The Amtrak train corridor running from Boston to Washington D.C. and points south is the busiest in the country. Trains on this system now travel at speeds up to 150 mph. and rival air travel time. I can’t tell you the number of trips I’ve made on that system over years. I first took a train from Philadelphia to Baltimore in the mid 1960s to work in the Higher Achievement Program, a summer course for children from the inner city. Over the subsequent years I continued rail travel when I studied in N. Y. or worked at Jesuit Nativity Mission Center on the Lower East Side. In these early days the trains were often too hot or too cold and broke down frequently. When Amtrak bought new trains they were more comfortable and their speed increased. I continued to use these trains when I worked for Catholic Legal Immigration Network attending advocacy meetings in Washington and even after I retired, for example, to attend Board meetings of the IVC in D.C. I want to tell you about an incident that happened to me on one of these trips several years ago.
I was traveling to D.C. on a sunny summer day and making good time. However, as the train approached Philadelphia it slowed considerably. Actually, the train snakes its way toward center city almost crawling as it passes old industrial buildings or row housing similar to where I grew up. As the train slowed, I put down my newspaper and stared out the window. My thoughts quieted with the slowing of the train. What happened next I couldn’t explain, a trick of memory perhaps or a vision flashback? The train was passing the old northeast station and what I saw were pelting snowflakes and two figures huddled on the platform. I knew who they were. It was my parents who used to accompany me to this station and see me off on numerous occasions even in the bitter cold of winter. This momentary mystical view made me recall all their love and support over the years. That station is now a sacred place for me.
In our IVC reflection guide for October, the first question asks us how we listen for that small, voice speaking in the deeper stillness of our hearts. Ignatian spirituality is well suited for us modern busy people. Ignatius was a pilgrim, always on journey and he would understand our dilemma. Even if we don’t have the luxury of a monastic cell to pray in, however, we can still find God in our daily busy lives if we only slow down and listen or see.
We are asked this month to reflect on two chapters from “An Ignatian Spirituality “Reader. These are “The Spiritual Humanism of the Jesuits” by Ronald Modras and “Living Conversation: Higher Education in a Catholic Context” by Michael Himes. These chapters talk about finding God in all things, the Jesuits’ cultural as well as religious mission, the Jesuit commitment to the humanities and social activism. We also have reflection questions with poems, prayers and additional resources to assist us. To paraphrase Ignatius, it is not a lot of knowledge that fills and satisfies the soul but what is important is to sense and taste spiritual matters interiorly. In that spirit, I offer a few images and memories that came prayerfully to mind in my reflection process.
Among the humanities, music has often had for me a profound spiritual impact. A picture comes to my mind of Mike Rafferty, a traditional Irish music flute player who died a year ago this month. He was a mentor to my wife and me as we tried to play Irish traditional music. On one of his CDs there is a picture of him, sitting quietly by himself in his kitchen. On his CD he reflected how many of the tunes he learned by ear were passed down to him from his father. But many other tunes his father knew seemed lost, never recorded or written down. But Mike said that sometimes, sitting quietly in the kitchen, the notes of one of his father’s old tunes would suddenly come mind, and he would be able to play the melody. I practice a tune on my wooden flute alone in our kitchen and sometimes think of Mike’s experience, and it feels like prayer.
At our September IVC Board meeting in N.Y.C., we visited various sites where IVC volunteers worked. I visited the Jesuit St. Aloysius School in Central Harlem. In one class the children were singing and learning music. I had read about the story of “El Sistema” mentioned in the reflection questions this month. “El Sistema” is the inspirational work of Jose Antonio Abreu, which began in Venezuela where poor children are learning classical music. This movement is a profound social and cultural program that has changed thousands of lives already. I saw the joy in the eyes of the children singing at St. Aloysius and thought again of the “El Sistema” program.
At the same time I thought about another incident described in a book about “El Sistema”. (Changing Lives, Tricia Tunstall) A mother and her young teenager were in a park in Los Angeles. The child was playing his violin for the enjoyment of passersby and raising money for a good cause. Suddenly a teenage gang approached and surrounded the violinist. The tattoos on their bodies were emblematic of violent gang membership. The mother held her breath in fear for her child’s safety. Suddenly, one by one, each gang member dropped a coin or dollar in the charity basket. The look on their faces betrayed their longing for a chance to change their own lives.
Our board meeting finished on Saturday at noon. I took the subway to Penn Station in N.Y, got my ticket and waited for my train. I thought of the good programs where IVC volunteers work such as St. Aloysius. But I also thought about those other children, the gang members in the park, and their longing became part of my longing. Then I boarded the train.
Jim Haggerty and his wife live in Walton, a small N.Y. rural town in the foothills of the Catskills. They are both retired. Jim is a former Jesuit who spent several years in the Society in studies and active in various apostolic works. He taught in a Jesuit high school and in a higher achievement program for children from the inner city, worked in prison ministry, and at Nativity Mission Center in New York City. After leaving the Society, Jim worked for the thirty years with Catholic Migration and Refugee Services, United States Catholic Conference and Catholic Legal Immigration Network, CLINIC in various positions. During this time he obtained a law degree. Before retiring he was director of special projects working on a national effort to assist immigrants and asylum seekers in detention centers across the country. In this effort he helped develop a partnership with the Society of Jesus to create law fellowships in Jesuit and Catholic law schools. Jim and his wife were also “support people” for Jesuit volunteer communities in N.Y.C. for several years. After retirement Jim served on the Board of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and more recently he serves on the Board of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. (IVC) Jim and his wife are active in their local town. Some of Jim’s favorite community efforts are playing traditional Irish music in a weekly session and helping run a monthly “coffee house.” The “session” raises money for a soup kitchen. The monthly coffee house brings free music to Walton.