The other day I traversed two blocks of an avenue in our neighborhood. On my side of the street all of the retail space was empty except for one small store. Such derelict footage left me sad. But it cheered me to come home into St. Catherine’s Church where the ranks of votive candles warmed me, the saints in their shrines encouraged me, and the people kneeling in prayer companioned me. The street was naked but the church was furnished. The deserted storefronts made me lonely, but in the church people congregated safely and for a purpose. St. Catherine’s revealed to me her antidote to desolation, and she offers it to people all day long.
That afternoon my steps were eastbound, but each morning I walk west and have the same experience in
St. Vincent Ferrer, where people duck out of crowded Lexington Avenue and find space to think and pray, a refuge from noise, and beauty that points beyond itself.
By their adornment and furnishing, their good order and ready welcome, our churches preach. Many who will not sit through a sermon, nevertheless receive a credible word through stained glass backlit by sun or from the Virgin lit from within by serenity. The iconography speaks of God, but the open door and the cared for place speak of His People. What does it mean to walk into a place and perceive that someone loves it and keeps it in good order for you? I feel such well-being when I walk into a good hotel, but in our churches New Yorkers find it for free, daily, courtesy of our congregation.
For us regulars too, St. Vincent’s and St. Catherine’s truly “work.” They offer unparalleled settings for the hinge-moments of life when we approach God’s altar in thanksgiving, perplexity, or grief. They ensure that our common assemblies not only inform us of teaching, or reinforce our identity, but also act on each sense to lift hearts beyond what the senses can communicate.
The missionary power in bricks and mortar drives us to care for them. To begin effectively, we do not raise money or start projects, we study. This summer we commissioned three investigations of the “fabric” of the parish. First, Fr. Joseph Allen and Lee Ann Rubino had to do sleuthing in regard to the hidden wall at St. Catherine’s. Behind the shrines on the west side of the outer wall faces an alley way blocked at either end by stores. Unlike the rest of the church exterior this wall has never been tuck-pointed, and it is badly deteriorated. We hope this work will be completed here before winter.
This summer you may have found St. Vincent’s less-than-usually comfortable. That is because one of the three ancient air conditioning compressors, way down in the basement, ceased to work. Luckily we had a spare and were able to hire a rigging company to remove the old and hoist the “new” one into place. It is clear, though, that the AC is on borrowed time. In that light we have commissioned a study of options we have for updating the system. We should have some results soon.
In the sacristy at St. Vincent’s a basket gets continually fuller with new fragments of wood that have fallen from the carved “tracery” over the choir stalls in the church and the Friars’ Chapel. The growing pile of dried Gothic artistry impels us to a plan to preserve our churches. To that end, Evergreene Architects came to our rescue. They have already done great work at St. Catherine’s on the High Altar and the Rosary Altar. This summer they completed a detailed survey of the conservation and restoration issues we face inside St. Vincent’s. Their studies of woodwork, masonry, and painting make a fascinating read. Now we will develop a plan for implementation.
Care for our churches makes them beautiful and comfortable, but also profoundly effective in the mission of the Church, the Order, and the Parish. Such concern carries us into the realm of raising and spending money. Dedication and determination by the women and men who serve God in our parish has meant that our ordinary income now just about covers our regular expenses. For this weekly and monthly stability, we can never be adequately grateful. In a particular way I must thank the members of our Finance Council who have made these efforts successful by the stewardship they have exercised and by the annual report they have given you.
With their help we hope to craft a credible approach to generating and allocating the resources for the structural integrity, environmental quality, and artistic preservation of St. Catherine’s and St. Vincent’s. We hope to establish a pattern of fundraising for capital maintenance and improvement appropriate to our parishioners. The Renew and Rebuild campaign of the Archdiocese of New York is mandated for us later this year, and it prompts us to undertake this work. We seek a method of fundraising and a plan of care that will stand the parish in good stead for decades to come.
As a proto-type of the restorative work we hope to do throughout St. Vincent’s, in mid-October Evergreene Architects will begin the work of cleaning St. Joseph’s Chapel. They have tested the masonry of the chapel, which is both natural stone and Guastavino tile. They will lift a century’s accumulation of soot off of, and out of, the walls and ceiling. This will leave this little space radiant with the natural hues intended by the architect, Bertram Goodhue. Certainly the chapel will become more appealing for its intended activity, prayer. We can do this work thanks to the generosity of the people who have lit candles at the chapel’s shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The chapel’s new loveliness will come directly from the beauty of the prayer that has been offered there.
Thank you for letting me introduce you to this aspect of parish life. I am only just encountering it myself. Part of me would like to hide the basket of fallen carving from my gaze and get on with life. But there is no getting on without dealing, and I have come to believe that dealing with these things pertains not only to parish life, but parish mission.
This letter builds on last week’s discussion of patient and caregiver. Writing that letter suggested our members need to know the kinds of caregiving the Church has to offer.
The week ahead abounds in beginnings. Religious Education, RCIA, and Parish Study each take off for another year’s run. Easter and the other rites of Spring lie way ahead, out of view. Between us and those moments of completion lie many hours of class and preparation for class. More hours yet will go to meetings, preparation for meetings, and following through upon meetings. Then there are the questions: will the group gel? How many will come? How much will weather mess us up? Who will get mad at me? Will I be on top of my game? Before it starts, when I look at it from the outside, the experience looks mountainous. If I stay with that perception, I will shrink from the whole task. Perhaps I will recycle last year’s notes, insights, and strategies, all the while counting the weeks until Memorial Day. Or I might board the self-pity express and let complaint fuel my passage through this parish year.
This changes if I bring God into my present, realizing He has allowed me to be in this moment, and He will make it work for me. By this I am “present to the present” and not living for vacations, or last year, or next year. When I assume this stance the year will be fruitful for me whether it is rough or calm. Here is how real life becomes contemplative life. Grace here works concretely to make the familiar surprising, the routine refreshing, and work a gift of fulfillment. I turn the key to its working if I accept my circumstances and affirm God’s constant presence to me.
If even predictable beginnings give rise to a whole range of emotions, think of those that come upon us unannounced and unwelcome. How does it feel to be diagnosed with a major illness which will suddenly divert one’s life down an uncharted path? While we recognize that aging happens to all of us, we are nevertheless surprised and shocked when it overtakes us personally. Such crises in the body understandably generate fear, anger, resignation, or a combination thereof. Getting sick and growing old cause trauma because they upset the physical and emotional integrity we have come to take for granted. One faces not only symptoms but also questions: what will happen to me and when? Who will care for me? And of course will I recover? People also wonder why God has allowed this, and where is He when He is needed?
Sickness and aging bring pain, inconvenience, and confusion. Rightly, we combat the former and stave off the latter. Nevertheless, the Ghost of Christmas Future intimates that they will come for each of us. For us who believe being sick and getting old do not threaten the human experience from outside, but take their proper place in its composition. God Himself allows our difficulty and our decline. Perhaps in His goodness He allows these fundamental experiences of incompleteness so that we may recognize He is complete in Himself, and intends to complete us with Himself.
But when circumstance has disrupted my life, left me in pain, deprived me of dignity, stolen my independence, and handed me over to fear, I find it difficult to contemplate the deeper significance of my distress.
To the Christian caught in this maelstrom the Church offers the Sacrament of the Sick. Once confined to the moment of death as “Extreme Unction,” this sacrament has returned to its earlier place at the trauma of the beginning. To a person who has just entered into illness, who faces surgery, or who has reached a new plateau in aging we offer this beautiful prayer of laying on of hands and anointing with the Oil of the Sick.
We can celebrate this rite with the simplicity or fullness that the occasion demands, and we can celebrate it anywhere.
The sacrament takes aim at the heart as a prayer offering the healing it takes for a person to realize that with God even the most terrible of circumstances may become occasions for growth. All of us who have walked with the sick can testify to the transformative nature of situations no sane person would choose. In the moment of the sacrament, a soul confronting its finitude places a firm foothold in the eternity of God. At this crucial time the Lord shows Himself to be the sustainer of life and the illuminator of its joys and sorrows. He heals it and completes it in accord with His own amazing design.
So if you have received a diagnosis, face a surgery, or perceive that aging has advanced, please ask any of the priests for the sacrament. We have tried to keep the Oil of the Sick within reach at the doors of our churches, so that you can bring the God of strength into the heart of human weakness. After he lays hands on you the priest will say.
(Anointing the forehead) Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. (Anointing the hands) May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.
As I begin these lines Hurricane Dorian has just become a category 5 storm and we wonder how many lives it will effect as it weaves an unsteady course through the Atlantic. I can still hope that Dorian will take a turn east into the open sea, and will be yesterday’s news when you read this. Nevertheless, a singular prayer comes with realizing that disaster impends for someone else. I want to rescue them but I am totally unable. So from my safe distance I watch and wait, and I lift up to God those many thousands who have to sit and wait for a storm to upend the rhythms of their lives. What I experience in the comfort of my room is the mystery of compassion, of suffering with the other.
Of course, my experience is distant and global: for many people compassion happens within inches of their neighbor, and for years at a time. I think of those who consent to care-give for the terminally ill, the chronically ill, the handicapped, and the developmentally challenged. All of these walk in the narrowest of places with a suffering person. To the life of their companion they can bring encouragement and comfort, but never a rescue. Mary-like, they “keep their station” at the foot of their neighbor’s cross. The decision to hold this hard ground makes it fertile for goodness, serving the patient, enlarging the caregiver in empathy, and completing both in patience and hope.
To us who visit, caregiver and care-receiver seem stuck in a daily regimen of feeding and cleaning, pill taking and appointment-going, but beneath the slowly executed routine, both grow profoundly, as God’s love fills the narrowest places of human life. For the patient the inability to do for self can become interior growth through learning to trust and depend. For the caregiver there is a loss of personal freedom that becomes the expansion of self through patience and constancy.
All around us the life of our parish touches these relationships. Just think of the hospitals: in New York Presbyterian, Sloan-Kettering, and Special Surgery, doctors, nurses, and family make the choice every day to accompany people in suffering and dying. Our Chaplains and Eucharistic Ministers join them in this work, bearing the sacraments that can transform this experience for all concerned. At Mary Manning Walsh Home the chaplains will now work with the Carmelite Sisters of the Aged and Infirm, and a whole corps of lay volunteers to establish an ongoing communion with elderly residents, those in rehabilitation, and those in the Dawn Green Hospice. In apartments all around us caregivers, familial and professional, make it possible for elderly people to stay in their homes.
Think how the Eucharist enters the patient and caregiver and makes of their relationship a Gospel Preaching and an instrument of grace. As a fruit of Holy Communion the one who tends and the one who is tended can each recognize that a situation neither would choose has become their way to Heaven. Together they testify that sticking with it comes from more than will-power and makes for more than stability. Before our eyes lies a covenant of trust and intimacy that will leave both parties more human and therefore further along the way to God. This interdependence shows its loveliness all around us, if only we do not let age and illness hide it. There it is conferring across the rails of the hospital bed or smiling across a coffee cup before the morning rituals begin. Here it is taking a slow walk on Third Avenue, or collaborating in the boarding of a taxicab. All over, we are seeing an odd couple assembled by God across gender and age, race and religion. Just think of how many important decisions this pair reach together as they work through the tiny square chambers in the week-long pill tray.
The complex geography and demography of our parish, patient and caregiver are everywhere and so we begin the parish year by putting them front and center as a focus of prayer. On Friday, September 13 we will watch before the Blessed Sacrament from Evening Prayer, through the night until Morning Prayer on Saturday, September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In the Cross we see God’s power to make the most constrictive human experience an avenue to paradise. I hope you will come for some part of this Vigil to support the patients and caregivers who walk this road in front of us. Think of those you know personally and also to lift up the many you see in the byways of our neighborhood. Please see elsewhere in the bulletin for details.
As I reach the end, Dorian has sat over the Island of Grand Bahama for a long time, compounding devastation. So, during our vigil we must practice compassion for those far away, as well as for those often too close for us to see. In our humanity we are shocked by climactic devastation and by bodily decline, and yet we believe in a God who is not defeated by either. He is present to us, in power and in time, in this most wonderful Sacrament. Therefore we adore Him with confidence and confide to Him the many who suffer and the many others who chose to look their suffering in the face.