Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Cow and the Velvet Suit

(c) 2003, Connell J. Maguire

My brothers had little difficulty persuading me to do daring and incongruous deeds. As young and old everywhere, we delighted in stories of American cowboys and Indians of the Wild West. One day Barney and I, pedestrian cowboys, were herding one cow along the road. Sod was piled up at roadside to serve as a dirt wall. A "shuhh" is a drainage ditch in Donegal. So the digging operation served two purposes and, on this day, a third. Grass grew profusely on the dirt wall and the cow paused to graze. Barney said, "This is your chance to be a cowboy. You can climb up beside the cow and ride on her back." I can still see the backbone of the cow, her silky, tan hair, as I climbed up and stretched my right leg across her midsection. No horse ever dashed from a gate faster than that uncooperative cow darted from underneath me, leaving a prospective cowboy rolling flat in the mud. I don't understand cows.

That was a closed case. No harm was done for which I would be held accountable. It was a different matter in the case of the velvet suit.

My mother was a dressmaker, and when I was between four and five, she made me a velvet suit with short pants. Out playing one day while I was wearing my new apparel, my brothers convinced me that it could double as a bathing suit. It was one of those days when the Irish say the "sun is splitting the rocks," all the while they are wearing sweaters and probably long underwear. I entered the river where it flowed over a shallow, stony bed. A surprising number of details of that misadventure are vivid in memory. I noted with interest that water rose higher on either side of me and that the stones were all rounded like eggs. Centuries of flowing water had given them this oval shape. I was delighted by how they felt.

Suddenly, shouting from the house intruded on my new found pleasure. My brothers hauled me ashore and dragged me to my judicial hearing. How could being wet in the river feel so good, and now walking in wet clothes feel so miserable? No one had an interest in answering that question. And why was my mother making such a big deal out of such a simple and happy matter? Probably the suit, fruit of much loving effort, was ruined. What happened to it after that is not recorded in family history.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


  Father McMillan taught us in chaplain school in 1952. He was a buddy of Father Connie Griffin, and recounted for us this story about his friend.
  Chaplain Griffin was with the Marines in the Korean War. His clerk was a young enlisted Marine, probably of Corporal rank, named Caruso. Father Griffin learned that his battalion was going up to the front. He also knew that Caruso's wife was expecting back home. He had Caruso transferred from his staff so that Caruso would stay behind. Before the Battalion moved up, he ran into Caruso, who broke down and cried because, as he saw it, Father Griffin had fired him. So the chaplain relented and they moved up together.
   Chinese "volunteers" had entered the fray and Marine casualties were heavy. They were pounded by artillery day and night. During a bombardment, Caruso touched the container of Holy Communion Griffin carried and said, "He is with us."
   They were not there long when one day Caruso saw an enemy set up a machine gun close by. "Father look out!" he shouted. He shielded Father Griffin with his body. Immediately, he was stitched with machine gun holes across his body, dead on the spot. Father Griffin's jaw was shot off.
   After Father Griffin returned to the U.S. he heard that the Caruso baby was born. I do not know whether he was physically or emotionally blocked from going to baptize the child, but Caruso's wife brought the child to him because that was chat her husband would have wanted.
   I do not know whether the Caruso baby was a boy or a girl. He or she should be over 50 now, somewhere in New England if the grown child stayed near his parents' neighborhood. This I do know. People coddled and cuddled in luxurious living, selfishly indulging in sexual infidelity, claim the title of nobility. Their claim pales before the lineage of that Caruso child, offspring of a truly noble father.

Friday, January 8, 2010

One Vocation, Once Upon a Time

The Lord intervenes, at times in dramatic fashion, in human lives in recruiting a person to work full time in His service. St. Paul was knocked down and struck blind for the three days when the Lord blocked his plans and stopped his way of life in order to have him turn to be his apostle to the Gentiles. Few vocations are that exciting, but I see a touch of the miraculous in all of them.

I have a strong and precious memory of a conversation with a fellow Navy chaplain, a Southern Baptist. He already had the responsibility for a wife and two children when he felt called to ministry. I carry in my mind the picture of him throwing his belongings into his pick-up, as he told me, and heading off, trusting in God. By the way, he and his family managed and many were blessed by his faith and ministry.

Other vocations came very differently from that of the chaplain and St. Paul. For them the call came very early in life and was positively responded to all the way to ordination or profession. For me the call was somewhere in between those I have mentioned, closer to calls that reversed one's life. It begins some 70 years ago.

In my junior year at Northeast Catholic in Philadelphia, Father Wisniewski spoke about a vocation to the priesthood in our classroom. He asked us to think about it. I had no interest and had no intention of giving it any thought. But shortly after, while riding home in the old car our neighborhood group used for transport, on Broad Street, below Einstein Hospital, I experienced a tender feeling directing me to the priesthood. I wanted nothing to do with such a calling. I had other plans. In those days, people entered religious life right out of high school. Late vocations were almost unheard of. So I was convinced that when I was out of high school and working I would be safe from such a call to priesthood. The idea vanished from my mind. I remember afterwards accompanying my brother back to St. Charles Seminary after his vacations, and never entertaining any thought that one day I might go there. The Lord bided His time with an honor I did not appreciate.

After high school, I went to LaSalle College, now University, and enrolled in Journalism. Work, study and vagueness of goals coupled with my young age were too much for me. I quit before finishing freshman year. When we came from Ireland, my older brother and I were put in the same class by a kind Mother Superior who did not want to separate us. So I was just 16 entering college.

I then worked for two years. In those years, I was consumed by the desire to be an actor and to write for the theatre. The Lord does not mind using our natural bents, on the order of bait, to lead us where He wants us to go. Accordingly, it came to be that I decided that in order to be successful in the theatre, I needed more self-confidence, poise and savoir faire. And this meant returning to LaSalle.

In my sophomore year, a Vincentian priest was addressing us in the auditorium. He had a crucifix in the sash of his cassock. I do not remember a word he said, but suddenly, looking at the crucifix, the tender feeling inviting me to the priesthood returned, this time in spades. It is amazing that something so tender can be so powerful. I recall comparing my life to a clock that was being turned around to go in the opposite direction. Some aftershocks of the same gentle feeling occurred, but I summoned every reason I could to prove that this calling was not for me. However, as someone wrote, "Before His gaze, falsehood melts away." Finally I said "yes," with little gratitude for the attention.

My mother reacted to the news as if she considered this the end of Christianity as we know it. I discovered just recently that she told her brother back then that I was going into the Seminary "but he won't stay and he will be an embarrassment to Pat," who was already there. My father's first words were, "He won't stay a week." The neighbors thought it must be my older brother Bernard who was going. He was quieter, less of a "song-and-dance" type.

Few generations have dealt with the turmoil in religion and the secular world that we did. In the Sixties and Seventies, changes in society and in the Church, which happened at the same time as the war in Vietnam, shook established norms and even religious vocations. Many left religious life to serve in other ways. I also had the burden of recovering from service as a chaplain with the Marines in the carnage of Vietnam. Though I stumbled on in my vocation, it took some 29 years to fully, fully recover from the war and the turbulent times. The Lord kept me aboard in His service through it all, even though He had reason to dismiss me.

Life as a priest does not bring bubbly happiness. We share the pain and turmoil of the human condition. It is not to be that happiness is one's sole goal in life. C.S. Lewis said he could get happiness "from a bottle of port." Nevertheless there is deep, deep satisfaction in a life's work of service in unison with the Lord's will and a bountiful share of happiness. We are uplifted by how much inspiration and comfort, and even happiness, we can bring to others, often with little effort on our part.

Both when I was young and now, people comment on what a happy person I am, often citing it as my most evident characteristic. So while happiness is not the be-all in following a priestly vocation, I have enjoyed lots of it, more than is allotted in life to most people. My "song-and-dance" spirit thrives.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Some Wonders of Evolution

(c)2010 Connell J. Maguire

The wonders of evolution amount to a story still too little told. My uncle used to marvel that, as he put it, "Everything comes out of the ground." He neglected to give due credit to air, water and sun. His concentration was on houses and cars. But much greater wonders abound than any he ever contemplated, and more are yet to be discovered. And to think that the potential to evolve was latent in matter billions of years before the process began on our planet.

Advances in discovery and an appreciation of evolution, its amazing process and influence, have been hindered to a degree by an adversarial relationship between religion and science. Those who interpret the Bible literally have rejected evolution. This has perhaps been an influence in luring some scientists outside their area of competence to interpret their findings with an anti-religious bias. Patently, open minds all around are imperative for progress.

Evolution has amazingly produced many feelings, now innate to us, that serve personal and social, even ethical purposes. The answers to how evolution does this will be found in nature, not in divine interference. It is ultimately to the advantage of scientists, philosophers and theologians alike that evolution be allowed to be purely scientific. Even though religious teaching and culture may influence the development of behavioral genes, evolution still is in control of making it all happen. Besides, a deity who had to tamper with a process he designed in order to make it work would be a rather ludicrous figure.

A short essay cannot of course tell the story of many wonders of evolution. Starting with the "shoe strings" of air, water, sun and earth, it has produced our eyes, ears, our genome and the brain we use to study their parent.

Natural selection has been adequate to explain development in elementary science, but there are indications that there may be more to nature than natural selection can explain. The totality of nature does not seem to be as passive and stimuli dependent as natural selection suggests. Besides, natural selection has not as yet even explained irreducible complexities, cases where parts of an organ develop separately and later join to fulfill its purpose. Also instinctive self-sacrificing behavior in some species for the purpose of benefiting others is counter to the thrust of natural selection toward survival. For example, termites and ants have "soldiers" who sacrifice themselves to prevent an intruder from harassing the rest of the colony. Birds and mammals draw attention to themselves to save others. Socio-biologists attribute this to protection of the gene bank of the species, but how did evolution bring this about?

The evolution of the structure of the family rivals that of the genome and brain as an object of wonder and awe. Evolution implants different kinds of affection between parents, siblings, and parents and children, affections we did not need to learn. There are also feelings in part of us for preserving the unity of the family. Couples fall in love. (Freud considered this a sub-conscious desire for the reproduction of the species. Not a song writer he!) The yin and yang charm of opposite sex company plays a role. Disobeying evolution's plans can be measured. Like lying, the disturbance within us of infidelity can be measured as unnatural. Also moderate jealousy keeps the slate clean of beginnings that threaten unity.

The family became the ideal structure for the emotional, rational, and behavioral development of young humans. The needs of the young for development are so subtle that the human mind can identify only a few. However, the design of family has the capacity to cultivate the desired qualities of the child, automatically it seems, in a family of loving parents. The child, when the ambience is favorable, has qualities that sprout "out of the ground," as from fertile soil, qualities that the parents did not teach explicitly or plan. Goodness and charm blossom as nature in springtime in this proper climate. Just as the structure and functioning of the brain is to a great degree beyond our understanding, so too are the influences that tend toward desired early human growth and development.

We can influence the family but we did not form it any more than we formed the eye. The question regurs: How was this great work done?

In light of the family structure can it be said that evolution teaches ethics? Dr. Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard professor, was quoted by the New York Times as saying that we are under the influence of inherited "programs of behavior that are more strict than many psychologists would have us believe." However, we are free beings and not so rigidly pre-wired that we cannot disobey. We do so at our peril, however, and the peril of society.

Paradoxidally, evolution also bequeaths us with tendencies that can lead to unethical behavior. Its needs in a pre-historic era, and its disinterest or past promotion of feelings or acts now proscribed, task us to cope with its negligence and "misbehavior," however excusable or even necessary these may have been at the time.

Hominoids were tender at birth as are we. A newborn calf can survive by itself on day one if nourishment is available but not our progenitors or ourselves. To gain a foothold on earth for the species, aboriginal males were programmed to impregnate as many females as possible, and females to be decorative to attract the males. Vestigia of aboriginal behavior survive. The male today has a tendency to be promiscuous. The female to attract indiscriminately. Sex shows are directed at men, sex shops at women.

There are other discrepancies in our nature that evolution has tolerated or promoted. They differ little if at all from what we identify as the principal sources of evil -- a self-centered lack of compassion, excessive acquisitiveness, lust, gluttony, envy, anger, and lack of courage from excessive fearfulness.

Can our religious culture change the generic underpinnings of these tendencies? Our process of civilization did not come from a sudden learning of facts, but from an evolution of the genes that favor civilized behavior, a gradual process of course. There is no evidence that our genes are not still malleable. This allows ethical norms from religion to influence their evolution. The spiritual and physical meet, but note that evolution has the last word.

Emmanuel Kant said that two things filled him with wonder, the moral law within him and the shining stars above him. He had no idea of a wonder already here and soon to be discovered.