Sunday, April 28, 2013

Kinship With the Sailor

Is it naiveté that suggests to me that I share a kinship with the sailor? I know nothing of boats or tides, bows, sterns, port or starboard, but somehow a part of me is convinced that the sailor and I bear a likeness. This sentiment is not altogether ungrounded. I am a son of the prairie. We're not the covered wagons, used when white men first traversed this land, called prairie schooners? Did not Laura Ingalls Wilder remark in her Little House series about the similarities between the wind-blown prairie grass and the rolling swells of the sea? Cannot both prairie and sea leave one with the sense of having departed altogether from the rest of humanity? Is not the ocean, like the prairie, a vast and flat expanse disappearing into an unending horizon? Did I not, while studying in the tree-strewn, suffocating crush of Mississippi River Valley bluffs and cities, find solace looking across the enormous flat openness of Lake Superior?

These comparisons, however, are weak metaphors. They express similarity, but at the cost of revealing deeper dissimilarity. My kinship with the sailor rests not in what lies below us, but rather on that which graces the sky above. Only on the sea or on the prairie has one ever really seen the moon, and the stars.

By way of habit, I always scan the night sky, looking to find the Big Dipper. There it hangs, always visible, always in the north. When I know where north is, I also know where home is. Only when I visited Australia could I not find the Big Dipper. It was disconcerting. Though I have never been required to navigate across unknown distances guided only by the stars, these nautical road signs have guided me in other ways. As an undergraduate, the movements of Orion told me when it was time to go to bed. If he had disappeared from view, I was up too late. In moments of doubt, to look at the stars and from them be able to look toward home gave me courage. In times of loneliness, to know that my family could step outside and see the same stars as I saw gave me comfort. The stars ground; they tell me where I am, and where I come from. They remind me who I am.

I think think this must be true for sailors as well. Modern navigational equipment aside, I think they must all know that when worse comes to worst, the stars can guide them home. There is something holy about such knowledge. God Himself, after all, led the Magi by a star. Is it so strange that he should use them to lead me as well, to remind me who I am and in so doing, remind me whose I am?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Untroubled By the Snow

Sitting in my overstuffed chair watching the snow fall more than halfway through April is hardly the stuff of serenity for me, and yet somehow this evening I find that I bear no resentment toward the snow even after she nearly killed me on I90 trying to get to my priest fraternity gathering. I made it as far as Sturgis before contemplating abandoning my plans, but the couple of miles between Sturgis and the National Cemetery were enough to convince me. A wasted 36 miles on slippery roads? Oh well. It is wet, and wet is what this dry old land needs.

This serenity that I experience has little to do with the weather. Rather, I am a man in love. Having nearly accomplished a year in my current assignment, I find that I am deeply content. These are my people. I am their priest. They trust me. I trust them. If we were a couple, we would be approaching the stage where we could freely flatuate in the presence of the other.

In a word, I am content. I've learned a great deal about loving in the last few years. I think I'm getting the hang of it. I wonder if that means they will have to move me again.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Confirmation 2013

It was my privilege to once again serve as a Confirmation Sponsor for a young man at the Cathedral Parish.  I am also spiritual director for another young woman.  This letter accompanied their gift.


It was Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet who immortalized the question “What’s in a name?”  Indeed, for her, it was only a name that created the barrier between her and the freedom to love as she wished.  All too glibly, however, did she and the overwrought fans of star-crossed lovers ignore the profundity of the question Juliet poses.  What is in a name?  To my mind, it is much more than an appellation to which we are conditioned to respond from our infancy.   There is a great deal in a name.

Many ancient cultures were of the opinion that to know the name of another gave one power over that person.  To speak their true name was to control them.  In a certain way this makes sense, I suppose.  One has but to call my name in a crowded room, and I immediately respond to their beckoning.  Likewise, sundry old ghost stories and childhood dares pivot upon the act of repeating the grotesque name of some ghoulish specter.  Perhaps more to point, God Himself uttered His name only to Moses, and from then on the Hebrew people held his name in great reverence, never presuming to speak it, and punishing as blasphemers those who did.  Moreover, by commanding that the cripple be healed in the name of Jesus, Peter restored him to full bodily integrity.  To use God’s name gives one power and authority.  Aside from His own name, in the Scriptures, God seems to emphasize the importance of the names of His own people.  Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah upon entering into a covenant with the Lord.  Jacob becomes Israel.  Simon becomes Peter.  Saul becomes Paul.  In each instance, this name change accompanied a new relationship with the Lord in which the new relationship became the defining characteristic of the person’s life.  Names are powerful.   In a way, it could be said that a name becomes the shorthand expression of the very essence of who a person is.  To use a name is to make present the depth and breadth of a person.  A name is more than a name; it is who a person is.

If what I propose is true, a rather startling question begins to emerge.  If, when my name is uttered or when it is set to paper in my signature, it calls to mind the very depths of who I am, should I not be able to provide some more thoroughgoing articulation of that reality?  In other words, do I know who I am?  It is toward that end that I direct the remainder of my observations.  

There are, with all people, those things which make them unique.  So it is with you.  Your family of origin, your humor, your hobbies, your interests, and your intellect are all tied up in what it is to be you.  These things are important, and they are part of what I admire and find fascinating about you.  They are not, however, at their core, the most important things.  You are much more than these.

First and foremost, you are the beloved son of the Father.  This, more than all else, defines you.  He made an irrevocable claim upon you in your baptism, and He has loved you with a love beyond our ability to express in words from then until eternity.  He has loved you at your best, and He has loved you at your worst.  He rejoices in your triumphs, He stands by you in your miseries, and He never changes his mind about you.  No sin you have committed, no sin you can commit will ever prompt him to love you less.  You are His.  Forever.  He will never abandon you.  So must you never abandon Him.

Because the Father loves you, you are good.  I love my priesthood, and I cannot imagine another life for myself, but this calling has not been without its moments of suffering.  Most poignant, however, have been those moments when I have seen the goodness within you even as you struggled to recognize it in yourself.  Thus, I cannot reiterate emphatically enough that you are good.  You are not perfect.  You are prone to sin.  As with all of us, you are still working out your salvation.  This, however, does nothing to detract from your goodness.  You are good because God has decided that you are good.  In those moments when your goodness seems far from you, when sin seems to overwhelm you, and when you feel most wretched, please remember that I have never doubted your goodness, and if I can see it, dull-witted though I am, surely God who made you can see it all the more.

Because God has chosen you, and because you are good, you also, in a particular way through the sacraments you have received, are an image of Christ in the world.  You bear His mark.  You carry Him in the world.  You are not like other people, you are like Him.  This too, defines you.  Already you have begun to experience the difficulties of choosing to live in a manner contrary to that of your peers.  These challenges will continue.  It will be easier to be like other people.  Resist this temptation.  Do not be like them.  You are made for glory.  Pursue it always.

Fountain Pens and Stationary
All of these things and more are implied whenever someone pronounces your name.  This reality becomes even more prominent when you set your name to paper.  In applying your signature, you attest to the truth of some claim or you vow to keep some promise, and you offer the very depths of who you are as guarantor.  As I have established, who you are is no small thing.  It is a weighty matter to speak your name, and even weightier to write it.  As such, one should have a means by which to apply one’s signature the dignity of which corresponds with the task it is meant to accomplish.  Toward that end, please accept the gift that accompanies this letter.

Yours paternally in Christ,

Fr. Tyler Dennis