a groovy day in my spiritual life

On July 26, 1970, at the church of Saint John the Baptist in Excelsior, Minnesota, the Rev. Vincent O’Connor poured water over my forehead and baptized me in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I’ve decided to make a point of celebrating the anniversary of my baptism. I guess Pope John Paul II thought this sort of thing was a good idea, as did a fourth-century saint:

We should celebrate the day of our baptism as we do our birthday! All Christians should reflect on the meaning and importance of their own baptism. – John Paul II, 1/12/1997

The first Christians had great spiritual celebrations on the anniversary of their baptism, which was the day of their dedication, the day on which they were consecrated to God. They took no notice of their birthday, for at birth we are not children of God, but rather children of Adam. So they celebrated the day on which they were made children of God, the day of their baptism. – Saint Caesarius of Arles (470-543 AD)

My mom is amazing. I’m the youngest of ten kids, and somehow she saved a box of various items from my baptism! I was digging through my books the other day and stumbled across all of this memorabilia… baptismal cards printed for the occasion; cards from godparents, family and friends; a telegram from my uncle; a burlap banner, complete with bright orange and green felt letters proclaiming a groovy Gospel message; a family Christmas card that was created after the event… My parents had the event filmed on Super 8 film and recorded on audio tape as well.

I have the script my parents wrote for the occasion (that’s right, they scripted the liturgy)… apparently it involved most of my nine brothers and sisters. And I have been given to understand that Fr. O’Connor played guitar during the celebration.

It was a tandem baptism, shared with good friends of our family, the Regans. Bobby Regan and I were both born around the same time, so the families decided to celebrate the baptisms together.

I was particularly moved by some of the notes I found among the archives:

from my godparents:
Dearest little Clayton,
We are so happy to be your godparents, and through you to reaffirm that we’ll go “one more round, mankind.” Your parents are beauties and you are blessed as they are blessed. Much love, Gordy & Grace

May he grow in wisdom, grace and age and be worthy of his earthly and heavenly family. Bob and Helen

from one of my aunts:
Dear Mary, Jim and children:
Thank you for a very wonderful day. It was an insight to generous, selfless, meaningful Christian lives. Gratefully, Pat and Gen

from a friend of the family:
Dear Mary and Jim,
Clayton has really come into a beautiful and loving Christian fellowship. He is a very lucky young man to have been received so well into his new community. John and I felt it an honor to be a part of your special day. Thank you for all the “giving” you have sent our way. Love in your family! Cynthia O’Halloran

and then the telegram from my uncle:

Stumbling across all of this is quite humbling. It’s hard to know how to express gratitude for such a great gift, given to me even before there was any way of responding. It reminds me of the very gratuity of God, the great economist of the heart… who doesn’t measure, or wait for any kind of response.

In his Letter to Families, John Paul II wrote profound things about the family as the lasting “horizon of one’s existence” and the relationship between human life and life in God:

It is for themselves that married couples want children; in children they see the crowning of their own love for each other. They want children for the family, as a priceless gift. This is quite understandable. Nonetheless, in conjugal love and in paternal and maternal love we should find inscribed the same truth about man which the Council expressed in a clear and concise way in its statement that God “willed man for his own sake.” It is thus necessary that the will of the parents should be in harmony with the will of God. They must want the new human creature in the same way as the Creator wants him: “for himself.” Our human will is always and inevitably subject to the law of time and change. The divine will, on the other hand, is eternal. As we read in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer 1:5). The geneaology of the person is thus united with the eternity of God, and only then with human fatherhood and motherhood, which are realized in time. At the moment of conception itself, man is already destined to eternity in God.Letter to Families, paragraph 9

All I can say is that I am very grateful for my parents. It would have been easy for them to have seen a tenth child simply as a burden or another mouth to feed. But instead they chose to see it as an occasion of joy and hope, and left all of these reminders behind for me to discover later.

So here’s to forty-nine years of life in my earthly family, and in the family of the Trinity!

The Jeweler’s Shop

In the fall of 2014, Open Window Theatre in Minneapolis performed The Jeweler’s Shop, one of my favorite plays. It was written by Karol Wojtyla (who later became Pope St. John Paul II).

The Jeweler's Shop - Open Window Theatre

On Wednesday, October 22, 2014, immediately following a performance of the play, I joined three others in a panel discussion of the text. I don’t know nearly as much about John Paul II, the theater, or the play as the others on the panel, but on the basis of my sheer enthusiasm for the play, I was invited to participate.

Here’s a short description of the play, from the official English translation:

Love is “one of the greatest dramas of human existence,” writes Pope John Paul II. In this illuminating three-act play — here in the only English translation authorized by the Vatican — he explores relationships between men and women, the joys — and the pain — of love and marriage. The action unfolds in two settings at once: a street in a small town, outside the local jeweler’s shop (people go to buy their wedding rings there), and the mysterious inner landscape of personal hopes and fears, loves and longings. Each act focuses on a different couple: the first happily planning their wedding, the second long-married and unhappy, the third about to marry but full of doubts. Writing with power and understanding about a love that survives the grave, a love that has withered and died, a love budding out of complexes and insecurities, the Pope addresses such fundamental human concerns as: What does it mean to fall in love? When do we know that a love is real — and can it last? If it dies, how do we go on living — and loving — again? There are no easy answers, and there is no happy ending — such is the nature of men and women, and such is the nature of love — but there is hope, if we only acknowledge our need and accept the risks of a deep and lasting commitment. This is a play full of wisdom on a subject of great relevance to all, and it provides a special insight into the thoughts of the man who, like no other, has captured the imagination of people of all faiths throughout the world…. Karol Wojtyla — Pope John Paul II — has long been involved with the theater. As a student of literature, then priest, bishop and archbishop, he acted, directed, wrote dramatic criticism, made a Polish translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and has authored six plays. (source)

The panel discussion lasted about an hour. Here it is in audio format:

on the passage through life

LateAfternoonLightToday (at 12:49 pm, to be precise), I turn 49.

If I were going to take my cues from the culture, I should be surrounding myself with black balloons and all sorts of birthday cards evoking nostalgia and/or grief. For all of the talk about being “forward-looking,” we sure spend a lot of time longing for the past.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent years thinking about our passage through time… especially as both my father and the man I consider one of my primary spiritual fathers passed from this life to the next. Experiencing these deaths, and especially being present at the side of my father as he took his last breath, had an unexpected effect on me. Of course I expected the grief and sense of loss. But what surprised me was the way it stirred up a desire for the life to come, enkindled, I’m sure, by the fact that both men had pilgrim hearts: They took great joy in this life but never forgot that they were still on the way.

About a year before he died, my dad sent me an essay he’d written in college about Robert Frost’s After Apple Picking, which includes this passage:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.

Dad enclosed a short note with the essay, very matter-of-fact, saying he found it among some old files he had been sorting through. He didn’t need to say anything more; the consummate teacher, he allowed his own peaceful – and I might hazard to say joyful – entry into the next life to interpret the poem for me. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy this life, but he had tasted something more and wasn’t going to stick with the hors’d ouerves when an entire banquet was being laid out before him. As C.S. Lewis once put it,

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Or in the words of Saint John of the Cross:

I will never lose myself
for that which the senses
can take in here,
nor for all the mind can hold,
no matter how lofty,
nor for grace or beauty,
but only for I-don’t-know-what
which is so gladly found.

Or as T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets,

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass….

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

So I think my perspective on age is a bit different, a bit changed this year. If someone approaches me today and asks, “So how does it feel to be a year older?” I think I will respond, “The real question is: how does it feel to be a year closer to the life to come?”

Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

 

celebrating Mom

mom_letter_400wIn celebration of Mother’s Day, here’s an idea for a future Mother’s Day gift: a letter of memories and gratitude from all the kids.

About a decade ago, shortly after my Dad died, one of my sisters initiated a Christmas letter from my siblings to my mom, and it turned out to be a great way of honoring her. I think, with our Dad’s loss fresh in our minds, we realized that we didn’t want to wait until she was gone to send up some words of appreciation.

Here’s the idea as my sister presented it. She collected our letters, which were based on the following format:

  • Identify the top 2 things you like most about mom and why they’re meaningful to you. Add up to 3 more areas that you admire or like about her, (optional)
  • When you think of mom, you think of __________(from 2 words to 2 sentences)
  • Two important things that mom has taught you. (Can be more) This can be by her example as well, etc.
  • Most important gift mom has given you.
  • Favorite day, moment or memories with her (this is not limited but can expand as far as you’d like- beyond just one moment, day, experience too)
  • Funniest or silliest memory of her (laughable moment/s).
  • Your hopes, prayers or dreams for her now-what you would hope she will have/experience, related to her fulfillment.
  • (Optional) One thing she doesn’t know about you that you’d like to her to know (it can be anything, silly or serious-the point is sharing something here with her that she doesn’t know yet know about you or your life, that you’d like her to know).
  • Thanking her for … (Personal thanks for whatever comes to mind) (Some of these things may overlap but that’s fine).

A sampling of the responses from my nine brothers and sisters is posted here.

My own contribution:

The two things I most appreciate about Mom: her generosity and her receptivity. She defines what it means to be recklessly large-hearted, and fearless of the pain that might come from making herself so vulnerable. And by receptive I mean welcoming, not in any formal, dutiful way… but genuinely ready to open herself to whoever would present themselves to her. And then there’s her sense of humor, generally self-deprecating but always alive to the incongruities of life and all that is inherently silly… without caving in to the temptation of being ironic or sarcastic in any form.

Like last Christmas Eve, when she and I spent a good hour traversing back and forth across Clark Fork looking for the Holy Grail of plumbing: a toilet plunger for the overflowing facility at Sacred Heart.

lily of the valleyWhen I think of Mom, I think of lilies of the valley and sailboats, two things she’s fond of. Mom is like those delicate, fragrant flowers that change the whole aroma of the place without drawing attention to themselves, and like a sail open to wherever the Spirit might blow, and constantly tacking to see where the Wind might want to lead next. I think that’s how she taught me the value of discernment: testing everything, and keeping what is good.

Favorite memories include the lunches we shared together at the Burger King at Vine Hill and Highway 7, when I was in junior high school. I was just attending the junior high on a part-time basis, spending the rest of my time homeschooling. Generally, a bus would pick me up midday to take me to East Junior High. But from time to time, Mom would offer to drive me, so that we could have lunch together. It was just as the era of Home Covenant School ended, and during these undivided times shared with Mom, I felt I was getting to know her all over again.

My hope and prayer is that in this particular chapter in her life, she can look back with satisfaction on all of the artistry she has co-created — not the least the family she raised and nurtured with Dad — and look forward to all the new expressions of creative love that she has within her, waiting to be revealed in the days to come. She’s an artist of the human heart, with a canvas that has stretched as far as the eye can see… and a lot farther, I’m sure. There are realms of that canvas for her to revisit, and others to explore for the first time.

So I hope she’ll hop on her pontoon sailboat, so to speak, find the Wind like the expert sailor that she is, and set the course anew each day… touring that entire canvas, that whole work of art that is her life. It’s going to be a joy to watch.