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Monday, November 13, 2017

Heroic Love



My mother spent the last 15 years of her life in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s. I would be a liar if I said that her disease had not caused my family any suffering or that we accepted it perfectly as part of God’s mysterious will. The reality is, we all suffered and we all questioned how God could allow this to happen to somebody each one of us desperately needed.

An unfortunate consequence of Alzheimer’s is that a person’s brain actually shrinks. As the years went by, my mother’s mental state became similar to that of a child. The hard-working, intelligent, and nurturing woman I knew as a boy had disappeared. Physically she looked the same, but when I looked into her eyes I saw a little girl who appeared lost and was trying to find her way home.

When I arrived at the nursing home for a visit all she talked about was going outside to smoke a cigarette. As soon as we were outside, all she talked about was going back inside and vice versa for the whole duration of the visit, which for me never exceeded three hours, but for my father, was often all afternoon. After a few months I gave up hope of hearing her say she was glad to see me, because, I realized, my mother was no longer present.

On certain days she would yell and curse and call the nurses names. In the beginning they would laugh and approach her with a friendly smile, but as the months dragged on and the insults continued they became tired, annoyed, and avoided her as best they could. After only a month or two of working at the nursing home, a new employee quickly learned that my mother was considered one of the “difficult” patients.

Despite all of this, my father continued to visit her every day. He walked into her room, gave her a kiss and brought her outside in her wheelchair to smoke. Once outside he would face the same barrage of questions he answered the day before. “How long have we been married?” “Is Fr. Jeremiah married?” “How much money did I make last year?” “When are they going to feed me?” “What is Tammy’s husband’s name again?” After listening to these questions for hours my father would wheel her back inside her room, kiss her again, and return to his home, alone.

Occasionally, my father got mad and expressed his frustration in words that would have been better left unspoken. These words, I believe, came from a place of mourning and frustration, as he was forced to watch the woman he loved deteriorate in front of him and not be able to do anything about it. Not only had my mother become helpless because of her disease but also now my father was experiencing his own poverty, as he stood before my mom helpless.

Thirty years ago my father promised to love my mother “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and to love and cherish her until death do us part.” Could he ever have imagined what those vows would ask of him? Would he still have made them knowing what he knows now? Rather than spending his days entertaining abstract questions my father did something I consider heroic: he was obedient to reality. By choosing to live in reality and not escape through endless speculations of “what if,” “why me”, etc. he proved his love for his wife.

Watching my father through all of this revealed to me an essential component of love: it is utterly selfless. So often we reduce love to a feeling or an experience of pleasure, yet St. Paul reminds us “love does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). When my father would slip and allow his frustrations to control his actions he would begin again the next day where he left off, at my mother’s side.

If I or anybody else would ever tell my dad that his fidelity to his wife was heroic he would probably look at you as if you were speaking a foreign language. “It’s what love does,” he would probably say. “I had no other choice.” The reality is, he did have a choice. He could have chosen one of many escape paths: alcohol, drugs, work, Internet, food, sports, money, etc., all of which would have provided him with a well-deserved distraction for a few moments. Despite the allure they may have possessed, my father chose none of them.
At my mother’s funeral I read these words of Jesus in the Gospel: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). When I heard those words at Mass a deep sense of peace and gratitude came over me. I was peaceful because I believed in the depths of my heart that Jesus’ love, selfless and sacrificial, conquered death. I was grateful because it was my father who showed me what this looked like.

+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR

Friday, November 10, 2017

Health update - Fr. Andrew Apostoli

My dear friends in Christ,

It saddens me to announce that due to a recent decline in my health, I am not longer able to keep a public schedule at this time. Unfortunately, talks and retreats that are currently scheduled must now be canceled. Please email: franciscanfriarsnyc@gmail.com with any questions. I continue to be grateful for all the prayers and support and certainly extend my prayers and blessings to you all.

 May Christ and His Holy Mother Bless you!

 – Fr. Andrew



Thursday, November 2, 2017

Awakening



I was 17 years old when I first encountered death.  My grandmother died one night peacefully in her sleep at the age of 84 with a set of rosary beads next to her bed, which she most likely prayed before slipping away into eternity.  A simple woman, she lived on a farm her entire life.  She bore three children, including my mother, and had spent her whole life working hard, going to church, and seeking to unite a family that, as time went on, appeared prone to division. 

That morning my sister and I had gone to school like we did every morning.   My mother walked across the street to my grandmother’s farm to make sure she had made it downstairs for breakfast.  Even though my grandmother was declining both physically and mentally, she had lost none of her willpower.  

When my mother walked into her house that morning, she immediately knew that something was wrong.  My grandmother was not downstairs sitting in her rocking chair eating her breakfast as usual, and there was no sound of her anywhere throughout the house.  My mother imagined the worst, that she had fallen down the stairs or in the bathroom and was lying unconscious.  But my mom did not find her by the stairs or in the bathroom.  She finally looked in her room and there was my grandmother, lying on her back, hands folded, appearing to be in a very deep sleep.  In fact, my mother thought that she was still sleeping until she moved closer and realized that she was not breathing.  My grandmother had died during the night.  

We buried her a few days later at Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Bally, Pennsylvania, where she spent her entire life as a parishioner.  I can’t remember what the priest said during the homily, and I can’t remember if anybody in my family cried during the Mass.  All I can remember is looking at the stained glass windows in the church that depicted moments in the life of Christ.  There were windows of his Passion, from his betrayal, his scourging, and his carrying the cross to his crucifixition.  The last window showed the empty tomb, filled with rays of light shining from every direction.  

Before I knew it I snapped out of my daydreaming because the Mass had finished, and the time had come to take my grandmother to the cemetery.  The ceremony was brief, probably only 10 minutes or so and soon after people began to leave because it started to rain.  Suddenly, at this moment, kneeling on the frozen December ground before my grandmother’s casket, it hit me.  My grandmother was dead.  I would never see her again.  “Never see her again,” I thought.  What did those words mean?  Why did they sound so violent to my ears?

As I knelt there on the ground, tears began to fall from my eyes.  

“Is this it?  This must be a sick joke,” I thought.  “Grandma,” I cried out, “Grandma!”  There was no response.  Everything was mocking me:  the hard ground, the casket staring me in the face, and the rain falling from the sky.  I wanted to run away from this dismal place.  But where could I go?  I wanted to see my grandmother again and tell her that I love her.  But I couldn’t.  She was gone.  

I knelt there for a long time until everything became silent.  The ground, the casket, even the rain stopped, leaving a calm and quiet presence in the air around me.  I was not accustomed to such silence, and the weight of it quickly overwhelmed me.  I did not address God or even try to speak to him.  Kneeling before my grandmother’s casket, I was speechless before this incredible mystery while questions rattled through my brain: What is the purpose of life?  Why is there suffering?  What is death?  Where do people go when they die?

All of sudden I felt as if I had woken up from a dream.  These questions opened my eyes to something beyond myself.  I was immediately filled with a sense that life has a purpose.  My tears ceased while the sadness in my heart began to dissipate.  I looked up at her casket again and knew that somehow and in some way my grandmother was alive.  A gentle smile began to cover my face.  I stood there for a few more minutes trying to understand this sudden change that had occurred in me.  It was pointless; my mind had failed me.  

I kissed her casket a final time and walked with my parents to the car.  As we drove away from the cemetery I didn’t feel the need to look back at her grave.  I knew, in some mysterious way, that she wasn’t there.  I pulled out her rosary beads from my pocket and squeezed them in my hand.  A new set of tears began to form, but this time they were tears of joy.

+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR      




Tuesday, October 31, 2017

First Feastday of Saint Angelus

Today is the first feast day for the newly canonized Saint Angelus of Acri! Podcast interview with Deacon Br. Angelus who talks about what it was like to attend the canonization Mass in Rome. Listen to learn more!

















Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Ricky Baker and Our Father



A film came out of New Zealand recently called “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople”. It’s a comedy. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it by telling you that Ricky Baker is the main character. He’s a 13 year old kid in foster care. He calls himself a “gangster” and names his dog “Tupac”. At the beginning of the movie, he’s adopted by a couple named Bella and Hec. Some crazy stuff happens so that Ricky and his foster father Hec find themselves on the run - on the run from the police but also from Ricky’s former social worker, whose name is Paula. Paula goes on the national morning show to tell the public who they should be on the lookout for. Basically she tells the public, this is how you can know its Ricky: 

“We’re talking … disobedience. Stealing. Spitting. Running away. Throwing rocks. Kicking stuff. Defacing stuff. Burning stuff. Loitering. And graffiti-ing. And that’s just the stuff we know about.”

And based on those actions, do you know how she describes Ricky? 

Paula calls Ricky “a real bad egg.” 

But probably a better description of Ricky Baker based on those actions is simply “orphan.” He’s a son living without the anchor of his Dad.

In the 11th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, just before he teaches the disciples how to pray, we see Jesus praying. And if you were to describe Jesus based on seeing him praying, how would you describe Him? 

A real good egg? No!

Pope Benedict says that when we see Jesus praying we see that the best description for Him is “Son”. Not even “Son of God” or “Son of Man,” but simply “Son”.

He actually says that of all the titles for Jesus…like Prophet, Priest, Lord, or Messiah….Son is the best, the most fitting. The one that best describes who Jesus is. He’s “Son”.

So when he teaches us to pray “Father” he’s also telling us that “son” is our best description too. 

I was thinking about the “Our Father” in this light and how we pray “forgive us our trespasses”. Another way we might express it is “forgive us for the times we acted like orphans”. Maybe not stealing or defacing stuff or throwing rocks like Ricky Baker, but in some way, slipping back into orphan mode. 

Everything Jesus did – his prayer, preaching, miracles, temptations, suffering, everything – all of it in some way shows his awareness of the Father. 

When he teaches us to pray “Father” he’s inviting us to share in this awareness of the Father as sons, and ultimately to participate in Jesus’ own awareness of the Father.

In the movie, Hec (or “Uncle Hec” as Ricky calls him) is a pretty dim reflection of God the Father but in his presence, Ricky’s whole world is expanded. And he composes this haiku:

Trees. Birds. Rivers. Sky. / Running with my Uncle Hec / Living forever.

I think when Jesus says pray “Father”, he’s saying “come run with the Father, come live with the Father.” And cause he knows that telling us isn’t enough - cause we can be forgetful sons, and prone to live like orphans - he gives us his heart in the Eucharist, which as Pope Benedict reminds us, is above all else, a son’s heart.


+ Deacon Br. Francesco Mary Gavazzi, CFR
Yonkers, NY

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

God or Country?

https://soundcloud.com/franciscan-friars/god-or-country

This year has been a very difficult year in our country. We have faced many difficulties this year from massive political division, natural disasters and a horrific tragedy in Las Vegas. How are we to respond to these challenges in 2017? The answer, unfortunately is not simply a political one, an economic one or a social one. Jesus reminds us, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what belongs to God." In other words, we must work and serve others in this world but ultimately our hearts, souls and destiny belong to God. Only when we place him first are we given the "eternal perspective" to view this world appropriately.

Podcast by Fr. Jeremiah, CFR












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Monday, October 16, 2017

This Will Change Your Life

Podcast by Fr. Luke Fletcher, CFR. Jesus reveals the meaning of life: we are all called to a loving communion with God. The depth of this offer of intimacy is shocking. Listen to learn more!


















Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Preaching – An Encounter With Weakness



Preaching is an essential part of Franciscan life.  When St. Francis encountered the love of God in Jesus Christ his life was radically altered.  Almost overnight Francis went from a man of this world to one in pursuit of the things of heaven.  He traded in his fancy clothes for those of a poor beggar.  He said goodbye to his earthly father, who could not accept his son’s transformation, and embraced God as his Father.  He abandoned his middle class Italian life, with all of its pleasures and luxuries, and went to live with lepers and those estranged from society.

St. Francis did all of this, not because of political or economic motivations, but because he wanted to imitate Jesus who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6).  Francis’ desire was simple: to live the Gospel and share with the world that “pearl of great price” he had received.  The rich, the poor, young, old and even animals listened to this “troubadour of the Lord,” as he went about proclaiming the Gospel to all of creation.  The whole world was not only his cloister, but also his audience.

I too share the same passion that St. Francis did for preaching.  When I first heard the Gospel it was like fresh spring water washing over me.  It was purifying, refreshing and humbling.  For some time I simply bathed in those waters, not trying to understand, but just enjoying its freshness and vigor.  Fairly soon, however, I would realize, this good news was not meant only for myself.  I needed to share it.

My own Franciscan life is not an ordinary one.  I am a part time hermit and a part time preacher.  In my community we have a few full time preachers, called itinerant preachers, but no hermits.  I am somewhere in between.  I love the silence and solitude of hermitage, yet I also love the opportunity to preach the Gospel.  Like St. Paul I believe, “an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it” (1 Corinthians 9:16).

Whether it is a retreat, a parish mission, a day of recollection or some other preaching event, I am generally excited and anxious to share, what I believe, is the heart of the Gospel: that no matter who you are, where you are from, or what you have done, God is deeply in love with you.  Jesus is the proof.

Perhaps I am a bit naïve, but every time I venture out to proclaim this message I expect a smooth takeoff.  Within moments, however, I encounter turbulence.  Traffic jams, car problems, flight delays, headaches, stomach pains, difficulty sleeping, and miscommunication are just some of the commotion that I encounter along the way.

Followed by this is what I like to call “mind turbulence.”  It begins with questions:  Why am I preaching here?  Why did I choose this topic?  Did I really discern this properly? Are my talks too long, too short?  Are they too theological? Next comes an endless array of thoughts plagued with doubt and insecurity.  Nobody is going to come.  The pastor thinks I’m too young.  I shouldn’t have left my hermitage.  I’m such a hypocrite; I shouldn’t be preaching on something I’m not living, etc.

Finally, there is the “environmental turbulence.”  Like clockwork, as soon as I arrive for the event something goes wrong with the sound system, electricity, air conditioner or heater.  Coupled with that is a whole group of enthusiastic people waiting to tell me their hopes and their expectations for the event.  Somewhere inside this crowd there is that one person who does not hesitate to tell me everything that is wrong with this place, its people, its pastor, its programs and that my being there, despite good intentions, will not really change anyone.

By this point my head is usually spinning, my stomach is in pain and I am convinced this event will be a disaster.  Clearly this cannot be God’s will.  I turn to prayer for confirmation.  There is no consolation, no affirmation and no sense of God’s presence.  If God does “speak” to me in these moments, it is often with the same words he gave to St. Paul in the midst of his own struggles he encountered in proclaiming the Gospel.  "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness"(2 Corinthians 12:9).

When the time has arrived to begin preaching I approach the microphone with a deep awareness of my own poverty.  I have been completely stripped.  I have no confidence, no wisdom and no strength.  I am not exactly sure what I will say or how I will say it.  I feel alone.  I open my mouth and suddenly it happens: everything disappears.  The turbulence ceases, and I feel, quite literally, as if I am floating, being carried by a Presence much stronger than anything of this world.  Somehow the words flow and most importantly, in a way my audience can understand.  The Gospel, despite all these difficulties, is being proclaimed, and strangely enough, I am its messenger.

After the event is finished I go to the door to say goodbye to people and thank them for coming.  Most people shake my hand, nod in appreciation and say thank you.  A few approach me and look directly into my eyes and say, “thank you, I really needed to hear that.”   A few more people come forward with tears in their eyes, “I really experienced the love of God in your words today.  I can’t thank you enough for coming.”  Humbled and somewhat embarrassed, I simply respond,  “God bless you.”  Occasionally, someone will say, “This event has changed my life, thank you.”  I am left speechless.  I simply smile at them and embrace them, while tears of my own begin to well up inside of me.

I have often used the words of St. Paul, “When I am weak, it is then that I am strong,” (2 Corinthians 12:11) to encourage people in their own ministry when they become overwhelmed by their inadequacies.  God can do a lot with nothing, I tell them, if you are willing to surrender even that to him.  St. Francis stripped himself of his clothes to become utterly dependent on God.  I too, when I preach, am stripped of any self -reliance so as to learn the same message:  God’s grace covers our weakness.  


+ Fr. Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, CFR
Monticello, NY
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Monday, October 2, 2017

Breathing


On average, a person takes 16 breaths a minute, 960 breaths an hour and 23, 040 breaths a day.  Like most people, I have spent my life oblivious to this ordinary human act, until recently.


    I was sitting in my backyard reading a book and closed my eyes for a few moments of reflection.  Suddenly, my thoughts disappeared.  The ideas I was meditating on had reached their limit.  Out of that silence I felt my chest expand as I inhaled fresh air.  I calmly listened as I exhaled and continued to watch, in almost childlike wonder, the sound of each inhale and exhale.  



I put the book down and remained sitting, paying attention to my breathing.  After about 20 minutes or so had gone by I opened my eyes and almost didn’t recognize where I was.  I hadn’t moved yet something was different.  The pine trees I see everyday as I look out my window were still there.  The neighbors’ blue truck had not moved from their driveway and the pond a few hundred feet away from my house was still resting in its usual place.  Externally, life was normal, but, internally, a shift had occurred.  It was as if I were looking at the world around me, not with the familiar eyes that tend to gloss over each moment, but with the eyes of a child, in whom everything is fresh and exciting.   

   
What amazed me was not that I was breathing, but that I had never paid attention to it before.  How have I lived 38 years and never reflected upon this ordinary human act?  Perhaps what is ironic about this experience was that paying attention to my breathing was not simply a physiological or psychological experience of myself.  It was an experience of God, who felt closer to me than my own body.  It was as if God were breathing inside of me.    

 
Many of the world’s religions speak of paying attention to one’s breath as a valuable spiritual practice.  It is used, not as a tool to escape reality, but as a way to transcend the endless dialogue that occurs in our over active minds.  Once we can move beyond that chatter, many religions say, we see things in a purer light.  The reason is because breathing lacks the rigidity of an overly rationalistic outlook that many of us in the West seem to possess.  One stands then, from this perspective, before reality, not as a teacher, but as a student.  It is this posture that allows one a more genuine experience of the Ultimate Reality that we call God.


Some people can be uncomfortable or suspicious speaking about the spirituality of breathing because they associate it with Eastern meditation practices.  However, breathing has been an essential part of Christianity from the beginning.  The book of Genesis tells us that, “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).  On Easter night, after Jesus “recreated” the world by his Passion, death and resurrection, he met his fearful disciples andbreathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).  It is the breath of God that gives us life, both physically and spiritually.   Every breath we take then is a reminder not only of our dependence on God but also of our union with him.   


As a priest I often find myself pulled in many directions.  I am constantly juggling what I believe are three areas the Lord is calling me to: prayer, writing and preaching.  Despite these activities, there is always somebody to help, there are many communal and familial responsibilities always at hand, and then there is just life, with all its surprises and annoyances.   Lest anyone think I am walking around in the beatific vision, I, like the majority of people, spend most of my day without a sensible or consoling experience of God’s presence.  In other words, I stumble around from one moment to the next, attempting to walk more “by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).  Despite my best efforts, I often find myself bumping into everything around me because in reality I walk more by sight than by faith.  Though I believe in God and know He is present to me, and providing me with every grace I am in need of, I often do not feel this in any tangible or sensible way.  


Stopping, if only for a few moments, and becoming aware of my breathing has provided me an opportunity to ground myself in reality.  On days when I try to control life this truth can be utterly terrifying because it reveals my own poverty and need, something all of us, including myself, would rather talk about than experience.  On days when trust is greater and the desire to surrender myself to God permeates my heart, this truth is liberating because it enables me to place my hope where it belongs: outside of myself and onto God.  


Paying attention to one’s breathing, I have realized, can also be a way of prayer.  If the simple act of breathing can remind us of the reality of God, that same breath can also be a means of surrender to God.  Through my breathing I am saying yes to life, not as I want it, but as it really is.  This “yes” to our life is essentially a yes to God, since it is “the breath of the Almighty that gives me life” (Job 33:4).



+ Fr. Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, CFR
Monticello, NY
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