Friday, June 20, 2014



One Christmas my family went, as was the custom, to Woonsocket, RI, to celebrate the feast but also to gather in the most expensive gifts from Aunt Kay. She lived, with my Gramma, on the 2nd floor of a 3-story rental on High Street. I had been there often, so was known by many of the kids my age (12) on the block. As we unloaded from our car, I dashed to the front door, ran up the stairs, and without a knock, burst through the door and saw IT under the tree. A brand new boy’s Schwinn bicycle, full of chrome, with raccoon tails from the handle grips and back bumper, with a powerful mounted searchlight on the front bumper, a horn and reflectors suspended at key positions on the spokes of each wheel. 

I screamed with joy, grabbed the bike and bumped it down the narrow stairway and out onto the street where I rode it with pride. Neighborhood kids yelled after me, “Hey, Charlie, where’d you get the nice bike?” “My Aunt Kay”, I yelled back, “Ain’t she great?”
Then I saw my Dad at the front door of the apartment looking like a thunder cloud. I could tell that something was very, very wrong. “You dope! What the hell is wrong with you?” he bellowed.
“I thought it was for me” I sheepishly replied. 

“It is, you jerk. But don’t you know, you grabbed the bike and went to show it off without ever saying thank you to your Aunt.  Get up there and apologize to your Auntie  and thank her right now!”

I bumped the bike up the stairs as fast as I could and ran to my Aunt. Threw my arms around her and hugged her as hard as I could. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Aunt Kay, I LOVE it!”
In typical Auntie fashion she said, “Now if it doesn’t fit right, I can exchange it for a smaller size.”

“No, no, Aunt Kay. It’s perfect, and I can use it on my paper route.”
This story stayed with me all my life. I remembered it vividly while studying, meditating upon and praying the psalms in the Divine Office during five years as a Trappist monk. I thought often about how at the beginning of “time”, there was NO THING. At that first moment, energy and matter evolved from a point of no dimensions and spread out to become the Cosmos, in which a universe of time and space, matter and energy spread out at incredible velocity. Ultimately, our galaxy, the Milky Way, formed and huge debris from previous generations of stars gathered to form our solar system. One of the planets formed in orbits around the star we call the sun, then the earth formed at just the right distance from that star, with just the right composition to allow for life to form, then sentient life, then animate life, then human life capable of recognizing the wonderfulness of everything as a gift. This is contemplation.

Our task, is like that of a child, to receive this gift, acknowledge it as a gift and use it as it was intended. Then we can say, “... from God, ain’t God great”, i.e., to praise God is much more childlike than to “Thank”God.
Thank you, Auntie Kay!

                                                                                                                                      Charlie Mc

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron

We finished the morning talk and were given an hour for silent meditation. It was the annual retreat for the Xaverian Brothers' Faculty and Staff at the Dominican House of
Studies in Dover.

I filled  a cup with coffee and started down the driveway to a spot where a small pathway opened up to the left.  It consisted of beaten down grass with lots of colorful oak
and maple leaves, indicating that it was the less traveled (but nevertheless still used) pathway. The descent was slow but persistent, as if it said "Keep walking, there's going to be something wonderful here". 

After ten minutes, I could see ahead of me an opening in the trees.  Then I saw that I was approaching a river, most probably the Charles River, since this was Dover, the watershed for Boston's greatest and most famous river. But here it was only twenty feet wide and less than two feet deep, but still flowing slowly, left to right, towards Harvard and Back Bay.

At the very edge of the river bank was a long new bench, six feet wide with sidearms.  Al Fornaro was sitting  at the left end facing downstream. Al is the Xaverian Football and Weights Coach, built like John Hannah, with chest and arm muscles near bursting out of his Xaverian Tee shirt. Al was silent as I sat down at the other end, and respecting his lead, I spoke no greeting to him. 

We sat there for fifteen minutes and although I had no way of knowing what Al was thinking , I tried to focus on my in-breathing,  out-breathing while shutting down entirely the angry engine within which surged to fill up every vacuum with hostile thought.

I sat looking downstream using the binoculars I had brought, until suddenly something moved into view.  It seemed to be a bird, possibly a very large bird, flying upstream towards us at a height of about five feet over the river.  Something inside me urged me to speak out to Al, but something stronger and better ordered me to keep my thought to myself. By now the bird, getting closer, could be seen to be a Great Blue Heron. I sat very still, and on it came. Soon it passed us within ten feet of us.

Photo credit: © Eric Rosenberg

We continued to be silent, and after ten minutes or so, I rose and left.


Five years later, I was in the AD's office talking with coaches, when Al walked in.  When I saw him,usually only when he was busy at football games,  I remembered the Blue Heron, so I asked, 'Hey Al, do you remember the Blue Heron?'

"Do I remember it? I think of it every single day" he smiled.

                                                                            Charlie Mc

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Morning Star


How cold did it seem to be?
It was blue cold.
The snow, the ocean, the sky…and me.
And I was feeling very old.
The snow dry-crunched under my boot,
As I walked out to the bus.
The yellow, hollow metal brute,
I knew there'd be no heat for us
Until we reached the half-way take
Of our frigid forty mile trip.
As we started past Musquashicut Lake
and my frozen nose began to drip

I looked out my side window
And saw a brilliant Venus over the horizon
And at an angle above the ocean below
Was an orange arc from the soon to rise Sun.
In my mind's eye I absorbed                                
This morning star's orbital path
Around the yet to rise orb ;
Then saw the same for earth ...

On which we rode, my bus and me,
Outside of Venus' circuit ride
Both we and "she"
A rarely seen cosmic view.
Around the sun which yet did hide
Whoa! I felt the solar system under my seat,
Which my mind long knew to be true,
But this was a different feat
The family of our Sun
Doth with us similarly twirl
 A story of the daily fun,
In a huge cosmic swirl

So what of me
Infinitessimal "mite"
Whose center can see
To the Initial site
From which It all sprang
At the Original "Bang".
                                                                   by Charlie Mc

[Written after 35 years of driving a school bus everyday to the school at which I taught. Image of the brilliant Venus rising just before the Sun.]

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Holy Smoke

Holy Smoke

“…glory-ey to the new born King!”

The echoes rang through the sanctuary, down the nave, out through the apses, spilling down through the cloister to the scriptorium, library and down the long Roman stairs to the refectory already stacked to the ceiling with baked delicacies the likes of which none of the monks had even looked upon for the entire liturgical year.

Christ is born. Hallelujah! The Word has become flesh.

Filing down the center aisle of the nave, the monks bowed before the Abbot as he shook the holy water in their direction. The line then moved out into the cloister for the long awaited mixt.

After being sprinkled, I turned left and knelt inside the door leading to the secular chapels and waited. After fifteen minutes or so, and hearing the chapels’ doors open and close for the last time, I opened my door and bent out into the biting cold wind coming off our North Hill. I walked out through the gate which was next to the “Monastic Enclosure” sign and out to the tiled porches along the front of the church, opened the chapel door, took a quick look around, turned out the light, locked and closed the door with a firm slam.

Then I paused as I always did, looking out into the darkened sky and the falling-away hill on top of which the monastery is perched. I looked straight into the heart of the constellation Orion. Above it as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw more clearly with every passing minute the Pleiades, an open cluster of blue stars nicknamed the “Seven Sisters” although without ever seeing more than six. I’d always loved the night sky ever since I was a paperboy in Norwood after dark on a winter’s night. I grew familiar with all the constellations over the Northern Hemisphere and understood that these stars were only those extremely close to our star, the sun, in a galaxy called the Milky Way across which light, traveling at 186,000 miles /second requires 100,000 years to complete its traverse. This galaxy has a close neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy, roughly the same size and located at a distance from us of 1,000,000 light-years. The rest of the known cosmos spreads out to a distance of 13.7 billion light-years. These outermost parts of the cosmos are moving outwards from a center point at accelerating velocity, a mystery current astrophysicists are just beginning to wrestle with.

In fact, the “Word was made flesh” of Jn. 1:14, is just as much a mystery to theologians as the beginning of matter and energy from a “point of no dimensions” is to astrophysicists.  Merry Christmas and happy contemplation!

As I reentered the church on my way to the refectory, I was nearly overcome by the lingering clouds of incense pungently symbolizing the mystery of mysteries which envelops us all inwardly and outwardly. God is within and without. Hallelujah!

                                                                                  Charlie Mc

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sound of Silence

                                                  Sound of Silence 
From Saint Joseph’s Abbey  1963-68

Whatever did I use to do on Sunday afternoons in the world? There used to be a song I loved from the “Flower Drum Song”... I believe it went:        
“Sunday, sweet Sunday, with nothing to do;
Sunday, sweet Sunday, my one day with you.
Lazy, and lovey, we drift through the day,
Dreaming.. the hours.. away...”

I still daydream a lot,  a lot more than I should probably,  but much of it is helpful now- although I could be kidding myself in this. I’ve been in the monastic life now for over 4 years and one of my favorite activities is to leave the church after None and walk out into the woods and up the hills and get to the most silent and solitary place, sit down and read a little, pray a little, doze a little and... fall awake a lot.

In the silence of the woods, the sound of the woods can be heard. All the noise in my head filters out, the noise of my fears, the noise of my plans and thoughts, the noise of my memories - and slowly  has its place taken by the noise of the present moment, the noise of the light breeze rustling the dry grass and brown leaves, the noise of a scurrying chipmunk, and of a distant mower... and the noise of silence.

It was on such a day in December last year, that I was sitting on a stool- made by some forgotten monk- at the base of a huge pine. There was snow in the air, and I was wearing an extra warm winter coat from the pile made available in the wardrobe.  My eyes were closed - I had been both meditating and sleeping, for me both are equally rewarding - when a loud sneeze sounded nearby. Before opening my eyes,  I distinctly remember saying   to myself, “Oh damn, another monk! Now I’m going to waste 15 minutes making useless signs to him about trivia!” So much for fraternal charity.

I opened my eyes.

Not fifteen feet away from me stood the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. Somehow, without a sound, a deer, a male deer with a full head of antlers had entered my silent space and stood there looking at me with my intensity but with none of my fear. I was obviously an object of curiosity to him and I immediately knew that silence was the attraction.

We looked at each other for a full two minutes. He gently snorted, and pawed once in the pine needles, turned and was gone.

The moment we shared will be present to me in total clarity all the days I live. I often think of how a hunter would have mounted that 15-pt head over his fire place to remember that event. To me it is a sin to even think of doing such a thing.  That most beautiful living animal and I had a shared moment, one like no other I have ever had. It is the livingness of it that makes it so wonderful.

How unprepared I was for such an event - and yet, it is silence that prepares us so well for such a happening. Why does it take so long for any of us to learn to be silent. To learn to open our eyes, to learn to open our minds, to learn to open our hearts - is this not the reason for us existing at all.

As Father Henry’s, and my, favorite girlfriend Emily has said so well:

“A little madness in the Spring
is wholesome even for the King.
But God be with that clown
who surveys that scene
That whole experiment in Green
as if it were his own.”
                                                               Charlie Mc  (1967)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Averted Vision

                                             Averted Vision

There is a practice common among astronomers who, when they wish to see a celestial object more clearly, avert their eyes from looking directly at the object. As an example of this, the separation between the two stars of the double star Albireo, at the foot of the Northern Cross,  is  best seen by this method. Physics of the human eye teaches that there is on the retina a small area (fovea) upon which focuses the light from objects looked directly at (stared at). If we look to the right or left of the object, the light from the object focuses on a less used and a more sensitive part of the retina.              

It is like that with prayer. When we wish to turn our attention to God, in what direction do we turn? So frequently we tend to believe that to "talk to" God we have to think about (have a concept of) God to which we turn. So often when we do not focus on "God" in this way, our mind wanders every which way and we find our minds racked with distractions.                             

Christian spirituality teaches that we do have an "adequate" concept to hold on to, namely, the human Jesus. When we focus on the human Jesus, his words or one of his deeds, we are focusing on God's human conception of Himself, Jesus. Since we as humans cannot conceive directly of God the Creator of space and time, hence of all things, we meditate by focusing upon one of the mysteries of his life on earth.

Of course, if the Incarnation is not an item of faith for one, as is the case with Zen-Buddhists, then the focus of meditation becomes that which is within, which can be perceived as “no-thing”.  Zazen, seated meditation, is an exercise in which, according to Suzuki :

"I discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in NOTHING. That is, we have to believe in something which has no form, no color- something which exists before all forms and colors appear." [Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki, p.116] 

That experience is not what we ordinarily term,"satisfying"; it is a desert experience, too much of which can lead to insanity it has been said. It is a battle, a war which Saint Athanasius referred to as battling demons in his Life of Anthony.  

The evangelists wrote of Jesus' testing by Satan, the "adversary"(Mk.1:12-13; Mt.4:1-11; Lk.4:1-13 ).This testing is apparently much like that experienced by Job when Satan, at that time a member of the court of the "so called" sons of God, asks God for permission to test Job's love of God with trials instead of all the blessings which had been his birthright.  (Jb 1:6ff,2:1ff)

In Jesus' life, it is the holy spirit that leads him out into the desert to be "tested".(Mk.1:12-13) When Jesus prays, he seeks solitude, emptiness and the desert.


Emptiness…is where the Real is.

Don’t run from the emptiness,

Don’t solid-fill it;

Steer by it, as with the North Star,

Make it your bone, your skeleton, your Rock.

For He said,  The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,’                                              

Where the emptiness is;                                

Punch through the empty center                          

And make it your axis.

“Very early in the morning, long before daybreak
He left the house, went out to a lonely place,                                
an empty place… Where He prayed”.                                                                                           (Mk.1:35) 

May I come with you?   


One of the most poignant self-descriptions of Jesus in the gospels occurs in both Matthew and in Luke:                       

"Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of of Man  has nowhere to lay his head."                                                                              [Mt. 8:28; Lk. 9:58 ]

In saying this, Jesus indicates that his home is nowhere, not a three dimensional, this worldly place. His home is with the Father. He faces in that "direction" when he prays; and so should we.

Recently, I was struck by a song sung by Allison Krauss on the occasion of a concert "Down From The Mountain Tour" at the Bayside Pavillion in Boston. I didn't catch the name of it, and I could not locate it on any album or CD of hers, until recently.The song is entitled "A Living Prayer" and it is on the CD entitled Lonely Runs Both Ways. It sums up what I've tried to explain:

A Living Prayer
Words and music by Ron Block
Moonlight Canyon Publishing (BMI), Admin. by Bug Music
In this world I walk alone
With no place to call my home
But there’s One who holds my hand
The rugged road through barren lands
The way is dark, the road is steep
But He’s become my eyes to see
The strength to climb, my griefs to bear
This Savior lives inside me there
In Your love I find release
A haven from my unbelief
Take my life and let me be
A living prayer my God to thee
In these trials of life I find
Another Voice inside my mind
He comforts me and bids me live
Inside the love the Father gives
In your love I find release
A haven from my unbelief
Take my life and let me be
A living prayer my God to thee
Take my life and let me be
A living prayer my God to thee

Astronomers fix their eyes on outer space, to see what reality is, when maybe we should avert our eyes from that to interior space to see reality.

                                                                          Charlie Mc


Every night, just before retiring, Cistercian monks (Trappists) sing the Hour of the Divine Office called Compline. At Saint Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, MA, all the lights are extinguished except for a light outside the Salve Regina Window behind the main altar. The monks conclude the chanted prayers by singing the "Salve Regina", a hymn believed to have been composed by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in France in the 1100's.
Below is a translation of that hymn followed by a recording of it..

Compline is nearly over,
        All that’s left is to turn out the lights.
The whole Church, Nave and Chapels
        Are like the midnight of John of the Cross.

 Out of the darkness a kneeler bangs,
        A monk coughs,
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God
        Have mercy on me a sinner!

 A knock on a wooden stall
        All rise and face East
The setting sun turns our Lady orange
        And her Son gentle, forgiving  with scepter and globe

 From the darkness the organ breaks the silence
        And the monks sing, “Salve Regina,
Mater Misericordiae…” and as our voices crack,
        Our tears start to flow.

 “Vita, Dulcedo et Spes Nostra, Salve”
        Straight to Mary’s heart we sing,
“Our Life, our Sweetness and our Hope! Hail”
        O Lord I am not worthy of hope!

 Mary so pure,
        Her Son, Infinite Love and total vulnerability,
What am I doing in your presence?
        Don’t my sins offend you?

 “Ad Te, clamamus,” out of the depths,
        My own personal depths
A cowardly, hypocritical sinner we cry, really cry out, to you,
        “Exules Filiae Hevae.”
 “Ad te, suspiramus”, to you this my last breath
        Is a sigh of surrender,
Weeping and sobbing, “gementes et flentes”
        In this valley of tears “in hac lachrimarum valle.”

 Eia, ergo, advocata nostra
        So,  O sweet advocate
Turn those most merciful eyes towards us
        Illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte

 Et Jesum benedictum fructum ventris tui,
        And Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb
 Show to us after this our exile.
        Nobis post hoc exilium ostende
O  clemens, o  pia, o  dulcis,  Virgo Maria.
        Oh clement, o loving, o sweet, Virgin Mary.
The sung Salve Regina

 [Salve Regina Window, Saint Joseph’s Abbey]
                                      Spencer, MA

Charlie Mc  1963-68