Author: vetchapel


As I approach a milestone birthday, I’m flooded with memories. One that comes to mind this morning is a time when my father and I were at a farm on County Line Road. We were getting milk from a distant relative; he generously provided it when we couldn’t afford to buy it.

His name was Louis. He was a veteran of World War II, as was Dad. They were both suffering the aftermath of battle and the stresses of seeing and doing horrific things. Both men were patriots in the best sense of the word.

I was there one evening when Dad and Louis were reminiscing. What I heard my military father say lingers with me still. He asked his friend, “Louis, did you kill any Germans.” The response was “Yes.” And Dad then said, “That’s too bad. Germans are good people.”

And a sacred silence filled the room as we all pondered the depth and the breadth of those few words. They bless and haunt me to this very day.

Memento Mori

Whenever I post anything related to death, I know it won’t get a lot of “likes.” Most of us want to avoid the topic. It’s too painful. Frightening. Even when we claim to hold a strong faith, we’d still rather ignore the truth that we are all destined to die. I suppose that’s one reason that the strongest of Christians would rather skip Good Friday and move right to the Easter lilies.

I don’t know why I was introduced to life’s termination so early. A second-grade friend of mine died, and I remember Mom and Dad walking to her house to offer their condolences. And I vividly recall the day my first dog, Lassie, was struck by a car on West Church Street. A man never forgets his first pet. And he still sheds an uninvited tear from time to time.

I was raised in a household where “Remember Pearl Harbor” was spoken occasionally, and I read the faded newspaper accounts and sorted through the grim and grainy photos of that hellish day, when body parts filled the waters of Oahu. Two of my brothers were named after World War II generals, and from the beginning I somehow knew I would stare death in the face when I became a man. My prayer was that I would be able to “outstare the darkness” and become a man among men.

In high school and beyond there were many reminders. The “Weekly Reader” began including articles about a place called Vietnam, where our nation was sending military advisors to stop the spread of global communism. It seemed so far away, but when the photos of the bodies started appearing in the evening news, I felt as though I could reach out and touch them. Just the way I was allowed to touch the hand of a great-grandfather as he lay in his casket. Death and I were no strangers to each other.

On December 11, 1960, the snow was falling in Corry, Pennsylvania. It always fell deep in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I was asleep in my upstairs bedroom when I was awakened by sirens and noises of commotion just down the hill, on the railroad tracks that ran through our town. A sense of darkness fell over me, much darker than the night itself. It felt like the end of life, maybe the end of the world for someone. The following day we all learned that two young men had died that night when their car was struck by a passenger train. Corry Area High School would never be the same after Terry and Mike perished, at least not for me.

And then came the death of President Kennedy, the hero who was leading us to a New Frontier…and to the Moon and back. I was sitting in French class during my senior year when the voice of our principal, Mr. Peck, came over the intercom to inform us of the tragedy in Dallas. Death had won again and had reminded us that our dreams can be shattered in the blink of an eye. Or the flash from a rifle.

In many ways, my service in Vietnam was in the natural flow of my voyage with death. I was never afraid of enemy snipers and mortar fire. I was careful, and I tried to instill this caution in the Marines I was leading. But I knew a Savior who had died for me and had risen from the dead, and I believed Him when He promised a place for me on the far side of the river.

More would come, of course. I’ve officiated many funerals, I’ve sat with families as a loved one slipped away. I’ve been on the scene after horrific accidents. I’ve felt the heartbreak when a friend has left a void that can’t be filled by anyone else. And there are times when the Grim Reaper seems to have the last word.

But then I remember that his conclusion is only the next-to-the-last. For the God who created life will one day reclaim all of life, especially those of men and women who were crafted in the divine image. So we can live with the awareness that our final ending will not be final at all. In the meantime, we can live each day to its fullest and drink the cup of joy gladly. We can pray to make each day an investment in eternity, and we can live deeply.

“Those who refuse to face death live shallow.”

The Escape

We need to get away. The noise is too loud. Violence fills the air. A nation is fractured…maybe beyond repair. I’ve had enough for a while. I can’t stand to hear another strident voice sending a call to arms to crazed zealots.

We’re traveling to the woods. A little lodge surrounded by forestland, where wildlife abounds, birds sing, and Nature seems oblivious to the chaos that humans are fomenting. The air will be clean, the rain will fall, the leaves will surrender to the season, and all will seem like Eden before we had to leave it.

When we pray each morning we thank God for our “home.” We’ve learned through the years that our understanding of home has broadened to include many locations where we find a sense of belonging, rest, and safety. Our place of retreat for the next couple of days brings good memories to mind: this was where Martha brought me right after my cancer surgery three years ago. I was weak and unsteady and fearful, but the trees were so green and full of life that I gained strength by just gazing at them. And I received sacred permission to go on.

This will be a retreat from the election and the virus. I’ve heard enough about both for a while. I’m experiencing what World War I veterans described as “shell shock.” My mind and my emotions and my inner spirit have been battered by salvoes that have made me one giant throbbing nerve ending.

On this little pilgrimage of seclusion and serenity, I’ll recall other places where I found sanctuary. The hill above my boyhood home in Pennsylvania, where I gazed at the clouds and then at my home town. I saw God touching and blessing that little city, and I felt what the Bible calls “the peace that passes human understanding.”

I will remember other spots along the way: a bridge in Indiana, a military cemetery in Virginia, a quiet beach in Vietnam, and an overlook on a trail in Seattle where I often saw the majesty of Mount Rainier. And of course, our monastery in Kentucky and the white sands of the Florida coastline.

I look forward to traveling with Martha tomorrow to find solace in the Autumn leaves and the harvested fields. I’ll listen to my heart and the faint voice of the Spirit. I’ll open my eyes and ears and every other sense to receive the gift of tranquility. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find the same renewal that inspired me to move onward from those other heavenly havens that were so life-giving.

A Long Time Ago

It was December of 1972, and I was in love. I was spending the holidays on the snowy banks of the Mississippi in the charming city of Dubuque, Iowa. Susie and I had spent the day Christmas shopping as the snowflakes fell softly on our faces, and our late afternoon errand was to buy a Christmas tree and carry it home. That evening we decorated it and dreamed together of the days and years to come.

That same day, another family was shopping and buying a tree. A young mother and her three children were traveling home when they were struck by a tractor trailer. The woman, named Neilia, and her one-year old daughter, Naomi, were killed instantly. The two boys, Beau and Hunter, were critically injured and rushed into surgery. The husband and father was in Washington, preparing to be sworn in as a United States Senator.

Joe Biden received the message and rushed to be with his sons in Delaware. He thought of resigning immediately but was persuaded by leaders in his Democratic Party that the nation would understand what he was enduring and would support him in every way. So he grieved the loss of his wife and daughter, sat by the bedsides of his sons, and slowly regained his footing.

I read the story of the tragic accident in the morning paper when Susie and I awoke to even heavier snow. We wept together and prayed for the Biden family. She and the Bidens shared a Catholic faith that promised the presence of Christ and the touch of Our Lady to a family suffering so greatly. I resolved to continue praying for this family and to follow the career of the young senator, who exhibited such courage and fortitude.

He went on to serve six terms in the Senate and then was chosen to become Vice-President to Barack Obama. His public service continued unabated, although other trials invaded his life along the way. In 1988 he came close to dying of a brain aneurysm, which required a six-hour operation to save his life. In 2015 he lost his son Beau to brain cancer, and Joe Biden will grieve this loss until his last breath.

Out in Iowa, Susie and I parted ways, but the imprint of our time together will be with me always, maybe even forever. I’m grateful we share those Christmas memories of almost half a century ago. And I’m also thankful for the life of that senator whose story broke our hearts back then.

I learned that this man’s compassion, humility, and wisdom grew out of the dark valleys he walked. I now understand how he could relate so gently and compassionately to average Americans who’ve been frightened and hurt.

I also recognized a great inner strength that emerged from his trials, and I marveled at his strong stands against injustice and oppression. I saw him travel the world to work with our longtime allies and to confront those whose ideologies were inimical to our nation’s values, beliefs, and policies.

Most of all, I saw Joe Biden as an authentic human being whose word can be trusted and whose faith and convictions represent those of the vast majority of American citizens. I was grateful last week to cast my ballot for this exemplary public servant.