4 – Coursing Through The Veins

“Father, I need your help!”, called the Pastor to me as I emerged from the church after this morning’s Mass.

The heat wave continues.

The church was stifling, the air heavy, the two dozen or so faithful listless in their responses.

I was not much better, sweating under the vestments, unusually distracted about what to do on my day off, which would start after Mass.

When I stepped out into the morning sun after Mass the added heat brought on another wave of sweat.

Father is younger than I in years and in years of ordination. A good priest, kind, dedicated and always respectful of myself and the other assistant, who is even younger.



We never address each other by our first names in public but show the respect for our sacred office we expect the people to show.

“ Father I need your help because as you know I have the next Mass in a couple of minutes and a call has just come from the hospital.”

He told me who was dying in ER and I immediately went into the rectory to get my hospital ID….[gone are the days when being dressed as a priest and known on sight suffice for entry]…and the Holy Oils.

It took about ten minutes to get to the hospital. The dying man was hooked up to the usual equipment.

Wife, children, in-laws, grandchildren, all were there, all entering into grief.

His wife took me aside and said she’d been advised to permit him to be taken off the machines and even a casual glance at the man showed the effects of the massive stroke and that the most charitable thing to do was to allow him to die in God’s time.

I assured her the decision was proper, loving and, addressed her concerns about the moral issues.

I’ve attended enough deathbeds to know when it is the ethical cessation of extraordinary intervention and when some doctor or family member has chosen expediency, if not outright killing, over God’s chosen time for the soul to return to Him.


After the Apostolic Pardon, the Anointing, other prayers for the dying, sometime to comfort the family, it was time for me to leave.

By then I was totally soaked with sweat, our old hospital not being air-conditioned.

On the drive back I remembered back to when they were checking me out for a brain tumour and how I came to hate those constant tests and trips to the hospital, never imagining in those days I’d one day be, as I was until a couple of years ago, for several years a hospital chaplain.

When I got back here I changed out of my wet blacks, showered, and while showering thought I’d dig through the original notes for this work written in those days of such uncertainty:

THERE was something surreal about the fifteen minute walk from the parking lot, up and down stairwells, through tunnels, in and out of elevators, down corridors, to that tile and too many bright lights room, filled with the smell of antiseptic and fear of a death notice tension from people laying on various types of stretchers, beds, many looking frightened, some with tubes hanging from arms and other places, all waiting to be scanned.

Above all the other sounds in that place the most daunting and persistent was that of the Cat-scan machine which seemed to be in near continuous operation.

Everything moved with factory efficiency. Forms were thrust into our hands while staccato orders and warnings were given by overworked nurses about the possible deadly effects of the dyes which would be used.

Suddenly a needle was pushed into the vein in my arm.

 Fluid coursed unusually hot into my body.

 I was fed into the machine which began to use its noise and some kind of rays to slice-picture my brain.

Suddenly it was over and the priest who was my Guardian Angel for this trip was told to stay with me near the hospital “ For twenty-four hours just in case there is a severe reaction to the dye in which case rush him back here.”

To this day the memory of that test is vivid, not because a tumour was found, it was not. What they actually found was arthritis pushing the vertebrae against something or other causing severe vertigo and other symptoms which triggered a type of mimic of a tumour.

The memory is vivid because I was astonished by how fast blood courses through our bodies, something I had never experienced until that warm dye entered my vein and I could instantly feel it through my whole body.

Recalling that event on the way back from the hospital today caused me to reflect on the mystery of the Holy Eucharist…for in that Most Sacred Sacrament we receive Him, Body, BLOOD, Soul and Divinity not just as something ‘spiritual’ but physical and Real.

His Precious Blood courses through our physical being, more certainly and effectively than that dye ever did.

      The Sacred Writer of the Letter to the Hebrews stresses the power of the word of God penetrating, permeating the deepest regions and aspects of our being, revealing all to Him, yes – but there is more for this activity, this Divine Gaze, is ultimately one of love, of mercy, of healing, of truth – so that even in a moment as ordinary as a medical test we can be enlightened! [ Heb. 4: 12,13 ]

It is through the sacraments, in particular Confession/Reconciliation and most especially through the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Spirit does the effective work of “ the Word of God”, of God’s word!

Blood and water flowed from the side of Christ on the Cross, the blood which came from His Mother Mary, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit in the mystery of the Incarnation.

Our God becoming so humble and tiny as we all begin, like all of us being fed by His mother’s blood, and thereby growing, developing an arterial system and heart of His own.

This Sacred Person, this Sacred Heart gives to us His own very Self, His Sacred Body and Precious Blood, as our real food and drink.

How many Holy Communions have I received since my First Holy Communion and therefore how many times has He communicated His very Self to me? 

What have I done with and in this body, in my very person, into which the All Holy One Himself has communicated Himself, in His Risen Glory, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity?

It is a question of remembering, a type of memory and emotional blood-letting like that ancient cure-all when doctors would bleed the sick person in hopes of draining away whatever invisible source of sickness.

I suppose in a metaphoric way this keyboard is the lancet and the computer screen the basin into which the blood lands.

The flowing of the blood, however, is not something easy, smooth.

It is difficult.

It is confession.

Not in the purulent sense of contemporary talk-shows where mere titillation is the purpose.

This, please God, and with the blessing of my Spiritual Father, is an exercise in purgation of my heart, an exemplum.

 Memory, of course, is not a tangible record of past experience but is more an interpretive record of how certain events impacted themselves upon our minds, perhaps even our souls.

 Autobiography, more perhaps than any other form of literary effort, then is virtually a   natural form of roman-`a-clef.

What is remembered is not a dispassionate account of particular events in one’s life but an interpretive telling of why, of all possible other events in the given year the writer of autobiography writes about, this one stands out so sharply it demands to be remembered.

Usually that demand is because of all possible memories this one concerns something or someone whose impact was impressive, that is, made an impression that has marked us, effected us, in some way which still endures, either as enhancement of ourselves, our lives, or as a continuous hindrance.

In the first instance it is cause for rejoicing, gratitude to God for the evident blessing. In the latter it is cause for contrition if the impediment has been self-inflicted, for a forgiving heart if we are the victim of another’s sin.

Jesus promise-teaches we will come to know the truth and in this truth-knowing we will become, or rather be set, free.[ Jn.8:32 ]

 However this is not a process of self-discovery by our own efforts, rather it is an openness to the work of the Holy Spirit, as mentioned in Hebrews, where the Spirit of Truth Himself comes to prevail to make of us a real person, THE real person created by Love Himself.

The truth being sought here is how I came…frankly how we come…to distance ourselves from reality, that is, from being in relationship with God our Father, from choosing death over life, sin over virtue.

The truth being sought is to rediscover the Father’s supreme gift to us, His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Saviour and to bow face to the ground before Jesus and cry out: Have mercy on me!

The truth being sought is to discover the true self, the one in whom the Lord and Giver of Life, the Sanctifier Himself dwells.

As Thomas Merton wrote:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.

This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.{c}


For far too much of my life I have lived in and from, indeed for, that false self. For a time, as a child, it was a means of survival, but as an adult what worked in a strange way for the child, works against the adult.

I want to be KNOWN by God!

True but even more do I want to KNOW that I am known by God!

What is striking about the creation accounts in Genesis is the repetition of God speaking into being, God seeing what exists, confirming the goodness and existence of what has been created until a “who” is created.

This free-will being, and the one other who is like him, brutalize the integrity of the Love Himself created person and suddenly it is clear God cannot recognize what He has not created, this distorted image of Himself, and there is a heart-wrenching simplicity to God seeking, calling out, like many a mother for their lost child! [Gn. 3:9]

The all-knowing, all-seeing God having to call out because He cannot find the man He created!

Once Adam had sinned he was no longer tabula rasa as person, the untainted one created by the Father.

 He had allowed himself to become a tablet on which any might scratch and scrawl graffiti.

Merton again:

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love — outside of reality and outside of life itself. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion…………

A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. {op.cit.}

Permit then this memory-blood-letting as exemplum for you ( and I do pray for you in this, and from this moment on ) and a purgation for me, much needed, so that in the end all that will remain in/of me, and this is my prayer for you, is CHRIST!


THE HOURS of this day off pass quickly.

The writing does seem to flow.

The Pastor is away and the other assistant is also gone, and the phones have remained quiet, the doorbell still.

Out on the distant waters the nation’s valiant announced today that deep under the liquid dance-floor of this July’s sun they have found the body of Camelot’s Prince and now the nation, the world in some respects, can grieve.

Those who speak to me about this latest familial tragedy use terms like: “ It’s not fair he should die before his time. “

I try and control my Italian temper at such an affront to the Lord of History and Dispenser of Mercy.

But now is not the time to write about time!

Now is the time to take advantage of the quiet, to be still!

IT IS late afternoon now.

The weather has cooled somewhat.

Driving on a back road yesterday I was struck by the golden fields of grain, the season because of the extreme heat running a couple of weeks early. Then I noticed large flocks of birds and wondered if they know something about this summer and the not too distant autumn. Maybe it shall be early as well.

Countless are the verses in many Psalms which glorify again and again the wonders not only of the created universe itself but the providential Love who created all this beauty and sustenance for us!

I particularly treasure Psalm 104 in this regard.


Memory of a lovely, elderly, woman, kind, strong, at the top of the stairs leading to the dank stone basement with its huge coal bin and furnace, its rows of jars filled with mustard pickles, plum jam and little bins of potatoes nestled near mysterious trunks covered with ancestral dust.

She was my Grandmother, mother to my own, a woman whose words I remember none of, whose tender expression I remember all of.

She was the one who when the city was devastated by the explosion in the First War and the shattered glass embedded itself in her face took care of the wounds herself and then took care of her children and neighbours.

It is originally from her and her own artistic talents that I come honestly to write.

My memory of her is that particular beauty as she stood at the top of those stairs, light coming from behind her, yet without placing her completely in silhouette.

She was, as I recall, bidding me to come to supper.

This is among my earliest experiential memories.

My earliest reflective or thought memory, dream memory too, is of always having wanted to be a priest.

My next memory is also of my Grandmother.

Perhaps of the same day or maybe it is that whatever intervened has been displaced by the powerful impact of the second memory.

We are at table, the whole family of Grandparents, parents, me, my two sisters next in line of birth, maybe some cousins, an aunt, uncle, or two.

Suddenly there is a great commotion.

 Clearly something is wrong with Grandmother.

 I am whisked away by one of the adults and taken upstairs to the small bedroom I share with my two sisters.

I lay there in the dark and from their crib they ask me what’s happening in scared voices and I don’t know and it is the not knowing which scares me.

Later in the darkness of that same room one of the Aunts comes in and tries to explain to my child’s understanding that Grandmother is dead.

Once the aunt leaves the older of my sisters asks what it means and I say: “ The eggs killed Grandma.”

The next evening the whole house was hushed, women in black dresses, dark suits for the men, with a wide armband of black cloth on their left arm.

Caravaggio could have painted the contrast sharpness of the hues as in the front room bright candle light bounced of muted wallpaper, the white of the priest’s surplice edging the black cassock, rosary beads, made of crystal, dancing with little rainbows like dozens of prisms aimed at the corpse.

A wreath was hung on the outside front door to announce to the whole neighbourhood they were invited to join in the ritual of grief, pay respect.

 Women came, sometimes with nervous children clutching at their dresses or felt coats. The women came to the kitchen door with gifts of food and tears and those in-decipherable, but to another woman, words that convey all manner of true understanding of the particular capacity of woman to comprehend, and endure, the vagaries of life.

Later the men would come by the front door, for a woman had died, a woman who had done their families much kindness…but a woman, that is, not someone they would have gone to war with or worked in the factory with or pounded a beat with or downed beer with when the week’s labour was done and the pay packet swollen with the hard currency of their sweat.

So the men came in the front door, showed respect, joined silently in the rosary led by the priest, made offers of help but looked upon my widower Grandfather as a living totem of the clan to which no male ever expected, much less would want, to belong.

At some point in the brief mourning period my father came and got me, it seems from that same dark bedroom, and took me in his arms to the open casket in the living room and I looked down at that soft face and would not allow myself to feel since I harboured within me a notion that my anger at her for disturbing my secret world in the cellar had caused her death…not the eggs we’d had for supper killed Grandma, I did.

The next day the living room was empty.

Sometime later the Great Uncle, the wounded warrior from the first war, died.

The mother of the milkman’s kids from just a couple of doors down died too.

Then another uncle and my grandfather and death became this always expected but only appearing when unexpected intruder whose coming meant someone you cared about disappeared.

I began to notice it wasn’t just people who died, other things died too because they too disappeared.

There used to be these wagons with horses that brought milk, ice, and even the junk man had one….but they disappeared and trucks started to come by, but no truck ever wanted a carrot or a sugar cube.

The old man with the bell which he clanged as he hollered his trade as sharpener of knives and scissors and the treadmill with its stone that spewed wonderful sparks as he sharpened scissors; the other man with his pushcart and buckets and ladders, the washer of windows and teller of stories to children; the iceman who in the summer with one fluid motion would severe a chunk of cold relief that was hard as rock but melted fast as you would laugh with your friends.

All were gone.

I came to hate death and change with equal vigour and to allow myself to grieve over neither and should the grief strain against my grit I’d use anger or pleasure to quell its determination but I would not allow it for to grieve meant to confess it was true…the death or the change.

I don’t know precisely how or when I figured out a simpler way to deal with grief was never to become attached to anything, or anyone, at the outset, then their loss or disappearance while unfortunate could be if not ignored at least accepted as the inevitability of the ruthlessness of existence.

Pretty heady stuff for a boy who’d not yet made his First Communion.

But that was the key: to think and think and think until the thing either made sense or had been gutted of all its sensation.

Indeed it seemed to me that if I became attached to anything, even worse to anyone, my attachment was for it, them, harbinger of their inevitable disappearance, their death.

Often I suspected…or was given to suspect by the father of lies, something I could not understand as a child but do now as an adult…God was doing this, being mean because there was something about me which He disliked intensely.

Given the Jansenistic spirituality prevailing in parishes in those days such thoughts were also connected to that influence.

A gradual disconnect was occurring at this early stage in my being between reality as an objective sequence of events and reality as my subjective internalizing of the import of those same events.

I became more secretive, not only about my thoughts and feelings but about my activities when out of eyesight of any authoritative adult, parent, priest, teacher.

Sometimes this would inevitably lead to disputes between me and them about factual matters.


For example this memory is burned into my psychic memory as fact but from the moment I told my mother and ever since she maintains it never occurred…perhaps because as a mother the outrage of the gesture was too much for her to bear or perhaps she was seeking to protect a child who already before this incident regarded life as a dangerous labyrinth:

{The phone just rang.

One of those ‘interruptions’ that is my work!

A woman in the parish concerned about a friend in another city who is dying of cancer, and has been away from the faith for decades, needs a priest but does not know where to turn.

I gave her the number of The Community’s house in that same city and assured her all would be well.}


ONE day, it had to have been late fall because I recall the ground was frozen but there was no snow, I was playing alone along the fence that ran between our place and the tenement building at the back.

I heard sounds of people yelling in that manner which has crossed-over from mere frustrated anger to utter rage.

These yells were hard.


Determined in a manner which frightened me.

Someone had either lost, or forgone, control.

Suddenly there was a new sound.

One, less familiar.

Shattering glass, but not like when you dropped your glass of milk and it shattered.

 This sound was less explosive, more tearing.

There was another sound along with the shattering, a softer sound, like it was straining after the first and as all this sound was racing at me I was looking up and following the shards of glass cascading towards earth, glistening in the sunlight.

 A bundle, whose cloth seemed to unfurl slowly, was falling to earth as well and behind that, but not falling, just leaning part way out the shattered window, a young woman, face from that distance not so much a face with features as a flesh coloured oval, but one which implied hate nonetheless.

From the unfurling cloth stuck out a little arm and my brain fought against what my eyes were telling for how could a baby shatter a window and fall to the earth?

Part of my being was frozen in horror and part of my being wanted to rush through the fence and get between the glass and the baby and catch the baby and save the baby, but the baby outpaced some of the glass and hit the coal chute with a muffled thud of weighted cloth.

Little shards of glass landed upon the sudden stillness.

Soon, sirens.

I fled into the house and told my mother what I had seen and she went out, having forbidden me to follow her, returned, ashen faced some minutes later and told me I should not tell lies.

It was just a laundry bundle.

No more was said that day.

I tried a few times, even some years later, to get her to admit what I had seen but the same admonishment was given to curb my over active mind.

It would not be until many decades later when I was working in Child Protective Services and rescued a baby whose PCP’d parents were playing a dangerous game of catch with the child that I would suddenly understand which baby I was still trying to save.

Which child.

AS I BEGIN to write this late evening I listen to Bach’s Zion hort die Wachter sigen.

In all his music you can hear, indeed have vibrate within your being, the cultural reality of a time in human history, at least in Western Civilization, of the permeation of faith into all of life.

True the artists of the day, the intellectuals, scientists, and no doubt some of the ordinary people as well, may not have been what would be termed today ‘ true believers ‘, but the culture itself retained this Christian ethos and it is there in all its yearning in his music.

It is through music that the ineffable most easily I believe, outside of sacramental reality, becomes tangible.

Now flowing through the headphones is Albinoni’s haunting Adagio, music that invites the soul to dance!

I continue to go through those original notes and in them this chapter had a title taken from Sacred Scripture and I had forgotten why until I read the notes…..

Writing itself is both composition and brush stroke, it has its own melody and colour and as sculpture, painting, photography invite the eye to observe contemplatively, and music invites the heart to imagine, and feel, the composer of words must attempt to move the whole person without access to melodic variations or depths of colour, shadings of light.

I suddenly have come to suspect that to read is participatory whereas the other forms can more easily be merely observed in an almost passive state.

No doubt this is why St. John took the Greek LOGOS and used it so accurately to open up the reality of who Christ is: WORD.


For the Holy Gospel cannot be merely observed passively as a montage about a life but must be participated in as an encounter with Some One: the One who plaintively calls out, seeking the man in the Garden, who awaits the woman at the well, Whom we would, to borrow from St. Augustine, never go in search of if He had not first found us – indeed were He not constantly at the door of our being seeking leave to enter! {Rev. 3:20}

The great Ezekiel with the poetry of a prophet and the prophecy of poetry captures this intimacy lavished upon us by the Divine Seeker! {Ez. 16:8}


THAT IS the passage used as a chapter title at the time I was writing those notes. The passage had been in my heart all day long.

I have come, finally, in my life to understand something which years ago when I was reflecting on that passage I had not yet truly grasped: Sacred Scripture, the Bible, both Old and New Testaments — though for the Christian we must begin with and always see all Scripture in light of the Holy Gospels — is not just the revelation of God, in point of fact His Self-revelation, nor is it, in the Old Testament just the story of the Chosen People, or in the Gospels just what Jesus did for the people of that time — Sacred Scripture is personal: the reality of the relationship between Christ, the Father and the Holy Spirit, with each and every person — if we will open to that relationship.

Thus that passage from Ezekiel is very personal indeed!

Already by the time I was old enough to go to school I had turned inward upon myself, was well and truly developing that ‘ false self ‘ Merton so accurately describes.

 Another modern author, Leanne Payne, who has had a great influence in my life also, uses the term of practicing the ‘ presence of self ‘, as opposed to the practice of the Presence of God.

Though I did not understand it at the time I was also, with this becoming inwardly bent, moving towards an inextricable, for decades to come, interior disconnect with self and a move towards an equally inextricable influence in my life of the forces of darkness.

Were I not to be completely overwhelmed at such an early stage in life Christ Himself would, somehow, have to intervene.

The more was an appreciation, though certainly not an understanding because I was more knowledgeable of the experience of absence, of Real Presence.

Looking back now it seems inconceivable I would deliberately choose atheism as a young adult.

What was happening when that little boy that I was would stop into church on his way home from school or play?

What was he thinking, saying, praying?

How did he know that here there was some-One, unseen, unheard, unknown in any but the most transcendent and ineffable of ways?

There is no answer I can give to those questions that would be a set of traceable facts leading from the broken child, so overwhelmed with his little life, to the truth of the words of the prophet Ezekiel spoken as the voice of the Father, but this I do know: He was doing exactly what He says each time I entered the church, or rather more accurately, stepped into His Real Presence.

Even in this moment as I write these lines, in the moment you are reading them, He is again loving and moving and seeing.

So powerful are the exact words in Ezekiel about what He does when He finds us I urge you to go, discover, listen: Ez. 16:6,7!

 When my Spiritual Father wrote to me so many years ago about what he had seen upon my face when I recalled the memory of being spat upon he ended his letter with these words:

…underneath everything, even the loneliness, beyond the hurt and the anger and the confusion, I sensed something else, and perhaps that is what enabled the Lord to make your face shine. You think that you are a survivor, making it on guts and street-smarts but what I saw was someone — maybe weak and broken and beat-up — who had too much LIFE in him to die or to let himself be killed or to go crazy or even to stop hoping that love was possible. I don’t know how Jesus put that life in you, but I praise Him for it.

One time when I was praying in the sacristy, contemplating through the open sacristy door Jesus in His Real Presence in the tabernacle, I heard the heavy wooden doors of the church bang shut indicating, obviously, someone had come into the church.

It being the middle of the afternoon in that factory neighbourhood it was unusual to have someone come in at that hour.

I could hear the shuffle of winter boots up the aisle, one set heavy, the other the scuff-scuff of a small child.

When they came into view the father appeared to me as if he were barely out of his teens, if that, and the boy about three.

They did not notice me, so I was about to go and greet then when something made me stay still.

The father approached the stand of votive lights before the statue of Our Blessed Mother and dropped in a coin, lit a candle, then gave his boy a coin, helped the lad to put the coin in the box and then lifted the lad and helped him with the taper so he too could light a candle.

After a moment’s silence, still holding his son, the father said: “ Know why we do this? “

I heard no reply from the child.

“ Mommy’s sick and we can’t be here all the time to pray for her so the candles remind Jesus’ Mom to pray for…..”

From the sacristy I blessed the sobbing father and his son and watched them leave.

 As I recall that scene this summer’s evening writing these lines it remains for me a icon of His Will that we live!