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When I introduce myself these days, I say I am a Euro-American of the Celtic and Slavic tribes. I am the eldest of 10 children, 9 boys and 1 girl who grew up in a traditional Catholic home in Michigan in ‘40s-‘50s. I had an optimum experience of growing up in a loving family in a northern suburb of Detroit (during the week) and going to our family farm for the weekends and summers. Exploration in nature and groundedness in the earth were part of my developmental experience.
Exposed to 20 years of Catholic schools, the commitment and service of my parents, teachers and parish priests I came understand their primary message. To be a student of Jesus…“is to risk the explosive joy as well as the annihilating suffering of a human being who gives himself to life.” (Thomas Moore, Writing in the Sand) I felt called to a life of service. All through my senior year in high school I wrestled with the question of whether to be a physician or priest. One voice within me argued for having a family and being a physician, the other voice argued to study for priesthood. The Irish/ Polish Catholic culture that surrounded me sent very clear messages about which calling was valued more. Our parish priests were held in high regard and had a great deal of influence in our lives. And so at age 18 still not completely in touch with who I was, I entered Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit to study for the class of priesthood.
Over the next eight years I studied the philosophy, theology and psychology of the Roman tradition, I felt very secure in my cognitive understanding of how life worked and who God was. The certitude of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Bonaventure, and Paul informed my faith life. We were not encouraged to read beyond the approved Church fathers for our thought development. The example of St. Francis and two priests, Clem Kern and Bill Cunningham, dedicated their lives to the poor in Detroit showed me what service & commitment looked like.
In those first years of seminary, I settled into a routine of prayer, study, recreation and active dialogue with my peers. I really enjoyed this routine but also had my challenges. During this time I experienced for the first time sarcasm as a primary defense against closeness. The spoken and unspoken message in this all male culture was that “closeness and intimacy with anyone was to be avoided… it was dangerous!” And so began my repression of my psychological need for strong personal relationships. This was not easy. I was a normal man in his 20’s ripe with the biological, psychological and physical needs to be in relationship. The seminary culture and it teachings supported suppressing one’s natural instincts or fantasies and often defined them as evil and sinful. The emphasis was to accept the basic dichotomy between the physical-material world and the religious- spiritual world. This created lots of guilt and major disconnection from my own inner voice of knowing. During those eight years I was in the seminary, I felt deeply called to be a minister but I struggled with whether I was called to a life of celibacy. My spiritual director assured me that my reactions were normal but that this would settle out later in life. However, I did not have the courage or conviction to engage the full nature of the celibacy question at this stage in my life. And so I moved thru the seven steps of ordination to the priesthood in June, 1967.
My early years in the ministry were characterized by an enthusiastic engagement with all aspects of the ministry: preaching, teaching, counseling, preparing couples for their marriage, comforting the dying and their families, and administering the sacraments. I loved this work. By my second year, I was involved in an almost desperate level of activity to make the Church relevant to the people thru long hours of work engaging young and old in facing the social issues of the sixties. I officiated at hundreds of baptisms and weddings. At each of those ceremonies I was also reminded that I would never hold my own child or be held in a primary relationship. Often I would return to the rectory after working a 12-14 hour day exhausted and hungry for companionship. Loneliness was a constant companion. This was the time of Vatican II in the Roman Church. There was an active dialogue around allowing priests to marry. Many of us unrealistically expected that a change in this discipline was only a few of years away.
Three years into my ministry, my heart opened to the love of a young woman named Patricia, who was in religious life and working in the same parish. When I thought of her, I was filled with the magic of connectivity and relationship. She gifted me with a newly found heart song that filled my life with JOY and inspiration. I desired to be in full relationship with her and yet was bound by the path of celibacy that came with the Roman priesthood. With the dissonance that this awareness brought into my life I decided on making a geographical cure. I requested a transfer to an inner city parish, where I thought I could lose myself in the work of a new assignment. I incorrectly concluded that distance might resolve this aching question in my soul.
Within six months, I realized that the fire that had been ignited in me was not to be squelched. I went on retreat and made a decision that I would move to leave the class of Roman priesthood for the opportunity to be fully authentic and myself. At this time I received counsel from Bernard Cooke a renowned Jesuit, that this step was a move was to step outside the class of priesthood, but not a step to step out of the ministry. In August, 1971 I preached at all the masses in the Cathedral in Detroit. I focused my remarks around John 3: “I have come so that you might have life more abundantly!”
On June 24th, 1972 Pat and I were married in an inner city parish in Detroit. Twelve priest friends concelebrated our wedding Mass. Each of them could have been suspended as priests… but they stood with us that day. On the day of our wedding my dad called to say he did not know if he and mom would be at the ceremony. He said she was in inconsolable emotional state. He wanted me to know that he supported me in this step. In fact he said, while I would never speak against you becoming a priest, I never understood why you wouldn’t want to have a family. My mother was to cry for the next year. This emotional pain and sense of shame that my Irish mom internalized was one of the unseen consequences of our decision to follow our hearts’ longing. I was powerless to change this at the time. Only with the gift our children and time would my mom come to a resolution of her sense of loss.
While both Pat and I knew our move to come together as a couple would bring considerable challenges, we did not fully appreciate how our decision would remove us from our sense of a personal purpose and a supportive faith community. Sometimes courageous actions are taken without the full knowledge of the consequences. When you make a move like this in a fairly structured rule-bound organization like the Church… you move from central positions of being leaders and teachers to “persona non grata”. The Church’s unstated message was clearly… “Please be invisible to us!”
Within the first few years of our marriage, Pat and I were blessed with two beautiful children: our daughter Kate and our son Peter. The circle of life was manifesting itself in the call of children. As is the experience of all new parents our hearts were stretched to new levels of love, the beauty and challenge of raising two energetic and creative children was upon us.
I did not realize it at that time… but this was the best step we could have taken for our future personal and spiritual growth. To come to the conviction that no-one outside ourselves has the right to define how we are to live our life. Unhinged from the weight of everything being defined… what to believe! How to live! How to understand our sense of a Higher Power! We entered into a period of time that I will call our “desert experience”. It was fortunate for our growth that we wandered for many decades in search of our life’s purpose… in search of what to believe in. We got to struggle with defining our own understanding of how things worked. Unfettered by the certitude of salvation… we could consider whether this was even the right question. Was “right belief” (Orthodoxy) or “right living” (Orthopraxy) the right question?
Part of this journey led us to Taos, NM in July, 1992 where a pow-wow was in session at the Pueblo Reservation. There were over 1500 Native Americans in full regalia celebrating their culture in drumming, dancing and chanting. It was the 3rd day of their pow-wow. I sat down on the ground and took in the experience. As I sat there I became aware of the beat of the drums vibrating through the earth I was sitting on. I was moved to tears. I did not know why. That started a journey to understand the spiritual path of indigenous people. Since then I have listened to many a medicine person share the teachings of their people. What I have come to appreciate is that they see the world and life as a circle. In their way everything is connected! In the Lakota tradition you are often greeted with the words “Mitakuye Oyasin!” Which means “We are all related?” All of creation… the four leggeds, the two leggeds, the standing ones, the finned ones, the winged ones, the sun, the moon, the earth is all connected. We are not separate but connected. All the books of philosophy and theology did not bring me this realization. I now felt I had come to the seminal question that would serve as a core path going forward.
What does it mean to live as ONE with all that is? No longer do I need to feel separate from my heart, my head, my body or my sense of connection to a Higher Power. We are all part of this ONE creation. Conscious of the UNITY of BEING I am free to celebrate life wherever it surfaces.
I have come to understand is that “Words create the world we relate to!” In fact Words create the World we live in. We need to be very conscious of the words we put out into the world and the words we listen to. In most Native American stories of creation like all stories are an understanding of our ancestors. Indigenous peoples have no great library of books that define God… they refer to their sense of a Higher Power as Great Mystery. In its profound simplicity “Great Mystery” captures everything we truly can say of our unknown creator. That’s as far as they go to define the Divine in their life. Their traditions hold that when a child is born they are born in “original blessing”. And it is the responsibility of the family and tribe to teach the child what this means. That’s a little different than being born in original sin.
The greatest source of inspiration for the indigenous comes from their connection to nature. They speak of Mother Earth and Father Sky. Nature through all its critters and forms holds an abundance of history and learning for all who would avail themselves of this wisdom. My overall conclusion from wandering in the desert is that all belief systems are the creation of men as they reflect on their experience and make meaning in their lives. No path is more sacred or “more right”. Each of us needs to discover what our sense of a Higher Power is in our lives is. None of us have the right or responsibility to impose their beliefs on others. Our task in taking our earthly walk is to consciously choose a set of values that support our life. Hopefully this will lead to a journey that brings JOY and inspiration into our walk.
Nine years ago, my wife, my daughter and I suffered the sudden loss of our son Peter through his accidental death. The greatest fear of any parent is that you would face the loss of a child. As is the case, the actual experience was far worse than the fear. This was for all of us a seminal (root formative life) experience that continues to be processed in our lives. As a result of this loss, I moved further into a pattern of addiction to sugar and carbohydrates that resulted in my reaching 350 pounds. This pushed me to the brink of major health and relationship problems. This path into my addiction has been a major step in my spiritual journey.
Five years ago, my daughter Kate and her husband Todd presented us with our first grandchild, Ella Maylou. We had no idea how transformative this gift was to become for us. Up to this point… grand parenting was one of the best kept secrets of life. Life started again for us with her birth. Ella is a high energy, creative, passionate young girl who engages every fiber of her being in dance, painting, sports and now learning. From the first time we held her in the hospital we knew she was very special. Two years later she was joined by Zoe Pete… our calm almost “Buddha baby”. Zoe emanated a centered and groundedness that was a gift in itself. She too demonstrates a great deal of creativity, humor, sensitivity and connectedness. In the spring of 2007, it was an easy decision to move from CO back to CT to be in their lives.
Once we were here in CT, it became clear that if I was to be a long term presence in their life I needed to address my addiction. My pursuit of my compulsive use of sugar & wheat brought me to the dark night of my soul. It was here that I came to surrender to my sense of a Higher Power and ask for direction and support. Stripped of all my definitions of God, all the rules that guarantee salvation, the faith paradigms that give meaning, and my sense of control… I had reached my bottom and was ripe for personal change. SURRENDER to the HONEST acceptance of my addiction was to be my way back. It is an absolute paradox of how when we SURRENDER to the flow of life within… we are gifted with a sense of being on our path. SURRENDER has brought me to a new level of purpose. I don’t have to be in charge of anything. In fact if I only turn my life and will over to my understanding of the Divine that lives within… a sense of flow becomes the GROUND of my being.
At about the same time that these realizations were flooding into my life… Pat and I began coming here to church. What we experience is a community of inclusiveness, love and service. What we hear in Frank’s homilies is a poetic invitation to be in touch with the beauty of nature and wholesomeness of the Divine within. What we experience in the services is Ed’s musical creativity and the voices and sounds of Joy and inspiration from the choirs. What we see in the work of David is a call to social action. What we see in the work of Perry, Jamie and Lily is their commitment to developing the youth of the church with a strong sense of values and the freedom to choose which spiritual path feeds their soul. What we experience in the persons of Jan, John and Bobby is their strong commitment of service and “to do whatever it takes to get the job done!” All of this makes for a great experience of homemade “chicken soup for the soul”. Something that is hard to miss!
And so in the tradition of a well known pastor of poetic musings,
I would like to share a poem from David Whyte entitled SELF-PORTRAIT.
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
Or many gods.
I want to know if you belong — or feel abandoned;
If you know despair
Or can see it in others.
I want to know
If you are prepared to live in the world
With its harsh need to change you;
If you can look back with firm eyes
Saying “this is where I stand.”
I want to know if you know how to melt
Into that fierce heat of living
Falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing
To live day by day
With the consequence of love
And the bitter unwanted passion
Of your sure defeat.
I have been told
In that fierce embrace
Even the gods
Speak of God.