2 – Why This!

“ THEY look like they’re just coming out of some Siberian forest! “, exclaimed one of the women.

I glanced out of the kitchen window.

There, framed between the outside wall of the kitchen, and the wall of the woodshed, in that little narrow space where no buildings block the forest from view, came the great procession!

In the lead: the thurifer, his white server’s alb visible near his feet, the rest of his body bundled in a parka, head swathed in toque and scarf, his warm breath pushing puffs of steam from his mouth, in competition with the clouds of incense rising from the gold thurible, he rhythmically swung back and forth.

Behind him came the men and women of The Community, all dressed against the cold, holding lit tapers, singing…but from the distance of the enclosed kitchen the words were indecipherable.

Then the priests, the bottom edges of their coloured vestments, worn under heavy winter coats, visible above their various shaped and coloured winter boots.

Last in the procession came the Archbishop.

Coatless he was layered in golden thread vestments, his face beaming, equal to the brocade in which he was awash, carrying high for all to see, a crucifix.

Once the procession had passed by the small area from view, I moved, with all the others, to the far side of the kitchen facing the river where large windows framed the unfolding liturgy.

The frozen artery is buried under more than a foot of snow.

Deep below the cold water moves, flowing from far north, deep in the great northern forest, past our little Community, and on for hundreds of miles until it flows into The Great River and onto the sea.

Today it had a piece of itself torn open, before dawn, by axe and pick, so that into the open hole this crucifix, being carried by the Archbishop, might find leave to enter the water, sanctify it and the rivers and oceans, into which it should flow, until the heat of the sun, one tiny blessed water droplet at a time across time, will draw each into the embrace of invisible, to the earth-bound eye, particles of dust and the gathering will begin. Clouds will be woven, wind will stir, and then rain shall fall upon the fields nestled against the hills of this valley. Deep in the great forest rivulets will form, streams will be replenished and dance through the glens until they stumble into this river which will flow across the summer, through the fall harvest, until winter’s ice-rest returns.

Then, on time’s new morning like this, another procession will emerge from the forest, another crucifix will be placed into the water and the sanctification will be renewed.

That continual reality of the constant renewal throughout the liturgical year of the sacramental life of grace, our own being drawn by the Spirit to the Father through the Son is the grace of every moment in God being the moment of beginning again.

The central witness of my life is not just our constant need of Him, but more importantly His constant lavishing of grace, of mercy, of new beginning upon us!

I am a priest.

Whether it is preaching, teaching, hearing confessions, or, yes, writing an autobiography, ultimately the only One I seek to proclaim is Christ. So my real name is of no import.

The witnessing to His mercy, to His Holy Name, is.

As St. John the Baptist, with passionate urgency beholding the Lamb of God, Jesus, approaching him,  realized and proclaimed that henceforth he, John, must be less of a presence, less visible, that Christ might be the everything everyone seeks { Jn. 3:30 & Col. 3:11}, so must each priest live the gift and mystery of priesthood.

When people, for example, are more aware of Father X or Y celebrating Holy Mass than they are of Christ Himself we priests are failing to be what we are: in persona Christi – Christ for you!

As a priest, who has some small gift as a writer, my heart wants to stir your heart dear reader to open wide the doors of your being to Christ, showing through this telling of my own prodigal’s passions and pilgrimage, His mercy is greater than our capacity for sin, that our Father in every moment rushes towards the returning prodigal.

My prayer is you will open wide the doors of your being to the Holy Spirit, the Life-Giver, Teacher of Truth, the Sanctifier, confident He is tirelessly answering every human prayer.

Indeed in his own telling of what the Holy Spirit accomplishes, if we are willing within us, St. Paul boldly proclaims there is nothing the Sanctifier cannot restore to Christ, no one who cannot be sanctified, if we are willing to risk loving God who Himself is love {Rm.8:28}!

      ANCESTRY, roots, heritage, ethnic-origin, the old-country, family-tree, tribe, clan.

We all have a history.

We all come from somewhere…from some at least momentary encounter in passion between a man and a woman.

Some people can trace their family history back through countless generations with exact records. Some families use these traces to assure power over others, or at least some particular status in their own minds; others have no, or few, written records, but their colour, use of language, mannerisms, and, especially, oral history, assure them an identity; still others in our modern era have the record of photographs, and now video images of generations at play, at Baptisms, weddings, birthdays, perhaps even funerals.

However it is looked at the orphan, that is even the person with no apparent tangible official record of their original family seeks to have some kind of connection with a family history…be it a military unit, street gang, cult, or religion. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church even an orphan can join a religious order like the Benedictines and become part of a specific family within the greater Catholic family of the Church, a family which traces itself across the millennia.

The Church is also that family which, par excellence, always, passionately, welcomes home the prodigal, again and again and again, following the example of her Divine Spouse.

Of my own origins I am woefully ignorant, at least going back any further than some vague notions about my Grandparents, and even those notions are coloured by family legend and the passage of years.

Certainly they all originally came from various parts of Europe. Italy mostly is what I cling to, though none of those traditions was passed on.

The times of coming over were marked by the later wars of the 19th century and the First World War in the 20th century.

They clearly brought with them the typical immigrant determination to survive, with its good, and less so, aspects.

They certainly passed onto me a fierce determination as a survivor.

They were soldiers, sailors, hard-working men and women with true survivor skills.

All of them tough as nails.

When, during the First World War, the city in which I grew up was almost totally destroyed by the collision and explosion of a medical and a munitions ship, and a glass window shattered into the face of my maternal Grandmother, she simply took the glass out, sutured up her own face and proceeded to care for her children, clean up the house, help wounded neighbours.

That was the same war in which many of the men died in the mud and blood of the Europe their ancestors had thought they’d left behind to its own relentless cycles of horror.

Some ancestors also brought over with them the faith of the Reformation, but the men kept falling in love with the daughters of other ancestors who brought over with them the faith of Rome. There is an almost constant back and forth among the family branches between one side or the other, depending it seems, on who was marrying whom!

By the time the men who had survived the first war managed to survive the Great Depression and raise sons, those sons were available for the European branches of the family to slaughter each other and plunge the world into yet another blood bath, since the war to end all wars clearly had not been bloody or far reaching enough.

The original Reformation side, my mother’s, were now Catholic and my father’s side had lost the faith of Rome, so my father became Catholic to marry my mother and I became another generation of sons to begin life during a war.

Increasingly many astute Protestant and Catholic clergy have come to understand the Scriptural basis for looking at family history when considering the personal struggles of the modern Christian.

In a culture where the sons have gone to war not once or twice but many times in one century, the 20th, where women have first because of war and then because of the societal need to consume stuff, or just to put food on the table, have been taken out of the home, especially in the critical early years of their children’s lives, where the whole social order has been in upheaval and where technology, science, medicine, communication, philosophy, art, and most other human endeavours have been in a constant state of upheaval, not to mention things like the spread of artificial contraception, abortion, homosexuality and the attendant variations on the theme of human sexuality etc., etc., we see all around us loneliness, depression, a type of lostness unheard of in human history, which pulverizes the human person as we constantly ask why?

“ … we are strange in some way, yet we are Christ’s body on earth.  Cardinal Ratzinger calls this an example Of the ‘ divine law of disguise’  — God’s Divine ability to be present in what is the weakest and least  likely, so that holiness can shine forth for what it is, His own. As we are healed and our family is healed, our living members are integrated more in charity; deceased members in our family attain a closer union with us in Christ, because they become closer to the God-Presence,  and more fulfilled through this prayer. In this corporate familial healing God’s glory is Manifest abundantly, often dramatically……” [a]

In other words, no matter how crazy the twists and bends in the branches of our family tree, God will make it all come out beautiful in the end….if we let Him!

So how much detail do I need to write about?

I am well past the half-century mark in my own life. I begin to write on the threshold of the new millennium and question how much of the past before my birth is important for me to discover Him at work.

As I write this hot summer’s evening, when it feels like at any moment the whole city could spontaneously combust, the might of the state is at work.

Helicopters, planes, ships, men and women, desperately seeking over, and in, the ocean for the man the nation still sees as the little boy peering out from the desk of the young father who just happened to be President of the United States.

When the ‘father’ of the nation was slaughtered the boy became the nation’s son.

In the intervening years the culture has decided it can do without fathers.

Now this fatherless nation must cope with the tragic death of its son.

I believe the sixties are finally over.


I WAS BORN when hundreds of thousands of men, including my father, uncles, cousins, were spilling their blood into the sand and gravel of Normandy, Sicily, Holland, or drowning in a mixture of blood, bunker oil and seawater, as the final years of the Second World War ground on.

My childhood would be marked by other wars in Asia, the Middle East, and the constant anxiety among most North Americans caused by the ebb and flow of the Cold War. Then there would be the so-called local wars between India and Pakistan, Israel and just about everybody in the area, Biafra…who remembers that sad, little, temporary nation?

Viet-Nam would scar a whole generation…both those who fought in it and those who fought it; the civil rights battles, the struggles, often of sad incomprehension, between fifties’ parents and sixties’ flower-children…those were the years in which my adolescence would wander into young adulthood.

Early memories are of fear…war-fear, absent father-fear, polio-epidemic-fear, atomic-war-fear; grainy newsreel footage of the camps of the holocaust, the scenes from a devastated and hungry Europe, the Berlin airlift,….playing down at the docks as ship after ship arrived with war-brides and refugees…cousins, young, frightened, determined to survive, as yet another generation from the relentless killing fields of Europe sought to begin again.

How little did we know in the late forties that within less than a generation this would all repeat itself ….the scenes of bombed cities, tortured women and children, piles of bodies, defeat, flight…in Viet-Nam, Cambodia, Latin America.

Apparently however those oceans of blood in which we were drowning were not, are not, deep enough for we are approaching the new millennium at war with the future.

Not satisfied with imitating Cain on a massive scale against the brother we see, now we out Cain-Cain and slaughter our brothers and sisters in the millions before they are even born!

What a century of blood.

No wonder as a child I became obsessed with books, imaginary places of peace, beauty, with being alone for hours on end along the docks and the great breakwater of the harbour….dreaming, dreaming, always dreaming of a place of safety, of a family where fathers were not always going away.

I’d lean against the window at night, even in the winter when the thin glass would be frosted over and my cheekbone would ache with the cold, and gaze at the stars and the moon, yearn to float with the clouds…..street lamps in those days being weak of light and usually only one to a block, so even a kid in the city could see the night sky!

I’d wonder who I was, why I was, where I came from, what was life all about, why was life so fearful, sad, so relentless in its ever changing demands?

Eventually the cold, biting into my cheek, would be too much, or, if I was down by the ocean, the fog would roll in and the dampness would seep through my clothes into my bones…strange but I came to love the cold like my one reliable companion in an ever deepening aloneness….but in either case it would be time to head to bed, or home, to ponder some other time.

SOME YEARS BACK when I first started making notes for this book such old questions about who am I, why, where, had stirred within me once again one winter’s day when I was living with The Community and staying in the priests’ house.

I’d gone out to stand for a time and ponder. I stood in the companionship of that winter’s cold and snow, with pen and notepad in hand:

While standing out on the porch, watching today’s slight snowfall Stephen Hawking came into my heart.I enjoy his work very much.Were his theories uttered from a perspective of sheer adoring faith, I would be more willing to simply thank God for him.As it is I must pray constantly for him to open wide the doors of his being to Christ.Once he does then he shall know the true splendour and origin of all.

I still enjoy Hawking and still pray for him.

That admission scientists like himself make about not knowing what was before the elapse of the first one billion-or portion thereof-of a second into the big bang….Aquinas would say that is what some call God!

I wonder if, really, it is the universal — just moment of beginning of everything — that scientists are anxious about or is it not that they, being persons like the rest of us, REALLY want to know that mysterious moment of their own beginning of existence, as a way of refuting the reality of God as Father, as Creator?

In truth all the ‘ where has it come from’ questions about the universe are essentially ‘ where have I come from?’, and, ‘ why am I here?’

In my own case it is tinged with the immense inner awareness that when I ask that question I am compelled to ask how I came to be at a time when, as best we can figure, fifty million of my brothers and sisters, in a real sense my immediate family, had died, or were dying, in the ovens and camps, the saturation bombings, tank battles, sea-battles, on beaches, in the frozen horror of Stalingrad and the suddenness of an atomic flash, so far above their heads they probably never even heard the plane fly over them with its belly full of instant death.

WHILE pondering such questions the sudden melting of a snowflake on my tongue causes my being to shudder as if those melting crystals carried within the immediacy of ancient history and my heart heard the plaintive cry of God Himself calling out to Cain {Gn.4:10} 

All my pondering about the origins of life, my own included, the marvels of the created universe, being deeply affected by the course of the century of blood: perhaps only when I am truly a very old man, past pondering with curiosity and only able…please God willing….to marvel with quiet gratitude to Him, will the effort to understand surrender to, finally be melted into, the great truth, or rather to become one with the truth no-thing, more critically no-one exists but through Christ – and – of course if we neither know Christ nor that we are known by Him then our very existence, the existence of everything, everyone, most particularly our very selves – well all remains incomprehensible {Jn.1:3}!

A MEMORY has sprung into my heart from my early childhood after the war and illustrates the fundamental type of experience and my reaction to such which formed the person I have become….or rather in many ways formed the wounds within me, the healing of which has allowed me to become the person He created and redeems!

I was about six.

One day in the fall, for my birthday, I was given a new sweater.

New clothes were something special, they were yours, smelled new and henceforth would only smell like you, they’d take in your warmth, assume your shape.

Living in the city of the great harbour on the north Atlantic meant the air is never merely cold, it is so damp it soaks the cold into your bones.

A sweater was no luxury, it was necessary.

 A truly warm sweater was a treasure.

I remember that day with vividness as if the images in my mind have been painted there by Cezanne… a memory of sharp colour yet muted light, people moving about, yet still.

 I remember parts of people, but no faces, events but no time frame.

Mostly I remember I survived.

We lived on a street which went from the war veterans hospital at the top of the hill, past a few houses with little ground floor shops, tenements, the construction company yard, the lot leading to the arena, more shops and tenements, the neighbourhood chop-shop, stores, boarding houses, fire-hall, bottling plant, huge factory size bakery.

On and on it was a world of wonderful places, constant activity, sounds, smells and a boy on a tricycle could be a motorcycle cop, drive a bus, a huge dump truck, cowboy on a horse, tank commander…anything.

Riding my new tricycle and wearing the treasured new sweater off I went!

Down the block, past my best friend’s house whose bachelor uncle was a ham radio operator and, as the need would arise in our anti-commie games, became for us from time to time a spy!

Past the dark mauve painted house, always shuttered behind huge lilac bushes, which defied the cement sidewalk encroachment around their roots. That house was where a spinster lived with a string of handsome young men, her boarders. In the summer, it seemed each year, one by one the young men would leave that house early in the morning, dressed in morning suits, flower in the lapel, sometimes accompanied by one of the regulars from the boarding house, a little drunk for so early in the day.

He might return, but none of the men in the morning suits ever did!

Many of the houses in those days had old men and unmarried daughters…war­-widows. Some of the houses were homes with young widowed women who had children to care for, so the front rooms had been turned into little shops or lunch counters.

Past all those, past the tenements, the bottling plant, round past the fire hall and down the far side of the block…technically out of my neighbourhood…I recall riding in the joy of my new sweater and the fire-crispness of that fall day.

Past the big grocery store where the oldest of my younger sisters got lost one day when my Grandfather took us in there and she screamed and hated us both for losing her so I’d bopped her one as I declared I hadn’t lost her!

 Then I was midway down that side of the block, passing the little stationary store which smelled inside of paper, pencils, rubber erasers, glues, paint, ink….a world of images and ideas….a place where a dedicated spinster-sister cared for a battle wounded in body and spirit young man, her brother, who would beckon from his wheel-chair for the ‘little boy’ to come and visit.

My Mother would always agree to tea when she took me there in early fall for the year’s school supplies for me and my increasing number of brothers and sisters.

 I never liked the wounded guy, so while the women had tea would avoid him and would  stroll among the little narrow rows of paper, pens, books, cards, yearning for the world of my dreams, that place where there was neither uncertainty nor fear.

Suddenly I was surrounded.

There were five of them.

Local tough boys, older than me by far and too big for a tricycle.

I was on their turf.

They wanted my tricycle.


They wanted my sweater.

I knew if I got off the bike I was done for.

I held on so hard my knuckles whitened and pained.

I was punched and shoved, rocked back and forth both by the blows and them trying to haul me off but I had the extreme strength of a survivor.

I was not letting go.

They cursed, swore, mocked, threatened.

I could not afford to say a word for that risked taking strength away from my grip which was now locked in place.

Adults were passing by, saying nothing, doing nothing.

 I, not expecting help, did not bother to ask for the help I did not expect.

Suddenly the rocking and pounding blows stopped.

For a second I began to form the idea they had given up.

The first glob landed on my swollen closed right eye.

Somewhere deep inside of my being that warm spittle hurt more than all the punches, even more than the fear which was so great it itself was sickly sweet in its ever increasing waves through my pounding heart and throbbing knuckles.

They spit and spit and spit and spit and spit and spit and spit and spit.

My face and hair were covered.

They spit and spit and the sound of the great intake of throat swill and gasp of air, as they prepared to hurl more spit upon me, became the only sound I could hear.

It smelled.

I smelled their smell.

Every instinct in my being urged me to let go, surrender, cry.

I would not.

From a surreal distance an adult male voice uttered some command.

The sound of fleeing boy-feet replaced the guttural grasping to fill a throat and mouth with another salvo of spittle.

The male voice attempted to convince the knuckle tight, spittle-covered boy he was safe and a handkerchief in the rough hand of a working man attempted to clean my eyes and face.

 Though I must have stared at the kind man I do not recall his face.

Escape occupied my being now.

 I pedaled home as fast as I could, put the tricycle were the other kids could take it to play with, for I would not, slipped into the house unseen, went to the room I shared with the oldest of my younger brothers, wiped myself off, took off the sweater.

 I don’t remember where I put it.

I know I never wore it again.

I also know now that I made an inner-vow that day that I would survive anything and that I could not rely on anyone to come to my aid. Not anyone.

The smell of spit was never to leave me.

 Especially would it be there, in its entire stench, whenever I was afraid, for over thirty years.


IT IS mid July and the city has become a broiler within which we human beings struggle to go about daily life, confronting something way beyond the illusion of our power over the created order!

Sure, we can air-condition our cars and buildings….that is we the non poor of this world…but the poor in dense tenement after tenement block of inner city chaos…what cool breeze ever caresses their foreheads?

People think I am strange, frankly for various reasons, but never more so than in my opposition to air-conditioning the rectory until all the poor have the same luxury in their little apartments.

In the heat, on this city afternoon, a funeral. One attended by people who have not darkened the door of a church since they were children, people sobbing in un­-availed grief, who dutifully came to pay their last respects and who then endured the heat in the middle of a vast city cemetery, devoid of trees to make room for more graves.

The sun tore through my black jacket over my black shirt like an unstoppable laser beam seeking its target!

I am easily one enamoured of all that has to do with the origins of the material universe, of man himself, and all that has to do with the ultimate outer reaches of the galaxies, the human imagination, mind, and heart.

More am I fascinated by what lies beyond the second experience of womb…the grave.

Yet in this generation it seems we have forgotten sheer wonder and become addicted to mere information.

Perhaps that is why since I was a little child with his first Brownie camera the art and wonder of photography has so fascinated me.

When I walk about this world, camera at the ready, my physical eyes tend to gaze more attentively.

Most respectfully.

More in wonder at human beings, animals, street lights and other things we have constructed, at trees and plants, an old abandoned running shoe in the gutter, a gutted car in a vacant lot.

My heart draws stories about what I see from the fertility of my imagination .

Sometimes I will stop and take a picture knowing full well that when it is developed it will not be exactly what I saw with my physical eye but it will refract itself in the eye of my heart.

 Once again I shall stand in wonder at the inexhaustible beauty that is life!

That’s why I usually only photograph in black and white.

How wonderful it would be to know more about the ancestral beauty from which I have come, and the ancestral ugliness as well…for it is as we all know, but often do not want to admit, the stark reality of opposites and paradox which heighten the experience of living……….the broiler sidewalks where the air assaults the lungs enhances the sweetly sick smelling coolness of an old movie theatre..the doddering wrinkledness of a passing wino reassures the overly expensively dressed young entrepreneur of their youthful superiority…….the darkness abyss of the loneliness just before dawn can ease because even the most pedestrian of mornings is a beginning again and may appear as a horizon of hope.

But now duty calls this 102 degree afternoon and, for a priest, the need of any soul is always more important than any personal project!

STRANGE this ebb and flow of daily life between the immediate nitty-gritty of service as a priest and these snatched moments in the evening late hours to write about events in my life more than five decades ago.

As yet I do not clearly see the whole connection, though of course in ways at times self-evident, more often mysterious, grace is the connection.

Grace is part of His Self-Gift to us.

Perhaps – no – definitely there will come a point in this telling where I shall write about grace.

Now is the time to exemplify how His grace is Himself at work!

As mentioned the smell of spittle, the horror of that assault, the inner-vow never again to trust anyone [ only late in life would I admit that anyone included any-One ] would not leave me for over thirty years and would return with vengeance at times of great fear.

One Sunday in the winter of 1979 my Spiritual Father was attempting to bring healing into my being through a process called ‘ the healing of memories ‘ where I would allow painful memories to surface, allow myself to ‘ feel ‘ those experiences and hand everything over to Christ.

It was a difficult process with which in those early days…he had only been my spiritual director for a few months and I was most tentative about a return to the True Faith – or any faith life at all for that matter – I was not always truly co-operative.

The healing event of that Sunday afternoon is best described from his perspective as recorded in a letter he wrote me the day after:

IT WAS good to see you face to face and to have a chance to listen to you and pray with you.

One moment will always remain with me.

I’m not sure when it was, but I think you were telling me about that terrible incident when the kids hit you and spat on you and your sweater; suddenly when I looked at you, your face was radiant. You looked so young, beautiful, the way people do when they know they are loved.

It startled me because you were telling me this heart-breaking story, and I could only think that Jesus was somehow showing His love to you in the depth of your heart, revealing His Presence to you, taking away the smell of spit, making you realize that He had never abandoned you even if the abandonment of everyone else made you think that He had.

It is true any rational person rightly wonders where God was or is when we are being abused, are grief-stricken, suffer in anyway.The greater truth is God who is Love, Christ Himself is right there, more intimate to us than we are to our very selves for the worst of every drop of spit, of every slap, of all torture, abuse, of every lie, insult, rejection, of death itself, He has taken not just on { Mt.26:67-8 & Heb.4:15-16} but into Himself so that we might never, ever, no matter what, be even for a moment unloved or truly alone. 

THAT is the why of this!