Wednesday, December 4, 2019

This Special Season

It is early December, which means we have entered a special and festive and joyful season. We are once again in the season of Advent.

Advent?! Who pays attention to Advent anymore? Our entire American culture has been going bonkers for the Christmas season since about 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving afternoon. This doesn’t include the retail industry, of course, which started focusing on Christmas the minute the Back-to-School sales ended on Labor Day weekend.

Maybe we should be a little counter-cultural for a change, and think about Advent for the next few weeks.

If you’re like me, a semi-faithful churchgoer, during December you often focus on traditional Christmas themes, such as: Jesus’ birth in the stable; Santa Claus and Rudolph; the Red Ryder BB gun; Ebenezer Scrooge and his beleaguered clerk, George Bailey; Charlie Brown and his pal Frosty the Snowman trudging through the snow looking for a scraggily Christmas tree, etc. (Hmm, maybe my Christmas themes have been getting a little mixed up. Might be time for me to crack open a Bible again.)
Anyway, our culture has it all wrong. Nowadays, the Christmas season begins in earnest during halftime of the Detroit Lions football game on Thanksgiving afternoon. Then it continues at a feverish, frantic, and over-indulgent pace right up until the morning of December 25th. And in many people’s minds Christmas is over as soon as the last gift is opened — which in some households occurs at about 5:45 a.m. (The season of “How am I going to pay these bills?” begins in mid-January when the credit card statements arrive in the mail. This is followed in early February by the season of “Did I really spend 2400 bucks on a treadmill for a Christmas gift that’s now being used solely as an expensive coat rack?!”)

However, according to the Church calendar, the season of Christmas BEGINS on Christmas Eve, and then the Twelve Days of Christmas continue until the Feast of Epiphany on or about January 6th. The four-week period leading up to Christmas Day is the season of Advent.

It might be a good idea if we embrace the concept of Advent once again. Let’s be honest: even those of us who love Christmas often find the month of December to be very frantic and frustrating, expensive and exhausting. Wouldn’t it be nice to lead up to December 25th with a sense of calm and serenity, rather than the usual throbbing headache, frazzled nerves, and volcanic heartburn?
Here are some good things about the season of Advent: number one, candles. An Advent wreath with candles is such a quaint and cozy change of pace compared to those gaudy, blinking-light mechanical reindeer. Also, Advent calendars are pretty cool (especially the ones with chocolate).

Next, there is the music of Advent. OK, you’re right, there aren’t a lot of Advent carols. But “O Come, Divine Messiah” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are so lovely, and much nicer than constantly hearing that horrible date-rape anthem, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

If you really want to do something counter-cultural, consider attending a half-day Advent retreat at Blessed Sacrament church in Waterbury. The men’s retreat will be this Saturday, December 7th, at 9 a.m. The women’s retreat will be next Saturday, December 14th, also beginning at 9. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find a real guest speaker, so instead, they booked me to give the talks at both retreats. It still will be a good time, and I promise to keep the corny jokes to a minimum.
So, please enjoy the true season. And if you can make it on either of the next two Saturdays, I’d love to see you and say hi.

Ho, ho, ho, and Merry Advent!

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Who Are the Real Religious Nuts?

These weekly Merry Catholic essays are broadcast on WJMJ-FM, the radio station of the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford, CT. Over the years I’ve had people say something like this to me, “Hey Bill, I heard you on the radio the other day. So, you’re kind of like… umm, INTO religion, huh?”

I can tell they’re trying to be polite, but what they really want to say is, “Hey Bill, you’re a religious nut, aren’t ya?!”

Well, in the eyes of our modern secular society, my public expression of faith in God is certainly a little counter-cultural. But let’s take a closer look and see if we can figure out whose behavior is truly nutty.
First, let’s look at people like me. We believe in God. We believe every human being has been given an eternal soul by God. We believe every soul will spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell. We believe God has clearly communicated to Mankind the path for getting into Heaven and avoiding Hell. If what we believe is really true, then there is no more important issue in all of human existence. After all, eternity is a whole lot longer period of time compared to a mere 60, 80, or 100 years here on earth.

If you really believe what I believer, then there is nothing nutty about sharing this crucial message with others.

Now, let’s look at atheists. They believe faith in God is a silly, ancient superstition. They believe human beings have no eternal souls, and when we die, we cease to exist. It’s understandable that these folks don’t like it when religious people talk about God in public, because to them, the message is completely false.

So, the behavior of atheists, given what they sincerely believe, is not at all nutty. It’s very logical.
OK, let’s look at a third group of people. These folks believe God is real. They believe human beings have eternal souls. They believe all souls will spend eternity somewhere, hopefully Heaven. But these people rarely think about these beliefs, and they really feel that anyone who talks about these topics in public is kind of a weirdo. Words and phrases most often used to describe those of us who talk about religion in public include, “intolerant,” “offensive,” “imposing your views on others,” and a term that’s become very popular in recent years, “hate speech.”

So, we have a group of people who claim to believe pretty much the same things we so-called religious nuts believe, but they’re convinced that thinking a lot about it and especially talking to others about it is wrong.

I’ve got some news for you: THAT is the nutty behavior.

That’s a lot like discovering a highway bridge just collapsed, but instead of warning motorists driving in that direction, you decide you don’t want to impose your views on them, so you stand there silently and watch car after car plunge into the river below.

If you really believe something is true, is it so awful to mention it to others? Especially if the message you believe in may be the difference between experiencing eternal joy or eternal torment?
If you haven’t noticed, many people in our culture don’t hesitate these days to “impose their intolerant views” on others. Have you crossed paths lately with a militant vegan, a climate change activist, a Cross-Fit fanatic, or a New York Yankees fan? They certainly don’t hesitate to preach their particular gospel to anyone and everyone. But when Christians do it, that’s somehow bad form? Hmm, I don’t get it.

Well, if people hear me on the radio and think I’m a religious nut, that’s OK. But I sure wish they would take a moment to think about their own beliefs and behaviors. They might discover they’re a little nutty, too.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Shoe Box Memories

Do you remember back in the olden days when photographs were stored in shoe boxes in the closet? It was a great system for chronicling family history. Someone would take a few snapshots at various family events, and then after you got the film developed (oftentimes years later), you’d flip through the prints to make sure some of them were not completely blurry, and then you’d put them in the shoe box.
Whenever a family member passed away, you could run to the shoe box, select a bunch of photos, and quickly make a nice poster board of the dearly departed’s life, to be displayed at the wake.

Nowadays, it’s completely different. Photos are digital, and they are not stored in a single, central location, like the hall closet. Photographs now are stored all over the place: on various people’s phones; on multiple computer hard drives, including some old computers that don’t work anymore; on various cloud storage services, like Google Photos; and all over social media sites, such as Satan’s Book, er, I mean, Facebook, and Instagram. So, when a loved one passes away now, you need Gibbs and his entire NCIS crew to scour the internet looking for appropriate pictures. If enough digital photos are located and downloaded, someone, usually the smartest teenager in the family, is given the task of creating a slide show, which has replaced the snapshot-filled poster board at funeral homes.

This task is made more difficult because the sheer number of photos taken these days is slightly more than in the olden days. I am using, of course, the definition of the phrase “slightly more” that means: “seventy-six billion times more.”
I won’t be surprised if I see this comment in a person’s obituary: “A memorial service will be held next summer, because it will take that long to sift through all the photos.”

Even though there has been a complete revolution in photographic technology during the past couple of decades, two things still have not changed. First, whenever people look at photos, the first thing they do is look for themselves in the pictures. C’mon, don’t deny it. Everyone is instantly drawn to themselves in photographs. And I don’t mean just narcissistic social media addicts. Everyone checks themselves out when looking at photos. A couple of months ago, one of my nieces got married, and afterward I saw a really nice photo of the bride and groom walking down the aisle at the end of the ceremony. They looked great, but I quickly noticed that about 30 feet behind them in the background, very blurry, was me. And the first thing that popped into my head was, “Wow, is my hair really THAT thin on top?”

Which brings us to the second thing about photography that has not changed, despite advances in technology. When people look at recent photos of themselves, they usually say something like, “Gee, I look lousy.” Followed by specific comments, such as, “Are my eyes really that baggy?” or, “My teeth used to be white,” or, “Was this taken with a wide-angle lens? I’m not that chubby, am I?”

When we view recently taken photos, we cringe at how we look. But here’s the thing that never changes: if we happen to see that exact same photo three or four years later, we always say, “Wow, I looked great back then. I wish I looked that good now.”
I think one of the nicest things we can do for our family members is to dig through all of our photos and prepare our own slide show in advance. That way, when our time comes, the wake won’t have to be delayed for nine months.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Digital Sabbath Rest – Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I discussed taking a Digital Sabbath Rest, which I defined as abstaining from all computers, smart phones, and tablets for one day out of the week. After I wrote that essay, I thought, “Gee, if I’m gonna encourage people to do stuff like that, maybe I should try it myself.”

So, that’s exactly what I did: on a recent Sunday I went an entire 24-hour period without turning on the computer, looking at an iPad, or grabbing my cell phone.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, let me point out that I did turn on my cell phone twice, at noon and at 6 p.m., just to make sure there were no urgent messages. With my luck, the day I shut everything off would be the day a loved-one needed to contact me because of an emergency. But on this particular day there was no problem—other than the problem of forcing myself to shut the phone back off after checking for messages, which was an extreme test of will.

This exercise taught me a few things about myself: first, even though I am old enough to remember when Mass was always said in Latin, when it comes to electronic gizmos, I’m no different than a high school sophomore. All day long during my Digital Sabbath I kept reaching for my pants pocket, and then when I didn’t feel my phone, I had a moment of panic. “Oh no! Where’s my phone?!” I thought in horror, before remembering my daylong digital fast. Then I had a feeling of relief, knowing the phone wasn’t lost, which was quickly followed by a feeling of genuine sadness, as I realized I could not look at my phone’s screen, the one thing my Pavlovian brain craved at that moment.
The second thing I learned about myself is that I’m pretty sure I’ve developed a case of D.A.D.D. (Digital Attention Deficit Disorder). When I tried to relax and enjoy my day of rest by engaging in some old-school media, such as a newspaper or a book, I had a tough time concentrating. My mind kept wandering and was filled with random thoughts, most of which gave me the urge to do a Google search because I suddenly needed to know a completely useless bit of trivia. I basically have the attention span of a chipmunk on crack.

However, after a few hours I finally settled down and began to enjoy the peace and quiet. By the end of the day, I had read a large chunk of a novel, took a nap, read the Bible for a while, went for a walk, worked on a new essay (using notebook paper and a pencil—what a concept!) and prayed a Rosary.

At one point, I went almost a full hour without reaching for my phone and panicking when it wasn’t in my pocket. By the end of the day, I had developed a noticeable increase in serenity. Now, to be clear, I did not turn into Thomas Merton in one day. I’d say I was more like a chipmunk after a couple of vodka and tonics.

(By the way, I am in no way trying to make light of the epidemic of substance abuse in the chipmunk community. Those furry little critters have their own crosses to bear, especially with winter coming, and it’s very sad whenever one of them succumbs to the lure of drugs or alcohol. I wanted to make sure you understood that it’s nothing personal; I’m just the king of really bad analogies.)
I truly believe my Digital Sabbath Rest was good for my soul and brought me closer to God. And I encourage everyone to give it a try. You have nothing to lose, except maybe a crack-like addiction to glowing screens and the attention span of a humming bird after four double-espressos. (See what I mean about bad analogies? It’s kind of my thing.)

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Cars Are More Reliable These Days

The other day I was driving to a meeting in Norwalk, and it dawned on me that my car is extremely reliable. There was no fear that my trusty Chevy Equinox would break down and cause me to miss the meeting. That wasn’t always the case with automobiles, at least the ones I owned when I was a young man.

Throughout my entire 20s and early 30s, for each car that I drove, I was at least the third or fourth owner. That means the vehicle was sold brand new to someone, who drove it for a few years and then traded it in to a dealership when they bought a new car. Then the dealership sold it as a used car. (This was before the term “preowned car” was employed, which allows the dealer to add 25-percent to the sale price.)

Then that owner drove it for another few years before putting it up for sale in the newspaper classifieds. (This was before the Internet took over the used car business, so instead of buying a lemon from some guy on the other side of town, we now can buy a lemon from places like Arizona or Guam.)

Finally, when the car was parked on someone’s front lawn with a sign on the windshield that said “$600 OR BEST OFFER,” it was my turn to step forward and become the proud owner of that gorgeous, high-performance vehicle. I am using, of course, the definition of “gorgeous, high-performance vehicle” that means: “bucket of bolts that may not even make it to the DMV office so I can get it registered.”

The very first car I ever owned was a 1971 Ford Pinto. By the time I bought it, it was eight years old and had 90,000 miles on it, which was about 30,000 miles past the average lifespan of a Pinto. If you remember the sensational news stories back in those days, when a Pinto got rear-ended by another car — even at low speed — the resulting fireball from the poorly designed gas tank would make the car’s (and the driver’s) lifespan about an additional 10 seconds.

My Pinto had an interesting quirk: whenever it came to a stop, the engine stalled and shut off. I had to yank up the emergency brake, press down on the clutch pedal with my left foot (I can’t even begin to explain what this means, as everyone under the age of 45 has never even seen a standard shift vehicle), start the car again, and keep my right foot on the gas so the engine revved enough not to stall again. And then when the light turned green, I’d have to simultaneously give it gas, let up on the clutch, and release the emergency brake so the car could continue driving. It was a very good hand-eye coordination exercise, and I got to experience that particular physical skills test EVERY SINGLE TIME the car came to a stop.

Of all the cars I owned back in those days, the Pinto was the most reliable. At least it always re-started. I had a ’74 Saab and a ’77 Datsun pickup truck that broke down so often I had the tow truck driver’s phone number memorized.

So, I’m not sure if the reliability of my current car is because the auto manufacturers are making better vehicles, or if it’s due more to the fact that I’m now usually the first or second owner of the car rather than the fourth. Either way, I am very grateful it’s been so long since I’ve experienced a vehicle breakdown. Uh oh, I think I just jinxed myself. I’d better go memorize a tow truck driver’s phone number right now.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Fruits of the Spirit and Self-Control

In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul listed what are called the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Now, who wouldn’t want to experience love, joy, peace, and patience in their lives? And kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness? These are such wonderful traits. If our lives are filled with these spiritual gifts from God, it makes us happy and fulfilled. It truly makes our day-to-day lives a delight.

I can honestly say that I have experienced these eight fruits of the spirit—at times—and they really make a big difference.

But then there’s that 9th fruit St. Paul mentioned: self-control. Uh oh. I’m not sure Paul knew what it would be like to live in America in the early 21st century.

I mean, this is an instant gratification society we have here nowadays. I’m pretty sure St. Paul did not have all-you-can eat buffets on every street corner, like we do. And he probably wasn’t able to binge-watch his favorite TV shows on Netflix. Ah yes, there’s nothing like staring at 47 straight episodes of “The Office” over the course of a weekend. If we practiced self-control, we never would have the, um, interesting experience of walking stiffly around the house like a zombie on Sunday night with our eyes unable to focus, while being so overdue for a shower that the family dog takes one sniff of us and runs the other way.

They say the city of Corinth, where St. Paul spent a lot of time, was similar to Las Vegas. But I don’t think they had casinos open 24/7 with thousands of gaming tables and all your favorite entertainers appearing on stage. If Paul had the chance to see, say, Brittney Spears and Wayne Newton perform, and then spent the next 18 hours “doubling down” at the Blackjack tables, he may have decided to leave that 9th fruit of the spirit off his list.

Let’s face it, we do not like to delay gratification. We Americans have been trained from birth to desire something and then demand to have it—right away!

Which culture in world history invented fast food restaurants? And then when they weren’t fast enough, drive-thru windows?

Which culture in world history invented online shopping, where we can purchase anything and everything with one click on the computer? And then when having the item arrive at our house in three days wasn’t fast enough, demanded next-day and in some places, same-day delivery? Yup, that would be us, good ol’ America.

A lack of self-control is most likely the biggest reason so many Americans feel so unfulfilled and unhappy these days. When we wholeheartedly embrace the instant gratification mindset—as our culture encourages us to do—we quickly reach a point where nothing comes to us fast enough. It’s like being a drug addict. No matter what our particular indulgence may be—overeating, casino gambling, binge-watching TV shows, buying stuff online—we soon discover we are never fully satisfied.

Some people then turn to really destructive habits, like alcohol and drugs. Others just live their lives with an overwhelming sense of frustration and longing.

There is a big reason St. Paul used the words “of the spirit” when he listed those nine fruits. That’s because it’s virtually impossible for us to embrace and live out those traits without God’s help. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to take control of our lives so we can do God’s will rather than our own impulsive will.

If we do that, our lives will be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and yes, even self-control. We will discover that we don’t need casinos, buffets, Amazon, and Netflix to make us happy. The spirit of God can do that better than any modern instant gratification.

Also, if we allow ourselves to be filled with the fruits of the spirit, besides experiencing God’s peace and serenity, we just might find that at the end of each month, we actually have some money left in our bank accounts!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Winston Churchill: Statesman and Napper

My new hero is Winston Churchill. Not just because he was the forceful and courageous leader of Great Britain during the bleakest hours of World War II. And not just because he seems to have been one of the few powerful politicians throughout history who did not cheat on his wife every time she went out of town. (Possibly his prodigious eating and drinking habits kept him distracted? Who knows?)

No, the main reason Winston Churchill is my new hero is because I recently discovered he was a world-class napper. Ol’ Winnie knew the value of a good mid-afternoon nap. Churchill is quoted as saying, “You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That's what I always do. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations. You will be able to accomplish more.”

I’ve been practicing that quote, recited with a gravelly British accent, in the hopes of one day mustering up the courage to say it to my coworkers.

Churchill was known to abruptly walk out of important cabinet meetings without a word. Those in attendance who didn’t know him well wondered where he went and when he might return. Those who did know him smirked and whispered, “Nap time for the Prime Minister.” An hour or two later Churchill would return to the meeting, refreshed and rejuvenated.

During those afternoon naps, just as he advised other people, Churchill would disrobe completely and put on a nightshirt. Occasionally he would awaken from his nap with a brilliant thought, and then charge into adjacent offices barking out instructions. If his nightshirt happened to flutter upward, heads of state and other political power brokers would get a full view of the Prime Minister’s bulbous British bum, in all of its pink glory. And he didn’t care a bit. Napping was that important to him.

During the war, Churchill famously gave strict orders that he was never to be awakened in the middle of the night, with one exception: only if Nazi forces were actually invading England. Anything short of that — like bombing raids or crises in far off battle theaters — could wait until morning. Now that’s my kind of guy. He knew the value of sleep.

Unfortunately, in our current fast-paced society, sleeping is considered a sign of laziness. Many people think naps are for bums (not the pink British ones, I mean). I’ve heard guys brag about how little sleep they get each night.

However, science finally is backing up Churchill’s (and my) point of view. A study came out a while ago, published by the Harvard School of Public Health, which showed that a person’s chances of having a fatal heart attack are reduced by 37-percent if he or she takes a 30-minute afternoon nap at least three times per week. Sounds good to me.

Churchill wasn’t exactly known for being a health nut. He never watched his cholesterol intake; he smoked cigars constantly; he drank like a fish; he never went jogging; and just look at some old photos: he certainly did not give a flying fig about having six pack abs. And yet, the man lived to be 90. I think it was the naps.

So, I’m going to find out if it’s OK to bring a cot into my office. I’ll explain to my coworkers, “I have nothing to offer this company but blood, toil, tears, sweat — and sleep!”

And I’ll promise not to disrobe and risk flashing my pink Irish bum to the rest of the office.