On the Music of Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin - The Final Concert (1981) - full concert - YouTube

Sadly many do not remember Harry Chapin. He was a singer/songwriter whom I first heard in the 1970s on PBS. Many of his songs were ballads — stories of people trying to face life. His story-songs ranged from one about a man running a motel to a DJ trying to reconnect with his family to a Dakota farmer awaiting his mail-order bride. His songs He also wrote a song set in my hometown of Scranton. Other singers such as Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen acknowledge his influence. His songs enriched my journey.

Harry, however, was more than an entertainer. He became very involved in social justice long before it become better known. He dedicated much of his life and craft to fighting hunger. His Harry Chapin Food Bank continues in its quest to end hunger. It is part of Harry’s legacy. Sadly Harry Chapin died in an auto accident in 1981.

Many of Harry’s songs had a powerful impact in my life. As with many fathers of that time, his song “Cat’s In The Cradle” challenged us all to examine our priorities.

One of my other favorite songs of his tells a heart-breaking story of a singer. The story of Mr. Tanner speaks to all of us who have chased a dream only to be disappointed. It also reminds me that there is a price to be paid for trying to be “successful”.

Music remains a central part of my spiritual journey. Harry Chapin blessed me along the way.

VIEWING: There is a recent documentary titled Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something. It covers his music as well as his work against hunger. Worth your time.

REFLECTION: Are there any particular singers who have graced your spiritual journey?

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Facing The Dark Side: Spiritual Challenges of the Capitol Attack

United States Capitol - Wikipedia

I love our Capitol. I remember visiting it on a tour when I was a boy. I was awed by the statuary. I was excited to see Everett Dirkson on the Senate floor. Yes, I am aware that some scoundrels have served in Congress. And yes I am aware that some shameful legislation has been passed there. But to me it is nonetheless sacred. This week that sacred space has been desecrated and my heart is breaking.

Yesterday I was talking with a woman well-versed in the Twelve Step program. She was discussing some blaming she had been doing but then said “But if I name it, I have to wear it.” This was a reminder to me of the great spiritual challenge I am facing subsequent to the attack on the Capital.

Years ago, I wrote to the great psychologist Carl Rogers, arrogantly believing I had found a flaw in his theory centering around the therapist being angry with the client. He wrote back challenging me to face the judgment I was making of the client, in essence suggesting that I too was part of the problem.

All the spiritual approaches I embrace — from Carl Jung’s psychology (facing one’s Shadow) to the Twelve Step program (“If you’re pointing your finger at someone, just remember that the rest of your fingers are pointing back at you”) to Christianity “Love your enemy”) — now challenge me to face something that makes me shudder. I have to face and embrace the Donald Trump within me.

There are a number of people whom I dearly love and who are Trump supporters. I ask those people as well as other readers this: if you wish to respond to this posting in support of Donald Trump, I will read your words with respect. However, I would also respectfully point out to you what this posting challenges you to do — to look within and to find the Joe Biden within you.

Shadow work has been a challenge. Yes, I have tried to face the Darth Vader within me. I have tried to find within me that which I quickly judge in others. I can even acknowledge that, yes, there may be themes I have in common with the guy wearing the antlers or the other guy arrogantly sitting in Pelosi’s chair, a crumbled American flag nearby. (Do you hear my judgment sneaking in there?) But the idea of acknowledging common ground with Donald Trump repulses me. Yet that is what I am called to do if I truly believe the principles mentioned above.

I’ve come to see that doing Shadow work does not mean I am excusing someone’s behavior. God is a God of compassion but He/She is also a God of justice. And so those who invaded the Capitol as well as those who encouraged them to do so must all be held accountable.

And so as I reflect on Donald Trump, I have to face and admit my own arrogance. I have to face and admit that I too have coveted power. I have to admit that I too have lied to protect myself. I too have disrespected others to inflate my own ego. These are all character defects within me that I am called to face and heal. It would be much easier for me to settle into a place of anger and judgment.

Loving my enemy does not mean that I should start wearing a MAG hat. It does mean that I should pray for a man I find repulsive. It means I should pray for his healing and for him finding some inner peace. The words choke in my throat like swallowed sand. But then Shadow work or 12-step work or Christian practice are never really easy.

REFLECTION: How have the attacks on the Capitol affected you spiritually or otherwise?

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The Christmas Truce Revisited

Once again this year my wife and I watched Joyeux Noel, a wonderful dramatization of what became known as the Christmas Truce. During World War I, men of all sides — German, French, and British — agreed to a truce on Christmas Eve. Amazingly, soldiers came out of the trenches and for too brief time were simply visitors sharing hymns, chocolate, and even a game of soccer. Sadly, they returned to their trenches, war resumed, and some of those men died.

It is a story that sounds too good to be true. Yet it did happen!

The many veterans I’ve come to know have helped me see that war becomes almost impossible when the soldier comes to see his/her Enemy as a person with a story, perhaps with a family. When a line is crossed and the Enemy becomes a person, the burden of war becomes almost intolerable. One man inventoried the belongings of a man he’d just killed and found a picture of this man with family. Another soldier recalls breaking into a house in search of an informant, spraying shattered glass over an infant and seeing the child’s mother react. Another encountered a family whose son had been killed by a patrol with the family’s father asking this soldier “Why? Why was my son killed?” I recall, too, reading of a bombardier of WWII who committed suicide because he could not live with the thought that the bombs he dropped on Dresden hit families, not enemies. Such memories often come to these veterans’ minds and hearts during this time of year that celebrates family.

And yet war goes on and this year as in too many years past, war separates families at Christmas. Ironically, as we prepare to celebrate a Christmas that keeps us separated from loved ones because of COVID, perhaps we can have some insight into what it was and is like to face Christmas with a loved one far away and possibly in danger.

Plato has said that only the dead have seen the end of war. Believe me, I am not a pacifist. I know that I would do whatever was necessary to defend loved ones. Yet war is something that is perhaps fostered not by those in the trenches but by the power brokers safely behind desks. So when we learn of men and women who are able to breach the gap and, even only for a moment, see the Enemy as a person, perhaps there is hope.

Here is a beautiful scene from Joyeux Noel. Music can indeed bring us together.

And here is a the song the Scots are singing in this scene. I share it in honor of all who are separated from family during this time, especially our military men and women.

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On Claiming Your Roots

Yes, I’m from Scranton. Nowadays, upon learning that, most people ask if I know Joe Biden. (I don’t but do have some interesting connections with his family). It used to be that people would mention the TV show The Office and ask if that is really Scranton at the beginning. (Yes, it is).

Scranton roots are blue collar roots. I have grown to treasure them. I learned many lessons from my blue collar relatives — my uncle the fireman, my uncle the coal miner who died of black lung disease, my aunts all devoted to family and to kindness to strangers, my great-aunt who was an independent woman at a time when they were rare.

I also treasure those roots when I think of my job as a mailman, dealing with people anxious to get their welfare checks. Dealing with immigrants struggling with English. Meeting one old coal miner sitting on his porch on an oxygen machine yet still willing to pass the time of day. Meeting another man who wished me a Merry Christmas using a throat microphone to compensate for his throat cancer.

I think too of the men and women at Consolidated Molding. This was a plastics factory which made, among other things, the linings for Claymore mines being used in Viet Nam while at the same time producing plastic crucifixes. The ladies didn’t dwell on such contradictions. They worked piecemeal, making sure that each tiny plastic gizmo was shaped correctly. My job was to keep them supplied. A lady might get annoyed if I was slow getting her the next box to inspect but usually they were kind.

I think of the men I met in that factory, the ones who operated the presses. All the former press operators were missing fingers. Yes, they might come in hung over but they showed up and did their jobs.

I understand why in Scranton it was a big deal to have someone who graduated from college. My father attended one college class (“Got an A”, he’d say proudly). That was the extent of college education among my parents, aunts, and uncles. It was really something when my cousin Bob Ruane was the first family member to graduate from college.

These blue collar Scranton roots taught me much about caring for family, about working so that the next generation would have it easier. I learned about the courage it takes to do the same job over and over, to punch out at the end of the day, and to punch in the next day to start all over.

So, yes, I’m proud to be from Scranton but not because of Joe Biden. I’m proud because of what those many blue collars taught me about life and family.

In honor of the women of Consolidated Molding, I’ll close by sharing this beautiful piece from “Working”.

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The Long Thanksgiving Dinner Revisited

In the past, I have written about Thornton Wilder’s beautiful one act play “The Long Christmas Dinner” in which the life cycle of a family is portrayed over an imagined dinner in which persons come in through a white birth curtain and leave through a black curtain.

For me, that table is set at Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. I can see generations gathered about that table. Many have gone through the Black Curtain, some quite suddenly, some way too young.

One of my sisters never even makes it to the table. She comes to the table and leaves immediately through the Black Curtain. My other sister sits for only a moment, then also leaves.

But I also see many loved ones who sat at that table many times. My parents and my brother are there. Although she is aged, my Mom leaves the table quickly while my father takes a long slow walk to the Black Curtain.

I see old Aunt Margaret, she who was in Paris when Lindbergh landed. She who saw Babe Ruth play baseball (“Clumsiest man I ever saw!”). She who, in her 90s, gave me the finest anti-war sentiment I ever heard as she shook her head and said “So many young men.”

There are my Uncle Gaddy and Aunt Peg, my surrogate grandparents. I never sat at the table with my grandmothers. They had walked through the Black Curtain before I walked through the white one.. My grandfathers were also gone by the time I was 7. So these two wonderful people filled a great void — Gaddy with his burly Irish accent, the smell of cigars about him and Peg, maker of the World’s Greatest Peanut Butter cookies.

Aunt Mary is there, she who was schizophrenic, carrying on a constant patter of self-talk or reading romance novels.

I see too my Uncle Joe and Aunt Kathleen. She was sophisticated and helped John F. Kennedy carry the vote in Rhode Island. He was a veteran of the South Pacific, down-to-earth, smoking a cigarette as he was dying of lung cancer. Among many things, he helped me love the Redsox.

I see my Aunt Dorothy, my father’s only sibling. She who never married and the day after she retired, quit drinking, packed up and moved to California to be closer to my brother, leaving behind a stunning example of courage.

This year for many there will be more empty chairs. For some those absences will reflect the ravages of COVID. For others, absence will be due to restrictions such as closed borders. Even the numbers allowed at tables will officially be limited.

This Thanksgiving more than any in recent memory will have a curtain of fear over it as COVID numbers rage and our country endures a less-than-smooth transition in government. There has been a part of me that is grateful some loved ones have passed through the black curtain and do not have to endure these times

And yet, as I gather with my family, I will pause to be grateful for the many wonderful people, friends and family alike, who have gathered at my Thanksgiving table in person or in spirit. There will be new members at this year’s Long Thanksgiving Dinner. A beautiful grandson has walked through the white curtain. As always, others who were present in the past have slowly or quickly left the table for the black curtain. Yet all who grace and have graced that table will be present. We will join hands in gratitude and in hope, remembering especially this year the words from Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

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On Viet Nam Veterans

Vietnam Veterans Memorial | Facts, Designer, & Controversy | Britannica

Veterans’ Day is next week and I am proud that it is now a national holiday. I have been humbled by the fact that my status as a veteran has meaning to the many vets I meet daily and am honored that they choose to share their stories.

These days I meet many Viet Nam veterans coming simply to talk. All express wonder and even concern that memories from 50 years ago are suddenly coming back. I share with them an encounter I had with my brother-in-law Dave, an Air Force veteran who served courageously in Viet Nam.

A while back, I was at a family gathering and approached my brother-in-law and noted that I was seeing an influx of Viet Nam veterans. He became quiet then said “Well, you go over there and you see some things. Then you come home and you throw yourself into your work and your family. But your kids grow up and eventually you retire.” He paused, then said “And stuff starts coming back to you.”

So it goes. Horrific experiences in the jungle 50+ years ago are coming back to the men and women who served in a very unpopular war that led to hurtful receptions at home. The atmosphere for returning vets was so hostile that many simply didn’t acknowledge that they were veterans. And they kept what they had seen and done to themselves.

But those memories don’t go away. And as these vets begin to have more time on their hands, the memories can flood back with a vengeance. Some of the Viet Nam vets do indeed need help but many more simply need an an opportunity to talk and be listened to without judgment and especially without the judgment they faced 50 years ago.

Some are still angry about the reception they received at that time. One vet told me of an encounter he’d had in a grocery store. He happened to be wearing a Viet Nam veteran hat and someone came up to him and said sincerely “Thank you for your service.” At the time he simply grunted a thanks but said to me “Where the fuck where those people 50 years ago? I didn’t get thanked. I just got spit on.”

So if you know any Viet Nam veterans, be sensitive to the fact that their nights may be more tortured then ever and that they may be flooded with memories and very much longing for inner peace. If they honor you with their stories, just listen.

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On the Kindness of Strangers

Photo of Hanks Hoagies - Scranton, PA, United States. Hank & Myra

My brother directed me to a piece last night featuring a boyhood friend of Joe Biden. The piece opened in front of a place called Hank’s Hoagies. That image brought back a flood of memories of what used to be what you would now call an independent grocery store. In those days, it was known as Hank and Myra’s.

When you hear old people like me wax poetic about the good old days, we may be thinking of places such as Hank and Myra’s. Their store was a block and a half from our home. It was a grocery store but it was also an after-school hangout, a refuge for girls from Marywood, the local women’s college, and, above all, the source of memorable hoagies.

I remember Hank and Myra also for their kindness and trust. Some days I would be walking home from school and Myra would stick her head out and say “Here Rich. Your Mom wants a quart of milk.” My Mom would pay for it the next time she came down.

I remember stories of local college girls who were short on money and hungry. Hank and Myra would spot them with a hoagie and soda, telling them they could pay when their parents’ check arrived. Myra would let the girls talk about loneliness, boyfriend problems etc. while Hank might be outside breaking up a fight.

I remember their penny candy case where wonderful treasures such as spearmint leaves and candy cigarettes and chewy squirrels would be found. Hank and Myra would let me make my own selections out of the case.

I remember delivering their mail once and Myra asking me if I wanted a soda — free!

Hank and Myra were not Catholic but when they retired my home church St. Clare’s honored them with a banquet in thanks for many years of service and kindness in a heavily Catholic neighborhood. They also were honored one year in the Marywood Yearbook.

Their store is no longer a grocery store but still sells hoagies and has maintained a bit of connection as it is named Hank’s Hoagies. I kind of wish they’d named it Hank and Myra’s.

Reflection: Do you have memories of being touched by the kindness of down-to-earth folks such as Hank and Myra?

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On the Right to Life

When one hears that term, one immediately assumes the speaker is referring to the issue of abortion. And indeed the issue of abortion is an important one for all spiritual people to address. However, I believe strongly that discussions of the right to life need to go far beyond the issue of abortion.

The right to life is a belief that should indeed address the unborn but it needs to address all of life!

A Right to Life dialogue should first of all speak to the entire life span. It should address the rights of the poor. The rights of the immigrant for a better life. The needs of the veteran for something as basic as a home as well as an opportunity to heal. The rights of the elderly to not be forgotten. The rights of the dying to do so with dignity and care.

A Right to Life dialogue should not stop with addressing human life. We humans have not done a good job of taking care of our fellow creatures and our environment. We have allowed and continue to allow greed to give us permission to kill off species of animals and to decimate our forests. Do wildlife not have a right to life too? Are we not called to respect the lives of the trees and the streams?

The Right to Life movement needs to address other politically “hot” issues such as gun control, the death penalty, and, most especially, war. If there is any pervasive human activity that threatens life, it is war, no matter how justified we might feel a given war to be. War affects people. With the many veterans I’ve worked with over the years, those who came to see the so-called enemy as a person have had deep struggles justifying their behavior and that of their government. The bottom line of a war is to kill as many people as possible. Is that not an affront to one’s right to life?

Jesus challenged us to consider who has a Right to Life. He focused on the poor and the displaced. He noted that the Jews of His day had a right to life but so did the Samaritans. His most powerful invitation to honor the rights of others to life was His command to love our enemy.

Loving my enemy may be a key to my embracing an attitude that life — all of life — is sacred. Yes, my loved ones have a right to life but so does the mean old man down the street. The veteran on the street corner. And, yes, even the murderer sitting in a jail cell.

I have no easy answers to the many complex issues addressed by considering a comprehensive right to life. All that I know is that my exploration of the issues needs to be guided by compassion, not judgment.

So I invite you to consider your own understanding of the term Right to Life and perhaps to expand it to embrace all of God’s creation.

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Your Spiritual Geneology

Ever since Alex Haley’s Roots appeared in the 1970s there has been increasing interested in geneology even to the point of television shows where a researcher studies the geneologies of current celebreties.

At a personal level, I have found nothing exciting or dramatic in my own geneology. My ancestors appear to manifest what Marcus Borg refers to as “the obscurity of humble lives”. However, when I stood on the dock in Cobh, Ireland and when I saw a replica of the ships that brought my ancestors here, it gave me a deeper appreciation for how much they suffered to get here and how much I owe to them.

I have also found that it can be interesting to create one’s own spiritual geneology, articulating not only ancestors’ religious affiliations but also any relevant beliefs. Sadly, all my grandparents were dead by the time I was 7 so I did not have the benefit of learning any of their spiritual journeys. But I have been able to fill in a few blanks.

My paternal grandfather was a convert to Catholicism, having been Presbyterian prior to that. I believe he converted so that he could marry my grandmother, a woman with deep Irish Catholic roots. As best I can tell, he remained a practicing Catholic all his life to include sending my father to Catholic schools.

I know a little more about my maternal grandfather. He raised 7 children by himself, having lost my grandmother to the flu epidemic of 1918-19. But, unlike many guilt-ridden Catholics, he went to confession only once a year on the Saturday before Holy Week. He would bathe, put on a suit, then go to the church. He obviously approached that sacrament in a way that was meaningful to him but not necessarily traditionally Catholic. Perhaps I inherited the gene to question from him. How he dealt with the death of my grandmother I don’t know but I suspect it was similar to how my mother dealt with the deaths of my sisters: “Some of us carry crosses heavier than others.”

I have written much about my mother’s faith. It was steel tested in the fires of tragic loss. I did and do not adhere to all her beliefs but have grown increasingly respectful of them.

My father, on the other hand, appears to have been affected by all that I dislike about religion . His journey appears to have been greatly shaped by guilt and fear such that, late in his life, he would comment that his series of strokes were “punishment for my sins.” I suspect he may have viewed the deaths of my sisters in the same way.

Our spiritual beliefs are shaped in many ways. The Linn brothers and Sheila Fabricant have suggested that in fact our image of the God of our understanding is very much shaped by our parents. Thus, if I had abusive parents, I might see God as punishing. If my parents were benevolent but uninvolved, I might see God in a similar way. This too is an important part of one’s spiritual geneology.

I am grateful for the confluence of beliefs that have played a role in my faith journey.

Reflection: What insights into your own journey come from your spiritual geneology?

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Excerpt from “Catholics and Gun Control”

My latest article is titled “Catholics and Gun Control” and appears in the current issue of St. Anthony Messenger. Here is an excerpt:

Some would argue that the issue of gun control is a political issue, not a moral one. And indeed politicians are everywhere visible these days. either arguing for the rights of gun owners or for the right to be safe. Much of it is rhetoric with no significant change.

Perhaps the morality exists at a larger level. Perhaps the issue isn’t so much about right and wrong as it is about trying to live a life that is consistent with Jesus’ message.

I believe that, to fully grasp the impact of Jesus’ revolutionary message, we have to read the entire Bible. What one sees working through the Old Testament is violence! Lots of it! And much of that violence is not only condoned by but caused by God! God is referred to among other things as “Lord of Heaven’s Armies”. God intervenes time and again to tilt the scales of battle on behalf of His Jewish nation. God leads Jews to victory time and again (except when they doubt or reject him). We cheer David’s killing of Goliath. We rejoice when Ester saves her Jewish people from genocide and the bad guy Haman is executed. But in the Old Testament there are also hints of what is coming. Isaiah, for example, calls to reflect on days to come when shields will be hammered into plowshares and swords into pruning hooks. Ecclesiastes notes that not only is there a time for war but a time for peace. At several points in the Old Testament. there is the hint of a future new order.

It is only within the context of the violence of the Old Testament that we can fully appreciate the remarkable power of Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. The focus is no longer on payback to our enemies. Jesus suggests something different.

If you would like to read the entire article, it is available at If you https://blog.franciscanmedia.org/sam/catholics-and-gun-control If you read the entire article, please come back here and share your reaction.

If you would be interested in your own copy, send me your address at <richp45198@aol.com> and I’ll send you a copy.

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