Angel at Union Station

I have about 45 minutes before my train is going to leave from Union Station in Las Angeles and decide to get me a slice of pizza from the fast food bar. The tables are all taken so I ask a woman sitting alone if she would mind if I shared her table. The woman, who happens to be Afro-American, graciously makes room for me. A minute later, we are joined by a young white kid. There we are three strangers in the most casual of settings.

The young man and I start to wolf down our pizzas when the woman stops us. “Wait,” she admonishes us. Then, she spreads out a napkin in front of each of us, giving the illusion of place settings. Surprised, the kid and I watch this woman, a complete stranger, morphing herself into a charming hostess. She reaches out a hand to each of us, bows her head, and says, “Lord, we are blessed in this country of ours to have enough food to eat, we want you to know that we are grateful. Thank you, Lord. Amen.” She beams at us. “Now, we can DINE together as brothers and sister.”

We didn't have much time to engage in conversation but it didn't matter. The Afro-American woman had already communicated her values. Number one, she was colorblind. She saw us as brothers, not as strangers and had reached out to us with warmth and hospitality. In doing so she made the lonely setting of a train station a little less lonely. Her gesture of putting napkins in front of us and saying grace transformed a junk food meal into a kind of communion.

The experience at Union Station happened to me about six years ago now but it will always remain with me. Where in the world did this woman come from? There have been a number of books written about angels recently. I have tended to scoff at this stuff. But this woman was like an angel to me. Out of nowhere she entered my life and made me feel a connection with two human beings who would have remained complete strangers to me. Her actions spoke to me, louder than any preacher on Sunday morning, that saying a prayer of thanks, even for a dried out piece of pepperoni pizza at a railroad station, transforms the meal into a feast and makes us conscious that in God's eyes, there are no strangers.

The energy of love

Some day, after we have mastered the winds,the waves, the tides and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Teilhard De Chardin

For me there is something mesmerizing about these words of the scientist/philosopher and theologian, Teilhard De Chardin. As a modern day scientist, he exults in the achievements of science while pointing to a greater energy, stronger than nuclear power, greater than anything we have yet been able to tap. He says, in effect,Just wait. We haven't seen anything yet. Just wait until the day comes when we harness the energy of love. Then we will have for the second time in the history of the world, discovered fire. Thats powerful stuff.

But wait a second, we already know about love, don't we ? We know exactly what it looks like. Love leaps out at us when we see a mother caressing her newborn, in the way a newlywed couple look at one another, in the silent vigil of an old man at the deathbed of his wife. We witness love in the self sacrifice of a Mother Teresa and in the way people give of their money and themselves to come to the assistance of the victims of AIDS in Africa. Love is what makes moms and dads put away their savings so that their kid can go to college. It is the glue of long lived marriages, a silent presence at the birth of a child. Love makes a little girl pick up a fallen sparrow and try to nurse it back to health. So what does Chardin mean when he says :some day we will harness for God the energies of love.

What I think he's saying is that we are just beginning to understand what love can do in our world but we're a long way from harnessing its energy. We recognize only dimly that we are one body on our planet, one with fellow humans and one with all living things. Individuals, our prophets, both secular and religious, have grasped the interdependence of human kind with one another and with the environment but it is only recently that the rest of us are coming to this recognition.

We have a long way to go. Most of the time we remain children, fighting one another over our toys. We still need weapons and soldiers and prisons because we haven't figured out a way to protect ourselves without them. It's still an us and them world where we fight for survival and make enemies of those who could be our brothers and sisters.

Then, along comes this prophet of hope, this scientist/dreamer, to tell us that there will come a time when we become smart enough and brave enough to harness the energy of love. When we do, life will never be the same. Just as when our ancestors discovered fire and, in doing so changed forever the way they lived, so will it be when we truly understand the power of love. An energy will be released in our lives that will turn us on our heads and change the way we see ourselves and all living things.

Pretty idealistic stuff ? You betcha! Totally

unrealistic ? No, because you see the seeds of this all encompassing love have already been planted. Every time I witness an act of bravery or read about some couple adopting six handicapped kids, or some person mentoring a teen or hear of a person donating a kidney so that another person might live, I”m reminded that this vision of Chardin's already exists in the great heart of humanity. All the goodness we see are signs pointing to the day when the vision becomes reality.

Goodbye To Youth

Ronald Rolheiser, author of The Holy Longing, asks us to imagine that we wake up one morning,, look at the calendar, and come to the realization that we are 70 years old.

Whatever else we can say about ourselves, we know for certain that our youth is behind us, gone, dead, caput. All the good diet and exercise in the world, all the face creams and tummy tucks, can never restore the youth we have lost. We can say Boo hoo. Poor me, to this realization or we can be grown ups and accept ourselves and our time in life.

Happily, while the years of our youth are dead, WE are not dead. In point of fact we are very much alive and, in many ways, we are wiser, more tolerant and enjoy life more now than when we were twenty or forty or sixty, But we are all of these things as 70 year olds, not as a young people..

I like the author's take on aging. In our society, it seems to me we try so desperately to hold on to our youth, as though it is only when we are young that we are truly alive. That's nuts. I submit that there are only two groups of people in this world who truly savor an ice cream cone or get off on a butterfly or a ladybug, or who welcome each new day as a gift, little kids and their grandparents. The folks in between see bugs. Old folks and kids see miracles.

Rolheiser goes on to say that some of the unhappiest people he knows are 70 years old. and older. Then, he adds “It's also true that some of the happiest people I know are also 70 plus.” Don't you find that to be true ? It's been my experience that the people who cling desperately to their youth, as if in losing their youth, they would lose all that life can offer, are to be pitied. I want to shake them and say”Get over it.”

Remember, when we said goodbye to our kids on their first day of school ? That was a death of sorts, wasn't it ? And when our kids grew up and went to college or when they married ? Sure that was the end of that period in our lives but so what ? We survived and got on with a new phase of our life cycle. But there is something about the final phase of our lives that makes us dig in our heels and say Hell no, we won't go. We attack each new wrinkle like an enemy bomber. Every gray hair is an intruder at our gates. When our biggest thrill of the day comes when an acquaintance tells us that we look much younger than our age, it's time to get a life.

We are who we are, warts and wrinkles and gray hair and all. Given the alternative, we are damn lucky to be alive. You can join the ranks of all those unhappy 70 year old folks if you'd like. It's a free country. When I turn 70, I'm going to hang out with those happy old geezers.

The Priest Who Couldn't Cheat

Excerpts From The Priest Who Couldn't Cheat

1. My own family was probably not much different from other Irish Catholic families of that time. No one talked about sex, except the priests. We were harangued from the pulpit on the evils of contraception. Teens were reminded of the grave harm we could do our immortal souls by touching ourselves impurely. Sexual relations within the confines of Holy Matrimony were tolerated but there was no doubt in anyone's mind that living without sex, as the nuns and priest did, was the higher calling.

2. The Bishop took our hands in his and poured on them the holy oils, consecrating them to the service of God and the church. He intoned the Latin words reminding us that these hands would, from this day forward, be the hands of a priest, empowered and set aside to hold the Body and Blood of Christ. It never occurred to me that my hands would one day also hold my new born child.

3. It was in a remote village in rural Japan when I first met Chiekosan.I'd stay at her house overnight because there were no inns in the village. It took a while but gradually the old Buddhist grandmother and the Catholic kid from South Buffalo started to connect. I began to realize that she was profoundly spiritual, even if she were not a Christian. The miso soup and rice we ate together each morning became for us a kind of communion.

The Priest Who Couldn't Cheat is available through Amazon or at Copperfields or Readers Books in Sonoma County. It can also be ordered directly from the author by contacting him by e-mail at

First Smiles and First Poops

First Smiles and First Poops

My sister in law called the other day and man o man was she excited. “Hank, the most wonderful thing happened to me today.” “You won the lottery ?” “ No, better than that,” she answered, her voice practically reaching out and shaking me over the phone lines. “Ryan, my little grandson, smiled at me. He looked up at me and gave me his first big smile. He really did. I’m so excited, I could die.”

Now other people may not think a baby’s first smile is such a big deal but, to a new grandma, there are few things in life more rewarding. I congratulated Phyllis and was honored that she shared this momentous news with me. I was equally delighted two weeks ago when my daughter called me at 10:30 at night to share the news that my granddaughter had actually used the potty for the first time. Halleluiah ! The first poop.

Those of you who read this column regularly know that I can take myself seriously at times. I ponder why we have wars and why seemingly good kids go bad and good marriages go sour. I wonder if our country should have gone into Iraq and why we have evil in our world and how can a loving God allow the early death of good parents and let some really bad ones survive. Sometimes, I get so serious about life that I scare myself.

Then, every once in a while, something wonderful happens, like the calls from my sister in law or the call from my daughter. For a moment I can put my heavy pondering to rest. A tiny little break through happens in a baby’s life and I get a different perspective on life. Wow ! A little human being smiles for the first time and I get goose bumps. What a miracle ! For the moment, I put everything “important” aside. Sorry about that, fellow Catholics, I know the election of the new Pope is making big news all over the world, and sorry Barry Bonds, I realize that it will be major stuff if you pass Babe Ruth in the home run record books, but your accomplishments just got trumped by a baby’s first smile.

Somehow, I don’t think I am that unusual. We can get ourselves worked up about the economy or the legalities of gay marriage or the war in Iraq It’s good that we do so. We need to pay attention and to add our two cents to what happens in our community and in the wider national and international community. But, at the same time, we care most about our families, our kids and grand kids. It’s human nature.

So, I don’t apologize for writing to you about a baby’s first smile or a grand daughter’s first bowel movement because I think you will understand. You have been there, or will be some day, and know exactly what I mean.

The Inner Journey

Travel has a way of changing you, shaking up those brain cells and rearranging them so that you begin to think differently about life. Anyone who has had the opportunity of spending some time in a foreign country knows how exciting and challenging it can be.

But traveling to another country is not nearly as challenging as the inner journey that all of us are called to make sometime during our lives. It's scary to find yourself in a crowded train station in Tokyo trying to find out how you can get back to your hotel but the experience pales in comparison to finding yourself at the end of your days trying to figure out whether your life meant anything at all. That's the journey within that we need to make if we are to make sense of our lives.

Gerontologists tells us that one of the most important things we can do during the final third of our lives is to pull it all together, our experiences, our mistakes, our memories, so that they all add up for us. What did we do with our lives ? What was important to us ?

Who were the people who journeyed with us along the way ? Did we love enough ? Laugh enough ? What lessons did we learn ? Did we do harm to others along the way ? Can we still ask forgiveness for the things we have done or failed to do ? Can we forgive ourselves ?

I suggest we could all take a page from the Jews whose tradition is to bring all these thoughts to light once every year at the time of Yom Kippur. At the beginning of the Jewish New Year, they take time to look at the compass of their lives to see if they have gone off in the wrong direction. If they have veered from the right path, they resolve to correct their course for the next year. It's much smarter to take a reading of our lives once a year rather than to wait until the waning years of our lives.

I don't discount the difficulty of embarking on a journey within. Our culture is hardly conducive to quiet thought. These days, not even the library offers a place free of noise. Cell phones and beepers intrude upon our privacy. At home, we let ourselves be distracted by mindless television shows. We run around like chickens without our heads, doing stuff, and never taking the time to stop and reflect on what it is we are doing. We need to get off the treadmill and reclaim time for ourselves.

During the past few years I have taken to keeping a journal. It forces me to reflect on how I am spending my time, makes me conscious of the time I waste. I recommend the practice to you as one way of keeping in touch with that person within. I know others who meditate daily. A good friend of mine finds rest for the spirit in his fifteen minute morning walk. The way we choose to find our inner space is less important than that we make sure it happens. After all, it's our never to be repeated lives we are talking about. Wouldn't it be a nightmare if we were to reach the end of our days and realize that we were still strangers to ourselves or worse, that we had never really lived ?