Lourdes during a 2012 pilgrimage — You’ll meet many of the walking dead at Lourdes. They couldn’t be more alive. So many do not look for any entitlements for health and well being when they meet their fellow pilgrims, but rather ask the Lord that others be healed. To put it in the words of the Para-rescue Jumpers: “That Others May Live.”
[Some will have seen just a few of these paragraphs before. Sorry!]
Many a priest has joked with me that I’m an expert at finding a dark cloud behind every silver lining, even if that silver lining is so blindingly bright that no one else can possibly see a cloud of any kind. As an example, a Cardinal once invited me to go with him to a rendition of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah in the Paul VI Audience Hall in Vatican City, with the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, in attendance.
Paul VI Audience Hall
● The more wonderfully the orchestra played, the more I thought of the minuscule canister prisons for bishops and priests in China.
● The more finesse was radiated by the director, the more I thought of the horrific street mafias in Calcutta, purposely maiming the children they stole from the other part of the city so as to make them look more pitiable for begging purposes.
● The more exalting to the heavens were the vocalists, the more I thought of the Site Solèy of Haïti and, along with earth-quakes, hurricanes, flooding and epidemics, its highly manipulated poverty.
This was not, however, the existential conundrum it must seem to be. Instead, it was a vision of God’s love. Here He was, entering the world, born to die, to bring us to life. The further I saw that He had to reach to get us, especially in our sin, the more thanksgiving filled my heart and soul, rejoicing in His great love. After the concert, I mentioned what I had been thinking about to the Cardinal, but he simply told me not to do that, just to enjoy the music. I protested until he got the point about Christmas, and he did get it, in the end.
* * *
I only mention such irony in case someone might feel sorry for me because of what I am now to recount, which is that I have a certain extremely rare malady which, although it has never interfered with the exercise of my priestly ministry – nor was it ever viewed as a point against me – is rather annoying for its inconvenience.
Just too sad.
I call it the exploding disease, which has nothing to do with the ultra-sad use of kids by terrorists. More on that in another chapter, please God.
Instead, various parts of my body can basically just explode, well, over the course of some days, in slow motion, just to the point of the skin actually bursting, so that white blood cells begin to ooze through the skin. When it happens to a hand or a foot, it’s not so bad, just inconvenient. The gut is worse, as I then have to shut down for a few days. When it happens in the face people get nervous, frightened even, and turn away. When it happens in the esophagus – which can only take minutes – the probability of dying from suffocation is a clear and present danger. My mom died that way. I’ve been close to death for this reason as many as twenty-five times. People with this die in the emergency room because the nurses turn their backs for a couple of minutes and then it’s all over.
The possibility of dying at any time puts a bit of an edge on things that some others cannot begin to understand, what with having had no health problems, and even having avoided those who did all their lives. Suffering can be a real education about the possibilities of the depths and shallowness of fallen mankind, an enlightenment as to the enduring value of the life of any man regardless of the circumstances of what the egotistic, arrogant, power mongering escapists call “quality of life,” but only so as to think that they have the right to murder by “euthanasia” those who would remind them of their own mortality. No, no. Every man has inestimable value, always, and in every circumstance, especially, I might add, when the going gets tough.
There is a number of medicines for this hereditary malady. One costs about USA $70,000.00 a month, and requires haz-mat handling. So… no. There is another, which is, however, carcinogenic among a thousand other side effects. Maximum recommended window for using this med is, I think, five months. I’ve been taking it daily for decades. It works, to a degree. It’s effectiveness can be overridden if I am exhausted, for instance, from extensive travels with luggage filled with reference books (as was my practice), or by blunt trauma, such as any day to day injury one might otherwise ignore while, say, piling up mountains of massive, double-length logs. Yikes!
One day the medicine will not work at all, or I will not have the medicine available, and then I will probably die within days. Simple as that. Or I could go to my judgment in, say, twenty minutes from now. I don’t know. It’s pretty quick.
Putting up with this as a child was easy in that kids can quickly get used to anything. They have no sense of being entitled to anything other than total respect, which is only right. They don’t take themselves seriously and just get on with life, doing what kids do within their means, as best they can, in whatever daily hilarity may come their way. Who of us can say that as adults. This is great for an examination of conscience before Jesus, for a prayer that we might be as little children and set about doing the best we can in His friendship regardless of any circumstances.
Coming to know that one is a member of the living dead because others are concerned for you, well, that’s another thing. The last thing a kid wants is to be smothered with concern. It was confusing then, and is aggravating now. If I died, I died. What’s the big deal? God loves us! Let’s go meet Him! If there is anxiety, it is only because others have anxiety. Bad example, that. Kids shouldn’t be burdened with the tunnel-vision of adults, but rather encouraged with a bright outlook, with enthusiasm for life regardless of anything that might be going on.
I remember defending myself quite adamantly for my three and a half years of age when my family was trying to come to grips with my exploding disease, feeling sorry for me. I insisted that I was fine. I knew I didn’t want what seemed to be their own feeling sorry for themselves in having to feel sorry for me, however genuine their concern for me also was. I wanted them to know that my spirit was just as rambunctious as ever. If they wanted to be in solidarity with me, it would have to be their rejoicing in the ferocity of my spirit. I did not want to be reduced to a medical condition. Not being able to put this into words, I was frustrated with exclamations such as “Poor little Jordan!” I wasn’t “poor little Jordan.” I was just me! I didn’t want anyone to care in the least about some stupid exploding disease! I sure didn’t. Kids overlook such things. Attitudes behind “poor little Jordon” rob children of their childhood, piling the narrow-mindedness of “adult” anxieties onto them.
The irony is that I saw God’s love all the more because of all this. And that is still the case. Three and half years old or more than half of a century doesn’t make any difference when it comes to God’s love. The effects of original sin, so very manifest, only had me look to Him all the more, with all the more humility, all the more trust, all the more simplicity, all the more thanksgiving for His having come among even us. As it should be.
There are times, of course, when I’m totally self-centered and blind, looking to myself for strength, tempted to feel sorry for myself. That darkness — which is truly horrific in its stagnant, fetid loss of a sense of self before God — becomes all the more reason to thank the Lord, that is, when finally I note His invitation to me, once again, to take note of His goodness and kindness.
My family got over the “poor little Jordan” thing, and didn’t go near it again. Thank God. I could be a little kid again.
* * *
Some months later, in the autumn, after the opening day of deer season, two of my friends from next door breathlessly arrived at the garage door of our house, and dragged me over to their garage. There they were, five fully gralloshed deer carcasses hanging from the low rafters right down to their own pools of blood on the cement floor, some with antlers, some without. They were preparing some venison steaks and filling up the freezers they had for the purpose. I thought that this kind of death was just magnificent. On the one hand, it was a bit distressing, as it is always great to see wildlife living in the wild. On the other hand, it just had something right about it, as the venison would taste really good. It wasn’t long before my own family was hunting up in Northern Minnesota and shared the joy of a gralloshed deer carcase hanging up on a makeshift gallows made out of downed tree branches.
Sometime later, perhaps a couple of years later, I was brought to see the movie Bambi in a nasty little theater on the East side of Saint Germain Street in downtown Saint Cloud. Even at that young age I felt like I was being manipulated, like I was supposed to hate the hunter in the film. I immediately developed a rather severe distaste for anything Disney. In later years, when we moved out of town, closer to Lake Wobegon, I would often take out the variety of weapons we had at home, mostly rifles and shot guns, and bring them to the fields and forests around the house, shooting at various targets for practice. Just about the first day I could own a gun legally, at twelve years of age at that time in Minnesota, I had one, having gone through a course of gun safety and marksmanship in the basement of the local VFW.
Mind you, my heart would thrill upon seeing, for instance, a mighty buck crashing through a marsh, bounding over tangles of thorn bushes, flying around trees, only to stop and snort and smell the breeze and stamp its hooves, challenging all comers. I thought the gun, at that point, was a bit unfair, and that if I wanted something to eat, I would have to bring no more than a pocket knife, wrestling it to the ground with my bare hands. They certainly were not shy, especially in the evening, when their snorting and stomping would get quite loud, sometimes only thirty feet away or so.
While guns are always a reminder of original sin – with the ever present possibility of killing even another man – they can also make a positive contribution to the virtue of justice, as in a strong defense, even if it means killing another man. It’s not a case of a lesser of two evils: it’s a positive thing to do for society. It’s ugly, and sad that it has to be that way, but it’s the right thing to do, and should be rewarded in this life and the next.
* * *
It wasn’t long after the deer carcases experiences that, on November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Although it was a Friday, my dad came home from work with the news right before lunch. My family was again in front of the television, and then on their way to Church. Imagine that.
They were telling me again and again what was happening and I was struggling to understand, bewildered, as if this couldn’t possibly be true. We were on our way out the door when all of a sudden I stopped everyone, turning around, almost shouting out with my three and half year old voice, “But who’s running the world?” Everyone stopped with confused looks on their faces, not knowing how to answer such a youngster. I cried out again, “Who’s running the world?” My dad asked what I meant and my mom, ever perceptive, asked an unspoken question with my name, “Jordan?” I said, all very anxiously, “The Pope is dead and the President is dead. Who’s running the world?”
Though I had been grieving for Pope John XXIII for many months (and regardless of Paul VI taking the reigns), my reaction to the news of our nation’s president’s death was instead rather utilitarian, what with the security of my family and of the nation at risk. This realization in itself – and I am referring to the awareness I had of this realization, as if taking a step back from myself– opened my eyes to a whole new universe of reflection at that young age, and I was filled with wonder at being able to take in such breadth of reality. I was overawed at man’s participation in the governance of nations and the world. But I felt no grief. Not for him. Not until I was to see the funeral procession.
I guess my family was just as surprised as myself at my new found geopolitical and pastoral urgency, and were dumbfounded for a few seconds as to how to answer my question concerning who was running the world. They looked at each other searching for an answer. Someone mumbled something about Pope Paul VI having been elected, but my mom talked over this and wisely said, “God. God is running the world, Jordan.” And then it hit me. Of course, it had to be God who was running the world. I connected the word “God” with the Someone who loved me so very much, even back in the day, half a lifetime ago for me, just the previous year, at that very special Sunday Mass. The rightful place of political personages before the sovereignty of God was firmly established in my neophyte perspective. I didn’t know I had things better figured out than the ex-president did in his campaign speech in Texas. I felt betrayed even decades later, when I read that speech of his. How dare a Catholic, who had been given such authority, so cleverly marginalize the Pope and God in society and in own his responsibilities?
As everyone raced out the door, my own heart and soul were lifted up to heaven, and I understood something of the majesty, of the goodness and kindness of the Providence of the God of the whole universe. Pope Paul VI? Yes, he was there, and I had nothing against him whatsoever. I was his papist son, after all. I knew he was Pope. Yet, I had the very strong sense that it is better that God is in charge of the Church, and that the Pope is but His humble servant. I didn’t know until some forty years later that these were the very words that Saint Robert Bellarmine, S.J., would use just a few years before his own death, during an incident that would later be reported in the process for his beatification. But we will get to that later. I vividly remember the funeral procession of President Kennedy, with the casket drawn by limber and caisson. Heart stopping was the salute of JFK Jr., who was just a bit older than myself.
* * *
It was Christmas morning, before daybreak, and I was the only one awake in the whole house. I had already been awake for a good while, filled with a sense that sacred mysteries were being revealed. But then, in a flash, I jumped out of bed and got dressed. There I was, at three and half years old, sitting at the top of the steps again, all ready to go to Mass, reddish-brown boots for a cripple and all. My first thought on looking down the steps had been to rush down to see the Christmas presents below the tree, the edge of which I could see, all decorated and lit up. If I had gone down, I saw that I could have investigated the bulging Christmas stockings hanging just below me on the bannister of the stair case. But I couldn’t. It’s as if my guardian angel wanted me to sit there without distractions and just take in the mystery.
Today is the birthday of Jesus, of God, who loves me so much, came down to earth among us, now born. I was in quiet awe. I just sat and sat, my heart filled to overflowing. As the rest of the family started to wake up, they wondered why I was all dressed up, and when I protested that it was time to go to early Mass because Jesus was born today, I heard some sleepy mumblings about presents and Santa. Don’t get me wrong, I thought that was also super wonderful and I was very happy and grateful, and there were lots of hugs and kisses and thanks to go around when we opened the presents… but… Jesus was born today! I have often thought that I would have made a good donkey so that I could be right next to Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem.
Without even considering the problem of loss of faith, we, as adults, can have the temptation to think that not being in awe with the simplicity of a little child before the Sacred Mysteries being revealed by the Incarnation of Christ our God is somehow to be considered more sophisticated and intellectually adept at appreciating the articles of faith. But He who is Truth, is also Charity, whom we can get to know and love. To prescind on purpose from such a prayerful experience is, I think, one of the worst effects of original sin that man can suffer. It can only be countered with prayer, with the simplicity of, well, simply praying. Just lift up heart and soul to the Most High, even… right now…
* * *
Six and half weeks later, February 9, 1964, while I was not quite four years old, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was down in the basement, sitting in an upholstered chair with a little card table in front of me. One of my half-sisters had set this up in a bit of a flurry, possibly knowing what was going to happen next. She put milk on the table along with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She turned on our little black and white television, which was downstairs for the moment, tuning into the Captain Kangaroo Show. I couldn’t understand the point of the Captain Kangaroo Show.
The next thing I know, my other half-sister raced down the steps in zero seconds flat, screaming the whole way and flying straight to the television without, it seems, even using the steps or hitting the floor. “The Beatles! The Beatles!” she screeched again and again, mechanically turning the channel with the T.V.’s primitive gears – kerchunk kerchunk kerchunk kerchunk – to the Ed Sullivan Show. Sure enough, there they were, playing guitars, banging on drums, shaking their heads this way and that. They seemed nice enough, respectable even, given that they were wearing suits and ties and starched white shirts. But the audience was filled with hysterically screaming girls, just like my one sister. The hysterics of it turned my stomach.
The first sister lunged for the television — kerchunk kerchunk kerchunk kerchunk — the Captain Kangaroo Show.
Smack! She was down on the floor. The other sister was screaming something about the Beatles – kerchunk kerchunk kerchunk kerchunk — and they appeared again with the hysterically screaming girls.
This went on, back and forth, with one saying that I wanted to watch the Captain Kangaroo Show and one saying I had to watch the Beatles. Meanwhile, no one asked me. I just went on eating my sandwich and drinking my milk as fast as I could, quietly slithering under the card table to escape being noticed when I was finished. And I was finished with the Kangaroo and all Beatles.
I needed to go for a walk. I went out on the back field between our house and the airport, and found an “ancient” tree house, and was amazed. All was right with the world again. Had I known that it was an old deer hunting station, put there before the city had expanded this far, I would have felt even better. I was in a kind of no-man’s land, not belonging at all to the baby-boomer generation, and certainly not to generation X. I think I was born at a perfect time to be a hermit. I was already figuring out that it’s not about running from something, but a running toward Someone, that is, being drawn by Him, His love, which didn’t mean leaving anyone behind, but rather also embracing mankind more profoundly.
I checked google maps to see if “my” tree was still there. No such luck. Housing developments had taken over everything.
But I can still remember what I loved about the tree house experience. It was a place to figure things out so as to be more immersed in the goings on of the world, separated physically, but embracing mankind more intimately. I did not reason any of this out in the least. That’s just how it was. This is what any hermit worth the name does by way of prayer. How terrible it is that there are so many who think they can run away from everything, everyone, themselves, even God, by way of the all consuming distractions of drugs, liquor, lust, greed and power… But they can also come to themselves and be lifted up by God, if only they would turn to Him in trust, in His grace.
The tree house was my favorite place when I was alone. It was a little oak tree, perhaps no more than fifteen feet high, but very sturdy. The only other tree, way on the other side of the field, must have been eighty feet high, with branches beginning only after fifty feet. No one bothered with it. The tree house in the other, humble tree, wasn’t much more than a couple of boards nailed to the side of the tree, as a kind of ladder, and a board or two to sit on once one had climbed through the labyrinth of branches. This was a little hermitage to me, perhaps something like the stylites of old. I was amazed that people would walk right under the tree and not even know I was there, never lifting their eyes. I would bring books to read in years to come, and a rosary. Mostly, I would just be there, before creation, and before God, before Him whom I was coming to know as the Prince of the Most Profound and Lively Peace.
* * *
The next summer – with me now sporting four and a half years of age – was spent perfecting the new skill of riding a bike without falling down and being gutted by the handlebars, which happened many times. But soon I was flying along at breakneck speed, leaving the longest skid marks I could on the sidewalks and driveways of everyone in the neighborhood. I wouldn’t try any wheelies or other tricks, however, until the next Summer. For now, I was content with my back-peddle brakes.
Flying kites and bouncing superballs high into the air with the neighbor kids – or sometimes off of houses – were occasional pass-times. Baseball, football and basketball, in that order – and none with any rules to speak of – were more frequent. In football, I was always a line-backer, even at inter-varsity school games, to which we arrived in orange school buses with the newfangled fiberglass seats that were good for nothing except magnifying all the bumps in the road. During the games, I was always told just to kill anyone who remained on their feet. If not any of these things, we would sometimes grab any dog we could find and go hunting for the abundant gophers of the back field, who stood up on their two back paws like sentinels of prairie life.
Firecrackers were also usually great fun, though once in a while someone would have to go to the doctor to have their fingers sewn back on. We tended to light the firecrackers and let the wick burn down for a few seconds before throwing it as near someone’s head as we could, that is, near not on. Sometimes this backfired. I don’t know how many times the little bombs exploded within inches of my hands. Once, blowing on a stubborn wick temporarily blinded me as the silly thing exploded in my face. Stupid is as stupid does. Thank God we were not blowing ourselves up like other kids would do in years to come on the other side of the world.
Sometimes danger did not always have its source with us kids. There was someone who lived on the North side of town who was an archer. He liked to get us neighbor kids around him while he shot arrows at his targets. He was an excellent marksman and was fun to watch. But I was afraid. Something wasn’t right. Once he said, “Watch this,” and sent an arrow high, high, way, way up into the sky. It landed, after what seemed like minutes, only about ten feet away. Having gaged the wind in this way, he told my brother to stand about fifteen feet away, just off to the side. I guess my brother didn’t realize the danger. No one went near him. Up the arrow went. No one breathed or blinked. I lost sight of the arrow. It wasn’t coming down. It just wasn’t. And then, thud. My heart stopped. Everyone gasped, but remained speechless. It landed just inches away from my brother’s feet. It could have sunk deep into his skull.
Other than that, if we were really looking for trouble at that age, we would go and check out the concrete company on the other side of the field (now gone), or climb into the old airplanes and helicopters stored in the hangers of the airfield right next to us (also gone).
In the Summer of 1968, when I was but eight years old, Hubert Horatio Humphrey came to town in a DC 3. He was in the middle of a presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. Dad wanted us to be there for pictures since he was the local politician. Catholics were Democrats in those days. But those demographics would change soon enough. Dad called home, and would be going directly to the airport. We were supposed to make our own way there. We knew right where to go, across the back yard, the field – past my hermitage tree – and right down the runway.
What I saw there was not something I liked. Too much hysteria, thought I. Something’s just wrong with all of this. I was supposed to shake his hand, but then stood off to the side a bit. I didn’t understand. He’s just a human being. I didn’t join the antics. A useful trait, that, but one which lands one in trouble. I despise political correctness, the brute force of a mob, as should we all.
* * *
These kind of events, the deaths and assassinations of Popes and Presidents, the blood and guts of the deer, my own death-threat exploding disease, always before me, the arrow almost cutting my brother in two, the superficiality of the hysteria over the Beatles and, in a different way and for different reasons, over Hubert Humphrey, all had a profound effect on me, broadening my vision but in a critical manner. If there was any escapism or any compromise of integrity, anything that was not real, that is, not respectful, was, to me, anathema, to be cut off, abandoned. The way to lead would be to stand back and make an analysis of where things would go and why, always my pet project.
In highschool, the headmaster (who died very young, I think at only 33) gave our class a psychological exam on leadership. The scale, after a zillion answers were given, was from 1-10, with ten maxing out the possibilities. I landed 11.2, which he just could not understand. Leadership is usually defined as that charisma which gathers the sycophantic politically correct to itself, a charisma that is manipulated by the politician according to the mood of the day.
Instead, leadership steps out of the way, letting justice, integrity, patriotism and all good virtues speak for themselves, so that one places not oneself before any crowd, but rather that which is good and holy, the natural law, and Him who provides the wherewithal to follow that law in His good grace, in His goodness and kindness.
One need not be a priest or a politician to provide leadership. One only needs to point people to Jesus. He leads the way. And He has many followers, many who are unsung heroes, but who are heroes indeed. Those who come to mind are, again, those wonderful souls to be found at Lourdes, who ask the Lord to show their neighbors a thing or two about His goodness and kindness. And He does, He being the Prince of the Most Profound Peace.