Thursday, September 26, 2013

I've always wanted to make a retreat down to Cape May. Or just visit Cape May. In season or out. But since that ain't gonna happen, I decided on the next best thing: a series at Stella Maris in Elberon. Actually, I've always wanted to make a retreat at Stella Maris. So, in a way, I'm killing two birds with one stone.

Except this series isn't exactly a retreat. Retreat weekends at Stella Maris start around $350, and go up from there. And there's a waiting list. No, this series costs significantly less and comes with a textbook ... and breakfast! Delicious breakfast. It's nine Thursday mornings for a couple of hours between today and right before Thanksgiving. Yeah, I know! That's quite a commitment. But at least I get to see the ocean each time I'm there.

I found out about this series in the newspaper.

That sums it up. A watered down Spiritual Exercises. The textbook is from Loyola Press but I haven't begun to read it yet. The first session, we got acquainted. The group is an existing one with some members coming on Thursday morning for the past five years. There is one other new person like myself but she is with friends. It doesn't matter: I really am there for me. And God. Me and God.

Our only prayer experience that first session was a meditation on Ps. 139:13,
You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.
When I got by myself, after looking at the ocean for a long time and taking in the destruction along their shoreline that persists, I recalled vaguely hearing that exact verse earlier in the week. And I was with my son when I heard it. So it wasn't at daily mass. Then I remembered - and this may give you a sense of the week I had that I had so much trouble placing my recollection - my son read that verse in his religious education class on Tuesday evening. He's in sixth grade and they are studying the Bible and the first class consisted of students reading verses from the Bible. And Timmy read Ps. 139:13. It's so neat to hear your own child read about his mother's womb, you know? With all due respect to the religious present. And I got the sense that God needs my cooperation to do anything. Or at least my availability.

So that was my word for the day. Besides the refreshing sound of the ocean and the delightful drive through the mansions of Deal, NJ. Deal (and to some extent, Long Branch) is so different from, say, Point Pleasant and Belmar. In the latter towns, small homes are crammed seven deep between Ocean Ave. and the ocean. But in Deal, shore houses sit on large parcels of land. It's much more open and calming.

Today is the end of Sukkoth and I saw many people walking through the neighborhood, greeting each other. Such a happy time even if these are not the Orthodox of Lakewood.

In the end, I had to leave on time because my older boys had an early dismissal from school. But it seemed that many of the women were going to hang out for a while. Maybe next time.

I already know of two Thursdays I'll miss. There's the Teachers' Convention in early November - they aren't missing it again, I can tell you - and my daughter's class trip to Jenkinson's Aquarium. I'm not missing that. And I'm skipping Community Bible Study meetings until after Thanksgiving because it's the same time slot, Thursday mornings.

For the first time in its 158-year history, the NJEA Convention has been cancelled. NJEA President Barbara Keshishian announced the decision today, "in light of the natural disaster that has struck New Jersey and Atlantic City in particular. It was a difficult decision, but we believe it was the correct one, considering the statewide impact of this unprecedented storm."

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The parish I attend held a first ever (I'm quite sure, first ever) youth mass this evening. I slipped through the library into the back row, near the Infant of Prague statue. Hanging with the Infant of Prague. Not sure anyone changes his clothes anymore.

Attendance was lighter than a summer Saturday evening, but more than a weekday. With no one sitting near me, I sang as loud as I wanted. It's the youth choir's mass to sing at now. Their practices resumed only last week. They're out of practice.

For the most part, it was the same old, same old. It was billed as being, well not youth-led of course, but heavy with their participation. I expected youth lectors, but no. Maybe no one volunteered?

The homily was too long. It started with, I thought, a reference to Ur. The priest asked whether anyone knew where Ur was. I said to myself, in Mesopotamia, on the Euphrates. Abraham was called outta there. But then the priest went on to say that we've all "been there" and he spelled it out, "ER." An adult asked, "Emergency room?" (See, an interactive homily) True enough. But the comparative "-er" was meant. "Greater, faster, prettier." I mentally supplied "smarter," because that's my thing.

So, I tuned out the longwinded, dumbed down homily and opened to the Gospel text to see whether I could figure out Jesus' parable. I heard two different homilies on Luke 16:1-13 this weekend, and neither of them explained how to extrapolate anything meaningful about a relationship to God from the illustration of the rich man and the dishonest steward. Or what it means to befriend dishonest wealth. It's just a really strange, confusing passage. After, as expected, we recited the Apostles Creed.

It was curious to see who attended. I recognized a Boy Scout leader with his family. Some time ago, he had told me - poured his heart out to me, actually - that his wife had left the Catholic church for pentecostalism. By that, I think he meant just straight Protestantism - some people don't really know the difference - but he might really have meant charismatic. Anyway, his wife was there but initially her body language did not look content. Her arms were crossed. I expected her to run out at any point. Instead, she sent him out for a bottle of water which she drank. I imagined her complaining that in her church she gets to drink coffee during worship. Even the readings didn't lighten her up any. Not 'til the homily - which was a bit "preachy" (exhortatory) - he can get that way - did she take notice. By the time of the offertory hymn, she had her hand waving above her head. The song was about God's love and I guess it resonated with her.

Without the collective cues of a larger gathering, participants forgot when to stand / kneel, etc. Occasionally they neglected to say the responses, like "Amen." They behaved awkwardly. At the sign of peace, I made up my mind to walk across the aisle to shake the hands of a family I knew from Little League rather than merely wave at them from my place and smile. It was a good gesture to make, I think.

The thing about a Sunday evening service is that one can safely close ones eyes in pious concentration and not be mistaken for sleeping!

Monday, September 16, 2013

After the homily, anyone involved in ministry to children, as catechists, aides, children's liturgy, VBS volunteers, was invited forward to make a public commitment and for a special blessing. In our usual spot, the last seat in the choir loft, I would have needed some advance warning in order to get down and join them. And I would have needed to brush my daughter off my lap, which I wasn't in the mood to do.

The parents of children in the religious education program were then asked to stand, for a similar commitment and for a blessing. Again, I wasn't willing to make those necessary shifts and trusted the blessing would find me even if seated. I'd already signed off on a parent commitment letter when I registered the kids in May.

Then, a young catechist was singled out for recognition; she'd completed the Level 1 certification. I thought that most of this could have been handled outside mass, at Tuesday's kick-off meeting. For this, we skipped the Creed.

My reaction isn't without malice. I cannot recall any such publicity ten to twenty years ago when I was in their shoes. When I joined the parish and volunteered to teach, I inquired about catechist certification (and diocesan testing of students) and was told that the parish didn't participate. The testing was ultimately dropped, as far as I know. But clearly, catechist certification is still a goal.

Looking over the present requirements, I think it was easier when I did it twenty years ago. And I do remember a listing in the diocesan newspaper as well as a mass in Trenton. But generally it was a recognition-less job. And in those days, I was hungry for recognition. For my own sake, it might be well I didn't receive any.

Now, I feel that the increased visibility at the local level is an appeal to ... ego. And I'm not sure those are the ones well-suited.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Gospel reading Friday was from Matthew 25 about the ten virgins, half with extra oil and half without. No extra virgins, just virgins with extra oil. The brief homily talked about spiritual benefits being non-transferable. The peeve in view was inactive Catholics requesting sponsorship slips for baptism and confirmation. Invariably, the would-be sponsor protests the refusal, "But my parents are ardent Catholics who attend mass each week!" Not good enough, says my pastor.

Now, I've heard this myself from lapsed Catholics. Being able to point to someone, family or friend, who attends church covers them also. Well, in a way, no. But, in another way, perhaps somewhat?

I'm speaking of the treasury of merit1 and the communion of saints. We are aided by these things, provided we avail ourselves of them. There may be some question of whether those ecclesial outliers, hanging on the church's hem, draw from that treasury, like the rest of us.

1 CCC 1476-1477
I began an online Bible study yesterday. A friend on Facebook had been recruiting for it but I didn't join her group. Instead, I looked over the available groups and chose one that seemed to fit my situation. I emailed the leader Sunday night, she confirmed me and Monday morning, I began receiving emails from not only her but also others in her group. In the next eight weeks, we'll cover Luke 17-24, a chapter a week.

It's primarily an accountability group, although rather impersonal. The notion of "accountability" isn't a big part of my religious practice. It's not anything that I feel I need.

Already I'm annoyed with the program. The leader's emails employ bright font colors - red, green, orange, blue, purple, olive, black, bold. Another participant has already asked her to tone it down. Her 14-line email "signature" (.sig for your old UNIX types) advertises her business as a Disney-exclusive travel agent and encourages a Facebook / Twitter following. Once I've seen that once, do I really need to see it each time? It's like, ok, duly noted. Next!

The program comes with free, downloadable worksheets for "doing" the study. It's 60 pages of
  1. Write out the verse(s)
  2. Observations
  3. Application
  4. Prayer to God
I don't need to spend printer ink / paper on that! However, one participant prints and writes out longhand her quiet time activity, scans it at work and emails the .pdf of her girly handwriting on GMG letterhead to be deciphered by all.

It's time consuming to read everyone's reflection on the passage. Emails arrive at all hours. Usually they go off on personal tangents. Frankly, my take on the passage, yes it has to do with forgiveness, but it also has to do with correcting a brother or sister. If we're really concerned about "Christian witness," then we'd want everyone who bears the name to be faithful. The prevailing mentality regarding forgiveness is "it's good for me to forgive others." Sure. But this pop psych makes me sick:

This is how to be no different from the world.

Sunday, September 01, 2013