Tag Archives: Uptown

Depressed and Desperate

12 Apr

melancholy

“Many people…find it hard to analyse, and even more difficult to express in words, what appears to be destroying them from inside.”
~ J.B. Phillips

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Saturday Mornings and the Discipline of Daily Mass

24 Mar

“It is necessary, above all in the beginning of our spiritual life, to do certain things at fixed times.”
~
Thomas Merton, OCSO

One of the challenges of getting to daily Mass is the illusion it creates of superior personal piety. Those of us who’ve adopted the practice, though, are under no such illusions. We don’t go to daily Mass because we’re holy; we go to daily Mass because we know we’re not.

Saturday mornings, for me at least, readily demonstrate this reality.

For decades now, I’ve done my best to work daily Mass into my schedule. It was one of the first lessons I learned from Jim, my sponsor, in the months leading up to my reception into the Church. Retired now, Jim served as a public high school teacher in Chicago for many years, which was exacting, exhausting work. He also ran an Uptown soup kitchen twice a week – he still does! – serving hundreds of guests and involving the coordination of scores of volunteers.

Yet, somehow or other, he still gets to church nearly every day. It has been the lifeblood of his spirituality, a foundational discipline that had both fed and formed him. I could see firsthand how the practice was central to who Jim was and what he did: nourishing him as he taught and cared for his students; strengthening him as he managed the controlled chaos of soup kitchen week in and week out; buoying him in the ordinary battles of faith.

Jim would’ve laughed if you’d called him a saint, but his hunger for sanctity was nonetheless palpable. He not only shepherded me into Catholicism, but also became himself a de facto template for how to take it seriously, and central to that was daily Mass. I wanted to be like him, and so I followed his lead. Plus, it just made sense. If it was true, as I’d read in the Council documents, that the Mass was “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (LG 11), then why wouldn’t I want to participate in it as often as possible? Sunday Mass was obligatory, I knew, but daily Mass, while optional, was optimal.

Every morning, then, even before I could receive the Eucharist, I’d trudge up Kenmore Avenue to St. Thomas of Canterbury for early Mass. It was like liturgical remediation for this lifelong Evangelical, a daily immersion in the wonder of the Eucharistic drama that I’d been on the edges of for so long. And it increased my hunger for the sacramental communion that awaited me at the Easter Vigil – an augmenting of the long Lenten fast I was experiencing before I could finally feast on the Lord on Holy Saturday.

Yet, it was a different story on all those preceding Saturdays. Herein lies my tale.

Heavily Catholic communities like Chicago are golden for those who frequent daily liturgies. Parishes dot the map everywhere, and each has its own sacramental schedule. Most will have Masses in the morning seven days a week – some at 7:00, some at 8:00 or 8:30, and school parishes will even have them at 9:00 or 10. Then there are the downtown churches (and Catholic hospital chapels) which will frequently feature midday Masses to accommodate the lunchtime crowd. Some parishes will also offer early evening liturgies to catch folks on their way home from work – or to accommodate those whose early morning schedules make it impossible for them to get to daily Mass otherwise.

Hence, getting to weekday Mass is less a matter of schedule coordination than it is a matter of the will. That’s especially the case now that I live in South Bend, which, like Chicago, is very Catholic. But in addition to all the variables I listed above, we also have the University of Notre Dame in our backyard, and there are daily Masses all over campus, morning, noon, and night. It’s an embarrassment of Latin-rite riches such that, if I’m determined to get to Mass Monday through Friday, there’ll undoubtedly be one that fits into my agenda. I just have to get myself there.

But Saturdays?

Saturday Mass is complicated by the fact that it is liturgically encroached upon by Sunday. That is, the Catholic sabbath, liturgically speaking, begins Saturday evening, so there’s no such thing as a true Saturday evening weekday Mass. Plus, priests and pastors have obligations in preparation for the Sunday celebrations – not the least of which is the preparation of a Sunday homily – and it seems fitting to leave a bit of a liturgical breather between Saturday morning and Sunday vigil Masses. Thus, even Saturday midday Masses are generally cut from weekday schedules.

That leaves Saturday mornings alone for daily Mass habitués, and, in Chicago at least, that was complicated by our frequent Friday night reveries following soup kitchen, often into the wee hours of the morning. So it was that, despite my best intentions, I tended to skip Saturday morning Mass when I lived in the city, which disrupted my daily Mass routine in imitation of Jim. That disruption was perpetuated after I married Nancy and God started blessing us with babies. By the time the end of the week rolled around, getting up early for Saturday morning Mass was a taller order than ever, and over time I simply gave up on the idea.

Recently, however, I’ve made a liberating discovery. It’s been a boost to my spiritual equanimity, and I want to share it with you: The 8:15 a.m. Saturday Mass at St. Anthony’s.

You see, while I don’t have babies around the house any more, my aging frame nonetheless groans mightily when I attempt to rise at the crack of dawn on the weekend. Try as I might (and I’ve tried), I just can’t seem to make it regularly to the Saturday 7:00 at my own parish, or even any of the 8:00 opportunities around town. Maybe that’s sloth, pure and simple, but there’s something about St. Anthony’s 8:15 that helps me get past my inherent indolence.

Perhaps it’s the psychological assurance of that fifteen minutes past the top of the hour – a trick my brain plays on my will to push me beyond my lethargy. “Let’s see,” I’ll tell myself if I roll out of bed at 7:30 a.m. “I can still shower and dress and get there before the Gospel.” That sounds shamefully crass, I know, but it’s enough to get me moving, and I almost always get there in time for the opening rites.

What’s more, I’m not the only one. It seems like the Saturday 8:15 is a magnet for all manner of daily communicants, and not all of them are St. Anthony’s parishioners. Routinely, I spy numerous faces I recognize from other daily Mass hotspots around town – folks who’ve I’ve come to know by sight (if not by name) because we regularly cross paths at St. Patrick’s or the med center during the week. I’ve no idea if their reasons for being there on Saturday morning are similar to mine, but it’s comforting to see them all the same. They’re like my comrades on the spiritual battlefield, and meeting them at St. Anthony’s is like a weekly reunion of yawning saints in the making.

Which is, of course, the point. Daily Mass, like any spiritual discipline, isn’t an end in itself. “The ultimate end of all techniques,” writes Thomas Merton, “is charity and union with God.” If my efforts to get to Mass every day (including Saturdays) should begin to overshadow my commitments to family or interfere with my work – or if, what’s worse, I begin to pharisaically imagine myself somehow holy because of those efforts – then, by all means, I’d best set them aside. Nonetheless, as Merton writes, we all have to employ spiritual discipline of some kind, and it must “have a certain element of severity about it.” He goes on:

If we do not command ourselves severely to pray and do penance at certain definite times, and make up our mind to keep our resolutions in spite of notable inconvenience and difficulty, we will quickly be deluded by our own excuses and let ourselves be led away by weakness and caprice.

For me, participating in Mass every day is that one spiritual discipline I’m resolved to follow whenever possible, and the Saturday 8:15 has become its keystone. Even if you’re not ready to take up a daily Mass discipline yourself, why not join me at St. Anthony’s next weekend and check it out for yourself – maybe adopt it as part of your Lenten discipline. If you’re not in the South Bend area, see if you can find something comparable in your own area. Trust me, you’ll be among friends who won’t think twice about your yawns, and you’ll definitely encounter our Eucharistic Lord no matter what.

Who knows? You just might become a regular.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

36 Hours on the Streets of Chicago

7 Jan

“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own self-hood.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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Toting Christ

11 Dec

painting-of-the-eucharist-in-salford_large

“It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that He comes down each day from Heaven, but to find another Heaven, the Heaven of our soul in which He takes delight.”
~
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

My bus ride took me west on Lawrence and then up Milwaukee Avenue to J.F. Morrow and Sons. This was some 30 years ago, and I was on a quest for a holy thing.

I’d volunteered to become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion to the sick, despite being a baby Catholic convert. Frankly, I was amazed I was even eligible – I knew so little, I understood so little. But my parish, St. Thomas of Canterbury in Chicago, had many sick and home-bound members, and our lone priest couldn’t possibly visit them all. Moreover, the parish’s Uptown boundaries encompassed Weiss Memorial Hospital, so St. Tom’s was technically responsible for serving the sacramental needs of the in-patient Catholics there. My pastor needed help; I signed up.

After instructing me in how Communion visits were conducted, Father showed me where he hid the key to the Tabernacle, and then he set me up with the appropriate book of prayers and a pyx – that little gold disc of a container that priests and Communion ministers carry Jesus in. The one that my pastor gave me was standard issue – some kind of amalgam with gold plate and a bright religious design painted on the hinged cover. Probably he bought them in bulk – there were numerous ministers to the sick at St. Tom’s.

But that just didn’t set right with me. After all, I was going to be carrying around the Lord himself, and it was like we’d just met. So, I was thinking I ought to invest in a liturgical litter worthy of its occupant – or, at least, more worthy. These were my do-gooder days, and I had limited discretionary funds, but I scraped together what I could. Then, following the advice of my cradle Catholic friends, I made the trek to J.F. Morrow’s – the north side’s Catholic goods emporium.

To a neophyte, a place like Morrow’s is like an open-air bazaar in Marrakesh or Samarkand – enticing, exotic, and a sensory overload. There’s thuribles and monstrances, copes and candles, and piles of liturgical stuff that clearly had some sacred purpose – but for what? Who knows – and who cares? It was exhilarating, and my ignorance only added to the thrill. “Somehow, God is mixed up in all this,” I thought to myself. “And I’m a part of it now!”

Which is why I was there in the first place: I wanted to give back to the Church, and visiting the sick, comforting them, praying with them, bringing them the edible God, seemed like a decent place to start. The clerk directed me to the pyx bins, and I started pyx-2029597weighing my funds against my ardent desire to honor the Eucharistic Presence I’d be hauling.

Eventually, I settled on a simple 24K gold-plated design with a plain cross on the cover. It had a slight raise in the bottom, which I figured would make it easier to retrieve the consecrated hosts when administering Holy Communion. Nobody told me that I might’ve also purchased a silken burse with a loop of string to suspend the pyx from around my neck and under my clothing, close to my heart, for I would’ve without a doubt.

The pyx, though, was plenty. I approached the counter, handed over my cash, and left the store with my purchase – a mini-tabernacle – in an ordinary retail bag. For all anyone knew as I got on the bus to head back to Uptown, I could’ve been carrying greeting cards or a pocket calendar. Instead, I felt like I was carrying religious contraband – a little metal box that will soon enough contain Divinity himself. Me, a clueless convert, in possession of this exquisite, rarefied object. I could hardly contain my joy.

And that, in a sense, captured the gist of the astonishing labor I was intending to take up: Carrying the joy of the community’s Eucharistic celebration to those who were prevented from participating themselves, and then releasing it – like 10,000 balloons on a beach, like ticker tape over Broadway, but a 1,000 Broadways. There’s no hoarding involved, only transport – and then emancipation! What a privileged work – a Work of Mercy that Jesus himself enumerated, and thus an endeavor surely associated with spiritual benefits…but only after we discharge our Detainee.

Now, decades later, and worlds away from my Uptown Catholic beginnings, I’m a registered nurse and a nursing instructor – and largely due to my experience with that pyx.

Every Sunday, I’d retrieve the Blessed Sacrament from the church – maybe five, maybe six consecrated Hosts carefully concealed in my circular treasure box – and then, prayer book in hand, I’d trudge over to Weiss to track down the Catholics there. At the time, I was convinced I’d eventually go to seminary, yet, watching the nurses go about their duties, I remember thinking, “If I don’t become a priest, maybe I could do what they do,” for what they did seemed itself pretty priestly. The floor nurses were constantly engaged in things I associated with ordained ministry: advocating, interceding, attending, encouraging, and, most importantly, acting as instruments of healing. They themselves didn’t order the treatments and medications – the docs did that. Even so, it was the nurses who fetched the medications and brought them to the languishing and the dying and the ones who really needed them.

Eventually, I went to nursing school and found out all these things for myself, but here’s pyxisthe funny thing – and the impetus for this little remembrance.

For many years, the healthcare facilities in our area have utilized sophisticated medication management systems to help cut down on errors and tighten up inventory. There are several such systems on the market, but the one that seems to dominate in our region is called… (wait for it)… Pyxis, put out by CareFusion. I’ve been getting drugs for my patients and my students’ patients from Pyxis dispensing stations for years, but the significance of its name never struck me before – how could I miss it? I couldn’t find any evidence that the connection was intentional, and it is true that “pyx” is simply Greek for “receptacle” – so maybe that’s the only touchpoint. Still, the Pyxis, just like my golden pyx, holds the substance required for recovery and restoration, and we nurses (like Extraordinary Ministers) return time and time again to replenish our supply of balms for those in our care.

Of course, more than the healing drugs we give our patients, it’s the presence and attendance and listening and compassionate care we give them that communicates the healing Christ. In so doing, nurses can be like Mary, carrying the Savior to the bedside inside their very persons – as do we all, particularly when we receive the Lord in the Eucharist. Communicated and sent forth, we’re all Marys, we’re all pyxes, we’re all harboring heaven. All that’s left is to let him go.
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Holy Saturday: On Looking Back and Peering Ahead

2 Apr

risen_christ2-800x500

“Something strange is happening….”
~ Bp. Melito of Sardis

This past Holy Saturday I had the privilege of sponsoring my friend Chris as he made a profession of faith and became a Catholic – Deo gratias! What a joy to stand with him, attest to his readiness, announce his new name – “Monsignor, this is Thomas Aquinas” – and then celebrate with him afterwards.

Easter VigilAnd he was hardly nervous – way less nervous than I was 31 years ago as I awaited the same watershed moment. For those coming home to the Catholic Church, there’s a daunting realization that nothing will ever be the same after Holy Saturday – that life will get harder, not easier – and yet for some of us, there’s also a fear that something will mess it up. “What if I say the wrong thing and it doesn’t take,” is how my mind raced. “What if I’m not properly disposed – or that my Presbyterian baptism wasn’t valid?” I wanted to be a Catholic so bad that I couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen.

Even so, it did happen, despite my scruples and paranoia – again, praise God! The Easter Vigil is always glorious, especially for converts – those joining the Church that night as well as those who’d already done so, whether the previous year or even decades before. The rising action of the liturgy and multiple readings, the darkness and fire, the bells, oils, and dousings – the entire Holy Saturday mystique conjures up our first enthusiasms for Christ and his Church, which in turn remind us why we made such a reckless break with our relatively sedate trajectories and safer worlds.

Yet even that foolhardy conversio – that radical turning around which leads to new passions, new futures, new living through dying – is often accompanied, in the best circumstances, by delicate connections to pre-Catholic histories and experience. They won’t be tethers that hold back, but rather echoes that signify continuity. Our Easter conversions do not extinguish our past selves, but rather baptize and elevate them.

For me, there were two such echoes when I joined the Church. One was my friend Kevin, who was a student at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute at the time, whereas I was in Uptown, part of a Catholic Worker extended community. I was so glad Kevin agreed to attend the Easter Vigil – to support me as a longtime pal, despite his evangelical reservations.

He came up on the subway and sat in the way back – it was standing room only that night at St. Thomas of Canterbury. Kevin and I didn’t get to talk that night he left to catch a late train downtown as soon as the liturgy ended – but I know it constituted one of the more bizarre worship experience of his life. As if the Easter Vigil liturgy itself wasn’t strange enough for a Moody student (let alone seeing an old youth-group buddy become a Catholic), the rich cultural diversity of St. Thomas was on full display that night: Readings, hymns, and preaching in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese; a congregation that included immigrants from Korea and Cambodia, Brazil and Eritrea; and representatives from every conceivable socioeconomic and ideological stripe, anarchists and John Birchers, retired professionals and homeless vets. Kevin’s prest. thomassence in that highly charged and holy setting embodied a true bridge between my old life as a suburban evangelical and this (evidently) wild, unpredictable Catholic life I was embracing, and it gave me great comfort.

The other echo happened earlier in the day. Following my midday visit to St. Peter’s in the Loop to make my first confession, I anxiously watched the clock, anticipating the evening’s climactic events, going over the profession of faith repeatedly, and checking in with my sponsor, Jim – “What am I forgetting?” Then, a knock at the door – the FTD guy with a bouquet. “Congratulations,” read the card. “Love, Mom and Dad.” It was a long-distance gesture, an affectionate embrace from my folks in Colorado – most particularly my mom. She’d been raised in a Masonic, anti-Catholic home, and I knew she was worried sick about her crazed, do-gooder son joining the big Popish cult. Still, in the end, her mom-ishness overcame her Masonic prejudices, and she sent me flowers – a clear signal that she wanted to love what I loved to the degree that she could.

Such were the echoes that connected me to my pre-Catholic life back when I was received, but what about now? Easter compels us forward – are backward glances still appropriate?

It’s an idea that came up as I was driving to Mass the other day, listening to Van Morrison on the stereo. “We’ll walk down the avenue and we’ll smile,” he was singing. “And we’ll say, ‘Baby, ain’t it all worthwhile?’ when the healing has begun.” That’s the song’s title – “And the Healing Has Begun” – and it’s from his 1979 Into the Music album. It’s bright and cheerful with a buoyant violin accompaniment, and all the restorative references seemed apropos to the Octave.

Yeah, sure, I know the song is not exactly about spiritual matters, particularly in light of its later, more lascivious images, but its jubilant tone is hard to resist, and I hummed along as I drove – then this line popped up: “I want you to put on your pretty summer dress,” the singer requests. “You can wear your Easter bonnet and all the rest.” OK, bonnets, joy, healing – maybe it is an Easter song, or at least I made it one for myself that afternoon.

A few bars later came a jarring moment, however, when Morrison gleefully tossed out an odd declaration: “I can’t stand myself.” Wait – what? But he kept right on going with his jaunty melody and veiled seductions, and I was left scratching my head. “‘Can’t stand yourself? Where’s the healing in that?”

peterAt Mass, Fr. Lapp seemed to pick up on the same theme in his homily. “The Easter feasting continues, and that’s as it should be,” he said. “But in the midst of it, the Lord is still calling us to repentance and conversion.” It’s like Peter in yesterday’s Gospel, out on his boat following the Resurrection – returning to his fishing occupation, a pre-Jesus safe zone. Suddenly, the Lord appears and calls out advice from the shore: “Cast your net on the other side!” – an acknowledgement, in part, of this occupational echo. The Apostle perks up and swims back in to face his Savior, leaving the fish, but dragging his past with him. This is the same Peter – the “Rock” – who denied Jesus three times, betraying him despite an oath not to. I can just see him rushing to the Master to be close, and yet hanging his head in shame – wouldn’t you?

Anyway, that’s me for sure – that’s me! It’s the painful part of Holy Saturday every year, for I know better – I’ve studied the Faith, I’ve received the Sacraments, and I know how I’m supposed to conform my life to Christ, but I still don’t. There’s Easter celebration, no doubt, but an awkwardness, a disgrace: “I’ve been a Catholic 31 years, and I’m still…this?” Like Van, “I can’t stand myself;” like Peter, I rush to the Lord, then hold back, abased.

There’s more to that seaside Gospel, however, and it comes later this Eastertide. We see the risen Lord simultaneously eliciting Peter’s repentance and enveloping him in healing. “Do you love me?” he asks three times, and three times a sign of trust, “Feed my sheep.” In the end, Jesus points ahead: “And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

So, Easter looks forward and backward – it’s not static, nor is anything else static associated with this resurrected Messiah. “The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise,” goes the ancient Easter Vigil homily. It’s a look back, but then, ahead: “I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven.” He’s always on the move, saving indiscriminately, past, present, future – everything in his path.

We dare not duck.
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A version of this essay appeared in Crisis Magazine.

Salt of the Earth

23 Mar

salt_1364790cThe call came while I was out Friday night, so I didn’t hear the message until the next morning: Old Eddie had died. His apartment manager hadn’t seen him for a few days and found his body in the flat.

Eddie was the salt of the earth, and one of my heroes.

I met Eddie when he showed up at the Catholic Worker many years ago. He was a down and out veteran with an obscure story, but he didn’t reek of alcohol, nor did he seem like the sort to start a fight, so he got to stay.

Eddie was Polish – a dumb Polack, as he used to say – and so a Catholic, though I don’t think he was practicing his faith at the time. Whether he was or not, he certainly experienced a resurgence of piety after the Worker took him in, and he became very devout almost overnight.

The intellectual side of religion was of no interest to Eddie, so he shied away from the theological sparring that characterized much of our table-talk and porch conversation in those days. Instead, he loved to pray with anyone he could corner – the Divine Office, the Rosary – and he encouraged me in my efforts to get to daily Mass. Plus, Eddie started helping out at the soup kitchen, clearing tables and mopping up afterwards. For him, religion was something you did, not something you thought about.

Once he started receiving disability checks, Eddie got his own place – at the YMCA at first, but later on his own apartment. By then, I’d moved on from Chicago, but Eddie kept up with me, sending me Mass cards for Christmas and Easter, always with a personal note to the effect that he was remembering me in his prayers.

Later still I married, and Eddie’s prayers just multiplied along with my growing family. Every year, without fail, Eddie would send us Mass cards – Christmas, Easter – and every year a personal note.

So, Eddie is dead, but it’s hard to be sad, for I have a pretty good hunch that he had been been given a hero’s welcome on the other side. Like I said, Eddie was the salt of the earth, and I suspect Jesus always makes room for the likes of him.

Still, the news of Eddie’s death got me thinking: Salt of the earth – what does that mean? Usually the term refers to simple folk whose natural goodness is not necessarily matched by gifts of intellect or sagacity, but that seems too patronizing, even vaguely insulting, when applied to people as golden as Eddie and those like him. pope francis

Instead, I prefer the image that Pope Francis outlined in his homily the other day: “The Word of God…is alive in the hearts of the simple, of the humble, of the people of God.” In other words, the salt of the earth – the simple, the humble, the people of God – are those in whom the Word of God is energized. Referring to the day’s Gospel, in which the masses protected Jesus from the intellectual Pharisees bent on revenge, the Pope went on:

That simple crowd — that followed Jesus because what He said did their hearts good, warmed their hearts — this people wasn’t wrong. They…listened and sought to be a little bit better.

That’s an apt description of the salt of the earth, an apt description of my friend Eddie. He encountered Jesus, it did his heart good, and he sought to be a little bit better. No spectacular feats, no flashy accomplishments. Just a warmed heart, a bit of sweeping and mopping at the soup kitchen, and a whole lot of prayer. Eddie’s life was quiet and unassuming, but what he added was a richness that was palatable.

In fact, the Pope could’ve been thinking of old Eddie when he specifically referenced salt in another homily about a year ago: “When salt is used well, one does not notice the taste of salt…. What one tastes is the flavor of the food: salt helps improve the flavor of the meal.”

That was Eddie. He humbly and quietly improved life’s flavor for me, my family, and countless others. Rest in peace, old friend. Your subtle seasoning will be missed.

Love Lessons in Uptown

16 Mar

Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
~ Gerard Manley Hopkins

The propped up coffee-table book caught my eye as I was leaving the library. The cover photo of a man raising his gnarled hands inUptown_Cover prayer was itself arresting, but what really froze me in my tracks was the title in gold caps: U P T O W N.

I grabbed it, checked it out, and re-entered a world I’d left behind some 30 years ago.

The book, subtitled Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s, is a collection of black-and-white photographs by Robert Rehak that evokes the raw grittiness of that urban neighborhood with an eerie precision.

Although I arrived in Uptown on Chicago’s north side about a decade after Rehak took his photos, the landscape he depicts and describes was largely the same one I encountered. Uptown was unusual for the wide variety of ethnic and cultural groups represented within its borders. Also, many of the de-institutionalized mentally ill had made their way to Uptown, along with the poor who were pushed out of other neighborhoods experiencing redevelopment. “By the early 1970s, Uptown had the second highest population density in Chicago and high unemployment,” writes Rehak. “It had become skid row.”

A skid row was exactly what I had been looking for.

At the time, I was a wet-behind-the-ears, suburban-raised, angst-ridden and disillusioned Evangelical trying to rediscover Jesus in the inner city. The ‘L’ train deposited me at Wilson and Broadway, and Jesus wasn’t there to greet me – a disappointment, but not really a surprise. What did surprise, however, was the sensory overload that engulfed and enraptured me, and which I came to know intimately after I embraced Uptown as my home.

First, the smells. There was plenty of smoke, because everybody smoked everywhere back then. And the whiff of chili, garlic, and curry, fried meats and broiled cheese, bizarre combinations of spices and foodstuffs representing every manner of international cuisine hanging in the air oScan-130908-0086utside storefront restaurants and street level apartments – not to mention the accompanying tastes!

But the first smell to hit you was the acrid odor of the city itself. You didn’t quite know what to make of it – where it emanated from, what it was – but you’d never forget it. After moving on, years can go by, even decades, and you still expect that sour scent to envelope you when you visit again, and you’re never disappointed.

The smells hit you first, but the sights went right along with them, and you can get a pretty good idea of what the sights were like back then from Rehak’s book: A bleak and crumbling infrastructure, dirt and trash and broken glass, shuttered businesses and empty lots, and people. Lots and lots of people, and every sort imaginable. Black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. Young, old, men, women, and babies. Poor, very poor, and destitute – so I guess not every sort imaginable, because the rich didn’t come around all that often, at least to stay.

Finally, the sounds. There was the rumble and screech of the ‘L,’ of course, and the constant din punctuated by shouts and crashes and laughter at all hours. And the United Nations of faces and ethnic cuisine was naturally accompanied by a Pentecost of spoken word, from Polish to Portuguese, from Eritrean to Hmong.

Nevertheless, English was still the lingua franca, but with a twist that was startling to my untrained ear:An augmented, earthy vocabulary, and, hence, a challenge as I continue to relate this story. Writing requires words, and the words that I’d like to employ in this regard are, shall we say, an acquired taste.

But, I’ll do my best.

After disembarking from the ‘L’ and wandering through the Uptown streets for a bit, I made my way to the St. Francis Catholic Worker on Kenmore Avenue. After climbing the rickety wooden stairs to the expansive front porch, I got up my courage and knocked on the door – again hoping to run into Jesus.

jimmyNo one answered my knock, so I rang the bell. After a moment, the door was flung open, and a torrent of foul abuse spewed forth. It was a magnificent display, almost like a verbal fireworks finale at an Independence Day picnic. The greeter/verbal artiste’s name was Rosalie, and although we would eventually become pretty good friends, Rosie made it unerringly clear at the time that, in her opinion, I deserved not only death, but damnation as well for making such a racket just to gain entrance to the building.

And that was just the beginning. Jimmy was another Catholic Worker denizen who had a constant mumbling patter that was peppered with spicy phrases and exotic words. And there was old Zeke in the basement, who declared himself God the Father (making the more common claim to be Christ or the Blessed Virgin seem almost trite by comparison), and who accordingly pronounced all manner of colorful denunciations from his smoky corner La-Z-Boy in the St. Francis House basement.

Then there was Love.

Love used foul language the way Matisse used color, mixing and playing and pushing the limits. Plus, Love had a very subtle British accent – whether natural or a pretense was hard to guess – and it only added additional, ironic sophistication to her salty rants.Matisse-The-Dessert-Harmony-in-Red-Henri-1908-fast

And here’s the funny thing about Love: She used the same language to express exasperation and kindness, derision and delight. One particular word was her favorite, and by altering her pronunciation and intonation, she could use it in a seemingly endless variety of ways, including the expression of her namesake, love, along with affection and even tenderness. Love was remarkable in that, her speech and unusual behaviors aside, she truly loved her friends, and she helped me begin to really see beyond appearances for the first time in my life.

I went to Uptown to find Jesus,and what do we know of Jesus? “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” St. John tells us. Jesus doesn’t come to us in spirit alone, but in the flesh, to know with our senses, and sometimes it’s not easy to recognize Him.

Dorothy Day alluded to this idea in her essay “Room for Christ” back in 1945:

It would be foolish to pretend that it is easy always to remember this. If everyone were holy and handsome, with “alter Christus” shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. But that [is] not Christ’s way for Himself now when He is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth.

For those of us who sought God in Uptown, the disguises – and the salty language – were all part of the adventure. Too bad it’s only with hindsight now that we can recognize when He came by then.

That He had come by, however, is not in doubt.

After I leafed through Rehak’s book, I Amazoned a copy to my friend Jim in Chicago. Jim lived in Uptown long before I got there, and he lives there still, so I knew he’d appreciate it.

A week or so later Jim sent a postcard. He had gone through Rehak’s photos and shared them with others – including Paul, a mutual friend from those bygone days. Here’s what Jim wrote:

Thanks for the wonderful treasure of the Uptown picture book. Sure brings back memories and provokes reflection. Paul kept saying, “We were so naive.”

Were we though?

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Versions of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange and Oblation.

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