What do Confession and Cappuccino Have in Common

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Every day I observe a ritual, critical to enhancing my communion with the Living God.  I rise at 6, shower and shave, dress and make solemn procession to the kitchen.  There I bow before the apparatus cafe (Latin: Coffee Machine) and make my morning espresso.  Today it struck me that my espresso machine and confession have some striking similarities.

  • Both are critical to rousing the soul
  • The noises made in both suggest lots of pressure is at work, but the delicious product of each is well-worth the effort made.
  • Both require a careful examination of all the working parts involved, a gentle calibration and a final decision to act.
  • The experience of coffee making is generally the same for everyone who uses the machine… but it can’t be denied that – in the particulars – the finished product is carefully tailored to meet the needs of each person… likewise confession.
  • If you don’t de-calcify the machine at least once a month its fine inner workings get clogged up from use until then can’t do you any good.  Likewise confession: If we don’t go at least once a month we risk clogging up the inner workings of our soul with sins’ effects until we can’t do much good for anyone.

A little silly?  Perhaps… but now every time I see my espresso machine I’m reminded of the salutary effects of the sacrament.  Think about it.

Cleaning Up Memory

Le Bon Caffe (2nd St SE off Penn.)
Le Bon Caffe (2nd St SE off Penn.)

This morning I had a breakfast at a lovely spot just around the corner from our parish church, Le Bon Cafe.  It was a beautiful sunny morning.  Vintage posters ornamented the walls of my local eatery.   The coffee was hot and aromatic and the French toast was… well, a revelation!  Seriously, I may fast the rest of the day just to keep remembering this French toast.  All told the experience really took me back to a wonderful Christmas break I once enjoyed in Paris.  It also reminded me how blessed we are here in DC.   I’m going to connect this experience to another this week: cleaning the Church sacristy.

French Toast... of course in France it's just "toast"
French Toast… of course in France it’s just “toast”

The connection may not be immediately obvious, but it’s this: Memory.  Le Bon Cafe made alive once more the experience of my time in France.  The sacristy is another place full of memory… not my own, but my parish’s.  Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a little time each day carefully combing through our supplies, cataloging what tools we have to work with, and sending out damaged items for repair.  I’ve also put a lot of elbow grease into wiping down surfaces, disinfecting storage spaces and sometimes, literally, SCRAPING the accumulated dust of years off items.  I came to one pile of items way in the back of a creaky cupboard.  It was a collection of stones.  Two were altar stones from an old sanctuary… possibly the original church that stood here in the early 1800’s.  The rest were samples of marbles used in the current Church.  Looking at the grime coating the stones one of the parish staff said, “Father it looks like no one even remembers these exist.”

It seems that even a place full of memories needs frequent re-visiting if those memories are to stay vivid… that is (literally) “full of life.”  with lots of soap and scrubbing I managed to restore the gleam of these stones.  While working on them I thought of the parishioners who probably argued over color choices… the priests who had to make a final call… and the hard working artisans who installed them to the use of the Church and the glory of God.  They were alive again, if only for a few minutes in our parish church.

St. John Paul II spoke much about memory.  Some memories re revisit because they are so wonderful… The memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, the mass  (for example).  St. John Paul also spoke about the cleansing of memory.  Revisiting painful episodes from the Church’s past he begged the mercy of God and set up a better basis for moving on toward our final judgment.  What memories do each of us need to revisit?   Whether they are memories filled with gratitude or ones that need to be filled with healing grace, the journey is worthwhile.   Just a thought: look at memories with eyes of faith this week.  Peace!

Picnics and Ponderings

IMG_0564It’s spring in Washington… one of our two all too brief seasons when we can enjoy outdoor activities without either freezing or melting.  One of may favorite spring activities is picnicking.  I don’t get to do it all that often, but when I do, what a gift it is.

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By it’s very nature a picnic pulls us out of our normal routine… gets us to look at things differently by placing us in new surroundings.  Since picnics work best bucolic settings, they can also be a chance for us to strip away the worries of the world and get back in touch with our truest nature.  Two easily reached picnic destinations I’ve enjoyed recently are: The C&O Canal and Sugarloaf Mountain (see photos throughout this post).

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The Canal was intended to be a great water highway connecting the capital with the western hinterlands of the new United States (i.e. Cumberland, MD back in the day).  Never able to turn a long-term profit, the canal never really worked out.  Thanks to preservationists though, it has become a hugely successful national park with ample opportunities for hiking, biking and camping from here to western Maryland.
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Sugarloaf Mountain (in Dickerson, MD about an hour northwest of the city) was a privately owned estate that has now become a nature preserve with trails for hiking, climbing and mountain biking.  It also boasts some wonderful opportunities for animal watching and great views of Montgomery and Frederick counties.

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Picnicking with friends is obviously a great chance for conviviality – a subject covered in previous posts.  That said, don’t discount the blessings of a solo lunch-in-the-wild.  Consider the following thoughts from 20th century theologian Fr. Romano Guardini:

“…man’s attention is broken into a thousand fragments by the variety of things and persons about him  His mind is restless; his feelings seek objects that are constantly changing.  Composure works in the opposite direction, rescuing man’s attention from sundry objects holding it captive and restoring unity to his spirit.”
This “rescue” mission, Fr. Guardini goes on to say, restores man to his fullest sense of self allowing him to face the world in a more genuine way.

Guardini applies his teaching to composing ourselves in preparation for mass, but I think we can reasonably extend his thoughts to another type of meal: the picnic.  Eating out in nature is a great exercise in composure.  It’s a chance to focus on the basics: eating, breathing, perceiving the beauty around us.  Over time, the storm of other sensory and emotional distractions calms… or rather all these “other” things enter orbit around the joy of the meal.  We might even suggest that if a picnic on a beautiful day is a manifestation of God’s love for us, then it is precisely his LOVE that restores order to our chaos.

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So, if you’re feeling a little frayed at the ends this week, take advantage of the good weather, grab some food and a blanket, and enjoy a picnic… you might just come back from it a better version of yourself.

Behold the Power of Feasts

“It is as a general rule a bad sign when a man has not a particular feeling of devotion on the chief feasts of the year.” -St. Philip Neri


I think I was ten before I realized that Christmas, the day we celebrate Christ’s birth, is December 25… Up to that point empirical evidence …of a sort… convinced my child mind that Christmas was December 24.  “What was this evidence that warped time and space?” you might well ask.  FOOD!

Growing up in an Italian-American household in New York, we did all our feasting on Christmas Eve.  Seven kinds of fish, capped by pastries of every stripe… Warm hugs and kisses from relatives whose names one only vaguely remembered… Picture “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” dipped in tomato sauce and you get the idea.  But that wasn’t all.  We went to mass on Christmas Eve… and as I got older, we’d sometimes even open our gifts late at night on Christmas Eve… ‘heck, even the name (at least to a ten year-old) is tricky: CHRISTMAS Eve… After all, wasn’t Jesus born at night?

My kiddie confusion was a witness to the great power of culture.  The cultural phenomenon of a feast translates the cosmic realities being feasted (in this case Christmas) in a three hundred sixty degree way… an all encompassing reality that becomes familiar, heartfelt over time, engraining those realities into one’s very being.

Feasts speak to us of truth, of goodness, of unity… but they speak to us THROUGH beauty, and ultimately find their power in her convincing ways.  Every culture has feasts… They are a hallmark of vitality and endurance… and, best as I can recollect, feasts only survive the test of ages if they celebrate something positive (again: truth good integral and beautiful).  Think about it, have you ever heard of a feast that celebrates evil?

The positive power of feasts (particularly religious feasts) is one reason why it’s so sad to hear about school districts around DC wrangling over their inclusion in the school calendar.  My primary school education was in public schools in NY, where we learned about the festal traditions of all the kids in our class.  Most of us were Christians, but no one batted an eye learning about Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or any other customs.  To us, it was all fascinating…  and at the very least a great chance to try someone else’s food.  Come to think of it, I owe my love of all DC’s many ethnic foods to the experience of encountering many religious feasts as a child even if those feasts weren’t my own.  Did experiencing all these traditions in a public school setting damage the integrity of my own religious sense?  Apparently not, I ended up becoming a Catholic priest.

Tonight (and yes, even tomorrow, Dec. 25), let us feast.  Eat, drink and be merry, something beautiful happened, “a child is born to us, a son given us,” Jesus the Savior.  Merry Christmas Washington!

Happy Hours’ Truest Happiness

How good and how pleasant it is,
when brothers dwell together as one!
-Ps. 133:1

What’s so happy about happy hour? …or spinning class? …or social media for that matter?  It’s the other people, isn’t it?  On the flip side, one of the greatest tragedies of city life is that people can live in the midst of a metropolis and feel completely isolated (What St. John Paul II referred to as the “anonymity of the city”).

More than most, Washington is a city built for community.  Think about it, an artificially created jurisdiction whose whole purpose is to bring together representatives from across a continent.  Even the physical layout of our city is meant to bring people together: our many parks, traffic circles and other green spaces.  My grandfather once commented, “It’s a tragedy that people should fight so viciously in a place so beautiful.”  Contemporary additions to our communal dynamic include the Metro system and now social media.  Consider how excited people are that the silver line is nearing completion… Where does that come from?  The DC bar and restaurant scene, and now the advent of coffee culture all serve to bring people together because that’s where people are happiest – in the company of friends. Why?

Catholic tradition holds that made in God’s image and likeness, humans are most human when they live in community.  God is one God in three Persons (Father Son and Holy Spirit).  So we form families – unified domestic communities of persons.  Likewise we seek out friends for a drink after work, for exercise and recreation at our gyms… and now, we use social media [at its best] to extend that communion across vast distances and circumstances.

Looking to Genesis we find that when Adam was alone, there was something incomplete?? about him, and so our humanity was split-in-two “God made man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (1:27) Adam needed a partner with whom he could share his life and his love (Gn 2:20), and so came Eve.  There is a need in our humanity to resemble the Trinity.  Is it any surprise that so many of Jesus’ greatest moments happened around dinner tables (Cana, Zacchaeus, Martha and Mary, the Last Supper to name a very few)?

…just something to think about next time you find yourself smiling at a Happy Hour, or feeling good about your next trip to the gym to workout with a friend.

Also try visiting the webpage for our local Young Adult Ministry, which hosts great sessions of Theology on Tap.

The Craft of Beer

What’s in a craft beer?  Visiting the “new” Monroe Street, NE (Brookland) I was astounded by the number of craft beers available at a local pub.  Likewise, walking down the street passing two different liquor stores I saw displays of small-batch bourbons and even… this really threw me… multiple brands of craft-designed rye!… a liquor I thought all but extinct.  Searching the Post’s digital Style section, it seems this renaissance of craft liquors has been gaining IMG_0263steam for some time.  This could be a very good thing.  Why?

The Church has a long history with craft-made brews of all sorts.  In Rome we used to prize a hand-made green sambuca made by monks of the Castelli Romani.  For centuries, the monasteries of Belgium have set a gold standard in beer production.  After the Germanic invasions, wine production only continued in Gaul (France) because the mass required the use of quality wine.

What’s behind this Catholic love of all things distilled?  Put simply… they’re very human.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 356) tells us:

Of all visible creatures… man is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake. (cf Gaudium et sees 24.3) and he alone is called share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life.

Genesis presents an escalating process of creation by which everything was made with a useful purpose (Gn. 1:28-31); everything except man.  Man was created by God in an act of freely chosen love for its own sake.  Made in God’s image, we exist beautifully for our own sake, with a capacity to freely love others for their own sake.  In addition, like our creator  we can make beautiful things with love for their own sake.  Greatest among these is life itself (see the linked talk by St. John Paull II on this topic).  Somewhat further down the chain but no less true, we can make “things” with love for their own sake… we call these things “beautiful.”

Whether it’s a monk perfecting a centuries-old process of growing hops for beer… or couple of thirty-somethings learning to make wine in someone’s basement, there’s something especially human about pouring time, talent, humility and love into making something beautiful for its own sake.  Is this perhaps what we detect in our craft beers, bourbons etc.?  Something different and more truly human than mass-produced machine-made mediocrity?  To be sure, many produce and consume these delicacies for all the wrong reasons… a reminder that we should drink with prudence temperance and responsibility… but keeping focused on the true good and beautiful, the growth of these new more artistic drinks may indeed be a reason for all of us to raise our glasses and say, “Cheers!”

Espressi and Aspirations

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Often-times on a day off, with no particular plans, I’ll take an “urban trek,” to explore some part of the city I’ve never really paid much attention to.  It’s a great way to open my eyes to new sights smells and sounds… AND… it doesn’t cost much more than metro fare.  Last week I was on such a trek in Logan circle, when midway I stopped for a coffee.

Better said, I grabbed a “cafe.”  Five years of seminary in Rome fostered a number of religious devotions in me, including my love of espresso.  It’s a great pick-me-up in the morning or midday.  And yes, it can be a religious experience.  Making one requires a certain degree of liturgy whether it’s ritual dialog with your favorite barista or respectfully engaging your own espresso pot/machine to confect the perfect demitasse.  The results can be wonderful.  Psychologically, I break out of whatever rut I was in.  Physically, I get to sit and compose myself before the caffeine sets me up to face the world again.  The whole process doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes.  OK, spiritually speaking it’s not exactly a retreat at Mt. Athos, but one could well call an espresso break the culinary equivalent of an “aspiration.”

Aspirations are small spontaneous prayers we offer up throughout the day.  They’re literally “breaths” sent up to God.  An aspiration can be an act of thanks, faith, intercession of pleading for help.  Aspirations are [hopefully] responded to by in-spirations… “breathing-ins” from God that answer our deepest needs.   As an exercise, consider offering up a short series of aspirations every time you make a coffee break during the day… It may help you to see your day through eyes of faith.

Back to the urban trek… rejuvenated by my stop at Peregrine Espresso, I continued my exploration of the neighborhood… new houses, new restaurants, new everything inspiring me with new reflections and aspirations… and somewhere in all that newness, the distinct flavor of hope (mixed with coffee, of course.)

“I often think that when we come to adore Our Lord, we should obtain all we wish, if we would ask it with very lively faith, and a pure heart.” -St. John Vianney, On Prayer