a groovy day in my spiritual life

On July 26, 1970, at the church of Saint John the Baptist in Excelsior, Minnesota, the Rev. Vincent O’Connor poured water over my forehead and baptized me in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I’ve decided to make a point of celebrating the anniversary of my baptism. I guess Pope John Paul II thought this sort of thing was a good idea, as did a fourth-century saint:

We should celebrate the day of our baptism as we do our birthday! All Christians should reflect on the meaning and importance of their own baptism. – John Paul II, 1/12/1997

The first Christians had great spiritual celebrations on the anniversary of their baptism, which was the day of their dedication, the day on which they were consecrated to God. They took no notice of their birthday, for at birth we are not children of God, but rather children of Adam. So they celebrated the day on which they were made children of God, the day of their baptism. – Saint Caesarius of Arles (470-543 AD)

My mom is amazing. I’m the youngest of ten kids, and somehow she saved a box of various items from my baptism! I was digging through my books the other day and stumbled across all of this memorabilia… baptismal cards printed for the occasion; cards from godparents, family and friends; a telegram from my uncle; a burlap banner, complete with bright orange and green felt letters proclaiming a groovy Gospel message; a family Christmas card that was created after the event… My parents had the event filmed on Super 8 film and recorded on audio tape as well.

I have the script my parents wrote for the occasion (that’s right, they scripted the liturgy)… apparently it involved most of my nine brothers and sisters. And I have been given to understand that Fr. O’Connor played guitar during the celebration.

It was a tandem baptism, shared with good friends of our family, the Regans. Bobby Regan and I were both born around the same time, so the families decided to celebrate the baptisms together.

I was particularly moved by some of the notes I found among the archives:

from my godparents:
Dearest little Clayton,
We are so happy to be your godparents, and through you to reaffirm that we’ll go “one more round, mankind.” Your parents are beauties and you are blessed as they are blessed. Much love, Gordy & Grace

May he grow in wisdom, grace and age and be worthy of his earthly and heavenly family. Bob and Helen

from one of my aunts:
Dear Mary, Jim and children:
Thank you for a very wonderful day. It was an insight to generous, selfless, meaningful Christian lives. Gratefully, Pat and Gen

from a friend of the family:
Dear Mary and Jim,
Clayton has really come into a beautiful and loving Christian fellowship. He is a very lucky young man to have been received so well into his new community. John and I felt it an honor to be a part of your special day. Thank you for all the “giving” you have sent our way. Love in your family! Cynthia O’Halloran

and then the telegram from my uncle:

Stumbling across all of this is quite humbling. It’s hard to know how to express gratitude for such a great gift, given to me even before there was any way of responding. It reminds me of the very gratuity of God, the great economist of the heart… who doesn’t measure, or wait for any kind of response.

In his Letter to Families, John Paul II wrote profound things about the family as the lasting “horizon of one’s existence” and the relationship between human life and life in God:

It is for themselves that married couples want children; in children they see the crowning of their own love for each other. They want children for the family, as a priceless gift. This is quite understandable. Nonetheless, in conjugal love and in paternal and maternal love we should find inscribed the same truth about man which the Council expressed in a clear and concise way in its statement that God “willed man for his own sake.” It is thus necessary that the will of the parents should be in harmony with the will of God. They must want the new human creature in the same way as the Creator wants him: “for himself.” Our human will is always and inevitably subject to the law of time and change. The divine will, on the other hand, is eternal. As we read in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer 1:5). The geneaology of the person is thus united with the eternity of God, and only then with human fatherhood and motherhood, which are realized in time. At the moment of conception itself, man is already destined to eternity in God.Letter to Families, paragraph 9

All I can say is that I am very grateful for my parents. It would have been easy for them to have seen a tenth child simply as a burden or another mouth to feed. But instead they chose to see it as an occasion of joy and hope, and left all of these reminders behind for me to discover later.

So here’s to forty-five years of life in my earthly family, and in the family of the Trinity!

Mary, the Bread of Life, and the mystery of Holy Saturday

Today, on Holy Saturday, Lent is over. We spend three days enveloped in the liturgy of the Triduum, and we’re right in the middle of it. It is, as T.S. Eliot once said, “the still point in the turning world” (“Burnt Norton,” II, Four Quartets). At the eye of the hurricane, there is a great silence.

There is a beautiful ancient homily on Holy Saturday — we don’t even know who wrote it but it’s beautiful — in the Office of Readings today. Here is a short excerpt:

Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives of Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve… The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory….

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

(Office of Readings, Holy Saturday)

The mystery of Holy Saturday is a mystery of communion, of restored union: what was separated has now been reunited.

How does this happen? What is this mystery of communion which we are anticipating and which we celebrate tonight?

It is, primarily, the mystery of the Eucharist, the sacrament of communion. It is the most exalted mystery of God’s own heart, and of His love.

We’re on pilgrimage today into the very heart of God. Who does the Church give us to accompany us in this time? Who can really show us the way?

It’s Mary. She alone did not flee… did not panic… and did not despair. She is our guide through Holy Saturday, because she is the steward of the great mystery of the Eucharist.

I want to make a brief examination of her life, as it relates to her Son, who is the Bread of Life (John 6:35).

First we go back to the Annunciation. In this moment when the angel Gabriel appears to her, Mary becomes, in a very real way, Bethlehem. The word Bethlehem literally means “the house of bread”.

She is Bethlehem more truly than the town she visits nine months later: she received the Bread that the “house of bread” would not (Luke 2:7). She becomes the dwelling place of the Bread of Life, and she tends to this Bread for thirty years in a mystery of silence we know  little about.

Like the centurion, she calls out to God at the Annunciation: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof, but only say the word…” (Luke 7:6-7). She gives her assent: “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Now did she know what she was saying yes to? In the details? No.

But she was docile. She was receptive to the One who has come to her. You see, she said yes to a Someone, not a something. It wasn’t a yes to a plan, or a schedule, or a series of foreseen events.

The somethings of her yes were constantly being challenged and purified. Think of the Presentation in the Temple, when she was told that her heart too would be pierced by a sword (Luke 2:35). Think also of her discovery of Jesus in the Temple after a long search. Her Son asked her: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)

The beauty of Mary is that, when confronted with the unknown and the unexpected, she does not flinch, cower or rant, but she receives it all, and ponders the word in her heart (Luke 2:51). Whatever word is spoken to her — whatever word — she receives confidently as a word of love coming from the very heart of God.

This strong, serene faith is seen at the wedding feast at Cana, when, in response to the news that they have no more wine, she responds by calling her Son into action. She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Notice that she doesn’t spell out the plan of action herself, but simply refers them to her Son, trusting in His loving wisdom and power.

Fast forward now three years… to the very end of the life of her Son. As she receives the body of her Son when it is taken, lifeless, from the cross, she receives it lovingly. She kisses Him and gazes out at us as she holds Him. Her eyes are filled with grief, but no bitterness. “This is for you,” her eyes say to us. She is the gracious hostess of the divine meal, expressing a hospitality that has cost her everything.

The Son in her arms is no longer the thriving infant He once was, but a lifeless corpse. This is the annihilation of everything a mother’s heart could want for her child. And yet she is not raging. She’s not bitter. She’s not angry. She’s not clinging desperately to the body of her Son. Instead, she is holding Him with great tenderness and affection.

Why? Because she understands what it takes to make bread… in this case, the Bread of Life.

You see, all along the way of the Cross, her Son, the Bread of Life, was kneaded, pushed, contorted and bruised by the crowds. And now the bread will be covered with a shroud, and placed in the darkness, so that, three days later, it can rise.

So Saturday is a day of waiting. It’s a day of waiting for the Bread to rise, to be baked and to be ready for us. Saturday is Mary’s day, a day to wait with her, in stillness and in hope. And it’s a time to consider her service to the Eucharist, the Bread of Life.

What can this mean for us?

This evening, as you attend the Easter Vigil, as you go to receive the Eucharist after this long fast, think of giving delight to the hostess of this divine meal.

Give joy to her heart by letting her know that her stewardship of this Bread has been accomplished. Give her joy by letting her overhear you say to the Father, as you approach the Bread of Life, “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Let her hear you expressing the words of the True Bethlehem: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed” (Luke 7:6-7).

Let the voice of the True Bethlehem rise up across the face of the whole Church today, as all of us, Mary’s spiritual children, raise our voices in a single cry of hope and of love: “Give us this bread always” (John 6:34).

Fr. Walter Ciszek: on the Eucharist

daucau monstrance

in the Nazi labor camp of Daucau, priests gathered scraps of wood to fashion a monstrance that could be used for the adoration of the Eucharist

When I reached the prison camps of Siberia, I learned to my great joy that it was possible to say Mass daily once again. In every camp, the priests and prisoners would go to great lengths, run risks willingly, just to have the consolation of this sacrament. For those who could not get to Mass, we daily consecrated hosts and arranged for the distribution of Communion to those who wished to receive. Our risk of discovery, of course, was greater in the barracks, because of the lack of privacy and the presence of informers. Most often, therefore, we said our daily Mass somewhere at the work site during the noon break. Despite this added hardship, everyone observed a strict Eucharistic fast from the night before, passing up a chance for breakfast and working all morning on an empty stomach. Yet no one complained. In small groups the prisoners would shuffle into the assigned place, and there the priest would say Mass in his working clothes, unwashed, disheveled, bundled up against the cold. We said Mass in drafty storage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation of an underground. The intensity of devotion of both priests and prisoners made up for everything; there were no altars, candles, bells, flowers, music, snow-white linens, stained glass or the warmth that even the simplest parish church could offer. Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine. The realization of what was happening on the board, box, or stone used in the place of an altar penetrated deep into the soul. Distractions caused by the fear of discovery, which accompanied each saying of the Mass under such conditions, took nothing away from the effect that the tiny bit of bread and few drops of consecrated wine produced upon the soul.

Many a time, as I folded up the handkerchief on which the body of our Lord had lain, and dried the glass or tin cup used as a chalice, the feeling of having performed something tremendously valuable for the people of this Godless country was overpowering. Just the thought of having celebrated Mass here, in this spot, made my journey to the Soviet Union and the sufferings I endured seem totally worthwhile and necessary. No other inspiration could have deepened my faith more, could have given me spiritual courage in greater abundance, than the privilege of saying Mass for these poorest and most deprived members of Christ the Good Shepherd’s flock. I was occasionally overcome with emotion for a moment as I thought of how he had found a way to follow and to feed these lost and straying sheep in this most desolate land. So I never let a day pass without saying Mass; it was my primary concern each new day. I would go to any length, suffer any inconvenience, run any risk to make the bread of life available to these men.

Fr. Walter J Ciszek, SJ – in He Leadeth Me