Sunday, August 20, 2006

Eating in Restaurants and Finding God!

I am a Spiritual Materialist! Oxymoronic?
Eating in Restaurants and Finding God!

Since I was a mere stripling of fifteen or so, I have been delighted with Hilaire[1] Belloc’s little ditty: Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine/ there’s dancing and laughter and good red wine/ at least I have always found it so/ Benedicamus Domino/. My delight stems, I think, from my deep seated Catholic sense of the essential goodness of the material and its intended synthesis with the spiritual. I believe that both matter and spirit are basically good. My Scriptural background does clearly indicate that God looked upon what He had done and said “It is very good.” (Gen.1, 31). This certainly includes “matter”, that which we call the material.

Catholics believe that evil often surfaces, not from the material itself, but from the misuse and misdirection of “things” thus differing from the plan of the Creator. The dour, grim, unsmiling deviation which one sometimes finds in neurotic Catholics (and certainly in those other religions which doggedly chase witches, drunks and gamblers who smoke) is hardly within our real tradition. It is not alcohol, betting, sex or food, per se, which are intrinsically evil. It is the way we use them which causes departure from the Lord. Drunkenness, gluttony, avarice, lust, covetousness are all offenses before God, caused not by things but by the perverse will of the human being. However and obviously, there is a profound tendency in all of us to misuse the gifts of the earth.

In theological circles this tendency is called “Original sin.” An adult spiritual life, seeking healthy balance, contains and controls such a tendency. The Blessed Apostle Paul recommends a little wine for the sake of the stomach. We teach that Sexual love between a husband and wife is holy and righteously to be enjoyed.. This is Incarnational Theology or the role of the physical in the Great Plan of God. Limited betting at the Racetrack, if it does no injustice to others, can be a legitimate form of recreation and appropriate enjoyment. Eating while essential for the survival of the human being, can be a source of exquisite pleasure, enjoyment and, I argue, holiness.

With such a Catholic/Belloc conscience and a healthy stomach, I enjoy and relish ( I hope appropriately), eating, especially at eventide, in Restaurants of almost any stripe: Italian, Spanish, French, American, Portuguese, Chinese, Irish, Turkish, Moroccan, Mexican and others. Eating in restaurants for me usually is a fulfilling and delightful experience. To be with good friends whose conversation and company I enjoy while savoring fresh, well prepared food in a charming spot---pampered by waiters, preferably with European accents and manners----this suffuses me with a warm and expansive gratitude. Gratitude to Whom? That’s easy. To the Lord God Himself. Such eating brings me closer to God rather than the opposite.

When I am enjoying a pungent dish of escargots with good friends, I can easily overlook what otherwise might be a source of annoyance (or even uncharity) for me. The guys who eat with their baseball caps on or the screaming babies whose parents seem unconcerned, or the loudmouth who spouts ignorant slurs on my Church, are all “ignorable” in the flush of my God-given enjoyment. I think this applies even to the Hot Shot who wears his cap backwards with the peak scratching the nape of his neck! When a glass of red wine courses through my veins, when my friends and I publicly ask God’s blessing on our fun and companionship, when I eat good food, when I feel the excitement of open and spirited conversation, my being is drawn to the loving Father, Who is God, for providing such bounty to my life. Recently, at a charming Italian restaurant in New York’s Theatre district, I had a wonderful dinner with a Catholic family. We laughed and shouted and reached Cloud 9. We kidded with the waiters. We drank wine. We ate heartily. We all held hands in a circle and acknowledged Our Lord and Master to the surprise and, I suspect, the envy, of other diners. This was Community and the fusion of the spiritual and the material at its best! This was also the Catholicism of which Belloc writes.

It was the heretical Manicheans who saw Matter as intrinsically evil, not authentic Catholics. But how many good and intelligent persons have been seduced by this and similar errors! It was so with the great St. Augustine and the brilliant Rene Descartes with his Cartesian “split” between the spiritual and the material!! Both were misled to such a philosophic false extreme.

The Catholic Church has always, as a Church, respected the material. There are innumerable blessings of the “physical”. Note the blessings for crops, animals, automobiles, marriage beds, airplanes, corpses, and all appropriate[2] material things. We have the blessing “Ad Omnia”—for Everything. I consider the great Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady to be a triumphant validation of the “material.” So holy was her body that it was not allowed by the Father to decompose. In fact, it is a Catholic belief that all dead bodies will rise again on the last day. How is that for esteeming the physical dimension of us!

The Catholic Church promotes the beautiful with unbelievably gorgeous Churches and Cathedrals, with music that lifts the soul, with paintings and sculpture, with poetry, and with liturgy which features incense, color and choreographed movement. All of it uses the physical, the material. While there have been the extremists certainly in other religions who despise matter and who lust to destroy religious art, we have had some misled Catholics who have ranted also in Christ’s own Church. We have this periodic rise of Catholic extremists who shout for “getting back to basics” while grimly missing the warmth and richness of Belloc’s Catholicism.

I remember an analogous reference to extremism by William Langland in his work Piers Plowman when he wrote of certain Jansenist nuns who “….are pure as angels but proud as devils…” Clearly, imbalance is always a danger in the spiritual and emotional life. Chastity is a jewel for loving God and, at the same time, highly congenial, not antithetical, to appropriate enjoyment in life.

I recall the wonderful book, “Keys of the Kingdom” by the Scottish physician author, A.J.Cronin. The central character, Fr. Andrew Chisolm, enthuses with his little nephew about the beautiful bounty of God in filling the lake with so many fishes for people to enjoy eating. It does appear that regardless of extreme vegetarian stances, it is the Will of the Great God that we should be delighted with Dover Sole, Red Snapper and Irish Salmon. Who would dare dispute with Jesus Who, as God, cooked fish for his followers obviously encouraging others to do likewise?

I certainly won’t but I fully intend to enthuse about my Lord. I will sing His praises and thank Him now and hopefully for all eternity. I will continue to link my pollo scarparliello with my Faith while I trumpet the Catholic insight about Matter. Viva Belloc and his notion of “wherever the Catholic sun doth shine.”

[1] Sometimes he called himself “Hillary” after a great saint. I prefer for esthetic reasons to use Hilaire since the other resonates an unpleasant note relative to a political figure.
[2] I note that in the First World War the Pope refused to bless armaments which are clearly meant to destroy.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Who Are These Christian Brothers?

I was a fourteen years old graduate of the Paulist Gammar School where I was protected and taught by the loving and maternal Holy Cross Sisters. Soon, I was to be thrown into the care of some mysterious, tall, black robed men known as the Irish Christian Brothers.[1] It was rumored that each one of them had a brown strap hidden in his Robes which he would whip out at the slightest provocation. Teen aged boys allegedly trembled in fear at the very sight of this tool of control! Horror stories of beatings and strange goings on swept our neighborhood. . I was in a near panic.

My good Jewish father had wanted me to go to nearby Commerce High school where I would learn business basics for “making it” in this tough world. Besides, it was free. No tuition. No fees. All the freebies one would need. And, on the other hand, the Brothers at this fancy sounding school, Power Memorial Academy, would charge ten dollars a month! And they taught “useless” stuff like English Literature, French, Latin and Religion!

However, my simple Irish Catholic mother, though usually acquiescing to my father’s wishes, stamped and stomped her way to my enrolling at a Catholic High school. With marvelous trust in the Almighty, she knew that although we had no money, somehow the Lord would figure out a way of digging up that enormous sum each month! And, of course, the Lord came through in the person of a gentle Paulist Father, Fr. Paul Ward, who paid my tuition for the four years, enabling me to have one of the most satisfying, productive educational experiences of my life.

The school was located in Harlem, on 124th street right off Lenox Avenue. Power Memorial Academy was actually three or four crummy looking, old brownstone houses. And into them were crammed several hundred boys, a cramped “lunchroom” in the basement, a tiny chapel on the second floor, “classrooms” where walls had been broken down to accommodate the young scholars, a back yard passing as recreation space adorned with primitive basketball hoops and, of course, quarters for the Brothers.[2] It was not Phillips Exeter or Fordham Prep but we all loved it.

These men had unbelievable dedication to the kids. They were superb educators. They were strong masculine role models and exemplars of Faith. They did demand excellence in scholarship which resulted in an impressive record of college scholarships and generally a sense of “how to study” for the students. The stories of beatings were largely mythical, the kind of exaggeration one might hear sitting before the fireplace on a winter’s night. If the strap was used at all, it was largely symbolic, amounting to no more than a slight sting on the hand. It never destroyed the psyche as is claimed by the contemporary bleeding hearts of Public schools. On the contrary, most of the boys who got so disciplined knew they deserved it and understood its meaning. It was not only justice but love. It helped us mature and become truly masculine. One need only check the reactions of Power alumni over the years to realize how strong was the bond between the Brothers and students.

I needed 10 cents each day for the subway in addition to my homemade sandwich which I always found in my satchel through the “courtesy” of my mother (or grandmother when Mom was away on a job). Here I learned the practical meaning of “God will provide” or, as the Brothers taught me, Deus Providebit. I never worried about the daily dime or the sandwich. I knew they would be there. It left me free to enjoy the thrill of learning about Caesar and Vercingetorix, the dynamics of the quadratic equation, the fluid sound of “Bon jour, mes enfants”[3], the fun of Shakespeare and the endless excitement of the opened mind. It also pervasively taught me, almost like an osmosis, what it means to be a Catholic.

Where in God’s Providence did these guys come from? How did they wind up in the Inner City teaching dirty necks like me the basics of reading, writing and computing? What made them tick?

It started in Co. Waterford, Ireland with a layman named Edmund Rice (1762-1844), a prosperous businessman whose wife had died leaving him with a seriously ill daughter. It was a time when his land had been oppressed by foreign powers leaving the Irish impoverished and generally uneducated. This man who had a lively devotion to the Mother of God, the Blessed Mother, decided to spend some time teaching the many urchins floundering aimlessly around Waterford, giving them some skills in making a living. He did teach them basic computation and reading but it was always against the background of the Catholic Faith. Edmund who has been declared Blessed by the Catholic Church believed in the eternal destiny of all while at the same time being apparently a hard headed Merchant who knew how to turn pig’s ear into a silk purse. He was a Believer who like all saints will have empty pockets and “impossible” dreams but will dare to challenge the “Common Sense” of the world.

His charisma, wonderful to most, insane to others, drew scores of good hearted men who eventually developed into that Congregation then called Irish Christian Brothers and now the Congregation of Christian Brothers. No longer just Irish[4] but Indian, African, Australian, American, Hispanic and even English names dot the International Roster of the Congregation.

But it is always the spirit and vision of Rice which dominates the Monks. Although they number noted scholars in their ranks, they all commit to caring for the young. Recently, I had dinner with an old friend who, as a teenager, was totally disoriented relative to his future. By some strange twist of God’s plan, “Ray” entered Power Memorial and indeed was truly saved. A young Br. “Boney” Power took him over, directed him personally and educationally, to a career in the Board of Education of New York City where he became an able and successful leader. Now in retirement he openly (and often) states that his life was saved by Br. Power. Once a confused agnostic, he is today a practicing and proud Catholic. This is the plan of Edmund Rice and one which has been realized thousands of times around the world since those difficult early days in Waterford.

In my years in South Africa, my initial impression of these Monks was re-enforced and highlighted endless times. They ran the prototypic high level Secondary school in Kimberly, the number one school in the country. The Headmaster, Br. McManus was called “Mr. Education” nationwide. He was consulted by Government Ministers as the ultimate source of “What to do” in this field. I gave an annual retreat to them at Kimberly, went on vacation with them, played tennis with them and shared their lives as much as a non-Monk could. But it was always the same. Dedication. Faith. Commitment to the young. Continual Study. True fraternity. Edmund Rice was written all over them.

I met them in Fiji where they ran a top level school in the Inner city for the indigenous children. They greeted me with warmth and hospitality, even introducing me to the bitter local brew as the natives clapped their hands in delight. I met them in Hawaii where they run a top school for American kids of that area. I was welcomed as their “Brother” and shared their food and shelter. Edmund Rice, who probably never left Ireland physically, was spiritually right there smiling and encouraging them. I met them in Sydney, Australia, where they invited me to share my thoughts at their National Education Convention. Edmund. Edmund. Edmund. He was always there also—urging, challenging, even demanding his spiritual sons to carry on the Message of Jesus.

In my own years at the “Academy” I was obviously drawn myself to become “Brother” Lloyd so attractive and symbiotic to me was their life It was all I ever yearned for—with one monumental exception! I had a huge and undeniable need to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Why couldn’t I be a Brother and priest at the same time?[5] I understand very well that the Vocation to be a Brother is a special and separate call. When Br. John Mark Egan, the superb Christian psychologist was asked why he didn’t become a priest and go “all the way”, he correctly and profoundly replied: “Then I couldn’t be a Brother…” In the mysterious and beautiful makeup of the Mystical Body of Jesus, there are different and equal “calls” as the Blessed Apostle Paul tells us.

Perhaps, one of the three greatest human beings of my life was Br. A.A. Loftus (called “Austie” by the insiders). No one so deeply influenced me on multiple levels. He is the one who invited me to “come along with us” i.e. join the Monks. Like so many others, I wanted to be like him. He was an incredible scholar who taught me Virgil’s Aeneas, Solid Geometry[6], Trig, American History, Catholic theology, Cicero’s orations on Cataline, the Odes and Epodes of Horace.. All on superior levels of teaching. He was a top flight athletic coach winning in successive years the City championships in both basketball and baseball. He was extremely devout in his Faith, deeply Catholic, loyal to the Magisterium. Yet, as with many intellectuals, he relaxed with detective stories and Yankee ball games in the stadium.

If he was displeased with us, we were exceedingly uncomfortable. His approval was essential. When as an insufferable Big Shot senior of 17, I was “goofing off” (slacking in my studies) he ordered me to school on a Saturday intending to whack me over the bottom. As I bent over the desk, with my knees quivering, his basic sensitivity took over and he relented with a verbal reprimand. I had been on the verge of leaving school in mid-year, possibly for a dead-end and mediocre life. Austie set me straight for what I consider my own “great ride”.

Austie, the Ph.D. par excellence, became the Professor of philosophy at Iona College, later President of the College, later Provincial of the Brothers of North America and finally, the top dog, the Superior General of the world wide Congregation. After his retirement, I met him at Power; in fact in the Brothers chapel where he sat mystically gazing at his Eucharistic Lord in the Tabernacle. I had been deeply impressed, as a teenager, at his bouncing into the little Chapel at Power before class, oodles of books under his arm, with a quick genuflection asking the Master’s guidance on his day. I asked him if he was planning to return to Iona to teach philosophy. He laughingly replied that he was going to a high school because “that is where all the fun is.” It was in a high school chapel that he was stricken and quickly was taken to his Lord and Master.

I have been invited several times to preach the Annual Retreat to the Monks at Power, Iona and elsewhere, It has been a strange feeling for me to see the wise, holy, wonderful Monks sitting before me listening with incredible humility to my words on the Spiritual Life. There was Br. Tom Perry at ninety with his hand cupped to his ear least he miss any of my spiritual gems (?). It was he who taught me French, English composition and basic theology! There was the genial, scholarly Br. Blondie Vaughan who taught me about the angles and triangles of Plane Geometry. There were Provincials and scholars and skilled professors listening with some pride to one of “their boys.”

For ten years in my own retirement, I was privileged to say Mass for these Brothers as they became old and infirm. In a beautiful facility run by the Brothers themselves, the grand old men who gave so much of their love, talent and Faith for others wait patiently for their call to the Lord. Even with age and illness burdening them, they almost automatically radiate Edmund’s spirit. They are for others. They always welcomed me, their brother who was a priest as one of their own, making me feel at home with them. Sometimes, they made me laugh as did the Alzheimeric Brother who ran up to me one morning to announce that he was getting married the next day. I kiddingly asked if his bride was good looking and he replied with a satisfied and beaming “absolutely.” Others I comforted and encouraged as they worried about their very few inadequacies prior to meeting God. I was so grateful to minister to my dear friend, Br. Alexander Thomas as he lay dying in the Hawthorne hospice. He with whom I had so much fun competing in Bridge games and who in his own way taught me so many of the delights that God provides--- the cigar, the goblet with Grand Marnier, the French jokes------

So many wonderful memories I have of these good men, these sons of Edmund, these champions of and believers in young people. Who are these Christian Brothers? How much time does one have to listen…. “Arma virumque cano…..”I sing of religious men and their battle against ignorance, bigotry, coldness and that which is not of God.
It has been my pleasure and privilege along with literally thousands of others to say:
“I know them and they know me.” May God be praised.

[1] The title IRISH Christian Brothers was subsequently changed to Congregation of Christian Brothers as a more accurate reflection of the ethnic makeup of the more recent vocations to the Community. CFC is the present official “sign” after each Brother’s name.
[2] When one got on the “inside” one learned that they were called “Monks”
[3] Br. Tom Perry entered the classroom each morning thusly greeting us in French. with a pronounced Irish accent
[4] Indeed Ireland no longer supplies recruits as of the old days. Irish Vocations are almost non existent. It is India, New Guinea, Africa and what was known as the Mission area which keeps the Congregation alive. The present Brother “General” or Leader is from India.
[5] In fact, years later, as the Director of Pastoral Counseling at Iona College, I became the first priest to become an associate Brother, entitling me to add CFC to my name.
[6] He demanded in his scholarship class that everyone who took the Regents exam in Solid Geom., get 100% on the exam. This was “passing” to him. I who could hardly add, under his leadership, aced the exam with 100%. His secret was check and check and check your work. Repetition was his answer.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

The Mysterious and Inexplicable “Pull” of Jewishness

Although only “half” of my being is Jewish since I had a Russian-Jewish father and an Irish mother, I have felt throughout my life a pull or draw (which I can’t explain) to the warmth, energy, laughter and loyalty to whatever we mean by “Jewish.” This tendency is all the more amazing to me since I am a Catholic priest, totally devoted to my Faith, delighted with the joys of Catholic spirituality and convinced that Catholicism is the fullness of Religion as revealed by God, bar none.

Yet, I have a Mezuzah on the door post to my office which I touch reverently as I begin my day of counseling God’s suffering children. I have two yarmulkes which I use at appropriate times. I love Jewish humor and I love to “hang out” with Jewish friends. I bristle and suffer when someone makes an anti-Semitic remark, particularly when the “bigot” has no idea of my Jewish side since, as they tell me, “You look so Irish.”

A snide remark about the Jews is an attack not only on the Jews but particularly on my father and on me! Never mind that such bigotry is insulting to my Jewish Lord, Jesus, and His holy Jewish Mother and all my Biblical heroes, the Big Fisherman, sweaty Peter and the bald headed, bandy legged enthusiastic Paul and John and Mary Magdalene as well as later pals, like Edith Stein, among so many others . It is, also, insulting to my Catholicism which declares such behavior to be overtly sinful. Certainly, my own instant rising to the challenge is not only my conscious Catholicism but also, I suppose, the unconscious awareness that had I been in Dachau in l938, I, too, could have ended up in the oven. Irish looking or not. Devout Catholic or not. I definitely have Jewish blood. I must wear the Star on my sleeve and declare myself as Juden.

As a kid, during the devastating economic depression, my father, mother, sister and I worked Jewish Hotels in the Jewish Alps (the Catskills) as the “Social staff.” We could get no other form of income. The Jews provided one. We sang, danced, did skits, juggled, and ran Bingo games for the old Jewish gals. We ate Kosher food in which case I would scandalize the good simple Jewish waiter (Emil, with the heavy Central European accent) when I insisted on having a glass of milk with meat. I have never forgotten the warmth and cordiality and these Jewish good times from my adolescent years.

Yet, the attraction can hardly be environmental when I recall that I was forbidden to meet my Jewish grandparents because I was a clearly defined Christian (even an altar boy).[1] I had little Jewish contact apart from the summer jobs. My name had been changed from Rosenbloom (my birth name) to Lloyd. I was brought up in a totally Christian, non-Jewish world. I was identified de facto as Gentile, not Jewish. How come this almost mystical feeling in me?

I even recall one of my Christian relatives, a good, simple, uneducated man, utterly without thinking, would shout “Ya Jew Bastard” at any one who would cut him off. The offending motorist could be black, yellow or brown, Catholic, atheist or animist. Somehow he had co-mingled an unarticulated anti-Semitism with low tolerance for conflict into this automatic epithet. Of course, he had easy access to similar putdowns for blacks, Poles, Italians and Puerto Ricans. If he had had any other ethnic makeup than his own, I am sure he would easily have been able to classify the Irish as Donkeys and Micks.

I, as a psychologist, am very much aware of identity formulation. Even my good friend and colleague, Dr. Arnie Zucker, who is very Jewish[2] and a psychiatrist, frequently sings into the ears of his twin grandchildren to solidify their Jewish identity. Believing that behavioral data, even at this early age, will be recorded deep in their young psyches, he sings them little ditties like: “Aren’t you glad that you are a little Jewish boy? Aren’t you glad you were not born a goy?” While some observers believe that the term “goy” is itself an ethnic putdown, nevertheless the process of identity is taking place.

I have probed my own identity formation and asked why do I feel so protective of things Jewish? Whence this kind of pride I feel in Jewish history? I personally revel in the knowledge that such a small percentage of the human race has made such incredible contributions to the world. While I cannot equate everything which is Jewish with the state of Israel, I am amazed how such a tiny country, outnumbered and besieged by hostile neighbors, has been able to give to the world so much of what makes life joyous and livable. I see the startling non-correlation between a small world Jewish population and their disproportionate representation in various fields. Out of a relatively tiny ethnic population comes a large percentage of Jews in professional fields like medicine, law, the arts, education, and certainly business.

How often I have heard the off-hand remark: “Go get yourself a good Jewish lawyer” meaning, I suppose that this would ensure a more pleasing outcome than if one hired a non-Jewish attorney. The compassionate human concern of the Jewish physician is legendary. The dominance of Jewish comedians has been obvious especially to me with my show biz background. How often have I enjoyed belly laughs with Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Alan King, Henny Youngman, Uncle Miltie Berle, Don Rickles, Jackie Mason and on and on and on. Even within the world of sports, I enjoyed in my early youth the antics of Jewish boxers like Maxie Baer, Benny Leonard, and Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. I remember the great Hank Greenberg with the Detroit Tigers and the All-American running back, Marshall Goldberg, at the University of Pittsburgh. In effect, I am very aware that positive Jewish influence is very widespread, certainly in the history of the United States.

I find myself rooting for Israel and praying for her safety and success. I am nauseated by remarks such as the one made by the President of a European country that Israel is an insignificant “sh---y little country”. My reactions are as if I were fully Jewish and an Israeli. Why is this?

Some years ago when I was hosting a television interview show for WNBC in New York, my guest was Fr. Dr. John Oesterricher, the Founder and Director of the Institute for Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University. My concern and interest was to explore the identity of the Jew. He, a convert to Catholicism with a Germanic background, in response to my question “What is a Jew?”, spoke of “people.” He dismissed notions of race, nationality, religion and the like. We are a people, he said. He was a devoted and convinced Catholic priest but he was a Jew and always would be. To him the notion of people hood transcends other specifics. He did not believe that Judaism and Jewish-ness are co-terminous. Nor do I.

Yet, is there some kind of “spiritual” gene? Is there something in the spirit of people which is passed on to descendants? I , with wide eyed amazement, read Cahill’s carefully written “The Contribution of the Jews”. Clearly, God has chosen Jews to be His own people. I, as a Catholic, believe I incorporate the basic and, perhaps, inchoate Will of God as found in Biblical History. I understand and admire the deep loyalty to family and community which Jews have for their own People. Franz Werfel, Jewish, author and admirer of Catholicism described in his “Between Heaven and Earth” why he could not become a Catholic as much as he was so inclined. To leave his people in their hour of need and join the “other side” would be, in a sense, a betrayal. The “pull” for the People of God is enormously strong. I know it. I feel it. I am the anomaly. I am fiercely Catholic and consciously Jewish. And I like it even if I can’t really explain it.

[1] A situation which has been a source of deprivation and even resentment for me. I was never forbidden by my mother’s family, only my father’s. This can be explained by the experiences of my Jewish grandparents in Russia/Poland relative to the brutal pogroms.
[2] He sings as a Cantor in his own synagogue and is deeply involved in its activities. He sees his work at Iona and his friendship with me, at least partially, as a witness and spokesman for the Jewish world.