Saturday, December 28, 2013



Last night I encountered this chestnut in a novel my sister gave me for Christmas. It made me laugh out loud because I had no idea what it meant. Scrambling for the dictionary, I learned it means “of, relating to, or dependent on charity.”

A really worthy word.

I savored the word, re-reading the dictionary definition and imagining conversations:  “I just met someone with deep eleemosynary tendencies!”

“Contemporary eleemosynary institutions compete for philanthropists’ largess.”

I found it hard to keep hold of the spelling, getting up once in the middle of the night to look it up again. It’s that double “e” that seems so exotic and hard to remember.

I've been a sesquipedalian from way back, a love that dares not speak its name in country schoolrooms, except at spelling bees. Though I never studied, I usually won. Thank goodness I never got "eleemosynary."
I remember using big words as a boy to bolster a tender, flagging ego. I prized big words because few people understood them. It was a way of feeling special, of (intuitively perhaps) not giving up entirely to the self recriminations with which I would excoriate myself after another failure at sports, or after false and shamed efforts to date and be popular.

Logically enough one of my many family bonds is a shared love of a statement of my Grandfather’s that was apparently popular in one version or another in the 19th-Century. I don’t know where he learned it, perhaps from his father or brothers, all of whom like himself attended Amherst College. I wonder if it was a way to overcome his shyness and master the overpowering feelings of homesickness I hear he suffered from. I imagine his landlady’s surprise when the awkward, shy young man from Tacoma, Washington pushed back from the table announcing: “My gastronomical satiety admonishes me that I have reached the ultimate culinary limitations consistent with the code of Aesculapius.” This was the closest we ever came to a football chant in my natal home, all of us practically shouting it together. It was a Berge thing. Mom knew we loved her food.

As an adult, normally I work hard to write and speak simply, using a vocabulary that helps people to know better about God. This is such an important goal. I often scrub out words that take attention away from it.
Living in community we discover words can shred us. Living cheek by jowl we know just what to say to hurt or diminish or force one another into silence. Words wound.

Fortunately the travails of intimacy are not the last word on religious life.

Franciscan life is very eleemosynary. Without charity, without love, it is nothing. The community is also a place where old hurts are healed. It is a place where we can be ourselves and speak simply of the truth of God’s love acting in our lives. Words heal.

There were some curious lapses in my education. Somehow I got to seminary with no clear idea what “incarnation” meant. I remember a classmate’s astonishment as he said, “You know, Christmas!”
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word saves.

It’s eleemosynary, my dear Watson.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Airlines School of Prayer

Last month the New York Times printed some letters from people about airplane etiquette. I laughed with recognition as I read the column (November 10, 2013):  Many of the letters seem to be complaints about air travel, and the other people travelling: they smell, they’re noisy, they dress inappropriately. All stuff you would expect people might say if given a chance to vent about the exigencies of air travel.
But there was one voice which appealed to me, prodding me to deeper reflection. A guy from Canada wrote: “I fly up to four times a week. Though flying resembles a bus trip now with its many deprivations, it is wonderfully fast. Flying allows me to get somewhere and put in a full day’s work at the same time. As far as I am concerned, this outweighs all the challenges. More than this, I have come to appreciate that I can’t control others on a plane, but I can control myself. I am learning to treat the staff with respect and other passengers with consideration and mercy. I confess I was a disgruntled flier when I began to fly all the time. Since I decided to change my attitude and be thankful for the way flying has opened up the whole world to us, the whole experience has become eminently better.” (Thanks to Philip Hills for his contribution to the NYTimes)
 I was reminded of all this last week on a trip to England—a quick trip for me, only seven days. We were delayed, the whole business seemed aggravating and too much. But then I thought: “So what? What are you going to do about it?”  I decided it wasn’t worth a coronary, and just count my lucky stars I was going to England!
I logged over 63,000 miles this year, a lighter travel schedule than normal. During moments of recollection and relative sanity, my own philosophy is that air travel is transportation, not something to bolster my ego. I reject the come-ons telling me I deserve better, and the ranking of platinum, gold, silver, elite and all the rest of it. Perhaps I am unique among Franciscans, but I think that if I am asked by my seat mate what I do, I don’t want to admit to being a religious vowed to poverty while sitting in a First Class seat. Like the writer above, gratitude can change my attitude from a snide, persnickety and critical outlook to one of acceptance. It takes the sting out of travel.
I am reminded of the old saying: watch out for what you pray for. I am always praying for patience, compassion, and love to be more deeply part of me. So God puts me in situations where these are exactly the things I need to cultivate and exhibit. It’s not possible to be patient unless you are in an aggravating situation!