God’ll pick you and bring you to his house too. Until then, though, enjoy being like that pumpkin vine.  Bask in the sun. Drink in the rain. Spread out your branches—meet other people and enjoy the things around you, and never forget that God awaits you. It’s an exciting thing, growing up. Scary, sometimes, too. God will be watching out for you and one day you’ll be with him for always.”

Kevin sat back and wiped the tears from his eyes.

“I want you to promise me something, Kevin. If God harvests me before next spring, I want you to go ahead and plant those pumpkins anyway. You’ll do a terrific job. Is it a deal?”

“Deal.”

Kevin continued to stop by Sidney’s house to see Judy and bring drawings for Sidney that he had made at school. One day when he arrived at Sidney’s house, Judy didn’t answer the doorbell. Turning back toward the street, he saw a car pulling slowly into the driveway. It was Judy.

As she approached on the sidewalk, Kevin noticed a thin smile on her face. “Hello, Kevin. Have you been standing here long? I’m sorry. I just got back from the hospital. Come in.”

Once inside, Judy brought out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk, without saying a word. Kevin knew that something was wrong.

“Is Sidney okay?” he asked anxiously.

“Kevin,” she said quietly, “Sidney didn’t wake up today.”

Kevin didn’t know what to say. He felt his stomach plummet—the way it would in a car speeding over the top of a steep hill. Staring blankly at the refrigerator with all of his paintings on it, he started to cry.

Judy followed his eyes to the refrigerator. “Those are some beautiful paintings,” she said. “You know, Sidney’s just like one of those paintings. God painted him one day and put him in the world to dry. It took a long time, but God was really patient. As soon as the paint dried, God wanted to put him up on his refrigerator so he could see him all the time. And you know what? I think Sidney’s pretty happy there.” A tear slowly worked its way across her wrinkled face.

Kevin nodded in agreement.

On a crisp Saturday morning in late May, Kevin went over to Sidney’s old garden and planted his pumpkin seeds with Judy’s help. He took his gardening seriously: as soon as he had planted the seeds, he went directly to the library to check out a book on growing pumpkins.

Kevin visited the garden at least twice a week during the summer to water the vines, to weed around the plants and to spend time with Judy. The vines spread from one edge of the garden to the other, meeting the fence on one side and embracing the rock terrace on the opposite. One pumpkin grew to be especially large. Since it was Kevin’s favorite, he decided to name it Sidney.

Before long, the maple leaves were once again dancing through the autumn breeze like blizzard-driven snowflakes. Kevin watched vigilantly for the first frost to steal its way across the neighborhood, and when it had, he padded his wagon and headed down to the garden. After enjoying some cookies with Judy, he picked the pumpkins and gave them all to her—all, that is, except one. Kevin picked up one enormous pumpkin and put it in the back of his wagon.

As he hauled the wagon down the driveway toward Melrose Avenue, he waved toward the bay window where Judy stood watching him. Then, surrounded by a flurry of red and orange leaves, he turned the corner onto Auburn Street.

“Come on, Sidney,” he said to the pumpkin. “You’re coming home with me.”

young goodman brown

Smoker SilhouetteI wrote this poem as part of my senior thesis in 1992, shortly after reading Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

It was an exploration of Puritanism as it manifests itself in modern life… which was on my brain because of a paper I had written for the course American Literature to 1865. The instructor mentioned in one lecture about the perennial legacy of Puritanism (and, on the other extreme, hedonism) in American life.

See also: a post I wrote back in 2008 on the RCIA Hollywood blog.

***

Striking a match,
he lit up,
then gave a light to Steve and Dan.
Between puffs, Steve turned on the stereo.

The only lamp was in the corner,
but still I could see the smoke,
rising between my face and theirs.
They drew regularly,
even Dan —
especially Dan,
on the couch,
with his toes gripping the edge
of the coffee table.
I emptied my glass of water
and excused myself to get another,
while the music pounded the glories of rebellion,
chaos, libido, anger —

I returned.
Steve, on the floor,
relaxed as ever, leaned back against the wall,
crossed his legs,
and bowed his head slightly to draw.

They talked about the music,
I think.
I couldn’t hear too well —
I wasn’t really listening.
I was watching the faces,
glassy-eyed,
complacent, smiling,
with lips drawn to cigarettes;
faces for the first time grey in my mind
and the smoke has left them grey —

What childishness to see them any other way…
why should they be less grey than I?
An inner voice cries:
Goodman Brown, go home.
Go home, young Goodman Brown.
Purify yourself
of your puritan mind.

Those grey faces
grey mouths
drawing on their cigarettes and smiling —
I know them as my own.
And I love them still
I love them sorely
and perhaps that is
the only way to love them truly.

Judas and Holy Week

betrayalCertain elements of the Passion narrative push forward in relief for me as I mull over a story I’m writing (Saint Judas).

In listening to the Passion narrative from the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Palm Sunday, my ears tripped over the strangeness of the way Jesus addresses Judas at the time of the arrest in the garden:

Jesus answered him, “Friend, do what you have come for.” (Matthew 26:50)

I wondered why Jesus chose, at this moment, to address Judas as friend.

So I looked a bit deeper. In Saint Jerome’s Vulgate, the Latin word is indeed amice:

Jesus said to him, “Friend, why are you here?”

Iesus autem dixit illi: “Amice, ad quod venisti!”

The footnotes in the Navarre Bible Commentary on this passage gave me ample material for meditation:

Jesus again demonstrates that he is giving himself up of his own free will. He could have asked his Father to send angels to defend him, but he does not do so. He knows why this is all happening and he wants to make it quite clear that in the last analysis it is not force which puts him to death but his own love and his desire to fulfil his Father’s will.

His opponents fail to grasp Jesus’ supernatural way of doing things; he had done his best to teach them but their hardness of heart came in the way and prevented them from accepting his teaching.

To effect his betrayal Judas uses a sign of friendship and trust. Although he knows what Judas is about, Jesus treats him with great gentleness: he gives him a chance to open his heart and repent. This is a lesson to show us that we should respect even people who harm us and should treat them with a refined charity.

I might have expected Jesus to be turned over to the authorities by one of the Pharisees or Saducees, rather than one of the Twelve. But from another point of view, it is fitting that one of the Twelve would be involved. The behavior of Judas brings into sharpest relief the drama taking place: not simply an arrest, but a betrayal. This is the pattern of all sin: The stubborn and cruel rejection of a Heart opened to us in trust and love. In Judas, we can discern our own refusals to accept God as He is and our own hypocrisies writ large: a cautionary tale, an anti-Annunciation.

Bishop Robert Barron put it well in one of his Holy Week meditations:

Those of us who regularly gather around the table of intimacy with Christ and yet engage consistently in the works of darkness are meant to see ourselves in the betrayer.

What sets us apart from Judas is not our worthiness but our capacity to hope.

May the meditation on the character of Judas this week lead us to emulate Peter, who, when confronted with his own weakness and betrayal, does not spiral into a paralyzing despair. When brought to the end of his own devices, Peter holds fast to hope and finds the grace to receive what is on offer.

Related posts:

https://doxaweb.blog/2005/08/02/for-everything-there-is-a-season/

https://doxaweb.blog/2019/04/23/requesting-prayers-for-writing-project/

https://doxaweb.blog/2019/04/30/saint-judas/

memories from my first trip to Europe

While attending the Franciscan University of Steubenville, I had the privilege of spending an entire semester studying and traveling in Europe. The spring of 1992 was the second semester of the inaugural year of the study-abroad program based in Gaming, Austria, at a thirteenth century Carthusian monastery in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. It was an unforgettable four months.

You can view the photos I took during the semester by clicking on the image below.

Europe - Spring 1992

The Kartause in Gaming, Austria: the monastery where we lived, studied and prayed

At the end of the semester, I made this entry in my journal:

Thursday, April 30th, 1992

There are only dim echoes in the Kartause today.
The rain lands gently
upon thirsty buds,
while the whole house sleeps
after a busy semester of life with family.

Many brothers and sisters left this morning;
“goodbye,” we said,
like we’d say any weekend,
conditioned for their prompt return.
But our time in Gaming is finished now.
They return to their homes and their lives —
many we may see again,
but never again will we walk the same paths
so closely and for so long…
It gives me a deeper hunger for heaven;
after all, this is a foretaste and a portion
of the family we will meet there…

My brothers and sisters:
we whistled a tune together while we we here,
a beautiful tune.
I want to whistle it often
so that I may always remember.
But I know that Brother Time has his ways —
and a day will come when I whistle that tune no more.
I will remember its beauty,
but it will be impossible to return to whistling it.
I must wait for heaven to whistle it again.
It is a song we whistled and sang:
We sang it at the noon hour,
when the bells rejoiced before the breaking of the bread.
We sang it in the evening,
when we joined together to adore our Eucharistic Lord.
We sang it as we traveled to Rome and Assisi,
in the churches and especially on the castle-crowned mountain in Assisi,
where the fire sparked joyfully before our song.
We sang it in our daily activities,
our daily drawing together —
our daily growth.
The song we sang may never again touch our lips in this world,
but it will be forever engraved on our hearts:
the song of our life in the Kartause.

Bless the Lord for the song that he gave us.

Vigil for Bishop Paul D. Sirba

Bishop Peter Christensen of the diocese of Boise, Idaho, delivered this homily at evening prayer during the wake service for Bishop Paul Sirba of the diocese of Duluth, Minnesota.

 

The following song was sung by the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus at the wake service for Bishop Sirba. It had been sung originally during his ordination as bishop of Duluth on December 14, 2009, the feast day of Saint John of the Cross.

 

From the website of the diocese of Duluth:

We anticipate that many mourners, both from the Diocese of Duluth and from outside of our diocese, will wish to attend our beloved Bishop Paul Sirba’s funeral Friday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary, and that the resulting crowd may well far exceed the available seating at the Cathedral. Therefore we are grateful to announce that WDIO-TV has graciously offered to have the liturgy livestreamed on the Internet, making it accessible to all across the region and beyond who wish to see it.

The stream will be available on WDIO.com.

We hope this will enable as many people as possible to be united in prayer for the repose of Bishop Sirba’s soul and for his family and our local church and all who mourn.

As a reminder: Public vigil for Bishop Sirba will take place from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Cathedral, which is another opportunity to say goodbye and pray for him. The vigil will then resume at 8 a.m. Friday morning and continue until the 11 a.m. funeral Mass.