Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

28 February 2014

If I But Touch

Most Thursdays our parish has Eucharistic Adoration from after the 7:30am Mass to 10:00pm, interrupted by the 12:10pm Mass. While giving the Benediction last night, I touched the monstrance to my forehead before resting it on the tabor (the platform for the Blessed Sacrament), and then knelt behind the altar for the Divine Praises, all the while touching the legs of the tabor. During our simple Thursday night offering of Compline and Benediction, this is what I normally do.

While I had no palpable spiritual experience, I was just then reminded of that one Gospel account:
There was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years. She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet she was not helped but only grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. She said, "If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured." Immediately her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. (Mk 5:25-29).
There are retreat experiences built around that Gospel in which a cloth is draped about the monstrance, and participants are invited to approach the altar and grasp the cloth. I know of a woman who is fond of reaching out during Eucharistic processions to touch the celebrant's humeral veil. In times of testing, many people will finger their Rosary or Jesus Prayer beads and scarcely get a word out; but God sees and hears them.

Call them (or me) flaky, but there is something valuable about such pious activities: the deep desire for physical contact with things divine. The sacraments accomplish that very thing in the properly-disposed soul; but we also can use sacramentals such as Benediction, as well as retreats, to arouse devotion and affection.

Of course there is the perennial temptation to look inordinately to sacramentals, affording them more attention than the tangible, divinely instituted, efficacious signs of grace. Presuming a person's fidelity to the sacraments, let them have their legitimate way with sacramentals. They enkindle a deeper faith, hope, and charity in the hearts of their partakers. They fill the interim between Masses--the "human meanwhile"--with longing for the times of fulfillment.

22 February 2014

What A Holy Order!

For all the technological progress that humanity has made in the past decades, we have yet to bridle our stubborn spirits. In our relative ease, it's easy to see this on a large scale with the volatile governments of Ukraine and Venezuela, or the senseless, horrific things that happen on our own shores; but we must first, and always, look within. We can be quick to emit our venom; or if our so-called civility urges restraint, the poison may ooze forth in words and glances.

Mosaic Law had called for “an eye for an eye” in order to avert disproportionate punishments. Even in Jesus’ own day, Herod granted the head of John the Baptist to declare his delight for a dirty dancer! Therefore Jesus’ coming was most opportune, with its invitation to espouse a new perspective, a new respect: a new Law to be written upon our hearts, written by our hearts onto the hearts of others.

What great courage and resolve the Lord requires, to be “holy” and “perfect” as the Father is! Most of us wilt in the face of such an invitation. Jesus doesn’t rush to soften the blow of the challenge; instead, He doubles down in His attempts to impress upon us a higher calling, to “turn the other cheek,” “go the extra mile,” “love your enemies” and all that nonsense.

Yeah, that’s right. You heard me call it “nonsense.” When we fudge on Jesus’ commandment of sacrificial love, when we make exceptions in our minds for certain ones on our list whom we fancy or whom we don’t, when we avoid the people and situations that might upset our delicate balance or inconvenience our schedules, we’re essentially throwing it all out, calling it nonsense.

We more likely consider growth in virtue as something we agree with and admire, and on good days strive to undertake, but no less a struggle. Persons in recovery are familiar with a certain line from the  "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous: "What an order! I can't go through with it!" As often as the difficulty hits us, we can take a deep breath, find support from God and others, and march on.
"You'll be better before you're married," they used to say upstate.
To be fair, defiance isn’t always on our minds; but self-interest certainly tends to be. The Lord encourages us not to cling excessively to how we think our lives should unfold each day, and who deserves our time and attention, in favor of His sometimes distressing, but always fulfilling, surprises.

How can we possibly fulfill God’s command to be holy? Because we are holy. “Do you not know,” Paul asks, “that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” No conditions are mentioned. What a consolation, that God wouldn’t lead us where His grace wouldn’t feed us. So go ahead: write that Law of sacrificial love—write it in big letters with flourishes!

19 February 2014

Cookie-Cutter Grieving?

The rest of this week is sizing up to be a death march. That is to say, I will be privileged to bury parishioners on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. What do I do with the prospect of needing to put a homily together? Write a blog post, that's what I do!

I am not depressed by death in general, nor with most deaths in particular. Mind you, I am no "Fr. Spock," but I can govern and sublimate the emotions surrounding grief. I know that this...skill? coping mechanism?...comes in handy. Practically (as opposed to theoretically) surprising to some, we  priests remain human beings after ordination. "Grace builds on nature," so our human gifts and limitations all can be directed to God's glory and man's service. Now I don't confidently label my high grief threshold either a gift or a limitation; it's a fact. People experience and express sorrow differently, depending on numerous factors.

An example: My father died in 2004, when I was a couple of weeks into my first of two years teaching high school. There was the initial anxiety of the phone call I got sometime after 9pm while grading papers, and the hour-long drive home; but once I got in the door, I saw Bruno (the dog) and immediately chuckled. Dad didn't very much care for Bruno--and here Bruno, by then about age 15 or so, outlives him! I had to get to work regarding the particulars of Dad's funeral rites--the viewing, the hymns, the homily, etc. Granted, I didn't start that least on paper. It all went as it was supposed to go. My mother and her siblings came together very well, in their own sweet way. Dad's side of the family, too--many of them spent more time with Mom than with their own brother/uncle!

Without many details concerning my personal relationships or my interior state, I simply want to offer some consolation to people about the nature and extent of their grieving. So often I think people are concerned that they have a hard time letting go of their loved ones. They find themselves crying at inopportune times, at seemingly strange moments "apropos of nothing." What for those who shed few or no tears? There is no right or wrong when it comes to grief, although we realize that our own lives are meant to continue and flourish in the wake of those who go before us, whether "marked with the sign of faith" or otherwise.

It may help to consider the relationship we had with the person, with the willingness to ask or grant forgiveness where applicable. Movements in forgiveness certainly ought to be as prompt as possible, ideally while both parties are conscious and cognizant; but even the occurrence of the other person's death is not too late for the sake of our own well-being. Plus, the God who turned water into wine can convey our contrition or compassion to its intended recipient.

In many respects that's how it happened with my father. It took as long as it took for me to become more aware of my failures, and when I did, I needed to get to work. A mentor suggested I visit his grave. This I still do from time to time, most recently with my mother. It helps me to see my own name and year of birth already etched on the tombstone: a stark reminder of mortality. The reminders of my occasional callousness and impatience toward my Dad don't oppress me anymore. They have become an occasion to glorify God for Dad's contributions.

And how about this: just now, as I am finishing this post in order to get over to the school for an unfortunately rare teaching engagement, I heard from a parishioner who conveys the fond memories of a former student of mine at Central. While I am tempted to write off those two years, somehow people remember me fondly. They may not remember much of what I taught them--but I've read that students tend to remember how they felt in your presence. Even there, I know I didn't convey kindness consistently; but may God repair all things in His time and manner, me included.

13 February 2014

Promises, Promises Can Just Transform Your Life

In an internet feature called "Throwback Thursday," I decided to post a paper that the former secretary of my home parish sent to my Mom a few years ago. She must have been going through some old records when she found this chestnut:

This was a really good find, both for the nerdy picture (dig the size of those spectacles!) and for the personal historical value.

For whatever reason my father and Confirmation sponsor (my paternal grandfather, William J. Zelonis, affectionately known by his coworkers as "Bill Zee" and his grands as "Grump") never signed it. 

Dad really stayed in the proverbial back seat with characteristically quiet support. His vocational advice was very simple: "You got a good head on your shoulders. You don't have to bust your ___ like I did." "Just as long as you don't do anything immoral." Works for me.

People's comments have been understandably favorable. One person, who is deeply involved in promoting the Church's missionary activity, called it a "timely Valentine to the Holy Spirit." My gears started grinding.

First, it reminded me of this martyrous meme:
The Holy Spirit, given initially at Baptism and fully in Confirmation, galvanizes the human spirit to live the primary vocation to holiness. Our cooperation with that Gift entails the promises I made in that declaration: prayer, kindness, seeking intimacy with God, seeking ways to witness to Christ before others.

I have at times been far from faithful to those promises. I dare not claim my vocation to the priesthood as proof of anything--except, perhaps, God's "proof of purchase." While I may piously refer to myself as His slave, and identify myself in terms of the Lord's commitment to me and mine to Him (cf. Song 6:3), I remain dreadfully free to set it aside in favor of lesser loves.

So for couples who identify themselves with each other: they cannot rest on the laurels of their identification. They must engage in the daily sacrificial proofs of love. For the bishop Saint Valentine, love for Christ eventually meant the gift of his life. "No one takes my life away from me; I lay it down freely" (Jn 10:18).

This total gift of self, this further specification of the baptismal call to sanctity, finds expression in marriage, vowed religious life, ordination, or consecrated virginity. People may apply themselves to certain worthy occupations in a way that resembles that total gift, which is valid as far as it goes; but one's vocation as such pertains to the harnessing of love's energies and the itemized investment of our spiritual and temporal resources. This calling--a mystical mixture of God's ideas and ours, God's initiative and our response--it can hurt, it can fulfill.

I was confirmed in 1988 by the Most Reverend Thomas J. Welsh. Six years later he would accept me as a seminarian for the Diocese of Allentown. He would live to see me ordained a priest, he would preside in choir at my father's funeral, and I would concelebrate his funeral Mass.

1988 was a banner year in my life, aside from my Confirmation. Like many public schoolers who attended CCD/PREP I couldn't wait to stop going to classes. This was strange, because I enjoyed learning about my Catholic faith. Perhaps it was the extra allotment of time on a Wednesday night.

To solve that (not really; it was a discrete decision) I enrolled in the local Catholic school. That fact, as I have written in previous posts, really opened me to love of my religion and to an interest in spirituality and service. Now I had religion classes every day. Now I could play the organ for school Masses and serve funerals. 

In eighth grade I became a "mission rep": the school's student representative to the diocesan Holy Childhood Association, now called the Missionary Childhood Association. While I never considered devoting my life to the service of the poor in other countries, I appreciate how they told us we were all missionaries by virtue of our baptism.

I retain a number of friends from that time in my life. One of them just found that Valentine martyr meme. We can still talk honestly and charitably about religious, spiritual, and cultural matters. I have assisted, and even officiated, at the weddings of some.

It is rather consoling to know that the promises made at Confirmation, at an admittedly insane point in the life of most recipients, can be increasingly activated over the years, perhaps to blossom in a life acutely conscious of the reality and relevance of God.

11 February 2014


I am always delighted to peruse the posts of Robert Badger, who writes The News From Wabu-eup. While a seminarian at Saint Charles for several years, Robert offered his virtuosity at the organ for many daily and Sunday Masses. It was not unusual for him to pull out works from obscure (to me, anyhow) composers such as Alan Hovhaness to play at the Preparation of the Gifts. For several years Robert has been teaching English to Koreans. Most recently, through the social media we have offered each other samples of composers, songs, and instruments. His most recent post (cf. link above) highlights the artistry of Danish pianist Victor Borge, whom I have enjoyed since Harry Sands, a neighbor of my late grandparents and a former bandleader, played some of his tapes for me.

By the way, in case you haven't heard of Alan Hovhaness or anything composed by him, here is an arrangement of his "Prayer of St. Gregory," played by famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

And, for something completely different, a selection of Richard Cheese, whose clever parodies Robert introduced to me last year (pardon the graphic frontispiece):
As a clarinetist and soon trumpet player for Saint Clair Area High School Band (in fifth grade), my first love was classical music. Actually, it may have been Elvis Presley, as my father was a big fan and introduced me to him before I started playing an instrument. The first cassette I ever bought was of J. S. Bach's Greatest Hits, including the famous organ piece "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" and the "Little Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach" on harpsichord. Around the same time I started playing clarinet, I also took up the keyboard under the influence of Harry, my next door neighbor. He had a Lowrey which he played nearly every day. Our thin walls often enabled me to hear what he was playing. Years later, he would let me come over and play for him, to our mutual enjoyment. I was largely self-taught, having only a few lessons and scant patience for the rigors of practice. I didn't want to relearn silly things like finger positions; the bass clef was covered satisfactorily with chords. This latter preference helped me, I believe, to be able to transpose more easily. As a hymn organist I  can play songs in almost any key (but please, don't go over five sharps or flats without necessity!).

My high school friends and I used to compose mix tapes for our car rides. In this venue I would discover a broad swath of genres and artists, ranging from classic rock tunes like "War" and anything Queen, to pop classical pieces such as Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" (as heard in the movie "Platoon"). My tapes weren't as popular because my tastes weren't. Thanks to my mother and late grandmother, Engelbert Humperdinck became a favorite, supplanting but not altogether replacing Elvis.

But my senior year English teacher George Repella's fondness for Frank Sinatra turned me on to arguably the greatest entertainer in American history. My appreciation for Sinatra blossomed while I was in the seminary. I collected as many of his albums as I could. But meanwhile a classmate of mine got me interested in Led Zeppelin. He tried his best with Pink Floyd, to little avail. Another fellow seminarian got on a country kick. I did not follow suit.

Today, thanks to iTunes, I have discovered contemporary artists. Most recent additions to my library include the latest album from Nicole Atkins, Slow Phaser. Atkins' rich, dramatic voice has reminded people of one of her respectable influences, Roy Orbison. She has released three or four albums since hitting it big, but she has also covered Linda Ronstadt, Mama Cass, and The Doors quite artfully.

I listen to music as a musician does, attentive to chord progressions, rhythm and time signature (Burt Bacharach is good for that), other facets of music. I could use a refresher on Music Theory, for all the complexities that can delight the ear!

04 February 2014

A Run To Remember

"I have given you an example" (Jn 13:15a). Exemplum enim dedi vobismy new episcopal motto. As someone once said, "Everyone is my teacher. Some teach me what to do; others, what not to do."

+ + + + +

Mondays are my day off. If I don't have the hospital beeper, I usually--eventually--go home to Saint Clair to visit my mother.

For the past ten weeks or so, I have been following Hal Higdon's "Intermediate 1" marathon training plan, the same one I used to train for the Via Marathon last September. There is another 26.2 in my sights: the Two Rivers Marathon in the Pike County town of Lackawaxen.

Unless you live in Florida or points south, you have been experiencing a very rough winter. I don't think a week to ten days has gone by without a few new inches of snow and/or ice. Our schools have all but run out of scheduled snow days; at this rate they may end up going to school in July!

The Weather Channel app said that the 19605 would get 2 to 4 inches of snow on Monday. I don't think we had any less than 8 inches.

So this was a perfect day for a run; and not just a "base mileage" run of, at this point in the schedule, five miles: rather, a "long run" of thirteen miles, sandwiched between an 18 last week and a 20 next week.

My friend and occasional coach Joe Muldowney, of "Running Shorts" fame, suggests that runners in training for a race consult the long-range weather forecast for the best possible day for a long run.

Not I!

Almost invariably I save my long runs for Mondays, as they can take as long as three hours to complete, not including prep and cleanup. I think it's better not to take all that time away from the parish. Then again, there's no virtue in taking it away from visits home. Most of the time, I do get some quality time with Mom, which, people tell me, I'd better enjoy while I have her. No argument there!

With the snow that was steadily falling since the early hours of the morning and giving no sign of surcease until after lunch, most sane people would have stuck to the treadmill today.

Not I!

Long pants, hooded sweatshirt, and trail shoes hastily stuffed into my bag, I headed up Route 61 amid a veritable slushfest. The traffic light in Shoemakersville turned yellow when I was still a ways off. I applied the brake, but kept sliding with no prospect of stopping at the intersection. Thank God nobody was near me. A Channel 69 News car was parked in the lot of the former Chinese Buffet, with a camera set up. I hope they got some good footage.

Where would I go for this run? As I approached Hamburg I decided to park at a familiar spot: the Kernsville Dam, the starting point of the Bartram Trail--six flat, scenic miles that terminate near Auburn at an abandoned railroad bridge.

Pulling into the parking area already was a challenge, so I deemed I was none too smart to be following through with this venture. When I opened the car door, the snow was almost up to the base of the door. From the first steps I felt like I was running with the steel-toed boots my father used to wear to work. I had to accept that my turnover was going to be slow. If I tried to compensate by kicking up my legs, it would only sabotage my already lackluster form and deplete my energy. Oh, I forgot my fuel belt and energy gel...

In the first mile I took notice of the snow-covered trees. How they glistened: a truly picturesque moment! The scene got a bit scary, however, when branches and whole trees graced the path like gauntlets. I couldn't exactly leap over them like a gazelle, but I'm happy to say I didn't trip over any of them. The worst ones were at the beginning. On an out-and-back course, however, it means that they were also at the end, by which point I'd have a harder time hurdling over them.

Several times I had myself convinced that I was going to cut this run short. "I'll turn around now, and make it a 10K. That's not too bad." But I kept on, and figured, "I've been at it this long--I might as well keep going." But every mile out would mean another mile back: would I feel so eager to do 13 when I reached 5?

By mile 5, I was further saddled with snow. It was now clear that I wore the wrong pants for this occasion. Loose-fitting, with drawstrings at the ankles, they scooped up the snow as I trudged along. It was starting to stick, and every step accrued more to my account. Every quarter-mile or so, I had to grab the legs and shake off the snow, which clung to me like leeches. I thought, I can't put up with this nonsense for another six or seven miles--but what else can I do?

The turn-around point on the Bartram Trail is a fence, without which one would descend to certain death. I usually tag that fence, smacking it like the hand of a teammate after scoring a point. I did so today, but this time asking for its intercession. On my way back, I noticed that the footprints I'd left earlier were at least halfway refilled with fresh snow.

In the middle of mile 7 I looked down at my legs and noticed that they swelled into snowy ham hocks. Instead of shaking my pant legs, this time I stopped and rolled them up to my knees; but as soon as I resumed running, down they went, ready to inflate once again. Fresh out of ideas and patience, I did what anyone who was crazy enough to run 13 miles in this confounded weather would do: I removed my pants and draped them around my neck like a stole. Might as well let the snow brush against my bare legs. It figured, too, that the wind would start kicking up. At one point every branch in the next tenth of a mile decided to divest its flakes, as if the trees were starring in a Head-and-Shoulders commercial. For all of this, however, my scrawny legs didn't feel nearly as cold as I thought they would. Fortunately for me, and prudently for them, nobody else graced the trail to see (or hear!) my startling display.

Since this was a 6-mile stretch, I could have called it a run, if indeed it was worthy of the name, at mile 12; but the schedule said 13--and what the hell, I've gone this far--so I turned around for a victory lap. If you know the course, you know that there's a bridge about .7 mile into it. At the threshold of the bridge I turned around, and finished with all that was within me...running on fumes.
Screen shot from my Nike+ account. You'd swear I did this just for the story.
I took a few minutes to stretch, and to brush off the snow that had accumulated on my car in those two hours. I attribute my exodus from that parking space, and, for that matter, the entire morning, to my guardian angel.

In the past few months I had whittled down my average pace by two seconds because of speed work and the overall faster times that usually result from it. Thanks to Old Man Winter, however, those gains have been reversed.

Did I mention that I've been feeling something amiss in my left instep since last Wednesday? Since May 2012 pain has been migrating from spot to spot around the lower half of my body. It has found a couple of reliable places to lodge, despite receiving plenty of eviction notices from stretches, foam rollers, ibuprofen tablets, etc. By Sunday the discomfort significantly decreased, convincing me that it was all right to run 8 yesterday and 13 today. As of this typing I feel considerably better than I expected. A doctor's visit may yet be in the works, but perhaps it will be a psychiatrist.

Today a priest-friend and fellow runner tagged me and a handful of others with this photo:
Who's joining my militia to kill this rat-bastard?
That's just about how much time remains, if I don't first email the race coordinator to rescind my registration, or really injure myself. I'd get to decide on the former, but the latter would come against my will. I certainly don't wish injury upon myself (contrary to what you may be thinking), but at this stage, a doctor's strident recommendation would come as a relief. With my luck, on the Ides of March NEPA would get 15" of snow and ice, causing the cancellation of the race. I'd be tempted to tromp 26.2 around the church that morning, just to get it out of my system. Duly forewarned, one of you can tip off 69 News so they can get some good footage.

01 February 2014

In a Bla(i)se of Glory

1. It wasn't all that long ago that I first heard of the "Fourteen Holy Helpers," saints whose intercession was sought amid the ravages of the Black Plague. For reasons understandable, Saint Blase was listed among them. Many people know the story of him saving a boy from choking on a fish bone. All it took was a prayer and a blessing. And that's why he's a saint.

2. The Catholic Heimlich Maneuver is administered on the third of February with crossed candles aimed at the recipient's throat, with these words:
Through the intercession of Saint Blase, Bishop and Martyr, may God deliver you from ailments of the throat and every other illness; in the Name &c.
Per intercessionem Sancti Blasii, episcopi et martyris, liberet te Deus a malo gutturis, et a quolibet alio malo. In nomine &c.
Alio malo: "other evil." In the first use of malum, "ailment" or "disease" seems appropriate. The second malum typically is rendered "illness" as well; but I prefer "evil," as sickness and traumas are examples of "physical evil," lasting effects of the original sin.

3. The elder Fr. Z. wrote a few years ago about his experiences with requesting blessings and receiving inauspicious results: the old "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" fallacy. He's not alone in that regard, concerning both of the examples he offered. Rather than considering a blessing as a "jinx," he prefers, rightly, to persist in seeking divine protection and care through the devout use of sacramentals. They are neither good luck charms nor bad luck guarantors.

4. In my youth I never saw this saint's name spelled with an internal "i"--never, I swear! Now my chances of seeing either version are almost even. I prefer it without the "i." And I prefer the period inside a close quote that ends a sentence.

5. The pastor of my parish told me that, when he was a kid, he was initially afraid because he thought the saint's name was spelled "Blaze" and that the candles were supposed to be lit! In flagrante delicto!

6. This feast falls on the day after the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (which occurs this year on the Lord's Day, and therefore trumps the Sunday per annum). I found this piece illuminating the connection between "Candlemas Day" and the next day's blaze. Why the candles? Jesus is the Light of revelation to the Gentiles, as Simeon declared to Jesus' parents (as we read on 2 Feb). Why the candles on the martyr's feast? St. Blase read the Scriptures in his jail cell by candlelight. True or not, it makes for a good story.

Notice they're lit! And "friggin' 'uge!"*
*best said with a Scottish accent
7. So this has turned into a "7 Quick Takes" (hosted at, though not on the prescribed Friday! Since we're off the mark already, I will give no technical seventh point regarding this topic. You will have to live with my hamartia. I have a hard enough time with it ma-self.