Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Preacher Exchanges the Pulpit for the Sidewalk!

He is Father John Collins of the Paulist Fathers.  He is bald, big, hefty, has a huge voice and he is dressed in shorts and sneakers. He is noted throughout the country for his eloquent and moving talks given to packed churches, halls and arenas. But today he holds up a big sign inviting  passersby to share with him  their feelings and insights about  “ spirituality.”  A  spiritually filtered through  the unique dynamic  known as  “ the New York Manner.”  He is insistent that  his greeting is not “religious” as such but colored by a more ambiguous  non –organized religion dimension.   He sees It as a kind of pre-evangelization. While nowhere near the Times Square chap in  “Boards” announcing an imminent Apocalypse,  Fr. John risked the possible nasty wisecrack of the tough streetwise  New Yorker as he asks people to “share”  their spiritual  experience with him.

I was immensely curious to observe not only his unique style in this approach to a hardened crowd but also to observe the reaction of the people  “on  the street.”  He has no protection of his collar or the inbuilt reverence automatically given to Catholic priests by an adoring laity.  We are stationed in front of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Roosevelt Hospital on 10th Avenue and 58th Street in New York City.

I was  startled by his easy technique of greeting every passerby. They were mostly young or youngish; college students, office workers, telephone repair or construction workers, largely darker skinned than I.

Hi and hello there and hi guys were his greetings as he held, over his significant  stomach,  a large sign inviting  them to share THEIR form of spirituality. Sometimes he held the sign high above his head in the manner of some Liturgical procession where Holy Books are held over the heads of clerics. But everyone seemed to be rushing as If there would be some catastrophic consequence should they be late for their appointment!  The famous New York studied resolve never to meet another’s eyes and to pretend to see nothing lest one get involved was obvious!

Some did look, however, in the manner of cows interrupting their grass munching who look vacuously at a passing train but immediately resume their munching. Some were involved in their cell phones and saw  nothing. Others gave the faintest of patronizing smiles and quickly moved away. For the most part it was as If he wasn’t there.  Yet he kept resolutely to his inspiration and greeted this mass of human beings with friendliness and dignity. He had, apparently, some “other” source of support which could sustain these repeated rejections.  He who was used to the sacerdotal red carpet, was  treated  almost like a street hustler selling “hot” tickets to a Giant football game.

I am his assistant today. I offer “handouts” explaining in some detail  Fr. John’s message. I am 94 years old, sit in a walker chair and wear an officer’s cap from the USS  Enterprise. I am a licensed clinical psychologist, an associate professor emeritus from a graduate school in New York so I ask myself whether or not I have gone “bananas” sitting on a walker hawking some brand new kind of Evangelism! People approach me not to share their spiritual experience  sans organized religion but to thank me for my “service.”  I stammer some kind of evasion and offer them John’s brief write-up about what he does.

But  Fr. John is undaunted. He is cheery, unshakable.  Before we begin, he warns  me about the  “no results”  possibility.  So prior to our “work” we pray that our efforts will redound to the glory of God regardless of tangible results. My own inner questioning was immediately dissolved as this simple prayer gave a focus on how to deal with the absurdity of nothingness, the futile practice of spinning wheels. We had already won before we began.

Was our hour and a half on the streets worthwhile? We thought so even though some of our colleagues almost sneered at our efforts. Others likened us to Paul and Barnabas on the streets of Corinth as they (and  we)  faced an enormous challenge. Although I am a dinosaur priest, I leaped at Fr.  John’s invitation for a repeat.  Besides my own Faith and trust in God’s power, I am also half Jewish and suspect that somewhere along the line of my generation  there was a Jewish peddler hustling his pushcart selling his goods. Peddling God on the sidewalks seems like a good idea to me!


Rip Van Winkle and Culture Shock

Rip Van Winkle and Culture Shock         

When I was a New York City super adenoidal sophomore in college in 1941, college men wore ties, clean shirts  (tucked into trousers), jackets, (sometimes with padded shoulders). Crew cuts were the acme of  ‘Class“.  Long hair was considered gauche and sort of dirty. Everyday we “dressed” to go to school as we tried to be “sharp.”. We desperately tried to overcome the slurred and indistinct speech so associated with Hell’s Kitchen or San Juan Hill. We were in the special class called “college men” and we consciously tried to live up to some kind of social expectation. In our own self concept, we were “educated.” Even the non-college guys wore ties and fedoras to go to the Yankee Stadium to watch Gehrig and DiMaggio and Dickey. There was a kind of dress code the breakage of which drew frowns and scowls even from my minimally educated uncle J.J. who was a mechanic in the Sanitation department of the City.

We danced the Lindy, the Bunny Hop and the Shag. We debated the musical virtues of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. We  loved the smooth, velvety sounds coming from the throat of a skinny Italian kid from Hoboken, named Sinatra who wore classy straw hats with a wide ribbon.  A guy from Spokane nicknamed “Der Bingle”  (or Crosby)  was the Gold Standard with the golden voice. Kate Smith was everyone’s favorite when she sang “God Bless America.” To call a person “Communist” was analogous to giving someone the finger in this era or using the N word!

There were unspoken rules of conduct, consensually ingested and generally observed by both genders.  The girls wore saddle shoes, swirl skirts  and short curled hair. They rarely smoked and were anxious to  have a “good” reputation. A good date was going to the Parish dance and having a Cherry Coke at the local hangout. That was it!  A baby born outside of  marriage was called  “illegitimate” and social disapproval was enormous. Divorce was something one spoke of in whispered tones. Same sex behavior was so verboten it was hardly noted except in medical journals.

If by some strange potion I should have been put under a kind of Rip Van Winkle trance in 1941, and just woke up in 2015, it would be a cataclysmic shock to see what I am seeing today!. How would I or how could I handle it?

The shock one would get from the miracle of technology would alone be enough to destabilize one! Calculators, computers, cell phones, push button dialing, ipads,
washer/dryers, television sets, four wheel drive cars,  the unending list of scientific
marvels,  all would look like a kind of science fiction from the cartoon astronaut
Buck Rogers of the 25th century or Dick Tracy, the cartoon detective who had a two way  radio watch to catch the bad guys. I would be awestruck, speechless but enthused and fascinated,

However, the gross materialism, the “throwaway” mentality,  the utter absolutism in the need  to possess the latest  would be more unsettling  ---to put it mildly. I would have been deeply scarred by the terrifying years of an economic depression where we had no security but lived with the ever brooding specter of eviction from our cramped, little apartment. While we always had sufficient food, it was never gourmet. We were taught to be thrifty. Our clothing likewise was adequate but plain and far from plentiful. We were amazingly happy (even in pervasive  insecurity) with a meager wardrobe, one radio shared by the whole family and, of course, no automobile. To own one was possible only in one’s fantasy. We were thrown emotionally together, talked much to each other and laughed at little things.

During  the Great Depression, I saw my father’s hair go white, almost overnight. His days were suffused with worry in caring for his little family of four. He took it all as his  responsibility. Not the government’s. Not family members. Not the Church. The current notion of entitlement  would have been Greek or Sanskrit to him.   He insisted that we work for what we get. With his uneven income as an  actor we understood that sometimes we simply “did without.”  To eke out survival was a truism we easily grasped. To suggest today that one might do without non-essentials would be met by a vacuous stare of incomprehension or an angry retort about “my civil rights.”

The options, in the old days, for a college education were meager.  Apart from winning  a scholarship  and working  a night job while going to school, one’s  ambitions were focused on  the generally secure “city job”  where one was fairly assured of that priceless commodity,
“security”.  To be a cop or firemen or mailman was the gateway to the American dream.

To see every  teenager take for granted that he will have four enjoyable years as an undergraduate with someone else paying the bills or with easily  accessible government loans   to be paid off in some distant future would strike the 1941 citizen as irresponsible if not daydreaming.

But beyond the economic, the basic value system prevalent today would probably be the most  unsettling of all. Religious, spiritual, social, family values, in contrast to1941, seem either essentially scuttled or abandoned altogether. And the abandonment is passionately justified, often with furious self-righteousness and almost vicious tirades against any disagreement.  As a general impression (with ample space for the truly impressive grown up current modern), the modern I meet so often claims he is more adult, more accepting, more authentic, more  tolerant than any previous generation including the “Greatest Generation.” He easily disparages those who disagree with him as racist, homophobe , bigoted, ignorant or hypocrite.  His impressions seem more based on his deep feeling level (what he calls his empathy) than on adult delayed gratification. A true Catholic values compassion but believes  that compassion does not mean endorsement!  Compassion without truth can be mush.

Yet, he seems more restless, more harried, more worried and using an old but descriptive term, more neurotic.  His mental health index shows heavy uses of tranquillizer medication, prolonged services of mental health professionals, more suicides, more breakups of marital and non–marital relationships. He seems to me to be very angry.

But about what? My own “gut“ sense is  that he, too, is looking  for and needs some form of basic “security.”  The widespread notion that anything goes and that there is no right or wrong  except being uninvolved in eco-environment issues and caring for the seal population in  Alaska, can be unconsciously unsettling.

When a white woman decides, in spite of the hard empirical science, that she is really black, when a 56 year old male decides that  despite his XY chromosomal formation, his big feet and an Adam’s apple,  that  he is really female, when two men announce their “marriage” with neither one supplying the female requisites for procreation, when living babies are aborted with the nonchalance of taking an aspirin, even with baby body parts being sold as an “honorable” business, the thinking  (to one out of 1941) is, at the very least, borderline psychotic. That is to say the classic definition of “psychotic” is to have a break with reality.  The current facts don’t match the fantasy. The lame attempts to justify such thinking with maudlin and sticky sentimentality are thunder striking in their fragility.

The blindness to reality would seem to leave one with the notion that one’s thinking decides what is real.  There is no bedrock “security”.  There is only trial and error with a huge swath of luck and blind hope. There is no reality “out there”.  And the result may very well be an anger at being left in a morass of cosmic mush.  The “mush”, the ambiguity, is all over the modern scene, even with religious persons.  A  very  “with it” nun I know  went to a pub, dressed in slacks and sweater, met a young chap at the bar  and after a  few pops he made the usual pass. Sister indignantly informed him of her exalted status and rendered the poor dude with mouth agape. But how would he know? In 1941 such an event would have been intrinsically impossible. Self concepts indicated that such behavior collided with the conscious self definition one clearly possessed. Is there no normal criterion of  “correct” behavior? Or, in  fact, is it that anything goes if one desires “it”?   
In 1941 Catholic priests were required  to wear clerical attire in all circumstances with possible exceptions of the shower and the beach. It was de rigeur, at the very least,  to carry  a hat, usually black, except perhaps in scorching weather when one might sport what was  called a “Panama”, or light  colored straw. To see a priest today dressed in clericals is a rare event. And if he wears or carries a hat he must be an actor in some re-make of  “Going My Way.”

Priests were called “Father” with undercurrent mutual understanding that the priest lived  “for” his parishioners as a spiritual parent. There was an automatic respect and regard for any priest.  Today the priesthood is generally regarded as a disgraced, questionable, child molesting, marginalized group. Churches were overflowing with believers in 1941 with souls the “modern” scorn- fully labels as infantile while he, the enlightened, announces  that  while he is a Catholic, he doesn’t believe in many medieval practices as unfitting for his superior attainment.  He blithely ignores clear teaching of his church  and supports manners, mores, practices and customs which are antithetically opposed to the Faith. These differences of these eras under study are blatant.

But some Catholic leaders are equally perplexing.  Even on the Cardinal level, we find instances where leaders seriously advocate and lobby to allow people in the state of public objective sin to receive the Eucharist in spite of the centuries tradition of “state of grace” requirement. Apparently, they do not care for or are unaware of the consequent pain for the simple devout Catholic who doesn’t read the sophisticated musings of professional  theologians.

There are, of course, many good adult developments such as the obliteration of the disgraceful racial discriminations of the past and the unjust  treatment of homosexual people. The sin of anti-Semitism has been surfaced and confronted on all levels of Catholicism even though bigots seep through the cracks everywhere.

On  the whole, however, the eyes of 1941 would never recognize the “life” of the modern progressive Catholic. Or the state of the modern Church. Modernity can please the elite but it often leaves the mass of the Catholic body perplexed and insecure. Their favorite and sustaining devotions are either obliterated or marginalized. Rarely are the laity urged to “visit” the Blessed Sacrament  ( or even so to refer to the Eucharist reserved in the Tabernacle).  The stations of  the Cross for most of the Liturgical year are ignored except for Lent and  weekly Church dusting.

Yet,  there seems be deep Faith underlying the spiritual life of the  2015 Catholic who remains true to the Faith of the Fathers in spite of the modern gooey style of leadership, priest infidelities, secularism, ridicule from a progressive media, empty Churches, relatively few vocations. The belief that Jesus will be with this Church until the end of time seems in good health.

So, half a loaf is better than none.  In general, Rip Van Winkle prefers it as it is now. The technology, communication, transportation facilities make life a pleasure. The available money and luxuries are hard to ignore.  He can still worship God as he pleases with his Rosary and visits to the Blessed Sacrament and his saints and devotions.

In spite of the obvious almost antithetical differences of the two eras, human nature remains the same. Natura non fallitur!  What is wrong with expressing one’s opinion even if one is in a  tiny minority?  Ah, yes!  We must not forget the great American privilege----the right to espouse unpopular causes. It is great fun to do that and still say:  “I am proud to be American  and Catholic.”

Welcome, Rip Van Winkle,  to 2015.

The Story that has no Story

The Story that has no Story

A famous Catholic preacher takes to the streets of New York and booms out as uninterested   crowds rush past him to get to school, the local hospital or merely to rent bicycles. “Do you have a story of your heart you want to share?”  he shouts as person after person completely ignores him.  Far from the great adoring numbers who heard him preach with sophistication and grace, they, in the New York manner of studied aloofness and non-involvement, pass by him who is dressed in shorts and sneakers, as If he were not there.

A few break out of the mold and say—somewhat sadly – I don’t have a story. Or they shrug their shoulders and smile wanly —almost apologetically for their life emptiness. A very few stop for amazingly beautiful descriptions of personal generosity and human compassion . One journalist stops to arrange for us to do a brief  taping for a local cable station. But the huge majority seem untouched by the potential of spiritual meaning. Harried. Tense. Unsure. Sad. Seeking the elusive carrot at the end of the stick.  So they seem to a casual observer like me, a 94 year old psychologist and priest. I am his assistant.  I sit on my walker and observe what I suspect is the prompting of the Holy Spirit of God.

Does that  response “ I don’t have a story “  reflect a profound sadness and alienation?  Do some people feel detached?  Rootless?  Empty? Are they hesitant truly to reach out to others for friendship and love?  Hesitantly, perhaps, because they feel no one could love them!
Do people hide even from themselves the suspicion that they are not really lovable and that others are faking at loving them?  Is there a loneliness in the modern psyche? Is this an example of the famous description of anomie …”lives of quiet desperation”?

It is probably the action of the Holy Spirit of God which inspired Fr John to begin what looks on the surface as a weird apostolate . I suspect that Saints unapologetically become involved in the bizarre and the apparently impractical because of their dream,  what they see and hear  from the Lord. They have empty pocket and impossible dreams but they do wonders.  The young Francis of Assisi  in giving up a classy life style to exchange his silks for burlap bags must have seemed odd and even nutty to his contemporaries.  Mother Teresa would clearly fit the  term “loopy” when she gives her life to the filthy, despairing, poorest of the poor in a land culturally at odds with her upbringing. Consider the exhibitionist Don Bosco with his adolescent card tricks  trying to rehab wild teenagers whom so many  professionals abandoned as lost souls. The smart ones made jokes about him in their insights that he was wasting his time.

Perhaps, the holy pursuit of God does make “saints” a little  crazy–depending on one’s value system and culture. To the secular  “hot shot” this is obvious.   ”You live in fantasy” they say as they turn away to their martinis and escapist living. Yet a large number of Americans seem to hunger for a “spirituality” freed from the boundaries of organized religion. They are not sure what this really means or how to find this gift which they sense is somehow there --- somewhere “out there”.

People like Fr. John take great emotional risks in reaching out but in the manner of the saints of our tradition, he takes rejection and sneers as part of the“ Sidewalk” pre-evangelization. As I listened and watched his efforts, I thought of Jesus reminding us of the ever applicable metaphor that the smallest of seeds like the mustard seed can grow to become  a great meaningful sign of God’s presence in the world.

But, also, as I sat, watched and peddled flyers meant to nudge empty human beings—just a little bit—toward the Lord, I thought of myself !  Am I completely senile at 94 in doing this?

I have a PhD in psychology from a prestigious university, I have chaired a graduate school for 20 years, I have been the confessor for bishops and cardinals, I have traveled the world, I have even eaten at the Four Seasons yet here I am like a young immigrant  from Ghana who hustles flyers for renting bicycles at Columbus Circle……

I have been on the sidewalk  three times with Fr John, loved it, believed in it, and can’t wait to do it again.  Nutty or saintly, I plan repetitions.   And as young Martin Luther said (he who could have written a best seller “I was a Teenage Catholic”) "For good or for ill, here is where I stand."
Truth to tell, just between us, my hope is that I am or will be one of those crazy saints !