The Freighter, the Great Lakes and God

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Spring is usually a longed-for season of the year. It represents the verge of warmer days, though just gradually.   At the same time it hints at the diminishment of snowfall, if not instantly and completely, at least slowly and partially. And it teases inhabitants of northern climes with little green shoots struggling up through the ground. All in all, it is the epitome of promise.

Promises, of course, are not always kept. Or, at least, not always kept promptly or completely. And, when that happens, it is often accompanied by the qualifying phrase: “What I meant by that promise was…”   With reference back to the weather system again, what the weather man or woman must often do is qualify the promise of spring with the cautionary remark: “…this is not how it OUGHT to be…”

Now, in addition to mother nature’s signs of spring’s arrival, there are other indications to fall back upon, depending on the part of the country in which one lives. One might be the reduction in size of the rocksalt piled up throughout the city by the Streets and Sanitation department, signaling that much of the winter has passed, since the salt used to cope with the snowfalls on the streets has already been reduced in size, suggesting that it’s unlikely to be needed in any significant way in the coming days. Or, bundled-up fishermen and women head out to the waterways in their part of the country to catch great amounts of small smelt fish in their nets, one of the reliable signs that, regardless of the cold, spring is at hand.

In the Midwest, one such waterway is the Great Lakes system forming borders of several states. The lakes are good, not just for smelt fishing. They’re also good for transporting: raw materials like iron ore and limestone from places like Duluth Minnesota to reprocessing plants in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. They can be large ships, as big as ocean-going vessels. They are a key component in the chain of plants representing various stages of the manufacturing process so central to the economy of a nation such as the U.S.

And it is interesting to note that they are a key element in another aspect of this interlocking system of heavy industry: the movement phase of raw material, from one part of the country, to another. Key components in heavy industry have to be transported from one part of the country to another, and much of this occurs on the waterways provided by the Great Lakes. And it is these large freighters that move these raw materials from one part of the lake system to the smelting and refining process found at another part of the Lake.

It is this background that provides another way of noting the arrival of spring, at least for those living in and around the Great Lakes. It is based on the inter-lake transport carried on by these large freighters as they ply their way from one part of this waterway system to another. For during the winter season these ore carriers, big and powerful as they are, are unable to make their way through this water system because of the freezing temperature conditions that prevail in the upper reaches of the Great Lakes. This results in a formidable sheet of thick ice covering the surface of the entire lake (Superior), preventing its usefulness as a waterway. Not even ice-breakers can make their way through this daunting ice mass, in effect ending any commerce on the lake(s) for the three/four months of the winter season.

The inhabitants living around these waterways grow accustomed, during this period of time, to nothing but ice sheets covering the surface of the lake(s) as far as the eye can see. There’s not much to be done but to accept it with more or less resignation.

But as their calendars, hanging on the kitchen walls, signal the move through February and onto March (definitely, into April) the hardy folk walking the footpaths around the lake begin to cast an eye toward the horizon enfolding the lake to see what is worth noting at this time of the year, and, eventually, the eye will blink once or twice to refocus its gaze on what begins to take shape on the lake’s surface: the silhouette of a giant slow-moving freighter several miles out in the waterway, making its ponderous way south, toward the elaborate system of factories dotting the far end of the lake system, that have been dormant for several months, waiting for the first arrival of hopefully many such ships hauling cargo to their destination point.

Thereby, for this part of the country, the first signs of spring have emerged. It’s not the song of a bird, or the sight of one with a straw in its beak, nor a blade of grass peeping from the unforgiving ground, nor the shape of a pod on the tree limb above the pathway, nor a bulb struggling out of the ground. None of these are as significant a sign of spring for this part of the country as the slow-moving massive shape of a freighter bearing down on the dock ahead. The good news is out that the waterway is open, for freight-transport is underway. The factories can fire up, the work force can gear up, for another productive manufacturing season.

There’s no need for the nest-building robin, or the budding tree, or the peeping blade of grass to provide an incontrovertible sign of spring so long as the prow of a massive lake freighter majestically overcoming the formidable ice obstruction left behind it as it makes its way toward a familiar port and docking berth to provide the raw material for starting the manufacturing cycle once again. Overcoming the ice mass is as much a sign of God in action as other indications of spring’s arrival.

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained*

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

It is interesting to note the skittishness that plagues a squirrel in its response to a delicious nut held out to it by a passerby. Operating at one and the same time within the squirrel is a dynamic thrust forward on its part to reach that nut, and a powerful impulse backward, evident in its quivering leg muscles, to escape the slightest indication of a threatening blow or attack on it, by something near at hand. The onlooker observes with interest how this combination of opposites works itself out. What will happen? Will the desire to eat and enjoy win out, or will the vehement intent to escape harm and avoid injury prevail? The poor squirrel is the victim of contrary forces at work within its high-strung system. Some say that fear of pain trumps anticipation of delight in animals.

This is an apt illustration of how temptation works within us, or on us. We are simultaneously stretched or pulled in two opposite directions by the fascinating impact of temptation on us. Is it more likely that we will ultimately disregard the danger or the penalty involved as a price too high to pay, or will we push forward toward what looms before us as a tempting reward? There is a gamble involved here, and we can only guess (and hope?) at the outcome. But, as the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. But of course there is the counter acknowledgment that nothing ventured, nothing lost.

An inveterate gambler leans toward “taking a chance”. Of course, if this is purely chance, with no semblance of skill or experience whatsoever at play in this exercise, the odds against success in attempting to do so loom large. But if there is a minute indication of gaining out of this exercise, (for instance, I have a history of success at this particular table, wheel or machine) the likelihood of gain rather than loss is increased, at least a bit. But lacking such background, the prospect of loss looms larger.

And yet, despite all these cautions about being venturesome, some people (probably more so than animals) relish the thrill of venturing into the unknown and even the dangerous. Some who do so admittedly bring a considerable amount of precaution into such activity. If it allows of “practice”, then they carefully anticipate the moves that promise to reduce the threats involved, including those designed to soften the impact of “failure” in such attempts.

While there is a personality trait facilitating the venture into the dangerous or the unknown terrains of life (the daredevil type of person), accompanied by the “thrill” experienced in doing so, there is also the “inventor” type personality that seeks to improve upon our standard ways of doing things. The rest of us benefit by the successes of some of these creative people who invent new and better ways of doing familiar things. The inventor type does not necessarily take chances in “tinkering” with alternatives. Rather, they resemble benefactors or “do-gooders” whose efforts often redound to the benefit of the rest of us. Alexander Graham Bell illustrates this type of person in laying the foundations for our modern phone system. The Wright Brothers showed remarkable tenacity in working on the primitive forerunner of the contemporary airplane. And the field of electronics in our own era has exploded with the geniuses of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who have provided us the smart phone and its facsimiles.

They all illustrate the wisdom of the adage: nothing ventured, nothing gained. And we, as well as they, have been enriched by their venturesomeness. This is the “gain” won by the venture. Of course, there are likely more failures and fiascos resulting from these explorations into the unknown than there are successes, but the thrill or satisfaction experienced by the successful entrepreneur attracts our attention more than the failures.

Though these inventors, for such they are, need not only a venturesome spirit, they also need a steely resolve to endure multiple failures, often experienced by themselves alone in the privacy of their basements. Christopher Columbus and his crews on the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were true adventurers as they headed out across the Atlantic ocean, unsure as to their destination and their resources to gain it. Those of us who currently live in that part of the world that they “discovered” do indeed live in a “new world” that has proven highly adventurous in endowing the world at large with a flood of creative ideas that have proven extremely beneficial to scores of generations. It is likely that some of this creative spirit that drove Columbus and his companions has proven contagious across the ages and “infected” many of us with the same drive embodied in the exclamation EXCELSIOR.

*(Benjamin Franklin, author of Poor Richard’s Almanac)

When the Rubber Hits the Tarmac

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Should we give of our surplus goods (so that I or mine experience no harm in doing so), or should we give until it hurts us (because I suffered some sense of personal or family deprival in doing so)? Behind these questions of course is GIVING. Do we give, should we give?

Americans have acquired a reputation over a long period of time of being givers. Tipping is one instance of it, and is usually identified as an American trait. Tipping was not a practice common in Europe or Asia during the war years, for understandable reasons. As a result, merchants and service people always liked it when Americans entered their establishments. Eventually, unfortunately, this sense of hopefulness at having an American exploring one’s store or store front in search of merchandise gave way to another kind of profile of us as the ugly American: one demanding that he or she be treated deferentially and respectfully precisely because we were Americans to whom others owed a lot for all that we had done for them. And we often became critics of what they had to offer us.

Is giving something unique to Americans, but seldom associated with others? When we give, is there an implicit hook attached to the action, designed to gain for ourselves the admiration of others and preferential treatment from them as beneficiaries of our beneficence? If so, would this not be like an investment or payback that we hope proves beneficial for ourselves? Or are there some things money cannot buy?

Nonetheless, likely most of us do tip (for a service received), or, just as frequently, given out of our surplus in recognition of something good and beneficial associated with doing so. And this is praiseworthy, and not to be belittled. But it may sometimes be associated with the attitude, “easy come, easy go”, with the emphasis on “easy”. And it need not always involve money. It may entail clothing, furniture, tools, machinery, or even a service of some kind or other. Even the practice of picking up hitchhikers, now generally discontinued, was often an instance of offering a service to others. But It usually comes down to giving away what we no longer need or want or value. Likely these examples probably describe what does not put us at any disadvantage, or hamper our plans. But they are all commendable practices, and likely serve to bond people together, who otherwise may have remained strangers to one another. And even though we may experience no sense of loss or deprivation as a result of our doing them, it can mean very much to the person who is the beneficiary of our largesse.

However, when it comes to giving to another, to the point where it hurts us in some form or fashion, then that’s when the rubber hits the tarmac, as we say. We don’t like imposing hurtful things on our lifestyle, or on our plans, or on our sense of well-being. And, especially, if we are married and have a family, we don’t want to impose hurtful things on them, such as downsizing our family vacation plans to help a relative or neighbor in need. In such cases we extend whatever inconvenience is involved, on those who are near and dear to us.

Nor do we like being generous to another when it involves a request from him or her, for help, in the form of money. If we don’t know the person, and if we have an unfavorable impression of them, we may wonder about their integrity in this transaction, as well as the prudence of doing so when there is doubt about the truthfulness of what they are telling us about their need. If it is a matter of spare change, we may somewhat cavalierly pass on to them what we do not need, despite our doubts. It may possibly prove helpful to another. And we may nurture an attitude of indifference in how he or she is going to use the money I give them.

And others of us may have no sense of urgency to respond to any of these opportunities to respond in these situations, reasoning that they are already over-taxed by various levels of governmental agencies, seeking revenue for various programs some of which I dislike and do not wish to support. As a result, I may consistently refuse to financially support any appeal for help.

Giving can be a complicated affair. It can involve the wrong attitude, the wrong kind of issue, or the wrong person making the request. And it raises the perennial question good people periodically put to God: why does He seem to bless or at least tolerate those who are obviously not good persons? Why do the wicked prosper, receiving good things like health, reputation, honor, esteem, recognition, praise?

This age-old question has been asked over and over again. The answer lies in the recognition that God knows that the good will ultimately prevail. He enjoys an advantage in that regard. The disaster that His Son underwent on Good Friday and that threw the apostles into a quivering mass of hide-aways hoping to escape discovery was followed by Easter Sunday, and this was not happenstance. God, if no one else, knew that the resurrection was near at hand, to rectify what seemed like the triumph of evil. That was the advantage God enjoyed in allowing His Son to suffer a travesty of justice. That is an advantage we obviously do not enjoy. But it throws light on all the potential mishaps to which we are liable as we work our way through the maze of options we encounter in trying to help the good prevail amid the deceptions and mistakes affecting our efforts at doing the right thing for the right persons or causes. A silver lining can always appear around the malingering dark cloud.

Restoration and Healing

Dave O'Donnell
Dave O’Donnell

Reflection on Gospel Reading for Sunday March 6

In John’s Gospel just before Jesus heals, or is it cures the blind man: “His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.’” (JN 9:2-3)

The common belief in those times was that good fortune was the reward for good works and bad fortune was caused by sin. Many people believe this even today. For those people, God doles out retribution or reward. The god in this story is a restorative god, one that heals for love’s sake only. That is the mystery of the cross. It is restorative and healing even though it may be difficult and painful. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (MT 16:24) This is a uniquely Christian teaching that reveals a restorative and healing God in the embrace and experience of your personal cross. I believe that all healing and growth flows from the hand of God.

You Can’t Go Home…or Can You?

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel entitled YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN. It was published in 1940. It describes the strange sensation of trying to go back home, after an extended absence.

One may think this is not much of an ordeal or a challenge, anticipating that the sensation of familiarity will dominate the experience. But such is seldom the case, especially if the absence has been over a number of years, and if it takes place in the setting of a forever changing scenario that is so typical of life in the United States, where change is happening all the time, at multiple levels of our experience.

The word “familiarity”, of course, is itself related to the similar word, “family”. Something that is family-related is or has become “familiar” to us. For nothing is more “familiar” than “family”. Nonetheless, in a sense, one can never go back to family, as we recall it 20 or 30 years ago. The house in which one lived then was also a “home”. But, of course, not all houses are homes even if some houses don’t change, or, at first sight, after a long absence, don’t seem to have changed. To all intents and purposes the house one recalls from 25 years ago may still be standing when one visits it years later, and notes it occupying the same lot on the block as it did when we left. And this is so, even if it has been repainted in the intervening years, and the big maple tree that dominated the front yard is gone, and a different kind of fence now encloses the back yard.   For one can recognize it immediately. But that may be the extent to which an identity can be noted over this extended period of time.

For, should one have the opportunity to enter the house, a strange sensation overcomes one’s experience. In the front room, all the familiar furniture has been replaced. Painting has replaced wallpaper. The former carpeting has given way to throw rugs. The wall pictures now depict totally different scenes. The familiar odors of years ago, emanating from the kitchen, are no longer permeating the dining room area. One feels like a stranger here, in one’s former house, which, back then, had also been a home.

For a home is made up more of people than of furniture or décor. But all the old familiar faces are gone. There are new occupants now, who may be quite cordial and welcoming. But their house no longer comprises the home that was once here. The home is gone. And one’s awareness of this grows as one soon discovers that the neighbors on either side of the house are strangers, different from those who used to live there. And if the opportunity offers to explore the old neighborhood, it dawns on us that one can never go home again. The old barber shop is gone, as is the gas station on the corner. The familiar theater has been replaced by a shopping center, and the school one attended has been enlarged and upgraded.

And so the realization sinks in: one can’t go home again. Things have changed. Jesus Himself underwent a similar experience in His time. For He was brought up in Nazareth by Mary and Joseph until He was thirty years of age, when He left home and began His public ministry in Judea and other parts of Galilee. He was still identified as a Nazorean (Mt.26-71), perhaps because of His accent. He was an almost instant success wherever He went, preaching and performing miracles, and gained great popularity. Then the opportunity arose for Him, now quite a success, to go back home again.   This He did, and, entered the familiar synagogue where He had prayed and studied the bible. But when He rose to read the bible and apply a passage to Himself, there was an instant reaction, a very unfavorable one, (Lk 4.16-30), and Jesus learned that one can’t go home again. He seems never to have returned there again.

A somewhat similar experience awaits us, if not in this life, then in the life to come (2 Cor 5, 1, ff.). For we believe, on the word of God, that there will be a new heaven and a new earth awaiting us, at some point in the future—no longer in time, but in eternity. We don’t know where this might be. But the “place”, if it’s appropriate to use this word for this new setting, will likely be more like “home” than the house to which we may have returned on one occasion, because, even though a lot of changes await us in our future habitat, it will still remind us of “home” as it used to be, for all the familiar faces from years ago will be there to greet us. In this sense, it is quite possible to go back home again. We won’t mind the change of place (“I go to prepare a place for you”, Jn 14.2-3)) because the presence of the faces that made the place of old “home” is again before us.

Jesus too had this wonderful experiences at His Ascension into heaven. He was, at long last, able to go home again and be with His Father in heaven.

A Near Miss

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Just a few days ago one of the most thrilling auto races ever to take place, occurred at the Daytona 500, where two racing cars crossed the finish line almost simultaneously, with the winning car doing so by reaching the finish line 0.01 of a second ahead of the next car. It was a photo finish, where only by means of a photograph (not the naked eye) could the winner be discerned.

It was a near miss for the loser, but a near victory for the winner. How should we regard near misses? Are they to be viewed positively or negatively? The answer might be: the winning driver could exult if he/she was expected to lose; and the losing driver could grieve, if he/she was expected to win. On the other hand, the winning driver could worry, if he/she was expected to win “big”, just as the losing driver could exult if he or she was expected to lose, as they say, “big time”.

Near misses don’t have to occur in a competitive exercise but they frequently seem to involve two or more participants. Two airplanes can be involved in a near miss while approaching the runway of an airport. Two planets/asteroids can be part of a near miss while pursuing their space trajectory. But in either case, they are not competing against one another.

Near misses always involve effort of one kind or another, which may engage the concentration of just one person, such as a student taking a test. He or she may experience a “near” miss, meaning that the student came very close, either to passing the test, or to failing the test. But the common denominator, in any case, is that a threshold was just missed, whether for good or for bad.

A near miss can occur in a game of chance, involving, for instance, the power ball, where a near miss doesn’t depend on someone else winning or losing, but depends solely on an individual player, who may or may not be known to other players, and who is not dependent on what happens to them in order to experience a near miss. For one can lose whether he or she is one of millions playing, or the only one doing so.

And so it is in our relationships with other people. We can experience a near miss in striking up a relationship with another. The initial “chemistry” may have seemed right or encouraging, but, with the passage of time, what was becoming a very close relationship becomes frayed, and on the verge of dissolving. This may initially prove to be painful, but, with the passage of time, it may become evident that the “near miss” (meaning failure to seal a relationship) proves to be a blessing in disguise.

And this may also occur in our relationship to God. In this case a near miss may mean that one was on the verge of cementing a cohesive bonding with God, or, on the other hand, a person was at the point of dissolving a relationship with God that had grown quite close. In this regard, we think of Judas’ relationship with Christ in its beginning stages. There is no reason to believe it was any less close than that of any of the other apostles. But, with the passage of time, the phenomenon of the near miss, that is, the cementing of the relationship between Christ and Judas, fails to achieve cohesion.

So the near miss can intertwine itself with many facets of our lives. And it can involve either a benefit, or a loss. A marriage-in-the-making may proceed on its way, and conclude with a cementing of the budding relationship, perhaps after having undergone the near miss of dissolving. On the other hand, it may arrive at the threshold of a permanent commitment, and then encounter a near miss in that regard, and dissolve.

The near miss is an elusive quirk to an experience. An element of chance is caught up in it. Some call this “luck”. But, of course, there is good luck and bad luck. Some feel they are constant victims of bad luck. Others may modestly acknowledge that they are the beneficiaries of good luck. In either case the near miss is an experience woven into its fabric.

Is the near miss part of a gamble, or taking a chance? Probably no more than God undergoes in His dealings with us. Each time, do each of us represent a near miss He is willing to take in our regard?

2016 Time to Let the Wind Blow

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

The New Year (2016) has just rounded the corner, putting us again to the task of a new series of resolutions about making life become better, bigger, and happier than it has been. It’s remarkable that so many of us go through this routine year after year, reformulating the resolutions about what we’re going to be and do. But we seldom succeed. If we compared this exercise to a ball player’s batting average, it would be around 180. And this is nothing to brag about.

Perhaps we have to engage in this process differently, for we are not hitting the ball successfully. This process could possibly begin with an automobile drive through some areas of the countryside, in a number of our states, that have begun to feature huge windmills, sometimes extending over large areas of land for several miles–gigantic windmills, with impressive dimensions extending over several miles, presenting what initially stand as an ugly eyesight, compared to the pleasant farmland they’ve replaced. But, their saving feature is that they’re productive energy resources, which more than compensate those who have invested time, money, genius and perseverance in supporting this new energy resource, to complement traditional energy resources that are diminishing, such as coal, oil, gas, waterways. For wind can be an effective and economic generator of electric power, for instance.

Why is it that it took us so long to discover and take advantage of such an available energy resource? For the Dutch have successfully done so for decades. Surely we have felt the power of wind sweeping across the landscape, bending tree limbs to the point of breaking, even stopping us in our tracks, especially if we live in such windswept areas as residents of the “windy city” do.

Eventually a consortium of like-minded persons emerged to collaborate to take advantage of this overlooked energy resource, developing it into a helpful energy source to meet our energy needs. And, for the most part, this resource is not significantly injurious to the landscape, other than withdrawing the land on which it sits from agricultural use, and, in the estimation of some, turning it into an ugly blemish on what had been a pleasing pastoral scene.

It is likely that Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter extolling the role of mother nature in our overall well-being can strengthen this innovative development, supporting his attempt to elevate our esteem of nature in our overall assessment of helps available to us to live in a way that is responsive to our available resources. In recent decades, we have been so preoccupied with improving on what nature can provide us in our effort to lead satisfactory lives that we have left unexplored and untapped resources untapped within nature, that can reward our attention. The Catholic tradition in the area of moral theology has called upon “natural law” as a fundamental guide in discerning goodness and evil in human behavior and conduct, and natural law is nothing other than an appreciation of mother nature to help us in addressing the dilemmas of moral goodness and evil. The Pope’s letter, entitled LODATO SI, (“Worthy of praise and esteem”) carries on this tradition of appreciating nature in its genesis and development as instructive in our understanding of how things ought to be.

So, as we stand on the cusp of a New Year in our lives, we again face the formidable task of making this year better than previous years have been. The “discovery” of wind-power as an answer to our diminishing energy supply should bolster our conviction that ways and means are available, remaining to be (re-)discovered, in our effort to fortify New Year resolutions to achieve some improvements in our lives, possibly goals that we have consistently failed to accomplish. The reassessment of wind-power is a simple example of an overlooked resource, in this regard. We may be recharting a nautical development that itself was an improvement on sailing the seas, replacing the wind-dependent sailing vessel with the steam engine. It may call for a renewed appreciation of one of nature’s primal forces (the wind) to reappropriate a place in powering over the oceans, in conjunction with nuclear generated sources of power and energy.

To enrich our appreciation of nature’s resiliency as an energy resource, we can enrich it with a faith reflection pat to the purpose of commencing a New Year enriched with God’s role in empowering us. This flows from our Catholics, and indeed Christian, understanding of the mystery of God as trinitarian, that is, as one God Who is a trinity of Persons. And our appreciation of One of these Persons as the Spirit of God, whom we frequently identify as God the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity. For the most part, most of us have a poor record at acknowledging the role of the Holy Spirit, in our lives, perhaps in a way comparable to our recent oversight of the significance of wind as an empowering element in mother nature. And, yet as God’s Holy Spirit, He is identified as the energy, the power, and the pent-up potential of God available to us throughout our life. He is the divine resource to move us ever closer to our destiny with God facing us at death. We might enrich our New Year’s resolutions by  invoking God’s Holy Spirit to empower us in this New Year of 2016. For the Holy Spirit, as God, is an inexhaustible energy resource Whose power is comparable to wind, for did not those assembled together on Pentecost Sunday share this experience: “…there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were…and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…”? (Acts2.1-4)