A Gathering for a Dying Friend

Between Christmas and New Year’s, a gathering of ten people gathered to spend time with and to be with a good friend who’s dying. He’s lucid, alert, and, as always, ever engaging, but now all contained in a weakening body.

He’s a priest friend of over forty years to me, and everyone’s together in the living room. Between sharing stories full of laughter and memories, he remains the center of attention, even when the true center of attention is our relationship with him. One story triggers another then silence ensues until the quiet person retells a tale of many years ago that we all remember but have forgotten.

We’re all professionally associated with each other, but this day, this moment, together, our personal association is with this one person. He’s seated comfortably, enjoying his glass of water and absorbing all that is said about him, whether including or concerning him. It’s a living Vigil Service honoring someone who is still living.

After reviving my drink, I see that the chair next to him is open. So I sit closer to him to visit and better hear him. We equally remember and reminisce episodes and escapades back and forth, smiling away as each story is retold. The others in the living room continue their chatter and chatting that you’d expect at a party.

Both of our sharings are slowly replaced with a silence between us. An awkward human moment or a moment of heavenly grace? “Priest to priest,” I think to myself that I ought to say something priestly to break the silence. But, as this wise man taught me, there is a time for silence and a time for speaking, and more often than not, its silence is the most haunting and nourishing. He taught me well. No, that’s wrong. He showed me well.

Can “haunting” and “nourishing” be used in the same sentence? Can those two words be included in one sentence in the miracle we call life? Yes.

Because it’s the union of our wordliness and us listening to the happy going-ons with loving, caring friends carrying on. The colorful noises of those caring friends fulfills more than one lifetime of relationships with this one priestly friend. Between the silence of us two? That’s God’s kingdom, fulfilled.

Books by Rev. Joe Jagodensky, SDS. are available on Amazon.com. Topics include the Catholic religion, spirituality and U.S. culture.

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“What Day Is It?”

The adage often used in retirement is, “When you worked you controlled time, now time controls you.”

Kinda true, but not entirely. I know today is Friday, but I think it’s Saturday. I have errands to run this Friday, so I’m off in my car. I pass a school and wonder why all the cars are there. After all, it’s Saturday. It must be a special weekend meeting for teachers, I think to myself.

I return home and set my alarm for Sunday’s Mass because I think it’s Saturday while knowing that it’s Friday. After a few hours, I realized that my thinking was wrong but that my knowing was true.

I completed all my Friday errands while truly believing that today was Saturday.

So, time does not control me. I’m still in control but not always in an accurate way.

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“Behold,” no exclamation mark needed

We go to sleep at night filled with an abundance of worries and fears and then awake to a new day filled with hope and joy….

“Behold.” What a beautiful, colorful, strong word. It’s a sentence in itself. Just saying that one word writes a complete paragraph. We don’t hear it said in the middle or the end of a sentence. “Behold” is always the first word to express something wonderful, scary, or a feeling needing to say that one word – “Behold.”

“The curtain’s been lifted.” What was not known is now known. In faith, it also means embracing the unknown while the unknown remains a mystery. “Behold.” It startles you to say it and it startles those around you.

So, go ahead. On your next elderly birthday, before your feet hit the floor in the morning, you now know the spiritually impacted word to begin that new year. Yell it out, “Behold.”
I had a “behold” this past week. Biden has government documents tucked away as does Trump. That’s the scary part of that single word. Then where’s FRD’s government documents housed?
“This is your dinner bill,” says the server. Because you see, using “this” at George Webb’s makes perfect sense. At a fancy restaurant, however, the server would accurately proclaim, “Behold, here’s your dinner bill.” Car repairs? “This” or “Behold?” You be the judge.

It’s a relatively new word used in the Catholic Mass, replacing the word (ready for this!) That’s the word – “This.” Sound like a good change from this unchanging Church? When the priest raises the host and chalice which word best captures and holds your breath, “Behold” or “This”? No vote needed.
John the Baptist says it to all of us – both in his time and now during our time, “behold.” Mary can’t think of a better word to announce her pending birth. (I think just seeing a wide-winged angel standing in your living room alarms you enough to hear that word in your head.)

A strong prayer always said is, “Humble but also empowering.” That’s the definition of that word that I won’t bore you with saying it again. It reminds us and alerts us to remember the Giver of this feast called life. Then our Creator empowers us to face any difficulty with the peaceful presence of God in our lives.

A peaceful and restful sleep awaits us because of the power of that one word. Our tomorrow is now the new endeavor of a new day lived within that believable one word.

Underused? You bet. Felt? You bet. I’ve never used it myself in conversation, and I’m confident none of you have. As the adage goes, “Before you go to bed tonight, use it in a sentence today, and it will surely be your own.” That’s your homework assignment.

Proudly use that one word sometime today and see what happens. Whatever the content, it will truly moves and empower you and then inspire those who hear it.

“This and that” is the response when asked, “What did you do today.” “Behold” is the epiphany presented to you, and “beheld” is what you tightly clung to your entire life.

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Epiphany’s Light

In describing your life, I can save you a lot of time. Life is summarized with two “S” words: surprises and setbacks. There you have it.

Thank you for listening. Now for tonight’s sermon.

For non-believers, it’s the light of spring and budding stuff surrounding them, followed by the richness of summer’s heat and its frolicking. (I don’t know who frolics anymore, but it sounds like fun.) Ummmm. Easy, simple, convenient, obvious and completely wrong.

For us, not-so-bright Christians? Where do we find the light? In the darkness. We see light when we, well, when we need light! This is what the Epiphany is all about. When said, “I had an epiphany,” it’s proclaimed to family and friends with great joy. (Notice I didn’t say the shallowness of “happiness” but the Divine “joy.”)

Light’s requested in the darkness of indecision, it’s felt in the darkness of doubt, light is experienced in those haunting questions either about life here or the life after here. Christians seek light in the darkness when light is most needed. How about the dark places of our lives that we refuse to admit and see? Or those dark places within us that we haven’t even uncovered yet?

Flashlight? Nay … needs batteries. Our own eyes looking inside ourselves? Nope. Too one-sided.

We need, no, but yes, we need it, but it’s that we seek the light that this day provides. A heavenly star that brought nations together, even if for a short time, to show that this light is universal and eternal.

That’s the surprises and setbacks that happened to Jesus Christ to model for us how to handle our two life “S’s.”

I hate it when a friend tells me, “You gotta see that Netflix film. It’s great. The hero is killed in the end.” Am I surprised? No! Because now I know the ending. Why waste two hours when I already know the ending?

That’s what happens with our prayers. (Please note the pronoun “our.”) Try praying without our provided answer to God. In giving a solution or resolution to God. If answered with your wish, you tell your friends for years to come about how your prayer was answered with your answer. (Please note the pronoun.) Surprise. Nada. (whispering) That’s called idolatry.

Pray always with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit to buttress and support you; you will be enlightened with more insights and guidances than you can imagine.

Michael Kaminski retires today. I can’t wait to hear the closing song. (Or, is there a closing song?) Mike’s been here a few years, got bored, and now it’s time to move on. Next week, in his retirement, he’ll think, “Today’s Wednesday,” (whispering) when it’s really Thursday. In retirement, every day is Saturday. As believers in the light of this Christ, we celebrate and honor that every single day of the week is Sunday.

There are so many unexpected surprises during this beautiful journey of life. (“unexpected surprises” is redundant, but you get the meaning.) Coupled with life’s setbacks – full of troubles, trembles, and travails.

Epiphany shows us today that all is okay. Motel 6 spokesman Tom Bodett famously said, “We’ll leave the light on for you.”

Well, how about the story of our faith? Three kings (whose names we can never remember), a villainous governor (whose name we all know), two tired parents (we know them), an unnamed donkey with a map and magic marker yellowing directions to Egypt, shepherds (all without names) wondering if their sheep are still in the hills, angels (no names provided) looming all about…and only one bright lone star constantly shining through all of our darknesses of fears, doubts, uncertainties, and despairs. As well as life’s joys, successes, and peace. Always hoping that the latter outweighs the former. The song “Away in the manager?” Forget about it.

Apparently asleep but with a joyful smile on his face is this newborn babe full of surprises and setbacks for both himself and for us. He’s asking us to be “newborns” each day. (Even in the unknown but joyful time of retirement.)

What are their names? They are the Divine star of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit saying to us every Sunday (and those other misnamed days), “Our light is forever brightly lit and lovingly burning away for each and every one of you.”

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Just think of all the fun, anticipation and excitement that accompanies gatherings of family and friends. Birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmases are those occasions for giving, receiving, and unwrapping beautifully wrapped gifts. Some have colorful bows gracefully attached on top and some not.

Regifting is the term for rewrapping a gift to someone that was gift-wrapped for you. Its consequences can work either way.

Regifting a sweater you don’t care for can make someone happy. You say to yourself, “Good, now that’s gone out of the closet.” Or, (true story) you can prepare and wrap up a regift and give it to the person who gave it to you two Christmases ago. The regifted says, “Did you forget? Have you forgotten? I gave you that sweater! You told me you liked it!”

Our journey of life is the second version. It’s our unwrapping of that sacred gift. Creator, God, gift-wrapped this wonderful life for each of us. And, to the best of our abilities, we wear this gift, this gift of life and faith as best we can, just like a warm sweater during cold winter days. When our unwrapping comes, and indeed it will, we wrap up ourselves and regift it back to the One who gifted us.

That word “one,” by the way, is spelled with a capital “O.” Please place a bow on top of yours.

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“Troubled Others?” Me Happy!

“Someone else is worse off than you,” Mother would tell me about my failing grade in science. (I didn’t want to be a scientist anyway!)

Assembling my woe by amplifying it with the greater unknown or known sorrows of others was intended to stop the conversation and provide a salve for me. How sadly reducing others but how glibly said by my Mother and many others to me since then.

That response said to me both then and now is to merely seek out someone else in more trouble, worse health, more doubt and confusion than mine—a brilliant way to end a personal exchange.

It’s called deflection. Switch the subject. Change the focus. Public figures love to use that technique to quiet accusers from further media attention. Mothers may use it because she’s washing the dishes and doesn’t want to engage a nine-year-old. So deflect away.

Hence, my new homework from both Mother and others? Just think of woeful someones with more significant concerns than mine. Then, I will again become a happy kid or content adult.

What happens then is a slight self-examination but a more significant appreciation for all those people with more troubles. I only use the word “appreciation” because it is what others told me to do.

That’s not the union of the Body of Christ – it’s, only once more, division. Their troubles make mine seem trivial, so, once again, I’m a happy camper.

We do the same between two people sharing. In essence, the implied statement is that “My cancer is more serious than yours!” Cancer-talk now becomes a sporting event, “Who’s gonna win or lose?”

May we never lose the ability to hear each other and to listen with our hearts. Just imagine a conversation when I friend tells you about a personal affliction. Unless asked, you add nothing about yourself to the conversation.

That’s the Body of Christ in action.

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Thanksgiving Day’s “Thank You’s”

Eight letters, two words with a space in-between. It’s the recognition of a good deed done, service performed, or expressing appreciation. “Thank you.” Eight letters, two words with a space in-between.

The short-hand version is simply thrown and tossed out there by saying, “thanks.” Quick, reliable, succinct.

“Thank you” is tossed about when the door is being held, the waiter bringing your dinner, and for the doctor’s time spent with you.

Then there are the gushy “many thanks,” not knowing a known quantity but a truly contented expression. How many “thanks” in “thanks” are needed?

We also hear, “I can’t thank you enough.” Please talk to the gushy person. Then both of you can total up on the how “many’s” and “enough’s.”

My favorite and true story is when thanking someone, she responded in her low self-esteem, “Thank you for thinking of thanking me.”

For you doubtful folks out there, you can always revert to “thinking of thanking you” as though a decision has not yet been made.

Third gushy person? “Thank you very much.” Again, that questionable amount. Now the three of you can argue about how “much,” “many,” and “enough.”

Finally, there’s that person with a limited vocabulary. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Unless you’re addressing multiple persons, one response is sufficient.

Here’s one. “Thank you” to all the indigenous Indians for graciously giving over your land to the pilgrims and the rest of us. And “thank you,” Indians, for getting back at us with your one-arm machines and velvet card tables.

“Thanksgiving Day” reminds us of how we toss and throw around and away those eight letters, two words with a space in-between.

The solemn “Thanksgiving Day” word, each and every year, is gratitude. Better than saying “thank you” because gratitude is our spiritual response to this freely given gift of life from God.

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Are twelve hours and a nap enough sleep for a newly retired seventy-year-old? Did the clock slow down, or am I only now more aware of time?

Piercing questions with no answers with more questions I won’t bore you with. It’s only been ten days since this ending, ending fifty of the years. My cats wonder why I’m spending so much time at home. “Where’s the money coming from?” they must be thinking. I put on my suit in the morning, and around five o’clock, I leave through the back door, enter the front door, and get changed. Weird? Don’t think I didn’t consider it. (Fellow employees always said that I look good in a suit.)

It’s called retirement, but there’s nothing retiring about it. I’m constantly thinking, reminiscing, remembering, and reliving those past fifty. I didn’t work this much when I was working! Those fifty had job descriptions that were clear, measurable, and evaluated. There is no job description for this daily vacuum. I’ve finally become self-employed. I now get to create my own job for this new transition. “Enjoy yourself” is the only advice from family and friends. “You’ve earned it,” is said by those who really thought I actually did work.

I never worked a day in my life. A disc jockey at sixteen, playing rock music on the weekends to the Catholic priesthood for over forty-two more years. Do you call that work? Entertaining faceless folks with the music of a generation and then enriching their lives through the seven sacraments wearing a welcoming face.

But it’s the seamlessness of this daily frame of hours. Hence the “suit idea” to keep my days divided. Mother’s warning during childhood was “no TV during the day or on school nights.” Never forgotten, so I can’t watch “The Price is Right,” even now. As an adult, I ignored the “school nights” even though she declared that “Sunday was a school night.”

A video on transition was recommended, and I loved it. The speaker used “re” words. I’ve used them often in preaching because they always invite renewal. (Notice the “re” word there at the end?) They were obvious to me, but I needed to be reminded of them, as often happens in life. “Rebuild, replace, redesign and relinquish.” There’s the making of my new job description. I get to reflect on them, define and then live them.

Well, I have something to do now, so I’ll stop. I don’t know what it is, but I need to do it.

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Zaccheus, 6’3 tall?

You may not know this about the Son of God, but…but (whispering) he wears glasses. And they’re bifocals. Contact lenses weren’t invented yet, and Lasik surgery was years away. I know this because I’ve had all three of them.

Jesus looks up into the tree and sees a grown man, 6’3 tall, hanging on a limb. Ummm. “What’s going on up there?” Jesus may have thought to himself. Or better yet, Jesus knew precisely what was going on up there.

Because you see that tall man smalled himself. (I just made up a new word.) He smalled himself through the very first sin that tempts and sins us all for our whole lives. For that, he’s become an excellent example for us all for our own prayers and reflections.

I’m sure he considered himself a compassionate, fun-loving guy to be around. He thought, selfishly, only himself. It’s that simple, and it’s that complicated. The Church calls it “original” due to Adam and Eve. We all know there is absolutely nothing original about it. The churchy word is idolatry, but it’s pure selfishness for us. After all, aren’t we all “good people?”

“Small stature” is how the Gospel describes tall guy in his shrunken state. He took the great height that God gave him and smalled himself down. So he must now climb a tree to see the light, the Son of God. Children climb trees, not adults. Children begin naturally self-absorbed until shown and taught otherwise.

And here are two views of our Gospel tale. Did the tall guy climb that tree knowing of his smallness and wanting to see the light, the Son of God, or did the Son of God look upward, through his bifocals, saw a person in need of redemption? The choice is yours. Either way works for me.

That tall guy had much knowledge; after all, he’s an accountant. But the Wisdom reading today tells us that knowledge is only what you learn. Wisdom is divinizing that knowledge wearing Jesus’ glasses.

If I didn’t tell you already, (whispering) it’s bifocals, poor guy. Not the “coke bottle” version. The lower lens sees the things of this life, and the upper is for beholding the beautiful things. It’s the difference between seeing and beholding. We all have plenty of seeings outside these old church walls. These days it’s far too much seeing. We enter into these old walls to be surrounded by beholdings. Beholding the greater than ourselves returns us to our God-created height.

The Garden of Gethsemane passage is probably the best illustration of Jesus trying to be that “small stature” guy hanging out on a limb. “If this cup could pass,” Jesus says, seeing only through his bottom bifocal. Looking upward, Jesus finally concedes, “But not my will but Yours.”

Now, that doesn’t mean, “Let go and let God.” I hate that line. We are not “human puppets on a divine string.” (whispering) Mel Torme. It’s worth it. I don’t wanna climb a tree!

Each and every day, we are blessed to balance the difference between earthly knowledge and divine wisdom. And then attempt to live a worthy life by uniting the two. May we never stop that balancing act and prayerfully, actively keep searching.

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A Homily for Everyone, Really

Today it’s a homily for everyone. While listening to other sermons, we can often say to ourselves, “This doesn’t apply to me,” and then count the lights in the ceiling or, worse yet, “Who is he talking about?” Today is the exception as much as the Dollar Tree store is to retail. I love the Dollar Tree. I always wanted to stand up and yell, “Price check, aisle 3!” But I didn’t. Today, it’s for everyone.

St. Paul to his good buddy, Tim, Hey, Tim, “Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.” I may add to St. Paul, guard this rich trust with your life because it is your life given to us by God.

I’ve never seen or planted a mustard seed, and I don’t know anyone who still wears an apron. But the first is about the astounding personal and spiritual growth (sometimes even beyond our imagination) and wearing that helping servant’s garment in all of our deeds. Growth and service are two words for our prayerful reflections next week. The mustard lives and grows within us, and the wearing, or should I say bearing the apron, springs forth because of that mustard.

But I’m back to Paul and Tim. “Guard” and a “rich trust.” Trust is a pretty strong word on its own, but St. Paul adds that colorful adjective, “rich.” And “guard?” Guard against what? I’ll save you time here. We all know the answer to that admonition. How often is it a guard against ourselves and toward the divine?

The end of Paul’s sentence is the very best of all for us all, “with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.”

The “help of the Holy Spirit” is a mouthful and is the soul-filled assistance of the divine. Every sacrament contains the usual two (God, Jesus, and then holding up all those beautiful, meaningful seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. If you are a football fan, I offer you the following division of divine duties. God is the owner of the team who sits in the luxury box. Jesus is our general manager, showing us the plays, and the Holy Spirit is the coach, living and breathing but not on the sidelines but running, tackling, and huddling our next move on the field. All done with each and every one of us.

And, chiming in today is no other than that famous prophet Habakkuk, who no one knows about, with one of my absolute favorite words describing character: integrity. Integrity is a stand-alone word. There is no need to modify it, add an adjective, or make it a verb. Just saying the word “integrity” says it all.

Habakkuk wrote, “For the vision still has its time” (prayer and patience), “presses on to fulfillment” (perseverance and persistence), “and will not disappoint” (regardless of those pesky devils and demons). “If it delays, wait for it” (Americans hate waiting; here’s that “rich trust” again from St. Paul), “it will surely come, it will not be late” (within our lifetimes, please remember that “rich trust”), “The rash one has no integrity: but the just one, because of his faith (please don’t forget “rich trust!”), shall live.”

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