Sunday, September 28, 2014


   Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A  

It’s been kind of fun to be with Fr. Justin
as he experiences a North Country autumn for the first time.
From the way he describes it,
his part of India doesn’t really have the four seasons:
they have almost nonstop monsoon rains in June, July, and August,
but then during the rest of the year
the weather remains pretty much the same.

Needless to say, Fr. Justin has noticed
how much changes here in the fall.
He’s noticed the temperature changing.
(No one is more grateful for these warm and sunny days!)
He’s noticed the changing flavors;
it seems that apples are rare and expensive in India,
and pumpkin is a brand new taste to him.
And then there have been the changing leaves.
Fr. Howard Venette took him
on a hike up St. Regis Mountain Friday afternoon,
and he couldn’t stop talking about the view from the top:
the surrounding Adirondack peaks, the many lakes,
and—of course—the bright, colorful leaves.

Driving around a few days ago,
Fr. Justin asked me a very logical question:
“Why do the leaves change color?”
While it’s something we locals just take for granted,
it wasn’t all that obvious to him.
So I told him, “Actually, it’s because they’re dying.”
I had to clarify:
it’s not the whole tree that’s dying, but just the leaves.
The leaves must change and fall each year
so the tree can survive through the cold and dark of winter.


Jesus challenges us with the story of two sons,
both of whom changed their minds:
one of them really needed to,
while the other ought not have.

It’s been said that the only person in the entire world
who actually welcomes change…is a wet baby.
Nonetheless, change comes.
It’s an unavoidable part of life.
We experience change in our personal lives,
in our families, in our work,
in our country and community, in our culture and society,
even in our Church.
In general, we don’t take change very well,
nor make some changes very easily.

Certainly, and with good reason,
there are many things upon which we depend
to be steady and stable.
But it’s a rather dangerous illusion to think
that everything can and should stay just the same.
How often we get things backwards—
desperately trying to hang on to the wrong things,
but all-too-willing to let the right ones go!
We’re like a tree prepared to lose its trunk and limbs
because it hates to shed its green leaves
as winter approaches.
No question about it:
the dying part of change is always hard.
But changing, letting go—yes, even dying—
opens the way to something beautiful and glorious
which we’d otherwise completely miss.

God, who is unchanging and unchangeable,
freely chose to humble himself,
taking on our human nature and dying on a cross.
We are to make this attitude of Christ our own.

What needs changing in my life?
Are there sins from which I need to turn?
Do I hang on to old ways simply because they’re comfortable,
not because they’ve fruitful or virtuous?
Have I been looking out only for my own interests?
And what ought I not to have changed in my life?
Are there people whom I’ve failed?
Are there principles I’ve compromised or abandoned?
Do my words say one thing but my deeds another?

Take a lesson from the autumn leaves.
Be unafraid to change whatever needs changing.
Instead of fighting change, embrace it—
and your life just might take on a new and more brilliant color.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Back in the Hole

My last night on the Northville-Plaicd Trail (September 25, 2013) was spent at Duck Hole--a beautiful basin on the edge of the High Peaks which is crossed by the Cold River.  (Formerly damned and turned into a rather large pond, the dam was blown out by Hurricane Irene and will not be replaced.)  Almost a year to the day later, with the autumn leaves nearing their peak, and the weather being pretty spectacular, Fr. Scott Belina and I headed in to pay a visit and stay the night on Wednesday-Thursday.

I know, I know...I already had two nights camping out earlier this month...but I couldn't pass up an opportunity like this!

We'd be approaching Duck Hole from a new starting point for me: the Upper Works trailhead outside of Newcomb.  The road in takes you through the Adirondack's own genuine ghost town, past the remains of the 1854 blast furnace of the McIntyre iron mine (which is much, MUCH larger than the picture makes it look) and a few crumbling buildings of the later Tahawus Club.

We passed some really, really beautiful spots after hitting the trail (including at least one we're seriously thinking of coming back to enjoy again)...

We also had to make a tricky detour around some "new construction" beaver.  First, it seems, they redirected the stream right onto the trail--flooding it.  Not yet satisfied, they then built another damn...right across the trail!  I didn't take any pictures of that mess.

Eventually, we made it to the edge of Duck Hole and it's somewhat eerie landscape.

We had the place totally to ourselves, so we chose the better of the two lean-tos and had no trouble at all making ourselves feel right at home.

We also had a completely clear night, which made possible some rather amazing stargazing.  After a quiet night and a good breakfast, we were back on the trail for the 7 mile return trip.  (Now knowing our way around the "damn dam," we shaved an entire hour off our time heading in.)

It was a great return trip.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Help Wanted

   Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A  

based in large part on a reflection by Fr. Al Lauer

When Pope Saint John XXIII was asked,
“How any people work in the Vatican?”
he famously replied, “About half.”

Elsewhere in the gospel, we hear Jesus say,
“The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few” (Mt 9:37).
That can sound pretty surprising to folks
in these days of soaring unemployment rates.
Besides, bringing in the harvest
is generally the most enjoyable part of the job—
better than plowing or planting, fertilizing or weeding.
Not to mention the Lord has a reputation for paying pretty well:
a full day’s wage for barely an hour of work.
You’d think everybody’d be signing up!

According to the Pope, only half truly work in the Vatican.
But how many are willing to work—really work—
in God’s Kingdom?
Why are the laborers so few?

Well—if you agree to work in the Lord’s vineyard
it usually starts with a few odd jobs.
Stick with it awhile, and he then asks you to go full-time.
Before you know it, God wants you to be “on call” 24/7.
In the end, the Lord seeks to have you be more than his worker:
he’ll tell you he wants you to be his slave—
with no pay, no vacation,
setting aside your own life and will for his.

This is, of course, 
why the Lord has so many openings
but gets so few applications.
If we are willing to work for him,
most of us only want a part-time position, at best.
In fact, 
I’ve met a few Catholics over the years
(maybe you have, too)
who give the distinct impression
that the Lord should feel lucky 
he gets them for an hour a week—
and they’d prefer an even shorter shift
at a time that doesn’t interfere
with anything else on their schedule.

Most of you remember Fr. Martin Cline.
He’s got a great t-shirt that reads:
“I work for the Lord.
The pay is low…but the benefits are out of this world!”

Now, I want to avoid giving the false impression
that working for the Lord full-time
must mean becoming a priest or a nun.
Far, far from it!
Every one of us was assigned a job in the vineyard
on the day we were baptized.
But if the average Catholic has lost the sense
that their whole life—no matter their specific vocation—
ought to be given to the Lord and his service,
then we shouldn’t be too surprised that so few these days
are willing to leave the pew for the pulpit
or the choir for the convent.

To be a slave of Jesus Christ
is not a punishment or disgrace, but a privilege.
You see, this sort of slavery
is utterly devoid of mistreatment and cruelty;
it’s one, rather, we must willingly embrace.
And it’s not about working for pay or any other reward;
it’s simply about doing what’s requested or needed,
what’s right and our duty—
even if we don’t understand it 100%.
It’s the sort of thing we admire when we see parents
become the slaves of their newborn baby,
or a husband of his terminally ill wife,
or adult children of a frail and elderly parent.
To be the Lord’s slave is not the slavery of forced labor;
it’s the freely accepted slavery of love.

How many of us have heeded the call
and gone to work in the vineyard?

“My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
Thanks be to God that his work ethic is not like ours!
The Almighty might have stopped creating before the sixth day
and never gotten around to making the human race.
Or Jesus might have stayed in that carpenter’s shop,
knowing it’d be much less demanding to work with wood
than to save the world by dying on it—
himself becoming our slave in order to set us free.

God’s ways may not be our ways,
but we can certainly make our ways more like God’s.
Start with a few odd jobs for the Kingdom.
Before you know it, you’ll be doing slave labor…
…and nothing—I promise—this side of heaven
can make you any happier.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Above Debar

Ever since I didn't quite make it to the top while ascending on XC skis and snowshoes back in February, nearby Debar Mountain has taunted me every time I see it when heading south on Route 30.  Yesterday afternoon was finally time to settle the score.  The steep slope at the end (I think it's about 800 feet elevation gain in a half a mile) brought us to some pretty sweet views of the sun almost ready to set...which also meant it was pretty dark before we got all the way back down again.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Gladly Bearing

"Who would not be glad to bear a [pack] that does not press hard but caresses?              Who would not be glad for a burden that does not weigh heavy but refreshes?"  
                                                                                              St. Robert Bellarmine (slightly adapted)

Today has me thinking back fondly to one year ago:
to the first steps of a fine, long walk in the woods...

Monday, September 15, 2014


From yesterday's funnies...but somehow appropriate to today's feast of Our Lady of Sorrows:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Our Trophy

   The Exaltation of the Holy Cross   
At this time last Sunday morning,
I was on the last leg of a three-day race:
Even though we had registered in the noncompetitive class,
it’s the first race I’ve entered in my life;
it was the first time I’ve crossed a finish line.
What a joy it was to have my mother, a few brother priests,
and some of our parishioners waiting there to greet me!
(I’m sure you won’t be too surprised to know
that I could hear Fr. Tom cheering loudly from the shore
long before I could see him!)

We hadn’t been back on dry land of few minutes
when Fr. Justin asked the question: 
“Do you get a medal for this?  Or another award?”
It was perfectly obvious to him
that after completing such an demanding feat
a person ought to receive some token of recognition.
He seemed satisfied when I told him that,
after every boat was off the water 
and all our times were calculated,
each person who completed the race 
would be given a pin.
For us first-timers, the pin says, “90 Miles.”
For my paddling companion, finishing his seventh race,
it reads, “630 Miles.”
And for the two folks—one man and one woman—
who’ve completed the race 
31 of the 32 times it’s been held,
their pins record, “2,790 Miles.”
It’s a small memento, not a gold medal—
a trinket, really, rather than a grand trophy—
but I gained a sense of accomplishment 
that was pretty big
along with my little red pin.

Today, the Church celebrates her great and sacred trophy:
the Most Holy Cross of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
We Christians wear it like a medal about our necks.
We raise it high in triumph—
in procession, atop our churches, on the walls of our homes.

But the Cross is a trophy unlike any other.

To begin with, Jesus did all the work
that we might receive the rewards.
By his Passion, Death, and Resurrection,
the Lord humbled and emptied himself
that we might be exalted and know the glory of God.
The achievement to which the Cross points is entirely his,
while the prize Christ won is totally on our behalf.

The Cross is also a rather ironic trophy.
To those who first saw it, 
there was nothing at all victorious about the Cross;
it was a shameful instrument of humiliation and defeat.
But much like the venomous serpent
which had been a sign of deception and disobedience and death,
so the Cross is likewise transformed into a beacon of healing and hope
for those who look to it with faith.
God has the uncanny ability to turn our most crushing losses
into our most significant wins.

And although every other trophy is a matter of past achievement,
the Cross is one that holds a promise for the future:
its for a race we haven't even finished yet.
The Son of Man has been lifted up
that a world once condemned might not perish,
but experience the fullness salvation—now and forever.
Beams of dead wood have become the tree of life,
bearing a fruitful harvest for eternity.

I may be pretty proud of my 90-Miler pin…
…but I’ve been saved by the Cross—
a trophy that points to the only finish line which matters:
the gate of heaven.

V.    We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you:
R/.  because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

More than Condoms & Facebook

After reading a front page piece last week in another local paper, I wrote the following as the weekly religion column in today's edition of The Malone Telegram.

Recently, Public Health made a presentation to the County Legislature on the topic of teen pregnancy.  (The percentage of births from unplanned pregnancies in Franklin Country is higher than that in surrounding counties and the state average.)  The subject at hand got my attention, of course—but more on that later.  What really caught my eye was that one of our legislators asked if Public Health anticipated any “backlash” or “resistance from religious groups.”

A couple of thoughts immediately crossed my mind.

First, I began to wonder if the reactions of people of faith to matters of common concern in American life have grown so sharp, so shrill, in recent years that we’ve caused ourselves to be considered little more than a loud nuisance or an outright obstacle to solving social problems.  If that is indeed the case, then shame on us.  We’ve shot ourselves in the foot.  We’ve forfeited our place in the public square.

But then I also began to wonder if faith-based voices weren’t just being hastily discounted as old-fashioned or unenlightened.  That, too, would be quite a shame.  I can’t speak for anyone else’s religious tradition, but the Catholic Church has just shy of 2,000 years of experience under it’s belt when it comes to promoting moral standards—a guide for living upon which entire societies and noble cultures have been built.  Sure, we haven’t always gotten it right, but an honest look at history will show that we’ve had many more successes than failures.  (It’s particularly ironic that such insights could be tossed aside as irrelevant or ill informed in an age when “tolerance” is our highest value.)

I suspect the truth of the matter, however, is a bit of both.

When Public Health presented its plan to the Legislature for addressing teen pregnancy, a prime motivation given was a financial one: that reducing pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases would save Franklin County money.  Providing our young people with condoms and information via Facebook were essentially proposed as cost-cutting measures.

What troubles me here is the failure to see people as people, rather than as problems.  You don’t “fix” people the way you fix a broken budget.  You educate people—and not just in the mechanics of their reproductive systems, but in the far more wondrous workings of the human spirit.  And you ennoble people, helping them to recognize their innate dignity.  None of these problems will go away as long as we let stand the commonly accepted notion that sex can be a recreational activity free of any conequences, rather than a truly human act with deep meaning and purpose.   Facebook pages and free condoms may appear to address a few of the unhappy symptoms we can all recognize, but they can never get to the heart of what’s really gone wrong.

You might be thinking, “But that’s not the role of a government agency!”  And I’d say that you’re precisely right.  Yet there are experienced experts in this field, and we’re already right here in the community.

We’re all in this together.  Give us a chance to contribute.  We’ll try not to shout.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

90 Miles

Only once did I ever sign up up for a competitive sport, and that was when I was on the basketball team of St. Peter's School for two seasons in junior high.  (You'll notice I didn't say that I "played basketball" for two seasons...just that I was on the team.)

That is, until now.

On Sunday afternoon, I completed the Adirondack Canoe Classic--the annual 90 mile paddling race from Old Forge to Saranac Lake.  And while we weren't registered in a competitive class, it was still a race...and I crossed a finish line for the first time in my life.

And it was awesome.

I'm so grateful to my canoeing companion, Rev. Lawrence Bartel, the pastor of Niccolls Memorial Presbyterian Church in Old Forge.  He's completed the race a few times before, and his persistence in asking me to do this over the 8 years I've known him finally paid off.  "If you could hike the Northville-Placid Trail," he said, "you can paddle the 90-Miler."  I'm so glad I (eventually) believed him.

Our smiles are a real testament that three full days in a canoe hadn't hurt our friendship, but only helped it to grow.  Prior to the race, we'd already been dubbed the "Holy Rowers," and an anonymous benefactor gifted us with T-shirts.  Along the way, we picked up a second title: the "Paddling Pastors."

My bright red hat was worn for purely practical purposes: to keep the hot sun off Friday and Sunday, and to keep the cold rain off on Saturday.  It's notable color was purely for financial reasons: it was on sale!  Nonetheless, it became a "thing" as we made our way across many an Adirondack waterway (20 distinct ones, by my calculations), with a surprising number of our fellow paddlers tossing compliments in my direction.  Unfortunately, at about mile 89, the wind tossed my red hat right off my head and into the lake.  Our official cumulative time after three days on the water was 19:03:21; that three minutes is, no doubt, thanks to rescuing my headgear.  ("No hat left behind," as some fellow paddlers commented.)

We were cheered on from our very first strokes as we left Old Forge Pond (we're the boat immediately to the left of the hardcore guy on the stand-up paddle board)... we toted our canoe over the 8 carries of the race (total of 5.35 miles on land), and as we crossed the floating finish line in Lake Flower.

It was most encouraging to have my own entourage of fans waiting there on the shore in Saranac Lake, including my mom, brother priests, parish staff members, and parishioners.  As we were in the home stretch, I could actually hear them over the rest of the crowd (I'm pretty sure that was mostly thanks to Fr. Tom).  I'm so grateful to everybody who came out to support us along the way!

I wish I had some pictures for you of the amazing sights seen on our watery route...but putting down your paddle to take photos just isn't a priority when you're racing.

We camped overnight Friday and Saturday at Fish Creek Ponds with the very capable assistance of our "pit crew," Lawrence's father, father-in-law, and son.

Injuries were minor, thank God: muscles were sore, a little sunburn here-and-there, a few unexplained cuts.  My most troublesome first aid issue was rather ironically on my feet: bleeding blisters on both of my heels were already in full effect when we were on just the second carry of day one.   (There's nothing quite like watching a little pool of your own blood slosh around in the muddy bottom of your boat to give you a real sense of accomplishment.)

I would have never guessed what 90 miles in a canoe would have done for me.  For one thing, it gave me two nights of camping out--bringing me a month closer to a year-long goal.  But I also made some new and interesting friends.  ("We might look like normal people," one of the organizers said of the paddling community during daily announcements on the last day, "but we're not.")  I took in some truly incredible scenery.  And I discovered a strength within myself that I didn't even know might be there.