Saturday, June 6, 2020

MEMORIES FROM SOME OF MY "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING'" DAYS


THE SUMMER OF 1968
MY CHEAP ROAD TRIP TO CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK AND BACK

In the summer of 1968, while I was a third theology seminarian, I signed up as the first Catholic seminarian for a program offered by the United Church of Christ called "A Christian Ministry in the National Parks." It was a program to give seminary students experience in ministry. Since I was the head of a team of three assigned to work together, I was directed to preach every weekend in three campgrounds of Crater Lake National Park. On my team was a Episcopal seminarian from Illinois who was to run a Sunday School and a Christian Church female seminarian from Texas who was to be our music minister. We all met in Chicago to be trained at Saint Richard Episcopal Church.  

Each seminarian was also required to have a job in the park. I was hired to be the night desk clerk at the main lodge. I also filled in as a garbage truck driver, bar tender and wine steward in the dining room. 

I had the great honor of being selected to be the Master of Ceremonies for the Miss Crater Lake Beauty Pageant. Each department had an entry. The rules were they had to make their dresses for less than $2.00 around the theme of their department. "Miss Garbage Truck" won that summer in a dress made from green garbage bags. 

FIRST, I HAD TO FIND A CHEAP WAY TO GET THERE
   
GOING OUT, I DELIVERED A 1967 LINCOLN CONTINENTAL CONVERTIBLE

When you don't have any money to follow your dreams, you have to be imaginative. I heard that I could deliver a car across country for a firm in Chicago. I was given a car just like the one pictured above to deliver from Chicago to Seattle. From there I took a bus down to Crater Lake. 

The trip across country was wonderful. The car felt as smooth as if I were floating across water. I only encountered two problems. First, I got a speeding ticket in Nebraska. Even though there was no cop car in sight on the open roads of Nebraska, there are police helicopters who can spot you and alert a police cruiser. Second, I left Chicago with the top down. Thank God it did not rain, because I had no idea how to close the top. I was even forced to drive through the snow in Washington state with the top down which resulted in me getting a terrible cold. It wasn't till I was almost to the place where I was to deliver the convertible that I found out that the button for opening and closing the top was inside the glove compartment! Inside the glove compartment, for God's sake!!!


SECOND, I HAD TO FIND A CHEAP WAY TO GET HOME



COMING BACK, I DROVE MY FREE 1951 BUICK ROADMASTER


At the end of the summer, I needed a cheap way to get home or else spend a big chunk of what I had earned that summer. This is how naive I was! I was going to try to deliver the cab for a semi-trailer back to Chicago, until one of the summer workers offered me a free car. My free car  was just like the one shown above. 

He had driven it from Connecticut. It had belonged to an old lady who had kept it in her garage for years. He drove it across country, all through California until one of the wheels (left front) came off on a California freeway causing great damage to the axle where the lug bolts hold the wheel on.  The only thing he could do was to weld it back on which meant that it would never come off for a tire change. 

That was not all that was wrong with it. The compression was so bad that I had to get a push to get it started on my 2400 mile trip home. This meant that I could never turn the engine off. I had to let it run when I stopped to eat or nap. Someone made a bet that I would not make it out of Oregon! 

Things were going pretty well as I left  Oregon, crossed Idaho and entered Wyoming. Half-way across Wyoming, near the town of Medicine Bow but still in the middle of no where, I had a flat tire. Miraculously, it was not the  front left (the one that was welded on), but the front right tire.  

I got the bumper jack out of the car and started to change tires.
I was parked on the blacktop since nothing was coming in either direction for miles and miles. Once I got to the top of the jack, I noticed the car was still on the pavement. That old car was extremely heavy. On closer examination, the jack had gone down into the pavement rather than raise that heavy old car up. There was no way to budge the jack pole embedded into asphalt. I could not just abandon the car, nor could I change the tire, nor was there any human habitation for miles and miles. I was screwed! I don't know why I looked in the trunk, but when I did I miraculously found another jack - this time a scissors jack. I changed the tire and continued my trip. 

In Missouri, I wanted to stop at a roadside cafe to eat. I pulled into the parking lot and instinctively turned off the key. I was screwed again! I was forced to call a tow truck to help me get it started again. As the tow truck was about to pull into the parking lot, I decided to try it again to see if it would start. Miraculously, it started! Knowing I could not afford a tow truck charge, I peeled out of that parking lot and was gone before that tow truck knew what was happening.

I barely made it home the night before I was to report back to the seminary. I left the car at my parents house until I could get a weekend off to see what to do with it. It never started again, no matter how much I pushed it or pulled it. I gave it away and it sat the rest of its days in a junkyard. 

The engine was a mess. The axle on the front left needed some work. However, the body and interior were almost perfect because the old lady had used it gently and kept it in her garage for years. To this day, I wish I had put it in a barn and covered it up. It would have been a fabulous old restoration project! 

The weirdest thing to happen was the day when the young man who gave me the car showed up on a motorcycle at the seminary about a month later looking for me. He was on his way back to Connecticut and could not believe that I had made it! He wanted to see for himself! He was not the one who had made the bet, so I could not collect! 

When you're young, you take risks like that! I am glad I had some of those childlike experiences, without getting seriously hurt. Old people think themselves out of so much fun by being too careful! Looking back, there were so many things that could have gone terribly wrong! As Otto von Bismarck once famously said, "There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America." 


Thursday, June 4, 2020

A COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS........


......FOR ALL THOSE WHO ARE NOT ABLE TO  HAVE A PROPER GRADUATION


BELLARMINE UNIVERSITY
December 21, 2016
Commencement Address
‘A Hopeless Case?”
Rev. J. Ronald Knott


I was completely shocked and honored when I got the call that I was going to be awarded an honorary doctorate by this University. After seventeen years of relishing being a campus minister here, I had retired from Bellarmine University back in the spring, retired from St. Meinrad Seminary the year before that, retired from the Archdiocese of Louisville a little before that and I have been collecting Social Security for about a year before that. After all that retiring and collecting, I thought I was finished. I thought that all I had left to do was to find a place to die – hopefully in a socially acceptable situation! 

I am not the type to get awards like this. Oh, I have won a couple of awards in the last few years, but not enough to invest in a trophy case just yet. I am not a million-dollar donor. I am not a successful businessman or well-known politician. I didn’t graduate in the top of my class and I didn’t invent anything. There are no buildings or streets named after me. I was the MC at a Crater Lake National Park beauty pageant once, but I have never won one personally. Even Don Knotts had an “s” at the end of his name and I don’t. I am not a Monsignor like Father Horrigan who started this place. I am simply a priest from a humble background who has ended up amazed to be where he is today - all because of God’s amazing grace, my own unrelenting determination, the help of a whole lot of good people and a dab of luck. 

If I were to list my greatest accomplishment, it would not be any of the things listed in my introduction, it would be overcoming crippling bashfulness to become an international speaker, in eight countries on well over one hundred occasions! From stages like this, I have looked into the eyes of more Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops and priests than is healthy for one person! Yes, I have stood and talked in front of all those clerics, without batting an eye, usually a week at a time, and lived to talk about it! I have preached in front of thousands and thousands of Catholics, people from other faiths and people of no faith at all. From the feedback, the thing I am consistently known for is my simple, direct and straightforward speaking style. I may not be the best speaker in the world, but I do know how to do “short and sweet,” so here goes! 

All of you can listen in, and hopefully get something out of this, but tonight I want to speak directly to you graduates who struggled to get here today. Yes, I admire the winners of awards and scholarships and I congratulate them, but those of you who really struggled are my kind of people and I want to share a bit of what I have learned, especially with you! Yes, I do hope it will also be helpful to everyone here, in one way or another. 

I grew up in a Walton’s Mountain kind of town down in Meade County. I am John Boy, the first in my family to graduate from college. I was told almost every day as a child that I would never amount to a hill of beans. When I flunked the altar boy test in the second grade, sweet Sister Mary Ancilla told me that I was a good kid, but predicted that I would, in her words, “never be any good around the altar.” When I wanted to come up here to Louisville, out of the eighth grade, to the now-closed St. Thomas Seminary on Old Brownsboro Road, my pastor reluctantly filled out the papers, but predicted that I would not last till Christmas! After limping through my first year of seminary, the head priest called me into his office to tell me that he was sending me home, calling me, to my face, a “hopeless case.” I had to beg for another opportunity. (To get through the seminary, you need to get good at groveling! My groveling career was launched that very day!) His last words to me were to call me “a ball and chain around his leg for six years!”

Even when I completed four years of high school seminary, four years of college seminary and four years of graduate school seminary, on the day of my ordination, a woman cornered me at the reception and asked how long I had gone to school. When I answered “twenty, counting grade school,” she stepped back, gasped, and said, “My God, you could have been something!” Graduates, I feel like I have been swimming against the stream all my life! 

Friends, here is my point! In the words of W. C Fields, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to!” As a graduate of the “School of Hard Knocks,” from which I have three earned Doctorates, I have learned that if you want to get on in life, you have to do two things. First, you need to shut out those negative discounting voices of the people around you. Second, and even harder, you need to shut out that negative discounting voice in your own head. Henry Ford said, “Those who believe they can and those who believe they can’t are both right.” Marianne Williamson said, “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us!” 

The 12 years it took for me to get to priesthood was a piece of cake compared to the 47 years of staying in the priesthood! In almost every assignment I have had as a priest, I have been told by those who were there before me “not to expect any results” because “nothing can be done” because of “this or that” reason. I deliberately chose not to believe any of them and I have seen both small and large miracles in most of those places, not because I am some kind of miracle worker, but simply because I refused to believe their negative predictions, as well as those my own mind tried to invent. I have learned that people declare certain situations, other people and themselves “hopeless” because it is easier that way. If you declare situations, other people or yourself “hopeless,” you don’t have to do anything! Nobody expects you to do anything about “hopelessness!” Here is another quote from George Bernard Shaw that has guided me over the years. “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them.”

One of the most useful things I learned from my tough childhood is that “there has never been a rescue party out looking for me” so I have needed to practice self-rescue. To do that I have learned to be imaginative and creative and look for alternatives, rather than look for someone to blame or someone to fix it for me. Another of my very favorite quotes, one I used regularly in Bellarmine Baccalaureate homilies, is also by George Bernard Shaw. “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” 

All you, “barely made its,” listen up! One of my very favorite things to do is to walk down the hall way at my old seminary, where they hang the class pictures. I like to stop at the year 1970, the year I graduated and was finally ordained a priest. Some of the biggest brains and jocks, the ones that most of us could never measure up to, the ones everybody “made over,” bombed out a long time ago and some of us ugly ducklings, in a classic “tortoise and hare” scenario, are now swimming with swans! Maybe you have the heard the joke about what they call the person who graduated at the bottom of the class in medical school? They call him or her “Doctor!” As Yogo Berra said, “|It ain’t over till it’s over!” So I say to you, it ain’t over till it’s over, so be forces of nature, not feverish selfish little clods of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to make you happy! Claim you power! Take the road less traveled! Believe in yourself! Dare to dream! Work hard! Be determined! Remain focused! If you do that, then good luck will find you. 

Remember! “It’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to!” “Those who believe they can, and those who believe they can’t, are both right! Maybe someday in the distant future, Bellarmine University will give another really nice award like this to yet another former “hopeless case” who “could have been something.” Maybe that “someone” will be you!

To close, let me quote a few lines from the song “Defying Gravity” from the musical WICKED. 

I'm through accepting limits
'Cause someone says they're so.
Some things I cannot change
But till I try, I'll never know.

To those who ground me,
Take a message back from me!

Tell them how I am defying gravity -
I'm flying high, defying gravity.

And soon I'll match them in renown
And nobody in all of Oz -
No wizard that there is, or was,
Is ever gonna bring me down!

Remember graduates, they don’t call this a “commencement” for nothing! 













































Tuesday, June 2, 2020

BEING MORE INTENTIONAL ABOUT VERY ORDINARY THINGS - SIX

This is the sixth in a series of periodic reflections on the "ordinary things" that most people do on a regular basis without much thought. During this pandemic, I am developing a need to "rage, rage" against hast and laziness and replace it with care and attention. My hope is to become personally more intentional about doing ordinary things with care and focused attention, while inspiring others to maybe do the same.  


#6
"WISHFUL THINKING"

Wishful thinking is a belief that something specific that you want to be true is true regardless of proven facts. Optimism, on the other hand, is positive thinking based in reality, that something good will happen even if that good is not exactly the good you had envisioned.  

During this pandemic, trying to kill more time than usual, I have ended up watching too much television. I believe that I am an optimistic person, but two shows in particular, have opened my eyes to how deeply some people can fall into "wishful thinking" and stay there when every red flag in the world has been waving in their faces for years. "90 Day Fiance" and "Catfish: The TV Show" are two specific, but very popular, examples. Both reveal the stubborn gullibility, and eventual heartbreak,  of some naive people who become victims of  online dating and relationship scammers. Even after years of being lied to and being let down, years of sending money, the obvious truth escapes them as they cling to the myth supported by their need for something to be true that isn't really true. It is both amazing and sad to watch. The popularity of those shows, along with other voyeuristic day time TV shows like "Maury Povich" and "Jerry Springer," must all come from the same place that old sin of "morose delectation" comes from - taking delight in others people's failures, sins and disasters!  There is something about us that simply cannot resist slowing down to look at the car wreck on the side of the road - the bigger the disaster, the more compelling the need to look. 

The concept of “willful blindness” comes from the law and originates from legislation passed in the 19th century — it’s the somewhat counter-intuitive idea that you’re responsible “if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see.” What’s most uneasy-making about the concept is the implication that it doesn’t matter whether the avoidance of truth is conscious. This basic mechanism of keeping ourselves in the dark plays out in just about every aspect of life, but there are things we can do — as individuals, organizations, and nations — to lift our blinders before we walk into perilous situations that later produce the inevitable exclamation, "How could I have been so blind?"

Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything. The cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Many of the people on "90 Day Fiance" prove it each and every week! They see only what promotes their "wishful thinking" until the disaster is so obvious they cannot escape.


We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. Like King Lear, we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: what could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?

People who tell us what we want to hear are not necessarily our friends! People who tell us what we do not want to hear are not necessarily our enemies! Prophets are not, as many assume, people who predict the future. They are most often the people who make us look at what's right in front of us! They rub our noses in the truth. That's why they are often killed - not for their lies, but for their honesty. A true friend is one who risks telling us the truth and forcing us to open our eyes to see what we don't want to see. There is none so blind as one who simply refuses to see! 

In the end, all of us in some area of our lives refuse to love the truth, but instead try to make true what we love.  We are all capable of wishful thinking. What can save us from us are the honest people we invite into our lives - the people who can rub our noses in reality and slap us awake before it is too late! 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

FIRED UP FOR SERVICE



Jesus said to them,

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Then he breathed on them 

and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

John 20



I began my path to priesthood 62 years ago: 12 years as a seminarian and 50 years as a priest. In fact, I celebrated my first Mass on a Pentecost Sunday in 1970 - 50 years ago! During the last 62 years, I have watched the stumbling of a once arrogant church. Like an aging old movie star in denial, she seems to find herself embarrassed on a daily basis these last few years. But, do you know what? I love her more now than I did way back then. Like an alcoholic approaching recovery, she is going through that inevitable break down that leads to a breakthrough. It’s messy, but it’s real. I don’t despise her because of her sins, I love her for her courage to keep going, in spite of her sins. I stand by her. She can count me in during these critical days of recovery.


When I say “church,” I am not talking about the Pope and the Bishops. I mean us! We are the church and I believe that we are going to get well. I see signs of hope and encouragement, even in the rubble. I see and hear more people looking for God today, than I ever have!  The problem is, there are more looking for quality spiritual food than there are places that can deliver it. People are grazing across parish boundaries, denominational lines and traditional sources, looking for something spiritually satisfying. I see and hear people sick to death of second-rate preaching and obsession with religious organizational trivialities. I see and hear people looking for God in growing numbers. This gives me great hope.

"As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 

Where is God?   For a few years, the early church stood around watching the heavens, anticipating the return of Jesus, as he had promised. Expecting it any day, they were content to sit and wait.  This feast marks the beginning of the realization that the return could be a long way off and the realization that they had to roll up their sleeves and get to work. They transferred their gaze from the heavens to the world around them. Once they received the power of the Holy Spirit, they were ready to carry on the work of Jesus to the ends of the earth until that time when he would return.

Where is God?  People may be looking for God in great numbers, but unfortunately the pickings are thin. Some people are looking backwards and romanticizing the past. They believe that God was alive in the “good old days” and if we could only return to those “good old days” then we would all find God again. Thy are playing vicious politics in every denomination from Southern Baptists to Roman Catholics. There are others who look for God in the extraordinary. Since they cannot find God in ordinary life, they run from one reported apparition and miracle rumor to another. Others find God only in the future. They turn to passages in the Bible and claim to be able to decode secret messages and obscure prophecies and interpret natural disasters as signs that the end of the world is immanent.  Rather than trying to clean up the world that God has given us, they yearn for its destruction by an angry God.

This feast does not deny that God has acted in the past and that he will act in the future, but it reminds us, in capitol letters, that God is acting, through us, right now.  The angels in the gospel for the Feast of the Ascension tell our earliest brothers and sisters in the church to quit looking up, to quit looking back for God, but to look around them and see God acting in the present. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” “They received power when the Holy Spirit came upon them.”

My friends, the reason people today are looking for God is they are not finding him in the people who are supposed to be his ambassadors – us!  That’s why they are out looking in new and exotic places. It reminds me of that old bumper sticker from the 60s. “If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  Instead of focusing our attention on being the best ambassadors of Christ, we are arguing over church structures and pious practices and looking for perfect church leaders. The purpose of today’s feast is that we have power to do good because we have the Holy Spirit.  Then when people see our goodness, they could experience the goodness of God flowing through us. In the Beatitudes, Jesus taught us to let our lights shine, so that people can see our goodness and seeing our goodness, they will give glory to God. 

The message today? Quit looking for God only in the past and the future! Find out what God is doing in our world today. Get to work. Unleash the power that the Holy Spirit has given you. Let God reveal himself through you. Together, we are Christ’s Body in the world, commissioned to carry out his work, right here and right now!    

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”