Friends and Contacts

Many a false move in history has been blamed on a person’s inability to know who his or her friends really were.  Most of us can point to times in our personal history when a person whom we thought to be a friend stabbed us in the back, and a person whom we may have thought only an acquaintance or whom we hesitated to let get to close to us for some reason, really came through for us in the way a friend should (and maybe in a way other “friends” failed to).  Knowing who is and who isn’t really your friend has always been tricky business.  Especially because we often deceive ourselves in this regard.  Some people might be quite surprised that you consider them a friend!

These days, with the advent of social networking, knowing who your friends are hasn’t gotten any easier.  Indeed, thanks to Facebook, the whole meaning of “friend” has been called into question.  Honestly, how many of your Facebook friends are really your friends in the more proper, intimate sense of the word?  Because of the public nature of the work that I do, for example, many of those who ask to be my Facebook friends are people whom I do not know, but are rather people who are interested in knowing more about me because of the work that I do in ministry, or because they have read my writing.  So many of my Facebook “friends” are not so much friends as “contacts.”

Yet, “contacts” is the designation of those whom I have especially identified on my cell phone as people whom I frequently call or text, or people who frequently call or text me.  And, ironically, I realize that those who make up my much smaller “contact” list are actually more likely to be intimate friends than most of the people who inhabit my “friends” list on Facebook.  Technology has managed to blur the line between those who are our friends, and those who are merely “contacts.”  Then, of course, there are those who are our Twitter “followers.”  But I’ll hold off on my reflection about that for another time.

This has got me thinking that, as strange as it might sound, that a good way to reflect on the presence of friends in our lives and, by extension, the presence of God in our lives, is by mining our cell phone “contact” list.  There’s a story, indeed a history, of interaction with those people on your contact list that is not necessarily found with people on your friends list.  So, if we want to take some time to reflect on the gift of friendship (and family, of course) in our lives, we might well do so by scrolling through our phone’s contact list, and asking questions such as: Why is that person on my contact list?  What is the story of my interaction with this person?  In my case, those on my list are family, close friends, work colleagues and fellow Jesuits, among others.  They are people who I’ve had more extended and meaningful contact with than simply accepting their friend request (another act the profundity of which has become distorted, unfortunately).  They are people I spend time with, they are people with whom I’ve worked in ministry to others, they are people I’ve known for much of my life, or are people whom I’ve known only a short time but whom I feel like I’ve known all my life because of the depth of what we have shared with each other during that time.  My history with them, for the most part, is more intimate than the description “contacts” suggests.

If I delve deeper into my phone I find an even smaller list, which tells a more detailed story.  It is the list of those in my text message history.  I don’t text just anyone.  Indeed, being a relative late-comer to the texting game, the effort it takes for me to text (I don’t have the agility of my younger counterparts) someone isn’t expended on just anybody.  It’s reserved for friends, family and colleagues with whom I have a close relationship.  These are the people with whom I’m more likely to share the unexpected joys and tragedies of my life, and with whom I’m more likely to trade requests for prayers with.  In my text-messaging companions, I find another level of intimacy.  I can get a lot of consolation, and be reminded of my need to pray for the needs of my family and friends by reviewing my history of text messages with the people who inhabit this more exclusive portion of my cell phone, and my life.

The phone of course, is only a place to start.  It is a spark to memory of what that person means to you, the experiences you have shared together, and what you hope lies in your future with them.  It is also an invitation to move beyond the technological and virtual world, to call them and make plans to be together, to continue your life with them in person as more than just contacts, but as friends.  Our computers and phones might serve to help us to discover who our intimates are, but deep friendships are built in the moments we spend in each others’ presence, even if sometimes spent more in silliness than seriousness.  Friendships are built on both.  Indeed, our willingness to be silly and even stupid with someone else is a sign of intimacy, it means that I’m comfortable being myself with that person, because our history together, both “virtual” and personal, has shown me my friend.

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Wake Up Call

If you’re an early riser, you can hear the first of a two-part interview with me on the program “Thoughts for the Week.”  The interview is with the tag team of Fr. Ray Petrucci, Fr. Mark Connolly, and Dorothy Riera.  We had a great time talking a while back, and finally it’s going to air!  Some of you might have heard of Fr. Connolly.  He was involved in the beginnings of the TV mass broadcast in New York, and spent his younger days working with Bishop Fulton Sheen on his famous TV show, “Life is Worth Living.”

The show will be broadcast this Sunday, February 13 at 7:30 am Eastern time (I told you it was early).  You can catch it on WSTC and WNLK, which can be streamed in Itunes’ radio/talk section.  You can also listen to it on their website: wstcwnlk.com.  I think it will also be archived for listening later, but I’m not certain of that.

Today’s Discussion

You can stream today’s discussion of Already There here, or download it by clicking on “hour 2” here.

They were very nice, and I love the New Orleans accent.  Sister Bridget sounds just like one of my good friends from New Orleans, who also loves to talk about “Mama”!

Much thanks to Fr. Albert & Sister Bridget!

“Marriage Counsel”: A Review of Longing to Love

In the latest America magazine, I review Timothy Muldoon’s wonderful spiritual memoir, Longing to Love:

“In a time when spiritual memoirs are long on dysfunction, anger and tragedy, Tim Muldoon’s Longing to Love offers a refreshing contrast. Though not a story absent a tragedy of its own, it is primarily a memoir of falling in love and staying in love. It is a compelling portrait of what many college-aged young men experience but rarely write about: negotiating the demands of romance and practicality while falling headlong into love . . .”

read the rest at America’s website.

Rough Hands

This past weekend I joined the nearby parish where I help out for their patronal feast.  It was a wonderful celebration.  The church was packed.  One of the bishops came and presided at mass (doing so both in English and Spanish—I was impressed).  Everyone was well-dressed.  At the offertory, representatives of various different countries came forward dressed in ethnic costume to present some native foods.  Then came the offering of the bread and the wine.  Dinner and dancing followed in the newly renovated parish hall downstairs.

There were many things to remember that evening.  I enjoyed the company of the parishioners, and the fellow priests who came.  I got to know the bishop a little bit, a Bronx boy himself.  But there was one thing that stuck with me above all else, and it’s not what I would have expected.  Usually that means God is trying to tell me something, so it’s been the subject of my prayer this week.

It was just after mass, as we stood outside the church.  As usual, we waited to greet the people as they exited.  One of the things I love about this community is that people are very eager to shake your hand, sometimes hug you, and say hello.  For some reason I noticed in a striking way something I certainly was not unaware of.  I noticed how so many of the hands I was shaking were rough, work-worn hands.  These are people who work hard, many of them in demanding manual labor jobs.  And their hands speak that.

You may have heard a priest or seminarian say, “these hands were made for chalices, not calluses.”  Even said as a joke, I despise that sentiment.  There is no reason that a priest shouldn’t have callused hands that lift chalices.  Priests shouldn’t be afraid of or avoid hard work, even manual labor.  Yet, even while thinking this, I find that I cannot ignore the fact that compared with such rough hands, my hands are embarrassingly smooth.  I take no pride in that fact.  I wish they were more callused, even though admittedly I have never been incredibly enthusiastic about manual labor.  It’s interesting that now that I’m a priest I’m in fact less averse to such work, though I find I now have fewer opportunities to do it.  But this week I’ve been trying to work out what God is trying to say to me with both these sets of hands.

Certainly it challenges me to be more aware of the lives which those I minister to are leading.  How hard they work, and how little pay they probably receive for that work.  I was also reminded that my father’s hands are similarly rough.  As a diesel mechanic, he has spent his life fixing trucks and equipment, and his hands certainly witness to that.  As I child I remember it being something of an object of fascination that his hands were so rough in comparison to mine.

At the same time, I’ve been taking a class on Eucharist and social justice, where we discuss the meaning and implications of our Eucharistic celebrations, like the mass we had this night.  At every mass I speak the words “the work of human hands,” often not really thinking about what that means.  This class is pushing me to be attentive to such things.  What we are saying at that point in the mass, in fact, is that our Eucharist is possible because the work of so many brings the bread and wine to us so that we can offer it as a gift to each other.  And it occurred to me for the first time that my father’s hands are part of that process.  In the course of his lifetime he has fixed probably thousands of trucks that have delivered all sorts of things, and certainly among those things food, bread and wine.  So, when we hear “the work of human hands” we are reminded that our Eucharistic food depends on the work of my father, and many of those rough-handed people who come to church each Sunday.

Recent discussions about immigration have focused around the fact that so many are unwilling to do the kind of work that brings food to our tables.  What does that say about us and our prayer?  Shouldn’t we be willing to get our hands “roughed up” a bit for the good of others? And if we are not willing or able, don’t we have a responsibility to care for those who will?  There is no Eucharist without bread.  There is no Eucharist without rough hands.

On the Radio

I’m settling in at the Starbuck’s down the street from where I was scheduled to do a radio interview last night, when the phone rings.  I answer it, and my mother says, “are you alright?”  I say, “Yeah,” emphatically, wondering why she would think otherwise.  It’s about 7:05, and the show I’m scheduled to be on at 8:20 has just started.  They said something about a tornado, and “don’t worry, Father Mark is alright,” she tells me.  Not only am I alright, but I’m clueless about the storm, possibly a tornado, that ripped through New York City last night.  I’ve just walked across Manhattan, and it wasn’t even raining.  My mother reassured, I settle in to my light sandwich and chai tea, as I listen to the show to try and calm my nerves a bit, and get a feel for what they are talking about tonight.  It’s my first radio interview.  Shortly, I’ll be in the studio, and I don’t know what to expect.  I’m happy to discover that it’s “faith and culture” Thursday, where they discuss the intersections of popular culture and faith—right up my alley, and in many ways the theme of my book!  I’m feeling a bit more comfortable, and glad I wasn’t able to do the show the night before during which they answer questions about the mass (not that I have anything against that, but it just wasn’t as good a fit!).

I head over there early, and I’m glad I did, because there’s a not-so-fast and a bit complicated security procedure to get in the building, and I’ve just entered behind a band that’s playing in one of the other studios.  Off I go up to the 36th floor, where I arrive finally only about 5 minutes early.  And wait.  It’s an interesting place.  The waiting area is kind of what you might expect, a spacious advertisement for Sirius XM, with ticker-type displays showing what’s playing on various channels at that moment.  I’m ushered down past a row of studios, to the studio of the Busted Halo show.  It’s a small rectangular box, not even as big as my room, with equipment and four people.  Ruben Blades is in the next studio over.  I say hello to Father Dave Dwyer, the host, and Robyn, the producer.  She shows me the chair the microphone, and the headphones (which seems strange, because Fr. Dave is only a few feet away from me).  I announce that this is the first time I’ve done this.  Don’t be afraid to get too close to the microphone, I’m told, and just talk, the sound guy will take care of everything else.  “Did you hear about the tornado?”  Father Dave asks.  And I tell them about the phone call I’d just received.  Great way to break the ice.  And we’re off!

Sure, I was nervous, but I was surprised at how comfortable I felt.  I was a little self-conscious.  I noticed that my arms were talking too, which seemed kind of silly.  And, since there were three other people in the room to my left (Fr. Dave was to my right), I found myself instinctively looking in their direction from time to time.  As I settled into the conversation it got easier, and it seemed like we were speaking for more than 20 minutes, in a good way.

It was fun.  We got to talk about general ideas about encountering God in all things, especially in culture.  We talked about the book.  We spoke a little about my experience of my vocation.  And it just seemed like a fun chat, though I felt a little under pressure to respond quickly, and avoid “ums.”  It seemed to go OK, and it was a good way to cut my teeth for a couple other radio interviews I have coming up, where I won’t have the advantage of being in the studio.

It’s strange this new moment in my life where I find myself now speaking frequently about “my book.”  I’m hoping it remains clear to people as I go about this that as much as the focus might be on me sometimes, as with this interview, the most important thing for me—and the reason I wrote the book—is in hopes that I can help people to better connect with God.  I hope that I did so last night with my little foray into the radio world.  Today, it’s back to ordinary life, where hopefully I can do the same, outside of my book.  Thanks for reading/listening.  And if anything I’ve said or written has helped you get better connected with God, please share that with others.  You needn’t give me any credit because, really, all the credit goes to God!  Happy Friday!

The Song of Muldoon

My friend John commented that the last post reminded him of Song of Songs, a.k.a. Song of Solomon.  This book of the Bible is often trotted out as a way of proving that God is not stuffy (true!) and/or God doesn’t think sex is evil (also true!).

This because of its opening lines, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!  For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore the maidens love you” or, further on, “Upon my bed at night I sought him who my soul loves.”

But with all its poetic flourish, some if its descriptions seem less than flattering, like:

“How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful!  Your eyes are doves behind your veil.  Your hair is like a flock of goats [I bet you say that to all the girls! ], moving down the slopes of Gilead.  Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved.  Your lips are like crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely.  Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.  Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses . . .”

Hey, this stuff might have worked back in the day, but I doubt few would be flattered today to be compared to livestock.  We have found our own time-appropriate ways of expressing such things.  We often hear them in songs, see them in movies, and read them in books.

This summer, I was fortunate to pick up Tim Muldoon’s new book, Longing to Love.  It’s a moving account of his relationship with his wife from their early days of dating, through a time of distance, up through their wedding and the struggles of married life.  Muldoon offers his own poetry in the book, saying of his new marriage: “My heart was full.  Never before had I known such a pervasive sense of rightness, of being at home in this world.  Never before had I felt so right in my own skin, this flesh made word to her, this earthen vessel holding gifts to her that only I could give.”

Muldoon tells the story of his love affair with his wife in both poetic and down to earth ways we can relate to.  He is honest about his failings, and his reluctance to face some of the difficulties in his marriage.  He also share his struggles with their decision to adopt their two daughters from China.  And how, when they did decide, he fell in love a second and a third time.

It’s a short book, which can be read in a few days.  But it is also a rich and honest book about love, marriage and life choices that people today can relate to.  It’s a short investment with a long return.  I definitely will recommend it to the couples whom I preparing for marriage.

“In the end,” he concludes, “I have learned to attend to the whisperings of desire to find the places where God might be inviting me to grow, to change, and to stretch toward the freedom of the real me, the person who can share joy with the women he loves most.”

Call it the song of Tim Muldoon, with a Celtic and Chinese score.

On Being at Home, Part 1: The Place From Which I Escaped

As I sit on the porch of my former residence in New Orleans this week, watching the streetcars go by, I realize that though it’s been five years since I’ve lived here (and 15 years since that fateful first visit), I always feel at home here. There are three places that I can say that about. The first is, of course, Massachusetts, where I grew up, and where I still have spent the majority (about two thirds) of my life. The other is Columbia, SC, where I spent five of the most important years of my life, years without which I could not possibly have ended up where I am today. It is impossible to speak of that time as “only” five years, because so much happened during that time. Likewise the two years I actually lived in New Orleans. It’s hard to explain, but I knew after my first visit to New Orleans in 1995, that this place was going to hold a significant place in my future.

I started reflecting on why these places hold such significance for me. True, I haven’t lived many other places, but there are places I have lived, like Tampa (with apologies to my friends there), where I’m not sure that I could have ever felt at home. I realized that these places do hold something in common. They are each places that marked significant turning points in my life. Massachusetts is home in a much more ephemeral sense. The town in which I spent the first years of my conscious life—thought I now have almost no connection with it—still seems more like home than the town in which I lived most of my time “growing up.” I always felt an outsider there, which I was reminded of when I attended my nephew’s high school graduation there a couple of weeks ago. Any affection I had for that town lasted perhaps only the two-and-a-half years it took me to finish grade school there. After that it turned into a personal hell which I would soon have to escape from by going to school elsewhere. Yet, my interest in books and literature stems in many ways from that time. It was the librarians who provided an important way station for me, where I could escape for at least a little while. They nurtured me and knew me in ways that many of my teachers didn’t or couldn’t. My “hometown” would really only truly become important as the home base from which I engaged a broader world. My desire not to be there led me to so many different places, meeting friends and having experiences that I would not have had if my urge hadn’t been so often to be elsewhere. Already then it was beginning to become clear that I was destined to be the most traveled of my family.

It’s interesting that the place which I spent so much time escaping over the years, has now become a place I frequently visit. It’s not because people in town know me, or that it’s a place of “old friends” (I said ‘hello’ to my former next-door neighbor there a couple of weeks ago, and it was clear that he had no idea who I was). Rather, I go there because my family is there. I go there because my sister and her family (and, at times, my parents) live in that same house we grew up in. Now, strangely, I’m content to just stay there with my niece and nephews and my family, playing games, talking or watching TV. There is no reason to escape. It is a place more special and more “home” now because I have watched my niece and nephews grow up there, not because I grew up there. This home is the place where I left my family behind for a different world, and also where I learned, however late, that I could love and cherish my family in my sincere, but still imperfect way.