Saturday, June 26, 2010


I am certain that in a lifetime of being Catholic, many people have had one or more rather odd or disconcerting confessions. So, I suppose what happened to me with a priest I shall call Fr. Dan might be typical enough, but for me it has been a unique experience. I have been fortunate in having mostly really good confessors, even those whom I have not known and those who have laughed at me. (I suppose I would laugh at me in the same cases, as well.) This particular confession took place at a retreat I attended that was conducted by Fr. Dan, so, except for our interactions at the retreat, he was unknown to me and I to him. And confession with him took the oddest of turns.

The topic of the retreat was Franciscan spirituality, a popular topic in my part of the world, where the missions here were established by the Franciscans. Our local retreat center is run by the Franciscans, and the convents here are generally Franciscan. So, here I was, an SFO (third order Franciscan) candidate, at a Franciscan retreat center, spending a weekend immersed in learning more about Franciscan spirituality with a Franciscan priest. What could be better? Well, actually, a lot.

At the very first session, Fr. Dan presented a part of St. Francis's bio. In doing so, he interpreted it somewhat differently from what I was used to and made a pronouncement that floored me, kept me puzzled all weekend, and caused me to talk to him separately.

"St. Francis," he said, "never really heard a voice telling him to rebuild God's church. He just thought he did. Obviously, it was something he was thinking about, something that he thought should be done, and so he 'heard' in his mind the words that led to his rebuilding not only San Damiano but the more abstract 'church'."

Say what? St. Francis was confused about what he heard? Convinced that if St. Francis said he heard a voice he really did hear a voice, not a little bolstered by my own experiences and readings of the experiences of St. Theresa of Avila, I approached Fr. Dan during the break and asked him whether he thought that God ever speaks to people in a voice.

"No," he responded. "That's not the way God works."

But what about all those times in the Bible when someone heard the voice of God? Was it only in their minds, too?

"Yes," he said.

"Don't you think that God can choose to speak in a way that people hear?" I asked.

"No," he said curtly. "God is not capable of that."

I do not remember much of the rest of the retreat. In fact, I missed a portion of it because a friend who speaks only Russian had a stroke and I am the only local "family" that she has so I spent some time with her doctors and hospital staff, translating for her. Fr. Dan seemed to understand the urgency of that and forgave my absence for a few hours. While I had difficulty understanding his position on whether or not God speaks to people (ever), I found Fr. Dan to live up to his reputation as charming. Though there was not much of substance in his presentations, there was an obvious attraction between him and the participants. I felt the attraction, too, except for the nagging concern over his comment on the weakness of God and the mistakenness of St. Francis.

The retreat ended with confession and Mass. Mass was fine; Fr. Dan celebrated a lovely Mass. Confession, though, as I noted at the beginning of this post, took the oddest of turns in a way that I could not fathom and still cannot. I related a Jonah-type experience (I do encounter these unwished taskings from time to time that I sometimes try to sidestep initially), in which I had just given in (I always do; when God wants something, God gets it -- at least from me) but was still working on those sticky details, the ones that are along the lines of "Oh, God, do You really want me to do that? Please, not that!" I did not get far, however, when my tongue stopped working. Literally. I could not say another word. I just looked at Fr. Dan silently. Now, typically, one would expect the priest to take over, ask some questions, pull the details out of me, or at least say something. Fr. Dan, however, seemed to have also been struck dumb. He just looked at me. We looked, and we looked. Silently. Maybe for as much as a couple of minutes. (Time passes slowly when you are just looking and not talking, yet wanting to talk.) It was all very strange. Finally, he silently made the sign of the cross over me, and I walked away.

That was over a year ago, and the matter still puzzles me. Were we really struck dumb in some modern version of the meaning of that expression, or had I done or said something wrong? Was there something I should have done that my inexperience precluded me from doing? Why could I not talk? Fr. Dan was a charming priest in general. Disagreement on one small matter (well, maybe not that small a matter, considering that I do hear, aloud, something that seems to be a voice that gives me tasks me that I could never dream up or even want to carry out) should not have created such a barrier. Moreover, why did he not speak? I am inexperienced, but he has been a priest for many years. Certainly, he has heard more complicated things than I was relating.

I have no explanation for what happened. I do not pretend to understand it. I do, however, remain troubled about it. I suppose, though, that if God wants me to understand it, He will send along an explanation at some point in some form. Until then, I simply furrow my brow and continue down that path, you know, the one along which God pushed Jonah.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


At yesterday evening's Mass, I felt a sense of disquietude. I therefore found it difficult to concentrate on the Mass. There was no reason for this feeling. Or was there? After all, there were some singular differences from our regular Mass. First, Fr. Ed is in Europe, so we have a one-month replacement, Fr. Paul, who is a very pleasant priest from Lagos, Nigeria. However, his English is highly accented and difficult to understand. Second, he apparently does not know how to work the mike, so we could barely hear him. (Someone will be sure to help him before the next Mass.)

The mike issue reminded me of an instance experienced by an interim priest we had three years ago. He was having trouble getting his mike to work and wanted to explain it to the parishioners. So, instead of saying "Peace be with you," he first said, "There is something wrong with this mike."

Right on cue, not hearing anything but being on automatic pilot and hearing some quiet, incomprehensible words ("there is something wrong with this mike"), the entire congregation responded, "And with you."

Now there is what I would call habituation. Automatic pilot. It is something that I noticed during the early days of my conversion when I first started attending Mass. I struggled to learn the liturgy, but just about everyone else had it memorized. I envied them until I realized that many (certainly, of course, far from all) were on automatic pilot, repeating words without really thinking about their meaning.

How could they treat this wonderful hour with God and God's people as anything except something special, a time to be savored? How could they read the bulletin while sacred words from the Bible were being read? How could they feel anything except awe in the presence of God?

How? Familiarity, custom, habit. They knew all those words by heart: the ones they spoke and the ones they heard. For me, initially, these words had all been new, exciting. Now, I, too, have heard them before. The Mass is becoming habitual for me??!!

I guess that is what has happened to God's people from time to time -- habituation. Familiarity breeding contempt. Taking God for granted, which has even led to forgetting about Him. Take, for example, the Israelites as they followed Moses around the desert. Or many other civilizations.

Maybe that was the source of my sense of disquietude. Because of being disquieted, I lost the opportunity to savor my time with God. I was there, but I was not. I don't want that to happen again because I will never get that hour back. The only "habit" I want to have is constant communication with God, savoring His presence wherever I am and being ready to fulfill whatever task He is kind enough to entrust to me or actually carrying it out. Any other use of my time is wasted.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Humility II

An interesting thing happened yesterday, something along the lines of coincidences that seem to fill my life: I had lunch with visitors. Now, these were not just any visitors. They were from the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana (see the post below on Humility). They had been invited by one our my junior managers because we might subcontract part of one our projects to them. Listening to them describe their activities was interesting, I am told, by that manager and his assistants. Therefore, he thought I might like to join them for lunch.

Might I? People from a center with the name of Mike Mansfield, someone to whom I have looked up for dozens of years? Was it at all surprising then that I was the first to arrive?

Once the people from the center arrived, along with my team, I started comparing notes about how Montana has changed since the time that I lived there. Then, finally, we got around the name of the center. Yes, indeed, the center had been named after Mansfield who had been a long-term-on-sabbatical professor at the University of Montana. That was to be expected; however, I found out that the director had worked with Mansfield in Japan when he was an ambassador there. So many stories! I shared my little story with her. She acknowledged that this was "just like Mike."

What a lovely lunch! Even lovelier because it was unexpected. And then there is that reminder about humility...

Thursday, June 3, 2010


The following post from my Blest Atheist blog is not directly about "mysticism," so I have gone back and forth in an internal debate about whether or not to share it here. The two blogs share a few readers in common, but most read only one or the other blog. Therefore, I have finally decided to re-post it here. Besides, are not humility and character among the results of developing a relationship with our Lord? And is that not the basis of mysticism? So, maybe, there is at least an indirect connection between this post and this blog's orientation.

The person described here is one I have admired for years, ever since I lived in Montana where my oldest daughter was born. We lived in the valley that was headed by Missoula, where the University of Montana, home to Dr. Michael Mansfield, the professor. For those who don't know (probably most people), there is now a Mike & Maureen Mansfield Center dedicated toward helping peace initiatives and is involved in developing learning opportunities and materials for those military serving in Afghanistan, among other, similar initatives. Mike Mansfield has left a legacy there though he probably never intended to.

He also intervened, on my behalf and the small town of Hamilton which I was trying to help, in exposing and eliminating self-interested and pork-barrel politics in Helena, when he himself was a US Senator. His voice counted although he was not a member of the state legislature. As always, he stood on the side of right, not politics or money.

Here, then, is a story I found about him on the Internet. If you take the time to read all the way through, I think you will be overwhelmed, as I was, by his incredible humility. May we all learn from it!

And here is the post:
I rarely bring politics into this blog, not because they are not a part of my life for they certainly but mainly because I like to step aside from them and focus on more spiritual matters. However, I would like to make an exception in honor of Memorial Day which is fast fading into yesterday in the wee hours of a new June morning and share a wonderfully written biography of an honest and humble politician I once knew, fully aware that those two adjectives are rarely used to modify that particular noun. I think you will find it as inspiring as I found it edifying. While Mike Mansfield asked not to be remembered, if we don't reject those wishes and honor the humble people of our nation, our nation's greatness will crumble from the cracks that already run through it.

As a former Montana resident during the days when Mike Mansfield was in the Senate, I saw why he was so well respected. He personally stepped in against state politics to save a community day care center that I had established. It is a long story, not necessary to repeat here, and only one of many of the good deeds of the late Senator Mansfield, former Senate Majority Leader. I had no idea that he was a Marine. That he was and how he lived and died, I believe, is a fitting example of a humility that I have often seen in the Marines over the decades with which I have worked with them. Therefore, the tribute that James Grady wrote for him for Memorial Day Weekend is one that both impressed and delighted me, and I feel compelled to point others to this article (not sure where it was first published; I found it floating on the Internet) in memory of a great man. May we all be as humble!

Pvt. Mike Mansfield: Just One Marine in Arlington Cemetery
by James Grady

Of all the chiseled stones standing silent watch over us in these uncivil and dangerous political times, this Memorial Day consider one modest white-marble slab on a green hillside at Arlington National Cemetery:
Michael Joseph Mansfield
U.S. Marine Corps
Mar 16 1903
Oct 5 2001
Private Mansfield fell not in battle like so many Americans, nor did he endure combat's scars. He lived to know his grandchildren and died at 98 in Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In these MySpace and "American Idol" days, he ordered that his headstone in Arlington disclose no more personal glory than that honor shared by millions of Americans in holding the lowest rank in the United States Marine Corps.

Not that he was America's ambassador to Japan.

Not that he was a United States senator from his beloved Montana.

Not that he was our longest serving majority leader of the Senate through unpopular wars, terrorism, battles for equality, American rivers catching on fire, filibusters and financial furies, mushroom cloud nightmares, clashes of church and state, guns and taxes, and the crimes of Watergate.

He preferred to be called Mike, worked as a mucker in the mines of Montana, a job that is as it sounds, and what's tragic this Memorial Day is how at the end of his life, he saw America's democracy that he'd fought to conduct in a civil and respectful fashion morph into sound-bite nastiness, TV-shouted slogans, Internet smears, and blind faith ideology tempered by gotcha & gimme narcissistic power grabs.

As a young aide to his Senate colleague from Montana, Lee Metcalf, I got to see Mike in action. Those memories plus stories from Senate staffers and former Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer's great Mansfield biography convince me that the betrayed savvy and sensibilities of this lone U.S. Marine are what our politics need on Memorial Day 2010.

Politics cupped this son of immigrants before he realized it. He did time in juvie, dropped out of school to serve in the Army, Navy and finally his beloved Marines, all before he was of legal voting age. After the Marines showed him Asia, Mike worked as a laborer in the mines of Butte, Mont., during our Roaring Twenties, when Butte meant big money and big politics, from bombings of union halls to birthing both the Hearst publishing empire as fictionalized in the movie "Citizen Kane" and American hardboiled fiction as personified by Dashiell Hammett, who worked Montana's mean streets as a Pinkerton detective and turned down the murder contract on a left-wing labor leader later lynched in Butte.

Mike breathed politics like he breathed lung-burning dust in deep shafts, where he learned the miners' mantra that became the political metaphor for his 34 years in Congress, extending from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter, and for Mike's eight years as ambassador to Japan for both that left-wing peanut farmer president and right-wing movie star President Ronald Reagan.

America's wealth must be worked, whether it's the wealth of freedom or the wealth of gold. For deep-shaft miners, that means blasting ore free from the hard rock of planet Earth. Too much explosive power and the mine collapses on top of you. Too little and the blast hides what you seek under the rubble of half-hearted effort. And if you're careless -- BOOM!

So Butte's miners taught Mike a live-or-die mantra: "Tap 'er light."

Tap 'er light is how Mike managed the politics of America when we managed to have politics that worked for America.

What got him out of the mines to a career in politics was love.

A schoolmarm named Maureen looked at this scrawny uneducated ex-Marine miner, saw something more and loved him to his bones. They married and she helped him get a university degree. He planned on being a public school teacher. But the Ku Klux Klan exerted political pressure and stopped him from getting such jobs to keep a Catholic Irishman from polluting the minds of American children. The Klan probably came to regret that victory because instead of a local teacher, Mike became a university history professor who got elected to Congress, survived Communist smears from Sen. Joe McCarthy, and then as majority leader of the United States Senate, helped engineer the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Mike beat filibusters designed to defeat the Civil Rights Act -- often by members of his own Democratic Party -- without backstabbing, name-calling, or self-congratulation. He told his colleagues that he wished America had settled its civil rights issues before he became a senator, "[b]ut . . . great public issues are not subject to our personal timetables. . . . They emerge in their own way and in their own time."

Mike tapped 'er light as majority leader. When he caught a Democratic colleague breaking a promise to a Republican, Mike used the rules of the Senate to give the Republican his promised fair shot. Mike insisted that senators act like they belonged to "the world's greatest deliberative body."

He would have been appalled by now-White House aide and ex-Democratic Congressman Rahm Emanuel supposedly sending a dead fish to a pollster, just as Mike was no doubt horrified by Vice President Dick Cheney telling a U.S. senator in the supposedly hallowed halls of Congress to "f--- yourself."

Mike's insistence on decency and modesty was the opposite of naïveté. He came from an American time and place where politics meant meanness, corruption and murder. Seeing how that "worked," Mike reasoned that fairness and respect are the best tactics and strategies to make democracy feasible, to get wealth worth having out of the mess we call politics. You have to tap 'er light lest politics and government explode in your face or bury you in darkness.

Watergate is the best example of Mike's sophisticated fairness trumping No Mercy Politics. He insisted on a special Senate committee to investigate the unfolding sins of the Nixon era, insisted that neither Nixon fans nor Nixon haters be allowed to serve on that committee. Because of Mike's strategic decision to make the Senate investigation open, fair and bipartisan, the country supported a constitutional political process that, for the first time in history, forced a crook out of the White House.

Mike employed no press secretary, frustrated reporters with one word answers, avoided claiming credit.

After a September 1962 congressional leadership breakfast at the White House, parading outside to the microphones for a classic meet the press/get some glory moment came Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Sens. Hubert H. Humphrey and George Smathers, plus Speaker John McCormack, Reps. Carl Albert and Hale Boggs. Mike dodged that photo op. A candid photo caught his back as he hurried away. President John F. Kennedy heard about the incident, had that picture blown up, autographed it: "To Mike, who knows when to stay and when to go."

Name one politician today who would pass up a chance to blather on TV.

Those were not simpler times. Environmental crises. Wall Street shenanigans. Unpopular wars. Mike's tenure as Senate majority leader had them all. He stood in the rubble of a terrorist bombing in the U.S. Capitol and still fought for curbs on the CIA and FBI. He watched big money buy elections, yet forbid his own campaign fundraisers from accepting dollars from his multimillionaire friend -- who was supposedly the inspiration for the James Bond character Goldfinger -- because Mike wanted no hint of impropriety.

True, he came from a small population state and possessed an uncanny ability to remember names, which helped him stay popular, but he worked it. In 1970, a posse of ultra-conservative groups, Republicans and gun fanatics put up posters in his home state saying: "For the price of a box of ammunition we can retire Mike Mansfield." Mike didn't back down from his gun-control stances. He won that election and, even today, running from his Arlington grave, he'd probably beat any live candidate in Montana.

The dead haunted Mike. Dead peasant soldiers, not unlike himself, whom he saw floating in China's Pei-ho river while he was serving with the Marines. The dead vaporized in the atomic-bombed ruins of Hiroshima he flew over as an inspecting congressman. The number of KIA Americans in Vietnam, written on a recipe card Mike carried in his black-suit pocket, a card he kept updating during that 10,000-day war.

What only came to light seven years ago in Oberdorfer's biography is how hard Mike fought -- first with JFK, then with LBJ and Nixon -- to end the war that he called "a tragic waste," submitting dozens of private reports to those presidents detailing how and why America's effort was doomed. This former history professor argued against the inertia of yesterday's policies and the idea that America shouldn't or couldn't change course. Each of the presidents Mike counseled about Vietnam would admit he made sense -- then press on with the war. None of them wanted to be the president to say enough before reality overran Gerald Ford in 1975.

Mike, private, USMC -- Semper fi -- who valued patriotism and supporting his government, muted his opposition to Vietnam and endured scathing criticism from the anti-war lobby. He told biographer Oberdorfer that he was "walking a tightrope." Wondered if he could have found a better way to oppose the war. Finally he said, "Let history speak for itself."

He was a complex man who wore black suits and drank instant coffee. His staff often found him sitting in his office alone -- thinking, actually thinking, as he smoked a pipe. He loved to read. Favored politics championed by the Reagan-quoted Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who preached subtly, instead of Machiavelli's knife. He met regularly with Senate Republicans, listened far more than he talked, gave his word and kept it. He refused to let a senator whose wife and daughter died in a car crash resign, and then kept that grieving man diverted with work and unprecedented mentoring. Now that senator is Vice President Joe Biden. Mike out-thought and out-strategized Harvard minds with his University of Montana and Marine Corps education. As U.S. ambassador, he apologized for a 1981 American military accident by publicly bowing to Japan's foreign minister -- and with that one act of humility preserved both America's honor and a key political alliance. Mike believed that all Americans have a civic duty to act civilly.

Today on a quiet green hillside in Arlington cemetery lies Pvt. Mike Mansfield, United States Marine Corps, who once said, "When I'm gone, I want to be forgotten." Mike's stone has the name of his beloved Maureen carved on its back and she lies there with him.

[As this Memorial Day fades into yesterday], think of one lone Marine private on watch at Arlington. For one moment, for just one heartbeat, remember his mantra, his plea, his benediction and farewell, his proven successful political strategy to win a better tomorrow and save us from bloody explosions or being trapped by darkness in this mine shaft called politics where we all must live.
It is now a tad bit beyond Memorial Day, but Mike Mansfield's biography, I think, is for all time, not just for Memorial Day. He meant no legacy; he left one that has no end, especially for the people of Montana, and as an example for all of the rest of us. Rest in peace, MM!