Thursday, January 31, 2013


Sometimes  Baxter spends long hours alone.  All of his physical needs are cared for, and I usually leave a radio playing so that he has some pleasant sounds in the background.  But I can tell that at times he gets lonely.  When I come back from my absence, he waits for a long scratch on the back, and then he rolls over for a gentle rub on the belly.  He purrs and purrs, and he won’t leave my side.  Finally, he jumps on my lap and finds his comfortable spot to fall asleep for a half hour or longer.  That seems to reassure him that I will always come back and care for him.  After that routine, Baxter is his old self again.

We all get anxious and ill at ease about feeling alone and abandoned.  It may come to us when someone we love deeply dies, or when we find ourselves in new and strange circumstances with no familiar face around.  It may happen when the children have moved from the homestead to start their own lives, or when we move from the house where the family was raised to downsize and enjoy a simpler life in retirement.  Loneliness is the residue we feel when the familiar is gone, the routine is changed, and the people with whom we are most comfortable have moved to another setting with new people.  It’s a mixed emotion, part sadness, part anxiety, part insecurity and a general unease with the new situation in which we find ourselves.

What can we do about it?  We can’t avoid or prevent it.  People die, move, grow up as part of living.  We can, however, learn to start over when the unfamiliar takes over our lives.  A few simple lessons may help.  First, if we insist on nothing changing, then we are doomed to be lonely.  We need to let go of the way things were to embrace the way they are now.  That means we have to try new ways of living to set new routines in our life, because it is the routines that set our comfort zones back in place.  Next, we have to be open to inviting new people into our life when the familiar faces are gone or are not there as much.  At first, this may feel awkward and we may be tentative with each other, but keep at it.  In time, a comfort zone is found with new friends over common interests, concerns or work together, and then they become familiar to us.  Finally, don’t think that it has to be the same as before to be good now.  Life is broad and flexible.  It can twist and turn in many directions without falling apart.  Although the routines and the familiar faces may be different, they can still be nourishing to our spirit and form connections that we learn to value as much as the former ones.  They don’t replace loved ones lost or erase cherished memories of days past, but they add to these with new faces and experiences.  The human heart is ever expandable to take in more of life and the people who make living worthwhile, if we allow it to grow.

As Catholic Christians we have an obligation not to become lonely, stodgy and bitter people.  We have been given of God’s own Spirit to break down the barriers that isolate us from each other.  We live by the grace of God to find new connections to each other.  We are meant to adapt to various circumstances and people, just as the incarnate God did in Jesus and continues to do in the Spirit that moves in our world.  Our God is a communion of life, and loneliness has no place in His life.  To follow Him is to refuse to give in to the forces of isolation and division which keep us apart.  Our God is ever new, recreating the face of the earth as we discover new relationships within the created order and among the peoples of this earth.  When we feel lonely, we need to turn to God and ask for His grace to lead us to new people and events that embody His love and salvation for us.

Don’t worry, Baxter.  I’ll never abandon you.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


A few weeks ago Baxter was upset.  His automatic feeder went off at its regular time of 5:00 a.m., and at the first sound of the plate turning to reveal a new compartment, he went running for it.   However, soon he realized there was no food.  I had forgotten to fill the compartments again after his last meal, so when the new section of the plate moved into place for breakfast, it was empty.  Well, Baxter was not amused.  He sat in front of the feeding station and cried, yelled and bellowed his displeasure.  He didn’t move.  He just sat there and fussed.  He didn’t come to get me out of bed.  He just fussed.  He was paralyzed.  He fussed and fussed and fussed until I heard him, got  out of bed and served him his allotment of kibble.

We sometimes act this way as well.  Something doesn’t go as we planned, and we sit and storm about it.  We are disappointed in something or someone, and we don’t go to talk to the parties involved.  We tell everyone else our woes and frustrations.  It’s almost that we want to hear ourselves complain rather than address whatever the problem is.  We feel self-righteous in our anger, and we want everyone to know it.  We would rather take the offense personally, even if it isn’t personal, so that we can wear it as our badge of indignation at how unfair life is.  The problem becomes our soap box where we can proclaim to the world how we are victims of life’s vicissitudes, and it is YOUR fault!  We appear foolish, but we don’t care.  We get carried away in the wrong of the moment, and nothing can satisfy us.

Then Christ says settle down.  When the crowd wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery, when the disciples were indignant at the Zebedees’ unbridled ambition, when the rich young man enthusiastically sought to inherit God’s Kingdom, when the leaders asked if it is lawful to pay taxes to Rome, when the crowd was upset at the death of the young girl, in all these and many other situations described in the gospels, Jesus’ first response was to stop the general upset and calm everyone down.  Then He went on to address the issue by healing or teaching another way.  Stress interferes with the healing process, and no one can learn something new unless he or she can hear it over the anger of the moment.  The shock of our disappointments and new problems can become an obstacle to overcoming them.  We get stuck in our first reaction, and so never learn a way around our dilemmas.

When God closes a door, He opens a window, but we won’t see the open window if we remain facing the door.  Look around the problems we face.  Ask for help in this.  Get over being upset, and get on with a plan to solve the problems.  This is often how the power of God’s grace comes into our lives, but we have to allow it in.

In less than five minutes after I got up, Baxter got his bowl of kibble for breakfast.  All he had to do was to stop crying and complaining and ask.  Sometimes it’s that simple for us as well.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


I read an article in the newspaper a few weeks ago about a cat that was arrested in Brazil for carrying contraband into a prison.  The feline felon had a cell phone, drills, an earphone, a memory card, batteries and a phone charger taped to its body.  It was obviously an accomplice in a plot to escape the prison confines in some way, if only to do business beyond its walls.  I guess that the plan was for no one to notice the cat straying onto prison grounds.  When it was in the exercise yard someone would relieve it of its loot and benefit from the means of outside contact it provided.  I don’t know if the cat got anything from the transaction.  Treats?  Catnip?  Extra scratches under the chin?  Maybe the cat was an innocent victim, forced to be a beast of burden to provide some human the means for a sinister enterprise.  However, knowing cats as I do, I doubt this hypothesis.  “Innocent” is not a natural description for this species.  The cat had something up its paw, even if the angle wasn’t clearly evident.  It’s in the genes.

Now we may not use our pets to smuggle contraband into a prison, but we do sometimes use them and others for our own, self-serving purposes.  Did you ever dress up your dog or cat for Halloween, Christmas or July Fourth?  Did they like it?  So why do we do such things?  We think it’s cute or funny.  They want free of the costume.  We want to show them off.  They want to run away and be free of the encumbrances.  We want pictures to show our friends.  They want the peace and quiet of a nap.  We use our pets for our own purposes, and they reluctantly cooperate.  After all, we are their meal ticket.

While all of this may be harmless and frivolous fun, it does point out something in ourselves that can easily erase the humor.  We like to make each other over for our own purposes.  We believe that we know what the other person needs to look better, be happier, make a success of him or her self.  We are quick and easy with advice for others.  We may even con another into doing what we want by making them think it was his or her idea.  Some of us are masters at manipulation, or at least we try to be.  We use others for our purposes, and sometimes it’s easy because they want to be used to avoid taking responsibility for their own lives.  In the end, no one is the better for the experience.  Rather, both parties in such a relationship get stuck into patterns that keep them from maturing and being the best they can be.  They need each other, one to control and manipulate, the other to be controlled and dependent.  No one knows the freedom God gave us in this kind of arrangement.

God respects us for who we truly are, God’s children.  He doesn’t try to make us over into something we aren’t.  He wants us to be ourselves, but our true selves, our best selves.  That takes practice.  We don’t become good, truthful, loving, caring and always growing and improving in the virtues by taking a pill or being told what to do or having someone do it for us.  We have to work at what we want to become.  If we want to be honest and truthful, deal straight with others and tell the truth.  If we want to be generous, start by giving something away.  If we want to be learned, study.  If we want to be loving and caring, do something kind for another.  Get it?  We have to practice and practice and practice acts of virtue to become virtuous.  When practices become a habit, then they get inside us and come from there.  Our spirits and our actions unite, and we don’t have to think about doing the right thing and deciding in its favor.  We just do it because it’s who we are, it’s what we have become through practice, a practice we chose to follow.  No attachments or costumes are needed here.

The closest Baxter gets to a costume is the Notre Dame collar I put around his neck.  I don’t think he is a true fan.  He simply humors me by wearing it.  I have never tried to attach anything to his body.  He would have it off before I left the room.  Baxter is his own cat, and I admire him for that.  When we become our own persons, we won’t be perfect.  We will have to ask for forgiveness at times and correct our mistakes.  But I believe God will respect us for our attempts at genuine virtue, and help us grow over time in His grace.  Finally, isn’t that what matters most?

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Baxter prefers to drink from the spigot in the bathtub.  If I am not around to turn it on, he gives into a drinking session at the water bowl, but as soon as I return home, he jumps into the bathtub and looks at me.  When he catches my eye, he lets out a scream, “Give me a drink!”, and he is persistent.  He will sit there for a half hour waiting for me to crack the knob on the cold water to start a small trickle on water flowing.  The tub is Baxter’s pub, the place he gets refreshment, some human interaction (with me), and where his idiosyncrasies are accepted and indulged.  Like the old TV program, “Cheers”, the tub is the place where he goes and feels at home.

But I use the tub as well, not as my watering hole, but as my shower.  Some mornings Baxter and I have a little tiff over whose turn it is to use the tub.  He wants a drink, but I need to take a shower.  I try to accommodate him for a while, but after the third or fourth repetition of jumping into the tub, staring, crying and turning on the water to a trickle for his laps from the puddle beneath the spout, I have had it.  But I have learned the secret to get Baxter to make a quick exit.  Blast the water.  Turn the spigot full, and watch him jump and run for cover.  He doesn’t want a shower, only a drink.  He will tolerate a wet head to get to the puddle at the bottom of the tiny water stream, but a complete shower is out of the question.  Baxter will tip-toe in the water, but he will never dive into it.  He is too much of the fussy feline to get all wet.

In some ways we are the same.  Not that we avoid a physical bath, I hope, but we do often avoid immersing ourselves in the waters of spiritual cleansing.  We tip-toe in our baptismal commitments, rather than plunge our lives into the mysteries of our faith.  We take Christ on our terms—Sunday Mass, confession once in a while, participate in friends’ and relatives’ baptisms, weddings and funerals, maybe volunteer for some ministry (as long as it causes me no inconvenience).  We drink at  the fountain of life, but we won’t allow it to mess up our appearance, our schedule, or our desires.  We want what we want, when we want it, in the way we want it.  We don’t think about what God wants for us.

He wants all of us; everything we are and do.  There are no half-way baptismal commitments.  Our baptism calls us to hold nothing back from God’s influence and reshaping.  Baptism is a bath of grace that is meant to soak us and soak into us, so that the mystery of death and resurrection can cleanse us of all bitterness, dishonesty, pettiness, selfishness and hostility towards others.  We can’t jump in and out of the baptismal font.  We are marked by this bath for the rest of our lives, whether or not we want to be.  We are children of God and heirs to God’s Kingdom.  The only question before us after baptism is will we be loving children and worthy heirs.  There are no part-time jobs for Christ’s disciples.  We are called to live the life of faith twenty-four, seven, in every situation, with whomever we find ourselves.  The life of the baptized is meant to drip with grace, no matter how miserable we may feel or how unsightly in the world’s eyes we may appear.  It isn’t the temporary drench that matters, but the permanent cleansing that counts.

Baxter doesn’t like a full bath.  He wants only a little splash on the head to get a drink.  We have been bathed in the waters of our baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Don’t be afraid of getting wet this way.  It will save you.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A CHRISTMAS MESSAGE: Welcome the Stranger

Baxter doesn’t have problems with visitors.  When someone comes into the rectory for whatever reason, Baxter comes out to greet him or her.  He sniffs around a little, rubs against them if he can, and then looks longingly, hoping they are a source for another meal or at least an added treat for the day.  He is very different than my previous cat.  She would make a bee-line for the basement as soon as someone stepped beyond the threshold.  She was a one person cat, and everyone else was regarded as a threat to be avoided.  I think she had a bad experience with a stranger before I took her in, and she couldn’t get over it, even though she was safe and protected in my care.  Baxter has been sheltered from such threats, and so he thinks everyone who comes his way wants to make him happy, which in his world means, FEED ME!

The Epiphany, especially in the Western tradition of our church, is about Jesus meeting some strangers in the story of the Magi.  These characters were not part of the household of God as it was drawn in the Jewish tradition.  They were gentiles—people from far lands with strange dress, customs and different religions.  They probably spoke a different language and ate different foods and dressed differently.  They started out on a dangerous journey without a set destination.  They didn’t fit with the people of first century Israel, but they ended up there because that is where their quest led them.  They saw a new star, an omen of something new and promising arising for them and they followed it.  They ended up at the place of the Christ Child offering what they had as gifts to honor Him.

With the tragic events in the news the last few weeks, we are perhaps even more suspicious of strangers than we tend to be in the normal course of things.  What are they concealing?  Why don’t they act, talk, look and live a life style like ours?  Is their strangeness a sign of their unstable and sinister character?  How do we rid ourselves of these strangers who threaten our peace and security?

The Epiphany story warns us to be careful in answering these questions and the suspicions they raise.  Don’t come to easy and quick conclusions.  Be alert, but don’t reject people who are different just because they are different.  Be fair to the stranger.  Treat him or her by the same rules that we use to keep order and safety among us all.  Most of the destructive persons who have brought heartache and death in the recent tragedies were part of our neighborhoods, went to our schools, played with our children, worked in our communities.  They were not strangers, but loners, without hope for a new and promising future, driven to make their mark and gain notoriety by taking life rather than giving it.

Maybe that is our first clue on how to create a secure environment for ourselves.  We need to protect, uphold, enhance and contribute to each other’s life from the womb to the tomb.  Rather than push another's life aside to get ahead, eliminate it for our convenience, destroy it for our safety, or conquer it for our financial or national interests, we bring to others what we have to offer and hope they will take it into their own lives as a gift.  This is the difference that marked the Magi from Herod.  Many holy innocents died because Herod felt threatened by the newborn king whom he didn’t understand.  But the Magi’s quest for the promise of a better life and their gifts to the author of life live on each year as we celebrate the Epiphany.  Herod created a tragedy, but the Magi won a triumph for the human spirit’s search for God.  Strangers opened the door for the incarnate God to show Himself anew, born not just for the chosen few but choosing all to be born again in Christ.