Doves and Cardinals
As we head into Pentecost Sunday, which is the day that we celebrate receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit at the close of Christ’s earthly ministry (quite literally the birthday of the Church), I cannot help but be reminded of one of the most common symbols used to represent the Holy Spirit – that being a white dove. Being limited to our own human understanding and experience, the dove is probably the most common visual depiction of the Holy Spirit – only competing perhaps with the image of a tongue of fire (which is appropriate in its own right as the flame lighting the Church’s birthday candles). But the grace and peaceful purity of a white dove is probably my favorite visualization of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is easily the most mysterious and misunderstood person of the Holy Trinity – probably because we can all easily identify with the human concepts of a father and a son. Both are distinct and physical members of our human families that we can personally identify with, but the idea of a spirit is less concrete. Even without the human analogy, we know God the Father as the creator of everything that is and as the one who spoke to Abraham, Noah, and Moses (among others). We know Jesus the Son as the human incarnation of God who was born — who ate and breathed just as we do. He walked among us and showed us how to ‘be’ the best us we could be. But the Holy Spirit is a much harder person to visualize without a physical body or a definite form – which I suppose is why it is depicted as a dove or a flame.
But the Spirit is the one who speaks to and inspires us on a regular basis. That quiet whisper or internal nudge suggesting that we do or say something in a particular circumstance is the voice and influence of the Holy Spirit. Many of the God-Incidences represented in this blog are the result of a suggestion or inspiration from the Holy Spirit.
I have made references in prior posts about my experiences with different religious retreats. These experiences date back to class retreats during grade school, high school, and college; parish retreats at Sts. Peter & Paul in Sandusky (where I met my wife); a Men’s Cursillo retreat (where I was inspired to create this blog). Just last weekend I experienced the Men’s A.C.T.S. retreat — focused upon Adoration, Community, Theology, and Service.
Going back over the past five years or so, teams of laypeople from our Sandusky Catholic community (as well as the nearby Catholic contingent from Huron) have organized two ACTS retreats each year – one for the men and one for the women. A few years ago, one of our deacons who is on a ministry team with me at Sts. Peter & Paul asked me if I would be interested in going on the ACTS retreat. While I didn’t blow him off, I was pretty non-committal in my response to his invitation. I was not really looking to participate in a retreat at that point. Money was extremely tight, family schedules were even tighter, and I wasn’t feeling particularly motivated. But the Holy Spirit is one for planting seeds; Deacon Bill simply told me to “think about it” with a gentle smile.
A year or more later, Bill mentioned to me that they were preparing for the upcoming ACTS retreat and were once again starting to open up registrations. I hadn’t looked into it much at all, but I had found myself a few different times over the prior year feeing almost a sense of regret for not responding to his invitation the year before. Neither time nor expense constraints had loosened up much for me over that period; however, neither hurdle felt insurmountable like they had both seemed when Bill (er – the Holy Spirit) approached me before. I remained non-committal in my response, but internally I was very much inclined to sign up if I was able to make the scheduling work — ACTS is a four day retreat starting on a Thursday evening and going through Sunday mid-day.
I don’t remember the timing, but at some point over the next several weeks or short months, I found myself in the locker room at our local Planet Fitness gym – a routine that I touched upon in an earlier blog post called Exercise for the Soul. I was never very keen on gym memberships. Despite the Planet Fitness mantra/slogan of being a “judgment free zone,” I still feel more comfortable exercising on my own in my home. I have a weight bench and a few dumbbells in my musty wet basement (quite literally a “man cave”) where I can enjoy my exercise in isolation. But when my wife expressed the desire to join the gym to help her find the motivation to work out during the winter months, I told her I would join as well so that she wouldn’t feel so isolated getting up and going at 4:00 in the morning! (The sacrifices that a husband makes for his wife…) So while she was doing her regular workouts, I usually hit the Planet Fitness treadmills each morning.
On this particular morning, I had just finished a brisk walk and was in the locker room changing back into my street clothes. Just a few lockers away, Jeff was preparing for his morning break-a-sweat. We made eye contact and exchanged the obligatory man-nod greetings. I recognized his face from different tri-parish and/or school events, but did not know him personally. He recognized me as well and broke the awkward silence by acknowledging that he recognized my face, but didn’t know my name or where he knew me from. I am a Sts. Peter & Paul member and Jeff belongs to St. Mary’s, but along with Holy Angels Parish, the three Catholic Churches in Sandusky share the same priests and hold many tri-parish crossover events outside of Sunday Mass. After we established that he had seen me at various church functions, without very much follow-up conversation, Jeff asked me out of the blue if I had considered going on the men’s ACTS retreat. I told him that I had, but that I was not yet signed up and did not know if I would be able to work it into my schedule. He told me that it was a really good program and a fun weekend. I left the Planet Fitness locker room that day knowing that, despite being recognized by Jeff in the moment prior to our conversation, it wasn’t really Jeff inviting me to take part in the ACTS retreat. I had just heard (again) from the Holy Spirit and I knew that I needed to make whatever arrangements necessary to get on the roster list of ACTS participants. Was it mere coincidence that mine and Jeff’s workouts coincided that morning to place us both in the locker room right next to each other at that moment? If you are familiar with the blog, you know that I don’t particularly believe in coincidences.
Going one step further, several months later, I was stopped in the Gathering Space at Sts. Peter & Paul one Sunday afternoon by Eric. Our daughters are good friends and were school classmates that year. The registration window was closing and he asked me if I had considered attending the ACTS retreat. I let him know that I was already signed up and paid for and thanked him for asking. Then coming full circle, I found myself coordinating a 10:00 Mass one weekend with Deacon Bill on as well. As we exchanged greetings in the sacristy before Mass, Bill lamented the fact that he had not pestered me just a little bit more about attending the ACTS retreat. The registrations for the upcoming retreat were closed. The roster was full and the team was not accepting any new sign ups. It turns out, he simply missed my name when he reviewed the confirmed sign-ups, but I assured him that it was there and that his invitation had planted the seed!
This particular ACTS retreat was not without hurdles of its own. The COVID pandemic reared its ugly head and put the scheduled November 12-15, 2020 retreat weekend into serious jeopardy. Despite the autumn surge of the corona virus, everything seemed to still be a ‘go’ for the ACTS weekend with strict protocols in place for masking and social distancing. But then during the early evening hours on November 11th, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine delivered a statewide address to discuss the critical stage of Ohio’s battle with COVID. During that address, he announced new mask requirements and restrictions on gatherings in Ohio. That quickly, the originally scheduled ACTS weekend had to be canceled at the 11th hour due to these more strict regulations. While a disappointing setback, the Spirit was not to be denied and several months later, a new spring weekend was scheduled – May 13-16, 2021.
I’ve written about my dad in prior blog posts and his final years which were marred by his declining health from dementia and a swallowing disorder which deprived him of the joy and dignity of eating normal food in a normal way. In 2006, when he and my mom drove up to Sandusky to take part in a Sts. Peter & Paul retreat that my wife and I were tagged to lead, dad was still feeding normally, but the earliest signs of dementia were starting to appear.
I made a Cursillo in 2008 at Our Lady of the Pines retreat center in Fremont (coincidentally the same location where the current ACTS retreats are held). I don’t remember my Cursillo roommate’s name (sadly I did not keep in touch with those folks due to lack of ongoing contact) but his appearance and demeanor reminded me a bit of my dad.
Dad was not a big tech guy. His tech sense probably plateaued out with VHS players and cable ready TVs. He and mom had a computer in later years, but he would never use it – always afraid of breaking it. When I was home for a visit, he would sometimes ask me to find stuff online for him rather than try to look it up himself. I’ll never forget the time he asked me if I could go to “ww.winemaking.com” (not a site URL that he knew of specifically) and print out whatever I could find there. What he was really asking me to do, but didn’t know how to express it, was to perform an online search of winemaking to see what resources I could find online for him. Dad grew his own grapes and dabbled in making his own wine, but it was far from a refined vintage! I think he more often ended up with a bottle of heavily sedimented vinegar rather than a fine wine. But that didn’t stop him from trying over and over again.
Being computer and iPhone illiterate, dad resorted to using pens and spiral bound memo pads to jot down notes and reminders to himself. He filled up dozens and dozens of those memo pads with mundane notes and reminders and kept just about all of them after they were filled up. He became well known in various circles for always having a spiral memo pad and pen in his shirt pocket at all times – the very same shirt pockets that decades before always had a pack of unfiltered camels and a Zippo lighter, now housed a pen and memo pad. One year we had the opportunity to take mom and dad with us to Disney World over Easter break. (I blogged about this Disney Diversion back in 2013). Dad was off of solid foods and on the permanent feeding tube by then, so we couldn’t give him an Easter basket full of candy. Instead, he got about 15 or 20 new memo pads in his surprise Easter basket and he was about as excited with that as most kids are with jelly beans and chocolate bunnies!
It wasn’t until after his death that I looked through many of his memo pads and realized the extent of what he wrote in them. Everything from shopping lists to “to-do” lists to calculating his gas mileage on fuel fill-ups and more. But I also found several writings which were a bit bittersweet to read. He wrote countless reminders to himself of things he knew that he should be able to remember but could not. I was able to recognize these entries because they were usually repeated, often word for word, on the first page or two of each new memo pad volume. I’m still not entirely sure if these were his easy access cheat sheets for quick referrals during conversations with others or if they were his self evaluation/self scored tests to make sure he could still remember all of those key details. Perhaps they were a combination of these two possibilities.
Like my dad, I tend to take a lot of notes of thoughts and ideas and things I need to remember, but most of my notes are typed into a laptop or an iPhone rather than handwritten in a memo pad. That doesn’t make them any more organized, but I’ve taken advantage of the technological advances that are now commonplace to everyday life in the 21st century. As our rescheduled ACTS retreat approached, I knew that I would not be permitted to have my laptop or iPhone with me. For the first time in a good while, I pulled out my printed copy of the Bible (as opposed to the app I have on my phone). I have a paperback Catholic Study Bible that I keep in an old denim cloth case – sun faded from the summer it spent in the back window of my car. It has several zippered pockets filled with old prayer cards, a plastic rosary, and a pen and highlighter. But I realized that I had no note paper in any of the pockets. So on Thursday morning before we left for the retreat, I went to Target and bought a three pack of spiral bound memo pads just like the kind dad used to carry. As I turned the package over a few times in my hand standing in the office supply aisle, the irony of my purchase was not something that I quickly dismissed. The last time I bought something of this sort was just prior to that Disney Easter trip eight years ago. I made a quick and quiet mental note of this recognition and continued shopping for a few other items I thought I might need. When I got home, I made sure to tuck one of those new memo pads into my zippered bible case.
Flash forward to the Friday morning after we spent our first night at the retreat center. As we entered the retreat room where we would break up into our assigned tables and seats, each place setting had a folder of retreat reference materials and a single spiral bound memo pad for note taking. I chuckled to myself when I saw this memo pad waiting for me and cast a quick glance upward where I assumed dad was grinning back down at me knowing that I had just spent $2.19 on the unnecessary purchase of an item I was about to be given for free!
One of the people I met at the ACTS retreat was Roger, a tall soft-spoken gentleman who – ironically – shared stories with us of his own father’s wine making hobby. I also met several Sandusky area folks with connections to Steubenville. A few participants had children or grandchildren who were students or alumni of Franciscan University. On my ride back to town when the Spirit filled weekend was coming to a close, I learned that our driver Dan had lived in Steubenville for several years while attending FUS himself. When I asked him what parts of town he lived in, he rattled off a few different streets/neighborhoods which I recognized as being in close proximity to the university campus. He said then he later had a house in a small community south of Steubenville, which he described as being near “Mingo Junction.” Those who aren’t familiar with the area should know that if you use Mingo Jct. as your geographic reference point rather than Steubenville itself, you are getting pretty specific. Although I claim Steubenville as my hometown, I actually lived most of my early life in neighboring Wintersville. My dad’s immigrant Slovak family had settled in Mingo Jct. and my first six months of life were spent in that fine Ohio River town. And did I forget to mention that by design, I wasn’t even supposed to be riding back from the retreat with Dan? My scheduled return ride would have been with Mike, but it turned out that Mike had a Sunday scheduling conflict that prevented him from returning directly to Sandusky from Fremont. So it was either by random volunteering or designation that I was assigned to ride home with Dan and Brandon. (No coincidence from the Spirit there!)
Also, perhaps of lesser significance, but still of no coincidence – Brandon reminisced on our return drive to Sandusky of his childhood experiences with a popular ice cream stand that we passed as we approached downtown. He recalled getting a 50¢ deal on “mistakes” that happened to be made during the course of any given day. Perhaps a worker put crushed nuts on a sundae when they weren’t supposed to, or maybe they mistakenly put caramel topping on a dessert that was meant to have peanut butter topping. Rather than throw out these mistakes, they were put into a special cooler and were sold at a discount to neighborhood kids who upon special request happened to ask whether there were any “mistakes” available to purchase. Brandon wondered out loud if that practice was still their policy. I had no idea myself, but piped up that I could soon find out! In less than five short hours from that moment, my daughter was scheduled to start her very first shift of her very first summer job – at that very ice cream stand! (Spoiler alert – that “mistake” policy and price is still in effect).
I have one other brief observation to share about Brandon – he was fortunate enough to share this ACTS weekend experience with his dad who was on the team (and they were not the only father and son tandem on the weekend roster). I will always remember during the participant introductions the way that Brandon explained his decision to come to this ACTS weekend, although I may not get his quote verbatim. He commented that he knew nothing about the details of what would take place over the weekend, but he did know two things for certain: “My dad believes in the ACTS retreat and *I* believe in him.” Is there a more perfect way to share that sentiment?
I don’t have hundreds of regular blog followers and there may not be any prospective ACTS retreatants reading the blog. But out of respect for the program and to preserve the special encounters of the ACTS weekend, I am not going to disclose any additional details of the actual experience. I don’t believe my disclosure that there were free spiral bound memo pads or that we were to have assigned return drivers is going to ruin any key surprises for anyone contemplating participation in the ACTS experience. But suffice to say, the ACTS retreat was an enjoyable spiritual encounter that I would recommend to anyone. I have been on quite a few retreats in the past and have even led a few. Each one is always better than the last. Between the above “coincidental” reminders of my dad’s home town and his obsession with spiral bound memo pads and a few heartfelt talks from team members about their life experiences with their own fathers, I found myself reflecting upon my relationship with my dad on more than one occasion last weekend.
On the Monday after our ACTS retreat, I had the opportunity to go for a walk and to contemplate the weekend’s events. I had several different locations to choose from for my walk. Even as I left my house and drove away in my car, I still had not made a final decision on where I was going to go. As I mulled over the possibilities, I decided to drive over to Osborn Park and take a walk through the woods there. As I drove down Perkins Avenue toward the park, a random thought in my head suggested that I just drive a short distance further and go to Sheldon’s Marsh instead. (This area will always hold a special place in my heart as it is where my wife and I went walking one late summer afternoon when I proposed to her). But this wasn’t a random thought. Like many other thoughts and suggestions before it, this was a Spirit led change of plans. –> Coincidentally [I LOVE mis-using that word in this blog], this wasn’t the first time I was led by the Spirit to take a morning walk at Sheldon’s Marsh. That same thing happened to me in my most recent blog post from just over a year ago – Touched by Heaven).
While I was at Sheldon’s Marsh this past Monday, I followed a red cardinal for several minutes in and out of the trees trying to get a clear photo. Each time he stopped to perch on a tree branch, I crept just a bit closer trying to get the perfect unobstructed angle, but he kept flying away before I could snap the shot. I’m fairly certain it was not the same one I shadowed all the way up the path, but I eventually found a cardinal at the north end of the park near the boardwalk that leads out to the beach. I got one shot of him in a nearby tree, before he flew down to the boardwalk — landing just a few feet ahead of me. Just as I was about to take his photo he flew away and I was a bit discouraged to have missed his best and clearest pose yet. It wasn’t until a good while later back at home that I discovered I hadn’t missed him at all! His action pose that I didn’t even realize I’d snapped was far greater than the still shot I was trying to capture of him standing on the boardwalk.
Some people say that cardinals are signs of departed loved ones who are visiting you – especially when you are or have been thinking about them recently. We have often spoken in that way about dad over the past six years. When he was still with us, he was often turning old scraps of wood and rusty discarded license plates into makeshift bird houses — when he was still physically and mentally capable of that sort of thing. Ironic that I just returned home from a weekend men’s retreat which had one or two significant reminders of dad before I encountered this beautiful red fellow who patiently waited for me to capture this exact moment.
From the white dove of the Holy Spirit leading me to the ACTS retreat to the red cardinal who visited me so soon after the experience…