Category Archives: spiritual essay

Surrendering the Lead: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

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I could not accept retirement with grace.

Perhaps it was because retirement was not something I’d sought. Quite the opposite. After eighteen years as a lawyer, I’d been teaching high school English for six, loved it better than pistachio ice cream, hoped to continue for fifteen more years.

Perhaps it was because I’d spent a lifetime seeking education. I’d earned three graduate degrees—in law, teaching, and writing—to be the best I could in my careers.

Perhaps it was because my résumé had always worked magic. Spiffy schools, top grades, and strong endorsements had yielded a series of jobs, each one better than the one before, all landed easily.

Perhaps it was because I’d always been a workaholic. Late nights, weekends, holidays, I’d be there at the grindstone. Yep, you could always count on me.

Yet there I was jobless at age fifty, brought down by four high school juniors. They’d turned in identical essays for a final paper not assigned as group work; even their typos were the same. When I reported the incident to the dean, he ordered me to overlook the cheating. I surmised the parents were donors and resigned instead.

That was seven years ago, and I haven’t found steady work since.

It’s not that I haven’t looked. I applied for countless jobs: eighth grade language arts teacher, high school debate coach, twelfth grade creative writing teacher, college instructor of expository writing, law school professor of legal research and writing, volunteer writing tutor, assistant to a nun who ran a nonprofit and sought someone experienced in teaching, writing, and law.

I wrote the cover letters from the heart, tailored every application. Still, most went unacknowledged, despite my follow-ups. The rest elicited rejections addressed to “Applicant.” They secured not a single interview.

The only work I found was teaching college writing as an adjunct—and, believe me, I was grateful. But this was intermittent, temp work, doled out on a moment’s notice, carried on in isolation, lasting just ten weeks per stint, without a chance of advancement, cancelable at the college’s will.

What had happened to me? I’d once been treated like a crystal goblet, now like a paper cup.

The situation resulted in depression—ceaseless lamentation and self-recrimination: Why doesn’t anybody want me? Was my past success a fluke? How can I be so worthless that hard work can’t bring me up to snuff? I should have ignored that cheating. I was such an idiot. If something happens to my marriage, how will I earn enough to live?

My reaction to joblessness, I learned, was not uncommon. Psychologists have long associated unemployment with depression, poor self-esteem, and anxiety. And a recent Gallop-Healthways survey found that under- and unemployed Americans are more than twice as likely to report they’re being treated for depression than those with full-time jobs.

Treatment, though, wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was a job. Why was that impossible?

A friend surmised the problem was my age. She knew the nun I had applied to and asked her which applicant she’d hired. The response: a recent college graduate, a twenty-three-old. A young woman my former students’ age.

That age was my undoing seemed ridiculous. I might live thirty more years. I’m also a whiz on my iPad, and in yoga I can stand on my head.

What’s more, I know young adults. Believe me, I love them dearly. But they skip classes over broken fingernails. They can’t write a sentence worth beans. They’re known to be shameless job-hoppers, switching posts every three years. Why would employers them when they can have someone resilient, experienced, and steadfast—in other words, me?

Still, my friend’s hypothesis had merit. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that in 2013 almost thirty percent of cases claimed age discrimination. And according to a recent Boston Globe piece, almost half of all Americans who are jobless for more than a year are age forty-five or older and unlikely to ever be hired. A sixtyish former executive who’d spent five years pounding the pavement described the challenge he’d experienced: interviewers were twenty years his junior and not eager to “hire their dad.”

I was doomed, no doubt about it, so I resolved to walk The Way of Saint James.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where, according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is buried. Ever since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have journeyed to his tomb on a variety of routes. The most travelled is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of France, but some pilgrims walk from farther points—Paris, Rome, Munich—others from spots nearer Santiago—Burgos, León, Samos. Last September, I joined them with my husband, trekking 200 miles in twelve stages.

Walking The Way is like having group therapy. All along the trail, pilgrims encounter each other, hike together for a distance, converse about their lives.

The first thing pilgrims always asked me was why I was making the journey. When I confessed that I was unemployed, they listened, shook their heads and nodded, then told me reasons of their own: One said her boyfriend had betrayed her. Another disclosed his wife had died. Another revealed she had cancer. Several, like me, said they couldn’t find jobs. Many of us were hoping the Camino would ease us through a transition or help us recover from a loss. Every day we were happy to discover empathetic souls who liked to walk and talk.

On the seventh day of our Camino, my husband and I rose before dawn and departed O’Cebreiro, a Celtic, mountaintop village with cobbled streets and numerous pallozas—round, stone houses with thatched roofs. We walked beneath the moon and stars, soon joining a group of eighteen young adults we’d met a few days before.

Guided by a few pilgrim headlamps, we headed down a wooded track. It wound around the hill before descending to the hamlet of Liñares and ascending again. The sun began to rise, revealing an ethereal horizon of green hilltops floating over morning mist. This is where Megan caught us and my husband speeded up a so the two of us women could talk.

Megan is a blue-eyed Millennial, a genial girl-next-door with a graceful stride. She told me nothing makes her happier than teaching and working with kids. Just a few months before the Camino, she’d completed a MEd in educational psychology. Through the summer she’d worked as a camp coordinator. She’d enjoyed it very much, but the job was seasonal and ended. On the Camino she was pondering her future, worried that she’d found no other job and scared that she never would.

When Megan and I reached Alto de San Roque, she stopped at a monolithic statue perched on the edge of a bluff—a trekking medieval pilgrim carrying a walking stick. There some of her friends were taking photos, gulping water, and gorging on croissants.

I continued on the path to Padornelo, which passes a pretty, stone chapel and climbs steeply for a stretch before plunging towards Ramil, where pilgrims, sheep, cattle, and chickens share a corredoira—a narrow lane walled with granite. By late morning, light rain began to fall. As I was pulling on my poncho, Rochelle and Erin joined me. We walked and they talked about their lives.

Rochelle is an athletic twenty-something with long blond hair and a bright, wide smile. She professed a passion for the Catholic Church and hoped to dedicate herself to serving it. With a BA in political science and comparative religion, she’d found a job at a diocesan chancery and had been there for two years. She told me only God knows what’s in store for her, but in the meantime she was happy where she was. She was walking The Way because she felt she had something to prove to herself and she couldn’t rest until she did.

Erin’s a gregarious Gen Y-er with chic, dark hair and cerulean eyes. She’d earned a BA in linguistics, planned to work in bilingual education, but realized teaching didn’t suit her well. She wound up in working in high school youth ministry. That job had disillusioned her, so she quit and embarked on the Camino, hoping to become re-inspired. Her goal was to pinpoint a career that would help others and gratify her.

As we talked, the three of us meandered a trail above a wooded valley. After a while, the drizzle tapered off and the clouds lifted a bit. The path began to ascend and soon I felt the need to slow my stride. The two girls offered to stay in sync with me, but I encouraged them to keep their pace, so they nodded and hiked on.

Within moments they were ahead of me, joining their marching, ponchoed friends. Orange-berried rowan trees swaying at the roadside, the queue of young adults briskly climbed the hill, their ranks stretching out before me as far as I could see: Blake, Megan, Lisa, Monica, Milo, Katey, Bryson, Julie, Alex, Liz, Vincent, Helen, Erin, Ruth, Rochelle. As I watched them soldier on, a wave of peace swept through me. I realized we were just where we should be, with them leading the way and me bringing up the rear.

I’d been wrong about their generation. Far from being unaccomplished and inconstant, they were strong, smart, caring, skilled, determined, with lots of love in their hearts and lots of dreams in their heads. They deserved to reach those dreams, but being young they had only just begun and had not yet had the chance to succeed.

On the other hand, I had had my chance. During my fifty-something years, I’d accomplished many, many dreams. I had a family, home, and friends, and yes, I’d had a long career. Between the young adults and me it was only fair that employers would choose them. Perhaps it was time to surrender, accept my turn to lead was over, and bless the next generation as it passed.

Please understand what I’m saying: I’m not condoning ageism; older workers need and want to work and have so much of value to give. And, believe me, if I could find a steady teaching job, I would leap at the chance.

At this juncture, I’m simply acknowledging the deal that God has made with every one of us. As we age, we lose things one by one—health, work, possessions, loved-ones, independence, life. We don’t know the timing or the sequence. For me the job went first, and really, I should be thankful; compared to other things I might have lost—and will lose in the future—the job was insignificant.

Once, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a special colt as the people lined the streets with boughs and hailed him as their king. Within days, though, they arrested him and sentenced him to death.

Jesus begged God to change his fate; he loved his work and life and didn’t want to lose them. But God ignored his supplication, so Jesus readily steeled himself and did his Father’s will. He surrendered, accepted his time to leave had come, and blessed his disciples as they began to lead the way.

 

Originally published in Good Letters.

The Shroud of Turin (La Sindone)

SINDONEIf you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could speak for hours. Before I saw it in Italy one Easter, I read several books on it. So I could tell you the Shroud is a linen cloth, three feet wide and fourteen long, that’s marked with faint front and back images—like those of a sepia photo—of a man in burial pose.

Beginning at one end of the fabric and panning lengthwise towards the other, you can see the front of the man’s body: his ankles, shins, knees, and thighs; his hands shielding his groin; his stomach, chest, beard, and face; his tendriled forehead at mid-length.

From there, continuing on, you can see the man’s back: his hair gathered in a ponytail at the nape of his neck; his shoulders, buttocks, hams, and calves; his heels at the far hem.

You suspect the man’s been scourged. Blood-filled back and buttock wounds bring to mind a flagellation by a leather multi-thonged whip, lead pellets tied to tips. You deduce the man’s been crucified. Blood-crusted wrist and ankle wounds suggest an ancient crucifixion, iron nail shafts rammed though flesh and bone by pounding rough-hewn heads.

You theorize the man’s been crowned with brambles. Blood has trickled through his locks from myriad scalp and forehead punctures. You surmise the man’s been speared. Serum has puddled at his waist from a right-rib, lance-shaped wound.

So you guess, if you’ve read the Gospels, that the Shroud is Jesus’ burial cloth, the sudarium John and Peter found in their teacher’s vacant tomb. And you grasp why it’s the world’s most-guarded relic—displayed only once each twenty years—and why scholars debate its authenticity, some proclaiming it a miracle, others declaring it a fake.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could summarize its history. Some experts place it in Jerusalem in AD 33 and chronicle an almost gapless jaunt:

To Edessa in AD 34, where Christians hid it from vandals in the city’s stone surrounding walls, to Constantinople in AD 944, where the Byzantine emperor raised it banner-like in his palace church.

To Athens, Greece, in AD 1204, when Fourth Crusaders sailed into Byzantium and seized it with the empire’s Christian relics, to Lirey, France, in 1354, when a French knight took it for himself.

To Savoy, France, in 1453, when the knight’s heiress gave it to a duke in exchange for a country castle, to Chambéry in 1502, where the duke placed it in his royal chapel behind an iron grill.

There, the cloth remained, folded in a bolted, silver coffer, until a fire swept the chapel in 1532. Hell-bent to save the Shroud, two Franciscans doused the reliquary, summoned a smith to pry the hasps, unfurled and inspected the Shroud.

Melted silver had singed a folded corner. Water had seeped through the fibers. But except for a series of scorch marks burned through to holes at intervals, the image was unmarred, and Poor Clare nuns patched up the holes.

Then, in 1578, Milan’s cardinal planned a pilgrimage to the Shroud, so the cloth was moved to Turin, Italy, to spare him a hike across the Alps. Today, the Shroud remains in Turin’s Duomo, out-of-sight for decades at a time, in an airtight, bulletproof case.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could recount the scholarly debates. Despite the propositions of their colleagues, some historians dispute the Shroud’s existence before its debut in medieval France.

Radiologists endorse the naysayers—their carbon-14 studies date the cloth to the early 1300s; they claim the image and bloodstains are paint, a counterfeiter’s work. Forensic scientists support the yaysayers—they find no pigments on the fibers, just human blood and serum; they charge the radiologists with sampling a Poor Clare patch.

Textile experts back the devotees—they say the Shroud’s herringbone weave was prized in Caesar’s time and unused in the Middle Ages. Botanists agree with them—they say the Shroud is strewn with flower prints and pollen from Israeli mums extinct before medieval times.

But the nonbelievers are diehards, determined to prove the Shroud a fraud by reproducing it themselves: They’ve tried Byzantine tempera painting, medieval photography, printing bas-reliefs. They’ve attempted hot statue wrapping, line engraving, and vapography. They’ve tried fungal and bacterial methods, non-enzymatic browning, singlet oxygen techniques. They’ve undertaken fabric scorching, flash irradiation, and electrostatic fields.

Then came an aero-optics expert who thought he’d proved the Shroud authentic, settling the debate: his NASA image analyzer showed the Shroud plots a 3-D elevation of a tortured human male. But skepticism persists, although no technology we know of—no natural process, no artistic or photographic method—can make an image like the Shroud’s, one that plots 3-D.

So if you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I’d have plenty to say.

But most of it is straw.

Because there’s something that leaves me speechless, something I didn’t read in books, something that didn’t strike me till I stood in the dark cathedral among a praying crowd and stared at the backlit Shroud suspended on a wall before me, so close I could have touched its fibers, the imprint, the blood.

That something is this: Jesus was a man, a man no bigger than my son, one man among the billions who have lived or ever will. And one spring evening long ago, he pulled his hair into a ponytail to prepare bread and wine for his disciples, as my son pulls on a favorite t-shirt to set out beer and nachos for his friends.

As if it were an ordinary evening.

But it wasn’t an ordinary evening; it was the last one of his life.

And when his mother saw his broken corpse, one she hoped to never see—as I hope to never see my son’s—she tossed a few chrysanthemums upon it, covered it with the Shroud, and left the tomb with her grief.

Then, when all was quiet, a flash of light, a flutter of fabric. An image to hold onto until eternity.

The Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago)

IMG_1996_2My Uncle Jimmy died last fall at the age of ninety. Born in Sicily, he immigrated to New York when young and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was the husband of my aunt for sixty-one years, the frolicsome father of my two cousins, a regular part of my life until I married and moved away.

I can still see my uncle clearly as he was in January 1994. The way his brown eyes sparkled. The way his thick hair swept back from his forehead. The way he arm-wrestled my four-year-old son to laughter, easing tears caused by my father’s death.

That was the last time I saw my Uncle Jimmy. Almost twenty years ago.

On the day my Uncle Jimmy died, I didn’t even know that he was ill. He’d lived in Florida for two decades and I in Seattle for three. Through those years our correspondence was limited, consisting only of Christmas and Easter cards with a few scribbled pleasantries. Some years, even cards were lacking.

No, on the day my uncle died, I wasn’t at his bedside hugging him. Instead, I was in a Spanish cathedral embracing a very different Jimmy, not one of flesh and bones, but of gold-plate and jewels, the bust of Saint James, apostle of Jesus, whom Spaniards call Santiago.

According to Christian tradition, after Jesus’ resurrection, James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the Gospel. Upon returning to Jerusalem, he was beheaded, becoming the first Christian martyr. His acolytes carried his corpse to Palestine’s coast and placed it on an unpiloted boat that miraculously crossed the Mediterranean, passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, and landed on the shore of Spain among the fiord-like rías of Galicia.

In Galicia, the body was buried in a small shrine and the town of Santiago grew around it. By the twelfth century, an immense Romanesque cathedral had been built over James’ tomb and was attracting half a million pilgrims each year. People walked there from all over Europe, hundreds and hundreds of miles, crossing mountains, valleys, plains, and rivers, risking starvation, dehydration, injury, raids by bandits, death. For them, the pilgrimage was an enactment of the spiritual journey to God and the hardships were tests of faith.

Today, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually walk El Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James. Heads swathed from blazing sun, blisters bursting in boots, backs bent under packs dangling emblematic scallop shells, they now come from all around the world and include believers and non-believers alike. During the last two weeks of my Uncle Jimmy’s life, my husband and I were two of them.

The Way is very much like leapfrog. Though the most travelled route is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, some pilgrims walk from farther points—Rome, Zagreb, Warsaw—others from spots nearer Santiago—Pamplona, Leon, Sarria.

All along The Way, pilgrims encounter each other, walk together for a distance, talk in spontaneous pidgins of English-Spanish-French-German-Italian. They lose each other at rest stops or to slow or quicken their pace, then rediscover each other at intervals of minutes, hours, days.  On the road, in restaurants, and in refugios, they bond through a cycle of challenges, triumphs, chow, chat.

We spied our first fellow peregrinos in an otherwise empty hotel breakfast room on the morning we set out from Leon. They were sitting at another table, a chic Spanish-speaking couple in brand new hiking gear. Finishing our pastries and coffees, the four of us stood, heaved our packs, smiled—neither my husband nor I speak Spanish—went outside and found the route. We walked neck in neck for hours. When the road split, we turned left and they turned right.

Two days later we recognized them in a restaurant in Rabanal, heard them speaking English to another couple, introduced ourselves. By the end of our conversation, we’d come to know them as Miguel and Liliana from Colombia. By Villafranca, we were dining with them, sharing insights on how to deal with blisters, manage backpacks, parent children, face midlife.

Likewise, in bits and pieces on The Way, we came to know Kyung Mi from Seoul, who clicked her walking sticks on gravel, offered me a parasol when the sun grew hot. And the group of students from the Catholic Newman Center at University of Washington, who early mornings shared the glow of headlamps and song-filled sunrise prayers. And Matteo from Genoa, who climbed a mountain pass with me, insisting I practice my Italian to distract me from my bleeding feet.

When pilgrims reach Santiago, they embrace in front of the cathedral. Strangers only weeks before, they now regard themselves as friends. Together they enter the cathedral and walk their last steps together up stairs that lead behind the altar. There they hug the gilded statue of Saint James, then descend to the Pilgrims’ Mass.

At Mass I gazed around me at hundreds of peregrinos, many now dear. People who had walked into my life, touched my heart, and would soon depart. People like so many others—my parents and grandparents, lost neighbors, colleagues, friends—who had once been marvelously present but had vanished due to distance, distractions, death.

People like my Uncle Jimmy.

I wanted to put my arms around them, all the people of my life. Those I’d known well and those I wished I’d known better. Those here and now. Those there and then. I wanted to hold them forever in a way that Facebook can’t.

Towards the end of the Pilgrim’s Mass, eight red-robed attendants launched the botafumeiro, a massive silver incense dispenser hung by a sturdy rope that swings an enormous arc across the church transept. At the first oscillation, the organ began to boom as every eye in the cathedral lifted to heaven with the fragrant smoke.

Then I understood. The Way doesn’t end in Santiago. And if we continue on it, loving those who cross our path, we can hope to be united with each other in God’s realm.

 

Photo by Vincent Samudovsky

Pondering Prayer

ponderingprayer-300x215I had a problem with prayer.  It’s not that I didn’t think of God or talk to him; I did every single day.  But I didn’t understand what made me do it, didn’t know what it accomplished, wasn’t sure what I was doing was prayer.

You see, I just can’t pray as Sister Clare taught us kids in Catechism; I don’t say formal prayers except at Mass—not the Confiteor, not the Our Father, not the Hail Mary—and even then I don’t actually say them; instead, I listen to the congregation’s voices, straining to focus on the words.

And I can’t pray like my Lutheran colleague Laura, who asks the people in our office to hold hands and spins extemporaneous prayers whenever one of us is ailing—Dear Lord, healer of the sick, we turn to you as our friend John faces knee surgery.  When she does this, I lose her thread almost from the start, so urgent is my need to drop my neighbors’ palms.

Nor can I pray like my old friend Beth, who at all times carries a binder, each page with a scripted prayer meant for a particular person, addressed to a specific saint, repeated several times each day—O glorious St. Joseph, faithful follower of Jesus Christ, to you do we raise our hearts and hands to implore your powerful intercession on behalf of Tom. Whenever she asks me to join her, my mouth iterates the words, but my mind remains unengaged and my eyes seek the bottom of the page.

And while experience had made it clear that public prayers composed by others didn’t work for me (especially while holding hands), I wasn’t any more successful praying my own words privately.  Every single night from age five to fifty, I’d turned off the lights, climbed into bed, closed my eyes, curled up like a fetus, mumbled a personal prayer—Dear God, thank you for today, for the compliment Bill gave me at work, for the avocado sandwich and companionship I shared with Dave at lunch.   But before I’d get much further I’d be ruminating some incident that had happened during the day or running through my checklist for the next one.

I often wondered why I even tried to pray:  What was the point?  While I certainly thought it proper to thank God for blessings—health, home, family, friends—and apologize for failings—envy, anger, petulance, pride—I thought it selfish to ask him for favors—a slimmer body, a better job, a bigger house.  With six billion people on a planet rife with poverty, violence, disease, who was I to ask for anything?  And then, when it came right down to it, I couldn’t believe, as Clare, Laura and Beth did, that God responded to petitions.  The Holocaust, Viet Nam, 9/11, Darfur, Katrina.  Was no one praying then?

I was a failure at prayer.

And it bothered me.

So I met with Fr. Boniface, a priest at the Catholic church I go to, to ask him what I was doing wrong.  He said:  “What you do isn’t what matters.  Think about what prayer is.  It’s a conversation with God.  It’s about entering into a relationship with him.  When we converse with people, we come to know and them, and that takes time.  It’s the same with God.  Prayer is about falling in love with God, being close to him, now and in eternity.”

What a baffling response.  Until that moment, if you’d asked me what prayer was, I’d have called it an obligation.  Something I did to be good.  Something I did to thank the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient Creator for my stint in the world.

Prayer, a relationship with God?   It was a concept I’d heard before, mostly from Protestant students at the Christian college where I teach.  When one student, Hannah, wrote of her personal relationship with Jesus, I’d pictured him in blue jeans, sitting on her shoulder, strumming a guitar, singing love songs in her ear.  How strange.  Still, while part of me thought this picture crazy, another burned with jealousy.  Jesus was right there for Hannah.  Where was God for me?

I, like most people of the Judeo-Christian tradition, had been taught that God is omnipresent.  He is everywhere.  But omnipresence is difficult to fathom.  Perhaps my problem with prayer was I couldn’t sense God’s presence when I prayed.  Presence is crucial to relationships.  Absence causes love to fade away.

So I read about Divine presence.  The transcendent view stresses the otherness of God:  He’s above the clouds, beyond the stars, not in the material world.  And I realized scripted prayers placed God out there for me—too far to sense his presence, too distant for relationship.

The immanent view sees God within all parts of Creation:  He’s in every object, element, animal, plant and person—including me.  And I realized my improvised bedtime prayers placed God within my self—so close he dissolved into my substance, too indistinct for relationship.

Yet I knew, absolutely, that I had felt God’s presence in my life.  I’d catch my breath at a tangerine sunrise and whisper, Thank you, God., then be moved to smile at everyone I passed along the street.  Or I’d be startled by an ambulance siren and think, God, please let that person live., then be prompted to write to my aunt who’d had a heart condition for years.  Or I’d shriek when my daughter burned a skillet and wince, God, why am I so testy?, then be spurred to take my daughter out to lunch.

So while I can’t sense Divine presence beyond the clouds or within me, I feel God close, and clearly, in unexpected moments like these—moments of awe, joy, fear, sorrow or contrition.  God captures my attention in these moments.  I cry in recognition, feel a surge of heart.  I respond with acts of love, often in spite of myself.  Are these exchanges conversations?  I’d like to think yes.  Thus, they’re no less prayers that the kinds I struggle with.

Requiescat in Pace

l_btiAEUoAHAHKbCeJGive them rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them. The just will live in memory everlasting and will not be in fear of ill report.

Thus begins the Solemn Requiem Mass that some Roman Catholics say on All Souls’ Day, when the Church prays for the dead. Historically, the Catholic tradition grew from a Jewish practice first performed after a battle described in the Second Book of Maccabees.

According to the Maccabean story, so many faithful soldiers perished in the fray that their leader Judas fretted for their souls. Desiring to atone for their sins and ensure their resurrection, he took up a collection, amassing two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem. In a similar way, modern Catholics combine their prayers, hoping to expiate sins and usher souls from purgatory to heaven.

While the custom of praying for the dead is ancient, there was no official Catholic celebration until late in the tenth century, when a French pilgrim returning from the Holy Land was shipwrecked on a craggy island. There he met a hermit who told him of a chasm in the rocks through which continuously rose the groans of the suffering souls in purgatory.

From the fissure also erupted the intermittent curses of the demons that supervised the dead. These devils reviled the monks of Cluny, France, whose prayers were especially potent and were depleting purgatory’s ranks.

Prompted by the hermit, the pilgrim hurried off to Cluny and begged the abbot and brothers there to redouble their supplications so every soul in purgatory could stop suffering and pass to paradise. Thus, the second of November became All Souls’ Day, an annual day of prayer, a custom that spread throughout France and Europe, reaching Rome in the fourteenth century.

My church, Blessed Sacrament in Seattle, celebrates each All Souls’ Day with a Solemn Requiem Mass according to the Dominican Rite. The Mass is said at night in Latin and includes Dominican chanting and polyphonic hymns.

A black casket is placed upon the altar surrounded by six man-tall candles that burn throughout the rite. Inside the otherwise-empty coffin are the names of the parishioners’ deceased, hundreds and hundreds of names, among them those of my parents and grandparents and many others I have loved.

Also among the names is that of a priest, Father Tom Kraft. Tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, a jack-o-lantern smile and deep gray eyes, he said all the Masses I attended when I first joined the church. Every single Sunday, he talked and sang of God and placed communion in my hands with a grace that moved me greatly.

Still, I never said a word to Father Tom until his last second of November, when I wrote him a letter. Now, on every All Souls’ Day, I pray to always say I love you to the living, not wait to pray for the dead.

November 2, 2008

Dear Father Tom—

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and there would be peace, and no poverty or illness, and you would be well.

But I don’t have a magic wand, which is why I started going to Blessed Sacrament the week after Easter this year, after a thirty-year almost-total lapse in church attendance. I chose Blessed Sacrament because I liked the bricks and steeple, and it’s close enough to walk there from my house.

What I found at Blessed Sacrament was more than bricks. I found music so soulful I ache, stained glass so lovely I fly, and a sweet, consistent community that sounds like they mean it when they shake my hand and wish me peace. They look right into my eyes and I look back.

I also found you, a priest who smiles and glows from the altar, like the prayers, songs, readings, and community all really mean something, and like God is actually up there, or even better, down here with us. And when I walk home each Sunday, the sky and flowers and leaves somehow seem more vivid, and the homeless make me bleed even more than they usually do.

It’s probably for this reason that I thought of you a few weeks ago. My son Sean is a sophomore in college who will defend just about anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, social status, or sexual orientation.  The only people he doesn’t understand are those with religion.

As far as Sean can tell, God is an excuse for committing atrocities who allows people to go to church on Sunday, then spend the remainder of the week denigrating Arabs, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, the poor, the disabled, and gays. To my son, religion is a show without interiority.

This, I think, was one of many reasons that the recent death of Sean’s friend Luke shattered Sean as it did. Luke was a good, caring person, and Sean kept on repeating that Luke didn’t deserve to die at age nineteen. Sean also didn’t want to believe that he’d never see his friend’s face again or hear his voice.

So I wished I could send Sean to you because I had a feeling you could open a window that would enable him to hope that someday he would see Luke, and maybe even God.  

I didn’t know when Luke died—I didn’t know until today—that you are fighting cancer, or that you have a CaringBridge blog-site with 911 letters and almost 25,000 hits, all expressing the same prayer—that you go on glowing from the altar. I can’t predict the future, but I know one thing for sure, one way or another you will.

I miss you, Father Tom.

Requiescat in pace.

For the Time Being

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I recently ran into a good friend who’d been battling depression for years. She looked radiant. She smiled and said a therapist had healed her; he’d taught her to live wholly in the present, enjoy every flower she sees, block all but the here and now.

I’m glad this philosophy works for my friend, but it wouldn’t be helpful to me. I too believe in cherishing the present—both in time and place—but I couldn’t live without remembering the past or the beauty of distant things.

While every flower I encounter brings me instant joy, the past has taught me which ones smell delicious and which harbor poisons to avoid. And when there aren’t flowers anywhere in sight, I recall that all I need to do to find them is wait for springtime or travel somewhere else.

This is likely why I so enjoyed For the Time Being, a book by Annie Dillard that contemplates time and space. I love the way it assembles information: stories from China and Israel, the natural history of sand, wisdom from Confucianism, Christianity and Kabbalism, medical facts about birth and death.

I love the way it poses statistical questions: Do you remember what you were doing on April 30, 1991, when typhoon waves drowned more than 138,000 people in Bangladesh? Do you know the dead outnumber the living in the ratio of twenty to one?

I love the way it travels through the ages—from the days of the Chinese Emperor Qin, who unified his country in 221 BCE, to the days of the Galilean Rabbi Isaac Luria, who reinterpreted the Zohar in the 1500s, to the days of the French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose archeological team discovered Peking Man in the 1920s, to the present day.

And I love the way it juxtaposes incongruent images—images of clouds, carnage, waves, plagues, trains, cemeteries, dwarves—so that readers can stir them all together, add their own connections, and marvel at the subtle, complex stew.

Dillard’s book shows so well that no matter our technologies or theories, we can’t control or comprehend our baffling world, or disentangle its disasters from its wonders. It also highlight that we humans, each unique and precious, are at once common and insignificant, and that this paradox unites us all.

This brings to mind a personal connection. While I believe in one God who made all that’s seen and hidden, I can’t believe that any single human doctrine can fully capture his utter mystery. All throughout the ages, and all around the world, his children have attempted to revere him in innumerable ways.

My tradition is Catholicism. The teachings, the liturgy, the organ, the incense, the light through stained glass: all of these move me to reverence. But you may be moved by something else. And the students I once taught at a yeshiva, by something different still.

But what should we make of the difference? A few years ago, I signed up for a yoga class—something I’d never done before. Following the instructor’s directions, I sat cross-legged on the floor, straightened up my spine, pressed my palms together, relaxed my face and closed my eyes.

The instructor began to chant in Sanskrit: Yogena chittasya padena vacham. The experienced students responded: Yogena chittasya padena vacham.

The instructor continued to chant: Malam sharirasya cha vaidyakena. Again the veterans responded: Malam sharirasya cha vaidyakena.

I couldn’t understand a single word. But despite this or likely because of it, I discerned something deeper than words could ever have disclosed. For sitting closed-eyed in that studio, I felt the presence of all of humankind—people calling, listening, responding, searching for each other and beyond.

And their dissonant separate voices—many raspy, off-key—combined oddly into harmony. It was a harmony that rose around me, ran through me, expanded within me.

It was a harmony distinct from all others, yet identical to all—the harmony of Gregorian chanting and Southern a cappella hymns, the harmony of Torah cantillations and Quranic tarteel.

It was all harmonies I’d ever heard and those I’d never imagined. It was all harmonies I’d yet to hear and those I never will.

In it, I sensed God.

I’ve remembered it often since then.

I remembered it when a Taliban assassin shot a Pakistani schoolgirl in the head, almost killing her, and when Hurricane Sandy swept the East Coast, killing dozens and leaving eight million without power.

I recalled it when a young gunman murdered twenty-six teachers and children in a Connecticut elementary school and when two brothers set off bombs at the Boston Marathon, wounding hundreds and leaving three dead.

I remembered it when Syrian government forces massacred five hundred civilians in a Damascus suburb and when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh killing and injuring three thousand workers.

Each time I’ve recalled that harmony, I’ve let it fuse with bygone melodies still resounding from the past and blend with distant songs I somehow knew were being sung in other places.

It’s always brought me peace, the peace I know is God.

So, for the time being, I’m determined to cherish that harmony, as I wish my good friend could. I hope to always keep it in my memory so that it can rise again to buoy me when the next typhoon waves come.