Fire and Heat

An old friend came by the other night. Actor turned therapist. He works with children in Ventura County. He has this penetrating look. The look of an active listener. He’s the type that makes me aware of how little I listen. He makes me aware of the fact that I merely wait my turn so I can jump into the conversation with some clever retort. PJ doesn’t do this. He waits, deferring to what’s on my mind. His eyes never leave my gaze for a moment unless of course he’s laughing which is deep and heartfelt. Pure Joie de Vivre.

After I finished going on and on about my situation we spoke about the kids, work and faith (a bit). PJ has a trained voice and he’s a reader at the parish. He adds a vitality to the scriptures; he makes them come alive. There’s a heft to him. A gravitas. I’m envious of his nature in a way, envious of his ease. I remember when his daughter would meander up to the podium and he’d give her a hug while still reading away. This was highly unconventional and could have rocked the parishioners, but he never lost his connection with the text, or his audience.

“I was an atheist for a while but that one quote from Shakespeare always got me,” PJ said.

“Which one?”

“There are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“Hamlet led you to faith?”

“To agnosticism.”

He laughed and everything rocked with it. His belly. His shoulders.

“I kept thinking that the likes of you and me are the highest consciousness?” He laughed again. “Really?”

I used to stare at the icons in church as a kid. Madonna and Child. Jesus on the cross with a Roman soldier looming, arms folded, mallet in his hand. John and Mary at his foot in despair. Three dimensional narratives. The statues suggested something, though, some mystery despite the confusing message. The strident message from Paul about faith as opposed to the cool hand of Jesus who reassured despite your lack of. I also fought with my brothers in the pew. My dad would give us “the look”, occasionally grabbing our arms and squeezing. His hands like vice grips. Mom sang in the choir just out of eye shot of all the nonsense.

As I got older the message dimmed and I cast aside the icons that offered something. Breaking the rules is what it’s all about as Bruce said, “momma always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun, but momma that’s where the fun is!” The seven deadly sins became, in their own way, the eyes of the sun. An invitation. Something to be tested out. Horary for lust, greed, and sloth!

College, job and marriage came soon enough. I was conditioned for such things so when the kids came along my religion seemed to have a rightful place. Call it the passing on of tradition? Call it monkey see monkey do? I had been trained to go, and therefore I trained my children to go, like I had trained them to do many things, like the need to floss for instance.

I asked PJ if he wanted some food. It was getting dark. I was hungry. In order to take the crizotonib I have to eat otherwise it upsets my stomach, so I prepared some chicken and dropped peeled potatoes into a pot of water. There was an abundance of kindling. I started a fire.

“I wanted to be part of the second wave,” PJ said. The dry sticks ignited and popped, “I know when I was sick so many came in the beginning.”

“I appreciate that,” I said, “but I have a question…do you still go to mass?”

“Only when it’s my time to read,” he said.

“I don’t anymore,” I said, “not after all the priest scandal.”

“I miss seeing you,” PJ said.

In my thirties my drinking had reached a point of no return. Alcoholism is an idea, like love, or God, that can’t be defined, or that the explanation is unsatisfying, or incomplete. Both straight forward and counter intuitive at the same time. For example, Alcoholism involves drinking but has little to do with alcohol. God is everywhere but is more verb than noun. They’re both something to be understood with the “heart-mind”, rather than the mind (I suppose) and in my case there was a small window to investigate such a notion (that I might be an alcoholic- that there might be a God), a little portal, a small crack in the door. One thing led me to the other (not sure which). The point is I stopped. The “idea” of God filled the void. I changed, and my conception of God has changed again and again.

That was a long time ago.

Now cancer has led me back, again, to God. It has been “the second wave.” The most prominent feeling after my diagnosis was fear, but that has been replaced by gratitude. It’s like a fire has been lit inside me, a fire that won’t go out. Every encouraging message, every letter, every dinner, or present, or good wish, stokes the fire, but still it goes deeper than that. The fire has been lit by someone, some God, and all I have to do is remember it, and put my hands over it when I’m cold. Warm myself.

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15 thoughts on “Fire and Heat

  1. I struggled with my belief in the church, because of the scandals. Was Father Rucker moved to Corpus Christi before or after the sexual abuse allegations against him that ultimately resulted is excommunication from the church? How could Cardinal Mahoney allow this to happen under his watch? I also struggled to believe in the church. But I realized my faith in the church is not mutually exclusive to my faith in god. It’s not an if/then proposition. Can we still have faith in god and the messages of the church and be upset with the sexual abuse scandal? I found the answer to be yes. When my wife went through lymphoma treatment, I stayed awake at night and gave this much thought. My resolve to believe was stronger, and my dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church more dogmatic. I didn’t feel guilty or ” a bad catholic” because I questioned. I explained to my dogmatic friends that faith in god and the church are not the same. If Cory didn’t survive, fortunately she has for last ten years, then she would be with god, even though I didn’t believe in the church’ s leadership team. Thanks for listening. Thanks for sharing your intimate thoughts during your battle with cancer.

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  2. Sean, faith/ belief is about the journey and relationship with God, not the rituals. I totally understand you, I struggle too, but I know my relationship with God is solid, we get eachother. That is not tosay it isn’t difficult at times or I don’t feel lonely, but I do know that in th e Gospel of John, it talks about Jesus being of the Father and and the Father is part of Jesus, we are a part of Jesus as he is in all of us therefore we too are apart of each other. Grace is not earned, it is given. This is what gives me comfort when I am feeling alone and/or abandoned, I may feel lonely, but never alone. Hope this makes sense

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  3. Your Dee said it best– you do never cease to amaze, Sean. Omgoodness– it was chilling the way your thoughts brought back vibrations from my experience in 2006- but I could never articulate the sense of it all- as you so eloquently do. A reminder to listen better everyday with everyone— and remember how miniscule our interpretation is of the grand expansiveness of Good that dwells among and within us all – intimately and infinitely. Thanks once again, Irish Warrior.

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  4. Spirits need, want …Spirits, alcohol. YOU have a role to play…not yet fully discovered…or indeed DISCOVERED now in illness. Am I being too cryptic? God is alive…magic is afoot… In illness you know…are operatically aware. You teach in the best sort of way…

    Sexual abuse has been & is now rampant in all of religion, not just Catholicism…Protestants, Jews, Catholics and all of the Eastern Religions.

    I was a Monk. Make that ….A Monkey. Along with another Brother I snuck out to movies ..& went to parties, hung out with guys and gals our age and younger at the University of Chicago. We never got caught. I did get caught for smoking cigs in my cell…and was grounded for two weeks. We has our roles to play…Monks tasting life…with our university friends…who thought we were very cool. A double life, however, can be exhausting…as we soon found out…so all good things in moderation.

    One of the gals at the Art Institute…Sharon asked me to plant her boyfriend’s, pot seeds in the grape arbor at the Monastery. I did…One of the old priests saw the weed growing and asked me what it was….I replied, “Father, THAT is Queen Ann’s lace…” Made up that answer on the spot. I never smoked grass until I left the Monastery and went to Catholic Worker in Tivoli, New York.

    The hard work of the Monastery WAS grounding for me & i felt the need to use my parent’s money and go to College. At age 29 I left, went to Catholic Worker, lived with Dorothy Day, a veritable S A I N T…met Dan Berrigan, got an FBI record & then went to Immaculate Heart College to study with Sister Corita…I have a great DOTTIE DAY story…we all called her “Dottie” behind her back. Dorothy is NOW up for canonization in the Catholic Church. Something she did not want.

    Here I am in Ojai.. meeting you Sean…all thanks to Anthony. Another kind of miracle. I must come visit…YOU!

    Fine story above…your story, Sean…a hard-core romance with, about life and death… It ain’t over yet. LONG may you live.

    “Alcoholism involves drinking but has little to do with alcohol. God is everywhere but is more verb than noun.” INDEED, …INDEED!

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  5. Thank you for so poignantly and eloquently sharing your journey with us, a journey all of us are making. the endpoint is the same, the difference is some of us have longer to get there than others. And while you are experiencing an abbreviated and concentrated form of this journey, I know you will beat the big C and come away with a whole new sense of purpose. I believe the essence of God is love and that’s what you have come back to. Happy holidays and now that we’ve passed the winter solstice, the light is returning. Enjoy every ray!!

    be well with courage and strength in the NY…..Larry

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