Friday, February 28, 2014

Woods & Water

Yesterday, Fr. Scott Belina and I went out cross-country skiing at the Visitors Interpretive Center in Paul Smiths.  It was his first time and, despite some "mechanical" issues and VERY fast/icy conditions, he still seemed to genuinely enjoy himself.  What a good sport!  (We're both feeling the after effects today.)  With a few minor detours, we followed the 3-mile "Woods + Water Trail" from from end to end, and then back again.  It was pretty cold out, but still a great day to be in the woods.  A few scenes from from our little trek...

Sunday, February 23, 2014


A very happy afternoon: on my niece's fourth birthday, after Play-Doh, it was "tea time"...

As Abby says (in her finest British accent), "Chip chip cheerio!"


   Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time    

A truck driver stops in a restaurant
and orders himself a big, juicy steak.
But before he gets to take the first bite,
a rough-and-tumble motorcycle gang comes barging in.
They take the man’s steak, cut it into pieces,
and eat the whole thing between themselves.
The trucker driver says nothing;
he simply pays his bill and walks out.
The bikers are stunned.
“Must be that trucker can’t talk,” says one,
“since he didn’t speak a word.”
“And must be he can’t fight,” says another,
“since he didn’t lift a hand.”
“Must be he can’t drive, either,” adds the waiter,
“since he just ran over every one of your motorcycles
as he pulled out of the parking lot.”

Not exactly “turn the other cheek”…

Again this week,
we hear Jesus delivering part of his famous Sermon on the Mount.
As a preacher, he pulls no punches.
Last week, Jesus took on angry thoughts, hurtful words,
lustful looks, divorce, remarriage,
and keeping your word.
This week, it’s our distorted sense of justice:
our instincts about retaliation,
about who we ought to love and who we ought to hate.

With so many hot button topics on the table,
so many ways he’s challenging us
to change our basic approach to relating with one another,
we can completely miss Jesus’ most controversial words of all.
And what are they?
Well, he repeats them over and over:
You have heard it said…but I say to you…

So…where’s the controversy in that?
When Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said…”
he’s citing the Old Testament law—
one of the easily recognized Ten Commandments
or another of hundreds of dictates and decrees.
“You’ve heard it said…”
Who said it in the first place? 
Who’s the author of that Old Testament law?
Any Jew who heard Jesus speaking
could have told you that that law was the very word of God.
And to dare to claim to have the authority
to edit, rework, or—heavens!—actually change that sacred law
would be to claim to be equal to God himself.

The only one who gets to alter God’s law is God.

Do you hear what Jesus is saying between the lines?
“If you’re going to follow me,
and if you want to be heirs of all that I promise,
then you have to believe that I am God
…and that will change everything.”

And that, my friends, is something far, far more revolutionary
than “turn the other cheek.”

Fifty years ago, the Catholic Church
was in the midst of the Second Vatican Council.
And ever since then, there have been cries from many corners
to keep alive the “spirit of Vatican II.”
Twenty-one times in her long history—
on average, once every hundred years or so—
the Church has found it necessary
to pretty much stop everything for just a while
to do some real soul-searching—
addressing the pressing questions and controversies of the times—
and to get everything back on track.
And when a Council is over,
the Church gets back down to business—
to proclaiming the gospel, caring for the poor,
setting the heavy-burdened free—
stronger and more focused
for having taken the time to look deeply into her own heart.

Vatican II, we know,
sparked some significant changes in the Church—
in some ways bringing things more up-to-date,
while in other ways getting us back closer to our roots.
But the desire to “keep alive” the spirit of the Council
may have gotten us a bit off course.
For the last 50 years, you see,
the Catholic Church has been in a nearly constant state of change,
which can give the false impression
that everything about her—
whether conventional discipline or essential doctrine—
is totally up for grabs.
That leaves the Church rather unsettled
and with a bit of an identity crisis.
It also leads to factions and in-fighting.
Just think about how quickly anything said by Pope Francis these days
is heralded as proof for one side’s argument over the other’s.
Little wonder we have trouble keeping current members
and attracting new ones in recent years.
Who wants to part of an outfit whose main purpose 
seems simply to be figuring itself out?  (cf. R. Barron)

It’s high time we get back down to business!

The mission and teaching of the Church are not ours to alter at will—
to remake according to our own preferences
or pressure from the surrounding culture.
Not even the Pope himself
nor the Cardinals now assembled with him in Rome get to do that.
The Lord alone gets to do the changing, if any change is to take place—
and when the Lord wants to change things,
he generally starts by changing us from the inside.

Be perfect, just as your Father is perfect.
Jesus has a set an incredibly high standard—
so high, that it can leave us disheartened.
Why couldn’t he have just suggested
that we become “basically good people”?
Our own efforts will always leave us less than “perfect.”
We still want to side with that trucker!
But the heart of the Gospel—the really good news
is that we can become perfect:
not by our own human power,
but by the grace of God offered us in his Son, Jesus Christ.
It is because Jesus is God
that we are able—in him—to become more and more like God.
If he were merely a good person, an exemplary moral teacher,
then Jesus would be able to do nothing of lasting value for us.
But because he is true God and true man,
because he is Redeemer and Lord,
Jesus can transform us
into ever more worthy temples of his Holy Spirit.  (cf. J. Janaro)

Are we ready to get back to business?
Ready for some real change?
If so, then:
Jesus, change us!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Me & My Meme

Either we don't have enough work to do around here...or we're doing a really good job of avoiding it.

Fr. Tom posted this on his Facebook page.  In less than 60 seconds, it had it's first "Like."  Amazing....

Out On My Own

February is getting on, and the forecast is making snow conditions for the rest of the month a bit of a wildcard, so securing the second month of my year-long challenge was getting crucial.  I checked in with Fr. Scott Belina, who had expressed interest in camping out again...but we just couldn't make our schedules line up with the time we each had available.  (We may explore some backcountry next week...but not overnight.)  So if I was going to spend a night out in February, it looked like I would have to do it solo...and that's just what I did on Wednesday-Thursday.  I'd just re-watched Into the Wild on Sunday evening, so I was pumped to give this a try.  (Don't worry: I have NO plans to take off for Alaska!)

My destination was the Grass Pond lean to, along the Hays Brook horse/XC ski trails in the Debar Mountain Wild Forest (named for the summit I mostly climbed a week earlier)--about 30 miles south of here, not too far outside of Paul Smiths.  It's an area I've skied and snowshoed before several times, as well as hiked through in warmer seasons: very familiar turf for my first night alone in the woods.

It's about 2 miles in from the parking area to the lean to (although the DEC sign at the register says it's 3, and I've seen other sources that cut it down to about 1.75).  About 3:30pm Wednesday afternoon, I strapped on my snowshoes, hitched up my pack, and headed in.

The trail soon crosses a narrow portion of the Osgood River (flowing northward out of Osgood Pond, where last March I went ice fishing) and then winds just a bit through rather gentle terrain on its way to Grass Pond.

I got to my home-away-from-home nearly exactly an hour later.  My first task was to gather some firewood while daylight was on my side.  This would be much more for ambiance than to provide a necessary heat source.  After all, the forecast was for the upper teens above zero overnight--almost 30 degrees warmer than my last camping expedition--and very little wind.  After that, I unpacked all my gear and started to settle in.

I really had deluxe accommodations: there was a comfy bed and a gourmet kitchen...

...plenty of storage and a private bath...

...and then, of course, there was the lovely view right out the front window...I mean the front door...I mean...whatever...

And did I mention the beautiful fireplace?

I passed the evening by saying my prayers (there's no vacation from one's vocation) and reading--great ways to soak up the peace and quiet--and took my leisure in the morning, enjoying a second cup of tea after breakfast.

(If you're wondering where I got such unique tea, Fr. Tom brought it back for me from Alabama.  "It Just Soothes My Soul.")

But my full time occupation really was staying warm, a task for which I was given invaluable assistance by my down filled booties:

You may mock them for their "moon boot" appearance...but they sure get the job done when you're winter camping!

When everything was all packed up again late Thursday morning, I took a few steps out onto the frozen pond to take in the sights...

...and then it was back on the trail, making the two-mile return trip to the trailhead and my car.  I shaved about 10 minutes off my time walking in...but probably because I'd also shaved about 10 pounds from the weight of my pack, having eaten my food and used 3/4 of my water.

Of course, after enjoying such deluxe accommodations, one must be sure to sign the guest book.

On the way out, I met up with a family on skis: mom, three kids, and dad bringing up the rear.  He and I stopped for moment to make small talk.  He inquired a bit about my overnight, and we then chatted about the weather and what it was doing to the trail conditions.  He then asked, "So you're headed back to work tomorrow?"  I barely stopped myself from answering, "Yup!  Back to the real world!"  

I thought about that comment all the rest of the way.  

People keep asking, "Why?" when they hear about my short forays into the wilderness. I think I'd have to say, "It's to stay in touch with the real world."  So much of our day-to-day existence has gotten so very artificial: from the food we eat to the environments in which we live to the ways we communicate with one another.  When you're camping, everything necessarily stays pretty real.  Life is reduced to the essentials, and there's not much room for pretense.

I'll hopefully have another overnight to report to you in March.

In the meantime, keep it real.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


After Mass today a local judge told me that a local lawyer used to have a license plate which read, "LOOPHOLE"...

   Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time    

The kids were lined up for lunch at the local Catholic school.
At the head of the serving table was a large bowl of apples.
After watching the bowl carefully for awhile,
Sr. Mary Matilda wrote a note
and posted it by the apples:
Take only ONE.  God is watching!
The children kept moving down the line,
and at the other end of the table
found a large tray of chocolate chip cookies.
Looking at that tray,
one of the boys quickly wrote a note
and posted it next to the cookies:
Take all you want.  God is watching the apples.

He’s a different kind of religious leader, they say.
He smiles a lot and he’s very kind.
He has such compassion for the poor.
He’s so gentle with the sick.
Have you seen how he embraces little children?
He’s always talking about God’s mercy 
and about forgiveness.
He keeps reaching out to those on the margins—
even to those who aren’t religious at all.

If I were to now add:
And he made the front cover of Rolling Stone,
you’d guess I was speaking about Pope Francis.
But the above could easily have been said about Jesus—
and probably was;
it’s exactly the sort of thing which might have prompted
Jesus’ teaching on the law in this Sunday’s Gospel.
Why?  Because it’s the sort of thinking
which would have let a whole bunch of people 
write him off much too easily.

We have an awfully complicated relationship with rules.
That goes all the way back to Adam and Eve.
God gave them just one…and they still blew it.
And ever since,
we’ve been working hard to find ways around them.
Whether it’s our parents or the police,
Sr. Mary Matilda or God himself,
we keep hoping we might get away with something—
whether big or small:
to break the rules, and not get caught.

Oh, if we could only heal our relationship with the law!

Get out on the open road,
and we chafe at having to obey the speed limit…
…but imagine how dangerous the roads would be
without any traffic laws at all.
It’s safe to say that very few people
enjoy learning all the rules of spelling and grammar…
…but it would be nearly impossible
to communicate effectively without them.
(Of course, texting and Twitter
are already giving us a taste of that…)
And there would be no sports at all—
leave alone the Olympics we’re all enjoying—
if it weren’t for the regulations.

We’ve got this mistaken sense—
borne of that original sin, of course—
that laws are made to prevent us from having any fun,
to prevent us from having a full and fruitful life…
…when quite the opposite is the case:
law is there to make life and joy possible
and—in the case of God’s law—
to make eternal life and joy possible for us.

What if we decided to look at the law
not as a burden, but as a gift?
What if we chose to approach it as something set in place
not to keep us down, but to lift us up?

You see, that’s precisely God’s perspective on the matter!
The Lord’s not watching over our shoulders like a petty tyrant
bent on dictating  what to do or not to do.
Instead, God has given us sure standards
for becoming who we ought to be—
for becoming the men and women he created us to be.
God has done so because he loves us—
loves us absolutely.
And there’s nobody more qualified to show us the way!

It’s been a year already since Pope Benedict announced his resignation,
and the world’s still clearly in its honeymoon phase
with his successor, Pope Francis.
But listen carefully to what the Pope has to say—
and not only to all the superficial reports about him
in the popular press—
and you’ll realize that he’s not “softening up”
on Church teaching or discipline,
as so many have hastily concluded;
in fact, the Pope’s actually calling us to something more:
to a more intense faith,
and to a more radical way of living it out.

And that’s just what Jesus did, too.
It’s not enough that you avoid killing your brother;
you must also avoid angry thoughts or hurtful words about him.
It’s not enough for you to shun illicit sexual encounters;
lust first takes hold in the eyes, the mind, and the heart—
and that’s where it must be plucked out by the roots.
Don’t be concerned about telling the truth only when you’re under oath;
always give your word and keep it—period.
I haven’t come to abolish the law; I’ve come to fulfill it.

Actor and comedian W. C. Fields 
was by no means a religious man.
Which is why a friend was so surprised
to see him with a Bible shortly before he died.
Asked what he was doing,
Fields replied, “Been lookin’ for loopholes…”

Let’s stop looking for loopholes
in the rules laid down for us by God,
and instead start looking for guidance in living—
guidance with an eternal guarantee.
Let’s obey Gods commands
not begrudgingly, not with heavy hearts,
but with joy—
and let’s teach others to do likewise.
They are, after all, the pathway to life.

Blessed are they
who follow the law of the Lord!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Raising Debar

Today's adventure took me to 3305 foot Debar Mountain--not a "high peak," but one of the highest near here (about 20 miles south of Malone).  An 1872 guidebook referred to it as "a savage looking peak."  "Savage" is a pretty strong word, but when I saw it across Clear Pond as I started out from NYS Route 30 at the entrance to Meacham Lake State Campground, I had my concerns about what I was setting out to do...

That's Black Peak in the foreground, Debar standing tall behind.

A 1.25 mile ski took me through the campground to the trailhead.  It's 3.7 miles from there to the summit, with an over 1600 foot gain in elevation--half of it in the last half mile.  More on that later...

The next 1.2 miles of trail where shared with snowmobilers (although I didn't see very many of them), and then it was a left turn deeper into the woods.  I kept the skis on for quite awhile further (probably further than I should have) before switching to snowshoes when the trail started to climb a bit more.

Before the last "big push" (mentioned above), there's an old lean to (some of the graffiti is dated from the mid-1960's) that's pretty rough around the edges, but was a perfect place for a bite and a break.

The lean to would also prove to be my final destination for the day.  It was 2:30pm, a storm was forecast to be rolling in, I still had better than 4 miles back to the car without pushing ahead any further...and I'd promised to make dinner tonight.

I'd gotten a much closer look at Debar, but the summit will have to wait for another day.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Same Farm, Different Day

I was out again, but this afternoon it was on snowshoes.  What a beautiful day for a walk in the woods...

Sunday, February 9, 2014

In the Field

Making tracks in fresh snow on a parishioner's "farm" today...



To answer the question on everyone's mind: we had pork chops.

   Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time    

Since the days of Advent,
right up to last Sunday’s feast of the Presentation of the Lord,
we’ve been reflecting quite a bit on light…
…so this Sunday, I thought it best for us
to get salty instead.

Last Sunday was the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life,
so last Saturday night Fr. Tom and I hosted
the Ursuline Sisters and the Grey Nuns for dinner.
It was a delightful evening.
But it’s always a challenge
when you have Sr. Rita Frances over for a meal:
she’s rather allergic to garlic…
…and garlic is in a lot more things than you ever stop to realize.
But even when you’ve certified that all the food is 100% garlic-free,
there’s another issue Sister must face:
following surgery a few years back,
she lost nearly all of her sense of taste.
Being a bit of a “foodie,”
I can’t begin to imagine what a heavy cross that would be!
You keep eating, of course, because you still get hungry
and you need to fuel your body,
and you chew every bite to get it down,
but without any of the usual delight that flavor brings.
Which is precisely why Sr. Rita Frances
was giddy as a schoolgirl last Saturday night:
for some reason, she could taste everything that I brought to the table.
It was like I’d sprinkled it with pixie dust or something.
She practically floated out the door—so happy was she—
when dinner was over,
and was still talking glowingly about the meal on Friday.

“You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus.

Salt is the most common of seasonings.
There’s hardly a recipe in which salt does not show up.
It’s a rather ordinary part of our daily lives.
Jesus is telling us that we Christians need to be everywhere,
that our faith needs to be brought to bear on every aspect of life.
Not something reserved for special occasions,
our relationship with him must be a part of everyday living.
Like salt, we should get into everything,
so that Jesus can get into everything.

As a seasoning, salt doesn’t exist for it’s own sake.
Salt is used to enhance other flavors.
(No one sits down to eat a plate of it alone, after all.)
When used properly, salt is a humble seasoning:
not drawing attention to itself,
but highlighting flavors which are already there—
bringing out the best in whatever it touches.
Likewise, Jesus is telling us that we Christians
don’t manufacture God’s presence or grace;
our mission is to make them more evident—
not working for our own sakes but for those of others,
and not—like salt—drawing the attention to ourselves.

Salt isn’t only used to season food;
it’s also used to preserve it.
In an age before refrigeration, especially in a hot climate,
uncured meat would go bad rather quickly.
In a world filled with corrupting powers,
we need spiritual preservatives, too,
to prevent souls from being spoiled.
Jesus is telling us that salty Christians, sprinkled all around,
must have that saving effect.

And while salt is used to season,
it’s not like herbs and spices which are blended in
merely for our pleasure or amusement.
Salt is an essential nutrient for life—necessary and indispensible.
Jesus is telling us that the world would be in rather tough shape
if we weren’t in the mix making his presence known.

Is it possible to add too much salt?
Of course. 
And when salt is overdone,
it not only ruins the taste of things
but is also bad for your health.
Yet on a spiritual level,
the greater danger is not too much salt, but too little.
Christians who fail to stay salty—
who lose touch with their purpose in the world,
who become untrue to their Christ-given mission—
aren’t good for very much else.

Does your faith give flavor and relish to your life?
Is it the joyful seasoning which enhances everything else?
A healthy preservative from temptation and sin?
An essential nutrient you can’t live without?
Because if the salt of faith has gone flat for you,
then it’s going to be hard to go out
and be salty for others.

We live in a world that has lost much of its sense of taste.
Many folks keep trying to tickle their taste buds…
…but end up swallowing all the wrong things.
In an otherwise dull, even bitter, existence,
the world around us desperately needs Christians
filled with zest and joy, with zeal and enthusiasm.
Let Jesus season your life—all of it—
and then go:
be the salt of the earth.