Monday, November 23, 2015

Just Practicing

One of the many, many nice things about being a deacon in the Catholic Church is that we can be married and have a family. Anyone who knows me knows how incredibly fortunate and blessed I am to be married to Wanda, my sweetheart and best friend for almost 50 years. And they know how blessed we both have been with our four children, our daughter-in-law and son-in-law, and our two grandsons.

When our older daughter, Julie, was a medical student doing her clinical rotation at a Level 1 trauma center in Brooklyn, she shared a powerful experience with us. Wanda saw its relevance to our faith and encouraged me to share it with the parish.

Julie was on call in the ER when an elderly lady was brought in by ambulance from a nursing home. The lady’s name was Linda and she was having difficulty breathing. But in addition to her physical problem, Linda’s chart showed a diagnosis of schizophrenia. This poor woman’s internal world was a terrifying place.

Julie was assigned to Linda to do a work-up that included drawing blood and listening to her heart rate. Linda was fearful of the needle, but Julie’s calming presence reassured her. With one gentle stick, Julie was able to draw the necessary blood without causing Linda any pain. Linda felt safe with my daughter and asked her name. ‘Julie,’ she gently answered.

In listening to Linda’s heartbeat, Julie discovered something irregular. The resident who was supervising her confirmed the irregularity and asked Julie to sit by Linda for the duration of her on call shift, and to watch her heart rhythms on the bedside monitor.

As she sat down in front of the monitor, Julie gently held Linda’s hand. She told Linda that she would be right there just in case she needed her for anything. Linda lay back and was calm.

Less than two minutes went by when Linda appeared agitated and called out,
         ‘Yes, Linda. I’m right here. What do you need?’
         ‘Just practicing,’ Linda said and lay back peacefully.
Another two minutes went by.
         ‘Yes, Linda.’
         ‘Just practicing.’
And another.
         ‘Yes, Linda’, 
         ‘Just practicing’.
Her interior world being filled with terror, Linda needed to constantly call out to reassure herself that Julie was there. This cycle of calling out and reassurance went for hours, until Linda was moved from the chaos of the ER and admitted to a room on the elder care unit.

So, how is this relevant to our faith?

Life is a gift and it is beautiful, but the world outside and inside our head can at times be painful and frightening. And we live each day with the existential knowledge that our time on earth is limited. But God is always by our side. God will never abandon us. And when our time on earth is through, God will be there to take away our fear, to embrace us and welcome us home.

We believe this with faith and someday we will experience it with certainty. But in the meantime, we, like Linda, practice to reassure ourselves that God is there; we practice by calling out to God in prayer.

And God answers in the darkness,
          ‘I am here, my child, I am with you.’
That answer comes to us in the depths of our hearts, in the love and compassion we receive from others, in the grace of the sacraments; and it come to us in those unexplained meaningful coincidences, those synchronicities, that God uses to tell us he’s there. God always answers; we just have to be listening.

There have been times in my life when I was scared and felt lost in the universe: times when my back was to the wall and there was no way out. But I called out in the darkness and God always answered and made a window in that wall and pulled me through.

God has been there in the darkness for all of us or we wouldn’t be here in this room today.

Let us go through this day, this Advent season, and the rest of our lives at peace knowing that God is always by our side; and let us keep practicing by calling out to God in prayer. God always answers. It may not be the answer we expect, but God always answers we just have to be listening.

As I have grown in my faith I have come to realize that one of the strongest forms of prayer and the clearest way to listen for God’s answer is to be an instrument of love, forgiveness and mercy for others. Our Holy Father Pope Francis has designated this new Church Year beginning with the first Sunday in Advent to be a Year of Mercy. Let us journey through this special year, and all the years that follow, by practicing, listening and being an instrument of love, forgiveness and mercy to all of our sisters and brothers – all of God’s children – without exception.

Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on

Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life

Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Postscript to 'Saint Fox' Post (1994 Funeral Homily for My Friend Fox)

God sends each one of us into the world with some very special work to do. We may never know what that work is during our life here on earth but God will surely tell us in the next.

To accomplish this work God plants us within a vineyard. There are rich vineyards and poor vineyards, loving family vineyards and lonely homeless vineyards. But regardless of the vineyard, we are sent here to bear fruit for our loving Father in heaven.

We are all called to be saints regardless of the vineyard in which we live out our life on earth. And there are great saints in every vineyard. My friend Fox lived in one of God’s vineyards. It was different from the one we live in here in Tenafly but God was still the landlord.
About eight years ago [in 1986] I was searching real hard to find Jesus, to understand what faith in Jesus really meant to me. To my surprise I found Jesus in a wheelchair. He didn’t look like any of his pictures though. He had one leg, was African American and kept his hair in dreadlocks. But it was Jesus. That little piece of Christ within Fox reached out and touched that little piece of Christ within me – and there was recognition.
When I first met Fox he was sleeping at the George Washington Bridge bus terminal. I offered him coffee and a sandwich and asked him his name. He said ‘Fox’. A few weeks later I saw him again, asleep in a cardboard box outside the terminal. I poured him a cup of coffee and gently woke him up. ‘Fox, Fox,’ I called. He opened his eyes, smiled at me and said, ‘You remembered my name.’

Over the years we became friends. But I always left Fox with sadness and conflict: I was going home to my family and my home in Tenafly but my friend would be spending another night in a cardboard box.
Fox cared about other people and he cared about me. My friend Carol, from our outreach team, reminded me how we offered Fox an extra sandwich, our last one, one morning last winter; and how he told us that there was another homeless person sleeping in a corner of the terminal that we had missed who needed it more than he did. One day last year I was dragging myself up the subway ramp after work. Fox looked at me and said that he was worried about me because I looked so burnt out. Fox who had nothing but a squeaky wheelchair, a taped-up Walkman and a plastic bag was worried about me who had so much.
I really loved Fox. There will be an emptiness in my life now that he’s gone. But I truly believe that I will see him again – in a place where neither he nor I nor anyone could ever be homeless.
If any of us had been in the tunnel leading from the subway exit up to the bus terminal early on the morning of April 16 we might have heard a squeaky clatter. And if we looked up that tunnel, we might have caught a glimpse of Fox wheeling his chair along side of Jesus as they made their way to the escalator. And if we looked through the eyes of our hearts, we might have seen Jesus lift Fox out of his wheelchair as they made their way up the escalator to catch a bus for heaven. Fox isn't homeless anymore.

May 25, 1994
Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Tenafly, NJ

Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on

Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life

Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry