Saturday, April 30, 2022

Weekend Retreat Was a Big Treat

Last month I went on a weekend retreat for the first time since Covid, and it was a terrific experience. Holy Family Retreat Center in West Hartford does a great job of combining spirituality, rest and relaxation, and a dining service that rivals anything you might find on a Carnival Cruise ship. 

My main goal on retreat was to break free from internet-based devices for 48 hours. You’d think that would not be a big deal. But the withdrawal symptoms of “digital detox” were very powerful and painful. As soon as I checked in early Friday evening, I turned off my iPhone and stowed it away in my suitcase. 
OK, I know what you’re thinking, so let me clarify: I did not go completely offline for 48 straight hours. Once each day I’d turn on my phone for five minutes to check for any emergency messages and to give my wife a quick phone call. But during the other 23 hours and 55 minutes each day, I had no connection with the outside world. It was at the same time liberating and terrifying. 

I was acutely aware of being disconnected at meal time. I never realized it, but when I eat lunch at work at my desk, I always have my iPhone next to my bowl of soup, and I mindlessly surf the internet for something interesting. At home, I eat dinner most evenings with my iPad next to my plate, still seeking that elusive interesting story or video.

On retreat, I had nothing to read at the dinner table. I started perusing the fine print on an oyster cracker wrapper and a sugar packet. Did you know oyster crackers contain zero oysters? Or that “natural Turbinado cane sugar is crafted in small batches to retain the pure taste of raw sugarcane”? Wow, I never knew those things.

It turns out the words on the oyster cracker wrapper and sugar packet were more interesting than the junk I typically read on my phone, such as ridiculously biased news reports (looking at you FOX and CNN), and even more ridiculously biased political commentary. As an aside, I’m pretty sure my I.Q. is about 20 points lower than it should be because I’ve had repeated exposure to the thoughts of Sean Hannity and Joy Reid.
Here are some other observations about my retreat experience:

In one of the workshops, the two guys sitting in front of me were wearing hearing aids and the two guys on either side of me really needed hearing aids. (I’m not sure what the average age of attendees was, but to give you an idea, I joined Medicare a couple of months ago, but on the retreat the other fellas called me “Kid.”) 

Anyway, this particular workshop was perfect for my specialty: smart-aleck parenthetical comments. But every clever comment I whispered went unheard. And let me tell you, I made some brilliantly hilarious observations. It was extremely frustrating, and similar to that old question about a tree falling in the woods. For me, the question was: if someone makes a clever comment but no one can hear it, is it still humorous? I say yes.
A final retreat observation: if approximately 40% of senior citizens have some degree of lactose intolerance, you’d think the kitchen staff would refrain from putting melted cheese on EVERYTHING, including the coffee and orange juice. Just sayin’. There were numerous items I could not eat, so I only gained five pounds over the weekend instead of the expected 10 pounds.

Overall, though, it was a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend that all guys go on a weekend retreat. It’s great for your soul, if not quite so great for your waistline. 

Friday, April 22, 2022

Does the Communion of Saints Know Everything? 

We have a fascinating doctrine in the Catholic Church called the Communion of Saints. This means the people who have gone before us in faith are not hidden away in some distant heavenly zip code on the far side of the Universe. Instead, they are alive and well, and they are aware of our struggles here on earth.

The Bible describes this phenomenon and compares it to sports fans in a stadium cheering on the athletes as they compete on the field. The saints in Heaven are cheering us on as we struggle through the trials and tribulations of life. (See Hebrews 12:1.)
This is why we as Catholics don’t hesitate to ask the saints to intercede on our behalf. For example, we ask St. Anthony to help us find our missing car keys. We ask St. Joseph to help us sell our house. We ask St. Lefty McGillicuddy to help the Red Sox win the World Series.

Recently my mom passed away, and now I find that I’m a little leery of the Communion of Saints. My mother was a faithful Catholic, who put her trust in Jesus, so I’m confident she is now living in the freshman dorm on the beautiful Communion of Saints campus. But for the first time, I’ve begun to wonder how aware the saints really are. I know they are aware of our faith struggles, and they pray for us directly to God Almighty whenever we need help.

But are they aware of … everything? Has the Lord given them the supernatural ability to know our deepest thoughts and the secret emotions in our hearts? I’m not so sure I want my mom to know all that stuff about me. After all, I’m a typical guy. I started hiding things from my mother when I was, oh, about two years old. I remember one time when my mom yelled, “Billy! Who wrote on the wall with red markers?!” I turned on my innocent puppy dog eyes and shrugged my shoulders. “I dunno,” I said in an angelic voice, while slipping my hands into my pockets to hide the red stains on my fingers. In my case, I had a one-year-old younger brother. I didn’t directly implicate him, but when my mom looked at him suspiciously, I didn’t do anything to change her mind. By the way, if you are an only child, the innocent puppy dog eyes don’t work. You are always the one and only suspect.
Years later, when I was in college, it was the peak era of keeping secrets from my mom. I certainly did not want her to know which Commandments I was breaking on a regular basis, not to mention a slew of state and local narcotics laws. So, I told her what she wanted to hear, while being careful not to get arrested, and it worked out sort of okay. In our case, ignorance was bliss.

At this stage of my life, there’s not much that would embarrass me if my mom knew. (Yes, I am that boring now.) But still, I instinctively cringe at the idea of my mom being supernaturally aware of every selfish little thought that pops into my head or every nasty little comment I utter. It’s kind of odd that I’m so concerned about my mom being aware of my most intimate secrets. Ever since I became a Christian, I’ve understood that God Almighty knows every single detail of my life — every thought, word, and deed. That never bothered me because I know God is all-loving and all-forgiving. Here’s a simple question I have to ask myself: Who loves me almost as much as God? Answer: good ol’ Mom.
So, what’s there to worry about? My mother has joined the glorious Communion of Saints, and I should joyfully request that she does the wonderful job she’s been assigned in Heaven: pray for me to the Lord our God. And who knows? Maybe she can help me find my missing car keys and give the Red Sox a boost.

Do We Need Permanent Daylight Saving Time?

The U.S. Senate recently voted in favor of Permanent Daylight Saving Time, beginning in 2023. Now, the House has to approve it and the President has to sign it into law. As you read this, Permanent DST might already be the law, or the politicians might choose to talk and talk and talk about the issue until the sun burns out, which would make it a moot point. (Until recently, I thought the term was “mute point.” Now I know better, but I’m pretty sure I still would not recognize a genuine moot if I tripped over it.)

The senators who championed Permanent DST claimed that surveys indicate an overwhelming majority of Americans are in favor of passing this law for two reasons: one, changing our clocks ahead or back one hour twice per year is a royal pain, and two, people hate driving home from work in pitch darkness during the winter months. They also insist Permanent DST will decrease the nation’s energy usage.
There is no doubt the current system can be annoying. Also, many people claim the week after each time change produces statistically significant increases in car accidents and heart attacks — not including the heart attack that is a direct result of smashing up your brand new car because you dozed off on the way to work.

However, I bet you didn’t know that we already tried Permanent Daylight Saving Time. (Oh, by the way, another interesting nugget of info I recently learned besides the moot thing, is that it’s not called Daylight SAVINGS Time. It’s Daylight Saving Time, with no “s,” because we are saving some daylight, rather than depositing some daylight into our savings account.)

Anyway, we already tried Permanent DST back in 1974, prompted by an energy crisis that occurred back then. Before it took effect, a large majority of Americans were in favor of instituting Permanent Daylight Saving Time. But after experiencing it for just one year, a large majority of citizens were clamoring to go back to the old “change the clocks twice per year” system.
Why were they so against it? Well, with Permanent DST, in the winter months it doesn’t get light outside until going on 9 a.m. School children were not only waiting at the bus stop in pitch black darkness, they did not see the sky brighten up until the bell rang for their 3rd period classes (or in some schools, their mid-morning cigarette break). After dealing with this for just one winter, most people couldn’t wait to “fall back” the following Autumn.

To make matters more confusing, while senators in Washington were voting to institute Permanent Daylight Saving Time, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine issued a statement cautioning that the move overlooks potential health risks. They claim Daylight Saving Time causes people to get too little sleep, and insist the best course of action would be to institute Permanent Daylight STANDARD Time.
OK, fine, but if we have standard time in June, guess when it will get light in the morning? Around 4 a.m. So, it will get dark an hour earlier in the evening, but the sun will rise an hour or two before the alarm clock is set to go off. No thanks.

Mark my words. (I don’t think I’ve ever said, “Mark my words” before. Does anyone even say that phrase, except in old black and white movies?) Well, mark my words anyway. I predict that if we eliminate clock-changing and go to permanent time, either Standard of Saving, after just one year the vast majority of Americans will vocally demand we go back to changing the clocks twice per year again. And that will NOT be a mute point. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Thomas Turns Doubt Into Faith 

This week’s gospel reading tells the familiar story of “Doubting Thomas.” Years ago, when I first became a Christian, I remember reading this episode in the Bible, and I shook my head and said, “Thomas, Thomas, how could you be so stubborn? How could you insult Jesus like that? I wonder why He even picked you as a disciple in the first place?” 

Then after Thomas expressed his faith in the Lord, Jesus summarized the incident by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” 
And right at that point, I smiled and said, “Yep, that’s me. I haven’t seen, but I believe. If Jesus had picked me to be one of the Twelve, I would have been so loyal and faithful to the Lord, they’d have had to write a separate book of the New Testament just about me!” (I could even envision a typical Mass thousands of years later: “And the second reading this week is from the Book of the Best Disciple, Bill…”) 

Back when I was being so judgmental toward Thomas and the other disciples, I had just become a Christian. My faith in Christ had given me the power to stop abusing alcohol and drugs, and I was convinced that living a life of righteousness and faithfulness was easy. Also, I was in my late 20s, which meant I was convinced that pretty much ANYTHING was easy. 

But now, I’m a whole lot older and a tiny bit wiser, and I know myself a little better. I’ve learned from experience that living a life of righteousness and faithfulness is anything but easy. 

So, when I read this Doubting Thomas episode in the Bible nowadays, I shake my head and say, “Thomas, Thomas, I am so glad Jesus picked you instead of me to be one of the Twelve, because I would have screwed it up big time!” 
More than three decades of TRYING to live faithfully to Jesus and His teachings has proven beyond a doubt that I am very prone to fear, frustration, discouragement, and most of all, doubt. And I’ve got two things going for me the disciples didn’t have: (1) I have the whole New Testament neatly compiled, which spells out exactly what God’s plan is; and (2) I live in a community where there are no Roman soldiers patrolling the streets ready to arrest and crucify me if they think I’m a trouble-maker. (By comparison, those annoying kids with their skateboards aren’t so annoying after all.) 

When I hear the story of “Doubting Thomas” recited as Mass this week, I won’t be smirking about his lack of faith. Instead I’ll be admiring him for his logical thinking, and most of all, for his hope. After all, Thomas did hang around Jerusalem for an extra week, at a time when it was very risky to be one of Jesus’ followers. He couldn’t quite believe that Jesus was alive until he had seen it with his own eyes, but he certainly was hoping it was true. 

Thomas took a huge risk staying in Jerusalem to find out whether the story was true or not. And once he discovered that Jesus had risen from the grave, his famous proclamation, “My Lord and my God!” was just the beginning. Church tradition tells us that Thomas became the first Christian missionary to India, where he eventually was martyred for preaching the faith. 
So, if Thomas was able to change his doubt into rock-solid faith, then maybe there’s still hope for me. And I don’t even mind anymore that there probably won’t be a New Testament book written about me. Probably.


Saturday, April 16, 2022

Is Anyone Curious about Sobriety?

Recently, I heard about a new term called “sober curious.” According to an online article, “The sober curious movement is when someone chooses to be sober for the health benefits, both physical and mental, as opposed to someone who is sober because of an alcohol abuse problem. In other words, people who are sober curious don’t consider themselves alcoholics, but still choose not to drink.”

As someone who has been sober for 30-plus years (Thank you, Jesus!), I'm not curious about sobriety because I know what it’s like. And I’m not curious about alcohol abuse because I remember vividly what that was like. 
Rather than being curious about sobriety, I would think the more commonplace situation would be intoxication curious. At age 15, I was very intoxication curious, especially after seeing my dad and his pals having a jolly ol’ time after tossing back a few beers at a baseball game. There wasn’t a whole lot of jolly ol’ timing during everyday family life, so I was very curious about that magical potion in the narrow brown bottles. And soon afterward, I finally found out what it was all about. Unfortunately, this immediately led to room-spinning curious and barfing-in-the-bushes curious. 

Maybe the folks who are in the sober curious movement are curious about what it’s like not to drink for months at a time. That is certainly a noble goal. 

What I do find curious are some of the comments made by a young lady who was interviewed for the article. She is avoiding alcohol for an extended period even though her drinking didn’t get “out of hand all the time.” She noted that the times her drinking did get out of hand “weren’t worth it.”

Hmm, her drinking didn’t get out of hand “all the time,” but getting out of hand wasn’t a foreign experience either. That doesn’t exactly sound like a casual drinker. Just sayin’.

Here is another quote from this young lady: “I was tired of wasting time being hungover. And I definitely was reliant on alcohol in social situations. Instead of dealing with my anxiety, I would just drink away my anxiety…and I would wake up the next day having more anxiety.”
OK, that is definitely NOT the behavior of a casual drinker. There’s an old expression: you can’t BS a BSer. I’ve been there, done that, bought the beer stained T-shirt. The behavior she described is definitely problem drinking. Is she an alcoholic? I can’t say. But I pray she doesn’t treat sobriety as a mere fad to be dumped after a month or two. 

That same article has a quote from Amada E. White, author of the book Not Drinking Tonight. Ms. White said, “During the COVID pandemic there was a huge increase in how much people were drinking. I believe more people than ever are realizing they may need to re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol.”

During the height of the pandemic the government ordered churches to be closed until further notice, but said liquor stores could remain open. So, maybe our entire society needs to re-evaluate its relationship with alcohol, don’t you think?

I’m certainly not in favor of prohibition. As a nation, we’ve been there, done that, bought the blood-spattered Al Capone T-shirt. 
The online article mentioned a cool word I never heard before: hangxiety, which is when your head is pounding from drinking too much the night before and you’re stressed out about your drunken behavior and the fact you blew a week’s paycheck in one night.

If you are sober curious, try giving up alcohol for a while. Your liver and your bank account will thank you. No one needs to go through life experiencing the pain of hangxiety. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Is the Resurrection True?

Well, here we are in the holiest week of the year. Hmm, that’s probably why they call it Holy Week. 

We just celebrated Palm Sunday, when Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And this week we have Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and then Easter Sunday (also known as Resurrection Sunday).
The Resurrection of Jesus, which we celebrate on Easter, is not only the most important event on the entire Church calendar, it’s also the most important event in human history. Everything that happened before led up to the Resurrection, and everything that has occurred since has been influenced by the power of the Resurrection. That single event ushered in a completely new era in mankind’s relationship with our Creator. Before the Resurrection we were in the Era of the Law. After the Resurrection we entered the Era of Grace.

Even though our culture still acknowledges the Easter holiday, a sizable number of people in our society no longer believe the Resurrection took place. Even many church members who attend Mass or other religious services on a regular basis do not believe the actual, physical Resurrection of Jesus occurred. They think the Resurrection story is just a metaphor for springtime renewal and spiritual hope.

And I guess you can’t blame people for asking the logical question: “How could a dead guy come back to life?!” After all, I’ve never seen a dead guy come back to life, and I’m sure you’ve never seen it either. Modern science tells us that once a living creature dies, that’s it. It cannot come back to life again.

So, it’s understandable that people these days have a lot of doubt about the truth of the central claim of Christianity. And the central claim of the faith, by the way, is not “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Certainly, that’s a great way to live your life, but that’s not the heart of Christianity. Instead, the heart is: “The Son of God became a man, died to pay the price for our sins, and then three days later rose from the dead, conquering death once and for all.”

It is not subtle. No metaphor about springtime renewal. The central claim, the heart of our faith, is the proclamation that a man died and then really, physically came back to life again. Nothing symbolic about it at all.
Furthermore, one of the key architects of Christian doctrine, St. Paul, left no wiggle room for those who hold the metaphor view. He wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain….If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Cor. 15:17, 19).

If Jesus did not really, physically come back to life and walk out of that tomb, then the entire Christian faith is a waste of time, and those of us who claim it’s true are actually the most pitiful folks in the world. 

If you have doubts about the truth of the Resurrection, and ask that logical question, “How could a dead guy come back to life?!” here’s another logical question you should ask: “How could random, swirling chemicals turn into a bird or a rosebush or the human brain?!”

The intricate complexity and precision of living organisms means someone or something had to be behind it all, meticulously planning and engineering the miracle known as life. The equation “Chaos + Chance + Time = Intricate Precision” just doesn’t add up. Common sense tells us that things do not become more complex and interconnected by accident. Experience tells us the exact opposite is true: things deteriorate over time.

So, if there is someone or something able to create intricate life in the first place out of random chaos, isn't it logical to consider that this mysterious someone or something has the ability to make one particular dead guy come back to life?
Please give it some thought. Acknowledging that a Resurrection COULD happen is an important first step. Then, if you spend some time seeking the mysterious someone or something behind it all, you’ll be delighted to discover that He’s been seeking you all along.

Happy Easter! He is risen. He is risen indeed!

Friday, April 8, 2022

When Exactly Are the Middle-aged Years?

A medical research project recently discovered that human brain performance does not slow down during a person’s middle age years, despite what many people think. When I read that, I said, “All right! As a middle-aged guy my brain is working just as quickly as ever.”

Then I continued reading and came upon this sentence: “Researchers from Heidelberg University say cognitive performance only starts to decline after the age of 60.”

Wait. What? 

I just enrolled in Medicare, which means I’m five years beyond age 60. However, I’m also adamant that I am still in the middle of the middle age years. Aren’t I?
What exactly is the definition of being middle aged, anyway? (No, it doesn’t mean, as my children suggest, that a person was alive during the Middle Ages.)

My definition of being middle-aged is quite rational. Middle age begins when a person is somewhere in his 40s (exactly where depends on how quickly his hair either turns gray or turns loose). And the end of the middle age period is about 10 years more than whatever my age is at any particular moment. This seems reasonable, right?

So, right now people are considered (by me) to be middle-aged through age 75. In another 10 years, that high end limit will be age 85. That system works for me.

I did an online search and asked this simple question: “What is middle age?” The answers were all over the place. One website said ages 40 to 60. Another said “about 45 to about 64.” Yet another site said 37 to 62. Hmm, none of those online resources came close to my obviously correct upper limit of age 75. Well, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently stated during the darkest days of the Civil War, “You jist cain’t trust anything you read on the Internet nowadays.”
Let’s turn back to the research study I referenced earlier. (You remember that study from the first paragraph, right? I bet some of you forgot all about it. But I didn’t forget because my brain still works great! Sort of.) One of the researchers at Heidelberg’s Institute of Psychology explained, “The common assumption is that the older we get, the more slowly we react to external stimuli. If that were so, mental speed would be fastest at the age of about twenty and would then decline with increasing age."  

My mental speed is way faster right now than it was back when I was 20. Of course, being drunk every single day during that particular year probably had an impact. I’m not sure which was more pathetic back in those days, my behavior, or the fact I could be inebriated every day, study no more than four hours per WEEK, and still get all B’s at a reputable university. As Abraham Lincoln so eloquently stated when he was the commencement speaker at my college graduation in 1979: “You’re all worthless and weak! Now, drop and give me 20!” (Hmm, I might be confusing Honest Abe with Douglas Neidermeyer.) 

It’s often claimed that senior citadels have much contusion about which words to use. I’d like to reprimand everyone that each human bean’s brain function ovulates at a unique rate of spiel. Whether that is slow or fastidious is in the eye of the beekeeper. I think it’s ludicrous to pigeonhole someone into a coroner just because he’s screeched a certain age. If those of us who are middling aged think a bit less quicksand than we once didn’t, that’s perfectly rejectable. So what if we flub a word once in a whale? I know this behavior is perfectly final because one day many years aglow, Honest Abe told me so.