Homilies and reflections
Father Colin has been writing regular reflections for the St. Paul’s College Community ever since the beginning of the pandemic. He also preaches homilies at most of the Sunday Masses. Here you will find all the reflections and assortment of homilies beginning with the most recent.
Reflection 45 From Fr. Colin (February 18, 2022)
Most of you will have heard that I spent New Year’s Eve undergoing emergency surgery at the St. Boniface Hospital. I was in hospital recovering for seven days and then, after being home for five days, I returned to the hospital for another five days due to complications. Naturally, it was a very challenging experience that tested my faith and confronted me with the reality of my mortality. Perhaps due to my age and the nature and severity of the surgery, the recovery has taken much longer than I’d expected. In many respects, the physical healing has come more easily and more quickly than the emotional healing, the consequences of suddenly having had one’s life changed dramatically and irreversibly. I realize that in many ways my physical and emotional suffering pales in comparison to the suffering that goes on around me everyday, especially in this age of COVID-19. Even so, my experience has prompted me to share with you a few insights that have been brought into sharper focus by what I’ve been through these last six weeks.
One of the biggest impediments to my recovery was the absence of contact with loved ones during my time in hospital. While I completely understand why hospitals have not been allowing visitors during this pandemic, lying in a hospital alone, hour after hour, gave me altogether too much time to focus on my predicament. Ordinarily, the monotony of the day would be interrupted by visits from my wife, and children, my sister and my colleagues and friends. My experience bears out the notion that healing is a holistic business that is facilitated by the presence of supportive human beings. I’m reminded of St. Paul’s powerful image of the Church as the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 which reminds us that the life on the community binds us together in inextricable ways. Our suffering and our rejoicing is shared and it’s in the company of others that we discover the resources to persevere. Not surprisingly, much of my healing came not only from the care of doctors and nurses, but from regular visits from brother priests who brought me communion, and one especially good visit from a Mennonite Chaplain who talked to me for over an hour on a blustery Sunday afternoon. Being lifted out of my self-absorption was a gift in itself, so was the discussion we had about where to find God in the midst of our suffering.
Most of the time, when we are suffering, we want to be rescued. We want the suffering to be taken away, and that becomes the object of our praying. Sometimes such prayers are answered in mysterious and miraculous ways, but most of the time, for reasons that aren’t clear to any of us, God does not rescue us from our suffering. The anxiety, the fear, the worry, persisted despite my heartfelt pleading. It’s easy enough to feel that one’s prayers are not being answered. The visit from the Mennonite chaplain helped me recover my ability to see that God was not absent but very much present in the midst of my suffering. Once I had eyes to see, I was able to reflect on what I’d been through and identify the many ways that God had been tending to my needs from the very beginning.
I recognized God’s presence in the advocacy of two doctors that allowed me to access life-saving care in a timely way. Then, after my surgery on New Year’s Eve, I opened my eyes just before midnight and saw the fireworks display at the Forks as I stared out of my hospital room window. It was the first New Year’s Eve away from wife in over 40 years, but somehow waking up just in time to see the fireworks display, assured me that I was lonely but not alone. Then there was the time that a nurse came into my room just before dawn. He asked me how I was doing and I told him I was feeling a little cold. He disappeared and came back a minute later with a heated blanket. I realized later what a source of grace and comfort that small gesture was, a sign that God had not abandoned me, but was profoundly present in everything that I was going through. There were text messages from family and old friends, reminding me that I was surrounded by unconditional love. Finally, there was the night that I was restless and unable to sleep until I began to say a few Hail Marys. It doesn’t always work, but that night a great peace came over me and before long I was sound asleep. You could dismiss it as an effective relaxation technique, but I believe it was an answer to my prayer and that I was held in Holy Arms until my restlessness was vanquished.
I could give many more examples of the ways in which I began to see God’s presence in the dark night through which I was groping my way. It was a reminder that having faith isn’t always about being rescued from our times of suffering. It is being given the capacity to see the ways in which God is present in whatever it is we’re going through. If we have eyes to see we’ll notice that there are many signs of grace along the way and angels sent in human form to remind us that we’re not alone.
Thanks be to God!
Reflection 44 from Fr. Colin (December 14, 2021)
I’ve written enough of these reflections to know that I’m bound to start repeating myself. Forgive me if I re-visit themes or tell stories that you’ve heard before.
Today’s theme is technology, a bane and a blessing, a curse and a gift, in a world that has come to rely upon it in ways that are both destructive and creative.
Considering that computers could contribute to another “Fall” of the human race, it’s amusing to consider that my first computer was an “Adam” manufactured by Coleco, circa 1985. I couldn’t afford a proper monitor so I hooked it up to an old 12 inch black and white television. It was so bright I had to tape two layers of green acetate in front of it to cut down on the glare. It came with a primitive game that involved shooting torpedoes at submarines. I played the game once in a while, but before long it became dreadfully repetitious and boring. Mostly, I used the computer for word processing, especially writing sermons. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time it was a writer’s dream come true. Liberated from my bondage to cursive writing on yellow newsprint and crumpled drafts scattered on the floor; I entered into the promised land of cut and paste, search and replace, and finished copies ready to be printed. The sermons could be saved, not on a hard drive, but on a cassette that whirred and rattled back and forth as Adam looked for space to store my biblically-based bytes.
The advent of the technology that we now take for granted was especially difficult for those who had spent most of their life without it. A good friend of mine gave his elderly mother a microwave oven as a Christmas gift. Not knowing how a microwave oven cooks, she thought it could be used the same way as her regular oven. When the time came to prepare Sunday dinner with her new microwave, she placed the roast beef in the microwave oven and set the timer for two hours. The shrivelled, blackened roast that emerged at the end, was not fit for human consumption.
One of the problems with technology is that some people assume that it has an almost god-like infallibility. We trust it more than we trust people, even when such trust is unwarranted. A case in point: when we were returning to SPC after our retreat at Bird’s Hill Park the driver used the navigation system on his car to determine the best route back to the college. He simply entered “Pembina Highway” as the destination, so the car’s navigation system instructed him to take the east Perimeter Highway around to the south end of Pembina Highway, just outside St. Norbert. We weren’t in any particular hurry, so I didn’t mind the extra 30 kilometres nor the additional 15 minutes. But I was a little surprised, more amused than angry that, when I pointed out that taking Lagimodiere to Bishop Grandin would be a much faster and more direct route, the driver chose to place his confidence in the technology instead of the old guy who had been driving the streets of Winnipeg for the better part of 55 years.
We find a similar misplaced confidence featured in commercials about on-line investment brokers. In these ads, those who are still using the financial advisor that their parents used are portrayed as hopelessly behind the times. A look of shame crosses their faces as the error of their ways are pointed out by an enlightened sibling or spouse. No mention is made of the fact that, in most cases, the expertise and the knowledge of the financial planner that the parents have known and trusted for decades, will have created the significant wealth that these younger people will inherit when the parents go to their reward. As with self-check outs at grocery stores, avoiding contact with a real person is somehow seen as a virtue.
These and similar stories depict scenarios in which the human is supplanted by the technological and the fruits of modernity are valued more highly than the fruits produced by the wisdom of the elders.
Speaking of fruits, eventually my Adam offered me an Apple, that its to say, eventually I started to buying technology produced by Apple. I love my Mac computer, laptop and cell phone, but I sometimes I resent the way in which Apple, like the government, makes decisions on my behalf, allegedly for my own good, without checking with me first. A few years ago while travelling through the US I tried to play some music stored on my iPhone. I was annoyed to discover that the album to which I wanted to listen, had been sent away to its heavenly home in the iCloud, all because I hadn’t listened to it for a while. Far from wi-fi and not wanting to incur roaming charges, I was forced to listen to an album that had not yet ascended to its heavenly home.
Another pet peeve is spell check. Once again, the technology presumes to know more about what you want to say than you do and often results in some very humorous and embarrassing errors. I’m grateful that recent upgrades to the system at U of M have produced kinder, gentler, spell and grammar checks. Arbitrarily imposed changes have given way to helpful suggestions. Even so, one learns to proofread carefully before hitting send! On Facebook a few days ago I stumbled across this humorous meme, “The inventor of auto correct has died. His funnel is tomato.” Although humorous, this feature sometimes makes the writing process more difficult, sometimes because the technology lacks the capacity to figure out what you’re trying to say. For example, did you know that if you write a blessing that begins with the word “may” as in “may the Lord bless you…” all the computers, Adam and his descendants, think that you are asking a question and put a question mark at the end of it? Maybe they’re just trying to be helpful, but one suspects that spellchecking programs are not well acquainted with religious life. I’m grateful that Bonnie proofreads these reflections because she is much better at it than a computer program.
I sometimes try to imagine my life without any technology, not even a television or a radio. It would be liberating in some ways. I would read more books, take more walks and carve more woodcarvings. But, unless you choose to live off the grid, it’s likely that technology will be an inevitable part of your life. The challenge for all of us is to learn to live with it without being bound by it, without allowing it to incrementally take away pursuits that are life-giving, without permitting its continual erosion of authentic interpersonal interactions. William Stringfellow the late American lay theologian, lawyer and social activist, once speculated that the loss of literacy, especially among the young, would bring about the decline of our civilization. It seems to me that technology has been gradually depriving people of literacy and, along with it, the capacity to think and to analyze. Nothing less than our freedom and our humanity are at stake. As people of faith, it is our duty to resist evil, even when it is embedded in that which appears benevolent. We will continue to welcome the benefits that technology brings, while knowing that our salvation comes from the One who banished Adam from the Garden.
Reflection 43 from Fr. Colin (November 15, 2021)
This reflection is long overdue. It is also long. It has been slow in coming because, for quite a while, I was bereft of fresh ideas and once I settled upon this current topic, which could be considered controversial, it took me a while to get the writing done.
I can spot a religion a mile away. It reminds me of the time my Dad bought me my first car. It was an Envoy Epic. I’d never heard of an Envoy Epic before but, after I owned one, I began seeing them everywhere. It’s not that there were suddenly more Envoy Epics on the road but, as an Envoy Epic owner, I had learned to recognize them and, once I had the image of the Envoy Epic fixed in my head, well, they seemed to be all over the place.
In a similar way, when one has lived and breathed religious life, or in some way been a part of a religious community, you begin to recognize religiosity, even if it’s not a religion in any conventional sense of the word. With that premise in mind, I’d like to suggest that we live in an age of profound religiosity, even though organized religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular, is in a period of rapid decline, especially in Europe and North America.
It’s not surprising. History teaches us that whenever people have abandoned faith in God, they have placed their faith in something else, some other god. The Bible calls this idolatry, the worship of false gods, gods that are ultimately unable to deliver any kind of salvation or redemption.
What causes people to abandon faith in God and turn to false gods?
In many cases it’s prosperity and the illusion of self-sufficiency. In post-modern North America this has been aided and abetted by a naive confidence in science which, in many minds, offers absolute truth, the answer to every question, as well as the prospect of longevity, if not immortality, making belief in God illogical, redundant or irrelevant. Lately, the comments I’ve been seeing in social media would suggest that a growing number people see those who still believe in God as anti-intellectual and superstitious. Atheism has become a badge of enlightenment. It seems these people aren’t aware that many great scientists and scholars believe in God, including Georges LeMaitre the Roman Catholic Belgian priest and physicist who developed the Big Bang Theory.
Whatever the cause, the widespread abandonment of traditional religious beliefs and practices has given way to new religions that are largely based in the popular social and political movements of the day. I’m thinking here of things like environmentalism, anti-racism and feminist movements, LGBTQ rights, truth and reconciliation processes and, most recently, the controversies around the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m not suggesting here that any of these causes or movements are intrinsically false or misguided, or that involvement in them is anathema to a person of faith. However, I’ve observed that for many people of faith, participation in these movements has supplanted their involvement to the church and, in many cases, has taken the place of the church as the source of moral authority and as the forum for some sort of mission.
I sense that, in some cases, this shift in commitment has been precipitated by some sort of peer pressure, a conformity to social norms, a desire to be progressive and, sadly, in some cases, a crisis of faith in which any ongoing involvement in the church is either habitual or confined to the church’s temporal social justice initiatives.
What has disappeared is a belief in the church as that which is necessarily always and forever over and against the trends of the age and that which renders its members “resident aliens” in a world that is antithetical to the teachings of the Christ. The problem is not that the teachings of the church are sometimes incompatible with the ways of the world, but that when this incompatibility exists many contemporary believers decide in favour of the world. The great myth underlying these new religions is that the world is constantly evolving toward greater enlightenment and that novelty must always stand in judgement over the past.
What concerns me about these contemporary pseudo-religions is that they have taken on some the very characteristics of the traditional religion which they have rejected and condemned, including some of the negative characteristics which had once been the primary target of much of their criticism. For example, like some religions, they command an uncritical loyalty on the part of their adherents and fiercely suppress all forms of dissent.
The new doctrines which, in many cases, are shared by these various social movements, are considered unassailable. Dissent from the doctrine is considered heresy and, in many cases, will result in some sort of punishment. One can be fired or censored or forced to apologize for having made statements that appear to depart from the true faith. These doctrines, which share a common disdain for anything traditional, are considered “absolute”because they claim to be based in some sort of science, even though in most cases the science is theoretical and contested by other credible scientists. Any form of discourse or debate is discouraged and many from the mainstream media, professional sports and the entertainment industry, have become adherents and evangelists.
In the same way that attendance at church or the wearing of religious emblems used to identify one as a true believer, “virtue-signalling” has become the most popular way of declaring one’s membership in the new religion. Just as the wearing of a crucifix once signified one’s Catholicism, now, a meme on your Facebook page, a sign on your front lawn, a bumper-sticker or T-shirt, will let everyone know that you have seen the light.
These new religions offer salvation in two ways. First, there is a kind of personal salvation that comes from having professed ones faith in the new creeds. Most virtue-signalling does more for one’s self-esteem than the cause it purports to endorse. Secondly, the aims of these various movements are salvific in nature, promising something resembling the Kingdom of God, including peace and harmony among the nations and happiness for every member of the human race. The fact that these various causes have heralded an age of unparalleled polarization seems to have been forgotten.
Moreover, if one understands righteousness as a state in which one is sinless (a state that once came as a gift from a merciful God) there is a new righteousness that comes from having been a victim of some sort of injustice. I’m not suggesting that such victims are unworthy of our compassion or our advocacy, but the righteousness imparted to them by virtue of their victimization now protects then from any sort of judgement, including legitimate questions about the veracity of their claims. Ironically, there is something very dehumanizing about being deified.
Well, I could continue to list of similarities between traditional religions and the religions of today’s world but I suspect I’ve provided enough to make the point. I have intentionally avoided specific examples to allow the reader to make his or her own connections. I want to reiterate that this is not necessarily a repudiation of any of the aims of today’s social movements, but a condemnation of a methodologies, more accurately missiologies, that are coercive, dehumanizing, dogmatic, intolerant and unethical. It is to name the idolatrous nature of some of these movements and the absence of any genuine humility, including the capacity to be self-critical. It is to expose the relative nature of claims that have become absolute. It is to name the abuse of power and authority that has silenced, injured and mislead.
With the prospect of a post-pandemic world still far away, I will continue to write these reflections from time to time. In the meantime, I pray that this reflection today will remind us of the need to treat each other with patience, kindness and respect even when we disagree over matters of substance, knowing that the false gods offer no real hope or happiness in these perilous days. As the psalmist declares, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2 NRSV).
Reflection 42 from Fr. Colin (October 8, 2021)
A few days ago, while sitting in my office, I had an unexpected visit from a student who had been in the chapel praying and really needed to talk. In the interests of privacy, I won’t provide the details of our conversation. Suffice it to say, she was far from home, feeling lonely and encountering serious problems in a course she was taking. Her arrival at my office door, which was completely unexpected, was a reminder of one of the main reasons campus ministry exists. We sometimes use the term “ministry of presence” to describe this role of simply being “present” for someone who is in need.
As I think about it, I think there are really two dimensions to the ministry of presence. There is “presence” in the sense of being in the right place at the right time. I believe the fact that the student’s path crossed with my path in such a timely way was more than a coincidence. God intended it. All I needed to do was to be present. But there is also “presence” in the sense that my presence itself was the primary agent of ministry. My words of wisdom, if there were any, my comforting reassurances, however useful, were not nearly so important as the fact that in a moment of need this fearful student met a person who cared. As we sometimes say, I was “there” for her. And for God.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the story of the little boy who reached that terrifying time of day when his mother would turn out the lights in his room and leave him for the night. Afraid of the dark and of being all alone, he cried out for his mother to stay. Being a woman of faith, she reassured her child that God would be with him through the night. 'But, Mommy,' he cried, 'I need God with skin on!'
The ministry of presence is all about encountering the love and mercy of God with skin on.
The challenging thing about the ministry of presence, especially within institutions, is that it can’t be quantified in any way. Most institutions, especially those of a secular nature, like to be able to ensure that they’re getting “good bang for their buck” by measuring the productivity of their various service providers. When I worked in corrections some bureaucrat decided that inmates who wanted to be seen by a chaplain would need to fill out a request form. Theoretically, these “green sheets,” as they came to be known, would allow the institution to measure how many inmates were being seen and by whom. The trouble with these “green sheets” was that they were incapable of measuring the number of serendipitous encounters with staff and inmates in the course of a day - encounters in which genuine ministry took place without ever being recorded on a green sheet. Nor did the green sheets measure the “quality” of the encounter, so there was no way of knowing if the encounters provided genuine hope, help or healing. Indeed, it was possible that the most effective and productive chaplains were the ones processing four requests per day instead of ten.
In an attempt to address this issue, the Mayo Clinic conducted a study a few decades ago and determined that patients who received some sort of spiritual care were more likely to experience positive outcomes in terms of physical wellness. I’ve forgotten the details of the study but the “bottom line” was that spiritual care providers, chaplains and the like, had a legitimate role to play in secular health care institutions. I suspect, the same could be said for prisons.
In some respects, it’s unfortunate that they felt the need to put it to the test, since many of the benefits of receiving spiritual care cannot be measured against any human standard. Let’s face it, if you’re dealing with divine intervention of one kind or another, it’s unlikely it will fit nicely into any human category. Much of what we do as spiritual care providers, by definition, defies measurement, since it is all about planting seeds that may only bear fruit in some distant future or in ways that are not readily identifiable or attributable to any particular source. An old friend of mine, a minister in the United Church who grew up in rural Manitoba, used to love to go home to help with the farming. He observed that there was a certain satisfaction one could get from looking out over a newly cultivated field that simply wasn’t there in the practise of ministry. Our successes in ministry, if they are visible at all, are usually attributable to God’s good work and and not ours. Most of the time, the seeds that are sown don’t sprout when we’re around to see them grow.
One of the great gifts of entering the priesthood was the opportunity to claim a distinctive and, dare I say, crucial role in secular institutions. For too many years, I bought into the notion that having credibility in a secular institution required me to be, in a sense, a pseudo-psychologist, a role which, in hindsight, was annoying to “real” psychologists and probably to the inmate or patient who longed for something more. Ultimately, it was not my training in family systems theory or marriage and family therapy that rendered me a useful player in the prison or hospital game. It was an oily sign of the cross on a dying person’s forehead, or holy water sprinkled across the emaciated body of a cancer patient, that warranted my place at the table, whether it was acknowledged by the institution or not. Traditionally known as the cure (or care) of souls, there was a role to be played by the agents of God’s solicitude, that was unparalleled by anything else in the institution.
Jesus often spoke about the challenges his followers would face in a world that would not understand or appreciate the purpose of their presence. Keeping that in mind has made it easier for me not only to accept but to rejoice in the fact that ministers of Jesus Christ will never fit nicely or neatly into the paradigms of the secular world. The more we strive to “fit in” the less likely we are to be agents of the gospel to some poor students who longs to know the grace of God. We “clay vessels” are called to be filled with the “treasure” of Christ’s gospel and to become God, with skin on, for those for whom all earthly light has faded, leaving them to face the loneliness and terror of the night.
Reflection 41 from Fr. Colin (September 24, 2021)
Greetings to all the recipients of this reflection as a new academic year begins. Thank you to those who responded so favourably to my last reflection and encouraged me to resume writing them after the summer break. With the spectre of COVID-19 still in our midst, it seemed appropriate to continue these reflections, at least for a while longer.
Thinking back to my good old school days, I’m inclined to write something about what I did on my summer vacation. I wouldn’t presume that there’s anything particularly interesting about what I did away from the college, but to the extent that sometimes very ordinary human experiences can yield fresh glimpses into important truths, I’m prepared to tell you a little bit about how I spent my time.
Trout Lake is a deep, clear, spring-fed lake not far from Kenora up the road to Minaki. My parents started renting a cabin there when I was an infant so I’ve been going to Trout Lake, on and off, for the better part of seventy years. It’s in my blood. You could take me to another lake just as deep and cold and clear and every bit as beautiful and it just wouldn’t be the same.
I suppose you could say I have a relationship with Trout Lake. It’s like an old friend in whose presence I feel at home. It is a relationship of reciprocity because my reverence and respect for this special place is rewarded with an encounter with something holy and mysterious that brings peace and a sense of wonder.
For us as human beings, places are important and it is through our relationships with these places, indeed through our love of particular places, that we are motivated to protect and preserve them. The late Roger Scruton, a British philosopher, argued that a true commitment to environmentalism begins with these kinds of territorial attachments. There’s something terribly abstract about global environmentalism. It’s hard to get your head around the globe. I suspect it’s very difficult to feel protective about the planet if you’ve never stood on the shores of a placid lake, or watched a million honking geese descend upon a grassy marsh, or tilled the soil in the hope that God would bring bread from the earth. Having a relationship with an ideology is a tricky business that can never be as life-giving and empowering as a relationship with a place that one has known intimately for decades. There is much more to be said about this. But not just now.
Speaking of special places, another highlight of my summer was the trip we took to Churchill in early August. Many years ago I spent a summer in the Yukon Territories and encountered the rugged beauty of the north. It is a place in which civilization offers meagre defence against nature’s force and fury. You get the sense that if Churchill were abandoned it would be scant decades before it would disappear amid the rocks and the trees. In the scriptures, the wilderness was the place to which one went to encounter God. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his earthly ministry. The people of Israel encountered God in startling and transformative ways as they endured 40 years in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. The Desert Fathers retreated to the wilderness to encounter more deeply the mystical presence of God.
Why does the wilderness offer this opportunity to get up “close and personal” with God the Giver of Life? Perhaps it’s because in the wilderness we are confronted in a more vivid way with our human vulnerability and mortality in the face of the grandeur and glory of God. Perhaps that’s why I found such peace as I walked across the tundra and watched the whales in the Hudson River.
I find it interesting that urbanized people, people who no longer live off the land, people who are far removed from nature in all its beauty and its terror see the world so differently than those who continue to live in rural or wilderness areas. Sometimes I wonder if urbanization, with all its many benefits, insulates us from the things that ultimately matter when it comes to human health and happiness.
This summer all three of my children and their children and their respective spouses joined us at the lake. They used to take turns coming to stay with us, but for the last few years they’ve been renting cabins of their own and, in a sense, gradually falling in love with Trout Lake. I don’t know if their love affair will last. I hope it will. But the important thing is that I’ve been able to pass on to them something that has been important to me, indeed, something that was passed on to me by my parents. So, in addition to talking about the importance of places, I’d like to talk about the importance of tradition, or more precisely, passing along to my descendants that which has added beauty, joy, and a sense of wonder, to my life. Sometimes the best legacies we can leave our descendants are spiritual legacies that provide them, not with possessions, but opportunities to encounter God. Sadly, the idolatrous belief in progress, has given us a world in which many of the things that might be passed on, unchanged, from generation to generation are treated with suspicion or even contempt.
I’m one of those people who often wonders what has happened to some of my old friends and, thanks to the internet, I now have the resources to find some of them. Arguably the best friend I’ve ever had moved away to Toronto not long after we began our respective careers. I visited him once or twice when attending meetings in Toronto twenty-five or thirty years ago, but we lost touch until two or three years ago when we started to talk on the phone every two weeks. It seems we still had lots of talk about because some of those talks were two hours long! This summer he and his wife came to visit. It was wonderful to spend some time together, to have a barbecue with my children and grandchildren present, to reminisce about the good old days, to celebrate our shared beliefs, to compare notes about the aging process, to share in the joy of a resilient friendship based on a lifetime of shared experiences, and to enjoy, what the famous psychotherapist Carl Rogers called, “unconditional positive regard.” I don’t need to tell any of you about the importance of such friendships. It would be an understatement to say that the revival of this particular friendship has been serendipitous for me. Indeed, it has allowed me to awaken more memories of the abundant blessings that have come to me in my lifetime. It is has allowed me to experience God’s solicitude as I face the challenges of aging. It has reminded me that, not in only in sacred places, but in sacred relationships, we encounter the presence of our Lord.
Reflection 40 from Fr. Colin (June 13, 2021)
Reflection 40 from Fr. Colin
Updated: June 13, 2021
There’s a good chance this will be my last, or maybe my second last, reflection before the summer break. I don’t know if I will resume writing them in September. If life has begun to return to normal it may be that whatever pastoral help or entertainment they have provided will no longer be required.
Today I’d like to talk about sin. I know, I know, it’s not exactly a topic that its likely to bring cheer into the lives of people who are tired of all the doom and gloom. Yet it seems to me a timely topic, given everything that’s going on in our world these days.
In the early 70s the famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? I have to confess, I never read the book, but those who have read it and reviewed it in recent years claim it’s as relevant as ever. So, what became of sin?
Although the word “sin” may persist in a colloquial way in today’s world, the concept of sin has been detached from its Judeo-Christian moorings. I believe its absence from our consciousness has had devastating consequences in the social and political realm and, in a more general way, in every kind of social discourse.
The obvious explanation for its disappearance is that the influence of the church has diminished significantly in the last 50 years. As the church has diminished in influence so has many of its traditional teachings regarding human nature and the need for redemption.
It’s a chicken and the egg conundrum, in some respects, because I think it is likely that the decreasing influence of the church was not the cause, but rather the result, of a diminishing importance of traditional doctrines and beliefs, precipitated, in part, by the growing influence of science and technology and popular psychology. As the “doctrine of human nature” began to change in post-modern western society, so did the need for grace and forgiveness and ultimately salvation. For a growing number of people, the need for what the church was offering gradually disappeared. If you didn’t believe you were a sinner why would you need an institution that forgives sinners? Why would you need to be saved?
Whole books have been written about this topic so it’s impossible to say everything that I would like to say in these few short paragraphs today. But at the very least I want to remind everyone that, according to the scriptures, sin is not simply an unlawful action, some sort of errant behaviour, or some sort of omission, it is a condition, almost like a medical condition, that afflicts every member of the human race.
Back in my United Church days, I remember preaching on the third chapter of St Paul’s letter to Romans in which he tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. After the service one of the parishioners approached me and said, “Geez, Reverend, you make it sound like we’re all a bunch of sinners.” I pointed out that it was St. Paul, not me, who was levelling this indictment!
In the mind of this parishioner, to say, “You are sinner” was the same thing as saying, “You are all bad people and you do bad things.” In her mind, the real sinners were the murderers, rapists, robbers and thugs. Good, law-abiding citizens were not sinners.
Of course, to say that we are sinners is not to say that we are bad people, it is simply to say what is self-evident, that we are all human, we all make mistakes and, at that there is something in each of us that causes us to betray even our own deeply held beliefs. Once again, St. Paul expresses it beautifully in Romans 7:19 when he says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Related to this, is the notion of sin, not as an action, but as a force at work in our lives and in our world. This “power” is present in institutions of all kinds, including the church, it taints even the greatest and most noble human undertakings. As Baldwin of Canterbury reminds us, “For there are certain imitations of true virtues as also of vices which play tricks with the heart and bedazzle the mind’s vision. As a result, the appearance of goodness often seems to be in something which is evil, and equally the appearance of evil seems to be in something good.” Picking up on this notion and borrowing heavily from St. Paul, American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote about the “demonic” which is present in the “principalities and powers.” This is a topic worth pursuing at a later date.
Nowadays, there is tremendous resistance to describing human beings, corporately or individually, as sinful. It would be seen as an affront to our self-esteem and a blow to human dignity. There are those who struggle to utter the words of the Prayer of Humble Access, recited at every Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy…” for precisely the same reasons. But to speak of our “unworthiness” in the context of the Mass is simply to claim what has always been the truth, that the presence of Christ comes to us a sheer gift and grace. It is not predicated on our worth but on the mercy of God. It is not something we “deserve” but something freely offered to us because of the unconditional love of God.
I think it is badly needed and very healthy to think of ourselves as sinners. To be aware that we are born with this propensity to err, to stumble, to succumb to self-interest, to hurt others intentionally or inadvertently, to be callous, or moody or judgmental, is to make us more humble and forgiving. And it’s the absence of those two qualities, humility and forgiveness, that is causing such destructive polarization around so many of the social and political issues of our times, not least, the very emotional debate around the coronavirus pandemic.
To be humble, to be mindful of our sinfulness, is to appreciate the significance of the old Good Friday hymn, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” which, in my opinion, invites us to consider the possibility that, had we lived in ancient times, we may well have stood among the throng that cried out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Would we have joined the cheering of the crowds when a charismatic Hitler captured the heart of his people? Would we have joined the progressive people of past generations in supporting the very popular cause of creating residential schools? It is only when we ignore or deny our own brokenness that we can give ourselves permission to vilify good people who made terrible mistakes. It is only when we believe that we are without sin that we can cast the stones of hatred at those who were bereft of the insights and knowledge that we now possess.
The concept of sin allows us to be both humble and forgiving. It is an acknowledgement that it may well be your statue or the statue of your heroes that will be defaced or toppled by future generations. It is to understand that the causes we support so vigorously today, might be considered atrocities and injustices by those to whom we pass the torch. It is to realize that we will all stand in need of forgiveness for the sins we will unwittingly commit for the sake of sort of worthy cause and for our complicity in social programs or political movements that inadvertently cause great pain and suffering.
In times of unfettered self-righteous, the need for this humility is greater than ever. To remember that we are beloved sinners might help us put an end to the unjust vilification of the sinners who went before us and help us to offer them the same kind of forgiveness that we will one day covet for ourselves. As one wise person once said, “The people who cannot forgive, destroy the bridge over which they too one day must pass.”
Reflection 39 from Fr. Colin (May 18, 2021)
Reflection 39 from Fr. Colin
Updated: May 18, 2021
My father owned and operated a small plumbing company here in Winnipeg from the 1950s until the early 1980s. It was working for him on Saturday mornings and during summer vacations that I learned to repair faucets, clear plugged toilets, swear and smoke cigarettes. All of these were useful skills that served me well in the ensuing years, especially when it came to offering ministry to the so-called common folk, working-class people and the vast majority of people living in the farming communities of rural Manitoba. Add to that summers spent working in logging camps and mining camps and, by the end of it all, I had acquired a versatile vocabulary to say the least. Unlike many of my colleagues, I never felt the Holy Spirit calling me closer to the theatres, concert halls and shopping malls of the city. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with any of those things, but I was happy to be close to nature and in daily contact with people for whom it seemed common sense, not ideology, was the final arbiter when it came to contentious matters of a social, political or ecclesiastical nature. Besides, what parish wouldn’t want a priest who can can fix his own faucets?
I gave up smoking many years ago and, as a clergyman, I’ve learned to temper my swearing, especially in sacred places. I’ve also managed to nurture a deep love for Bach and Mozart without forsaking Bob Dylan or Conway Twitty. Mostly, I’m grateful to have been “formed” for priestly ministry, not only by great academics and wise theologians, but also by plumbers and farmers and homemakers.
A few months ago I wrote a reflection in which I lamented what could be called the idolatry of novelty, the persistent and somewhat silly notion that what ever is new must be better. For example, not long ago I heard a person observe that the Catholic Church was two hundred years behind! “Behind what?” I thought to myself. And if so, was it necessarily a bad thing?
I felt a certain amount of pride in my son and his fiancée when they bought a house because it had an 80s feel to it. It was good to know that not all real-estate purchasers insist on having contemporary “updates” that will be out of fashion in a decade anyway.
But the modern world has also produced what could be called the idolatry of expertise. Don’t misunderstand me, we need experts! I’m grateful to inhabit a world in which various kinds of advances, especially those of a technological or medical nature, are in the hands of those who know what they’re doing. There’s no substitute for a good education and, of course, plenty of experience when it comes to matters of life and death. But where did we get the idea that expertise in a particular discipline, including theology, lends credence to a person’s comments about the day-to-day struggles of life in the real world?
In Luke’s gospel Jesus prays, ““I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” When you think about it, that’s a scandalous notion. It flies in the face of much conventional wisdom about how human life should progress. It seems to say that when it comes to matters of faith and morality, expertise is to be found in those who are not expert. When it comes to much of what we consider social or political, the light showing the way ahead, will shine from those who are not necessarily considered “bright” by worldly standards.
I am grateful to have received a good education and to live and work among those with whom I can share ideas of tremendous substance. I find much pleasure the world of academia and great joy in those things that might be considered good and beautiful. But the remarkable thing about the human capacity to trust in the promises of God is that it flourishes in fields of humility and reaches toward life-giving light when it is removed from the shadows of self-assuredness.
The frightening pandemic by which we are surrounded has become more perplexing because of the conflicting viewpoints of so many experts. Doctors, including highly trained epidemiologists, can’t seem to reach consensus on many critical issues. It is made worse by the ubiquity of social media granting access to opinions from a thousand different sources. Most of us are content to trust the family doctor and follow the advice of those who appear to have our best interests at heart.
The ones Jesus speaks about, the ones who aren’t wise or intelligent by worldly standards, won’t be much help to us when it comes to epidemiology. But maybe they have something to teach us about finding peace amid the danger and the chaos. Maybe they can point us toward a brightness that will never be extinguished.
Reflection 38 from Fr. Colin (May 1, 2021)
Reflection 38 from Fr. Colin
Updated: May 1, 2021
Out of all the many weather conditions with which we human beings must contend, it’s wind I hate the most. Maybe it’s because all the outdoor activities I enjoy the most - kayaking, fishing, cycling, walking, and bird and wildlife photography are all made much more difficult when the winds are blowing. I’m not talking about a gentle breeze which can be soothing and pleasant on a hot summer day. I’m talking about the kind of winds we’ve been getting lately, winds that cut through the warmest clothing and bring a chill to our bones. When I walked in the dead of winter, even if it was thirty below, I could bundle up and stay warm as long as it wasn’t too windy. But the cold north wind penetrates the sturdiest of barriers and leaves one shivering from its assault. Then there’s those warmer winds from the south that stir up the dust and conquer the silence with a roar. Those who lived in the “dirty thirties” will recall the ugliness of the wind.
I know there’s no point in complaining about the weather. No government program, no technological or scientific breakthrough, can do anything about it. Jesus could. At least, we read about him calming the wind and the waves. But this does not appear to be a power that he has passed on to his followers. My attempts to change the weather, with either a curse or a blessing, are consistently ineffectual. As I’ve often pointed out, when it comes to the business of heaven, I’m in sales not management.
Beyond our responsibility to care for the earth and to ensure that we protect its life-giving ecosystem, it’s probably best that we can’t control daily weather conditions. We need rain so it’s a good thing that the faithful servants of our Lord who are planning a trip to the beach cannot “turn off” the rain that has come to water the crops of the faithful farmers who are producing the grain that will make the bread that the beach-goers will use to make egg salad sandwiches for the picnic they will have when the rain has gone and the sun returns. No, there seems to be a purposefulness in most weather events, except the most severe, and we are wise to let nature take its course.
But aside from whisking away the mosquitoes and helping sailors make good time I have not been able to think of a single purpose for the existence of strong winds. Perhaps it’s not surprising that wind, more than any other weather condition, is seen as something of an omen, usually a bad omen. It seems it never comes unaccompanied. There is always something with it, whether it’s a simple storm, a tumbleweed, or a catastrophic event. Maybe I’m imagining things, but here in Winnipeg it seems to me that the wind has gotten much worse since the arrival of the coronavirus. I know the meteorologists and climate experts could offer a scientific theory, but I’m persuaded that there is something metaphysical about this concurrence of the wind and the virus, some spiritual meaning, perhaps some sign or warning, that we would do well to heed. If nothing else the high winds and the relentless virus confront us with a potent symbol of a world that shows signs of disintegrating into chaos.
Jesus often reminded his followers that if they could predict the weather by paying attention to the wind and the sky, so they could learn something about the course of history by being attentive to the signs of the times. In a world that seems increasingly polarized as it contends with a virus that produces anger and fear along with illness and death, I’m not surprised that the winds blow stronger. I’m not sure what it means but I find comfort knowing that somehow God is present. Not in the wind nor in the virus, but as a gentle whisper, a still small voice of calm.
I pray that all of us will know this calm, this reassuring voice, as the chaos around us continues to swirl.
Reflection 37 from Fr. Colin (April 19, 2021)
Reflection 37 from Fr. Colin
Updated: April 19, 2021
Those of you who grew up in Manitoba know that the recent bad weather is nothing new. It never fails! Just when we’re beginning to enjoy the sunshine, green leaves and singing of the birds, we are hit with one more onslaught of snowfall, north winds and cold weather. We are a hardy bunch and we manage to survive, but there’s no denying that it can be discouraging. We get through it, I think, because we know that spring is inevitable. We know that the grip of winter will finally relinquish its hold.
It’s interesting that this surprise attack of winter weather has paralleled the emergence of a so-called third wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Like the winter weather, the news of a third wave leaves us feeling discouraged, coming, as it has, just when we thought things were getting better. But unlike a late winter storm, there is no indication that some sort of “spring” is just around the corner, no assurance that the pandemic is almost over.
We find it hard to endure difficult circumstances when there is no end in sight. We grow weary of the social distancing and the face masks and hand sanitizer. We grow tired of our inability to spend time with family and friends. We grow tired of the prolonged disruption to our normal routines and daily activities. We grow tired of the squabbling among the politicians and the conflicting advice from medical experts. Even the peace of mind that comes with a vaccination is tainted by frightening reports of side effects. There comes a time when we want to give up - even when giving up is not an option.
The English language is replete with idioms that describe this phenomenon. It’s the last straw or the straw that broke the camel’s back or reaching our limit or coming to the end of the road or fed up. In twelve-step programs they use the expression “hitting-bottom” to describe that moment when the addict has had enough of his or her addiction. All of these describe that point at which we are ready to surrender.
Yesterday my daughter sent me photos of her two little girls, aged 2 and 4 outside playing in the deep snow that had accumulated in their backyard over the last week. They were having a wonderful time! Nobody had taught them that you’re supposed to be despondent and annoyed when spring weather has been postponed by a persistent winter. They have responded in a similar way to the many disruptions that have come into their lives because of the coronavirus. They know about the “bad germ” and why they can’t get big hugs from grandma and grandpa right now, but they continue to face each day with an admirable joy and trust. As Jesus taught us, children epitomize faith.
In the aforementioned twelve-step programs the first step to recovery is admitting one’s powerlessness over one’s addiction and turning to a higher power as one embarks upon the road to healing. I sense that one of the reasons children are such good role-models for faithfulness is that they find it relatively easy to admit their powerlessness and readily place their trust in a higher power, whether it’s God or mom and dad. In a good home they feel loved and protected, allowing them to encounter most of life’s challenges and discouragements with an innate curiosity and confidence.
It seems to me this child-like faith is a big part of what we need if we are to continue to endure this pandemic without losing hope. For some reasons that word “surrender” has been in my mind lately. Ordinarily, we use that word in a disparaging way to describe giving up in our battle with some sort of enemy. Perhaps it’s on my mind because of our recent celebration of the Easter Triduum in which we heard about Jesus “surrendering” to death on the Cross. But was his cry from the Cross, “It is finished! Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!” a cry of defeat or victory? If nothing else it was a declaration of radical trust in the One in whose hands he was placing his spirit. The day of resurrection reminds us that this trust was not misplaced.
As much as we need the doctors and the politicians to assist us in this time of crisis, in the end, we place our lives in the hands of the One who created us. Trusting in such Holy Love, we know that spring will always come, that there will always be an Easter, and when the late winter storms arrive, instead of being discouraged, we can go outside and play.
Reflection 36 from Fr. Colin (April 1, 2021)
Reflection 36 from Fr. Colin
Updated: April 1, 2021
I am writing this reflection on Holy Thursday with thoughts of the Triduum filling my mind. Although our annual celebration of Holy Week and Easter can be a lot of work, it can also be a time of great rejoicing. Last year, our usual Easter celebrations were cancelled. Oh, sure there were live-streamed masses in near empty churches, but the festive nature of our Easter celebration was missing as we struggled to make sense of the pandemic that had taken hold of our world. Huddled in our homes, unable to gather, many of us lamented the absence of Easter as we’ve always known it. Yet, in the absence of joyful celebrations, the deepest truths of Easter persisted in a marvellous way. With the spectre of death around us like a shadow every day, perhaps the light of the risen Christ shone even more brightly. In the presence of enemies like sickness and death, the Eucharistic Table was set, invoking the Paschal Mystery which rendered hope even as the darkness seemed to deepen. This year we will gather in small, safe numbers. Perhaps our shouts of acclamation will be less gleeful, our songs of rejoicing more muted, but we will lay hold once again of the great truth that offers lasting and ultimate hope in the face of this world’s transience.
When I get my vaccine a week from now, it’s true that a certain kind of hope will be given to me along with the promise of immunity. But if I’m honest, I know that it’s not the same kind of hope we’re given through our celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Not only is there considerable debate about the efficacy of various vaccines, I know my coronavirus vaccine, even if 100% effective, will not make me immune to all the other serious illnesses that could afflict me. It will not make me immune to life’s tragedies. It will not protect me from my own foolish sinfulness and the heartache and emotional suffering that comes in the course of every human lifetime. Only the presence of the Risen Christ assures me that I will not be conquered in any ultimate way by any of these things.
However, despite this great assurance of an ultimate victory over sin and death and the promise of heavenly joy and peace, Easter is also a profound affirmation of earthly life. The Christian truth of a God who came among us in a body and rose from the dead in a body, is a perennial reminder that these earthly bodies, these human selves, are of great worth and it is our duty to honour and care for them, not only as gifts that are entrusted to us as individuals, but as gifts we offer to one another in families, friendships and faith communities.
A few weeks ago I had a hearing test and was told that I might benefit from wearing hearing aids. It seems it’s the higher pitched sounds that I’m having trouble hearing. My wife, Sandy, has been telling me this for several years! I was in denial, of course, not wanting to wear these strange devices which would make me look even more like an old man! Yes, and if my silly pride and vanity were the only arbiters, I would have never considered such humiliation! But I love the high notes. I love the sound of my wife’s voice, and the sweet whispers and laughter of my little grandchildren, the soulful moan of a violin, and the singing of the songbirds that serenade me as I take my daily walk. Buying hearing aids is not just about self-preservation, it’s about caring for my aging body so that I might continue to participate, as fully as possible, in the gift of life by which I am surrounded. It is to prolong and enrich my encounters with the people God has given me in family, friendship and faith. In many ways, taking care of ourselves is a gesture of love, because it is an acknowledgement that others have a stake in what happens to us, that life is not a private possession but a gift that we share with one another. It is also the means by which we see, hear, taste, touch and smell the presence of a world filled with the glory of God.
So, whether it’s getting hearing aids or a coronavirus vaccine, I want to do what I can to cherish, respect and preserve the gift of life God has given me. At the beginning of time, God declared that all that he had created was good, including us! It seems to me that the resurrection of Christ on Easter morning was not only a reiteration of that great truth but a sign of the new creation in which all of us will share. Knowing that we are all of such inestimable worth, my friends, let us treat these mortal bodies with great care until that day when we are raised with Christ to everlasting glory.
Reflection 35 from Fr. Colin (March 23, 2021)
Reflection 35 from Fr. Colin
Updated: March 23, 2021
This reflection comes a little later than usual, partly because the well was running a little dry, and partly because the subject that was uppermost in my mind was one that required a little extra thought and preparation. Maybe because I’m growing older (it was my birthday Monday) or maybe because my conversion to the Catholic faith has dramatically changed the lens through which I view the world, but I’m finding it especially difficult to understand, let alone respect, many of the assumptions that guide social and political commentary in the post-modern era.
One notion that I find particularly disturbing is the notion that the flow of history is almost always progressive. A few years ago when the debate around medical assistance in dying was heating up, I recall one commentator saying, “Once again the Catholic Church is on the wrong side of history.” I didn’t know history had a right side or a wrong side. I didn’t know that the unfolding of history could always be relied upon to lead us to the truth. Had this same commentator been alive when the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his opposition to a charismatic Adolf Hitler and the growing popularity of the Nazi movement, would the commentator have said that Bonhoeffer was on the wrong side of history?
In Joni Mitchell’s famous song Both Sides Now she declares “Something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day.” Her words remind us that as one generation gives way to another the changes that come will be both positive and negative. We know all too well the ways in which advances in technology, science, and medicine can be applied in ways that enhance or damage the human community.
A few years ago, not long after I retired from prison ministry, I met an author who claimed that the world was a demonstrably better place than it was fifty years. He cited several examples of the way in which the world had improved, especially for visible minorities. As I listened, I thought about my experience working in the prison system, the epidemic of suicide, especially among Indigenous people and the ever-increasing use of alcohol and hard drugs among young people from all walks of life. Despite the progress, the social changes, it seemed to me that people were more unhappy than ever before. The increase in mental health challenges, addictions of various kinds, and increasingly unstable domestic situations, all seemed to suggest that the emergence of a better world was largely illusory.
When I was about 8 or 9 years old my friend and I came upon one of those green metal locked boxes where letter carriers would pick up the daily mail. Sitting on top of this particular storage box was a liverwurst sandwich neatly wrapped in wax paper. One of the homemakers on our street, in a spirit of generosity, had obviously prepared it for our hard-working “mailman” and left it on the storage box for him to enjoy upon his arrival. That would never happen these days. We’re more likely to find bombs in mailboxes than liverwurst sandwiches!
When Sandy and I began our married life in the little town of Miami, Manitoba, she was horrified to discover that nobody locked their doors at night. I’ll never forget her reaction when the church caretaker walked into the rectory early one morning to grab the vacuum cleaner. We were still in bed. Startled, she sat up with a gasp thinking it was a burglar. “It’s just Jimmy.” I assured her, and we went back to sleep.
It would be easy enough to dismiss these stories as the sentimental ramblings of an old man who has been left behind by an increasingly enlightened world, an old man crying out in protest from the wrong side of history. But the stories are true and they bear witness to a way of life that produced people who were mostly healthier and happier than people today.
Don’t misunderstand me. I rejoice in many of the advances that have been made in the last fifty years. I am grateful for opportunities that now exist for people who were once discriminated against. But what I rail against, is the judgement of the past simply because it is the past; the so-called “cancel culture” that self-righteously condemns our forbearers for not believing what we now believe; the lack of humility that fails to acknowledge that much of what we now see as progressive social or political policy may be judged harshly by future generations; that the statues of today’s heroes may one day lie in pieces on the ground.
Interestingly, in the great book The Chosen of the Land by the late Indigenous anthropologist Robert Thomas he claims that there is no word for “progress” in most indigenous languages. He would suggest that very notion of “progress” is foreign to a culture which does not share our predominantly European view of history, or our current contempt for the past, or our gleeful pride and unwarranted confidence in what we’ve now achieved. I suspect he would endorse Joni Mitchell’s notion that there’s something lost and something gained in living every day…every year…every generation, and that the past, like the future, is filled with great accomplishments as well as abysmal failures.
I could write a book about how all this relates specifically to the challenges we now face as a Church. At the very least, I would suggest that it’s not always a bad thing to be on the wrong side of history. It’s evident that Jesus and his followers were greeted with considerable hostility by the world in which they lived and so it stands to reason that those who seek to follow him should expect no less.
Sometimes I think the coronavirus pandemic has somehow intensified the ideological battles that are being waged in our world today. The world seems to be a humourless and oppressive place and, even though the word has gone out of fashion, the presence of “sin” persists in individuals and institutions. As we journey through the pandemic toward a time of physical wellness, may we be mindful of a parallel journey through Lent toward Easter, and a time of spiritual wellness, when human hearts will once again be guided by love, respect, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility and truth.
Reflection 34 from Fr. Colin (March 1, 2021)
Reflection 34 from Fr. Colin
Updated: March 1, 2021
It’s Lent, so I have a confession to make - most of the time, I don’t like rules. Now, that’s not necessarily the kind of thing I would confess sacramentally, even though I’m quite sure my occasional disregard for the rules has rendered a fit subject for a reconciliation room. When I was younger and more foolish there were occasions when I was accused of being one of those people who thinks that the rules don’t apply to him. That wasn’t entirely true, but I will admit that I have trouble with rules that don’t seem to make much sense.
When I lived in west Winnipeg I used to drive over to St. Vital Parish Church for Mass every Sunday morning. The last leg of my journey took me down Waverley to Chevrier where I would turn left toward Pembina Highway. There is a traffic signal at this intersection that provides a very brief green light for southbound cars turning left. Even though the light remains green for “thru” traffic, those turning left must wait a full cycle for the next opportunity to make the turn. It all makes sense, of course, when it’s a busy weekday afternoon and the traffic is heavy and vehicles are headed in all directions. But it doesn’t make any sense at all on a Sunday morning at 7:30 when the streets are deserted. It’s frustrating to sit and wait when your eyes and your common sense tell you that it’s perfectly safe to make that turn. Though the temptation was strong, I never actually broke the law, even though there was no one, let alone the police, who would have actually witnessed the violation.
Many years ago I volunteered for local access television in rural Manitoba. On one occasion, I was asked to interview a RCMP officer who was leaving the community. He had been a police officer for many years so I asked him what he felt had changed the most during his years of service. I’ll never forget his answer. He said, “In the old days people used to obey the law out of a sense of civic duty and as a matter of pride. Now they mostly obey the law because they’re afraid of getting caught.”
You see, I couldn’t make that left turn on a red light because I’m old school enough to realize that laws have a purpose and a place even if I won’t get caught breaking one of them. There are exceptions, of course, but when we begin to believe that rules are optional, when we think that we can use our own discretion to decide when we should follow them, then we begin to open our world to all kinds of confusion and disorder. Not every one uses discretion responsibly, and all too often justifying self-interest is the motivation for acting unwisely or even dangerously.
This is a hot issue lately as some people wage war with governments over the rules and restrictions that have been in place to keep people safe during this deadly pandemic. I’d be the first to admit that some of the rules don’t make a lot of sense. As the pandemic has progressed rules have evolved as governments and medical experts have learned more about the coronavirus and its various strains. Different jurisdictions have responded in different ways and often decisions have been based on shifting medical opinions instead of scientific facts. But one thing is clear, even if they change, even if they don’t make sense, the rules help maintain order in the face of a potentially chaotic situation. I’ve come to appreciate the expression “erring on the side of caution.” It’s a way of saying, even if it turns out they were wrong, the rules helped us feel safe.
These principles can apply to moral decision-making as well. I have witnessed in so many ways how the permissiveness and moral relativism of our age have left many young people feeling unsafe. The Catholic Church has taken a lot of heat for upholding traditional views of marriage and sexual behaviour, yet I believe there is a tremendous longing for the clarity and guidance that such rules bring, especially to those who are young and vulnerable. Enforcing such rules isn’t always about controlling. Almost always, it’s about loving and caring.
I’ll close with a story that I think makes the point with considerable clarity. Once I was visiting the Victoria Hospital I was asked to visit a patient who was dying of cancer. “Are you sure he wants to see me?” I asked the nurse, “He’s not a Catholic.” She replied by saying that he had specifically asked to see a Catholic priest. When I got to his room he told me that he was near death and was thinking about medical assistance in dying. Understandably, his wife, teenaged children and friends, were reluctant to tell him what to do. “What do you think I should do?” he asked, knowing full well what my answer would be. I told him what the church taught and why. We talked about the mystery of suffering and the sacredness of moments he had been sharing with his loved ones. A few days later he died naturally, peacefully and without much pain. As I thought about it later I realized he wanted to see a priest because he wanted to know right from wrong. He wanted someone to tell him what to do. I’m guessing that what I told him to do was what he really wanted to do anyway, but, even so, he longed for guidance and clarity. He wanted to feel safe.
Reflection 33 from Fr. Colin (February 16, 2021)
Reflection 33 from Fr. Colin
Updated: February 16, 2021
I suppose it’s a sign that this pandemic has gone on long enough when I’m starting to run out of ideas for these bi-weekly reflections. Or, worse yet, when I’m starting to recycle ideas that I’ve written about before.
The overarching theme of these reflections has been “life in the pandemic” and I’ve tried to focus as much as possible on the very real challenges and occasional blessings that have come to us because of the coronavirus. A recurring theme has been the importance of faith as we make our way through these bewildering and frightening times. Speaking personally, it would be difficult to make sense of all this if not for my conviction that God is present in our wilderness, as the Holy One who both sustains and guides us. But I hasten to add that this God is the God who is encountered in concrete ways in the sacramental and communal life of the Church.
What a relief it is to learn that we will once again be able to gather in person to celebrate the Eucharist. Even though we will only be able to welcome fifteen worshippers to our Mass at Christ the King Chapel at St. Paul’s College, it will be a foretaste of that day when the doors can be flung wide open and all who wish to enter will be welcomed. But where has the church been these last few months? Did the closed doors represent the absence of the Church from our lives?
It’s true that our access to the church has been severely limited by the restrictions imposed to keep us safe, but the Church didn’t disappear! In the same way that we are in communion with the Saints and all who have gone before us in the faith, we have been connected with one another as sisters and brothers in what is sometimes called the Mystical Body of the Christ.
This community to which we belong is not like a secular organization in which like-minded people choose to associate with one another because of a common interest. We are members of a mystical body breathed into being by the Holy Spirit and inseparably bound together by forces that are beyond our aegis. To quote the legendary Flannery O’Connor, “For us the Church is the body of Christ, Christ continued in time, and as such a divine institution…if the Church is not a divine institution, it will turn into an Elks Club.” This was not a condemnation of the Elks Club by Flannery O’Connor but a bold affirmation of the distinct nature of the church. It is a reminder that this Body, like the risen body of our Lord, cannot be destroyed by the things of the world including the coronavirus.
Vestiges of the Church as it used to be have been present in the live-streaming of Masses and through the spiritual communion offered there. But the presence of the church in our lives has continued in invisible ways through the power of prayer, through our longing for its return and through our connection with the brothers and sisters from whom we have been separated.
In recent years the word “religion” has fallen out of favour in some circles. You sometimes hear people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” which often means that they have distanced themselves from “organized” religion which usually requires some sort of participation in a community and the acceptance of certain obligations. But I’m suggesting that it is precisely our religion, our membership in the community of the church and the fulfilment of its attendant religious obligations, that has sustained us in these difficult times. A private or personal spirituality on its own cannot provide the resources that come to us through our membership in the Mystical Body of Christ which, like it or not, manifests itself as an organized religion. I suspect many private spiritualities, in the absence of community or commitment, often become disorganized religions.
None of this is to disparage the practice of private prayer or spiritual practices that sustain strength and inner peace. My daily walk, even on the coldest days, is a private spiritual practice. But it is a private spiritual practice undertaken not “instead of” but “alongside” other religious practices and always in communion with my sisters and brothers in the Church. In other words, it is a religious practice on my own, but not alone, because your love, my brothers and sisters in Christ, the love of all the angels and Saints in heaven, and the love of our merciful God, is always invisibly and wonderfully present.
Reflection 32 from Fr. Colin (January 30, 2021)
Reflection 32 from Fr. Colin
Updated: January 30, 2021
In the last few weeks I’ve been trying to get outside for a long walk almost every day, even when it’s thirty below! Over the years I have often been negligent when it comes to the care and maintenance of this aging body. In the old days, when it was still socially acceptable, maybe even cool, I used to smoke cigarettes, cigars and a pipe. I smoked a pipe as a young seminarian. In those days, mostly male, mostly European theologians were popular, and almost all of them smoked a pipe. Oddly enough, it seemed to help. When I smoked a pipe it produced an almost trance-like meditative state from which profound theological ideas flowed at an alarming rate. I’m kidding about the profundity of course, but smoking a pipe was relaxing and, if nothing else, it at least made you look like a German theologian capable of profundity.
But there were other times when the urge to become physically fit took hold of me. I quit smoking for a while in 1973 and began swimming laps at the university pool. Then, for a few months in the summer of 1977 I became a jogger and ran six or seven miles every night. In the ensuing years, I have spent time swimming, lifting weights, walking around an indoor track, but never for more than a few months. When I worked at the Manitoba Youth Centre in the first decade of the new millennium I rode my bike in the summer months. It was about 12-13 kilometres so it was a good workout! But again, it only lasted for a couple of seasons.
During my first year at St. Paul’s College, weather permitting, I often rode my bike to the office. Needless to say, working from home during the pandemic has disrupted that routine. Now, I find myself walking, almost every day, and I love it. A friend of mine in Toronto walks every day but, in the winter, he uses a treadmill. I think that’s a good way to continue exercise when the weather is nasty! But I’ve come to realize that for me walking is more than getting exercise. It is getting fresh air after months of being mostly indoors. It is seeing the deer along the river, rabbits seeking the shelter of the woodpiles, and the birds nestled in the trees of the forest. It is time spent away from the cell phone, the computer and the television.
So, why all this talk about exercise?
As Catholics we stand in a religious tradition that acknowledges the importance of these physical bodies. We believe in an astonishing God who became flesh and lived in a body just like yours and mine. Our liturgies are liturgies that invoke the senses that come with these physical bodies - we see, we hear, we taste, we touch and smell. We understand the body to be a gift through most of life, although we know it can feel like a prison when we contend with unruly appetites or the aches and pains of aging. St. Paul calls the body a temple of the Holy Spirit, as something to be treated with care and respect. But not worshipped.
There are times when people seem to worship their bodies, when exercise seems to be a frantic effort to escape mortality rather than the pursuit of pleasure. St. Paul talked about people for whom the stomach is their god. We’ve often taken that to be a reference to people who are gluttonous. But I wonder if it can also refer to those who have such an idolatrous attachment to their bodies that they never allow themselves to simply enjoy the pleasures of good food and drink. I’m not talking about fasting or eating simple foods as a spiritual discipline, but avoiding good food because one is clinging, almost fearfully, to one’s own existence. Underlying much Catholic teaching, especially regarding issues like MAID and abortion, is the notion that life is not a possession, but a sacred gift, a mystery and a miracle, to be nurtured and enjoyed.
This last year, with the spectre of COVID-19 hanging over our heads, our bodies and their attendant mortality have been on our minds perhaps more than ever before. How hard it is to find that balance between hanging on so tightly that we are paralyzed with fear, and letting go so much that we put ourselves and others at risk. In the end, it has been a spiritual battle as much as a physical battle.
In a strange way my daily walking (which I hope to continue indefinitely) has helped to understand that I need to tend to both. The fresh air and the deer, the time away from technology, brings joy and hope to my heart, while the steps, registered daily on my Fitbit, help it to keep on pumping. I hope that all of you will discover your own ways of continuing to be healthy both in body and in spirit. - FC
Reflection 31 from Fr. Colin (January 13, 2021)
Reflection 31 from Fr. Colin
Updated: January 13, 2021
My father’s mother died from the Spanish flu just a few days after he was born in 1918. There’s an interesting story to be told about the way his life unfolded after his birth, as the world around him continued to deal with the devastating effects of a world-wide pandemic, not unlike the pandemic we’re facing in the world today. My Dad’s story can be told some other time, but I’ve been thinking about the Spanish flu pandemic and how much different it must have been in those days. Aside from the medical advances that have enhanced our response to COVID-19, there was relative silence in the world surrounding those Spanish flu sufferers. By silence, I mean the absence of radios, televisions, and the world-wide web with its vast array of platforms, social media, blogs and podcasts. I’m guessing that the only medium available to my dying grandmother in a small town in rural Saskatchewan would have been the local paper. If it was around in those days, maybe the Regina Leader Post would have given occasional information about the scope and consequences of that deadly virus. But there would have been no reports of the daily numbers from around the globe. There would have been few, if any, debates about the best way to protect yourself from infection. The pandemic would have been much less politicized, and conspiracy theories, which aren’t always necessarily false, would have been few and far between.
So, I’m wondering. Is all the communication a good thing or a bad thing?
Certainly, contemporary methods of communication have made it possible to respond more quickly to the presence of the virus, but they also made it possible to speculate in a hundred different ways about how it started and who’s to blame. The daily briefings have allowed us to receive information that has enhanced the safety of our communities, but they have also added to the fears and anxieties of the most vulnerable, especially when the advice of the experts has not always been clear or consistent. They say “ignorance is bliss” so I wonder if my grandmother would have been helped or hindered by the lack of information coming to her way back in 1918.
The truth is that the greatest scientific, technological and social progress, can be applied in ways that are divisive and destructive. Theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and William Stringfellow both wrote extensively about the presence of the “demonic” amid the principalities and powers.
I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve felt as if the world-wide web has become a bit of a tangled web and, ironically, enhanced communication seems to have deepened the divisions between human beings. There’s not time to explore this whole argument in this short reflection, but, personally speaking, I’m finding it almost impossible to find reliable information about any topic, especially topics of a social or political nature. Perhaps it has always been this way, but we seem to be more oppressed by information these days, much of it contradictory, and, in the end, we’re required to take a “leap of faith” when it comes to choosing our sources of authority, often driven by ideological not pedagogical motivations.
Sometimes the options are so mendacious and bewildering that I’ve looked with envy at some cousins who belong to a very small Mennonite sect. They believe that Christians should withdraw from the world and eschew any involvement in politics. They don’t vote or belong to political parties. They believe in respecting the authority of governments but believe that ultimately all worldly powers and institutions are subject to sin and evil. In the end, I will choose to “duke it out” amid the chaos and confusion, knowing that these human institutions, however flawed, can also accomplish great good.
Yet, as we reflect back on the Christmas Season that the Church has just celebrated, we think about the Word that became flesh and lived among us. It is that Word, and only that Word, that I am ultimately willing to trust. It is that Word, and only that Word, to which I will bow the knee, finding in him hopes and promises upon which I can always depend. In his gospel, John called him the true light. It’s a light that shines in our darkness whether it’s 1918 or 2021.
Reflection #30 from Father Colin (December 23, 2020)
Reflection #30 from Father Colin
Updated: December 23, 2020
I wanted to send out one more reflection before the Christmas break, so that I could wish all of you a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and for those of other faith traditions, a very joyful holiday season.
Those words - merry, happy and joyful - seem a little odd and out of place when the world around us is filled with so much fear and sadness. Even without the coronavirus, we know that the holiday season is often decidedly un-joyful and unhappy for a lot of people. We get set up by all the hype for an emotional high that the season, even on a good year, never quite delivers. Often it’s the intangible things, the things that draw us closer to God, that become the source of true joy.
This year Christmas and the holiday season may be harder than usual for many people and perhaps, for some, it will be a little easier, especially if you’re one of those who find the usual festivities more stressful than joyful. In any case, we are not only surrounded by the coronavirus with all the loneliness, worry and death it brings, but we are mindful of a passing year that has brought with it the loss of beloved people from our wider community. It’s true, I think, that the absence of a departed loved one is felt more keenly at Christmastime, but it also a time when we lay hold once again of the good news that gives us hope especially in the face of our most profound losses.
I’ve always found it interesting that many of the old, favourite Christmas carols, make reference to the fact that the coming Saviour will save us from the power of death. I won’t list them here, but if you pay attention to the words of the carols you’ll discover that many do not avoid the fact of our mortality or the condition of our world. All of this is simply to say that it’s possible to find in this Holy Season some comfort, if not a cure, for the sorrow of our hearts.
Traditionally, the coming days would be days of joyful celebration. At Christmas, through the holidays, on New Year’s Eve, it would not be unusual to pop the cork of something bubbly and drink a toast to life and its abundant blessings. If that has been your custom, I sincerely hope that all of you will find a reason to do so again this year. The blessings may be harder to find, but they’re there. Perhaps some of you will even discover, as I have, that there are blessings to be found in the fact that we are not able to celebrate Christmas in the usual way.
Even if you’ve lost a loved one, or suffered through illness, or struggled with the challenges that come with being a student, or growing old, or raising children, or caring for an ailing loved one, or managing the challenges of the workplace, I hope you will find a reason to celebrate.
If nothing else, we celebrate the Good News of a God who has responded to the cries of the people and sent a light to those who walk in darkness.
God bless you all!
Please join us for the live-streamed broadcast of our Christmas Eve Mass at 8:00 p.m. on the St. Paul’s College Facebook page.
There will also be live-streamed masses on Sunday, December 27th and Sunday, January 3rd at 11:00 a.m.
Reflection #29 from Father Colin (December 15, 2020)
Reflection #29 from Father Colin
Updated: December 15, 2020
They say every picture tells a story. Well, I saw a picture a few days ago that told an intriguing story, a story about the fragility of life, a story about the struggle for survival which, in one sense, is what every life is about. It was a picture of a meadowlark with only one leg. Balanced perfectly on its remaining leg and singing its familiar melody, one wonders how it happened. Had it been attacked by a bird of prey or a marauding cat? Had it struggled mightily for its fragile life, escaping alive but wounded like Jacob after wrestling with the angel? For me the photo was an emblem of survival, the resilience of life in the face of death and perhaps a sign of hope for all of us surrounded these days by so much danger.
We know that, at some level, living is a dangerous business. I remember attending a community Christmas gathering many years ago when our oldest son was just over a year old. He had only been walking a few months and was still unsteady on his feet. That evening all the kids were herded into a roped off play area where they could interact safely with one another while the adults socialized a short distance away. Those of you who are parents will remember the anxiety that comes with your first born and so, on this particular night, we kept a watchful eye on our little guy as he played with the other children. At one point, an older child, without apparent provocation, pushed our little son down. He burst into tears and, of course, we ran to comfort him and rescue him from further malice. Maybe you’ll think I’m crazy, but I was deeply troubled by this incident. I was silent, but in a sense grieving, not so much because my little boy had been hurt in any physical way, but because, for the first time in his life, he had been hurt by an encounter with the human condition. In my mind, he had begun that unavoidable journey through life’s labyrinth of social interactions that can bring great joy, but often cause considerable pain. It troubled me to realize that he had discovered at such an early age that the world is not a trustworthy place. He and our other two children have gone on to live relatively happy lives, but my point in telling the story is to simply underscore the fact that life is fragile and we are vulnerable in so many different ways.
Many of us are fortunate enough to have experienced amid the vulnerability the protectiveness of God. Sometimes the protectiveness comes in mitigating the effect of pain and suffering and at other times in nothing less than sheer rescue. As I look back over my life I’m grateful to have had “a guardian angel” who had to work a lot harder than other guardian angels. On one occasion, I was horseback riding on a farm near the small town where I began my life in ministry. The horse was galloping full speed toward a barb wire fence and I, foolishly, made the rookie mistake of thinking I was smarter than the horse. Instead of allowing the horse to jump the fence, I reined back hard, causing the horse to slam on the brakes. The sudden stop sent me flying over the horse’s head and, after completing a mid-air somersault, I landed very painfully on my back. Winded and embarrassed I slowly got to my feet, mounted the horse, and rode very slowly back to the barn. I survived. I could have just as easily broken my neck and died, but for whatever reasons, my life continued. It’s hard to know why, because so often the story ends in different ways. I only know that in the face of life’s dangers we sometimes experience the protective hand of God.
But, as this Advent Season reminds us, our hope ultimately is not only that we would be spared an inordinate amount of suffering in this world, but that we can look forward to an end to all suffering, the reign of everlasting peace, and the ultimate victory of life over death. Advent comprehends our human vulnerability and opens us to sheer rescue - the coming of God to save us.
That brings us back to the one-legged meadowlark. There is hope in knowing that despite its wounds it continued to sing, just as all of us, with our various physical and emotional wounds, will continue to sing, as we move toward our Christmas celebrations. No, we might not sing in packed churches as we usually do, or even gathered around a piano in someone’s living room, but though the songs be not on our lips, may they ring courageously in our hearts - for they are songs of hope, songs of confidence and courage, songs of indestructible love.
- Father Colin
Reflection #28 from Father Colin (December 4, 2020)
Reflection #28 from Father Colin
Updated: December 4, 2020
There’s a pretty good chance that COV-19 and the associated lockdowns and restrictions are not only going to ruin Christmas but Advent too. After all, what is Advent but standing in sweltering line-ups in crowded department stores, baking fruit cakes and Santa-shaped cookies and covering walls and windows and doorways with festive decorations? I’m being a little facetious, of course, because we know that Advent is so much more than all those things, and even though we will miss some of these traditional pre-Christmas activities, the fact is, the coronavirus may actually help us to see the meaning of Advent more clearly by allowing us to set aside some of these cultural distractions so that we can see the poverty of the world instead of its plenitude.
In the Catholic tradition the focus of Advent is primarily on the two comings of Jesus Christ. The first coming was his birth in a Bethlehem stable over two thousand years ago. This coming Sunday we would have celebrated our annual Barn Mass which always reminds us, in very vivid ways, the rustic conditions under which our Saviour entered the world. Even if Jesus wasn’t born in a barn, as some scholars suggest, the main point is that God didn’t become flesh at the Hyatt Regency. On the contrary, the Incarnation, from start to finish, was literally and figuratively down-to-earth.
The second coming refers to the Christian hope of the day when Jesus Christ will return in glory to establish the Kingdom of God and its attendant shalom. Many of the Advent hymns and prayers focus on this second coming of Jesus Christ and, not surprisingly, rely heavily on images that come from the ancient prophets, particularly Isaiah, and the Messianic hopes of Israel.
Many Catholics speak of a third coming, namely, the personal experience of Jesus Christ descending into their lives through the Eucharist and other sacraments, through prayer and meditation and, not least, through the signs of the kingdom of God that appear among us when we live in faithfulness to the prophetic vision of a world at peace.
But my purpose today is not to explore these christological questions, but to talk about the way in which the presence of the coronavirus enhances our ability to understand their importance. The fact that undergirds our celebration of both Advent and Christmas is that this is a world in need of salvation. Sometimes that truth is obscured by the fact that we live in a relatively prosperous country, most of our basic human needs are met regularly, and there are various technological, social and political advances that delude us into thinking we might be able to save ourselves.
The coronavirus reminds us of our vulnerability, our mortality and, as we listen to the feuding of politicians and scientists, the precarious nature of nascent medical research and a variety of other social and political initiatives. But the coronavirus also has exposed human brokenness and fragility, our propensity to bicker, the near occasion of sin, and in a very beautiful way, our need for human community. Perhaps the promise of the coming Christ will ring a little more clearly, and taste a little sweeter, and fill our hearts with a greater hope, because of all we’ve been through together these last nine months. Advent is the time to remember that God knows what we’ve been through. God knows our deepest longing and has heard our plaintive cries. At Christmas, we remember God’s response and rejoice together in our salvation.
Reflection #27 from Father Colin (November 27, 2020)
Reflection #27 from Father Colin
Updated: November 27, 2020
When I was a young minister back in the late 1970s and early 1980s I used to write my sermons on lined yellow paper. It was not even good yellow paper. It was newsprint because, by the end of the sermon-writing process, the waste basket was full of crumpled pages. In those days, “cutting and pasting” meant crumpling up and starting over. So, you can imagine the joy I experienced when, some time in the mid-1980s I acquired my first computer. It would be a stretch to call it a computer these days, but back then it was a boon and a blessing! It was an Adam made by Coleco and it stored information on a cassette tape that whirred and clattered as it searched for available space. I didn’t have a proper monitor so I hung a transparent sheet of green acetate over the screen of an old twelve inch black and white television. It had two very primitive games, including the legendary Pong. These games helped me to develop the skills I would need to save the Princess when we acquired the Mario Brothers on Nintendo a few years later. But, most importantly, the Adam allowed me to write sermons with the ability to cut and paste and move and edit without crumpling up and starting over. It’s hard to say whether this change in the writing process had much impact on the finished product. The process was certainly quicker and the freedom to move and edit text allowed me to produce a more carefully crafted piece. Although I hasten to add, well written sermons are not necessarily good sermons, and part of the craft of sermon writing is the ability to write text that is meant to be proclaimed not read.
Now, over forty years later, we’re hard-pressed to imagine a world without computers and various other technological advances. But, speaking personally, I’ve also discovered that sometimes technology isn’t too bright. In many cases, technology is only as bright as the people involved in its development. It’s nice to have spell-checking but my word processor doesn’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its” and if you’re writing a blessing that begins with “may” such as “May peace be with you!” it will place a question mark at the end, perhaps a sign of its agnostic tendencies. I’ve noticed that some theological words are not in the word-processing lexicon and it’s annoying to be told you’re wrong when you know you’re right. If you have an auto-correct feature be prepared to proof read!
I hasten to add that technology can even become an agent of evil when it is used to produce destructive weapons, spread hateful ideas, provide access to dehumanizing images, or impede literacy.
Nevertheless, we know that technological change has made life in this time of pandemic much easier. You can FaceTime with loved ones, mitigate boredom by watching television or surfing the net, and meet with colleagues through Zoom. I can only imagine how much different life during the pandemic was in 1918 when the local paper may have been the only source of information. I believe there are ways in which it would have been better - not knowing the death totals, the number of cases, the political squabbles. But, when push comes to shove, I think most of us would prefer to endure a pandemic with the assistance of technology.
The point of all this is to encourage us to be reasonable and wise when it comes to technology. Technology is inherently neutral, but the way in which it is used can be life-giving or death-dealing. It can be almost angelic or destructively demonic. It can produce freedom or bondage. Unwittingly, the pandemic has put us at something of a crossroads when it comes to technology. Will it permanently change the way in which we meet and work? Will life-styles, daily routines and social interactions be altered forever? Will it have a lasting impact on church attendance?
We have a choice about all these things. I suggested that we may have to consciously resist the temptations that technology will set before us as the pandemic gradually begins to recede. We will have to consciously claim back the things that technology has taken away from us, even as it has helped and supported us.
The Christian belief in the God who became human, reminds us that our fleshly humanity is a sacred gift that must be cherished and protected. God did not become a Coleco Adam computer. We believe God became one of us, and in doing so, taught us to cherish the warm and tangible humanity that we find in one another.
- Father Colin
Reflection #26 from Father Colin (November 27, 2020)
Reflection #26 from Father Colin
Updated: November 27, 2020
The Red Code restrictions being implemented by the province are coming into effect as I write this reflection. It is disappointing to be sure. Most of us believed, or wanted to believe, that the situation would gradually improve until life would be normal again. The summer months afforded a bit of a reprieve. In our family, we spent time at the lake with children and grandchildren. We began to go to restaurants again. We engaged in unnecessary shopping. As the number of cases stabilized, we dared to believe that our time in exile was coming to an end.
And now? Well, we stood at the front door of our son’s home when we delivered his birthday present on Tuesday afternoon, our daughter and her two little girls are in isolation at home because there was a possible case at the daycare, Campus Ministry finds it difficult to maintain any regular contact with our students, and our Sunday Masses must be live-streamed with a small crew of workers. All of you could cite your own examples of how this setback is affecting you, both personally and professionally.
In some ways, what’s happening now, reminds me of what sometimes happens in Winnipeg when spring is approaching. The snow begins to melt, the sun begins to shine, the winter coat is put away and then, out of nowhere, a horrendous blizzard arrives, extinguishing our reviving hope, and thrusting us back into winter’s icy grasp. But this is different. When winter persists we all know that it won’t last long. We’ve been through it enough times. When I still had a driveway, I rarely shovelled after a spring blizzard because I knew that Mother Nature would shovel it for me. But I’m pressed to know when the winter of coronavirus will give way to some sort of spring. There’s talk of a vaccination. There are signs of hope and, as we’ve discussed before, we’re sometimes forced into disruptions of daily routines that can be life-giving. Today, for example, I stood and talked for about twenty-five minutes to my neighbour down the hall in our condo building. We’ve been here three years and this is the first time I’ve talked with him for more than two or three minutes. Good things happen, even in our exile.
I think one of the most challenging things about the coronavirus is precisely its novelty. We’ve never dealt with anything like this before and we’re hard pressed to know how to respond. I’d hate to be a politician these days. No matter what course of action you choose there will be harsh criticism. If you chose to lock things down you’ll be accused of taking away freedoms, violating rights, and destroying the economy. If you’re slow to impose restrictions you’ll be accused of being negligent and irresponsible and ignoring the science.
I suppose it doesn’t help that the scientists and medical experts are not of one accord. They are learning about this “on the fly” so to speak and their advice has changed and evolved with each passing month. They sometimes disagree in fundamental ways, especially when it comes to effective strategies for prevention, the timeline for vaccines, and the efficacy of various treatments. Preferring to err on the side of caution we wear our masks and sanitize and stay at home as much as possible. But our unease and bouts of paranoia are worsened by the sense that we continue to deal with something we don’t completely understand. In some ways, we’re dealing with an invisible enemy, against which there is no sure defence.
It’s our nature to fear the unknown. I think that’s why the fear of dying is so intense. It forces us to make a journey we’ve never made before. It’s a journey that takes us through unfamiliar territory toward a destination that is completely unknown to us. We are unable to look it up on the internet or talk to someone who has been there, and so we journey toward it with little more than our confidence in God’s unfailing promises.
These times are a bit like that. The lack of clarity, the unfamiliarity of the surrounding territory, and the uncertainty of the future, produce a fear and trepidation that cannot be abated by the science alone, but by the unfailing promises of a loving God.
Reflection #25 from Father Colin (November 2, 2020)
Reflection #25 from Father Colin
Updated: November 2, 2020
A few weeks ago I came across a video of a Swedish musician performing the John Lennon classic Imagine on an episode of America’s Got Talent. It was advertised as a performance that “just might make you cry.” In some ways it did make me want to cry, but not for the reasons the promoters had in mind.
I’d be the first to admit that I really liked John Lennon’s version of when it first made the hit parade in 1971. In some respects, it was an anthem for the movements that had begun to influence the world in the 60s and 70s. The vision of a world filled with peace and harmony was hardly something to be sneezed at and, not surprisingly, the song had very broad popular appeal.
Despite its popularity, I’ve been told by people who know more about music than I do that Imagine isn’t exactly a musical masterpiece. I’ll let you form your own opinions about that but, speaking personally, I got tired of it about 40 years ago. But when you consider its message, can anyone seriously claim that it is a song of hope? Or when you reflect upon Lennon’s lyrics, do they really paint a picture of a brighter, better world?
Imagine. Imagine that you are lying in a hospital bed with the coronavirus. Imagine that your loved one has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Imagine that the person that you shared your life with for 60 years has just died. Then imagine there’s no heaven.
“It’s easy if you try.” Lennon says. But I say, it’s disturbingly frightening. It’s frightening if the hope of heaven has been a source of comfort in the face of death. It is disarming and heart-breaking if the prospect of heaven has helped you accept your own mortality and the mortality of those you love. I suspect even the atheist would admit that someone facing the coronavirus, or cancer or inevitable death, would be better off using the imagination to envision the beauty of heaven than its abysmal absence. As St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Imagine no religion. Imagine no circle of family and friends lighting candles for you as you endure your dark night of despair. Imagine no community of faith singing hymns, reading scripture and standing by your side, when your loved one is laid to rest. Imagine no parish including you in the prayers of the faithful, or starting a prayer chain for you as you face your tests and treatments. Imagine no priest offering a mass for your departed loved one or anointing your elderly spouse or parent or grandparent with oleum infirmorum, the oil of the sick.
Imagine there’s no countries. Well, aside from being a bad grammar, that sounds a little more hopeful, until you examine the history of western civilization, and discover that ancient Greece, despite the existence of some practices that we might now find abhorrent, was mostly a place of great progress: intellectually, artistically, and technologically. It was also a place of great happiness. As the famous classicist, Edith Hamilton, writes in her famous book The Greek Way, “what most set the Greeks apart from all prior societies was joyful living.” She says this was something new and claims, ”The Greeks were the first people in the world to play, and they played on a great scale.” But here’s the interesting thing. Ancient Greece was comprised of city-states that were politically independent. Despite a few conquests and alliances along the way, Ancient Greece was mostly a diverse and independent set of small societies. In the ensuing ages, it was the monolithic empires that generated poverty and human misery. So, it seems a world with borders, a world comprised of smaller political units, a world of diverse societies, is most likely to promote the health and happiness of its inhabitants.
The Christian community, and the Catholic Church in particular, is no stranger to this concept. For example, the principle of subsidiarity, which was developed as part of Catholic Social Teaching, believes that what individuals can accomplish by their own initiative and efforts should not be taken from them by a higher authority. In practical terms, this means that social and political matters should be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Similarly, Catholic social teaching endorses the economic concept of Distributism, which is the belief that the means of production should be spread as widely as possible rather than being centralized under the control of the government. Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of saying that John Lennon’s vision of a world with no countries can very quickly become a vision of a world of a bland and fragile uniformity, a world that produces neither happiness, productivity or meaningful progress.
Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus Christ’s appeal for unity was not a demand for uniformity or an attack on individualism. His first followers came from diverse backgrounds - fishers and tax collectors, zealots and a thief. Although this motley crew was united in a common cause, none was asked to leave behind his delightful individuality. Jesus offered love and acceptance to people from all walks of life, including beggars and prostitutes. I think he would have been deeply disappointed by the way in which voices of dissent are often silenced in our contentious and increasingly polarized world today. As Paul teaches us 1 Corinthians 12, the body’s health and effectiveness exists because of, not in spite of, diversity.
Anyway, this has been a longer than usual reflection. I missed last week so I guess I can get away with it. Just for the record, I love the Beatles and John Lennon was my favourite. But as people of faith, especially those facing a frightening pandemic, let’s ignore John for a moment and dare to imagine the beauty of heaven, the empowering love and support of our religious communities, and a world that finds wholeness, fruitfulness, and dignity, not in some sort of amorphous monolith, but in the splendour of our diversity.
Reflection #24 from Father Colin (October 18, 2020)
Reflection #24 from Father Colin
Updated: October 18, 2020
Lately, we’ve been watching old episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies. Those of you who were around in 1962 when the popular television series first appeared, will remember Jed Clampett, the hillbilly who accidentally discovered oil on his property and moved to a mansion in Beverly Hills with 25 million dollars in his bank account. There was much humour to be found as Jed and his family discovered the bewildering existence of modern conveniences. Ironically, modern conveniences like running water, electricity and the telephone, brought consternation instead of relief.
In the very first episode, Jed has just learned that he’s a millionaire and his cousin Pearl is trying to persuade him to move to California. Jed is having trouble making a decision so Pearl says (and I’m paraphrasing) “Think about it Jed. You’re living out here in the middle of nowhere, eight miles from your nearest neighbour. You’re surrounded by wilderness, opossum and wildcats. You have to hunt for your food and fetch water from a pond. You cook your meals on a wood stove and your outhouse is fifty feet from your cabin.” Jed thinks about this statement for a moment then says, “By golly, Pearl, I see your point. A man would be a darn fool to leave all this!”
Over the years I’ve often fantasized about living out in the wilderness. In fact, we briefly considered selling our home and living year round at the lake we visit every summer. The lake is near Kenora in Ontario so the thought of being away from children and grandchildren put an end to that notion. Still, I enjoy watching films and reading books about wilderness survival and canoe trips and mountain men. But I’ve spent enough time in the outdoors to know that mosquitoes, frozen feet, inclement weather and hungry predators can soon turn the wilderness dream into a terrifying nightmare. Moreover, as physical ability and stamina subside, most of my forays into the wilderness will be limited to city parks and lakeside cabins.
Jed Clampett’s comment reminds us that our sense of what is required to have a happy existence is certainly a relative thing and, as this pandemic is teaching us, it’s possible to live without many of the amenities that life in the city affords. But what if we were to think of this pandemic, this time of isolation, not as a time exile, not as a crisis to be overcome or a period of suffering to be endured, but as a gift and an opportunity? Notwithstanding, all the very real difficulties brought about by COVID-19, including illness and death, what if we began to allow this time to be a time in the wilderness? And what if this wilderness offered, not only an escape from the world, but a place in which to encounter the living God
I just started reading Henri Nouwen’s book, The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry, inspired by the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. In the book he quotes from Thomas Merton who tells us that, “society was regarded by the Desert Fathers as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life…these were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.” I find Merton’s image profoundly accurate as I think of contemporary society. The notion of “fleeing” from our world, not only because of the coronavirus, but because of frightening social and political realities, is tremendously appealing at one level. But Nouwen makes it clear that fleeing to the solitude of the desert was much more than a self-serving escapism. Referring to the likes of St. John the Baptist, St. Anthony, St. Benedict , Charles de Foucauld and the brothers of Taizé, he says, “Solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.” He points out that, “Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.”
For Nouwen this isn’t about simply enjoying our privacy, our time away from the demands and pressures of daily life. It is about seeing the desert, the wilderness, as a place in which something happens. He says: “We have, indeed, to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.”
Well, most of us don’t have to fashion our own desert because we’ve had one presented to us in the reality of the pandemic. I suspect, even without knowing it, many of us have been changed, if not transformed, by our prolonged distance from the busy world from which we’ve been cut off. Many of us spend a lot of time and energy trying to get back into that world, to shrink the distances created by our isolation. We use Zoom meetings, text messaging, emails and and telephones to try to overcome the barriers. But what if we were to see amid the heart-breaking separations and the agony of exile, an opportunity, a gift and a blessing, as the imposition of a wilderness, a desert, offers us the opportunity to grow deeper in faith, and, as Nouwen puts it, “to shake off our compulsions, and to dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.”
Reflection #23 from Father Colin (October 8, 2020)
Reflection #23 from Father Colin
Updated: October 8, 2020
As many of you know I was a graduate of the School of Art here at the University of Manitoba. You may also know that my love of the visual arts is often expressed through my interest in photography. What you might not have known is that my desire to be creative, to facilitate new ways of seeing the world around us, often leads me to take photos of peculiar things. For example, I have taken dozens of photos over the years of red or yellow leaves still clinging to a brittle branch, cattails losing their stuffing, withered berries hanging from a bush, and golden stalks of grass juxtaposed against the winter snow. It seems a puzzling subject to many people. After all, not many of us, while walking through the local park, would stop and say, “Oh, look at the dried up leaf hanging from that branch! I wish I had my camera!” No, it’s the birds of the air, the deer and the rabbits, the flowers blossoming in the spring, that make us wish we had a camera. Even so, one of these days I’d like to put some of these peculiar photos on display. The title of the exhibit would be, “The Beauty of Aging.”
You see, I think if we look again, and perhaps more closely, we’ll see that there’s a tremendous beauty in the leaves and the flowers and the grasses as their brief season of life draws to a close. Everyone loves the fall colours! But we sometimes forget that the beauty of colourful leaves is most intense just before they fall to the ground.
Here’s the thing, I’m convinced that the same principle applies to human beings and, as we grow older, there’s a way in which we become even more beautiful. I know! I know! We don’t often feel more beautiful! And when we look in the mirror most of us are aware that signs of aging have begun to appear. But beauty is more than skin deep.
There is still a physical beauty, but it’s not beauty in the conventional sense. It’s a beauty rooted in the truth that we are wonderfully made and that the person who was miraculously knit together in her or his mother’s womb is just as much a gift and a marvel as the little child that came into this world so many years ago. We must never forget that our very existence is a miracle and that the spirit that enlivens us, though somewhat abated, is nothing less than the breath of God.
Those of you who have been in a life-long relationship with a person who is now aging will know what I’m talking about. We are witnesses to the persistence of beauty. This can be especially true in romance where, in some cases, a couple who has been together for several decades regularly rediscover that they are still madly in love with each other, and when they gaze upon their loved-one, though the years have taken a toll, the beauty remains. It is in those moments that we realize that true beauty is perceived through the lens of love.
Another beauty that can be perceived in the elderly and the aging is the beauty of wisdom. An old prayer book refers to these people as “those of riper years.” I like that! Because it implies reaching perfection instead of passing our best before date.
In many cultures, not least Indigenous cultures, the wisdom of the elders is highly regarded and elders are always treated with dignity and respect. Such respect, not only for the person, but for their insights and ideas, is predicated on the fact that they have been around for an awfully long time. Not only have the elders had a broader perspective from which to view the passage of time, but through the sheer act of living, of perhaps raising a family, winning and losing, stumbling and prevailing, learning and growing, suffering and succeeding, they have gained an awareness and a knowledge that cannot be acquired except by life experience. Sadly, in much of contemporary western society, respect for the elders has almost disappeared. Frequently, elders are dismissed as out of touch or behind the times. There is an almost idolatrous attachment to youth and novelty and, whether it’s homes or humans, it seems as if everything needs to be updated.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that the elders have a corner on the truth or that all elders are necessarily wise. Those associated with St. Paul’s College are well aware of some of our brilliant young students and the invaluable contribution that young people can make to social discourse. What’s disturbing is our society’s ugly failure to recognize that beauty of aging and, and in doing so, to foster suspicion and contempt for truths that appear to be rooted in the past.
Maybe I’m just old and sentimental, but I sense that, despite its many shortcomings, the era in which I grew up produced more stability and happiness than the era in which we now live. That’s not to say that we should turn back the hands of time but that, as time marches on, we must be sure that the voices that have been around the longest will continue to offer guidance.
As we continue to make our way through the morass of covid-19, we are aware of our dependence on the scientific knowledge that will eventually give us a vaccine or a cure. But we are also aware of the tragedy of human suffering and the death of many people, many of whom were elderly. This loss may be greater than we realize, for it is when science falls short and no amount of updating can fix what has been destroyed, that the voices of the elders can often ring with the greatest clarity, declaring truths that stand above the shifting sands of time, and bringing hope to a world that could use their wisdom. Let us rejoice in their beauty!
Reflection #22 from Father Colin (October 1, 2020)
Reflection #22 from Father Colin
Updated: October 1, 2020
The controversial singer Sinead O’Connor once wrote a song in which she threatened to move away from England because of civil unrest and violence. Deeply concerned about her young son, she sings, “I don't want him to be aware that there's any such thing as grieving.” It’s an understandable sentiment, and one that all parents share, but in the end, it’s not terribly realistic. As the beautiful and much more realistic Salve Regina reminds us, this life is often a valley of tears and, in the course of a lifetime, most of us can expect to face our share of grieving.
I was first confronted with the reality of death when my grandmother died in 1961. I was nine years old and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Until that point, death had been remote, a story on the evening news or something that happened to someone my parents knew. My grandmother’s death confronted me, not only with the reality of mortality, but with the fact that everyone was mortal, including those that I deeply loved.
I had been adopted as an infant and, perhaps due to some subconscious recollection of being taken away from my birth mother, I developed a fear of abandonment. After my grandma’s death, I often found myself fretting about the prospect of losing my adoptive father and mother and, until I was about 12 years old, I used to hate it when they went out for an evening. The fear subsided as I became a teenager and began to look forward to being left alone for a few hours. But the awareness of death with its attendant grieving, had been planted in my heart and mind. Life would never be the same.
In the ensuing years, of course, I have encountered the reality of death and grieving in both my professional and my personal life. I have been astonished at the random way in which it appears in the lives of the young and the innocent. I have faced with horror the awareness that there is no sure way to protect one’s self from its devastating consequences. Most of all, I have begun to come to terms, however reluctantly, with the fact that my days remaining in this world are fairly quickly disappearing.
The coronavirus has given us greater insight into the way in which human beings respond to the threat of death at various stages of life. It’s no surprise that young people, with their proverbial sense of invincibility, have sometimes been reluctant to follow the rules and comply with the restrictions. Old guys, like me, have been more cautious, not wanting to hasten the day that will eventually come. For young and old alike, it has been unsettling.
I hope this reflection doesn’t seemed excessively morbid. Confronting the reality of our own mortality is not without its blessings. It causes us to cherish the gift of life and to be grateful for its pleasures. It reminds us of the sacred beauty of those mortals with whom we share our earthly existence, especially our family and dearest friends. It teaches us to love better and more carefully.
At home in a drawer I have the stuffed bear that I slept with as an infant. Its ears have been chewed upon and its worn and frayed body is barely held together by wisps of failing thread. No wonder! It is almost seventy years old! But when I hold it, I feel the vestiges of its soothing comfort, and I wonder where the years have gone. I wonder where the little boy has gone.
Our faith teaches us that we need not fear death, because somehow, even when our days in this world come to an end, that little child, that miracle of life knit together in our mother’s womb, is undiminished, and looks forward to another birth in a place where there is no such thing as grieving.
Reflection #21 from Father Colin (September 28, 2020)
Reflection #21 from Father Colin
Updated: September 28, 2020
I’m beginning to think that it might be time to stop writing these weekly reflections as things begin to get a little busier with St. Paul’s College and Campus Ministry. Perhaps I can write something every two weeks instead of every week? I’m open to suggestions!
It first occurred to me that it might be time to slow down or stop when the only topic that came to mind for this week’s reflection was frost shields. Do you remember those? I haven’t seen one in years and yet there was a time when every responsible driver had them on every car window of his or her car except the windshield. I don’t know what made me think of frost shields. Maybe it was the plastic shields many people are wearing nowadays to protect themselves from the coronavirus. Is it possible they were made in abandoned frost shield factories? If you have any unused frost shields in your garage you could always make a few masks. I’m not sure why frost shields went out of fashion. Winnipeg still gets cold in the winter. Windows still get frosted up. Is it because cars are better designed to rid the windows of frost as they warm up? Or is it because more of us have warm places to park our cars? In any case, this is a frivolous subject and if I write a reflection again next week it might very well be about interior car warmers or the feasibility of using dachshunds for dogsledding.
All kidding aside, the thing that has been weighing heavy on my heart and mind is the persistence of the coronavirus and the weariness with which most of us are responding to it. Just when we had reached the point where it looked like we might be able to breathe a little easier, the so-called second wave has reared its ugly head and we’re on the defensive again. It’s discouraging.
During the summer months Sandy and I had contact with our little granddaughters almost every day. Now that the little ones are back in daycare and my daughter has resumed her duties at St. Maurice School, the risks have become greater, the visits are rare and, when he appears, the funny grandpa who makes funny noises is wearing a mask. Masks hide smiles! And it goes without saying that two year olds find masks confusing.
It’s not just the inconveniences or the annoyance of having our routines disrupted, or the painful distance that must be kept from some of the people we love, it’s the knowledge that we are in danger and yet have lost our ability to freely access many of the rites and customs that ordinarily help us to cope with our fears and losses. Attendance at mass and other religious ceremonies has been restricted and, despite our best efforts, the mystery and the beauty are sometimes compromised when all those restrictions are in place. Some of us have been forced to miss funerals of loved ones, effectively cutting us off from full participation in the grieving process and the spiritual resources that help us find hope in the face of death.
The discouragement is deepened by the fact that we’re not sure when life will begin to return to normal. I may have mentioned this in an earlier reflection, but when I worked in prison ministry I discovered that many young offenders would rather face a longer sentence than be forced to endure continuous remands and adjournments and other delays in the hope of eventually getting a shorter sentence. I believe we human beings can endure almost anything as long as we know there’s an end in sight. Our ability to “hang in” and be patient would be enhanced if we knew for certain that a life saving vaccine would be readily available three months or six months. Not knowing is hard.
In the end, all we can count on is the knowledge that somehow God is at work in all this and that amid the disruption and the terror and the pain we discover blessings and glimmers of light. We are loved by God and held in holy hands - hands that shield us, not from the vicissitudes of this world, but from the despair that would extinguish our resilient hope.
Reflection #20 from Father Colin (September 18, 2020)
Reflection #20 from Father Colin
Updated: September 18, 2020
It’s hard to believe that it has been almost 30 years since my Dad left this world. He was only 72, not terribly old by today’s standards, but like many Second World War veterans he was addicted to tobacco, and the cigarettes succeeded in doing what the enemy forces had failed to do. After his funeral my aunt asked if she could have the tattered maroon cardigan that he wore on a daily basis. It seemed an odd request at first, but she wanted it because that sweater was a way of keeping him close. The colour, the smell of tobacco, the tattered cuffs and the missing button, reminded her of him in all his earthy humanity.
The coronavirus has taught us a lot about the importance of physical connection with one another. We marvel at the technology that allows us to continue to meet, and socialize and even worship, but we know that somehow it’s just not the same. Last week two students visited me in my office at the college and I was reminded how much physical presence, not only enhances the ability to provide ministry, but sometimes becomes the agency of ministry. As with prison chaplaincy and hospital chaplaincy, in Campus Ministry we talk about the ministry of presence. It’s a way of saying that sometimes the spiritual needs of a human being can best be met by simply being available to them. The words that get spoken, the advice that gets offered (and sometimes not taken), are not nearly so important as being a caring human presence for a lonely prisoner, a dying patient, or a homesick student five thousand miles away from home. It’s impossible to measure the outcome of such ministry because it is facilitated and sustained by the Holy Spirit and bears fruit in ways that are intangible and serendipitous.
I think it’s important to make a distinction between the Incarnation as a doctrine, as that pivotal moment in history when God entered the human realm to bring about our salvation, and the incarnational nature in which God continues to encounter the human race. The two are connected. In fact, among other things, the Incarnation prepares us to discover in our human encounters the presence of a loving God. Our gathering as the church, the Eucharist and other sacraments, are all reminders that, in this life, the fruits of salvation are mostly tangible.
In the wake of this pandemic technology has been a blessing. Can you imagine what life would have been like without it? But we’re also aware of its harmful effects on our society: the ubiquitous use of cell phones preventing face-to-face encounters, social media platforms that inadvertently facilitate hatred and polarization, growing indolence and inactivity among the young, and the list goes on. As people of faith I think one of the ways we bear witness to the Incarnate One is by not allowing the dehumanizing effects of technology to corrode genuine human community. When this time of the pandemic begins to come to an end, how important it will be to reclaim, as much as possible, the opportunity to gather physically with one another.
I’m reminded of the corny joke about a little boy who was terrified when his mother would turn out the lights at night. Afraid of being all alone in the dark, he would cry out for his mother to stay. As a woman of faith, she would reassure her son that God would be with him through the night. 'But, Mommy,' he cried, 'I need God with skin on!'"
My friends, we need God with skin on. We need one another with skin on, not just as images transmitted through cyber space. So, let us enjoy the opportunity to stay connected through technology, while always pressing forward with excitement toward that day when we can be “incarnate” once again.
Reflection #19 from Father Colin (September 13, 2020)
Reflection #19 from Father Colin
Updated: September 13, 2020
I have a virus, but it’s not the coronavirus. I first experienced the symptoms when we entered Phase 3 or 4. It was then that I noticed a steady increase in the amount of time I was spending shopping. Instead of baking bread at home and fearfully visiting the grocery store about once a week, I was beginning to go more often. Before long I began to visit other stores and look for things that I didn’t really need. Then I realized the painful truth I had been avoiding: I have the “consumer” virus. In my case, the symptoms are mild and, compared to many in our society, I spend relatively little time consuming. But there is no escaping the fact, acquisitiveness is in my blood and, if I can’t find a cure, I will need to manage the symptoms and keep myself safe. It’s my duty, as a follower of Jesus.
When our children were little we used to buy a family dinner special at a local Greek restaurant. The cheeseburgers were sensational, smothered in chilli sauce and heavy laden with condiments. The fries were home made and hand cut, and for less than twenty bucks, you get five of those cheeseburgers and a big bag of fries. The cheeseburgers and fries were almost as good as the ones Peter serves in the Belltower Cafe! Our kids loved those cheeseburgers and fries and yet, if you asked them where they would like to go for supper, they almost always said McDonalds. It’s not that the McDonalds burgers and fries were better, far from it, but their marketing was more effective, and while the building that once housed the Greek restaurant now sits empty, the local McDonalds franchise is alive and well. None of this is to “blame” McDonald’s or condemn the marketing that they and other corporations do. It is to remind ourselves how the consumer virus is spread and to make sure that we empower ourselves and protect ourselves from its sometimes dehumanizing effects.
Lately, I’ve been looking for a new winter jacket and I’ve made a couple of interesting discoveries. First of all, it’s almost impossible to find a sheepskin jacket that is actually made in Canada anymore. Even a local store that once made them is running low on stock and I get the impression that they are carrying more and more imported products. Secondly, a winter coat made in Canada costs two to three times more than one made off shore. Thirdly, a winter coat that bears a trendy name, like Tommy Hilfiger, costs two or three times more than a similar product bearing a less familiar name. Most of you know all this and I share it with you, not as a condemnation of our economic system, despite its flaws, but as a reminder of the insidious forms that marketing can take, and our responsibility as consumers to be well-informed. Children aren’t the only ones who can be enticed by effective marketing.
The fact that this reflection has focused on this subject is partly because it was on my mind as I sat down to write. As people of faith, we have a responsibility to protect ourselves from various kinds of idolatry and to be aware of forces at work in the world that can dehumanize and exploit. But I also mention it because COVID-19 offers us a metaphor for the viruses set loose in the world that may not harm us physically, as the coronavirus does, but can hurt us spiritually and emotionally. So, we ask the same kind of questions. How do we diagnose these viruses? How are they spread? What can we do to keep ourselves safe? Is there some way to protect ourselves from infection?
Here, as with the coronavirus, we must concern ourselves with the preservation of human dignity and freedom, and the protection of the vulnerable, especially our children. Our faith reminds us that, no matter what kinds of viruses threaten us, when God is our Shepherd, we shall not want.
Reflection #18 from Father Colin (September 5, 2020)
Reflection #18 from Father Colin
Updated: September 5, 2020
My friend Ron Smith, who is one of the musicians for our annual Folk Mass (which is postponed this year) with his wry sense of humour, will probably say that these weekly reflections are for the birds. He’s right. I know that on more than one occasion my interest in photography and bird watching has appeared amid my comments. It’s not surprising, when I think about it, because a few years ago another friend helped me to see that my interest in birds was very much connected to my vocation to priestly ministry. Also, in an email I received in response to last week’s reflection, I learned that birds, particularly goldfinches and pelicans, have a symbolic presence in Christian iconography and art. So, yes! Once again, this reflection today will be for the birds!
In sharing the following story, it is not my intention to draw attention to myself or, worse yet, to suggest that there is something unique about my journey to priestly ministry. On the contrary, I hope to remind everyone that, if we look closely, we will be able to detect the ways in which God has been present in our lives, nudging us toward a discovery of each of our own unique vocations. Perhaps, like me, you will even detect a theme, running through your vocational stories like a golden thread.
When I was about 12 years old some kids from our neighbourhood knocked on our front door and presented me with a baby robin, closer to a hatchling than a fledgling. For reasons, unknown to me, they had decided that I would know what to do with this helpless, trembling bundle of fluff. With a good deal of help from my parents, I undertook the challenge of trying to sustain the life of this fragile creature. We didn’t have the internet in 1964 so it wasn’t possible to watch a YouTube video about what to do with baby birds. So, what we did was mostly hit and miss. Pablum gave way to mashed bananas and then mushed up worms and eventually the little guy grew bigger and stronger. He became very tame and I would walk around the house and yard with him perched upon my shoulder like a parrot upon a pirate’s shoulder. Eventually I taught him to fly, a feat that I was unable to demonstrate! But he caught on, and as he reached maturity and the time of migration drew near, he had pretty much left the nest, so to speak. I was unable to teach him how to speak “robin” so he invented a language of his own, a distinctive chirp, that allowed me to tell him apart from the other robins. When the nights grew cold and the leaves began to fall, he joined the others and headed south. I believe he returned the next year and visited our yard, but I had no way of knowing for sure.
For many years I saw this encounter with the robin as nothing more than one of those serendipitous adventures of childhood. But while kayaking with a friend a couple of years ago, he suggested to me that it might have been something more. He suggested that perhaps God was speaking to me through the helplessness of this little bird by helping me to see the capacity for care and concern that those children in the neighbourhood detected in me. Perhaps God was awakening within me, just an awkward adolescent, a receptivity to the kind of life to which I would one day be called.
I have a photo of the robin and me in my office so when you get a chance, please drop by and take a look. I’m no Francis of Assisi, but the photo is reminiscent of the images we see of him. Francis knew that God speaks to us through the creatures with whom we share this earth, and my encounter with that robin would not have been the first time God has attempted to catch the attention of his people through the sending of a bird.
As the pandemic provides many of us with more time to pray and reflect, I encourage all of you to look for a recurring theme, a golden thread, that winds its way through the story of your life. Sometimes it’s only when we’re looking back that we see the times and places in which God has spoken to us. And sometimes the message comes in something as fragile as a baby bird.
Reflection #17 from Father Colin (August 29, 2020)
Reflection #17 from Father Colin
Updated: August 29, 2020
Earlier today I received an email from an associate professor, Dr. Kevin Fraser, who teaches a course in Avian Behaviour and Conservation in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba. He was responding to an email I sent just over month ago after taking a photo of a black-capped chickadee in the big pine tree at the entrance to St. Paul’s College. I’ll attach the photo to this reflection in the hope that some of you will be able to see it. The chickadee was hanging upside down and, if you can see the photo, you’ll notice the chickadee has three bands on its legs. After posting the photo for a Facebook Birding Group to which I belong, one of the members suggested sending it to the professor mentioned above because of a bird banding project that he had supervised here on campus. His response was delightful! Not only did he appreciate what he called the “resight and photo” but he was able to tell me that this chickadee had been banded during a Biology of Birds lab in September of 2015! The bird was likely banded along the river in the low grassy area with the white castle structure next to the Wallace Building. He indicates that the bird was an adult at the time which means that it has lived a good long life by chickadee standards!
When I was a little kid going to Sunday School in the United Church one of my favourite hymns was “God Sees the Little Sparrow Fall.” It is based upon several references to sparrows in the gospels. Most of these references, coming from the lips of Jesus, talk about God’s care for the sparrow and a reminder that even though the sparrows are valuable, we human beings are even more valuable. The important thing to notice is that God’s special relationship with human creatures, does not preclude God’s love and care for the birds of the air. In fact, in Paul’s letter to the Romans he talks about the way in which all creation is groaning in labour for the coming of redemption. Paul’s words make it pretty clear that God’s redemptive work applies to the whole created order, including the birds of the air, and not only human beings.
All of this reminds us, as St. Francis demonstrated so clearly, that we have a kinship with the non-human creatures that inhabit our planet. The coronavirus has forced us to focus in a very particular way on the plight now being faced by the human community. But if God really does see the little sparrow fall, if God cares about the chickadee I saw in the pine tree a month ago, if God has granted that particular chickadee wellness and length of days, we can never allow ourselves to forget about our connection with these “sisters and brothers” and whatever plights they too might be enduring. If God loves them, we must love them too.
But let us also remember that the main point of the comments Jesus made about the birds of the air is that seeing God’s solicitude for them, we can be assured that we are never beyond God’s protective and providential care. God not only sees the little sparrow fall, but has overwhelming concern for the precious lives of those who have succumbed to the coronavirus. They are most assuredly in God’s hands and will be kept safe until that day when the labour pains of creation have ended and all of us, God’s children and chickadees alike, will be set free from our bondage to decay.
Reflection #16 from Father Colin (August 25, 2020)
Reflection #16 from Father Colin
Updated: August 25, 2020
It has been a windy summer. When we were at the lake it was especially bad. One notices these things when your favourite activities are affected by the wind. You notice the wind when the waves are so high that it would be perilous to go paddling in your kayak. You notice these things when the elusive finch that has finally landed on a branch is being tossed around so much it’s nearly impossible to take a decent photograph. You notice these things when the fishing boat you’ve rented has just sunk to the bottom of the lake because of the waves crashing over its stern. Luckily, the water was only a foot deep, so a quick bail with a garbage pail got the boat afloat.
It seems to me that wind is even more of an annoyance than rain. Rain seems to have an upside. It washes things off. It makes things grow. It forces us to stay indoors and read. It gives the birds and beasts something to drink. But other than keeping the mosquitoes hiding in the bushes, wind doesn’t seem to do much to improve our quality of life. It is something to be endured and sometimes feared. It benefits the sailors, but only if it behaves.
It occurred to me when I was on vacation that there are a lot of similarities between wind and the coronavirus. Both are natural forces that have the capacity to disrupt and destroy human life. Both can vary in severity. Both have unpredictable origins and consequences. Both can cause to go awry our best laid plans, depriving us of access to so many of the things in life that give us pleasure.
There are differences of course. Even the worst winds tend to come and go quickly, and besides, the human race has been dealing with wind since the beginning of time. The coronavirus is literally “novel” and we continue to struggle to understand how to respond to its presence.
But, if we can think of the coronavirus as malevolent wind, there are two insights from scripture that may be a source of some hope to us as the onslaught continues. As you read these, whenever there is a reference to the wind, substitute the word coronavirus.
“As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.” Psalm 103
The second comes from the gospel of Mark:
“On that day, when evening had come… a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
I think it’s best to simply let these two readings speak for themselves. They both remind us that, in the end, our lives and the lives of those we love are held in the hands of a loving God and that ultimately neither the wind nor the coronavirus is greater than God’s holy and redeeming love. *********
Many of us were deeply saddened to hear the news of Father Michael’s untimely death. I say it was “untimely” because, even though he was almost 76, he was so full of light and life and joy, that it seems impossible that he is gone.
When I began my journey toward ordination to the priesthood Father Michael was assigned the task of being my guide and director. That unenviable assignment marked the beginning of a great fraternal bond that has been source of much support and enjoyment.
In attempting to fill his shoes (and they were literally big shoes!) I was mindful of his legacy at St. Paul’s College and his prayerful support for me as I began.
It is my intention to offer a mass in his memory in the very near future. I am also planning to arrange a Zoom Memorial Gathering at which we can pray, share stories, laugh and cry, as we celebrate the gift of FM’s remarkable life.
Please check the St. Paul’s College website for details about Sunday Masses and Campus Ministry as we move into a new academic year.
Our first Sunday mass will be celebrated on Sunday, August 30th at 11:00 a.m. in compliance with the current restrictions circulated by the Archdiocese.
Needless to say, we will do everything in our power to ensure that we can gather safely. We understand that not everyone will feel comfortable about attending such a gathering, so we will continue to livestream Sunday masses.
Thanks to our rector, Dr. Adams, for his support as we begin to find ways to offer ministry to our community.
Reflection #15 from Father Colin (June 29, 2020)
Reflection #15 from Father Colin
Updated: June 29, 2020
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was planning to buy a new lens for my camera. I picked it up just over a week ago and I have been having a lot of fun with it. It allows me to see a little more deeply into the beauty of the world around me. It does that in two ways. First of all, it gets me off the sofa and into the bush. Secondly, once I’m in the bush, it causes me to pay attention to my surroundings. The movement of a branch or a distant twitter alert me to the presence of a little sparrow that will hopefully find itself immortalized in the photo library of Father Colin.
A lot of my expeditions have taken place right on the U of M campus, in and around the abandoned golf course. One of the things I’ve learned is that the natural world prevails among us, almost undetected, where life unfolds, replete with the various joys and sorrows of the creatures that remain hidden from our eyes. A few weeks ago, I was walking along the row of trees that separates the Victoria Hospital from the boundary of the U of M Campus. I’d heard a rumour that both Osprey and Peregrine Falcons have nests in that area. While walking along the edge of the bush not far from the Bomber practice field, I detected a movement high in the trees above me. I walked away from the trees looking upward and nearly stepped on a fawn hidden in the tall grass. Even though I was less than a metre away, the little deer remained motionless, eyes peering upward at one of the strange looking bipeds that mother had warned him about. If you will allow me a bit of a “Disney” spell, I can imagine her last words, before fleeing from the approaching photographer, were something like, “Look, Bambi, keep your head down and don’t move a muscle!” Needless to say, I got a nice photo.
This encounter was delightful to me, partly because it reminded me that despite the presence of the university, its daily activity and many buildings, the natural world persists among us. My camera caught a moment in the many moments that will occur in the life of that fawn. It reminded me that in this world of ubiquitous and invasive media, so much of life goes on undetected and countless stories, important and beautiful stories, go untold on a daily basis. It made me wonder what stories are unfolding in your daily lives, in the lives of our students and alumni and alumnae, in the presence of COVID-19?
We watch the daily news, we hear about the numbers, the ongoing loss of human life, the trepidation that surrounds our striving for normality, but beyond the stories told on television and the images captured by the cameras, human life persists in its own beautiful way, mostly undetected and unreported. So, we will never hear most of these stories. It would be impossible! But we need to remember that those stories exist and never never allow anonymity to give way to apathy. I’m grateful for the way in which social media has allowed some of us to catch glimpses into each other’s lives. But our involuntary estrangement can be resisted in one other way - prayer.
In the reading last Sunday, Jesus tells his followers that even though two sparrows are sold for a penny, not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the Father. One of my favourite hymns as a little kid in Sunday school was, God Sees the Little Sparrow Fall. The first verse ends with, “if God so loves the little birds, I know he loves me too.”
It’s a great mystery, to be sure, but God’s love sustains life in all its many forms. That which is hidden from our eyes is known intimately by the God, and if God cares for the sparrows, if God sees the little fawn trembling in the grass, if God gives flight to the osprey and the peregrine falcon, if God guides the goslings who have allowed us to inhabit their terrain for a while, then rest assured God sees and loves us, especially in those hidden moments when we are left alone with our sorrow and fear. Our prayers for one another bear witness to this great truth.
P.S. As of July 1st, I will be away from my weekly duties, so this may be the last reflection until sometime in August. However, I don’t leave for the lake until July 5th so, if the Spirit moves, you may hear from me one more time before I join the loons.
Reflection #14 from Father Colin (June 22, 2020)
Reflection #14 from Father Colin
Updated: June 22, 2020
The coronavirus has reminded us how much we depend upon the knowledge and training of medical professionals. All of the decisions that have been made regarding government policy, church life, various kinds of businesses and, of course, our individual lives, are based almost entirely on the advice given by medical experts. At times, that can be a little unsettling, especially when the advice changes or when there are conflicting opinions. It reminds us that when it comes to COVID-19 and a host of other illnesses, medical research is a work in progress and not many of the answers are carved in stone.
At the beginning of the pandemic we were told that wearing masks was not a reliable way of protecting ourselves from infection. A little later we were told that it couldn’t hurt and that certain kinds of masks would actually help. Eventually, wearing masks was encouraged and, in some cases, became a medical necessity. I always wear a mask for my weekly visit to the grocery store and so far I am in good health and none of the clerks has mistaken me for a robber. The point is, as doctors have learned more and more about COVID-19 the advice we’ve been given has been subject to change.
This is nothing new. In my lifetime, medical opinion on any number of issues has changed dramatically. Parental decisions have been affected by changing advice regarding things like breastfeeding, circumcision and vaccinations. The decisions seem easier now but if you were raising children at a time when those issues were still being debated, it added great responsibility to the shoulders of young parents. Proof of how much has changed can be found on the internet where you’ll find advertisements from the 1950s or 60s declaring that 9 out of 10 doctors recommend switching to menthol cigarettes! Advice regarding alcohol, coffee, red meat, butter, seafood, and milk, will change with each ensuing study.
None of this is intended as a criticism of doctors or any other members of the medical community. Use whatever term you like, Family Doctor, Primary Care Physician or GP, but I love mine and I quite literally trust him with my life. As someone who has a few chronic conditions that require the attention of specialists, I have been blessed to have been served by physicians who are competent, capable and caring. In the absence of cures for certain conditions, I have sometimes turned to non-traditional practitioners like acupuncturists, doctors of traditional Chinese Medicine and homeopathic doctors. Each of them, in her or his own way, has offered care and support. But in the end my loyalty, confidence and trust have always remained with the person who has been my family doctor for almost 30 years.
But this discussion is really not just about medical advice or medical care but healing. The power of healing is something that can be applied not only to our physical bodies, these vessels of clay as St. Paul called them, but also to our spiritual selves and even to our relationships within various kinds of communities. We know, for example, that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a sacrament that imparts healing by restoring broken relationships with God and one another.
But I must admit, my favourite sacrament, next to the Eucharist, is the Anointing of the Sick. Many of you will remember a time when people only received this sacrament as the hour of death drew near. Even today many Catholics still ask for Extreme Unction or Last Rites, and occasionally priests have trouble persuading elderly parishioners to receive this sacrament because they’re persuaded it’s a sure sign that the end is near.
Over the years the church has encouraged this sacrament to be administered in a variety of situations. These various situations remind us that healing can take place in various ways. I like this sacrament because it is a sacrament in which visible consequences of its administration can sometimes be readily seen. Sometimes the sacrament has given a dying person the peace and confidence they needed to let go of confinement to a painful body. In some situations peaceful death has come within a few minutes of being anointed. Sometimes I have anointed a supposedly dying person only to discover that it brought them renewed strength and prolonged life. Sometimes the healing has been a spiritual healing or a healing of the mind which has allowed a person with a mental illness to live with greater hope or dignity. As long as we inhabit these earthly bodies we will all need to put ourselves in the hands of those who have the knowledge and training to keep them running smoothly. But in the end, we are in the hands of the Great Physician and in his hands we will be well. All will be well.
Reflection #13 from Father Colin (June 15, 2020)
Reflection #13 from Father Colin
Updated: June 15, 2020
You may have noticed that we’re not all the same. No, like the proverbial snowflake, each human is wonderfully and uniquely made. On the one hand, this is the cause of a good deal of conflict, controversy and consternation among human beings. As a priest, over the years, I’ve noticed this to be especially true when it comes to people who are grieving. Each person is not only equipped with his or her own way of dealing with the crisis of grief, but the grieving process itself often leaves people at different stages in the journey, creating a situation in which one family member may have reached some sort peaceful acceptance, while another may still be struggling with strong feelings of anger or denial. It’s a formula for considerable tension when you’re trying to plan a funeral.
But on the other hand, when you think about it, our uniqueness is also a great gift, not only because it adds a wonderful diversity to the human community, but it necessitates the presence of human qualities like patience, tolerance, compassion and empathy. As our Saint, St. Paul, reminds us, our diversity is precisely the thing that makes the body of Christ function. We depend on one another’s distinctiveness in order to function effectively. As St. Paul points out, using the image of the human body, if we were all an ear or an eye or a foot the body wouldn’t function very well. In my domestic life, I consider it to be a blessing that Sandy is an introvert and I am an extrovert. Our differences become the source of a complementarity that provides both stability and unity. We just celebrated 39 years of marriage!
But, it’s important to remember, whether in married life or communal life, our unity is found in our diversity - a diversity which produces a kind of interdependence that binds us to another. Ironically, we live in a world, in which there is considerable pressure to conform to a particular position on any number of social or political issues. The premise seems to be that unity is found in conformity not diversity. Sadly, conformity often requires us to sacrifice our magnificent individuality and ultimately impoverishes the human community. If we are all feet how will we see? But unity can only exist in the presence of diversity when we exercise the virtues listed above - patience, tolerance, compassion and empathy. Maybe humility should be added to that list.
So, what does any of this have to do with our ongoing response to the coronavirus? Well, I came across the following message on Facebook a few days ago. It represents a very practical application of what I’ve been talking about.
As premiers and the Prime Minister are trying to figure out how to ease back in to a new normal, please remember:
Some people don’t agree with the provinces opening.... that’s okay. Be kind.
Some people are still planning to stay home.... that’s okay. Be kind.
Some are still scared of getting the virus and a second wave happening....that’s okay. Be kind.
Some are sighing with relief to go back to work knowing they may not lose their business or their homes....that’s okay. Be kind.
Some are thankful they can finally have a surgery they have put off....that’s okay. Be kind.
Some will be able to attend interviews after weeks without a job....that’s okay. Be kind.
Some will wear masks for weeks....that’s okay. Be kind.
Some people will rush out to get the hair or nails done.... that’s okay. Be kind.
The point is, everyone has different viewpoints/feelings and that’s okay. Be kind.
We each have a different story. If you need to stay home, stay home. But be kind.
If you need to go out, just respect others when in public and be kind! Don’t judge fellow humans because you’re not in their story. We all are in different mental states than we were months ago. So remember, be kind.... as we should always be.
The word “kind” of course, shares etymological roots with words like kindred or kinship or kinder (as in kindergarten, children of the garden) so being “kind” can mean more than being tolerant toward those who are different. It is about recognizing that we are all related, members of the human family, brothers and sisters to one another and, in a very real sense, people of the garden who are children of a loving God.
May we offer and receive kindness as we continue to discover the way back to some sort of normal life.
Reflection #12 from Father Colin (June 9, 2020)
Reflection #12 from Father Colin
Updated: June 9, 2020
I am grateful for the kind words that have come from so many of you in response to these weekly reflections. I must admit, it’s getting harder and harder to decide upon a topic for the week. As the fears surrounding COVID-19 slowly begin to subside, the pastoral needs of our constituency are beginning to change and I suspect that many of us are beginning to feel a little safer. Today’s reflection is a bit of a potpourri of things that have been on my mind these last few days.
I know I seem to talk about shopping quite a bit, but I’m discovering that, as a society, our shopping habits tell us quite a bit about what’s going on in our world. As social distancing and self-isolation began, many of us found it amusing that toilet paper was flying off the shelves. There was a great video on YouTube featuring a Scottish Piper playing a lament in front of the empty toilet paper shelves in the local grocery store. Now that the Sears catalogue is obsolete, it was evident that the situation would be dire for those who ran out of toilet paper.
On a related note, I’ve discovered that the pandemic has prompted some shopping trends that indicate positive change. In our household, we have found it exceedingly hard to find yeast. It is evident that more people are baking their own bread and pastries. Or maybe they’ve been making their own booze?
As I mentioned in an earlier reflection I’ve been spending more time enjoying bird photography. To help me take some really good pictures, I decided to buy a more powerful lens for my camera. When I went to buy the lens I had selected, I discovered that my local photography store had sold out and they were waiting for more to arrive. I was grateful that I’d chosen such a popular lens! But according to the salesperson, the main reason they had sold out was because of the growing popularity of bird photography. I usually don’t like being part of “popular trends” whatever they may be, but in this case I was grateful that the pandemic had produced, not only an increased interest in the natural world, but an appreciation for its beauty. It is good to think that perhaps COVID-19 is teaching some of us to love and appreciate our beautiful planet.
I have also been thinking about the justifiable outrage that has come in response to the death of George Floyd and wondering if the fear and exhaustion that has been caused by the coronavirus has contributed to the breadth and the intensity of violence that has come with the protests. There could be many explanations, I suppose, but it seems, as I mentioned in an earlier reflection, that the pandemic has produced anger, may even a simmering rage, without a clear and obvious target, except for the coronavirus itself. We have been reminded of our vulnerability, our mortality and our brokenness in a very vivid way. None of this is to question the legitimacy of the outrage, but only the manner in which it is being expressed. It’s something to ponder.
Last but not least, I’ve been thinking about the unsung heroes of the pandemic. There’s no doubt about the heroism of the front line workers, those who put their lives at risk every day. I can’t imagine what it must be like to work an environment where the risk of infection is facing you at every turn. But I also think of the courage of senior citizens living in care facilities, especially those facilities in which COVID-19 was claiming the lives of fellow residents on a daily basis. Living in these facilities, which tend to be cold and institutional at the best of times, without regular visits from family and friends, must have been a frightening and lonely ordeal.
In my life, it is family and, in a special way, grandchildren, that keep me young at heart if not body. The youngest ones have me doing puppet shows and barking like a dog on all fours. How great to be a child again, if only for a few minutes!
So, I think of those seniors, waving from the windows of quarantined nursing homes, at family, at beautiful grandchildren, standing in the streets below, without their rejuvenating visits. In a special way, we remember those who died at the Jesuit nursing home in Pickering, those who lived with them in the presence of this danger, and those who mourn their departure from this world. As I consider what all these people have endured, the fear and the worry with which they’ve lived, the loneliness which has made their hearts heavy, I stand in awe of their courage. In this battle against COVID-19, they are heroes and we remember them with gratitude.
Reflection #11 from Father Colin (June 3, 2020)
Reflection #11 from Father Colin
Updated: June 3, 2020
A few years ago I was playing poker with some old friends. Just for the record, this is not something I ordinarily do! One of the participants was an avid skydiver who invited me to join him and his friends for afternoon of jumping out of an airplane, thousands of feet above the ground, with only a few metres of nylon preventing me from plummeting to my death. Needless to say, this too is not something I ordinarily do! I quickly said no to his invitation.
There was nothing preventing me from accepting his offer. There was no pandemic at the time, skydiving is perfectly legal in Manitoba, and the proposed date was open on my calendar. Now, it might have been pretty hard to persuade Sandy that this was something I should do but, in the end, it was my instinct for self-preservation that settled the matter. Without going into detail, it seemed clear to me that my various health issues prevented me from taking such an unnecessary risk.
This story comes to mind as I think about the gradual lifting of restrictions by the provincial government and the archdioceses. It will soon be possible to begin doing things that we have not been able to do for several months. But just because we can do something, does that mean that we should? Just because it is legal, does that mean it’s wise? For me, these decisions fall into two categories.
First of all, as with skydiving, there will things I will choose not to do, at least not now, because they pose a risk to my health. I really miss dining out, but I’m going to wait a few weeks before I wander into one of my favourite restaurants. It would be great to have a big family gathering to celebrate the birthdays that arrive this time of year, but we will likely wait until there is a little more evidence that there is minimal risk. I would dearly love to get rid of the hand sanitizer and the mask (I like asking cashiers how they know I’m not a robber) but waiting a little longer seems like the prudent thing to do. All of these things are things I could do but won’t do because of concerns for my health and safety.
The second category of decision-making has to do with choosing not to do things because this time of isolation and physical distancing has taught us that we are better off without them. I mentioned some of these things last week. Like most middle-class Canadians, I’m a consumer and I confess that I have missed being able to shop. Amazon has helped me deal with some of these cravings, but as more and more stores open up I want to resist the urge to fall back into patterns of consumerism that are not necessarily good for me. Our faith calls us to “live simply” - no small task in a world full of seductive advertising! The time at home has taught me that I can be happy without the big stores and shopping malls, not to mention all the driving required to get back and forth from these places.
Although I look forward to dining out in the near future, the time at home has helped me rediscover the joy of home cooking and baking. Even though, I will be allowed to frequent the neighbourhood restaurants, fast food joints and pizzerias, I will choose to spend a little more time preparing meals at home - everything from fine dining to homemade pizza. To that end, we are growing fresh herbs on our balcony and have signed up for a half share in the Jesuit Centre’s Laudato si Farmer’s Basket project. I look forward to the fresh produce which my Mom said was good for me (I still don’t like carrots) and the simple meals that can be prepared at home.
You will have your own list of things that the pandemic has taught you to live without. This reflection is simply a way of suggesting that we choose wisely as more things begin to open up, and remember that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
P.S. Just an update on Sunday Masses: Even though the Archdiocese has made it possible for parishes to resume public masses under fairly strict conditions, the worshipping community at St Paul’s College falls into a slightly different category. Therefore, there will be no resumption of public masses at this time. We will continue with live-streaming of Sunday masses until the end of June. There will be no masses during the summer months and decisions about how and when we resume public masses will be made in late August. The good news is that we will be adding a small group of musicians to the live-streamed Sunday masses so those of you who have been tuning in will be able to enjoy musical blessings from David Troya and some of the choir. Be well!
Reflection #10 from Father Colin (May 26, 2020)
Reflection #10 from Father Colin
Updated: May 26, 2020
What do we take with us? What do we leave behind?
Those are the two questions that have been on my mind as I think about gradually making our way back to so-called normal life. The lifting of restrictions over the last few weeks and a recent memo from the Archdiocese allowing a return to a significantly altered celebration of public masses, have signalled the beginning of a journey back to familiar territory. With the coming of the warm weather and favourable reports about the spread of the virus in Manitoba, I’ve found myself feeling slightly liberated as I venture out more frequently and with a little less trepidation. I realize we still have a long way to go until our daily life begins to resemble what it was before and perhaps, if we’re wise, maybe we will be slow to embrace some aspects of our former life that are better left behind.
So, that’s why these two questions have been on my mind. I suspect they are questions that will continue to be asked and answered as the journey back to normal continues. My answers at the moment come mostly from my own experience and observations but I hope that this reflection will prompt to you do your own asking and answering if you haven’t already done so. My list is not an exhaustive one by any means, but a means of getting the conversation started.
One of the things that I hope to “take with me” is the regular baking of our own bread. The process of making bread is almost as rewarding the amazing taste of freshly baked bread, especially when the making, the mixing and the kneading, can happen with the help of modern appliances!
Being cooped up has also forced me to get outside on my own, away from the crowds, pursuing hobbies like wildlife photography and birdwatching on a more regular basis. We have also been trying to go for a walk in the evening, weather permitting, which has allowed us a completely different perspective on our neighbourhood. Things look different when you’re not driving by at 50 kilometres per hour!
I have also been spending much more time reading and, oddly enough, less time watching television. It makes me wonder if, amid the pace of our normal “busy” lives, television is the equivalent of fast food. It’s an expedient distraction, an easily accessed escape, a fix, that seems to be more attractive when the day has been hectic.
Speaking of fast food, until recently all our meals have been prepared right here at home. I look forward to going out for dinner some time soon, but taking the time to prepare good food at home is something that will happen with even greater regularity.
I’ve been slowly recovering from my addiction to the Jets and the Bombers. The withdrawal was painful at first and I expect I’ll fall off the wagon as soon as the games resume. But having some time away, especially a time in which I have been reminded of my mortality, has allowed me to reflect on my priorities. Generally speaking, I’ve been discovering that many of the things I thought were essential are things I can easily do without.
I put gas in my car yesterday. It was the first time since the middle of March. I have a hybrid, so that helped, but it was wonderful to have a schedule that allowed me to use the car less regularly. We are all aware of the benefit for our planet when we leave our vehicles at home. It was especially evident in the first weeks of isolation. So, I’m resolving to drive less and walk and ride my bicycle as much as possible.
I have been making a conscious effort to be in touch old friends, some of whom I haven’t contacted for several years. I’ve realized that Facebook and email are not nearly the same as a good old-fashioned telephone call or a cup of coffee at the local restaurant. That brings me to some of the things I’d like to leave behind.
I’ve appreciated being able to meet with colleagues, friends and family, using Zoom and similar computer applications but, to be honest, I’ll be happy when the era of Zoom meetings has come to an end. The same goes with live-streaming of Masses. I’d be willing to continue this practice for the sake of those who are unable to attend mass, but presiding in front of an almost empty chapel, is not the same as gathering together with sisters and brothers to celebrate God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament. The God who calls us together is the God who became flesh and dwelt among us and, I suspect that, even if Zoom had been available in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, the Holy One still would have appeared in person.
There will be times in the years ahead when technology will allow us to get things done without needing to gather in the same space. But whether it’s staff meetings or Sunday morning Mass, there is no substitute for encountering one another in the flesh. I miss people! Not only because many of them are beloved sisters, brothers, friends and co-workers, but because we were made for one another and we live most fully in the image of God, when we, like the Holy Trinity, are in authentic face-to-face relationships, and not simply images on a screen. God is Communal as well as Incarnational.
So, I offer this somewhat rambling collection of thoughts as an invitation to reflect on what you will take with you and what you’ll leave behind as this time of the pandemic moves slowly toward an end. May God guide you and bless you.
Reflection #9 from Father Colin (May 19, 2020)
Reflection #9 from Father Colin
Updated: May 19, 2020
As I sit down to write this ninth Pastoral Reflection, two somewhat disparate images come to mind.
The first image comes from the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness, especially that part where the devil takes Jesus to the holy city and has him stand on the highest point of the temple. The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’
Jesus answers him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
This image comes to mind when I hear people of faith insisting that we have nothing to fear from the pandemic because God will protect us from all harm. While it’s true that the Father is protective when it comes to his children, there is very little in scripture or in history to suggest that this protectiveness imparts immunity to illness or other forms of human suffering. There are cases, to be sure, when inexplicable healing has come to terminally ill people. These miracles are evidence that God is at work in our world in ways that we can’t completely understand, let alone control. But to suggest that our faith in God will prevent us from getting the coronavirus and, on that basis, to violate restrictions that have been put in place to keep us safe, is to succumb to the very temptation which our Lord resisted when he said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
This “sin of presumption” is difficult to avoid. If our faith is strong and our lives have been richly blessed, it is all too easy to take things for granted and assume that no harm will e’er befall us. But in the end, the sin of presumption is a sin against hope, because it presumes to know how God’s grace and mercy will express itself in our lives. Ultimately, our hope is not rooted in the belief that nothing bad will ever happen to us, but in the knowledge that we have been raised with Christ.
The responsibility of the faithful during this pandemic is not, then, to put God to the test, but to be loving, compassionate and protective when it comes to the well-being of the other human beings with whom we share this planet. That brings me to the second, seemingly unrelated, image.
The second image comes from “ancient history” when seat belt legislation was first introduced in Manitoba. Those who remember those days will recall that there was a great outcry from those who opposed the legislation. Initially I was opposed to the legislation, having grown up in an era when we could crawl unrestrained over our family station wagon, sometimes using the cargo area as a bed. It is true that the wearing of seatbelts infringed upon our freedom. But it was an imposition most of us gladly accepted because it not only protected us but the people we love.
One of the arguments against seatbelt legislation sounded an awful lot like the arguments we are now hearing from those who want to rush toward removing the restrictions that have been imposed because of the pandemic. “I should be free to risk my own life” some would argue, not realizing that the choice to not wear a seatbelt might have serious consequences for the health care system, the tax payers who fund it, and the family or friends whose lives would be affected.
In a similar way, we hear people suggesting that they should have the freedom to expose themselves to infection as if their decision had no consequences for anyone but themselves. They also argue that only those who are high risk need to be isolated, not realizing that asymptomatic people can spread the infection to others, prolonging the risk of infection for everyone in society.
But the purpose of this reflection is not to wade too far into that debate, knowing that it is a complex and divisive issue, and that government’s decisions are painfully difficult to make in the face of an enemy that we don’t completely understand.
No, these two images have been in my mind because both images invite us to think about what our responsibility is to one another as we continue to live as a human community in the presence of a deadly and seemingly implacable foe. Community, at its best, respects and encourages human individuality and personal freedom, but never at the expense of others. It is surely the case that one of the ways our Lord loves and protects us at a time like this, is through the gift of each another and the community we share together as a human family.
Reflection #8 from Father Colin (May 13, 2020)
Reflection #8 from Father Colin
Updated: May 13, 2020
One of the things I really like about preaching is that it is full of surprises. Sometimes you prepare and deliver what you consider to be one of your best homilies ever and it comes up flat. There’s nary a comment after Mass. The silence is not necessarily an indictment, but it probably means that no one there that day liked it quite as much as you did. You go home consoling yourself that at least no one fell asleep. On other occasions, the preparation is long and arduous, the insights and ideas come slowly, and sometimes at the end of it all you’re left preaching a homily that you wish you didn’t have to preach. That’s usually when the surprises happen. That’s when you discover that the Holy Spirit has been at work and someone has been touched or comforted or inspired by something you said that morning. The gospel treasure always comes to us in a clay vessel and, thank goodness, preaching is a practice that involves not only the preacher, but the hearer and the Holy Spirit.
I mention all this because something similar has been happening with these weekly reflections. There is reason to believe the Holy Spirit has been at work allowing simple and imperfect human words to shed a little light into the lives of those who read them. Sometimes the words have come easily and other times they have been hard to find. I trust that most of the time they have helped someone.
Last week’s reflection is a case in point. When I sat down to being writing I didn’t know what I was going to say. In the preceding weeks the topics had been in mind for several days and the words came quickly and easily when the writing began. Last week I was stuck. When I finally began to write it was with a certain amount of circumspection. The government’s decision to begin lifting restrictions meant that I would be forced to make a decision on my own about a small family gathering. Despite occasional libertarian leanings, this was one time I really wanted the government to tell me what to do!
But more than that, I was becoming more profoundly aware of the way in which my age was affecting my response to COVID-19, and I didn’t like it. For most of us, growing older brings with it, not only a growing awareness of our vulnerability, but recurring reminders of our mortality. All of that is intensified when you find yourself in the presence of a virus that is claiming the lives of the people in your demographic. It means that the stakes are higher with every decision you make regarding your personal health and safety. Sometimes I find myself longing for those days of youthful recklessness when I drove my Dad’s car down a gravel road at 115 miles per hour! (that’s about 185 kilometres per hour). But I was sixteen years old then, and invincible, or so I thought.
Sometimes when we go for a walk in the evening we notice that we are always the ones who walk off the sidewalk in order to preserve the magical two metre COVID ring of confidence. But the younger people approaching us from the other direction always keep walking straight toward us, confidently, almost fearlessly. It wouldn’t take much to awaken the grumpy old man Iurking within. He would quickly deliver a spirited lecture about respect for elders and the good old days. It would all be true. But the real issue is that he (the grumpy old man) is frightened and they are not.
So, I find myself wondering, as we grow older is there anything that replaces those delusions of invincibility we had when we were young? For some of us, I suppose, there is a deep gratitude for the years of life we have already been given, a sense that we have been blessed. That doesn’t mean we want to die or that our lives are less valuable than those who are younger, only that now, in the face of death, we can say, “I’ve had a good life.”
For people of faith, juvenile invincibility is replaced with the assurance of true immortality - the joy of Easter and the promise of heaven. There is also a hope that when death comes it will come as kairos, with a timeliness that will allow us to go in peace. Not least, there is the wisdom that enables us to consider our place in the grand scheme of things and to know that, as countless generations come and go, the time of the pandemic will have occupied a brief moment in the span of human history. It’s not so much that those of us who are “elders” will have taken it all in stride, it’s too frightening and destructive for that, but we will know that ultimately the night of the pandemic, along with everything else that belongs to the reign of death, will give way to an eternal morning and the Light of an invincible and Holy Love.
Reflection #7 from Father Colin (May 5, 2020)
Reflection #7 from Father Colin
Updated: May 5, 2020
As I begin to write this seventh pastoral reflection we can see light at the end of the tunnel or, as the old joke suggests, could it be the light of an oncoming train? The truth is, nobody knows for sure. We are cautiously optimistic that the recent announcement from the government of Manitoba signals a lessening of the threat that has haunted us over these last two months. Many people will react with a sense of relief as life appears to be gradually returning to normal. We know that real “normal” is still a few months away, but could it be that we can begin to breathe a little easier, take a few more risks, wander a little farther from our places of refuge?
I have mixed feelings about the lifting of some of the regulations. There’s a sense in which the restrictions not only locked many of us in, they locked the virus out!
On the one hand, I am grateful that some businesses will be able to resume operations offering not only employment and economic activity, but more ways for bored Manitobans to spend their time and money. As we enjoy sunshine and warmer weather, I am grateful that parks and playgrounds will once again provide open spaces for rest and recreation. I am grateful that those who are blessed with hair, will once again be able to have it cut or coiffed by a local barber or hairdresser. The list could continue.
On the other hand, the removal of restrictions means that more responsibility will fall on us as families and individuals as we try to determine how to continue to live our lives safely. The restrictions took the guess work out of it. Now we will not only have more freedom, but the responsibility that goes with it. So, as someone who falls into a higher risk category, I find myself feeling a little more vulnerable, a little more perplexed, wishing we had a vaccine or a proven treatment that would make venturing out seem a little less dangerous.
One of my favourite quotes from G.K. Chesterton is a quote I frequently use to condemn the moral relativism that leaves many Catholics, especially Catholic young people, feeling intimidated by the challenge of living faithfully amid the moral maze of contemporary culture. But I offer it here today as a metaphor how the lifting of restrictions feels to those who aren’t at all sure that they would survive a battle with the coronavirus:
“We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.” G.K. Chesterton.
Well, being isolated and cut off from family and friends hasn’t exactly been a place of merriment! But the lifting of restrictions, that once helped make our daily course of action clear, is, for some of us, a mixed blessing. I know, the sense of security provided by the restrictions was partly illusory. But as they begin to disappear, as the walls are knocked down, we are all left to wonder what will happen with this elusive and unpredictable enemy. For some it may feel like we’re facing the peril of a precipice.
I understand the spirit of those who cry out for more freedom. But I’m painfully aware that freedom is at once a wonderful and a frightening thing. It seems to me the freedom that I want more than anything right now is not freedom from restrictions imposed by medical experts and governments, but the freedom that is most elusive of all - the freedom from fear. The freedom to live each day without being unduly concerned about the dangers that are always present in our world. Ultimately, that freedom can only come as a gift of faith, because it is the freedom that comes in knowing that in life and in death we belong to God.
In the meantime, we pray for a safe return to the best things of life.
Reflection #6 from Father Colin (April 27, 2020)
Reflection #6 from Father Colin
Updated: April 27, 2020
Dear Sisters and Brothers of St. Paul’s College,
I trust that you and your loved ones are keeping safe and healthy during this time of crisis.
Speaking of crisis, many of you will have heard that the Chinese word for crisis can be interpreted as “danger” or “opportunity.” There is considerable debate about the validity of this claim. Apparently the Chinese word in question is more accurately translated as “precarious moment” and has more to do with danger than any kind of opportunity. Even so, our human experience tells us that a crisis, not least the crisis caused by this coronavirus, is definitely fraught with danger! But as we are also discovering with each passing day, it is also a time of opportunity. My goodness, and the geese have taken over the college!
There are the obvious mundane things, like closets being cleaned, books read, movies watched, phone calls made and, of course, the ubiquity of Zoom! As I mentioned in an earlier reflection, I’ve been baking bread and buns and cakes, a practice that I intend to continue when this is finally over!
But there are more substantial things. The pace of life has slowed and the air is getting cleaner. People are praying more. There’s a growing appreciation for things we take for granted. We’re learning to be more creative in the ways that we work and play!
For example, there’s the Outdoor Home Prayer Delivery Service (OHPDS) being provided by Father Albert and some of his colleagues. Hopefully, you have received the e-mail about this. What a wonderfully creative way to bear witness to the resilience of the gospel.
Perhaps one of the greatest opportunities presented to us by this crisis is the opportunity to nurture and, in some instances, to reclaim the power of love in our lives. In previous reflections I’ve talked about some of the ways that the dangerous side of this crisis has affected us. We have talked about anger and fear in the face of a foe that has turned our world upside down. But in this reflection I’d like to talk about love, and the ways in which love, both divine love and human love, persists, despite the danger that surrounds us.
It’s true that there are situations in which love is being tested. Couples and families find themselves “locked down” together without the commitments and distractions that ordinarily give them a break from one another. Even so, I suspect that in many cases people are rediscovering each other or, at the very least, learning new things about each other. The fear associated with the pandemic has caused all of us to appreciate the importance of those we may have taken for granted. Those of “riper years” (like me) have been reminded about the shortness and uncertainty of human life. Perhaps we fall more deeply in love and take another look at how we spend our time. I have followed my own advice and have started phoning long lost relatives and friends. What a joy it is to discover that bonds of love and friendship are still intact.
For people of faith, I trust there has also been a deepening sense of God’s loving presence. I hope that those who are caught up in the complexities of life in close quarters, those who are required to keep away from those they love, those cut off from beloved colleagues and co-workers, those who live alone, those who are unable to gather for Mass, will know that they are held by the loving arms of our Lord as they await a return to normal. To be made aware of the preciousness of human life and the sacred gift of loving relationships, is to be made aware that we are made in the image of God, that each life has inestimable worth, and the love, the Divine Love that created us, the Divine Love that died and rose for us, is the love that sustains us still. In times of crisis, in times of danger and opportunity, in times of abundant life and tragic death, it is that Love that is with us. It is that love that will never let us go. Thanks be to God.
Reflection #5 from Father Colin (April 20, 2020)
Reflection #5 from Father Colin
Updated: April 20, 2020
It’s hard to believe that more than a month has gone by and that this is now my fifth pastoral reflection. I trust that you are keeping well as we make our way through these days of uncertainty.
It’s Easter but, oddly enough, the words of a Christmas carol have been bouncing around in my head. In the ever-popular O Little Town of Bethlehem we hear the words, “yet in the dark streets shineth, the ever-lasting Light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight,” That’s not a bad image for what we’re going through right now and for people of faith, the one born in Bethlehem’s stable is surely a light shining in the darkness that currently covers the face of our earth.
But I’d like to focus in a particular way on the collocation of “hopes” and “fears” in that one familiar line. For it seems to me that there are many different kinds of fears that we have been facing since the the coronavirus made its presence felt in our part of the world, and for each of those fears there are corresponding hopes.
Some of our fears have to do with the way in which the stability and security of our way of life is being threatened. For many people these are times of significant financial distress. Some people are out of work, others are trying to get by on a reduced income, some are making ends meet with government assistance, and for those who are relying on their life savings, the vagaries of the stock markets are a source of considerable anxiety. The corresponding hope, of course, is that things will return to normal, that losses will be recovered, businesses will be resuscitated, and the nest egg will be preserved.
But there is another kind of hope that comes us, largely through faith. It is a hope rooted in the belief that, even if everything doesn’t return to normal, even if there are financial losses that will never be recovered, even if life will never be the same again, our lives we go on in a meaningful way. We will continue to know life as a gift and find within it sources of love and joy. I remember a doctor once telling me that all he really wanted out of retirement was a bus pass and a library card. His words remind me that there is hope to be found in nothing more than the fact that our lungs still fill with air, our hearts still beat, and our loved ones are alive and well.
But there is another fear we face amid Covid-19. It’s the fear that we or someone we love will become infected. It is the fear that we might become one of those people cut off from loved ones, exiled to an ICU, a respirator sustaining our fragile life. It’s the fear that we too might die. The corresponding hope, of course, is recovery, successful medical treatment, a return to normal. It’s what we should hope, it’s what we need to hope if we are ever in that situation.
But there’s another hope that corresponds to our fear of death. It’s the hope I sometimes talk about with those who are terminally ill. They cling, and I will always cling with them, to that hope for a miracle, for remission, a cure! But if the time comes when that hope begins to fade, we are not left without hope, because we share with Jesus Christ in his dying and his rising and look forward to the peace and joy of heaven, where there are no deadly viruses, no pain or suffering or death anymore.
Our Easter celebrations have reminded is in a very vivid way that the light that “in dark streets shineth” is our Risen Lord and, in him, our deepest fears and greatest hopes are truly met.
Reflection #4 from Father Colin (April 10, 2020)
Reflection #4 from Father Colin
Updated: April 10, 2020
Dear Sisters and Brothers of St. Paul’s College,
As I write this, it is Holy Thursday and our world has been turned upside down. There will be no gathering for mass tonight, no the washing of our feet. There will be no gathering for the Triduum, no gathering for Good Friday or the Easter Vigil or Easter morning. And yet we will celebrate. Perhaps will celebrate by watching the live-streaming of the Mass on Easter morning. Perhaps we will celebrate by watching the liturgies of the Triduum at which Archbishop Gagnon will preside. These can be accessed through the Archdiocesan website. Perhaps we will celebrate in our own moments of prayer and reflection as these Holy Days pass by. I pray that in the midst of our celebration, whatever form it takes, we will encounter the risen Christ.
In the homily that I will be giving on Easter morning I talk about the gospel reading from John and Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Lord in the garden outside the empty tomb. I talk about the fact that Mary didn’t recognize her Risen Lord at first, no, not until he spoke her name. I talk about how this encounter with the risen Lord took place, not in the blazing light of the noonday sun, but in the early morning when it was still dark. I will make the case that most of our encounters with the risen Lord take place in the silence, in our darkness, in our loneliness and fear. Those encounters come when a loved one has died and our hearts are broken with grief. Those encounters can come in the midst of pandemic when we are frightened and stressed out and frustrated and angry. Like Mary Magdalene, sometimes at first we don’t recognize his presence. The light of resurrection comes not in a blaze of glory but as the flicker of light in the gloom. And a voice, calling us by name.
Recently, a friend of mine who had just suffered the death of a loved one, observed that coronavirus, the “crown” virus, has come to us in the season of the crowns. For many of us, especially those who have faced the death of a family member or friend, this pandemic is a crown of thorns, a challenge to our dignity, a Passion of sorts, that allows us to experience in our way and in our times, a dark night, a via crucis, But in Easter we celebrate the victory of the one who will be crowned with glory and ultimately wear the crown of kingship. It’s a reminder that the story doesn’t end with death but resurrection. And ultimately, for all of us, our hope is to be found in the promise of that day when we will share in the glory of our Risen Lord.
But in the meantime, in this time of fear and doubt and disorientation, it is that reassuring voice of our Lord, speaking to us in our darkness, calling us by name, that gives us hope on a daily basis. I don’t know about you, but I have been surprisingly unsettled and fearful over these last few weeks. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of good things have been happening. I baked bread for the first time in decades! But I’ve felt restless and uneasy at times. It’s partly because I’m getting older and have health issues that make me more vulnerable, but it’s also because I have been denied the distractions that ordinarily would allow me to forget about my personal aches and pains. The occasional sneeze or a morning cough produces momentary panic and thoughts of mortality. It has been important for me to remember that I will encounter the risen Lord, not only in hallowed halls of heaven when I leave this world, but even now in these times of fearfulness and stress. Like Mary Magdalene, when he speaks my name I know that I am held by his protective love and he is always there, in his risen state - even when it’s hard to see him.
In the article I mentioned last week, The Time of the Virus by Ephraim Radner, he points out that despite the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic, the HIV/AIDS crisis that still lingers, all the older litanies and seventeenth-century collects and thanksgivings for times of “plague” have been excised from our liturgies. Of course, many of these prayers contained images of God and interpretations of human suffering that no longer conform to our modern sensibilities. But I suspect their excision also reflects some of the hubris and over-confidence that has accompanied the technological and medical advances of the past century. The coronavirus has brought us back to earth, back to our earthiness, our mortality, with a resounding thud. The following intercession has been offered to us by the Holy See. May it be a way for us to remember our need of God, the importance of prayer at a time like this, and the Christ-like love that embraces the whole world. It is intended to be inserted into the Prayers of the Faithful for Good Friday. I also invite you to e-mail me with any other intentions that you would like to have included in the Prayers of the Faithful on Easter morning.
Intercession for the COVID-19 Pandemic from the Holy See
IX b. For the afflicted in time of pandemic
Let us pray also for all those who suffer the consequences of the current pandemic, that God the Father may grant health to the sick, strength to those who care for them, comfort to families and salvation to all the victims who have died.
Prayer in silence. Then the Priest says:
Almighty ever-living God, only support of our human weakness, look with compassion upon the sorrowful condition of your children who suffer because of this pandemic; relieve the pain of the sick, give strength to those who care for them, welcome into your peace those who have died and, throughout this time of tribulation, grant that we may all find comfort in your merciful love. Through Christ our Lord.
Reflection #3 from Father Colin (April 6, 2020)
Reflection #3 from Father Colin
Updated: April 6, 2020
Dear Sisters and Brothers of St. Paul’s College,
Sedentary life is not my thing. We did some house cleaning around here yesterday and I had to be swiffered!
I hope all of you are keeping well as we continue to live as exiles in a strange land. The dictionary defines exile as the state of being barred from one’s native country. So, I refer to us as exiles because there’s a sense in which the reality of COVID-19 has barred us from our native country, from that which familiar and comforting, from many of the people who we know and love, from routines that give shape and meaning to our lives. Anyone who has ventured out to buy groceries will have noticed that the grocery stores are almost empty and the streets are deserted. Indeed, the world around us has become a strange place and sometimes we feel as if we’re living in a foreign land.
It causes me to think of those words found in Psalm 137: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? How will we celebrate Easter in this strange land? How will we sing joyful songs that celebrate the resurrection when we can’t even assemble to unite our voices? How can we celebrate Easter when this Lent won’t go away!
Indeed, there’s a way in which the real meaning and purpose of Lent has been imposed upon us by the coronavirus. Our Lent has become more than meatless Fridays and giving up chocolate. We are forced to contend with the fact that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We have been forced to slow down, to make sacrifices, to give up worldly attachments, to pray more and to be made aware of our need of a Saviour.
Recently, I came across an article by Ephraim Radner entitled The Time of the Virus. Instead of seeing this as a time of exile, Radner suggests that we maybe we should see being forced to “go home” as an “enormous gift” and a “fallow time in which we can return to our roots as human beings.” He compares it to the Biblical notion of jubilee, a time to return to one’s family, a time for “living with the gift of life God has provided” and a time when “God’s own being and grace is unveiled to the otherwise distracted and self-absorbed creature.” He too suggests that it is providential that the Time of the Virus has come during Lent, “not for penitence alone,” he says, but “for the sabbath of sabbaths - for a place where prayer and thanks are actually nurtured and where they can flourish.”
Exile or jubilee? Or maybe a bit of both. Whatever the case, it’s true that when Easter arrives we won’t gather as we usually do. Our voices, if we dare to sing at all, might be muted and tentative. But just as we find ourselves experiencing Lent in new and deeper ways, may we also experience the power of Easter in a new and deeper way, not only because we will have been through a decisively thorough and demanding Lent, but because we will have encountered in our solitude and darkness the presence of the Incarnate and Suffering Christ, and perhaps we will have longed, as never before, for an empty tomb and a Risen Lord.
Reflection #2 from Father Colin (March 30, 2020)
Reflection #2 from Father Colin
Updated: March 30, 2020
Dear Sisters and Brothers of St. Paul’s College,
This is my second weekly reflection since our consignment to the safety of home. I hope that all of you are keeping well!
I’ve been reading the autobiography of Lamin Sanneh, who died just over a year ago. He was the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School but grew up in Gambia, Africa. He was a convert to Christianity from Islam and a practising Catholic. His book, Summoned from the Margin is well worth reading, but I mention it today because of a quote near the beginning of the book. It’s from the legendary Helen Keller, who was greatly admired by Sanneh. It’s one of those gems that seem especially appropriate in the midst of this frightening pandemic, “The world is full of suffering, the world is also full of the overcoming of suffering.”
I want to let you know that I am celebrating the Eucharist privately every day in our chapel. Each mass is offered pro populo, “for the people” and in a particular way for you, “the people” of St. Paul’s College. All of us have been affected and our lives have been disrupted in some disturbing and frightening ways. There is a special concern for students who are far from home, far from family and friends, and anyone who worries about their own health or the health of a loved one. As always, we remember those who have died from covid-19 and pray for the repose of their souls and comforting peace to those who grieve.
Father Albert and I have been exchanging emails occasionally, partly to coordinate our visits to the chapel. He mentioned in a recent e-mail that he is finding the Book of Job a helpful resource as he reflects upon the current crisis. As most of you know, the Book of Job is about Job’s response to the almost unbearable and seemingly unjust suffering imposed upon him by the Evil One in order to test his faith. It’s an utterly “human” book in the sense that it functions as a paradigm for the human response to almost all inexplicable suffering. In the book we encounter an array of emotions as Job struggles with a profound sense of abandonment and betrayal. The one I’d like to talk about today is anger.
For people of faith, it’s sometimes hard to talk anger, especially our own anger. We’ve learned to be people of kindness and mercy, who seek to build bridges and make peace. Anger sometimes seems violate the spirit of Christian love. Yet, we know that Jesus experienced anger, justifiable anger, in the face of sacrilege, self-righteousness and various kinds of injustice. His was, I would argue, an anger born of love.
Reflection #1 from Father Colin (March 19, 2020)
Reflection #1 from Father Colin
Updated: March 19, 2020
Dear Sisters and Brothers of St. Paul’s College,
As an older guy with some underlying health issues, the Rector and I agreed that I should work remotely until life at SPC begins to return to normal. I will be in from time to time and have posted contact information on my office door in the event that any students or staff have an urgent need for pastoral care. We also agreed that I would write a pastoral letter from time to time, to indicate my concern for all of you during the present crisis, and to share some of my reflections on the drama that is unfolding around us. To that end, there are two things I’d like to talk about today.
The first is our shared struggle with not knowing when this is going to end. We live with uncertainty about the future all the time, but life in our part of the world affords us many distractions that insulate us from the unpredictable and sometimes perilous nature of human existence. In my case, it’s the Jets, curling championships, woodcarving guilds, dining out, and a host of other things. The terrifying nature of the covid-19 pandemic looms even larger in the absence of these distractions.
When I worked with youth in the criminal justice system many of them struggled mightily not knowing how long their incarceration would last. Lawyers would seek postponements in the interest of securing a shorter sentence but, in many instances, these young offenders would have preferred a longer sentence to the agony of not knowing when their time in custody would end. So, today, I simply want to name the fact, that along with the understandable fear for ourselves and for our loved ones, we struggle with the agony of not knowing when our incarceration will end. How badly we want everything to be “normal” again.
But my second thought is about what this crisis provokes among us. One of the principles of the Christian faith is that life rises out of death, goodness emerges out of evil. It is the principle at the heart of the Easter story. Every day we are seeing signs of hope as human beings struggle to support each other in the face of this crisis. To be sure, there are those who continue to act selfishly, exploiting those in need, but there is an overwhelming sense of unity as the world transcends its many barriers and works together to protect and assist our sisters and brothers at home and around the globe. We want things to be “normal” again but amid all the abnormality is the spark of something profoundly hopeful.
With the observance of St. Patrick’s Day not far behind us, I would close with these words from the Scottish Jesuit, James Quinn, providing a translation of St. Patrick’s great hymn.
This day God gives me
Strength of high heaven,
Sun and moon shining,
Flame in my hearth,
Flashing of lightning,
Wind in its swiftness,
Deeps of the ocean,
Firmness of earth.
This day God sends me
Strength to sustain me,
Might to uphold me,
Wisdom as guide.
Your eyes are watchful,
Your ears are listening,
Your lips are speaking,
Friends at my side.
God’s way is my way,
God’s shield is round me,
Saving from ill.
Angels of heaven,
Drive from me always
All that would harm me,
Stand by me still.
Rising I thank you,
Mighty and strong One,
King of creation,
Giver of rest,
Threeness of Person,
Oneness of Godhead,