In Memoriam: Dan McGinn

I got word that a very important person in my life died on March 6th. His name is Fr. Dan McGinn. Like me, he was a member of the Society of St. Columban. Dan was 15 years older than me. He came from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Before I met him, he had been a missionary in Japan for seven years. I studied with him in Rome from 1968 through 1972.

Dan and I hit it off as soon as he arrived at Corso Trieste 57, my second year in Rome. There, while I was studying moral theology at the Academia Alfonsiana, he worked in the Vatican – at the Secretariat for Non-Christians.

Dan usually sat directly across from me at our long dining room table, where the 20 or so men stationed with us in Rome ate three times each day. Three of us were Yanks, the others were Micks, Aussies, Brits and New Zealanders.

It was there that we all had such lively and memorable conversations about our studies, the church, theology, politics, and world events in general. Dan usually took great delight in playing the provocateur. The resulting discussions were intense. In fact, I’ve never experienced anything as consistently stimulating since those heady days following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).

Dan used to say that if he ever became a bishop (fat chance!), he’d do the expected and adopt an episcopal coat of arms for himself. He never described the shape of the shield he’d design.

But he was clear about the motto he’d have emblazoned on the banner below it. It would read, he said, “No More Bullshit!”

That was the kind of priest Dan was. He was a rebel. And, I guess, so was I. In many ways, I wanted to be like Dan. I considered him my mentor.

More than anything else, he taught me how to say Mass. I remember the first time I concelebrated with him in our chapel at the Columban house. There were probably five of us participating, and Dan had the lead role. He astonished me. He made the whole thing up.

No reading of prayers. No following the prescribed and inviolable eucharistic scripts. Instead, everything was ad-lib. For instance, even at the consecration – the most sacred part of the Mass – Dan said something like: “On the night before he died, Jesus was there in the Upper Room eating supper with his friends. He took a piece of bread and broke it like this (Dan broke the host) and asked them, ‘Do you see how I’m breaking this bread? This is the way my body will be broken for you. Yes, I love you all that much. This is my body which will be given up for you.’”  The form varied each time Dan said it.

It all struck me as so natural – as the way the Mass must have been celebrated before the Roman obsessive-compulsives established such complete control. I resolved then and there that I’d celebrate my Masses like Dan from then on. And that’s what I did.

Even when I got back to the states and worked in Kentucky for the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP), that’s the way I celebrated Mass. And, like me, most of the people in the parishes I served there found it all so natural, very meaningful and completely acceptable. Even now, I marvel that I got away with that.

Dan also helped me when (towards the end of my time in Rome) I found myself re-evaluating my decision to remain a priest. I broke the news to him during a retreat we were on together at the Mundo Migliore Center at Roca di Papa on the edge of Rome. I remember walking together and discussing my “crisis,” and Dan’s advising that it might be a good idea for me to do a year of discernment before taking a final decision. I followed his advice and spent that year I just mentioned working in central Kentucky with the Christian Appalachian Project.

After I finally left the active priesthood and was working at Berea College, I spoke with Dan a few times on the phone. He told me once that he thought President G.W. Bush was “absolutely the worst we’ve ever had.” (At the time, of course, neither of us knew it could go down-hill a lot  further.)

During those years, I also got on Dan’s mailing list for the poetic political commentary he wrote on what amounted to his blog. Then, at the reunions the Columbans held every three years or so at their former seminary-turned-retirement-home in Bristol Rhode Island, I visited Dan each time I attended – once with my wife, Peggy. At one point he was volunteering as a docent at a local museum.

My last encounter with Dan McGinn came last summer during our most recent Columban reunion. By then he was confined to a nursing home. He no longer remembered me, nor our time in Rome. I found that both sad and threatening. He had been so bright, so engaged, so witty and daring. I admired him so.

With that deep admiration, dear Dan, I send you off. Thank you for your friendship and for being such a good priest. Thank you for teaching me how to celebrate Mass. Thank you for your kind guidance. Know that I’ve tried to adopt your motto as my own. I’m trying to remain, like you – committed to a “no more bullshit” life. You succeeded at that for sure! Thanks again.

Life in the High School Seminary and What I Learned: Personal Reflections (Pt. VI)

Vocation

A good friend of mine responded to last week’s “Personal Reflections” by observing that my studies in the minor seminary from 1954-’58 hardly sounded  like what I described as “a standard high school curriculum.” To begin with, there was all that emphasis on classical languages. And then there was the rigor and regularly of the study regime in the absence of television, newspapers, and the distractions of girls and the accompanying social life.

So on second thought, I think my friend might be right. You be the judge.

However, the point here is not to convey information about my youth. It is rather to explain the foundation for my growth in consciousness towards those “crazy ideas” my kids complain about. I’m trying to get at how I grew from American nationalism and Catholic exclusivism to what I’d call a Cosmo-centric Mysticism that centralizes a “preferential option for the poor.” Surprisingly, all of that got its start in the high school seminary I wrote about last week.

Let me say a few more things about that experience and what it taught me. A lot had to do with discipline, survival, and introduction to the spiritual life.

As far as I can recall, our days at the minor seminary in Silver Creek, New York (and throughout my seminary years with suitable variations as we got older) were structured like this:  We got up each morning at 6:30 (7:00 on Sundays). We were in chapel at 7:00 for Morning Prayer followed by Mass and time for prayers of thanksgiving afterwards. Except on special occasions, meals were taken in silence, while we all listened to one of us read from Sacred Scripture, the lives of the saints, or some inspirational book. After breakfast (8:00-8:30) we had “free time” to make our beds and get ready for class at 9:00. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays we had three classes in the morning and one in the afternoon. Wednesdays and Saturdays there was no afternoon class; it was replaced by extended recreation periods during which we engaged in organized sports or outdoor work projects.

Except on Wednesdays and Saturdays, afternoon recreation ran from 12:30 till 2:00. Afternoon class would occupy us till just before 3:00. Then we’d have supervised study hall till 4:30 followed by a half-hour of spiritual reading. (The study hall priest-supervisor would patrol the long lines of desks making sure we weren’t reading novels on the sly.) After that, there was Rosary and Vespers at 5:00, then supper at 5:30. This was followed by a period for chores and recreation till 7:00. Study hall would resume then and run till 8:30, when we’d be allowed a half hour for recreational reading of approved novels.  Night prayer began at 9:00. Lights-out came at 10:00. The Great Silence reigned from night prayer till after breakfast the following morning.

Sundays we’d have a second Mass. And then there’d be intra-mural sports in the morning and extended free time in the afternoon. That’s when we could go on hikes to a nearby Howard Johnsons or somewhere for milkshakes or sundaes. Late Sunday afternoons we had a letter-writing period from 4:00-5:00 to keep us in touch with our families (no phone calls were allowed). Sunday evenings we’d have meetings of the Literary, Scientific, and Debating Society one week and of the Catholic Students’ Mission Crusade the next. We all took turns delivering papers at those meetings and serving as club officers. On special occasions, there’d be a movie. And on really special feasts (like St. Columban’s Day) we’d perform dramatic or comic plays (which, of course, required lots of rehearsals). Most of us got used to being on stage. Much later, in the major seminary (at the age of 24 and 25), I actually had the lead roles in Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” and in “Brother Orchid.”

Of course, not everyone responded to seminary discipline in the same way. Early on I saw that there were three seminarian types. There were those who “jacked around” (That’s what we called it) as much as they could. They took everything with a grain of salt and were always in trouble with the authorities. They fooled around in study hall. They habitually broke the Great Silence.  Eventually all those Jackers got bounced.

Then there were those who were mildly serious about the whole seminary routine; most of the survivors fell into that category. Psychologically they were probably the healthiest of any of us.

Finally there were the “saints.” They never jacked around, or broke the Great Silence. They practiced “custody of the eyes,” and always kept the rules. Almost invariably they were good athletes and smart students. I quickly decided to become like them.

I was “rewarded” (although it didn’t feel like that) by being made senior of my class mid-way through the first term of my freshman year at the Creek. That meant I was the liaison between my 31 classmates and the dean and rector of the seminary. That put me in line to be the Senior of the House (student body president) during my fourth year. That sort of thing happened to me throughout my 13 years of seminary training — mostly because I was a pious, obedient rule-keeper. My guides were a behavior manual called The Young Seminarian along with Thomas a Kempis’ classic The Imitation of Christ.

It also helped that I was trying hard to be a straight-A student. However I never quite made it into that category in the high school seminary. That would come later. Intellectually, I was a late bloomer and in high school had to settle for “Second Honors,” as they called it. My status in the eyes of seminary authorities was also helped by the fact that I liked sports and was good at them. That was important as well in the seminary pecking order among my peers.

While at the Creek, I used to hear our dean, John Healey, repeat, “You can take a boy out of Silver Creek, but you can’t take Silver Creek out of a boy.” I believe he was right. So much of Silver Creek remains part of who I am.

But what exactly has remained from the unusual training I received there. How did it contribute to my crazy ideas? After all, I’ve forgotten the rules for Latin ablative absolutes and how to form the conditional tense of irregular verbs ending in ere. I can no longer even pronounce Greek texts, much less translate them.  When I look at pictures from those days gone by, I can’t, of course, remember everyone’s name.

Yet many lessons remain valid for me. They come largely from the spiritual seeds that were planted so long ago by our unquestionably caring professors. They also come from living in community with boys like me who were the first in their families to aspire to post-secondary education. My peers were the sons of policemen, firemen, delivery truck drivers, and construction workers. (I don’t remember a single one referring to parents who attended college.) I remember all of my companions as clever, high-spirited, and often comically gifted. Many of them remain good friends – among the best I’ve ever had, even though these days we rarely connect directly.

Here are a few of the lasting lessons we learned together from living together, from our professors and from The Rule. Despite appearances, none of them are intended as clichés. I treasure these learnings:

  • There is a fundamental opposition between “the world” and its values and what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God.”
  • The values of “the world” are deceptive, illusory and not worth the effort. They promise happiness as the result of pursuing power, pleasure, profit and prestige. None of those things are what life and happiness are really about.
  • Instead, life is about what I identify as “working-class values:” family, hard work, cooperation, shared common property, and hospitality as opposed getting ahead and accumulating differentiating wealth. (Later on, I’ll share the theory about this – i.e. how the poor actually know much more about life than the rich.)
  • I don’t need much to be content – and I don’t believe anyone does. Shared community, nourishing food, a roof over one’s head, decent clothes (in the major seminary we wore the same outer garments every day) and stimulating ideas (education) are enough. Simple is better than complex.
  • One’s interior life is far more important than exterior comfort. In the end, life and “salvation” are about waking up to the illusions foisted upon us by “the world” and replacing them with the simplicity of the working class values just mentioned.

Personally, it would be many years before I would realize that I learned those things in Silver Creek and later in the major seminary and novitiate. In so many ways, when I left Silver Creek I was still asleep and would remain so for many years. To a great extent I’m still shaking the drowsiness from my head.

“The World” is seductive.

(More about seminary life and its painful lessons next week)

Alexander Being Here Now

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Alexander Kinne-Coyle

This morning’s post is the one I promised last Saturday. This meditation comes from Declan Coyle, a former colleague of mine in the Society of St. Columban, who was ordained in 1969. He later left the priesthood after living for years in slums and poor barrios in the Philippines and Taiwan. Here he reflects on what he and his family have learned from his youngest child, Alexander. Thank you, Declan, for allowing me to share this with my friends.

Alexander
Alexander has Mowat Wilson Syndronme. He cannot eat, walk or speak, and he is doubly incontinent but boy can he communicate.
He is unconditional Love … as near as we’ll ever get to it.
He doesn’t do the past. He doesn’t do the future.
He only does the present.
Here.
Now.
His simple message is always the same:
Be Here Now!
The essence of Zen.

You are only doing what you are doing.
“Chopping wood, drawing water!”

Not the mental noise of the thinking mind goaded into the future by the Ego that cannot live in the now with its victim stories: “how many more years will I have to chop this wood? Why do I always have to draw the water?” “Why is it always me?”

Alexander always invites us to be here now. Fully present. Fully alive. Awake. Aware. Alert.

As Rumi said, “the future and the past veil God from you. Burn both of them with fire.”

He brings all that “be fully present and live with joy in the now” stuff from the gospels alive.
“Take no thought for tomorrow …”
“Look at the flowers of the field how they bloom …”
“Don’t put your hand on the plough and look back … the negative past is a backpack full of manure … learn the life lessons and cut the backpack straps and live fully in the present …”
“Enter through the narrow gate of the now, the present moment …”
“By waiting and calm you will be saved, in quiet and trust your strength lies.” (Isaiah 30:15)
“Be still and know that I am God!”
“Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest.” Mt. 11.28
“Unless you become like little children …”

Like the poet Rumi he says to us,
“Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment, awe and wonder!”

He is God’s gift to us, God, who as St John of the Cross said, hears “the silent language of love.”

Reminding us like Moby Dick author Herman Melville that, “silence is the one and only voice of God!”

Alexander shows us the pearl of great price right there in the centre of our being telling us not to try so hard.
Be one with life.
Go with the flow of life. Let go and let God.
A flower doesn’t work hard or try to bloom. It just does. The sun shines. No effort.

He is all about being here now.
Like the sun, all he wants to do is shine love into our lives even though the clouds of pain often cover his face.
Even then he’s reminding us that we are all children of the resurrection not the crucifixion.

When his laughter returns his constant reminder is to look at the crucifixion, that energy pattern of fear, but not to dwell on it. Not to make the victim-story our home. To look at the darkness, but to proclaim the light.

While we may look at the hands or the side on the Galilean carpenter and victim of abuse, the message is never the victim-story but rather the radical message of new life: “peace be with you, joy be with you!” Not the finger-pointing blaming, “will you look at what they did to me!”

Apart from the times Alexander is in pain, he is almost always smiling, waving and clapping his hands.

P.J. Cunningham saw him at the seafront in Bray one time waving at every single passerby and he said “he’s like a little pontiff!” That little royal or pontifical wave. He is not hard or tough. He is soft. But there is a huge strength in his softness.

Like the Tao Te Ching, Ch. 43:
“The softest thing in the universe overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.”

The ‘softest thing’ referred to is water. We see how, in the course of time, water can erode rock; how, without trouble, it disappears into the earth. Water looks soft, but really is very strong. Because it is silent and unpretentious, seems to have ‘no substance’, it achieves its purpose.

It is not worried about efficiency and profit. But eventually it is more successful than frantic work, because it is based on being.

Non-action tries to imitate this approach. It aims at being, not at producing immediate results. It does not make claims.

Chuang Tzu (300 BC) explains the same idea with reference to the art of target shooting.

“When an archer is shooting for nothing he has all his skill. If he shoots for a brass buckle he is already nervous.

If he shoots for a prize of gold he goes blind or sees two targets – he is out of his mind!

His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him. He cares now about winning.

He thinks more of winning than of shooting and the need to win drains him of power.”

His attachment to the outcome caused him to lose the present, the now, the moment. Process is lost in outcome addiction. The future fear-fuelled focus destroys the now. Fear replaces freedom and fun. Then the action in the now withers and shrivels and loses its free flowing power.

The poet T.S. Eliot captures the doing/being challenge in his poem “The Rock.”
“The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not silence;
Knowledge of words, but ignorance of the Word!”

Anthony De Mello says that despair is always five minutes ahead, never now. These great thinkers encourage us to “enjoy the precious present!”
D. H. Laurence said: “One’s actions ought to come out of an achieved stillness, not out of a mere rushing on.”
Alexander introduces us to the Being behind the Doing. The God of life behind all the action.

His presence invites us to slow down and step out from the fast pace of this world and reflect. To go receptive. To once again be here now. To allow ourselves to be guided, to be healed and to be loved by God. To dissolve resistance into an aware allowing.

Alexander is not under time pressure. He’s not working on his Ph.D. He teaches us what real love is all about. He shows us that we are not what we do (our work, our job, our title,) nor are we what we have, or even what other people think of us, our reputation. Rather than what we do, it’s who we are and who we become in his presence that matters.

The Chinese word for busy-ness or persistence is “knife” or “killing” and “heart!” When we’re busy we kill what the heart wants to achieve.
The heart wants to connect, to observe, to drink in, and to be aware and awake. But we’re too busy. We rush on past. Maybe tomorrow? We’re asleep.
“It is only with the heart that one sees rightly,” said the Little Prince.
“What is essential to the heart is invisible to the eye.”


Alexander is our “now” teacher. “Am I living well now? What is life teaching me now? What’s the best use of my time right now?”


Now is my gift.
The present has three meanings:
1. A gift.
2. Here.
3. Now.
Wisdom is knowing how to maximise the enjoyment of each moment. Being fully present enables people to give of their best and also to be able to receive the best that is on offer. Every day is a gift for those who really believe that every day is a gift.
When he looks at you, when he smiles, it’s as if he’s saying, “just fuel every moment with the best that’s in you now, and let fear and doubt go. Live out of love and freedom.”
There’s a story in the Orient about a monk who had a little bird on his shoulder who could see and foretell the future. Each morning the monk would ask the little bird, “Is today the day?” Meaning is today the day that I am going to die.
The bird would always reply, “no, but live as if it were.”
When Steve Jobs has his close encounter with life-threatening illness he resolved to live each day as if it were his last.
Being fully present answering the two great mystical questions:
“Where am I?”
“Here!”
“What time is it?”
“Now!”
If we cannot live in the now or discover Zen meditation washing the dishes or changing a dirty nappy there’s no way we’ll find in a cave on a mountain in Nepal or Tibet.
Alexander is our guru of “Being!” He is our master of power of now, the precious present. He is the ultimate cure for destination addiction or outcome addiction. He instinctively knows that the mountain of success is going to be very lonely if we don’t enjoy the climb, the view and the companionship on the way up.

It’s always the journey, never the destination.

He doesn’t label. He doesn’t judge. He doesn’t evaluate you and then decide how he’ll respond to you.
He lives in the unconditional love zone.
He has opened a portal to another world for us.
The world of ‘Being.’ So radically different from the world of doing, but also so root connected with the power of doing.

With Genevieve and Fionn, his brother and sister, when they were growing up, it was often the world of action and doing.
“Brush your teeth.”
“Do your homework.”
“Tidy your room.”
“Hurry up! Get ready!”
“Put away the dishes.”
“Come on! Let’s go … now!”

The doing is fine, but if that’s all there is then life is so so diminished.

With Alexander, when you touch him, hold him, cuddle him, smell him, put his cheek to your cheek, scratch his legs and get him laughing you enter the other portal into the world of Being.

He takes his mother Annette, and Genevieve, Fionn and Mary his friend and godmother, Hugh his godfather into this world of Being. Through that portal. That door. And they are always at their best in that space. Fully alive … here … now … in the moment with him.

As you look at, listen, touch or help him with this or that you are alert, still, completely present not wanting anything other than the moment as it is.

You are the Alertness, the Stillness, the Presence that is listening, looking touching … the Being behind the Doing.

The Loving Living God.
The kingdom inside.
Life to the full.
Joy pressed down, overflowing.
Holy Communion on a weekday.
Eucharistic thanksgiving.

Down in St Catherine’s in Newcastle where angels disguised as nurses and helpers look after him every morning and give him therapy sessions.

The children in his class are getting ready for Holy Communion next May. I asked him how he felt about that. He gave me that look as if to say, “Why should I take a bus to Bray when I’m already in Bray!”

When St. Francis said, “we must preach the gospel, but only if absolutely necessary use words,” he could have been talking about Alexander.

A slice of an apple pie has to be like the apple pie, like the source. Not like a slice of rhubarb pie. Exactly like the source.

Alexander is like a little slice of God. Just like the Source.

Blessing us with his presence all the time.
Reminding us of who we really are.
With him, you’ve entered another portal of life.

He lives what the monk Thick Nhat Hanh wrote about:

“Waking up in the morning, I smile
Twenty-four brand new hours before me
I vow to live fully in each moment
and look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.”

Alexander looks at us all with the eyes of compassion, with the eyes of joy, with the eyes of unconditional love. Never with the eyes of judgement. Never with the eyes of misery.

That’s how he enriches Annette, Genevieve, Fionn and Mary and all who come into his presence.

Last words to Dr Roisin Mulcahy from Bantry: “Children with special needs like Alexander … they soften the hard edges of society.”
Magic!
Here’s how Genevieve captured that magic in a poem she wrote about Alexander some years ago or as she playfully calls him Alexie Balexie Boo:
My Alex

At three minutes to midnight on December the 10th,
You were new to the world and took your first breath,
A gentle baby boy with wide-set eyes,
They sparkle when you’re happy and shine when you cry.
People often comment on your beautiful eyes,
their expressive colour, ever trusting, never shy.

You achieve what you do, you do what you can,
It’s hard to perform with Mowat Wilson syndrome.
Yet the ability to love, to “live in the now,” that’s pretty rare, but you know how.

Your happiness is special, the tint of your hair,
you’ve been sick a lot, and I’ll always be there.

The sounds of your chuckles are laughed with great taste,
It’s something I can’t describe,
it’s nothing I could paint.
Strangers are your friends, you stop, smile and wave,
What a beautiful little boy in that little walking frame.

My baby brother, Alexander,
I love you in every single way,
If it weren’t for you, would I still be the same person I am today?

I love to hug you and keep you very close,
It’s one of the things I love to do the most.

I’m proud to be your sister and also Fionn’s too,
Our beautiful baby brother, Alexie Balexie Boo.