On the Shoulders of Giants

An Autobiographical Sketch of a Young Dreamer

I was visiting Sacred Heart Parish in Yonkers again this weekend when I stopped before the statue of Father Solanus and made my prayer intentions for the week. Toward the back of the wall is the baptismal font which Father Solanus handled for so many years before moving to New York City. The handle of the font is worn and has an ancient feel. I often place my rosary and pectoral cross to the medal as I pray. This past week I was remaining perhaps too long at the font. The doors to the church were nearly closed when I began to depart. But as I did so an elderly woman, whose name I have omitted out of deference, came striding up to me. Her familiar Irish brogue was a comfort in that cool silent place. She asked me if I would pray for her. As I did so, under the flickering light of the candles, I remembered something I have not remembered in a long time.

I remembered how I stood in that exact same chapel eighteen years before, as a frightened little boy. The sanctuary with the faint had not yet been installed. The chapel was straightforward but beautiful. Stainglass windows gleamed down at me. The rich carvings on the sealing seemed to dance before my eyes. I did not know then as I know now that I had only a handful of months left before I would lose my sense of vision.

It was Christmas Eve, and I was supposed to sing a solo for the choir. I was dressed in my very best and shaking as much from the cold as with anticipation. Many faces now long gone surrounded me. There was my great-uncle laughing merrily toward the nave, his tweed coat and aged grin unmistakable. There was my grandfather John Brennen shaking hands with almost everyone. He seemed the mayor of that place, a giant in a sea of eager hearts and ears ready to listen. There were others too who were even older whose names I have since forgotten, but whose faces I have never let pass from me. Yes, they were aged. Yes, they were wise. But there was something there too, a memory of kinder days, perhaps simpler days buried by the snow.

All of them spoke of the past and of the way they had waged it. All of them loved their country with a passion I could barely relate to. The red, white and blue lapel pin my great-uncle wore was a constant reminder of his post-war service in the navy and of his toured in the Pacific. He always loved to tell “us kids” about the islands he had seen, and of the presidents he had supposedly met. His stories may have been true. They may have been only partially true. But they always bore with them a soul of wisdom.

In one of these stories, my great-uncle’s own brother had met Nixon once and had even seen Kennedy from a distance during his race for the Whitehouse in 1960. John and Jacky were sitting in an open car. John smiled. My grandfather said the crowd went wild. Camelot had come to town.

He said they looked like royalty. I felt like royalty, like a Yonkers-sort of Kennedy standing at Sacred Heart Parish Christmas eve -- not because I was wealthy. I was as I am still, strictly suburban and middle-class. I was not proud because I was about to sing a solo for the choir. Honestly, I found the choir to be troublesome and my allotted song rather campy. No, I was proud because I was surrounded by my family. I was proud because when I looked up at my uncles and aunts and grandfather, I knew that I was among my own.

But this sense of familiarity extended not only to my living aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends. No, I remembered what it was like to look up into the figures in the manger -- to the large nativity set drenched in the half-light of candles and of moonstruck open doors. I remember how I approached the stable and gazed into the eyes of the virgin and of how I took a piece of straw beneath the crib. I even remember feeling as though the baby there smiled up at me. In my soul, I know he truly did.

Saint Augustine reminds us that we are called to be citizens of the city of God and not citizens of the city of man. In that instant eighteen years ago, I knew I was a son of the kingdom. With my eyes, I bore witness to the fact that I was a citizen of the city, of our father whose kingdom will come and whose will shall be “done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Friends, I am asking you today to renew your vows to the Lord who made you. I do not mean to be presumptuous. But I know lately, I have had to renew my own dedication to the cross and to the crown. Perhaps you haven’t gone to mass in a while. Perhaps you are burdened by some anxiety or by some sin. Believe me when I tell you, there is no greater freedom than the rest which comes when you say “Thy will be done” instead of “My will be done.”  Believe me when I tell you that the infant I saw in the manger that evening that is at the same time the God made man, raised from his cross is ready to listen and to forgive.

In that same spirit, I exhort you all to love one another and to recover the gospel our parents and grandparents cherished. They paved a road for us in blood and in sweat and in tears. It is our duty, as a new generation to take up our cross and perform the works of mercy required of us. For there are many wounds known and unknown which must be healed just as there are many hearts, hurting and unrequited who need your blessing. This is not to excuse the sins of the past of which there are many. I have seen with my heart the gashes of history as signposts in the growing dark. Each sign points to faith as well as reason. In this wilderness, this vale of tears, we claim to possess reason but trample on the fruits of revelation which are charity, hope, and love. For these point to the cross.

No, our parents and grandparents were not all saints, but some of them were, and we must learn from them. From the lips of Adam, Seth learned to avoid the shame of Adam. By the lips of Christ, Peter learned to walk nearer to Christ and to convey the Good News. From the lips of Peter sprung up the succession of Holy Pontiffs who now sit in Rome, and under their Stewardship, we thrive in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. And in this church we shall remain, even as the knights of Gondor remained at their posts in J.R.R Tolkiens’ The Lord of the Rings, awaiting the true, “Return of the King.”

Therefore, in the name of the King, I bless you, my friend and neighbor today, whoever you are, and beg you to do the same. For our time is now, and the promise of healing is at hand. Let us take Father Solanus’s prayer seriously and join hands in praise as we joyfully proclaim with angels and saints and  martyrs, “Blessed be God in all of his designs.”