Thursday, March 19, 2020

"I Grew to Trust the Dreams": The Feast of St. Joseph

At a time when many people were rejoicing in my ordination to the priesthood, albeit for myriad, sometimes competing reasons, I had to respond to one invitation after another of being asked to “come [somewhere] and say Mass.”  “People need to see you,” was the usual theme of the invitations. In the spring of 1973, the oddest invitation of that ordination year came from a nun who was teaching at the old north St. Louis Catholic grade school, St. Bridget, in the shadow of the Pruett-Igoe Housing projects. The nun asked me to come to the grade school and preside at a Mass for 8th-graders, on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph. The invitation would have been sufficient, in that simple statement; but as is often the case, she could not leave well enough alone. “If you can, please emphasize the role of ‘St. Joseph the Worker’ – most of these children don’t know the value of hard work; since they don’t see many people with jobs.”

It was enough to make me believe in God. Either that or walk away from it all.  So I said, yes.  At the beginning of the homily, I asked the students if they knew why Joseph was a saint.  The usual fidgeting and glancing eyes were the immediate response.  Finally, I said, I think we must understand that many people have focused on the fact that Joseph was a carpenter. But we don’t know any more than that. “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” is all we are told in scripture. We don’t know if he was a great, mediocre or merely competent carpenter. So I don’t think that is the reason for his obvious sanctity.  I think the real reason we honor Joseph with the title of “Saint,” is that, when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant, and it wasn’t his child, he did not panic. He did not reject her. He did not turn her over to the authorities in the temple.  He accepted her. He protected her. Because he listened to the voice of God which came to him in his dreams.”  Further, I said to them, “lots of people will say that many of you don’t know the value of hard work. But I know better. You have seen your fathers and mothers and uncles, aunts, grandfathers, grandmothers and neighbors, get up every day and hustle, one way or another, to bring something into your home. And they struggle, out of love for you and your family. They work as hard as they are able to. But it is their determination to remember that all children are gifts from God that makes us admire them and love them.”

As soon as I was finished with the Mass, a young woman asked me if I was going to come back soon. The nun who had invited me moved as quickly as the wind and came to the front of the room and told the students that she regretted that I wouldn’t be able to come back to the school, since I had such a busy schedule.

Two years later, when I was doing a Mass at St. Francis Xavier High School on the St. Louis University campus a young woman walked up to me and said, “You don’t remember me, but I remember you. You came to our school two years ago and said Mass. I remember what you told us…”

Thank you, Sister.

Today, just before the Feast of St. Joseph ends, I am offering this poem from the past. Like the other poems about Joseph that appear in “The Sankofa Muse” (entries #31 and #39), the poem supplies words from the mind of the most silent of saints.  The dreams, the responsibilities, the spirit-capture that changed his life. And the eyes of the child and the child’s mother:  The man listened beyond what was known and changed his world; and ours.

“I Grew to Trust the Dreams”:  Christmas:  1984
"When he arose, he took the young child and his mother
by night, and departed into Egypt."

there have  been no further dreams no other warnings
no more men who come crowding out the air  pushing
through a cloud of whisperings  no
no dreams come that last poised moment when
I would reach to turn my world towards what
is now
forever shattered
                                        I grew to trust the dreams

this boy  and her  the mother  all I learned
(what  to need  to accept   oh   to carry into hiding)
that night when every child in the world began to die

the dreams   the dreams suddenly vanishing
I cannot be blind to the blood without them
I cannot bind my fear without them
I cannot mute the howling wind
                                                                                when I hold
this child   he grows heavy  I look at him
touch him
                                  press my lips to his eyes   his ears
his hands   his heart

                                                oh  he is my dream  replaced
nightly   every child I see is him and every dream
his life  will be filled with

                                                      the telling of the day
the children began to die

                                                         you must live an anointing
you must bring them back
haunting my dreams  have found their flesh

I feed you child   a sea   a field   a night sky of
children blenching into silence

grow heavy with them