This week’s Some Seed Fell…column:
This past Thursday evening, a unique situation took me back thirty years to the time I lived just north of Istanbul, Turkey. Such a recollection transpired through a conversation I had at a dinner sponsored by the Alabama Faith Council held at Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Orthodox Church. My tablemate was a Moslem, a native of Turkey, and sitting and conversing with him evoked memories of my own time there.
Thirty years ago, I was stationed in Turkey while serving in the United States Army. I was only twenty years old at the time, and it was my first experience away from the United States. Living in the predominantly Moslem country made it even more foreign to me.
The Turkish people were very helpful and hospitable; I have many fond memories of sharing a cup of hot chai (tea) with someone who insisted that we visit—when I was just passing by or in a hurry to be someplace else. They always took the time to notice the details of daily life. In this age when it seems as though life is quickly passing us by, I often reflect fondly back on that time when life seemed much slower.
Just before I arrived in Turkey, I had recently undergone a strong conversion experience and was on fire to read as much as I could about Jesus and the Church that He founded. But alas, at the Army outpost where I found myself there existed very little to satisfy my thirst. (This was in the day before the internet and Amazon).
One day while talking with the Protestant Chaplain (we had no Catholic Chaplain there) about my quandary, he handed me a set of cassette tapes that had been left behind by his predecessor, a Catholic priest. They were retreat conferences by the Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
I listened to these tapes over and over during that year, gaining new insights into Christ and our Catholic Faith every time. Archbishop Sheen often used poetry in his preaching, and this set of retreat tapes contained ample amounts of it. I liked one especially, and have quoted it often since those days in Turkey thirty years ago. It is a poem by G. Studdert-Kennedy entitled “Indifference.”
Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy was an Anglican priest, born in Leeds (England) in 1883. He served as a chaplain in World War I, and his front line experiences made him deeply aware of the cruelty that humans can inflict upon one another. He wrote “Indifference” about the treatment of Christ in the poor in Birmingham (England) and the indifference of modern men to Jesus.
I have thought of this poem almost everyday that I have lived here in Birmingham, Alabama – often as a challenge towards my own lack of vigilance and passion. Every morning when I pass by the Cathedral of Saint Paul on my way to the office, do I remember that I am passing by his Eucharistic Presence; do I sign myself with His cross? When He approaches me in the guise of the poor asking for alms, do I look for a way to avoid that meeting or reach out with aid? When He comes asking me to do something for Him under the appearance of those engaged in His work in the Church, do I welcome Him and seek to do His will or find a way to avoid Him?
These are all questions that haunt me from a poem about another place named Birmingham. Here is G. Studdert-Kennedy’s poem:
When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do, ‘
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.
There are many, many believers in Birmingham, Alabama.I am grateful to be here, where my faith can be enriched by so many.
Still we all need to be vigilant, to watch for Him, to recognize Him when we meet Him.
Just yesterday, a Catholic woman who had previously been a Baptist told me that she often feels that many Catholics do not realize what a gift they are receiving in the Eucharist—that they are receiving Jesus Christ. I took it to heart, for I know I have been guilty of it myself.
I once contemplated writing a book about the Midwest entitled “In the Ruins of Catholicism.” When I lived up there, I often visited abandoned shrines, monasteries, and churches—all now closed. They spoke of a glorious day in the distant past. Why did they cease to exist? People stopped caring, I presume.
Here the Church is thriving, new buildings are going up, new shrines are dedicated, and thriving religious communities are filled with young souls. Let us never forget the first zeal we felt at the onset of our Christian journey; but if we have forgotten our “first love” (Revelation 2:4), let us start afresh to ever watch for Him in the people and places around us – in our immediate daily life and be mindful that He comes to us in the Blessed Sacrament.