Facing Your Inner Grinch

I have to admit that, as a psychotherapist, I have never looked forward to the holiday season. It is a painful time for some, riddled with memories of family violence. Being deployed to a war zone and perhaps enemy fire. Or, in my case, death anniversary dates. As such, it is easy for me to lapse into a bah humbug attitude. It is easy for me to become the Grinch.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is my favorite Christmas show. And by the way I am referring ONLY to the cartoon version narrated by Boris Karloff, not any recent movies. It reminds me that I too can get very grinchy this time of year, mainly becoming cynical, muttering such things as “This season shows people at their worst, defining their worth in terms of stuff.”

Among other things, the Grinch challenges me to examine my heart for resentments as well as for self-pity. I often find plenty of both. But the Grinch also challenges me to open my heart for healing of those resentments and self-pity. For How The Grinch Stole Christmas is after all a redemption story. When the Grinch’s heart grows “three sizes that day”, he was redeemed from his life of self-centeredness and resentment. He found that also in his heart was generosity and a desire to be with people.

I know for many the birth of Christ is significant because He came to redeem us. I still don’t grasp what that means. But I do understand redemption. Any of us who have been freed from addiction know what redemption means. The Grinch helps me to remember and appreciate that I too have been redeemed.

The Grinch reminds me how I can easily isolate myself, especially from those whom I love and, more amazingly, who love me. He reminds me that, if I open myself to the reality that I indeed have “hands to clasp”, I will get a glimpse of the meaning of Christmas.

The Grinch reminds me of my capacity to judge others. He clearly views the people of Whoville to be greedy, only to have that judgement dramatically challenged. He is faced with evidence that he was wrong. He faces the need to make amends and gets to experience the joy of being welcomed and forgiven.

So the Grinch challenges me to by grateful that, as a counselor, I can be of service to people during a difficult time of year. He challenges me to open my heart to healing of resentments and self-pity. He challenges me especially to be grateful for the many hands to clasp with which I’ve been blessed, knowing that, even though those hands may be far away, I can clasp them in my heart.

So, in facing your Inner Grinch, don’t judge yourself. Rather be open to the healing and redemption that can come this time of year as you face your own resentments, your own self-pity, your own isolation. Celebrate the hands you have to clasp and remember what Mr. Karloff says at the end: “Christmas Day will always be/Just as long as we have we.”

Reflection: What is your Inner Grinch like?

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What Books Shall I Keep?

I am currently going through a process of downsizing at my office and that includes going through a fairly sizeable collection of books. Most I will donate. But the decision as to what to keep has been interesting if not moving. I realize the books that matter to me portray my spiritual journey. As you look at this list, you might reflect on which books have shaped your own journey

On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers. When I was in graduate school, I was disappointed to learn that the course in psychotherapy I was to take would focus on research not therapy! I turned to a fourth year grad student for a recommendation of something I could read that might be helpful in learning how to help others. In a grace-filled moment, he recommended this book by Rogers, a humanistic therapist whose work had some spiritual undercurrents. While my style of therapy has changed some, I have never forgotten Rogers’ basic philosophy about helping.

The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen. This book changed my life, gently directing me to face my own woundedness so that I would face my struggles with addiction.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. This book of poems was quite popular in the 70s but nowadays seems to be less well-known. The gentle poems point toward significant spiritual challenges. My wife still quotes the poem on children and letting go.

Alcoholics Anonymous.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. During the time I had stepped away from organized religion, Lewis helped me focus on what aspects of Christianity were still meaningful to me.

The Kingdom Within by John Sanford. This book helped me find a bridge between psychology and spirituality and helped me embrace the richness of Carl Jung’s approach to dreams. Two of the therapists I’ve seen over the years were Jungians.

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin. Recommended by a friend, this book helped me learn more about the rich traditions of Judaism, which I have come to see are at the heart of Christianity.

Jesus and Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh. The writings of this gentle Buddhist have enriched my journey in many ways. This book also helped in building a bridge between my own Catholicism and the richness of Buddhism. He also challenged me to embrace the jewels of my own tradition rather than simply looking elsewhere.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. This is my favorite among several I have read by this modern mystic. Her work has helped me embrace the spirituality inherent in nature.

Books from Modern Spiritual Masters collection. This series includes collections of the writings of several great spiritual thinkers, not all of them connected to religion. The ones I will keep include writings ranging from Abraham Joshua Heschel to Vincent Van Gogh.

When I look at my list, I also see gaps. Only one writer is Catholic. There is only one female on my list. I see there are still areas where I need to grow.

Reflection: In a similar situation, what books would you keep?

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The Long Thanksgiving Dinner 2022

Once again, my favorite holiday is here. And once again I reflect on who joins us and who has gone to to the Black Curtain. And once again I pause to be thankful.

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.

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. 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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Veterans’ Day 2022: A Piece of Paper

Veterans’ Day is certainly a day where we veterans pause and reflect on whatever time we spent in the military and in whatever capacity. What is in my thoughts and heart this year is what a humbling spiritual journey it has been. I am reminded of that by a piece of paper on my wall.

As I have previously written, I didn’t much like being a soldier and rebelled in all kinds of ways from not polishing my shoes to getting out as soon as possible. Since then, I have been humbled into seeing that perhaps my time in the military was part of God’s plan for me.

I went through an ROTC program with a bit of an attitude. As such, I was commissioned as an Infantry officer; however, the Army later decided I’d be of more use as an Army psychologist. To make that branch transfer, I owed them four years in return.

I’ve always thought God has an interesting sense of humor. It showed up early in my career in the Army. I attended Basic Officers School at Ft. Sam Houston. The first day I thought “MY bad attitude has caused nothing but problems.” so I thought I’d try a different approach. When asked for volunteers for the “”operations of the battalion”, I wrote I VOLUNTEER (the first and last time I did that in the Army!) They made me battalion commander.

My bad attitude didn’t completely disappear. One day I was to bring the battalion to a field at Camp Bullis for a training in communications. As per order, we were there at 7:30AM. The faculty showed up about 8:30 and gave a 15 minute lesson. I was then told we were dismissed. So, as I assembled the battalion, I stated we would march around the perimeter of the field. I then directed that, as we passed the faculty, we would starting whistling the Mickey Mouse Club theme. The battalion gleefully joined in and the faculty just shook their heads

In any case, we came to Ft. Bliss, I put in my 4 years, got out and moved on. I did decide to put my discharge certificate on the wall with my degree etc. “It can’t hurt” I thought. Little did I know what a role that piece of paper would play years later.

As my attitude about being a veteran softened, my work increasingly involved evaluating and treating veterans shattered emotionally and spiritually by war. I would hear stories of men and women courageously grasping at something to believe in, something to help them heal. I encountered men and women of deep faith as well as men and women who had turned away from any belief in a Higher Power. They challenged me to go even deeper into the issue of why bad things happen to good people.

I have dealt too with families who lost veterans to suicide and have learned that indeed our veterans feel apart from the rest of us and some, finding nowhere to fit in, choose to end their lives.

But back to the piece of paper on my wall. I am regularly reminded that the piece of paper somehow is helpful. Recently I sat with a young man struggling to tell me his story. He paused then saw my discharge. “Doc, you’re a veteran!” he said. As always I said “I am but I’m not a combat veteran.” He said “Doesn’t matter. You don’t know what a relief it is to be talking to another veteran” and he burst into tears.

Another veteran gifted me beautifully after seeing that paper. I told him I was a veteran but not a combat veteran. He stood up and said “Doesn’t matter. You’re a brother” and he gave me hug.

I hate war more than ever, having seen too much of what it does to the minds and spirits of men and women. I believe the existence of homeless veterans is a national scandal as is the rate of veteran suicides. Those issues can feel overwhelming, making it tempting to settle for a “Thank you for your service” and then go about our business.

So the next time you greet a veteran with a “Thank you for your service”, take a moment and ask “How are you doing?” That’s all many veterans want. Someone who is willing to listen.

When I look at that piece of paper nowadays, I am grateful and humbled. Looks like God knew what He/She was doing.

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The Truth Is Out There (Maybe)

I am reading yet another book titled “The Four Agreements” (a very good book, by the way) in which the writer Miguel Ruiz posits what he has come to experience as The Truth. I have read many such books over the years. I suppose that, if someone were to do what the scientists call a meta-analysis of these books, there would be consistent themes that would emerge.

Some years ago, I had a recurring dream in which I was in a bookstore, library, etc. searching for THE BOOK that would have all the answers. I would never find that book.

I have obviously sought The Truth in religions. My own Catholic faith has long presented itself as the One True Religion. Yet even at a young age, I would have questions, doubts, and aspects of Catholicism that didn’t work for me. So I would continue to search.

As I approach my 75th year, I have come to realize that, if The Truth is out there, I won’t be finding it, at least not in one place. I may get glimpses or pieces, sometimes through something I read or perhaps some life experience. In a way, I envy those who believe they have a hold of The Truth yet I have come to accept that my path is one of continued seeking. I will continue to read, whether it is the Bible or a Buddhist tome. I will continue to read the likes of Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard Thich Nhat Hahn, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, grateful for “ah ha” moments I might receive.

I have come to see that, the older I get, the more questions I have. Questions such as whether there is a God and, if so, what role does He/She play in our daily lives, our purpose in being here, why bad things happen to good people and so on. This is not fake humility. I really don’t know and so I keep looking!

My searching is not without benefit. Henri Nouwen once wrote that God is so beyond us that all we can hope for is a glimpse of a piece of God. No Truth. Just a hint. So I do not believe that my years of seeking have futile. I believe I have experienced a few hints of The Truth.

I do also believe that there is a danger in believing one has The Truth. It then becomes easier to judge others, since they DON’T have The Truth. What’s worse, as history tells us, it becomes tempting for the holders of the Truth to force their Truth on others or to attempt to eliminate non-believers. At the very least, if we explore alternate beliefs, we run the risk of judgment. I remember doing a presentation to a Church group once. I was talking about the feminine side of God and read the 23rd Psalm, substituting She for every He. I thought it added a poetic dimension but was soundly criticized for such “New Age” thinking. It is a small step for the possessors of Truth to see those who question as not only wrong but dangerous.

I have a page in my journal titled “Things I Believe to Be True”. It’s not a long list.

So I have come to accept that I won’t find The Truth, at least in this world or lifetime. I have also come to accept that perhaps I’m not meant to find the Truth. We seekers, after all, play a vital role in the whole shared spiritual journey we are on.

“What is it you’re looking for?’ someone once asked me. I can ramble about Truth etc. But my real answer comes from a poem written by test pilot John Magee Jr. Mind you, I have never flown an airplane and in fact have no desire to. But his words somehow capture for me the goal of the soaring heights of a spiritual quest;

High Flight
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds … and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of … wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

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Dreams and the Spiritual Path

As John Sanford observed in his book The Kingdom Within, in biblical times dreams were viewed as a vehicle through which God would speak to us. That view has faded some and for a time was replaced thanks to Freud. Dreams became manifestations of unconscious themes and therefore were the stuff of psychoanalysis.

Freud’s colleague Carl Jung developed a much more rich view of dreams, drawing upon cultural traditions to develop his theory of archetypes. He also developed rich techniques for mining the wisdom of dreams.

Nowadays dreamwork seems to be a less common facet of psychotherapy much less spiritual journeys. I would like to suggest that dreams can still be a rich resource on your spiritual journey, offering a mirror that may not always reflect something back to you that you like. Sometimes our unconscious mind and God working through there can point something out to us that we might not like hearing.

I recall a dream I had when I was reading Jung’s Man and His Symbols, which has many case studies including Big Dreams, i.e., dreams reflecting a major theme in one’s life. In this dream I was travelling to the center of the earth! How profound is that? Bur I was taking an elevator and when I got to the center of the earth, I did not find the Philosopher’s Stone. I found a hot dog wit thorns in it. I was consulting with a Jungian therapist at the time and eagerly took the dream to him, thinking it showed I was a Deep Thinker. Using Jung’s technique of active imagination, he invited my associations to the image of “hot dog”. I began to become uneasy. Finally, he suggested that “hot dog” could be a term for someone showing off. Needless to say, I did not like this interpretation.

The joke was on me! I had my Big Dream. It showed that at that time in my life I wanted all the spiritual and psychological benefits of the journey but without the struggle. Ouch! It was on target. Years later, I was reminded to be careful what you pray for. I’d had my Big Dream after all.

Current theories of dreams tend to view them as “day residue” — leftovers from our day or reflections of current worries. Dreams are also recognized to be the repositories for traumas. Thus, not every dream is a Big Dream. Yet sometimes we have a dream, even a nightmare, that demands our attention.

Some people keep dream journals, which can be helpful; however, if we start writing down and analyzing every single dream we have, the results are overwhelming. So it is more helpful to pay attention to those dreams that stay with us.

I recall a midlife dream I had. I was hiking out in the Guadalupes and had a walking stick. This stick, however, was not something I found by the side of the road. It was a work of art — sanded and polished. I came to a bridge and, in a scene right out of Robin Hood was met by an ugly threatening man. I knew that to cross the bridge I would have to battle this man, who also had a stick. But before I stepped out onto the bridge, I set down my stick because I didn’t want it to get banged up.

The dream stayed with me. I realized the stick was a key symbol. At one point, as I was trying to discern its meaning by sculpting some clay, I had the thought of power. Then the words came to me “Your power is in your gifts.” I had been considering pursuing writing during this time but kept putting it off. The dream confronted me with the fear that kept me from embracing creativity. I was afraid of being criticized and even rejected. I accepted the dream’s and God’s confrontation and took up the pen. I had my first book published a year later.

If you chose to include dreamwork on your spiritual journey, I recommend you do some reading to include Sanford’s and Jung’s books. Do NOT rely on popular dream dictionaries. You may also want to find a spiritual guide who is open to the power of dreams..

Suppose Jung, Sanford, and others are right. Suppose, just as in Biblical times, my dreams are a pathway to connect with God’s guidance. How sad if I don’t take the time to listen!

Reflection: Do dreams play a part in your spiritual journey? Have you had any Big Dreams?

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Heroic Women of the Bible

As I work my way through the Bible for what I believe is the ninth time, I am again struck by the presence of heroic women and am also struck by how my Church has minimized the role of women. I am not a Biblical scholar and am aware that there has been some excellent scholarly works on women of the Bible. For me, my awareness of the role of women in the Bible had been limited to Catholicism’s attention to Mary the Mother of Jesus. Further, my understanding of Mary Magdalene was limited and quite possibly inaccurate. Here then are some heroic women I have met reading the Bible:

  1. Esther. I don’t believe I knew who Esther was until I read her book in the Bible for the first time. What a dramatic story of a courageous woman who uses her position at great risk to protect her Jewish community! She had the opportunity to hide behind her position, hiding her own Jewishness and standing by while her husband wiped out the Jewish community. Instead she used her position to ensure the protection of her people and the deaths of those who had conspired against her people. I thought then that it would make a great movie.
  2. Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdelene has had a bad reputation. There is now reason to believe that she was never a prostitute but rather a leader of the early church and that the label of prostitute was later applied to minimize her significance as an early Church leader. Others have minimized her significance to Jesus. Her reputation has not been helped by stories such as The DaVinci Code. In fact, there is good reason to believe that she was a leading force in the early days after Christ’s death and resurrection. After all, she did not run away when Jesus was crucified. As to her relationship with Jesus, that remains open to speculation. The uncovering of the Gospel of Thomas adds to that speculation but also illustrates her significant leadership.
  3. Rahab is a prostitute in Jericho. Two spies of Joshua seek her protection. She agrees to do so, recognizing the power of their faith and redirects soldiers of Jericho when they come to her establishment searching for the spies. She then helps the spies escape. When the Israelites invade Jericho, she and her family are spared.

One other observation about Rahab. She is an early example of a theme that runs throughout the Bible. There are many we would label as sinners who act with courage and integrity. People like Rahab are the same class of people with whom Jesus dines. He selects the likes of a tax collector to be a disciple. He reaches out to a thief, promising him a place in heaven as they hang on crosses. Were she around at the time of Jesus, Rahab would have a place at His table.

These are only a few of the heroic women of the Bible. Eve is heroic because she does not try to defend herself when Adam tries to blame her for the apple incident. Sarah is heroic as she leaves her home to accompany her husband to a strange land. Deborah leads the Israelites into battle. The woman at the well speaks to Jesus and then does not get defensive when He speaks to her about her past. Women stand by Jesus’ cross while the men flee.

These and other women of the Bible stand as a challenge to the lingering paternalism and sexism of the Catholic Church. They challenge us men to look within to see if we too harbor some ecclesiastical bias.

Reflection: What women in the Bible or other sacred scripture do you find interesting and inspiring?

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A Successful Marriage

My wife and I once had a discussion of what contributes to a successful marriage. We (mainly she) came up with : respect, good communication, and a good sex life.

When I respect someone, I speak to them in a way that honors their dignity and humanness. I do not attack or name-call. I treat their opinion as valid even if I don’t agree. I honor their physical and emotional boundaries. I do my best to support their path of growth even if it creates inconvenience for me. Although I may know their vulnerable spots, I do not poke those spots either out of anger or a poor attempt to be funny.

The most difficult part of good communication is listening. When I listen, I don’t simply sit silently and stare. I ask questions to clarify. I may reflect back what I am hearing to ensure its accuracy. I don’t interrupt.

Good communication also means that I try to express my thought and feeling without attacking or blaming the other person.

This does not mean that good communication does not involve arguing. It does! The problem with arguing is not that couples argue but how they argue. The goal of a fight is to solve a problem, perhaps to compromise. The goal is not to win or be right. The kinds of behaviors that throw couples off track and into something ugly include: name-calling, bringing up the past, and blaming. Couples need to also avoid fighting when one or both have been using alcohol.

Good fighting involves accepting responsibility and acknowledging the other person’s point. It involves admitting when I am feeling defensive. If necessary, it involves taking a time out so that I can calm down.

Finally, good communication involves talking about mutual needs. Some years ago, my wife and I were going through a bad time. She asked me a good question: “What are your needs?” I thought for a moment then said “Well, other than that I apparently have a great need to meet other people’s needs, I don’t know.” She made the perfect response: “Well, when you figure out what your needs are, please let me know because I’m very interested in trying to meet them.” Good for her! Only I can figure out my own needs but couple’s often get into expecting one another to mind-read each other’s needs.

Regarding sex, I’ve noticed that many couple’s have trouble talking about sex — their wants, what they enjoy, what they don’t enjoy, what they’re interested in trying. As such, there is much room for misunderstanding and hurt feelings. For some couples, sex becomes a focus for all their difficulties. For example, resentments get expressed through sex.

Another phenomenon that I see is the sexless marriage not due to illness but simply due to life style. I remember one couple. Both were in their 30s. They were very attractive professional people with no children. When I asked them how often they had sex, they said maybe once a month. They both acknowledged being interested in more sex but stated that professional busyness led to time limitations and fatigue. I made a suggestion that some couples do not like– scheduled sex. Of course, we all really like spontaneous, tearing off clothes sex. But I always argue that scheduled sex is better than no sex!

I have been fortunate to have been married 52 years to an extraordinary woman. We have had our struggles. At one point, we looked at separating. But I believe we have never stopped working at it. A successful marriage is much like sobriety. Keep trying — a day at a time.

Reflection: What are your thoughts on what makes a marriage successful?

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On The Shakers

On the Shakers

Posted on January 2, 2017 by richp45198

Image result for sister frances carr

I recently had the joy of visiting the Shaker Village at Sabbathday Lake in Maine. It is beautiful in its simplicity and dedicated to sustainability among many spiritual virtues. I wanted to repost this piece in their honor.

Sister Frances Carr died recently. I never met her but did have one exchange with her. She was one of the last of the Shakers. I first saw Sister Frances in a documentary on the Shakers. At one point, images of her cooking are interfaced with a nearby auction of highly valued Shaker furniture. Oprah Winfrey ends up winning one bid. Sister Frances then reflects on the auctions, noting that it is often said that it rains on auctions days. She observes with a catch in her throat “Some say it is the old Shakers crying.” Their furniture, beautiful in its simplicity, was never meant to bring in riches.

After seeing that video, I grew to admire the Shakers. Their spirituality was simple and straight forward and is reflected with sayings such as “Hands to work. Hearts to God.” and the more well-known “Tis a gift to be simple. Tis a gift to be free.” I think that is one aspect of the Shakers that draws me. Their approach to life is based on hard work, simplicity, and welcome. To this day, visitors who wish to come to Sabbathday Lake where Sister Frances lived and who wish to join in the work or simply reflect are all welcome.

I also feel drawn to their commitment to pacifism and to their commitment to meaningful roles and leadership for women, lessons that other more mainline religions would do well to note.

There were at one time as many as 6000 Shakers in the U.S. due in part to the Shakers welcoming of orphaned children. As Child Welfare laws changed, so did this source for membership. In addition, the Shakers commit to a celibate life. As such, there are only a handful of Shakers left.

Legend has it that composer Aaron Copeland was driving in upper New York state and overheard a hymn coming from a Shakers’ church. Copeland adapted that hymn and it became a centerpiece of his great Appalachian Springtime. The hymn is known as “Simple Gifts”. The hymn and its many adaptations live on as part of the Shaker legacy.

No, I am not a Shaker. I lack the self-discipline. I also think too much. But the Shakers have a treasured place in my spiritual tapestry, in part because they remind me always that perhaps my relationship with God need not be so complicated and so troublesome and that freedom can indeed be found in simplicity.

Reflection:  Do you see a need for simplicity in your own spiritual journey?

Here then is a version “Simple Gifts” that I love for its simplicity.

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On Blue Collar Roots

On a shelf in my office is a large piece of coal. It is there as a reminder of where I come from and where my roots are. Those roots are solidly amidst what is now referred to as “blue collar” workers, i.e., men and women who wore work shirts not white shirts. My blue collar roots include coal miners.

Several of my male relatives started out as coal miners. Some got out. One of my uncles became a fireman. My great grandfather became a cobbler. Another uncle didn’t make it out, dying of black lung disease.

My father picked slate from coal heaps when he was a boy. He had a high school education and worked for a trucking company as a claims adjuster. We would go back to work with him in the evening and play hide and seek on the freight docks with truck drivers named Jake or Skinny or Buddy.

Part of what I learned from these blue collar folks has to do with work. I grew up with an understanding that that’s what you do. You work, preferably starting at a young age. Thus I had my first job when I was 14. That job was golf caddy. It lasted one day. I got there at 6AM and did not get called until 4 PM. I then lugged some woman’s golf clubs around for two plus hours and got paid $.50! Thankfully a parish priest got me a job at the library of a local college.

In subsequent years through high school and college, I worked as a mailman (a job I loved!). I also worked in a plastics factory where most of the men were missing fingers from plastics presses. I worked in a paint factory. I met many people who taught me a lot about hard work and enduring boredom. Like the steel worker in Stud’s Terkel’s Working, these people were working so that their children could have a better future than they did.

What became important to those men and women was that their sons and daughters would go to college. I remember what a big deal it was when my cousin Bob Ruane (son of my uncle who died of black lung disease) graduated from college, the first in my mother’s family to do so. Similarly, it was important to my aunt who ran an elevator at the electric company that I attend the local Jesuit high school rather than the parish one.

These blue collar men and women were usually people of faith, drawing on that faith to persist in trying to build a life for their families. They sometimes coped in other ways too. Thus many of my blue collar relatives were two-fisted drinkers.

I am aware that the work I do now as a psychologist has its own inherent meaning and rewards. I am aware of how fortunate I have been to receive the education that I did. I understand that I am more than what I do but the fact is that, for most of us, what we do becomes a major part of who we are. Thus, the discomfort that can come with retirement.

I am grateful to all the blue collar men and women who made it possible for me to have a better life. Here is a poem celebrating my blue collar roots

At The Old Folks

So now you know.

This is where we old coal miners come.

Maloney Home.

Oh it’s not so bad.

The sisters …they feed us well.

Nurse us when we’re sick.

Bury us when it’s time.

But here’s the joke.

Somewhere in the bowels of this building

A boiler room works day and night to keep us warm.

That boiler runs on coal.

But they won’t let me go down there.

I who know so much about those black rocks.

They won’t let me go down there anymore.

They say I might get hurt.

That’s the joke.

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