Sunday, November 4, 2007

With God There Is Hope: Hope For Humanity - Ellen Chaksil

With God There Is Hope: Hope For Humanity

Chapter 1

Hunger for God

In the fall of 1977, I had reached a time of crisis in my life. After twenty-eight years of marriage one would suspect my restlessness to be rooted in boredom, or even a state of midlife doldrums. Yet such was not the case; I was a healthy, very active housewife and mother who found enjoyment in being with her husband and family. I delighted in cooking, golfing and dancing with my handsome husband, and all this activity had also been interspersed with much involvement in my church.

On the surface my life appeared to be full, but inside I was troubled, or perhaps “restless” is a better word to describe my state. In spite of what I thought of as my very deep faith, I even began questioning the very purpose of existence, wondering if there was more to life than I was experiencing. The deep longing within me convinced me that something was missing in my life.

From time to time, I searched for the source or sources that were causing my uneasiness. I concluded that the unrest could not be caused by any problems in my marriage. Though I had been only nineteen when Bruce and I got married, we still shared a deep love for one another even after all these years. I also knew that the void within me was not due to our financial status; we were certainly not wealthy, but we were comfortable. Bruce had built up his own accounting business, and provided well enough for our family. Yes, in that area I was satisfied, but then again even in my earliest years I was never driven to desire things beyond my family’s means. Certainly when I was growing up, our family didn’t have a lot, but there was always love. Perhaps that was how I came to learn that material things were less important.

Today Enon, Pennsylvania, the town where I was born, bears almost no resemblance to what it was like at the time of my birth. The Appalachian mountains are unchanged, but nearly everything else in the surrounding area is totally transformed. In the past there were streams and fields where my siblings and friends and I ran and played, and we delighted in our carefree existence. We would use rocks to mark out the rooms of make-believe houses in the fields and furnish them with empty boxes and wooden crates.

In those days, coal mining was the principal industry, but the air was not congested with smoke and fumes as one would expect. Instead it was crisp and clear, because the mines were located a safe distance from the town. Our father had built our two-story family house on Adler Street himself. The dirt road remained unpaved for many years, and echoed with laughter every winter as our sleds raced through the snow.

Our paternal grandparents lived on the lower end of the street, and each morning the crow of their rooster awakened the entire neighborhood. I cherish a treasury of tender memories of them to this day. Bobba, as we of Slavonic descent called our grandmother, always wore a long dress and apron, with a babushka or scarf tied around her head. Each Christmas Eve, her entire family gathered to celebrate the birth of Christ. The three rooms on the first floor of her home were filled with tables and chairs to accommodate her children and grandchildren. Growing up, I liked to sit in the kitchen near the coal stove, which served not only to cook the delicious traditional foods but also lent a sense of coziness and well being which I am still able to draw forth from the recesses of my mind.

As we gathered around the tables every year to pray and then to eat, Bobba never failed to remind us of the reason for our coming together. She would point to the crib in the center of each table, where Baby Jesus lay resting upon a bed of straw. We children, assailed by those wonderful aromas, could barely wait to dig in, and yet we listened as she spoke. Those marvelous memories, filled with love and warmth, are imprinted upon my consciousness forever.

The town of Enon also had its dangers. We children often ventured into the nearby hills where there were some abandoned strip mines. The gaping holes which were left behind, filled with sulfurous water, were a great hazard. One balmy summer day when I was eight, my four-year-old brother Aaron tagged along with me and some of my friends as we trekked through the area near the abandoned mines. I must have lost sight of him for only a minute, but it was enough time for him to wander off toward one of those hazardous pits. By the time I caught up with him, he was nearing the edge of the deep sulfurous water. With my heart in my mouth I hurried down the treacherous slope until I reached him, took hold of his hand in the nick of time, and then began the climb upward again, reaching out to those waiting to help us. It’s strange how some memories are imprinted upon our consciousness.

Aaron and I were the two youngest in a family of seven, but two of our siblings were unknown to us, except for the following sad stories, so indicative of the time. The firstborn, a boy named Cyril, died at the age of two in the arms of our gentle father after the doctor performed an emergency tracheotomy on him as he lay on our kitchen table.

Another story I am always proud to share involves our sister Gertrude. During the Spanish flu epidemic following the First World War, my mother contracted the flu late in her seventh month of pregnancy. She was told her death was imminent unless she allowed the doctors to abort her baby. Her response was adamant.

“Well then, I’ll die, because I will not let you take my baby.”

Gertrude was born and lived long enough to be baptized and taken home from the hospital, where she was kept alive for a very short time in a box surrounded by heated bricks.

I think now you have a small idea of the character and goodness of our parents.

I have no at-home memories of our sister Maryann, as she married at an early age, even before Aaron was born. Shortly after her marriage she and her husband moved to New Jersey. Maryann had a gift of hospitality, and when anyone entered her home they were welcomed by her beautiful smile.

Our sister Mary Lucille took advantage of Maryann’s hospitality when she finished high school. Though she graduated with honors and greatly desired to attend college, she was unable to do so, as our parents could not afford it. This was during the Second World War, and so Mary Lucille decided to seek employment in the city, where good job opportunities were available. And of course Maryann and her husband Joe graciously opened their door to her.

There are many at-home memories of my brother Mark, who was four years older than me. He loved to fish and hunt with our dad. Often he and I were assigned the chore of washing the kitchen floor. He would scrub, then rinse out the rag and hand it to me to dry and shine the floor with it. More often than not, this ended in a free-for-all. Rather than simply wringing the cloth dry and then handing it to me, Mark would call out and then toss it, sopping wet, in my face. Today, instead of bursting into tears and lunging at him, I cherish the memory, because Mark is no longer with us.

Mark had a brilliant mind and, when he was old enough, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and joined the Seabees, where he became a member of a construction battalion. Upon his discharge from the Service, he entered college and became a successful engineer.

Then there were just two of us at home on Adler Street, Aaron and me.

* * *

When I reflect upon the year that I was born, 1929, the start of the Great Depression, and recall hearing so may stories from others about those difficult times, I realize I was graced even then in that I didn’t know enough to be negatively affected by our everyday hardships.

For example, we had no indoor plumbing, and yet thought nothing of going to the outhouse in any and all types of weather or, for that matter, of taking a bath in the tin tub after heating the water on the stove. It never occurred to me to be unhappy when my mother made some of my dresses from another relative’s hand-me-down clothes; instead I was pleased and proud that she had made them for me.

Whenever we sat down to dinner, even though our dad came home exhausted from working in the mines, he always waited until everyone else was served before he took his portion. In spite of our poverty, there was always enough food, as Mom was a good and resourceful cook. Every Wednesday the house smelled wonderful; that was the day she baked bread, and sometime even fried some of the dough, covering it with sugar for a special treat. Even now, just thinking about the taste makes my mouth water.

Growing up in Enon, we children had the opportunity to earn some extra money in the summertime by picking blueberries. It was necessary to get up at five in the morning and walk up into the mountains with pails attached to our belts. In later years Mom would make us laugh by telling stories of how each of her children reacted to this chore.

“Mary Lucille,” she would say, “Made every excuse, even feigned illness, so she wouldn’t have to go out and pick berries.”

Mark, on the other hand, was a good worker, and he always came home with his pail filled. As for me, I was filled with pride to hear Bobba say, “Look what a good girl Elenka is! She not only comes home with her pails filled, but then she starts cleaning the house for her mother.”

Even at an early age I made every effort to do my part so as to please those around me.

Aaron and I, as the youngest and only four years apart in age, were very close. However, as with all siblings, we had our differences, especially when it came to our choice of radio programs. In those days there was no television in our house, and only one radio. Every Saturday afternoon, the rest of us grew annoyed with Aaron as we were literally forced to listen to the opera being broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Until today, I wonder how he found these broadcasts, and where he developed this passion for opera. Living in a small mining town, he had never been exposed to that beauty; it simply was not a part of our culture.

Yet Aaron loved that music so much that when he was in the eighth grade he walked all the way to the next town‐a good ten-mile hike‐to hear Patrice Munsel, a noted opera star, perform. Today, in these quite different times, we realize he converted many of us. My husband and I appreciate and love the music; time and again we have attended the opera with him.

Aaron also had a brilliant mind; he excelled in high school and became a member of the National Honor Society. As for picking blueberries? He did not do much of that, perhaps because once he was old enough our mother began working in the sewing factory and money was a bit more available. In fact our parents were able to pay Aaron’s tuition at a nearby high school which was considered to be academically superior to the one in our borough.

Our high school years were quite different from those of teenagers today. Our parents were quite strict, and we had a 9:00 p.m. curfew. In my junior year of high school in 1946, I was finally allowed to attend the dances which were held in a hall about six blocks from our house. Consequently, the course of my life was set in April of that year when I caught sight of a young man entering the hall. I could not help staring at him because I thought he was the best looking man I had ever seen.

Shortly thereafter, even though I thought I looked very young in my bobby sox and broomstick skirt‐the fashion of the day‐I was thrilled when this handsome man asked me to dance. As we slowly circled the hall, I learned that his name was Bruce and he had just been discharged from the Army. I was awestruck when he told me he had fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

When the dance was over he asked to take me home, but at first I politely refused, knowing my mother would not approve of my getting into his car. Once I explained my dilemma, Bruce offered to walk me home. That was the beginning of a romance that has lasted until today.

We often share a laugh with our children when we tell them about the first time I was finally allowed to ride home with him following the dance. We sat together, parked in front of my house, steam gathering on the car windows as we kissed. My mother must have spotted us as soon as she looked out the front window, because in an instant the door flew open and she came storming down the walk in her flannel nightgown. Just as quickly she yanked the car door open, reached inside and, holding me by the ear, pulled me out of the car.

Despite that bad beginning, however, as the weeks passed my mother apparently became persuaded that Bruce was an honorable young man and I really liked him, and so I was able to invite him into the house. Of course, once my parents met him they allowed me to date. Later that summer both sets of parents met as well, and the meeting resulted in a fine and lasting friendship.

In the Fall of that year, Bruce entered college and I began my senior year of high school. I was thrilled to bring him to my prom, and even more excited to attend a dance with him at the University of Scranton. We were engaged in 1948, and were so eager to be together all the time that we were married in 1949, just a year before he graduated from the university to begin his career in accounting.

Our first apartment was near Bru’s parents’ house, and I loved visiting with his mom and learning how to prepare his favorite foods. Bru was an only child, and so early on he and I planned to have a child. In the following year we were heartbroken when I miscarried, and then learned that because of a problem with my female organs it was unlikely I could ever become pregnant again. When faced with that possibility, I was told that perhaps surgery could alleviate the condition. In consequence, in the hope of conceiving a child, we decided to go forward with the operation.

Following surgery, as the months passed, I prayed in the fashion I always had, just as I believed all Catholics did‐I made novenas to St. Ann and the Blessed Mother. Because in those times before Vatican Council II, we as Catholics did not read the Bible, our knowledge of Jesus, except for His birth and His death on the Cross, was limited. As a result, instead of seeing St. Ann and Blessed Mary as intercessors, we prayed directly to them.

This is a very important point that I wish to make. In fear of mortal sin, no one in our family was ever allowed to miss Mass, but beyond that all of our prayers were directed to the Mother of Jesus. In fact, during the month of May, which was dedicated to her, we erected altars in our homes, prayed the rosary and said special Novena prayers before them. Little did I realize at that time how much my understanding would change years later.

* * *

Bruce and I were filled with joy when our son David was born in October of 1951. He was followed two years later by our second son, Jonathan and, five years afterwards, by our daughter Ria.

In that span of time conditions in Enon and the surrounding towns and cities changed tremendously. Numerous industries set up factories in the area, offering employment opportunities to many. Even on Adler Street, much to everyone’s glee, outhouses became obsolete. I recall how pleased and special I felt when our dad built a small powder room in our basement and there was no longer any need to venture

outdoors. The former dirt road was paved, and soon cars raced up and down its length. I often wonder what Bobba would have thought if she had lived to see that transformation.

Bru worked hard setting up his own accounting practice, and we were able to build a beautiful, two-story colonial house right on the border between Enon and the next town. We were a happy family, and whenever we were able we took wonderful trips with the children. One of our first was to bring the three of them to the place in Canada where Bru and I had spent our honeymoon. At the time, David was ten, Jonathan eight and Ria was three. Each evening at dinner, the boys looked so proper in their Eton suits and bow ties while Ria looked beautiful in her starched organdy dress.

Another time we took a trip to Radio City in New York, followed by dinner at the then famous Mama Leone’s restaurant. One memory never fails to make me smile. We had just finished eating a sumptuous meal and the boys, who were unfamiliar with finger bowls, watched as the waiter set the finger bowls on the table. Simultaneously they bellowed out loudly enough to be heard throughout the entire restaurant, “No, no, we don’t want any! We just can’t eat any more soup.”

Even at that age, though, Jonathan always attempted to be prim and proper. Yet another time when we were out to dinner and it was his turn to give the waiter his order, he very seriously said, “I would like some breastless bone of chicken, thank you.”

The waiter managed to conceal his laughter, but Bruce and I had a hard time meeting each other’s eyes.

Growing up, the boys were very different from each other in many respects, but both were musically talented; David played the piano and Jonathan the violin. Often at socials and family gatherings they were called upon to entertain, and we were quite proud of them.

All three of our children attended the parochial school in a nearby town. It was there that we met a priest who is still one of our best friends today. Father Vinnie, as we continue to call him even though he is now a monsignor, is an important part of our lives. When the children were in the lower grades, he administered the Sacraments to them. He also married David and his wife Jan, as well as Ria and her husband Bobby. He would prove to be my guide and mentor through what was about to become the new focus of my life.

Years later, during that time of crisis in my life in 1977, as I reflected upon the lives of our three children and what wonderful young adults they had grown into, I decided they could not be at the heart of my unrest. Our daughter Ria was attending college and our twenty-six- and twenty-four-year-old sons were already making their way in the world.

Having gone through my mental checklist and found nothing outside myself that was causing my unrest, I determined that the restlessness was necessarily rooted in my very core. I began to wonder‐could this sense of deprivation have something to do with my relationship with God?

But how could that be? I wondered. How could such a thought even enter my mind? In my smugness, I attempted to point out to myself that this just could not be the cause of my restlessness. Why, I went to church every Sunday and even on Holy Days. I said the rosary and, before receiving Holy Communion, I did go to confession. In addition, I always participated in all of the activities at our church, serving at the dinners held as fundraisers, sometimes working at bingo. In fact, I could not, would not allow myself to believe that my relationship with God could be the cause of my unrest. Yet as the months passed, in some of my quiet moments, it seemed I heard my inner self accusing me.

But Ellen, I heard myself say, Do you have a close relationship with God? Do you really know Him?

I was taken aback by that question and, in seeking an answer, I realized that, yes, I was a good Roman Catholic, I did obey the laws of the Church, but as for knowing God in a close personal way, I had never given that any thought. I could truthfully say I did not have that type of personal relationship with God, and it seemed that just going to church was not the solution. Maybe, I decided, that was the reason I had begun church hopping.

Then again, maybe Vatican II had had something to do with that skipping around. Twelve years had passed since the Council had ended, and changes ordained in its deliberations were being implemented in the Church, changes which I had welcomed and was excited about, and I had wanted to attend Mass where those changes were in place.

For example, the Mass had become our prime form of worship and we the people, the Church, were allowed to participate, as the words were no longer spoken in Latin but in our own language, the vernacular of the people. It was also incredibly exciting the first time I took the Body and Blood of Christ into my own hands at the Eucharist. Then, too, at Mass I experienced a sense of community in exchanging the sign of peace with the people around me.

My reflection pointed out to me that the Mass was not what I had been searching for, because I already had it. Instead, I came to realize that the “something more” I was looking for in my life must be the Someone who is my God. I wanted to get to know Him in a personal way.

That stream of thought brought to mind our very good friend Father Vinnie, who was also my spiritual advisor. If he were here, I mused, instead of in Rome where he was pursuing his doctorate in theology, I knew he could have helped me; he would have pointed me in the right direction. It was he, after all, who had first introduced Bruce and me to the ways opened to all at the Vatican Council. I reminisced about how proud I had been when Father selected Bruce to be one of the first lectors in our parish. He was among the first lay persons able to stand in our sanctuary and read the scripture passages designated for that Sunday’s Mass. What an exciting time to live in!

Over the years we had developed a close relationship with Father Vinnie; it was he who had administered the Sacrament of the Eucharist to Ria at her first Holy Communion, and he was also present when the bishop confirmed our sons Jonathan and David. Yes, I was sure if he had been there at this time of my soul-searching, he could have helped me to understand and quiet my inner restlessness.

My thoughts about the return of our priest friend to Rome evoked a flood of memories, one of which was when Father Vinnie helped coordinate a wonderful trip to Italy for our family in 1967. Through his efforts and those of an acquaintance he had made during his seminary days at the North American College in the Vatican, we had been afforded a very special time in the audience hall in Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Pope.

* * *

1967: Italy

Arrangements were made for us to hire a driver, Remo Velli, who knew the region well and who had been of service to many in the Vatican. Remo proved to be compassionate as well as competent. When our daughter Ria, then nine years old, complained of an upset stomach, my husband, who speaks fluent Italian, mentioned the problem to Remo, who stopped on our way to purchase some medicine to ease her

tummy troubles.

Needless to say, we were quite pleased, as then we were able to enjoy the beautiful scenery unperturbed as we drove up into the mountains. We soaked in more beauty as we walked into the center of the charming little town in Lazio where the Pope’s summer residence is located. We saw the townspeople sitting at tables in the square, enjoying each other’s company as they sipped their beverages and the men smoked their pipes.

When we finally entered the audience hall, we were surprised to see our driver up on the stage conferring with a group of cardinals. Apparently he was well known to them. We were further amazed when he came forward and invited us to take seats closer to the stage. However, we decided to remain where we were; we thought our seats on the aisle would afford us a better view of Pope Paul VI as he passed by.

At that point all eyes were riveted on the back of the hall where the Pope would enter; the excitement was almost palpable. After some time, amid shouts of welcome, we caught sight of the Holy Father. Though he looked frail, he smiled and reached out to the people from the chair in which he was being carried on the shoulders of some men. For Catholics like me, it was a thrilling and awe-filled moment!

We were quite pleased with our decision to remain in our original seats, for we were close enough to almost touch him. Then, wonder of wonders, as he passed by he did grasp and hold onto our son David’s hand. Moments later, when the Holy Father moved on, there was a look of awe on everyone’s face, especially that of our sixteen-year-old son David, who appeared dazed.

“Mom,” he said. “I can’t believe I was holding the Pope’s hand! He held on so tight my ring almost slipped off!”

After the audience, bubbling with excitement, we left the hall and made our way to the car. We marveled at our good fortune‐to think that we had had seats in an area where we could literally touch the Pope’s hand! In a short time we caught sight of our driver, who was carrying a very large box in his arms. Immediately Bruce told him of our good fortune. Instead of putting the box into the trunk, he turned to us and asked if we would like to take a picture with him and Ria holding on to the box. He went on to explain that the box contained some of the Holy Father’s clothing. Needless to say, Bruce immediately took the picture. Later, on our way back to Rome, our driver told us it was part of his duty to deliver the garments to an order of nuns inside the city who laundered them.

Today, as I reflect on those awesome events‐the Pope clasping David’s hand, and then being in the car bringing the Holy Father’s clothing to be laundered‐I could see that the Lord was preparing me for even greater happenings in my life.

Remembering that wonderful visit to Castel Gandolfo, I recalled yet other memories of that 1967 trip. Some days after our encounter with His Holiness, Bruce was filled with anticipation as we approached and entered the small town of Perticano, the birthplace of his mother. The town, nestled between some towering mountains, appeared to be unchanged from the earliest of times. We immediately caught sight of the communal oven located in the very center of town, made of stone and brick, that had been constructed at least a hundred years before. Bruce’s mother shared a memory with us once. She recalled seeing her own mother and grandmother baking bread and roasting meats in that very same oven. Certainly that shared activity fostered community in this lovely little town.

At the time we visited, there was no hotel in the town, and we stayed with Bruce’s relatives. Each morning our daughter Ria would run outdoors to catch sight of some of the women in kerchiefs and aprons as they led their geese through the streets; she also delighted in seeing the chickens, goats and other animals as they freely roamed about. Even though the language barrier was a problem for the children and me, we were made to feel most welcome.

On one of those days, though we hated to leave, we took an excursion to the nearby ancient city of Gubbio, parts of which, we knew, had literally been built into the hills and at the base of Monte Ingino, a towering mountain. The city not only looked like a page out of the past but was, in fact, unchanged for centuries, and it remained that way because of a law which prohibited the residents from altering the exteriors of their buildings.

A car could barely pass through the narrow cobble-stoned streets. The passages, constructed hundreds of years before, did accommodate a horse and carriage, the mode of transportation at that time.

In 1967, there was yet another way to ascend Monte Ingino, the site of the Basilica of Santo Ubaldo, a famed tourist attraction, and that was by cable car. When I caught sight of it, a shiver of fear ran through me. I had imagined it would be similar to the kind of car Bruce and I had ridden in to ascend some mountains in the Alps, but I noticed there was a distinct difference. The cars used to ascend the mountain in Switzerland had been enclosed, whereas those in Gubbio were open to the elements.

There was, however, no fear in the children; they could hardly wait to get into the cars, especially sixteen-year-old David and Jonathan who, at fourteen, had that same taste for excitement.

As for me, I knew I wanted to visit the Basilica, and I had no choice except to hop into the car with Bruce. When we finally began ascending the mountain, I closed my eyes, but the children’s escapades began. The two brothers loved their sister and, like playful bear cubs, they incessantly, lovingly teased her. Consequently her squeals of delight resounded in the open spaces between the mountains as they scrambled about, causing the car to rock. As we climbed higher and higher, Bruce held onto my hand and also kept a close eye on the children.

When the cable car at last came to a stop, I did breathe a sigh of relief as I hurriedly stepped out. The scene which confronted us was breathtaking; from that height the buildings below looked like the miniature ones we place around our Christmas tree.

After a short climb, we entered the Basilica of Santo Ubaldo. Amid the seemingly hundreds of burning candles, we could see the prominently situated reason for the tourists’ visits. There in the center of the church, high atop the altar, rested a glass enclosure which contained the uncorrupted body of Saint Ubaldo. He was attired in his miter and the full regalia of a bishop of his time. Certainly, it was a sight to behold.

I did not realize it at the time, but that trip to Gubbio played an important role in preparing me for future participation in God’s plan. Once again, though, looking back, I can see God’s leading.

* * *

As we left the basilica, I did not look forward to the cable car ride down the mountain, but I was more than pleased with our visit. I thought to myself that in time it would be interesting to learn about the life of Santo Ubaldo and also that of the City of Gubbio.

I may not have been looking forward to the cable car ride but, on the other hand, the children were eagerly awaiting its departure so that they could continue with what seemed to them to be a great adventure. And have it they did; Bruce and I were not too pleased when the boys proceeded to shake the car from side to side as we descended, but their sister was delighted. I could barely wait to reach the bottom, not only to set my feet on firm ground, but to get to one of the city’s numerous restaurants; we had been told that the food was delicious.

Having stored away those treasured memories from more than a decade earlier, I realized that I was still plagued with an unexplained restlessness. There was, however, one major difference in my thoughts since I had begun to experience this restlessness‐I now knew what was causing it. I knew I desired something more in my life and had come to understand that the something I was longing for had to do with the Someone who is God. I wondered how this could be resolved satisfactorily, and what course would be necessary to facilitate the solution. Shortly thereafter, a clue surfaced:

I recalled when Father Vinnie had been in our parish he had most likely helped stir up that longing when he conducted some adult education classes. My thirst to seek more knowledge about God had definitely been triggered; there was so much I didn’t know. A subsequent bible course I had taken made me more aware of the same void and thirst within me. That void seemed to be deepening, and left me with the question: Was learning more about God the answer for me?

I remembered also that, prior to our friend’s return to Rome, I had briefly touched upon my growing unrest with him. At the time he suggested I join a Charismatic prayer group which was gathering at a renewal center in Oakdale, not far from my home. However, at that time the bit of advice had slipped my mind. I did not go to Oakdale. Now, almost a year later, my unrest had become a spiritual crisis.

In retrospect, it is clear that I was not in tune with God’s plan at that time. However, perhaps back then it was not yet time for me to become involved in that renewal movement.

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