Stuck with Me

One usually reflects with gratitude on the labor of one’s mother on one’s birthday. But I have to thank her on my ordination anniversary, too.

NewMellerayAbbeyAbout fifteen years ago, after my second year in the seminary, I had it in my mind to join the Trappists and spend the rest of my days making caskets in the monastery in Peosta, Iowa.

But my mom knew me better than I knew myself. She talked me out of it. To paraphrase: ‘You may be an obtuse goofball, but you nonetheless have the makings of a halfway decent shepherd of souls. You owe it to the good Lord who made you to use those talents.’

…So that’s how you got stuck with me, my dearly beloved church.

Back around the same time, in the 1990’s, I heard a middle-aged priest give a talk about his vocation. He began, “I’m not going to tell you why I joined. I am going to tell you why I stay.”

Why do I stay? ‘I am not strong enough to dig, and I am too proud to beg.’

Just kidding. Kind of.

At today’s Mass, we hear the Lord declare that the bond of marriage cannot be severed, except by the death of the body. The bond of a priest with Holy Church cannot be dissolved at all, even by the death of the body.

We priests have no right, on our own, to stand in Christ’s place. But He puts us there anyway. He gives us His Bride to be our bride, too. I never knew a heart could hold the kind of love that I get and give on any given Sunday morning. Ten years of Sunday mornings, and I still think I have the most beautiful bride in the world. I am the luckiest man alive.

pantocratorI wanted to be a monk so that I could make friends with death. But being a parish priest makes you friends with death, too. Why do we wear black? Because life on earth is short, friends.

Christian people get buried with the feet facing east. When the Last Day comes, and all the bodies rise and stand, the faithful will see the Lord. He will come from the east, with the dawn.

But we priests have the un-merited privilege of being buried in the other direction. Because—in spite of how unworthy we are—He has chosen us to stand in His place. Forever.

So—I’m sorry. I am sorry to have to tell you that you will be looking at this ridiculous mug for all eternity–God willing we make it to heaven.

But, by the eternal light, maybe my looks will improve. And we will all see Jesus, too, anyway.

Happy anniversary to you, my love.

In One of the Woods…

…that I frequent, the trail winds past a clearing. (Sorry. Bad cellphone photo:)

A family cemetery with a dozen graves. The oldest stone was chiseled in 1911. Three infants were buried here in the 1920’s. They trucked a paterfamilias up here as recently as 1982.

Sun setting behind the Blue Ridge. The moist, cold sod carpeted with fallen leaves. Our chop-fallen forebears’ bones mouldering just beneath my bended knees, pullulating with worms warmed by the deeper soil…Can’t think of a more pleasant pastime for a winter’s eve.

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
These rebel powers that thee array;
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 146)

St. Callistus and Julian Apostate

The Via Appia runs southeast of Rome. A number of ancient Christian cemeteries can be found on this road, including the catacombs of St. Callistus. They bear his name because he cared for and beautified this cemetery.

Pope St. Callistus was martyred during a persecution brought on by one of the Roman imperial lawyers. The martyred pope was buried 1,789 years ago today.

A century later, another emperor persecuted the Christians. He despised Christians as “atheists,” because they would not sacrifice to the Roman gods.

But Julian grudgingly acknowledged that Christianity had made enormous headway, owing to the three distinctive characteristics which Christians had:

1. Their kindness and charity to strangers.

2. The gravity of the way they carry themselves.

3. Their care for the burial of their dead.

Let me quote the emperor on this last point:

They bury their dead with modest religious respect, which is most movingly expressive of their firm hope in the resurrection, in which they regard the mortal remains of their dead as precious in the eyes of God, who watches over them, regarding them as the apple of his eye, to be raised one day in the brightest glory, and made shining lusters in the heavenly Jerusalem.