It is January 1, 2018. I am comfortably seated in my recliner. Mozart is playing in the background thanks to my new music companion Alexa. God willing I will be 54 years old later this year. There is not much I need or want for myself today. I am neither rich nor abjectly poor. It is difficult to put to paper what I most want to see in this world before I go without telling you briefly about my journey.
I was born and raised as the youngest of seven in an enclave of working class families in Bronx, NY. Catholic Irish, Germans, and Italians pre-dominated my community. Racism and hatred were present but through the grace of God and being the youngest I was never indoctrinated into this evil – and was from a very early age against all that it stood for from my child’s eyes.
My childhood home would be ravished by alcoholism, domestic violence, and premature deaths. The dreams and hopes of my parents dissolved as both parents sank into alcoholism and poverty. All seven children were impacted in profoundly different ways influenced by our developmental ages as the family fabric of normality unraveled with the progression of the disease of alcoholism. None was spared abnormal and terribly sad events. To capture each sibling ruptured youth would require many pages and perhaps we would be none the wiser together with the intent of this letter.
Suffice it to say that we experienced great shame, tragedy, and loss together as a family. My father would pass while I was in middle school. My Mom when I was finishing graduate school. My two closest brothers in age would suffer early deaths.
Amidst our family troubles, like soldiers in a fox hole, great love, compassion, and understanding were always present. The expression of these wonderful loyalties was not always apparent amidst damaged self-esteem, developing addictions of our own, and the normal sibling rivalries that are present in any large family. One thing was certain. Getting out was a goal for everyone despite the contradictory yearning for love and kinship. And one by one siblings left as the family continued to dissolve.
Amidst this destruction love and caring was still provided in ample reserve. Both parents made efforts, grandparents provided a shared home, and aging siblings (young adults) helped at every turn. Thirteen years of Catholic schooling (many of the earlier years not paid and the high school years paid for by eldest brother and sister) helped ferment both my character and a modicum of educational ability.
Alcoholic drinking was not foreign to me in youth and into sophomore year of college and later in life. This too, is another chapter that would take too many pages and tertiary to the intent of this letter. However, it introduces the first request for God’s help. In high school on a cold winter evening I wandered away from my friends in Pelham Bay Park and leaned against a fence and pleaded with God to help me find a way out of this life in the Bronx. Alcohol was my thing at that time and my friends were into that and heavier drugs of different varieties. In God’s time I was accepted into Stony Brook University and had the ability to attend due to a combination of loans, grants, student work-study and some family help. This was an answered prayer.
There were many situations than and afterwards where I could have had a very different path in life and not be where I am today. I reflect on an unnamed boy who lent me one of his gloves when we were sleigh riding in the Bronx. He was older and gave me kindness this one winter day. The following day he was murdered by strangulation behind a local bowling alley for money. I think of Chucky, a childhood friend whose father used to beat him. I helped him run away once before he did for good. His father strangled me on the side of my house until I finally pointed in the direction Chucky had gone. I had given Chucky my bike and he should have been gone – but he wasn’t gone, he had nowhere to go. He did eventually run away and visited a year or two later, dirty and beat up some, telling me a Tom Sawyer like story of throwing rail road ties onto the third rail. My story is not as seeped in tragedy as others.
College gave me an avenue out of the Bronx and philosophy and psychology gave me the tools to examine life from a different perspective. Before long, armed with Nietzsche and alcohol God was dead. I was not necessarily any happier a person. However, I was an armed and an angry man with a little enough wisdom to espouse my hold on reality. There could not be a God with all the suffering in this world, in my life. And if there was a God, he would not accept me.
Reality progressively got worse quickly. I will pass over the personal failures here. Existential meaninglessness was taking hold as drinking increased. Behaviors and grades deteriorated. This period was short-lived. One morning about 4 a.m. a born again African-American women cleaning lady came onto my college hall and saw me sitting quietly in my literally trashed college room. She helped me clean it up without any judgement or lecture and peacefully went on with her arduous day. I wanted what she possessed. Several other factors including threatened with eviction from campus life and mandated counseling led me to turn away from alcohol and dive into true study.
I met my wife to be not long after this transformation and she would be my strength in the years to come. My career was steady and fulfilling. I was provided great mentors at different points in life and my family grew. My wife’s family was also blessed with deep faith and their faith seeped into my hardened heart.
I am however a dense man. Let me throw out a few co-incidences and let you decide if God seeped into my life or crashed the door down.
- Chess piece: While driving my caprice classic upstate New York on Taconic parkway at top speed (100 miles per hour) as I was truly testing how fast I could get it to go, my dashboard ornament, a glued on chess piece, loosened from its felt base, and fell to the floor as I was cresting a mountain top. I bent over and in so doing came of the gas pedal as I reached for the piece, grabbed it, and came back up. Just over the hill, a car in my land (left hand lane) was standing still, hazards on. I missed it by inches swerving right. If not for the chess piece falling to the floor the caprice would have been my coffin.
- Blind men: I took ill for several weeks and could not work. The doctors and disease specialist could not find the cause of my weakness. At the end of it all it was discovered I had mononucleosis that the original test failed to capture! That is not miraculous. I had taken to force myself to walk to the deli and get a coffee and egg sandwich. On this day, on my return trip, a blind man was waiting to cross Lefferts Boulevard in Queens. I offered assistance and he accepted. The elder gentleman interviewed me as we traversed crossing two streets and at the end of the cross walk told me it was time to go back to work and that I did. I returned to work and within two to three days I had the Manhattan work pace going in full force. As I left from one meeting to the next I ran into a man’s Seeing Eye dog, almost fell, and dropped papers. The dog did not budge nor did the blind man. He simply and calmly advised me to take things easy and not be so rushed. I had another encounter with a third blind person within that two-week period who gave me less memorable guidance. Three blind people in my path in a two week period where I was feeling physically and psychologically at my lowest – due to misdiagnosed mononucleosis!
- GPS: I was planning to attend a Buddhist meeting. It started at 7 P.M. I typed in address. The GPS went squirrely and then took me north, than west, and then south and bought me right past my catholic church. Why the hell did it take me this way around for in the totally wrong direction? I am going to be late. I speed up a bit and am heading down State Street. The road is closed off. A telephone pole is down. Does that awaken me to maybe I should not go? I divert and force myself to still get to the location. No offense to the people searching for the God of their understanding, but this particular group of three Buddhist did not offer “meditation” techniques guidance or balanced Buddhist teachings that warranted my presence. Only afterwards did I recognize my obtuse lack of insight that I was never meant to go to that meeting.
- Car Skid: One winter storm day my closest brother called me telling me about how he lost control of his car and had a close call. I asked the time. 5:27 P.M. I had skidded in my car some 90 miles away on a highway off-ramp at just about the same time!
- Drinking: I resumed casual drinking after September 11, 2001. November 10, 2001 in Chicago I had my first drink since 1986. In the 15 years that followed I cannot detail here the mistakes I have made and the risky situations I have put myself in while drinking. Not a single bone broken or person hurt physically by my poor judgement over the years. No jobs lost. However, a general decline in the peace in my life followed each successive year. My drinking also had a negative impact on my elder siblings drinking – whom I professed to try to help stop drinking. Giving up drinking is not as easy a decision for me as it maybe for some who have suffered heavier consequences with legal involvement, medical crisis, and losses (families or jobs). Even without these I have suffered soulful injuries that bruise deep and have hurt others in the same manner. It is a spiritual miracle for a guy like me with my family history and personal sense of mastery to be able to not be drinking today. This too is another chapter but nevertheless for many recovering alcoholics being sober is a miracle.
- Career: For a youngster with a significant stutter that still emerges from time to time, having a career on social work, a master’s degree, and 27 years serving people with words in homeless services, disaster services, and mental health services defies logic. I had aimed to be a city employee (Sanitation or bus driver). I had taken the civil service test. I was accepted and a letter sent to my house with an appointment for bus driver in NYC. I was away in college. I called home and asked Jimmy if there was any mail for me. He answered no. I discovered the letter two weeks after the appointment date and my bus career was over before it started. I would not have had my career, my wife, or my kids if Jimmy had told me of the letter and the job. I would have had a city job and a bar stool along with other Bronx kids.
These little mysteries do not in and of themselves prove a God. They do for me as I have felt the grace of God in little and small things. When it comes to purpose in life and the million different directions and decisions that transpire and intended and unintended consequences that follow it is difficult to define divine purpose.
None of the above accurately defines and answers the mystery of God and the challenge of the question of suffering. In the life of Jesus Christ much can be explained if one looks hard enough.
I have investigated the atheistic perspective, the agnostic perspective, and the religious tenets of the three great monotheist religions. I have looked at other faiths as well as well as those basing life purely on scientific mathematical concepts. At the end of the day each has kernels of wisdom that can benefit mankind as well as potential for treacherous acts of evil including my own religious faith.
Putting aside the humble attempts by man to define God, the utter inadequacy of our words, the terrible application of our well-intentioned religions distorted by man, there is a higher purpose than our sense of self.
I cannot define the impact I may have had in my social work career, in my family life, and in the lives I have had the opportunity to influence directly or indirectly. I know I have mentored many that went on in social work with genuine passion and commitment to help people. I know that there are many people out there with greater talents than I that are natural leaders that seemingly effortlessly live selfless and holy lives. The vicious game of relativity to thy neighbor’s accomplishments has no end.
So Son, I am almost there with being ready to tell you what I most want to see in this life before I go. First, what must it have been like to be John the Baptist? Imagine ostracizing oneself into the hills to preach and baptize people under threat of execution knowing one who is to come is greater than thou? In essence John knew he was limited and could not be the Messiah. He was able however to witness the Messiah. What was the purpose of John the Baptist? Did he prepare the way? Sometimes in life we are meant to be preparers or people behind the scenes that perform the unseen acts of kindness or assistance that helps others is the saints or leaders of tomorrow.
I am “no John the Baptist.” I have done okay by myself and my family and by those I serve. Sometimes I want to have done more or have been more influential. Sometimes I have been aggrieved of my limitations and challenges in life that may have limited by personal and professional ambitions.
Today that is not the case. I can recognize others carrying out work and life in a manner that demonstrates their natural calling, ability and purpose. There is the Mother Theresa of Kent General Hospital who works in Palliative care. The work she is doing daily with the dying and people living with chronic disease processes is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It is clearly God’s work. The more I can help her or help others who help people the greater I am fulfilled and aligned with God’s purpose today. In my own work today my major role is to help people who do the work be able to do the work and problems solve when barriers prevent that work. It is unseen drudgery!
There is a theme here. There were countless decisions that happened prior before “Mother Theresa” of Kent General came to Delaware, studied nursing, got her RN degree, got her Nurse Practitioner degree, and started this role. No one knew. I gave up a significant career in NYC at the time without the knowledge of what was to come. Now it is purely a work of spiritual inspiration in action.
What do I want to see before I go? I have a desire for my son to know God. Not in a zealous manner loaded with religiosity and ambiguity, tied to theological text, and preaching on the corner. In a humble way where my Son knows his purpose in life and when it is in question can sit and reflect and find the answers. When confronted with suffering can withstand the pain and do what he has to do with God as a partner. If my son has that the many pitfalls of this world he will be able to withstand and some maybe even avoid some (think Alcoholism).
Who is my Son? He bares my name. But I have daughters as well, and nephews and nieces. I desire for everyone I know to have a spiritual grounding with the God of their understanding. In that vein this letter is not just for my Son, it is for anyone who reads this letter, for all my brothers and sisters here on earth.
So Son, there you have it. I am sending you two books with this letter. Understanding the Scriptures, A Complete Course on Bible Study by Scott Hahn, Phd and Jesus A Pilgrimage by James Martin, SJ. The first explains every book in the bible and time-lines in an easy to read fashion. The second is written by a Jesuit priest that I find to be amazingly intuitive on Jesus Christ and on finding faith and belief in your life if you look for it. This book has him reflecting on the life of Jesus as he visits the historical sites were Jesus Christ and the apostles lived and preached. The combination gives both archeological and spiritual insights that truly bring together why so many people can believe in a guy that dies on a cross over two thousand years ago.
I have only touched briefly on highlights of my spiritual struggles and graces. Life is messy and I am far from a theologian or ambassador for the word of God. I have read several books of James Martin, SJ including The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. He is of the same ilk as Pope Francis. I have found him to be quite controversial to some staunch Catholics as his views are similar to Pope Francis. He has been attacked by some very conservative religious groups. He is no Martin Luther. This is how James Martin finishes the book and is an apt way to finish this letter:
“What I want most for you is to meet Jesus. You have met my Jesus. Now meet your own.”