So, the other day I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with my brother who is somewhat home-bound while his wife went out to do some needed errands.
We just hung out for a while but since it was a beautiful sunshiny day we decided to go out for a walk. Now my brother is in a wheelchair so I would need to push him along our way. As a chaplain in a nursing home I have actually become quite adept at handling wheelchairs but always on a smooth and flat surface.
My bro wanted to show me a path along which some deer come out to graze on the lush grass near a wooded area. The path is paved and travels slightly downhill to the area we wanted to see. So getting there was fairly simple and the pushing easy. Well, the way back up was not so easy. It was work. The path seemed a lot steeper going up as I recalled going down.There appeared to be more cracks and holes in the asphalt on the uphill climb. I also realized at that point that my brother’s weight was about the same as mine. Not light. My brother has lost some of his ability to speak clearly and so was quiet most of the way. I was pretty quiet too except for my panting and gasping, and breathing hard. In the silence, I recalled a recent homily given by Father Leroy Maus at one of the local care centers in which he referred to the priest who founded Boy’s Town; Father Flanagan.
Some of you more seasoned readers may recall a movie way back when by the same name: Boy’s Town. It starred Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan and Mickey Rooney as an orphaned teenager who was kind of a trouble maker. Boy’s Town was established as a home/school for young lads who had no one who cared for or about them. Father Flanagan coined a phrase to portray the purpose of the academy that has been written into a song and performed by many artists over the years; the Hollies in 1969, Neil Diamond in the 70’s and many others since then. The phrase is: “He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother!” Here’s an excerpt from the song, (google the title for the full lyrics):
The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows where? But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he, to bear
We’ll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another
I recently found a recording of the song online and after listening to it realized thatyes, I am my brother’s keeper and you know what?He ain’t heavy.
Matthew 6: 19-21 “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.
I helped a friend clean her attic recently. I have spent time reflecting about it since. I know, most people want to finish such a project and put it behind them. The dust…the spider webs…and other creatures you realize may be joining you (though unseen). However, in recent months I have found myself thinking about our life’s journeys. We each have a different one and we each choose to live it uniquely and, hopefully, authentically. How do we do that? Well, I am not a picture person. There is little physical evidence on this earth I exist, particularly if you judge existence by the number of photos you appear in or possessions you own. Does this lack indicate a life wasted or, at a minimum, insufficiently documented?
I saw a quote recently from Louie CK. While not the most appropriate man to quote for a Catholic blog, I appreciated his sentiment. “I don’t like taking pictures with people… It doesn’t feel normal,” CK explained about people’s need to take a selfie with him rather than have an actual conversation. “I always shake their hand and ask their name because everybody is interesting.” Imagine that, he wants to use that brief encounter, just for a moment, to learn about a stranger.
Treasuring a moment should be about closing your eyes, remembering a smell or a sound or a touch. I think we need to find a way to enjoy things beyond literal societal requirements. Observe. Let some things happen, pass, and then reflect. For instance, when you attended the state fair, would you smile at your selfie in front of the Sweet Aunt Martha’s cookie stand or do you remember the taste of the cookies? I am too skeptical for pictures. I see smiles, but I think about what is going on inside. Worries, hopes, ambitions, anxieties, love, hate, joy, sorrow, disappointment, satisfaction, anguish, anger, gratitude. Who are they really? Where do they wish they really were? I want a conversation; I want to hear your feelings. Describe it to me in words so I can feel your emotions; let’s talk.
Why does this have to do with the attic and my friend? There was a lot of “stuff.” To most, much of it would appear to be of little value or consequence. However, with each box there was a new story – Christmas gifts of long ago- some close to 70 years old, an assortment of practical jokes (definitely inappropriate for Catholic blog), retirement gifts marking a well-earned completion of a career, worn back braces from a severe injury. It was fun, almost a game – what used to be in this empty box? Where did it come from; on what occasion; who gave it; and most importantly, what did you feel about it. We built upon the stories as the day went on. Little pieces, little insights. Her son was able to hear about his mom’s childhood and touch and experience the same toys she played with as a child. She was a person, with feelings, memories and stories, not just “mom.” She joked that we were preparing for an estate sale for someone not dead yet. With that her son stopped her and pointed out that without her narrative, without her voice, all of the “stuff” would not have meaning. Now some of it seems priceless. It is the power of her story that gives it value.
At a certain age we start to think about how a particular day, interaction, experience becomes part of the great story of our life, rather than just another day. Who or what will tell our story? Will people wish there would be one more conversation, one more hug, or one more letter or card? (yes, handwritten, with an actual stamp!) One of the coolest treasures we found was a get-well poster with notes from friends and family that was from a surgery over 30 years ago. Seeing familiar names, remembering forgotten faces. Actually hand-made, handwritten (in cursive even!)
The quest for literal documentation is not new. Remember Thomas in the Gospel. In today’s world, Doubting Thomas would have demanded a picture. In the story of Martha and Mary (the sisters) in Luke 10:39-40, “Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving.” I am pretty sure Martha would have had a camera. Maybe we should be like Mary (his mother) who “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:19.
“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” -2 Timothy 4:7
As I type this blog, my muscles ache and my toes hurt, but it is all worth it because I completed my first ever 10-mile race! A big run like this has been on my bucket list for quite some time, but I was not sure if I would ever accomplish it. I am the furthest thing from a runner but I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of doing it.
I started this 10-mile run with thousands of other people- young and old- at a little after 7 in the morning in the pouring rain and with the sun just starting to make an appearance. It would have been incredibly easy to have thrown in the towel right off the bat. Really? Rain? It was only barely above 50 degrees. But the support from the fellow runners and the spectators was something I will never forget!
The first 4 miles were easier than I ever could have imagined. I had never run 4 miles straight in training and I doubt I could do it again right now, but as a group it didn’t seem like quite as big of an obstacle.
The whole run I thought about how a race such as this is so similar to our journey in life. There are hills- some that seem too high to climb- and maybe we can’t sprint but have to walk it. There are obstacles that try to shift our focus, toes and muscles that hurt, or unexpected downpours. Finally, there is always the devil putting thoughts into our heads like “I can’t do this” or “it’s too far” or “I am only halfway?”
The 9th and 10th miles were the hardest for me. My muscles were so stiff and my whole body was exhausted. There were extra fans cheering us along this part of the race. There were people with funny signs that got us all laughing, and kids that were dressed up giving everyone high fives and yelling “keep running, you’ve got this!”
At times I did not have the energy to run like I did the first couple miles, but I knew I had to keep moving, so I would walk as quickly as I could until I could run again. I think this is exactly how we have to take life- when we think the obstacle we face is too steep to climb, sometimes we have to take a slower pace so that we have the strength to make it to the top, because each and every obstacle we are faced with can be conquered.
My challenge for each of you is to create the best possible support system to run this race with, and when you see others struggling up the hills of life to cheer them on and run it with them. You may never know how much strength a simple smile or high-five can give someone who may be contemplating giving up.