Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Because of “Such a Friend”

Posted by Webster 
When in September I wrote a post about Ferde, my big brother in the Church, one man commented: “Providential to find such a friend. I sometimes think it's more difficult for guys who convert to find a ‘guy’ type Catholic friend.” I thought of this tonight when Ferde and I went to a monthly men’s meeting at the local Carmelite chapel.

That’s the chapel in the photo. (There’s more seating outside the frame to left and right.) With a magnifying glass you can just pick out Ferde: he’s the gray-haired fellow in the red sweater in the far right corner. The chapel is approaching its 50th anniversary in the basement of the North Shore Mall in Peabody, Massachusetts. Oddly located, it has a remarkable following. Katie’s mother, Ruthie McNiff, who died in 1984, was a staunch follower. It’s currently staffed by three Carmelite fathers and one or two brothers. Masses are offered three or four times daily, and once a month a ragtag group of guys meets for 90 minutes of confession, Adoration, and teaching. Tonight Father Felix spoke about the dogma of the Incarnation, and Father Herb (pictured, at the podium) followed him by putting a human face on that dogma. His basic message: anything you’ve experienced, Jesus experienced before you, and for you.

Like so many good things that have come my way as a Catholic, the Carmelite meeting came to me through Ferde. It was Ferde who introduced me to Communion and Liberation, Ferde who encouraged me to be a lector and later to serve at the altar, Ferde who invited me to the Saturday morning men’s group that meets in our church basement and is now a cornerstone of my week. Ferde even contributes articles to our parish newsletter, of which I am the sometime editor. But this men’s meeting, once a month in the basement of the mall, is something else altogether.

Tonight there were over thirty men present, plus Fathers Felix and Herb. (Father Mario is on the West Coast, visiting family for Christmas.) We are a mixed bunch, with far more faith than education—although I think some of the guys here have forgotten more Scripture and theology than I’ll ever learn. The surprises never end.

“Mark” led off the meeting with a halting, arhythmic reading of the hymn “Rise Up, O Men of God!”:

Rise up, O men of God!
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
To serve the King of kings.

Rise up, O men of God!
The kingdom tarries long.
Bring in the day of brotherhood
And end the night of wrong.

Rise up, O men of God!
The church for you doth wait,
Her strength unequal to her task;
Rise up and make her great!

Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where His feet have trod.
As brothers of the Son of Man,
Rise up, O men of God!

Dressed in a Carhart jacket over a hoodie, jeans, and work boots, Mark seemed almost embarrassed by his reading. But after the meeting I would learn that Mark is a spiritual pilgrim. He told us about a trip he is planning in January, visiting five Catholic shrines in Mexico. He plans to wake up at 4:30 each morning for 90 minutes of prayer before continuing on his pilgrimage.

Another continuing surprise is “Rick,” the 40-year-old man who organized this monthly meeting in the first place. In a previous encounter, he told me he is a member of Opus Dei, from which I drew a certain mental image of Rick. Tonight, after the meeting, I had to redraw the picture. He told me that he was recently in residence at the same Cistercian abbey where I went on retreat a month ago. He was not there as a retreatant, however, but as a matter of discernment: Rick explored, then decided against, a vocation as a Cistercian monk. This, frankly, floored me.

When I was a boy, I saw my father as a lone wolf. He seemed to have few male friends; he went off to work in the morning, came home to our family at night, was not a socializer, and interacted with other males on weekends only as a matter of form. But as my father got older, and then when he retired, his men friends became ever more important to him. Some died before him; some attended his funeral. I thought of my father, and understood his experience better, tonight, at the Carmelite men’s meeting. I know now why his men friends were so important to him.