Monthly Archives: February 2021

Father Seamus

It was Concordia this past Monday: a feast of Ancient Rome in which folks would gather for a meal with the express purpose of resolving all disputes. A lovely idea, I think, but since we are not encouraged to gather these days, I didn’t bother to write about it. Still, Concordia remained at the back of my head all that day: the concept of goodwill behind it felt like the kind of holiday my friend Seamus Murtagh could really get behind.

The weekend before, we got the news that Father Seamus had left this earthly life. If the name sounds familiar, perhaps you are a subscriber to the other bit of writing I do, the Convivio Dispatch from Lake WorthIn the Dispatch, years ago, I made Father Seamus the pastor at St. Bernard’s here in town. The thing to understand about the Dispatch (and I think most of my readers understand this) is that it is an exercise in creative nonfiction: a bit of local reality peppered with some things I’ve made up. When I was a boy, my grandmother, Assunta, an immigrant from Apulia in Southern Italy, would accuse me of “telling stories” whenever she caught me in a lie, and it’s kind of funny that she was right: this is what I do. I tell stories and after a while no one knows what is fiction and what is not, not even me. I mean no harm by it; I just like a good story.

Here’s what is fact: Father Seamus was a great guy. He was the pastor at St. Ann’s in West Palm Beach, the oldest Catholic church in the county, which is the very last church that John F. Kennedy attended, the Sunday before his trip to Texas, and which looks nothing like most churches in Florida for it was built back when this place was a pioneer town, in the very early 1900s. My first visit was for the Feast of the Assumption, my grandmother Assunta’s birthday, on the Fifteenth of August one year soon after we got our home in Lake Worth. Father Seamus was not there then; St. Ann’s was run by Jesuits at first and they were there that first visit. Seamus came not long after the Jesuits left. What a fine man he was. Seamus always warmly welcomed me, and Seth, too . . . which is not the typical response a gay couple get at a Catholic church. He reminded us that it was our church as much as anyone else’s, and that we should always feel welcome.

I’d bring my entire family to Seamus’ special services: to communal reconciliation, to Holy Thursday Mass, to Easter Vigil Mass. Between Adriana Samargia’s beautiful singing and Father Seamus’ moving homilies, the experience was always sublime. He’d tell great stories. And he’d recite poetry. Out of nowhere, it would seem: standing before the congregation, holding the inside sleeves of his vestments as he recited––a habit, you could tell, that he picked up as a schoolboy. He was Irish through and through, born in the old country in County Roscommon, and when he told jokes his accent would grow thicker the nearer he got to the punch line. Father Seamus made us all feel so good about being human and striving for connection with others and with God. And I will always remember him, too, quietly launching into these words at every Mass, after communion:

Lord, I believe in you: increase my faith.
I trust in you: strengthen my trust.
I love you: let me love you more and more.
I am sorry for my sins: deepen my sorrow.

I worship you as my first beginning,
I long for you as my last end,
I praise you as my constant helper,
And call on you as my loving protector.

I want to do what you ask of me:
In the way you ask,
For as long as you ask,
Because you ask it.

Let me love you, my Lord and my God,
And see myself as I really am:
A pilgrim in this world,
A Christian called to respect and love
All whose lives I touch.

Amen. It is the pilgrim in this world part that always touched me, and I think it resonated with him, too. And now he has moved on, from this world, on another pilgrimage of sorts. I can count on one hand all the times I’ve been back to St. Ann’s since Father Seamus retired and the day I decided it just wasn’t the same welcoming place for me as it had been whilst in his care. Be that as it may, Seamus and I will still get together at St. Bernard’s in those Convivio Dispatches. He’ll always be the pastor at St. Bernard’s, and Sister Kathleen, the Reluctant Organist, she will always be in charge of the music ministry. Seamus will still come round for bacon and peanut butter sandwiches at Minnie’s Diner, and he will inevitably bump into my neighbor Margaret on occasion. Margaret, too, has been known to recite a poem when the mood strikes. The Great Seamus v. Margaret Poetry Showdown that happened as they sat side by side at Minnie’s counter still is the stuff of legend in this town. We all remember it as the fine spring morning when Margaret got Seamus flummoxed with one of the sexier stanzas of Robert Herrick’s Corinna’s Going a Maying:

And as a vapour, or a drop of raine
Once lost, can ne’r be found againe:
                     So when or you or I are made
                     A fable, song, or fleeting shade;
                     All love, all liking, all delight
                     Lies drown’d with us in endlesse night.

And so Father Seamus will live on here in Lake Worth. I will keep him here with us, for this is my job, this is what I do. No one else will be the wiser, but you: you will know the real story. That this good man really did walk this earth for a spell, and made it a welcoming place.

Father Seamus as Uncle Seamus in a family photo shot by his niece, Christina. Top photo: the original St. Ann’s Church, West Palm Beach, built in 1902.

Pancakes Tonight!

It’s a bit sobering to think that Carnevale, at this time last year, was probably the last large gathering of people on a grand scale on this planet since February of 2020. Health concerns keep us keeping our distance. This year’s Carnevale festivities in Italy have been much more subdued… probably just as they were in times of plague in ages past.

Carnevale, or Carnival, began on the 30th of January this year in Venice. In English speaking countries, the season is better known as Shrovetide: the time of merry making before Lent begins. And Shrove Tuesday is today: the very last of it, capping off the celebration. Tomorrow will bring Ash Wednesday and a decidedly more solemn time: Lent, forty days of fasting and penance and reflection. Which is perhaps something we need every now and then. Certainly once a year, it was thought, and why not now, when the larders were getting empty. Back in the days when food was not as plentiful and easily procured as it is now, Lent was not just a season in the church calendar; it was a crucial time of fasting to help get everyone through until fresh food could be gathered again in the spring.

There are many traditions in foodways for Shrove Tuesday, known also as Mardi Gras. I’m not so crazy about the King Cakes that are in bakeries and grocery stores this time of year––they’re a bit too sweet for my tastes, with all that purple and green and yellow sugar. But the Polish bakeries will have pączki today, a rich filled doughnut, and the Swedish bakeries will have cream filled buns called semla. If they’re doing things right they’ll be selling them today but definitely not tomorrow and not again until next Shrovetide. In Germany, it is Fasnacht, and folks will be making doughnuts for the occasion this night (nacht) before the fast.

Seth and I, we’ll be making pancakes for our supper, and that is an old delicious tradition, one designed for times when Lent was much more restrictive than it is now. Nowadays all that the church asks of you is to pass up on meat on Fridays, but in ages past, folks had to give up meat for all forty days, and also eggs and all kinds of things we take for granted now. Making pancakes for supper on Shrove Tuesday was a way to use up all the eggs, all the milk, and all the sugar before the next day’s dawning brought Lent. We eat our pancakes with festivity and celebration. (Pancakes for supper? Of course they’ll be eaten with festivity and celebration!)

In the morning we awake to Ash Wednesday. I think a lot of us will choose to stay home this year, but typically, the churches are open, and if we have it in us, we go, and we approach that altar to have ashes smeared on our foreheads with the spoken reminder: Remember man that thou are dust and to dust you shall return. Something we’ve pondered, in one way or another, most all of this past circle around the sun. We are made of the stuff of this earth and we shall return to it. But the stuff of this earth is made of the stuff of the stars, too, and that is something greater to ponder. If nothing else, these forty days that follow tonight’s pancake supper will hopefully remind us that life is short, and we would do well to live the time we have with compassion and kindness for our fellow human beings (and all sentient beings, as Seth’s mom says), and to love each day, and, as we like to say here, to live the ceremony of each day, too.

Image: “Shrovetide,” a painting by Igor Novikov, 2013. No pancakes or semla or pączki to be found in the picture, but it’s ok; I do love the painting. Used with gratitude through Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

MASK UP SALE! We’ve begun a brand new sale at Convivio Bookworks today! Buy any four or more of our beautiful triple layer embroidered face masks and you’ll automatically save 24% plus free shipping! It’s practically like getting one mask free (and all of them shipped to you for free, too). And if you need us to ship to destinations outside the US, email us first and we can make arrangements to ship for just $1 per mask. These triple layer masks are made by an extended family of artisans in Chiapas, Mexico, who truly appreciate every sale. So please throw a little transactional support their way if you can, while helping to keep yourself and those around you safe so we can gather again someday without thinking twice about it. We’re calling this one the Mask Up Sale. Click here to start shopping!

Click on the picture to see a full size version of it! The masks pictured here are the floral ones, but we also have other designs featuring calaveras, Frida Kahlo, Maria Bonita, Our Lady of Guadalupe, sugar skulls, Otomi-inspired flora and fauna, mandalas, and maybe even another one or two that I can’t remember off the top of my head.



You Intoxicate My Soul with Your Eyes

Last Wednesday’s Book Arts 101 broadcast that I did for the Jaffe Center for Book Arts was intended to be a valentine of the non-sappy sort, and though it mostly was, I think we together discovered that it’s hard to avoid all sappiness when it comes to Valentine’s Day. It’s just a given. It was my valentine to the viewers of Book Arts 101, and today I’m making it my valentine to all of you Convivio Book of Days readers, too.

If you decide to watch, you’ll learn a bit about the groundbreaking Marlene Dietrich, see some truly amazing artists’ books, and you’ll be privy to knowledge of my newest celebrity crush. (I’d describe him as a minor celebrity who could probably wear a tux as handsomely as Ms. Dietrich.) Haden the Convivio Shop Cat makes an unexpected appearance, too. Think of this broadcast of Book Arts 101 as my sweet little something to you––one that is perhaps a little savory and most definitely not terribly sweet. But just a little sweet. Just because.

The tradition of giving sweet little somethings on Valentine’s Day goes back a long long time. The day is named for a saint, even though we rarely use that “saintly” descriptor nowadays, but there is no real connection between St. Valentine and these gifts. There have been two St. Valentines in history, and no one is quite sure which of the two is celebrated today. Our celebration, as it’s evolved through the centuries, is most likely a combination of them both. There was a Roman priest named Valentine who was martyred on February 14, 269, for giving aid to persecuted Christians before becoming a Christian himself, but there was another Christian martyr named Valentine who scratched a message on the wall of his prison cell before his death. The message was to his beloved, and he signed it “Your Valentine,” and perhaps this is where the romance of Valentine’s Day comes in.

In country lore, the day itself has long been considered the day that birds choose their mates for the year. Our old reliable Book of Days poet Robert Herrick alludes to this belief in this poem from 1648:

Oft have I heard both youths and virgins say
Birds choose their mates and couple, too, today
But by their flight I never can divine
When I shall couple with my Valentine.

Ah, but already we’re getting sappy. See! I told you: it’s impossible to avoid. Roll your eyes if you must, then just give in. You may as well make the best of it.

Image: Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film Morocco.