#FriarFriday – Those Most in Need of Mercy

#FriarFriday – Those Most in Need of Mercy

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Lead all souls into heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.

The Lincoln Highway was the first roadway to cross the United States. Dedicated in October 1913, it ran between Times Square in New York City and Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Originally over 3,300 miles long, subsequent deviations eventually led it to span Atlantic City, N.J., in the east and Astoria, Oregon, in the west. Later most of the road became designated as US Route 30, and some parts of the route became Interstate 80. Much like the fabled Route 66, which was officially removed from the US highway system in 1985, a drive along the Lincoln Highway is to be impaled through layers of US history like being drilled through rings of a tree trunk.

On a recent driving vacation, I picked up Route 30 in Canton, Ohio, and headed east into Pennsylvania, abandoning the immense flatness of the Midwest and into the Allegheny Mountains through which European coastal folk labored before coming upon the plains that could only be called great. The straight flat eastbound road suddenly becomes winding and often slow, grasses are replaced with slender trees redolent of sweet cool pine, and little historical surprises leap from around corners – small old churches, clapboard or deep red brick; town squares with gabled county seats surrounded by law offices and bail bondsmen; abandoned rail crossings whose adjacent former terminals turned into brewpubs or flea markets; villages-become-towns built where the turn in the stream follows the edge of the mountain, and old couches on porches outnumber wheel-less rusting cars on the lawns.

Historical markers abound. (In Settler-X-town) “Here was where Settler-X, tired of the journey west, met a bride and settled to build a forge and raise a family. Having prospered with the railroads, Settler-X-town came upon its decline with the advent of the Interstate Highway system.” Or something like that. But just east of Pittsburgh a surprisingly new and deliberate marker leaps out, a reminder that history is not just from the 1700s and tri-corner hats. “Flight 93 National Memorial.” Yep. That flight 93.

A hard right turn off Route 30 in rural western Pennsylvania near Shanksville is a path quite different from Ground Zero in Manhattan and the Pentagon near D.C. The events of 9-11 were not only urban and proximate, they were also rural and remote. No subway takes you near there; you seek it out just for its own sake, or you stumble upon it. But there is nothing like it, near it. One goes there to be there, and only there, and not because it is close to a zillion other things to check out while you are there anyway.

We know the story (there was a movie) about flight UA93 from Newark to San Francisco: how it was hijacked westbound near the Pennsylvania/Ohio state line about a half hour after the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York; how it banked radically east after passing Cleveland and dropped off radar; how some passengers, learning of the New York attacks, rushed the cockpit to subdue the hijackers and ditch the plane so that another unknown target might be spared; how the plane crashed in the remoteness of the mountains of southeastern Pennsylvania, instantly killing all aboard.

In Manhattan, sirens and traffic compete for one’s ear while entering the sanctuary of the site made holy by the death of thousands when the stricken World Trade Center collapsed – among whom was a beloved Franciscan brother, fire department chaplain Friar Mychal Judge OFM. But in Shanksville, there is no such competition for attention. Acres of wildflowers have overtaken the broad field not skitted along haphazardly but pierced deeply by a plummeting jet that dove straight into the rolling hills. Birds chirp and play, butterflies dance in the wind, breezes bend the grasses, even the few human whispers seem to float away. Nature has its way when left undisturbed.

Yet, it was disturbed. Nature was deeply disturbed.

Yes, the natural mountains had long been disturbed by the coal strip-mining that had denuded the landscape, prompting the government to mandate years ago the beginning of its restoration by the filling of its open sores, hoping that nature would restore what had been broken. Much is on its way. Perhaps a million years will complete the healing. And in this place, we seek not only the healing of nature abused by human greed but also the healing of seemingly everything abused by whatever is dark in the human soul.

These kinds of memorial sites can tend toward the macabre. Where exactly did this or that truly happen? What are the details? Which direction did the plane bank? Where did it hit? Where were the bodies? But there is also something ancient in wanting to remember details like this – the tea was thrown into this harbor; the battle was fought on this field; Saint Francis rebuilt this chapel; Jesus died on the cross on this hill.

And on this leisurely summer vacation drive, I am standing at this same place. Not then, but now.

The line of flight from the sky into the dark soft earth is marked by a cut in the new concrete walls that wrap the hills edging the valley of martyrdom. The “impact site” left behind the jet that hurdled at 536 mph nearly perpendicularly into the earth has long been cleared of debris, the largest of which measured only a few square feet. The original site had been marked only by the clear imprint of a jet plane as if a ghost had blasted an image upon crops or a wild field. Now, there is merely a field wildly reoccupied by grasses, flowers, and butterflies.

And a rock. A boulder, actually, a 17-ton boulder placed at the site where instant death of global importance happened in the middle of nowhere. The final site of one of the most complicated pieces of human design is marked by a simple rock. Busses of tourists disembark seeking one thing, and only one thing – Have you seen the rock? Nobody can leave until they have seen it. “There it is, Honey! Out there! See it? OK, now we can go back…” This boulder is an altar, the place where heaven and earth come together, where the mystery of God and the human mystery of self-sacrifice meet in an eternal silent embrace.

Instinctively I fingered at the rosary in my pocket as if it had called out to me for its grasp. What to do here but to pray the rhythmic and anonymous beads clutched nearly out of sight of passers-by? The challenge of which mysteries to pray here (Glorious) gave way to the stunning audacity of the prayer at the end of each mystery:

O my Jesus – Yes, all I can do is to sigh and call upon you, Jesus.

Forgive us our sins – Yes, I, too, am a sinner and I add to the sinfulness of the world.

Lead all souls into Heaven – Yes, I truly want all people to know your loving mercy.

Especially those most in need of Thy mercyWait a minute!

You mean, those? Lord, you cannot mean the terrorists on that plane? Can they be the ones most in need of Thy mercy? Am I actually right now praying for those guys, at this place? Is this what you mean by praying for our enemies? If I am praying for these guys, who else am I praying for, who might be most in need of Thy mercy? Racists? Abusers? Nazis? Yes, these, and more.

The most devotional of prayers, the rosary, challenges us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. One cannot clutch beads without bringing into prayer precisely those who we are least inclined to pray for. Reviewing the highway and pathways of our lives will reveal to us precisely those whom we need to lift into prayer, hoping and longing for the day when all will be reconciled with the God who brought everything into being.

#FriarFriday – Borders

#FriarFriday – Borders

The Rule of St. Francis, and the Declaration of Independence

Twenty-five years ago I was blessed by an unrepeatable adventure in Franciscan life: to help grow the new Franciscan presence at the United Nations by developing interest among Franciscan Friars around the world. What was at that time a budding dream, Franciscans International, has since become a well-respected presence among non-governmental organizations at the United Nations. But in those early years, there was concern that the initiative, which had a decidedly North American and Western European beginning, needed to embrace the worldwide Franciscan movement more deliberately. I had been ordained only two years prior; but my previous work in the planning phase, plus a Master’s degree and thesis on the topic, led to my being asked to take on this next phase.

The next three years were the most thrilling of my vocation! Almost everywhere I went, friars were intrigued and excited about the idea of advocating for the poor, for peace, and for the care of our creation within the halls of the one place where literally the whole world was somehow present. Of course, for me that meant a lot of travel – sometimes months at a time living out of a simple suitcase (which I still use!) crossing two or three continents at a time. Over the three-year assignment, I worked in 28 countries, always staying with friars who frequently lived among some truly poor people. The courageous example of the friars, especially those living close to people who struggled with the immediate effects of war and extreme poverty, is among the most deeply impressive things I have ever witnessed.

And with all that travel came the frequent experience of borders. National borders. The world was much different then – the Soviet Union had just left Central Europe, there was no Euro, Britain still possessed Hong Kong, and the US had no embassy in Vietnam. So I’ve crossed many different kinds of borders. Some crossings were as easy as barely waking up in the train crossing from Italy into Switzerland, groggily flashing a passport to a bored agent. Some were frightening, like the barbed wire and landmines still crossing the farm fields separating Austria and Slovakia, the swaying golden wheat completely uninterested in passports and visas. Stepping into Vietnam — only twenty years after the US left Saigon, nineteen years after I graduated high school, and still without US diplomatic relations – was singularly other-worldly. Crossing briefly into North Korea (yes, that North Korea) involved a trip to and through the DMZ, which is the most heavily fortified territory in the world; stepping into the “Truce Village of Panmunjom” where a small rectangular building straddled both sides of the border; walking around a simple wooden conference table where, on the “other side” a phalanx of uniformed soldiers beyond the windows snapped photos of our every move.

There were other borders as well, not defined by treaty or marked by war, but nonetheless just as real. There was a train track that separated the apartments of Mumbai (then, Bombay) from one of its largest slums, a slum where thousands lived in huts among pathways defined by open sewers. Airport customs lines entering countries of brown-skinned people had two kinds of lines: one for fellow brown-skinned people, whose baggage was searched beyond humiliation; and one for white businessmen (like me) who were whisked through with barely a glance. Basilicas have sacristies open to friar-priests but not to the laity. Old Jerusalem has streets set aside for Jews, Muslims, Armenians, Orthodox, and Catholics – and neighborhoods in cities like Chicago or Cleveland (or Mostar during the Balkan war) have streets that, if crossed, get you marked for gunfire.

So, I know borders.

Yet there is something about a border that is simultaneously forbidding and inviting. You know you are not from the other side, but you just wonder what might be there. Saint Francis of Assisi had this fluid relationship with borders. Unwilling to be confined to monastic walls, he sent his brothers in small groups wherever the Spirit would lead them – often with mixed results. Crossing the Alps from Italian to German-speaking lands got some friars in trouble with locals who thought they were heretics. Though their first foray into Islam led to martyrdom, yet later for Francis, it was an introduction to a most unusual friendship with a sultan during the Crusades. Indeed, the entire “world was his cloister” where the Order had extended from Italy and France to the British Isles, Slavic countries, Germania, the north African coast, and Palestine by the time Francis died.

Saint Francis also knew the other borders that were unofficial but ever so real. He was a rich kid who chose poverty; he came from an established family and chose to be a wanderer. He fed lepers and welcomed women into his new movement. He built a bridge between the mayor and the bishop, and he wouldn’t let his disabilities impede composing the first lyrical poem in the Italian Renaissance.

So, Saint Francis knew borders.

Maybe that is why he included for his friars this description in his Rule of Life from 1223: “As pilgrims and strangers in this world, let (the brothers) go seeking alms with confidence, and they should not be ashamed because, for our sakes, the Lord made Himself poor in this world.” The call to be pilgrims and strangers in this world led to Franciscan Friars accompanying Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to what he thought to be a new world. My first mentor in the Order, a long-time missionary in the Philippines, said to me while I was a much younger friar student, “Where is home for a friar? Everywhere, and nowhere.” Indeed.

For the next week in the United States, we will be celebrating Independence Day. As we prepare for the cookouts, the travel and the parades for the Fourth this year, borders (namely, our own national ones) are very much on the minds of just about anyone who has a TV or a smartphone. In addition to the official territorial borders, let’s also remember the many unofficial but deeply real personal, economic, cultural, racial, religious, and sexual borders as well. On this day when we celebrate one of our foundational documents as a nation, it is worth reading the whole Declaration of Independence.

Perhaps the lines we learned in eighth-grade civics class are still deep inside our heads: “When in the course of human events…” “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Etc. But the better part of the document lists the various explicit grievances that gave rise to the founding fathers taking this extraordinary step to which they would “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Would you be surprised to know that two of the references were to their status as immigrants?  One of the grievances against the king was his “Obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners.” And in another place, “We have reminded them (our British brethren) of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.” Yep, there it is. In the Declaration of Independence.

Until I take my last breath I will be grateful for the brotherhood that entrusted me with a unique mission to the world while I was still young and untested. Likewise, I am grateful to have been born in a country whose passport was, and so far still is, respected in every corner of the known world. International travel opens new horizons, challenges one’s view of one’s own country, and leads to a renewed and wiser love of one’s home. My country assured my safe passage literally around the world; my brotherhood let me embrace my wanderlust so that I could cross the unofficial human borders as well. The passport let me see the world, the brotherhood helped me to love it. Reasonable people exercising their best prudential judgment can disagree about particularities of immigration law. But no one who goes by the name Christian, let alone Franciscan, can allow themselves to be led to find an enemy in every face that looks at borders and longs for what is on the other side – especially when our side is life and peace, and their side is death and despair.

On this, our Christian tradition and true patriotism are not opposed at all.

#FriarFriday – You Have Us

#FriarFriday – You Have Us

Evil was visited upon me and almost everyone I loved fifteen years ago today, Saturday noon on Dec. 7, 2002. A much-beloved friend, mentor, pastor, housemate and brother was murdered with a handgun wielded by an angry young student friar whose life was unraveling. The arson of the rectory could conceal the crime for barely more than a day before (former) Friar Dan confessed to shooting Friar Willy in the chest and setting the fire.

My own life is measured by that moment like B.C. and A.D. splits the calendar. “In an instant, in the blink of an eye.” (1 Cor. 15:52) Everything, truly everything looks different before that and after that.

Each year at this time of year, the events of 2002 unfold in current time. It starts at the Feast of Christ the King when Dan, a student friar in formation, first learned of his upcoming transfer from our amazing and challenging ministry in urban Cleveland at St. Stanislaus Church. The faithful at St. Stanislaus were deeply committed to their Church and in love with the Franciscans who had served there more than a century. Although the need for the transfer had begun months before, when it was clear that Dan’s awkwardness and temper had been disturbing to school families and others he had encountered, the end of November and early December were really hard on everyone — uniquely hard on Dan, to be sure, and soon for all of us.

It is still hard on lots of us. Perhaps in prison, Dan thinks about these days and weeks in the same way. Perhaps not. But what happened, happened.

Just before lunch on the last day of a friar meeting in Wisconsin, the news burst forth frantically with a breathless phone call from Cleveland. That urgent and tear-filled phone call brought me right back to Ohio: “The rectory is on fire. We can’t find Friar Willy. Please get back home as soon as you can!” There was a fire at the rectory — the massive 1913 friary adjacent an even more massive historic Gothic church in the heart of a working-class community. Announcements about the fire interrupted CYO basketball in the neighborhood, news crews were on the spot, and Bishop Pilla canceled his appointments to be with the community. Friar Willy wasn’t answering his cell phone, and there were rumors of a body being found.

While in the airport in Milwaukee ready to board the next flight to Cleveland, a phone call from the bishop confirmed it: “The fire is out, I am in the rectory, and this place you had called home is destroyed. Be ready for that. And there is more – there is a body, and it is Friar Willy. I am standing right here. I am so sorry.”

Each detail of each moment of those days is etched in my memory in a way no other event before or since. Fifteen years is like yesterday. “There are also many other things…” (Jn 21:25)

One clarifying moment turned the whole thing around. The next morning, Sunday, I opened the church in the very early hours after not sleeping at all. The walk through the dark, cold, wet, and scorched rectory on a frigid December morning was a walk through a dead place. The dim lights in the tranquil space revealed an early visitor who came to pray and who asked a simple loving question. “How are you? We are so worried about you.”

That night I hadn’t slept at all, tossing around my bed in my room on the guest floor of the convent as I remained stuck in the awareness: I have nothing. Everything I own has been burned in the fire, I even had to ask parishioners to buy me new clean underclothes to wear for the weekend Masses. Willy is gone. My ministry as it had been, is gone. Everyone I love is hurt and changed. So I told her this, and said, “I have nothing.”

And from the compassionate and tender heart of this angel came these transformative three words: “You have us.

Yes. I had the People of God with me. I had my family, the Friars, my friends, the Church. And I had Jesus. So I had everything.

That’s when I became a Franciscan.

Oh, I had made my vows years before and been faithful to my promises. But at that moment I was suddenly aware of what St. Francis meant when he called his brothers to live sine proprio, without anything of one’s own. From that time on I became deeply aware of the cloud of grace and prayer surrounding all of us from all over the world. It didn’t change the situation at all, but it assured me that I was not alone. Christ was with us in our suffering – he cried with us, he held us, he walked with us, and over time he revealed the strength of his cross and resurrection: strength that is revealed in brokenness, strength given to those who suffer, the strength of hope to those tempted to despair. And that presence spoke with the Great Lakes accent of the people of a hard-working city that still won’t give up.

Later I learned that Dan was mostly angry with me, and likely the bullet that took Willy’s life had been meant for me had I been home to take it. So I live without fear, having dodged a probable bullet, though I sometimes wonder what that final moment was like for my good friend Friar Willy. As he breathed his last, knowing he was close to the end, was he mad? Confused? Sad? When my own time comes to cross that threshold, this is the first thing I want to ask God. Until then I have to believe that Willy forgave Dan and that somehow in the divine communication he sees everything clearly. Dan’s heart, my heart, our hearts.

That second Sunday in Advent fifteen years ago we were given an unexpected Lent. The cross was imposed upon the wreath. We were challenged to light the brightest light from within our darkest darkness. Fifteen years and two assignments later I am a pastor again, closer to family and old friends. St. Stanislaus in Cleveland has lost the Franciscans (another, different pain) but is still a beacon of hope in a community that hasn’t lost its fight. They know tough.

And I know hope. It is the conviction that somehow the future is already held by God, even though we cannot see its contours or beyond its horizon. Because on the weekend of evil, I was also visited by immeasurable grace. Because I have experienced Easter after Good Friday. Because I have seen the “Light of the world.” (Mt. 5:14) I pray for Dan, whom I have forgiven though I doubt I can advocate his parole. I pray for an end to violence. I struggle to understand the allure of handguns, knowing first hand what easy access can do to a man and to a community. And I pray that the Prince of Peace will reign over the hearts of all – starting with mine.

#FriarFriday – The Final Things

#FriarFriday – The Final Things

“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” (Mt 13:32-33)

The summer of 1967 was hard on a kid in Chicago. At nine years old, I was aware of world events in a way that was unusual for a kid that age. The civil disruptions associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements were not lost on me; our neighborhood was red-lined and I had cousins who were Chicago cops. Air was literally unbreathable, and swimming in Lake Michigan was, well, treacherous. The 1967 war in Israel (in the midst of the Cold war) was couched in apocalyptic terms that even a kid could intuit. And there was immense personal, family tragedy. So when the tornado sirens sounded for real within the city boundaries that summer and Mom hunkered us kids down in the southwest corner of the basement (where we were told it was safest) under the table that held my Lionel train, provisioned with a transistor radio, a loaf of Wonder Bread, candles, and rosaries – well, it seemed like the end could indeed be near. I mean, as in “The End.”

It didn’t help that Mom was muttering, “Well, that Old Man upstairs must be really mad about something!” I knew He (capital H, back in the day…) couldn’t be mad at me, or at my family. I mean, we were pretty good people. God must be mad at, like, everybody… as in, the whole world. Otherwise, why would everything seem to be collapsing around us? Why else would we feel so powerless over these genuinely scary things? Praying the rosary in the basement on Wabash Avenue was something, at least something, we could do. And even if those prayers couldn’t change God’s mind, maybe He’d look kindly upon our little-huddled family amid the mess and, well, watch out for us.

Fifty years later, and we still live in scary times. But the world did not end then, and it will probably not end now. In the interim plenty of scary (9-11) and also amazing (Chicago Cubs) things have happened. Certain Christian groups like to read the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation, as a literal foretelling of what will happen in the secular day-to-day world -– and (spoiler alert), according to them things don’t look so good. They see in the headlines certain proofs of an impending end, “The End.” And they have plenty of material to work with: war, terror, famine, drought, storms, earthquakes, floods, fires, riots. Now, that is scary stuff indeed! But not scarier than the summer of 1967. Or September of 2011. Or June 1944, August 1945. Or…

In the month of November, the church turns its gaze toward what is sometimes called “The Final Things.” Death, heaven, hell, purgatory (yes, we still believe in that), and The End. The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls lead the month off with a reminder that on the other side of the veil awaits the Mountain of the Lord of Hosts. We have all loved people who have crossed that river. Many of them are assured of eternal blessedness; many more we are unsure about.

Saint Francis said, “You are who you are before God, and no one else.” So we pray for them now as much as we did while they lived. Maybe we pray even more, that whatever might still be holding them back from surrendering to the mystery of God’s mercy might melt in the gaze of God’s infinite unfathomable love.

As Christians, we face the end – our personal end, and The End – not as a threat but as a fulfillment. When I die, my life project is complete. When creation ends, God’s project is complete. Completion, not destruction. Eternity, not end. The term paper is handed in, the job foreman signs off, done. And then, celebration! The dorm party, the beer at the corner bar. And for those who are in for the long haul, a banquet that never ends, a permanent party!

When Jesus talks about these things in the Gospels, we notice this: he seldom talks about what it is like on the other side; when he does, he describes it like a feast; and he redirects our attention to the here-and-now. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus says that he himself doesn’t even know when it will all happen. (So, how can the TV preachers know? Subject for another reflection…) So what should we do in the meantime? The Gospel instructions are simple: Be watchful and alert. Don’t be caught off guard, inattentive, asleep. In other words, LIVE!

The ancient traditions associated with Halloween have less to do with celebrating ghouls than with defying them and mocking them. Many cultures take a holiday on November 2, heading to family cemeteries to spend time with those who are beyond time. Lit candles on the graves of loved ones, or even of strangers, is a defiance of light against darkness. Flowers at graves are signs of brightness against darkness, life against death. A glass of tequila on Abuelo’s grave, or maybe vodka for Dziadek or schnapps for Opa, is an ironic toss of spirit toward spirit that says to the Netherworld, “You do not have the last word here!”

So as we all lurch through another tumultuous moment in our personal and collective histories, uncertain of our future and unclear about the present moment, let’s open ourselves to those moments, however fleeting, that breathe life and light into the darkness that tempts us with despair and capitulation to that which is unworthy of our surrender. Because fifty years after that tornado tore through Chicago and the Holy Land erupted along with our own city streets, I am still here. Writing to you, praying to God, and remembering my Mom who now knows that the Old Man upstairs is not really very angry after all.

#FriarFriday – Going Fishing!

#FriarFriday – Going Fishing!

The Summer Solstice is past, school is out and graduation parties are subsiding. Summer is officially here! Time for vacations, cookouts, travel, and some kind of break in the normal routine. Even if our personal lives have long been disconnected from the pattern of the school year, there is something about summer that evokes the feeling of being free. Perhaps at some level, we remember what is was like to be kids eagerly counting down the days until school lets out, our calendar having one box excitedly proclaiming, “Last Day of School” followed by multiple exclamation points. Alice Cooper’s classic, “School’s Out” is a timeless anthem to those days.

As we get older it gets harder to plan a summer that keeps that feeling of freedom and leisure alive. In our climate controlled workplaces and cars, we are insulated from the heat that reminds us we are in a different kind time. Our indoor lives disconnect us from the sky staying bright so late into the evening. Many families have been unable to enjoy regular meals altogether, so the extra work of firing up the grill and setting up the outdoor table seems too, well, extra, to do on a regular day, just for the heck of it.

In the US we have turned into one of the most driven and productive work forces in the world. At the same time, we have the least generous vacation allowances in the developed world. Even at that rate, Americans tend to take only about half of the vacation time due to them, essentially giving their employers thousands of dollars of free labor. According to a recent survey, the biggest reason is fear — fear of getting behind in their work, fear that nobody else can do their work while away, fear of being disconnected, fear of not meeting their performance goals, even fear of being fired as more and more workers are “at-will” employees.

What a shame that so many of us are unable simply to kick back and relax! And we clergy and religious are not immune to this, in spite of all our encouragement to others that they make space for leisure, holy or otherwise. We, too, can become susceptible to the vain notion that everything depends on us — which, if it were true, would be a sign that we are not doing our ministry well! It is easy to forget that God also rested. Leisure is part of the created order!

Years ago I had a chance to take a ten-day vacation on the beach across the street from the chapel of a Franciscan mission overseas. Promising to be a “low maintenance” guest among the local friars, I committed to spending each day, all day, on the sandy beach doing beach-things. Each day I planned some kind of beach activity — a couple books to read, a walk to one end of the beach four miles in one direction, another walk three miles in the other direction, snorkeling, napping. On the last full day, as I approached the beach and wondered what to do on my last day, it dawned on me that I really didn’t want to do anything at all. Anything. At. All.

What a strange feeling, spending a whole day not doing anything except sitting and watching the day just pass by. It hit me then — THIS is what it must feel like to be relaxed! It had been so long since I felt that way, I truly didn’t even recognize the feeling for a while. What a gift simply to watch the sun arc across the sky toward its setting, locals strolling by whole hawking fresh fruit, souvenirs, and less licit adventures, the only decision being the right time to switch from ice water to rum drinks.

Years ago I used to take the parish youth group for summer retreat on a river where the swimming and canoeing were great, the fishing less so. Still, we fished. During my own childhood fishing was not part of our summers, so I came upon the sport later in life. I’m still not really good at it, though I very much enjoy being on the river. An older friar once observed, “He who can fish, can pray.” Only later did I discover what he meant. When you fish, you have to trust that there really are fish down there, even if you can’t see them. When you pray, you have to believe there truly is a God to hear you, even if you do not see him. When you fish, you think you are tricking the fish into taking your bait, even though the fish will do what it wants and when it wants. In prayer, we think we are persuading God to change his mind about something, even though God will do what he wants to do when he wants to do it. While fishing, sometimes the point is not so much about catching anything but just to be out fishing. In prayer, sometimes the point of praying is just to be praying.

Maybe that’s why Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen.

So this summer, whatever it takes, give God a chance to break through the stress and busyness of your routine. Take your vacation, get away, relax, spend time doing nothing, even if just for a couple of days. Try to recall the simple childlike freedom of summer. Don’t let the cares of your workplace intrude — don’t EVEN check your email! Go someplace where there is no cell phone service. And if possible, fish.

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