Underneath my 1974 high school senior yearbook photo I wrote the following caption, “Fear is the enemy, trust is the armor!”, after hearing that expression by Shaolin Temple Master Po to his student Kwai Chang Caine during an episode of the popular television series “Kung Fu.” My photo is very forgettable, but that phrase has stayed with me for almost fifty years. I loved that program, as I had great interest in martial arts and the Eastern philosophy behind it. Only one other phrase from that program has stayed with me all those years, that one spoken by Master Kan to the same young Caine: “Sometimes a stranger known to us for a moment can spark our souls to kinship for eternity.” That is the essence of this post.
In August of last year, I drove up to Saint Benedict Abbey with my radio co-host and dear friend, Dan Duddy (and his wife, Maura), so that he and I could lead a retreat for men in the area of Harvard/Still River, Massachusetts. We received the invitation from Mary Ann Harold, founder of EWTN affiliate WQPH Radio, the station and platform that hosts our “13th Apostle” program. We had a wonderful experience! One reason for that outcome stems from the spark of such a friendship as described above, with Deacon Chuck Kelley.
In the days leading up to the retreat, Deacon Chuck called me to offer his assistance in preparation for our gathering and throughout it, noting that he would also participate as a retreatant. His offer of service testifies to the purpose of his diaconate as defined by the Church: “Deacons are ordained as a sacramental sign to the Church and to the world of Christ, who came ‘to serve and not to be served’” (emphasis added). While we knew about the good Deacon as a colleague because he, too, hosted a program on WQPH, we did not know him let alone share a friendship.
As my car approached our destination on that warm Friday evening, we marveled at the created beauty all around us: God’s, attested to by the rolling hills of many colors, and man’s, by the beautiful architecture of the Abbey (some parts dating back to the 17th century). Both gave glory to the Creator and brought to mind Psalm 65:
“You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing…”
As we emerged from the car, we received a warm greeting by Father Augustine Senz, a monk of the Abbey and one whose titles include “Guestmaster.” His friendly welcome made me understand that title. Soon after that introduction Deacon Chuck arrived, at which point the good Father ushered us into the Abbey kitchen where we broke our fast with a delicious meal prepared by the monks. Good conversation accompanied our meal, and I began to get a better sense of our colleague.
Early the next morning, I walked out to the far edge of the driveway and took a much longer look at the created beauty of forests, floral meadows and more rolling hills near and far. These moments are special and necessary, because the imminent burdens of our daily lives often obscure our recognition of the transcendent, the Divine, and therefore interfere with our relationship with it, a relationship that brings joy to our life and gives it a deeper meaning and purpose. Among The Transcendentals, Beauty evokes an immediate and overwhelming response from our whole being–but not one of comprehension. So, this reality is, like a mystery, something that we can perceive but not yet–or ever– fully describe or understand. Saint Thomas Aquinas and others put the theological stamp on Plato’s pagan philosophy, explaining that the Transcendentals are attributes of God and help communicate Himself to humanity and thus help to divinize His greatest creation (1 John 3:1-3; 2 Peter 1:3-4). The Divine surely communicated with us during this retreat.
Soon, Deacon Chuck joined me in the driveway, and after a minute of silent awe as we took in the scenery, he simply said, “The Shire…”. He could not know the impact of that comment on me or the prophetic nature of it, but he soon would. A kindred spirit? Perhaps.
I often use music to accompany my retreat presentations and witnessing, because its beauty helps move my message deeper into the listener. That’s important, since all participants in a retreat should give something of themselves and receive something of the others. We should walk away from a retreat richer because of that exchange of gifts. We don’t just sit passively to someone giving a lecture. Very different!
In my morning offering, titled “The Unsung Hero,” Deacon Chuck graciously loaned us his speaker system and agreed to press the “play” button at my signal. Not long after my opening remarks I gave him the nod, and as soon as he heard the opening violin strains of “Samwise the Brave,” from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”, he smiled knowing that we both recalled his “Shire” remark just a few minutes back. Kindred spirits, indeed.
I opened the afternoon session with a much more personal witness, one that required a painful self-offering (as did Dan, to close out the day) but one that also testified to the blessings that result from trusting in God. At the conclusion, I moved toward my seat; but before I could get there, our “servant” had moved toward me to give me a strong hug and a brief prayer, gifts of great consolation to the desolation revealed within my presentation. Kindred spirits and friends.
Two months later, Deacon Chuck accepted my invitation to visit New Jersey and give his witness to the men of “Sons of the Father,” a group that I had started at Discovery House under the spiritual direction of Monsignor Michael Mannion. I titled this retreat “Jacob: Wrestling with God,” and selected eight men to testify about their wrestling experience. The Deacon accepted my invitation, and at his turn he described his struggles about his father’s death and his discernment of a call to the diaconate. He affected all of us, but none more than my dear friend Jim because of his long struggle with the unexpected death of his middle-aged father and with the “God” he said, “who took him from me.” Two months after that, Deacon Chuck again made the trek to New Jersey, this time to witness to that same group for our Advent retreat.
During both visits, he stayed at my house and would lead us in prayer with the Divine Office Liturgy of the Hours. In the evenings, we would engage in spirited and wide-ranging conversations about faith, doctrine and Sacred Scripture and how to live faithfully and pastorally in a messy and complicated world. As a faithful and ordained son of his Mother the Church, Deacon Chuck dutifully hews his positions to its Catechism, the most comprehensive and consequential manual of answers that emphasize how one can live a moral life (he lives such a life). He tends to see life as a bit more black and white than I do, and therefore emphasizes justice over mercy (by, say, 51% to 49%). As a pastoral theologian, I prefer to emphasize the “queen of sciences” because it asks the great questions that emphasize why one should live a moral life, especially in a world replete with gray. So, mercy over justice (51% to 49%). These slight differences no doubt result from the differences in our personality and training.
We absolutely should “preach to the choir”, because believers in the Gospel need encouragement and support to also become better doers of the Gospel message (e.g., Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy). But I also know that, increasingly, too many people have not entered a church let alone its choir to learn the “how” because they have no understanding of the “why”.
So, we presented each other with scenarios to play out and questions to answer, arguing the matter and each other upward to God in the spirit of the Latin arguere,“to make bright and to lighten” our way to the truth.
Here are some of the questions we posed:
- If God willed Jesus’s passion and death, then did Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot help to fulfill God’s will?
- Is Hell empty?
- Why do we disparage Barabbas, when he fought the Roman oppression just as Moses fought the Egyptian oppression and just as Americans fought the English oppression–and killed people in the process?
I don’t often have these types of conversations, probably because most people do not want to wrestle with matters of faith that they think are both settled and self-evident truths. I can think of Dan, Jim, and my great theology mentor Joseph Gower as able partners. But the empty pews of churches and synagogues coupled with the increasing misery in our youth and rampant deaths of despair urge a response from those who remain inside to those outside, to give as St Peter taught: “…a reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15). So, my dear friend has proven his mettle by willingly, thoughtfully, and lovingly engaging with me, in the belief that we can not only bring each other upward to God but bring others along with us.
I have many reasons for gratitude, and one of them is technology such as Zoom. Because thanks to that technical breakthrough, I can continue to argue upward with my friend even though he and his family have moved much further away after he discerned a call to join the EWTN enterprise in the Deep South of Irondale, Alabama. That move took courageous faithfulness, especially from loved ones who perhaps responded only to his call.
As Jesus prepared his disciples for life without his physical presence, he gave them a definition of friendship unlike anything known before or since (John 15:15), and then modeled it with the greatest example of love ever imagined (John 15:17). My deacon friend has lived that definition and that example, to the glory of God and the benefit of all in his life. Argue Upward!
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