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Alone but not isolated — an essay about the seven sacraments

Life is lonely. We’re born alone. We die alone. No matter how much we’re surrounded by people, even people who love us, we experience life in a way that can only partially be shared. You hear a song that makes your heart soar. But it does nothing for the person standing next to you. You read a book that touches you deeply. But you can’t find the words to make someone else — even a good friend, even a spouse — understand all the many ways it speaks to you. In a deep insight into human nature, the Catholic Church recognizes this reality. Its seven sacraments are outward signs of God’s workings in the world, and six of them are given to individuals. Water was poured on your head at Baptism. The cross was marked in holy oil upon your forehead at Confirmation. When you are gravely ill or near death, it will be your body that is anointed. Rogier_van_der_Weyden-_Seven_Sacraments_Altarpiece_-_Baptism,_Confirmation,_and_Penance;_detail,_left_wing Marriage Only Marriage is a sacrament that is given to two people at the same moment, “that they might no longer be two, but one flesh.” Marriage is the epitome of all the relationships that people have in life. In any relationship — such as parent-to-child or friend-to-friend or spouse-to-spouse — two people share their lives. They commit to each other. Nowhere is that commitment as deep as in marriage. Spouses are more open with each other than with anyone else. They reveal more about their inner depths. They trust, and they gain support and encouragement from, each other. Yet, that sharing can only go so far.

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The prayer of writing

This essay originally appeared in the May issue of Reality, a Catholic magazine in Ireland.
This essay originally appeared in the May issue of Reality, a Catholic magazine in Ireland.
Norman Mailer called writing “the spooky art.” And anyone who’s been a writer, amateur or professional, knows what Mailer means. There’s a mysterious alchemy that takes place when the writer begins putting words together into sentences. There was nothing; now, there is something. The chaos of existence — that swirling, kaleidoscopic, overwhelming, storm of stimuli — is funneled down to the narrowest of straight lines. Tiny symbols, as regular in size as bricks or building stones but ever so small, are mortared across the page or screen or paper. Sculpture mimics the body. Painting plays the same tricks on the eyes that the physical world does. Music tickles the mathematics of our ears. Writing, though, speaks directly to the brain. The writing goes from one mind to another, from the writer to the reader. It doesn’t exist without a writer and a reader. It is a kind of a prayer, an effort to find and transmit truth, to reach across the chasm that separates people and enable them to see, hear and experience each other. It is God’s work. Something new I am always the first reader of what I write. And I’m always surprised in some way at how the words have fit together.
The handwriting of Charles Dickens as he created a page from "A Christmas Carol"
The handwriting of Charles Dickens as he created a page from "A Christmas Carol"
Even if I’m working from a detailed outline, something I rarely do, there are twists in the argument or account that I didn’t anticipate, unexpected phrases and descriptions that, seeming to come out of nowhere, have the tang of aptness to them. I think, at the beginning of a paragraph, that I will say one thing, but, by the end, I’ve written something a bit different. Or quite different. The thing written is something new. It’s been created. This essay is coming into being as I write it. As I put them down, the words — my words — lead me in this or that direction. I’m interested in how the words are combining and, even more, in the ideas those words are communicating. I’m curious to find out what happens next. I have, to a greater or lesser extent, some general idea of what I want to write whenever I begin writing. But the images and thoughts I expect to address are floating fairly free-form in my brain. In snatching them out of that ether and giving them substance in grammatically correct sentences that relate to one another with a logic and move with rhythm and pace, I’m transforming them, just as a seamstress takes various segments of fabric and fashions a dress.

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Living in the moment

This essay initially appeared in the March, 2014 edition of Reality magazine in Ireland. One of the great boons of our era is the ongoing effort at creating better, clearer and more accurate translations of the Bible. But, sometimes, you just can’t top the King James version. Consider the 23rd Psalm. In the New International Version, the fourth verse is translated this way: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” That’s almost — but not quite — identical to the King James translation: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” To my mind, “darkest valley” is pretty bland. Especially when compared to “the valley of the shadow of death.” http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-image-psalm-23-image1276981 I’m no Bible expert, so maybe “darkest valley” is closer to the phrasing in the earliest versions we have of the Psalms. Still, “the valley of the shadow of death” is a much more poetic way of saying it — more poignant. That’s because it goes to the heart of what it means to be alive. All walking through the valley After all, we are all walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Life is a journey to death. We may distract ourselves, we may avert our eyes, but, always, at every moment, looming over us is the reality of our coming death. Recently, I re-read Muriel Spark’s 1958 masterpiece Memento Mori. It’s a novel about a bunch of elderly English people, mostly upper-class Londoners, who begin receiving identical telephone calls. When they answer, the caller says, “Remember, you must die.”

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The Woven Lives of a Parish

As a parallel to the story I wrote for National Catholic Reporter in July about St. Gertrude Church and the death of our longtime religious education director, I did a similar piece that was published this month in Reality, a Catholic magazine in Ireland. Here it is: reality - woven --- 1 reality - woven --- 2 reality - woven --- 3 reality - woven --- 4 Patrick T. Reardon 9.18.13 If the above copies of the magazine pages are too tough to read, here's the story in a more readable format:

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Freedom “for all God’s children”

Martin-Luther-King-Jr_-delivering-his-I-Have-a-Dream-speech-on-August-28-1963On August 28, 1963, a solemn, deliberate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his address at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial — the climax of the March on Washington — with the words: I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. It was the start of what has become known as King’s “I have a dream” speech, one of the most revered and most influential orations in history, a stirring improvised poem of human hope and possibility. At the time, many Americans thought that King was simply speaking about freedom for blacks, freedom from discriminatory laws and discriminatory attitudes and a discriminatory culture. Yet, half a century later, it’s clear that, when King said, “I have a dream today,” his vision was much greater. His dream was twofold. He sought freedom for all people everywhere — each man, woman and child — from the chains of repression. He dreamt that all people everywhere would someday stand on equal footing, without limitations imposed because of race, ethnicity or some other accident of fate. And, over the past fifty years, his words have been an inspiration to anyone across the globe seeking to get out from under the boot of an oppressor. And they’ve been a beacon of promise for those who, like King’s fellow blacks, have been seeking equality under the law and in the eyes of society — women, the disabled, lesbians, gay men, the poor, anyone living on the margins. Yet, King’s dream was even broader than that. "Free at last!" He had the deep religious and human insight that the victims of discrimination aren’t just those who are the targets of prejudice. But also those who do the discriminating.

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Katey Feit: Listening to the voice inside

Jesus was a carpenter, and the people in Nazareth knew him as one of the village’s young men. Then he heard the “still, small voice” of his Father and began his ministry. Katey Feit grew up in my parish, St. Gertrude, on the Far North Side of Chicago. She was the product of a middle-class family, the third child of six, the second girl. She went to grade school at St. Gertrude and later trained to be a pediatric nurse. Then, she followed the stirrings of her conscience and went to prison. In their quiet way Today, when there is much about the Catholic church that is disturbing — the pedophile scandal, the way the Vatican is bullying nuns — I take heart from people like Katey who, in their quiet way, provide an example of living a good life.

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Cardinal Joseph Bernardin: Model pastor, “saintly man”

For a long time, Eugene Kennedy was certain that Joseph Bernardin, the soft-spoken, bridge-building archbishop of Cincinnati, would become the first American-born Pope. "He was a perfect candidate for it," says Kennedy, a psychologist, former priest and widely published writer who became Bernardin's friend. "He was internationally known. He was internationally respected. He would…

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