July 9, 2014
In the meadow at St. Scholastica, daisies and wild flowers and all creatures great and small…
July 3, 2014
A message has come from the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Iraq. They describe chaos and violence in the country, the ransacking of the headquarters of the Archdiocese of the Chaldean Catholics in Mosul, the kidnapping of children. Most Christians have left and cannot get back.
Numerically, Christians are second only to atheists in suffering from persecution, and they are now, I understand, the largest violently persecuted religious group in the world. Christians are persecuted by extremist groups (like ISIL in Iraq) and by hostile regimes (like Saudi Arabia and China). Christians are persecuted by other Christians (like Baptists, Catholics, and others by the Russian Orthodox Church).
And Christians are not alone in their suffering: Muslims, Sikhs, Jews – the list goes on and on. How, on this globalizing planet, in this age of dialogue, is religious persecution not a thing of the past?
I understand fear of diversity, of the unknown, of encroaching modernity. I understand fear of losing identity and tradition, disordered reaction against the tide of this commercial, technological, chaotic tide. But desecrate others’ holy relics over our fears? Drive them from their homes? Forbid worship? Kill?
I understand, but I don’t understand.
When the ISIL gunmen were throwing into trash icons and crosses from the bishopric in Mosul, the Mullah of Ahmed Ismail Mosque tried to stop them. “These are sacred items,” he said. They told him to go away. Because there would be no churches in the Islamic state.
Here is what the Holy Qur’an says about it: “They have been wronged, and verily, God is most powerful to their aid: those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said: Our Lord is God. Had God not driven back the people, some by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure. Verily God will aid those who aid his cause, for verily God is full of Strength, Exalted in Might” (22:39-40).
July 1, 2014
I am attending the Monastic Institute at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. Look at this sunrise view from the side of the abbey church. Would you like me to show you what it looks like from the front?
June 29, 2014
A sentence I have heard many, many times has struck in a new way last week: 1 John 4:16.
God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.
I don’t believe I have ever seen a deeper and simpler rationale for pluralism and dialogue, a stronger rejection of any prejudice or sectarianism.
Ironically, I don’t think the author of John meant it this way at all. He precedes it by cautioning his audience against anyone who does not acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, Christ come in flesh. But then, such is the lot of teachers, artists, and prophets: they let their message go into its life, and they let it mean what it must mean, change with time and ripen, one can only hope, for the better.
I don’t think the author of John would agree with how far I am taking his message, but I don’t think I am doing it violence. He saw the world he saw around him — its size and its particular problems and aspirations — and we see ours, and he and I understand truth in different ways, and yet… When he felt these words in the depth of his gut, he got at something that endures still: God is Love, and whoever remains in love remains in God, and God in him.
All who live loving lives, all who are connected through the very nature of God Who is Love, though maybe not through the name they use for God — all who abide in Love abide together, and Love abides in them. Enough said.
June 22, 2014
As we read the Bible, we encounter so much about penance and about sacrifice… And by the way, I agree that fasting can remind us that our ultimate hunger is for God. And most of us have a little something to repent from time to time. And we must not turn our faces from the world’s pain, inside or outside us. It’s all true, and it’s all over both Testaments. But just so we don’t completely lose perspective, here is a little reminder from Sirach about enjoying the gifts of everyday life:
Do not give yourself over to sorrow,
and do not distress yourself deliberately.
A joyful heart is life itself,
and rejoicing lengthens one’s life span.
Indulge yourself and take comfort,
and remove sorrow far from you,
for sorrow has destroyed many,
and no advantage ever comes from it.
Jealousy and anger shorten life,
and anxiety brings on premature old age.
Those who are cheerful and merry at table
will benefit from their food.
Sirach 30:21-25 (NRSVCE)
I love it, don’t you? It is so protrudingly Greek and yet so subtly Jewish! It’s as if Fritz Perls and Epicurus had a baby… Well, let’s eat, drink, and be merry, my friends. The Bible tells me so.
June 17, 2014
An unusual lilac bush grows in our Magnificat Garden, behind the monastery. Lilac is my favorite flower, and there will be more of them.
June 15, 2014
What is the point in trying to fathom the unfathomable?
Yesterday we celebrated the Trinity Sunday: the feast of the mystery of the nature of God. In a reflection read at the morning prayer, a story was mentioned from the life of St. Augustine, where he walks along the beach contemplating the mystery of God’s triune essence and sees a little boy. The boy has dug a hole in the sand and is now running back and forth between the sea and the hole carrying a pale, dumping one bucketful of water after another from the ocean into the little sandy pit.
“What are you doing?” Augustine asked the boy.
“Transferring the ocean into the hole I dug,” the answer came.
“Oh, that’s impossible, son,” said Augistine.
“Sure,” said the child, “just as impossible as it is for you to comprehend the Trinity.”
All right. So it’s fairly obvious that we cannot fit the Infinite into our rather circumscribed minds. That’s what mystery is, and to live with it truly — to benefit from it, in fact — is to accept that it cannot be comprehended. Yet we continue to try, running back and forth to the ocean with our tiny pales and pouring bucketfuls — handfuls — of understanding into our thirsty spirits and left standing always before an ever-empty hole. Is it hopeless? Should we stop?
I think many a theologian, many mystics even have asked this question at one time or another — some in frustration, others in throes of poetry. But I think also that the answer is “No.” We are not meant to grasp the mystery whole, not to fill a pit with the lot of the ocean, but as long as we touch the water and carry it up and pour it in, the water will soak the sand. It will always slip through our fingers and back into the ocean, but it will drench us with itself and connect us with the Infinite — wet to wet — and leave behind the salt and the binding, sticky texture and change the sand that used to crumble into sand that can be built with, just keep pouring the water.
And if we hang around the ocean long enough and wait, if we let things happen in their own good time and watch the water, the tide will come in and cover over the sand and every hole we’ve dug and level and eliminate them, and the beach will become part of the ocean. For a time. For a taste of the mystery. There is a good time and a place for everything.
Of course, if you really want your sand wet, dump it into the sea.
June 12, 2014
It’s raining today in Duluth, on and off. It’s windy, all things of grayish tint, and apple blossoms are flying off in touching little gusts round the monastery courtyard, covering the walkways, the tables, and the benches with a lacy white afghan.
I went out onto the roof and stood, looking at the Lake: a strip of hazy lead melting into hazy lead clouds. The wind wanted to toss me about as it did the tree branches, and we played our balance game in the droplet-rich air, high above the earth.
June 11, 2014
The argument of quality vs. quantity has reached me once again. I tend to think in terms of quality more than quantity: Quality is more important, I usually say. It’s not an uncommon attitude, often a reasonable one. After all, most of us know that a bit of a good thing is better than a heap of worthless. Some of the most precious things in life have no quantity, and even where quantity matters, I thought, it really becomes important when it finally translates into a qualitative change: when the wind grows strong enough to become a hurricane; when the hours of practice accumulate to produce a fine skill; when enough carbon dioxide emissions fill the atmosphere to trigger climate change.
Then a couple of days ago, I wondered if I was being fair to quantity because an example came to mind where quantity is the end in itself, and it matters: the amount of salt in our food. Just how much salt we put in is the point. Too little — and the dish is bland, too much — and it is inedible, irreversibly spoiled. The fine balance of quantity defines the quality of life during dinner.
Then yesterday, we read a passage from the Gospel where Jesus compares his disciples to salt. The salt of the Earth. But not because they are the best or rare thing, and not because he is concerned with quantity: because the buck stops with them. Salt is what seasons the food; if salt loses its taste, what can season the salt?
When I considered my example of quantitative balance, I somehow took the quality of salt for granted, but it was simply primary. Its unique quality of quality-changing of food is what leaves us concerned with its quantity.
In the end, I suppose, this is true for all things that can be counted or measured: their essence, their substance — their quality — defines what they are and is primary to how much of them is good at any given time. Yes, quality and quantity is a fine balance, but quality comes first. What do you think?
June 9, 2014
I have arrived at the Monastery of St. Scholastica, where spring is in full bloom, and lilacs and apple blossoms brush my face as I walk. Gentle sun is leaving cool shade untouched, and mosquitoes are hunting for blood, audaciously, at high noon.
I will hear, know, think, and tell you many things from this place of contemplation, but today, I give you this one flower, and I breathe this one breath: I am home.
April 22, 2014
Gabriel García Márquez is dead. Gabo has gone home after 87 years on the Earth. I learned of his passing on the morning of Good Friday, and I thought: What a thing it is, to die and to rise, really, with Christ…
He was one of those greats who slid their hands along the body of the world literature and made her curve and shudder and changed her forever. They call his style “magical realism,” but he didn’t really like it. To him, it was realism, magic and all. He lived in the world where myth and fact swirled together and intertwined, inseparable as what we see and what we think we see, and he wrote that world into beauty and longing and gave it to us. It’s not magic. It’s life. Life lived to its fullness of mystery — in the time of cholera and through a hundred years of solitude, in Columbia, Pakistan, or Russia, at the end of a trembling pen or in the depth of entranced imagination.
Good night, Gabo. Thank you. And happy Easter.
April 5, 2014
I think, this morning I crystallized an understanding in my mind that talent — genius, creative gift — is not a quantitative proposition at all but qualitative only. I suppose, we all know that, but we still talk of talent in quantitative terms: “such a big gift,” “half the talent,” and so on. Except…half the talent doesn’t exist, does it? I stumbled upon the illustration of this at a breakfast conversation.
We were talking of a well-known literary phenomenon: author couples. Two people who write as one. The Strugatsky brothers, the Vayner brothers, Ilf and Petrov — these writers, through some ineffable creative symbiosis, produced breathtaking works of Russian literature together. Two people who are one writer. Two people who have been given, for the two of them, one great creative talent.
How do I know they weren’t two talents combining to produce great writing? Because in all three cases, when one of the pair died, the other lost his ability to write. Boris Strugatsky and Georgy Vayner tried after their brothers passed away, but what they produced… Let’s just say that the Strugatsky brothers are the greatest science fiction writers in the world, closely followed by Ray Bradbury. What Boris wrote alone I couldn’t read. It was soul-crushing.
Half a gift is no more a gift than half a horse, a pony. Gift is not about size. It’s about breath, spirit, some unfathomable animation of a faculty. We don’t understand how it works any more than we do life itself, so we say “touched by God.” Gifted. By God. A gift is the life of the soul. Half it, and it dies. Prevent it from being itself — breathing, working, doing what it was gifted to do — and it dies. Decomposes. Kills the soul that gave it shelter.
Thomas Aquinas journeyed through a long line of arguments in his Natural Law to come to this one: It is a natural and divine imperative for human beings to fulfill our talents. We are not fully human if we don’t. And I’m not sure we can think of our talents as handlable, partitionable, manipulatable even. As tools. I wonder if they are not more like living entities in symbiosis with our souls. Gifts of God.
March 5, 2014
Lent has begun. Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of our 40-day journey to Baptism. It is my favorite season of the liturgical year: time of deeper reflection, closer connection, more meaningful challenge. Time to look inward and to look forward to prayer more intimate than any other: our journey to the Cross and Resurrection. Dying and rising is ahead, but for now we slug, slowly, out of winter into spring, to the foot of the Cross, asking ourselves, again, if we truly know what is important.
Lent is especially precious to me: I am an adult convert. Only a few years ago, Lent to me was the last stage of a long marathon — a wait more ecstatic and more torturous than I could ever predict or express. My wait for the Eucharist. And at the end of it, Holy Saturday. My Baptism. And I stood in white before a Eucharistic minister and could not dare take what was offered. I’ll tell you this story soon enough in a post. It’ll be on my mind. It is Lent.
Later today the ashes we wear will whisper to us an interwoven tale of mortality and eternity. It’s a fitting beginning for 40 days of wondering that resolve in the greatest mystery of all: Transcendence and Immanence spectacularly one and the same. Divinity and Humanity spectacularly one. Eternal life’s spectacular triumph over temporal death.
But first, we have to walk there. It’s only Ash Wednesday. The fasting day. The quiet time. This is why I love Lent: it’s the time it gives me before the overwhelming experience of the Triduum to walk there, to make ready, to make myself new. To ask all the questions I must, to call up and let go of regrets. It reminds me of the Lent when the wait was impossible, agonizing, and with every day sweeter. It reminds me that patience can sometimes be wondrous. That only fatigued we enjoy the rest and only hungry, food. That without the journey, its end is meaningless. If we didn’t follow Jesus through years of parables, miracles, sleepless nights, and a torturous trial, what would we understand of his death? And if not for his death, what would be in the Resurrection?
Lent has begun. Let’s walk to Baptism. To the foot of the Cross.
February 13, 2014
The legend has it that St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, twin founders of monasticism, came together once a year in a little place outside Nursia. They would visit and talk of God, discuss theology, read the Scripture, and worship blissfully in each other’s presence.
One such day, after the visit, Benedict got up to go, but Scholastica felt uneasy and begged him to stay. Still, he would not, insisting he was needed at his abbey. “All right,” she said then, folded her hands, and seemed to immerse herself in prayer.
A few moments later, out of a clear sky, wild and sudden storm tore through the air, filled it with dashing branches and threat, covered the earth with torrents, so cautiously Benedict backed away from the door.
“What have you done?” he whispered to his twin sister in shock.
She smiled. “I asked you for a favor, and you would not give it to me. So I asked my Heavenly Father, and He did.”
The storm outside raged all night per this very old story, and two siblings talked and prayed together, as God would have it, for the last time. Three days later, Scholastica died. The legend tells us that her soul flew up to Heaven as a white dove. And that Benedict saw it from his cell window.
I love this story. We have very few of Scholastica — we know nearly nothing about her. But just this one story is a portrait with features so soft, so innocent, with such genuinely mischievous spark in her eyes… Her brother was stubborn, so she went over his head.
It’s not enough for a historical person but enough for a character. A message. A picture. An aspect of a person to treasure and emulate. For me, she’s a glimpse of a relationship with God, one I both recognize and admire, bask in and envy: It was simple for her, and it was real, and it seemed so very assured… Don’t you want to read this story again and again and imagine yourself to be Scholastica?
February 11, 2014
I must admit, I was uneasy about Sochi — our very participation in the Games, my very watching them. I didn’t think boycotting the Olympics would help, but it felt like buying into them would make me complicit in the Kremlin’s systematic terror against the Russian LGBT community. The silent bystander problem. And I didn’t know what to do but talk.
But smart, brave, and mobile people knew better than I did, all over this country and beyond — and their plan is brilliant. What they are doing is joy, protest, peace, support for the oppressed, pride and humor and unmistakable message to Vladimir Putin: “You are wrong.”
We are not ignoring the Olympics, we are not egging Russia on to a conflict. We are showing up in Sochi, showing up in droves, and we’re showing up gay. From the three openly gay leaders of the U.S. delegation to Buddy Cole reporting for the Colbert Report, we are doing the one great thing we can do for a Russia drowning in a swamp of homophobia. We are coming to the Games and covering Sochi whole with a giant rainbow flag. We are flooding it with our gay spirit. Let the best win.
Too bad the U.S. uniforms are so busy with stars and stripes, there is no space for a rainbow patch.
February 7, 2014
I keep hearing there’s a controversy around Coca Cola’s Super Bowl ad.
Have you seen the ad? It is hand-to-the-heart, dab-your-eyes sentimental, patriotic to a star-and-stripe goose bump pattern on your skin. It’s “America the Beautiful,” sung line by line in different languages, from English to Spanish to Arabic, while a dazzling variety of American life is passing before your eyes: kids and adults of every color, shape, and age, singles and couples and families, straight and gay, old and young, brown, pale, and every shade, playing, working, eating, laughing, living the quintessential context of the quintessential American symbol: the curvy, sexy, cool bottle of Coke.
I first heard that someone got upset by a gay couple featured in the mix, and I smirked sadly and shook my head. We have a road to travel still before we’re done with prejudice, I thought. Then I heard that someone got upset by “America the Beautiful” being sung in languages other than English, and I was baffled. Shouldn’t you be happy? I thought, addressing, I suppose, the “purist” kind of patriots of the Fox News persuasion who were objecting to the defiling of this sacred song by translation. All this mind-boggling diversity, I thought, is singing what amounts in pop culture to the pledge of allegiance — the core of our heart-wrenching, finger-shaking patriotism! Shouldn’t you be happy? I smirked and shook my head. I guess, we have a road still…
But it’s been days, and the “controversy” is not gone, and “baffled” will no longer adequately convey the frenzy in my mind. Honestly, I don’t understand the problem. Those offended by the ad cannot seriously mean that translating an iconic song from English is sacrilege, even if they are serious that the song is sacred – because then, they must stay away from English versions of the Bible, they can never brag that Shakespeare’s been translated into 80 languages, they cannot ask for the meaning of the Vedas, the Qur’an, the Tao Te Ching without learning Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese. They would not have read The Little Prince if they hadn’t read it in French. Really, how can we — in today’s globalizing world, in a country whose language most of the planet has learned — how can we find offense in translation?
In the face of this bizarre controversy that exists somewhere out there, that shouldn’t exist, I feel suddenly empty-handed somehow. But then, I remember this: I’ve been hearing something on television, too, and for much longer than the outrage over the recent multi-cultural Coca-Cola ad. They say, repetition is persuasion, and for years I’ve been hearing that money is speech. The Supreme Court says so, mass media says so. Fox News certainly says so. Maybe, for once in my life I will listen and do what I’m told. For once in my life I will vote with my wallet.
I don’t have much, it’ll be one vote only. But I think tomorrow I will go and get myself a Coke.
January 30, 2014
The winter Olympics in Sochi are almost upon us, spreading the aroma of tension and controversy. Security in Sochi is so high that they simply deported all the residents they don’t consider respectable out of the city — the Russian way. You need special permission to enter the city. But then, we did the same for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. A civil rights abuse scandal is raging that’s causing protests and gestures of condemnation from world powers. But then, the same was happening during the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
Except in 1980, the U.S. boycotted the games. This year, we are not. I suppose, it’s at least something that President Obama is not attending, but is it enough? Would it make anything better if the U.S. stayed completely out, or the rest of the Western world? I don’t know. It didn’t make things better in 1980, just made the Olympics worse.
On Tuesday, I listened on NPR to an interview with Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist, LGBT activist, and author of a book about Pussy Riot — also a gay woman with a partner and children who was possibly the only publicly out person in Russia during a chunk of the 1990’s. She left Russia I think a year ago, when persecution of homosexuals began to threaten her family.
She said something in her interview that I recognized and identified with, shuddering and smirking, and I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror at that moment and didn’t like it. She said something like this: “There’s only one thing creepier than hearing someone call for you to be burned alive: hearing someone call for you to be burned alive and thinking, ‘I know that guy!'”
Jews in Russia still know how that feels, but there are very few of them left. So it’s the gay community’s turn. Homosexuality in Russia used to be completely closeted, silent, and unspoken. There were no pogroms because the topic was taboo. Then it changed. Got better. Got to be a kind of life. And then Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church declared a war on LGBT people, slogan by slogan, law by law, one crushed demonstration, one insidious rhetoric at a time. Public displays of affection between persons of the same sex are now illegal in Russia. Saying anything positive about homosexuality is now illegal in Russia: it is considered to be gay propaganda. To children. Police are beating LGBT people in the streets.
Masha Gessen thinks this war is on modernity. As a whole. She thinks Putin counted on gays being an easy target, thought there wouldn’t be an outcry from the West. She’s glad that he was wrong, and so am I. But what are we doing, and what can we do? Are we doing enough? Is it our place to do it or is it an internal Russian matter?
In her interview on Tuesday Masha Gessen confirmed what I’d been hearing from my Russian sources: a new anti-gay law is coming in Russia. They plan to start taking children away from same-sex families. They plan to pass it after the Olympics.
It feels diseased and perverse that I can see this wrong and don’t know what should be done to right it — or if anything should be done. From the outside, that is. But I’m glad President Obama is not going to Sochi this time around, to do the hugging thing with President Putin.
January 20, 2014
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY
Just before Martin Luther King began his “I Have a Dream” speech, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, then president of the American Jewish Congress, addressed the March on Washington.
He said, “When I was a rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime…the most important thing that I learned…is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
This is why, when we suffer persecution and when we stand up against it — black workers, gay couples, women soldiers, Indian tribes, Jews, the poor, the disabled, and the different — whenever we face a hostile world, we risk being alone. But never are.
Because silence is a real, shameful, and tragic problem. But there’s always someone who knows that.
January 15, 2014
“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” says the psalmist. I say, joyful noise comes in many guises.
I say, sing lullabies and in the shower. I say, pray your prayer of praise. I say, shout your loudest at the baseball game. Whisper your love to your dearest friend. Argue for justice at the top of your lungs.
But joyful noise doesn’t have to come from our vocal chords. Play your trumpet, drum your drum. Or send up your joy the quiet way. Our broadest smiles are a joyful noise to the One who hears all things. Our caring hands make beautiful sounds when they bind wounds and help another up. Our poetry pours pure music into God’s ear as it streams off the ends of our pens.
And then, there’s the joyful noise human bodies make when they move, in freedom and ecstasy, beautiful and powerful, in dance. Dance for love, dance for a cause, dance to let out the innermost self of humanity deep, deep within you. Scream to the heavens with every gesture, for dance is our oldest, most primal prayer — the song of the body created and shaped to express all things.
Make your noise unto the Lord. Dance when everyone sees, when no one sees but Him.
We Have Come to Be Danced
by Jewel Mathieson
We have come to be danced
Not the pretty dance
Not the pretty pretty, pick me, pick me dance
But the claw our way back into the belly
Of the sacred, sensual animal dance
The unhinged, unplugged, cat is out of its box dance
The holding the precious moment in the palms
Of our hands and feet dance.
We have come to be danced
Not the jiffy booby, shake your booty for him dance
But the wring the sadness from our skin dance
The blow the chip off our shoulder dance.
The slap the apology from our posture dance.
We have come to be danced
Not the monkey see, monkey do dance
One two dance like you
One two three, dance like me dance
but the grave robber, tomb stalker
Tearing scabs and scars open dance
The rub the rhythm raw against our soul dance.
We have come to be danced
Not the nice, invisible, self-conscious shuffle
But the matted hair flying, voodoo mama
Shaman shakin’ ancient bones dance
The strip us from our casings, return our wings
Sharpen our claws and tongues dance
The shed dead cells and slip into
The luminous skin of love dance.
We have come to be danced
Not the hold our breath and wallow in the shallow end of the floor dance
But the meeting of the trinity, the body breath and beat dance
The shout hallelujah from the top of our thighs dance
The mother may I?
Yes you may take 10 giant leaps dance
The olly olly oxen free free free dance
The everyone can come to our heaven dance.
We have come to be danced
Where the kingdom’s collide
In the cathedral of flesh
To burn back into the light
To unravel, to play, to fly, to pray
To root in skin sanctuary
We have come to be danced
WE HAVE COME.
January 13, 2014
It struck me recently, once again, that the most significant aspects of our lives, those which shape what we are, we do not choose, do not ask for: to be born, and when; our family members; our races and appearances; our home countries and native languages; our home towns.
I submitted a short story yesterday to an anthology about Philadelphia, and for a contributor’s bio I was called upon to formulate my connection with the city — and I think only then, maybe for the first time, did I say, quite, that Philly was more to me than 22 years of life, had become more than my second home. I landed in Philly a lost and despaired immigrant. There, I became what I am to such a large degree: an American. There I learned my Delaware County English.
I didn’t choose Philly. It chose me. And like all the other identity-shaping forces in which we have no say because they must happen to us in order for us to become ourselves, Philadelphia permeates me skin and bone and goes with me wherever I am.
I am a Philly girl, and nothing is to do.
What is a place that permeates you?
January 3, 2014
On this day, January 3, in 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated one former Augustinian monk, priest, and theologian Martin Luther from the bosom of the Catholic Church. We do not count the beginning of the Protestant Reformation from this date but from 1517, when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of his cathedral and started a wildfire argument over indulgences, an argument that nearly burned down the whole forest — but really, his excommunication was the last nail in the coffin of the unity of Western Christianity.
Wasn’t it? That’s when we truly became separate. That’s when Martin Luther went looking for allies in the north-German princes.
The thing I often think about is how right or wrong Pope Leo was. Excommunication… It seems so cold-hearted, so un-Christian. The schism of the Reformation brought about so much war, such raging rivers of blood over ideas, some of which we now find so ultimately compatible…
And yet, in a way he was right: by 1521, Rev. Luther did not belong in the Catholic Church. He was headed out there, for other directions, for building a new example of a new church, against which his birth-Church would grate and defend and renew itself, too. Out of the Reformation, bloody and slimy as humans always do, there emerged a stunning bouquet of spiritualities and expressions that would never have had a chance to blossom had Western Christianity remained homogeneous.
This is the thing I think about: These bloody schisms that make us varied and interesting, the reasons for which we tend to find sillier and sillier as centuries pass — are they a necessary part of our maturation, or are they a lamentable side-effect of our stupidity?
January 2, 2014
A Reflection by Eugene Trainor
In the beginning… silence. Silence word-birthing. There can be no word without silence… none worth speaking, yet speak them we do, silence-deprived words meaning nothing.
I have long thought about this, considered it deeply and, at times, near despairingly, no word implanted, gestating in silence’s womb, and my few or many words faint echoes of longing, soul-lacking, soul-seeking. But time’s passage urges me to grasp for something, unsubstantial though it be, if only to stave off the advance of whispering purposelessness, of meaning losing ground in the waning days or weeks or months or years (who knows how long?) remaining to me.
No other pursuits win out: nothing eye sees nor ear hears nor body ingests, not even love’s many-layered presence. Only silence, not dark chaos, silence cocooning the yet-to-be. Only silence here this early morning post-Christmas Day, and still the stillness, even now.
Where will it lead me? I must wait.
December 28, 2013
It is still the Christmas season, and we still hear, here and there, among others, “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a most disturbing song in my opinion. Every time I catch one of its countless renderings, I shiver on the inside from the diseased social dynamic that it so happily projects. Let’s see if you agree.
The reindeer bully, tease, and ostracize poor Rudolf just for having a shiny nose. Then Santa shows up and effectively promotes him over the others, at which point they adore him and sing his praises. There is no apology. Santa, who I assume is in charge of the moral development of his reindeer, does not hold a discussion to help them recognize the intrinsic worth of Rudolf regardless of his nose color. He just promotes him, and the brown-nosing little weasels switch their tune literally and shamelessly.
One sad and sort of perverse truth about the song is that we — certainly, I — kind of like the way it turns out. We root for the little guy to triumph, don’t we? There’s a satisfying symmetry in it. The problem is, the song doesn’t show any justice. Just reversal, like in the high school reunion movies where the “Four Eyes” geek shows up 20 years later a billionaire with a supermodel on his arm. It’s satisfying, but it’s a shallow victory.
I’d love to have added another verse to this song. Something about a stern yet gentle talking to from Santa. Or maybe a kind but dignified speech from Rudolf himself. About the pain of rejection and joy of forgiveness. That would be quite in the spirit of Christmas.
Don’t you think?
December 27, 2013
My parents celebrate their 48th wedding anniversary today, and other than being good and brilliant people, they are nothing alike. Their temperaments are so different, their needs… This morning my mother asked me how they could have fit together so well — and I began with the whole nook-and-cranny complementarity thing, but then I stopped.
The reality is, I don’t know why my parents, so different, became an inseparable unit of love together and why two other people, equally good and brilliant and different, somewhere else, didn’t. The reality is, as much as we need to guide ourselves with psychology and sociology, as much as our generalizations about human nature can be helpful, we are too complex for such a question, we are insanely, majestically complex, and no human being can ever be reduced to anything resembling an answer to a question. Not that we don’t try.
“Mom,” I said. “I think that you are a three-dimensional protrusion in time of a grand, pan-dimensional aspect of Divine Eternity itself. How much do you think I think I can understand you?”
She laughed. I laughed. And still, we both wondered.
December 14, 2013
A mighty general with command of powerful armies once came to see a hermit monk. He was a warrior who had slain countless enemies in battle and earned his scars and high rank through unshakable courage, overwhelming strength, and rivers of blood. He was a man of steel, and no one ever dared defy him.
The warrior approached the monk and uttered with a voice of authority, “Monk. I wish to know about heaven and hell. Teach me.”
The old hermit raised his eyes from the scroll he was reading and looked the general up and down. His features folded into a mask of disdain. “No,” he said. “Leave. Now.”
The warrior gasped. “How dare you disobey me?! Don’t you know who I am?”
“Oh, I know you,” the answer came. “You are all might and no brain — a dirty thug who kills for the pleasure of his master. You have no conscience, no will, no heart. There is nothing I can teach such a pathetic creature.”
With every insult of the monk, the warrior’s body shook harder and harder. Every word hit him like a pebble in the face. His fists clenched, his jaws locked, his nostrils flared, and finally he could hear no more. With a lion-like roar of rage and pain, he drew his sword and raised it over the barely covered body of the defenseless man before him.
The monk suddenly stood up, eye to eye with him, and said softly, “This is hell.”
The warrior froze. His sword dropped. His breath returned slowly in a dawning of comprehension, and for the first time in many years, he tasted tears on his lips. He lowered himself on a rock and cried and felt the hand of the monk stroke his hair.
The warrior looked up at the face of the hermit and saw on it a tender, compassionate smile. “Forgive me, Father,” he whispered.
“Yes,” the monk said. “This is heaven.”
(adapted and expanded from Jay Cormier’s Daily Reflections for Advent and Christmas)
December 12, 2013
This piece is the intro to a suite by a Russian composer Georgy Sviridov, called “Time, Forward!” It was written for a movie in 1965, a movie about building the future, about industrial giants, massive efforts, and bending nature to human will. About speeding up time. 1960’s in the Soviet Union — it was the time of great hopes and big moves. Much darkness was behind us — Stalinism, the war — so everything was pointed forward and charging into the future in a mad race, pushing time ahead of us like a swell.
Listen to this music, it is the sound of youth and strength. Energy gushing out to spill onto the world and water it. Back in Russia, this part of the suite became a theme for our nightly news program, Time. Every night since I remember myself, at 9pm, I heard the swell of time rushing ahead, bearing news of the world.
I listen to it now when I am weak. It reminds me that the enormous, mighty river of time roars all around, and matter, energy, space, consciousness are knocking together like pebbles in its boundless currents. About mid-way through the piece, listen to the staccato of brass and percussion that interrupts the second and third showing of the main theme: those gasps are just ever so slightly, so a split moment too soon, before their beat. They hit like impatient heartbeat, the first harbinger of excitement — together with the whole, and yet ahead. Ahead of time.
This is “Time Forward,” the sound of cosmic optimism:
December 9, 2013
Today, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, I am less interested in doctrine and more in a person who said, “Yes.” Mary changed everything, risked her life, bled from her heart, gave up her child for the world.
Most of us wish we had the chance to say “Yes” to God in such a grand way: to give of ourselves, to jump off the cliff, into the fire — if we were asked, we know we would. We hope we would. We think.
But life flows by, this thing and that, daily and weekly chores for the good of small tasks, and we think we can’t hear the Question. Except… God asks in small whispers, in tiny requests, interrupts our lives with a series of pokes just slight enough to be felt. A student at my office door. A child who won’t go to sleep. A colleague who stares blindly out the window. A spider in the kitchen corner.
They are the Questions of mercy and love, courage to approach, patience to endure. They are God’s questions. Say, “Yes.”
November 27, 2013
EVANGELII GAUDIUM (THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL) is a very long apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis. It was given on November 24 — the first of his pontificate — and, in principle, it’s about a renewed call and spirit of evangelization in the contemporary world. But the work digs into every aspect of evangelization: what it means, what it takes, how it should proceed. I am offering you excerpts from one of its sections, the section on dialogue.
I must admit, I liked some of its passages slightly more than others, and there was one sentence I didn’t like. One. Me. I think it’s a good section.
Here are my favorite parts:
SOCIAL DIALOGUE AS A CONTRIBUTION TO PEACE
For the Church today, three areas of dialogue stand out where she needs to be present in order to promote full human development and to pursue the common good: dialogue with states, dialogue with society – including dialogue with cultures and the sciences – and dialogue with other believers who are not part of the Catholic Church. … By preaching Jesus Christ, who is himself peace (cf. Eph 2:14), the new evangelization calls on every baptized person to be a peacemaker and a credible witness to a reconciled life. … We do not need plans drawn up by a few for the few, or an enlightened or outspoken minority which claims to speak for everyone. It is about agreeing to live together, a social and cultural pact.
Dialogue between faith, reason and science
… Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason, since “the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God” and cannot contradict each other. Evangelization is attentive to scientific advances and wishes to shed on them the light of faith and the natural law so that they will remain respectful of the centrality and supreme value of the human person at every stage of life. All of society can be enriched thanks to this dialogue, which opens up new horizons for thought and expands the possibilities of reason. This too is a path of harmony and peace.
Commitment to ecumenism responds to the prayer of the Lord Jesus that “they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). … We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face. Trusting others is an art and peace is an art. … In this perspective, ecumenism can be seen as a contribution to the unity of the human family. … If we concentrate on the convictions we share, and if we keep in mind the principle of the hierarchy of truths, we will be able to progress decidedly towards common expressions of proclamation, service and witness.
Relations with Judaism
… The Church, which shares with Jews an important part of the sacred Scriptures, looks upon the people of the covenant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity (cf. Rom 11:16-18). … With them, we believe in the one God who acts in history, and with them we accept his revealed word. Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel are part of the life of Jesus’ disciples. The friendship which has grown between us makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terrible persecutions which they have endured, and continue to endure, especially those that have involved Christians. … While it is true that certain Christian beliefs are unacceptable to Judaism, and that the Church cannot refrain from proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah, there exists as well a rich complementarity which allows us to read the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures together and to help one another to mine the riches of God’s word. We can also share many ethical convictions and a common concern for justice and the development of peoples.
An attitude of openness in truth and in love must characterize the dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions, in spite of various obstacles and difficulties, especially forms of fundamentalism on both sides. Interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities. This dialogue is in first place a conversation about human existence or simply, as the bishops of India have put it, a matter of “being open to them, sharing their joys and sorrows”. …
In this dialogue, ever friendly and sincere, attention must always be paid to the essential bond between dialogue and proclamation… True openness involves remaining steadfast in one’s deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one’s own identity, while at the same time being “open to understanding those of the other party” and “knowing that dialogue can enrich each side”. What is not helpful is a diplomatic openness which says “yes” to everything in order to avoid problems, for this would be a way of deceiving others and denying them the good which we have been given to share generously with others. Evangelization and interreligious dialogue, far from being opposed, mutually support and nourish one another.
Our relationship with the followers of Islam has taken on great importance, since they are now significantly present in many traditionally Christian countries, where they can freely worship and become fully a part of society. We must never forget that they “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day”. The sacred writings of Islam have retained some Christian teachings; Jesus and Mary receive profound veneration and it is admirable to see how Muslims both young and old, men and women, make time for daily prayer and faithfully take part in religious services. Many of them also have a deep conviction that their life, in its entirety, is from God and for God. They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need.
… We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries! Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.
Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God”, and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ”. But due to the sacramental dimension of sanctifying grace, God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God. … The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.
Social dialogue in a context of religious freedom
… A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. …
When considering the effect of religion on public life, one must distinguish the different ways in which it is practiced. Intellectuals and serious journalists frequently descend to crude and superficial generalizations in speaking of the shortcomings of religion, and often prove incapable of realizing that not all believers – or religious leaders – are the same. Some politicians take advantage of this confusion to justify acts of discrimination. At other times, contempt is shown for writings which reflect religious convictions, overlooking the fact that religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and the heart. This contempt is due to the myopia of a certain rationalism. Is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writings simply because they arose in a context of religious belief? These writings include principles which are profoundly humanistic and, albeit tinged with religious symbols and teachings, they have a certain value for reason.
As believers, we also feel close to those who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition, yet sincerely seek the truth, goodness and beauty which we believe have their highest expression and source in God. We consider them as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation. A special place of encounter is offered by new Areopagi such as the Court of the Gentiles, where “believers and non-believers are able to engage in dialogue about fundamental issues of ethics, art and science, and about the search for transcendence”. This too is a path to peace in our troubled world.
November 22, 2013
Today is the 50th anniversary of a tragic and widely mourned death, a death that, many people would say, changed America. President John F. Kennedy was shot on November 22nd, 1963, and it’s been a custom in this country for everyone older than 60 to know where they were on that day. Internet, television, print media, and radio are full of JFK today, and it should be so – but I want to talk, just a little, about someone else.
You see, today is the 50th anniversary of another death, and it was less tragic and much less mourned, not only because it came naturally, not only because the shock waves of JFK’s assassination covered over almost everything else, but because he was barely known in life. He was a teacher, a friend of Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s, and a very, very lapsed Christian who found his way back. He called himself the most “reluctant convert” in the world.
As he neared the end of his life at 64, few people knew that this modest English professor at Oxford wrote “stories,” but today his books are sold at a rate of over a million a year. He wrote literature for children and adults, and I have heard a whole chorus of voices acclaiming his name as the “greatest Christian apologist,” though I’m not sure he would have liked that term. I think he would have liked the word “writer” and the word “value,” and “imagination” and “spirit” and “love.” He would have liked “faith,” “justice,” and “reason.”
His name is C.S. Lewis. His Chronicles of Narnia and Screwtape Letters are household titles, and the fantasy worlds he created fire up children’s minds in this 21st century; his Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, and Miracles are daily food for thought among theologians and philosophers, and among seekers of questions.
C.S. Lewis and John F. Kennedy were not the only two to die on 11/22/1963, of course. Many others did, too, including another icon of world literature, Aldous Huxley. He’s just the one I feel like honoring today along with those who read from his works at the Westminster Abbey.
C.S. Lewis is one of the most quoted persons in the English language. He just had a way of putting things. Here are some of my favorite quotes, just a few:
What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — ”Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
The world does not consist of 100 percent Christians and 100 percent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so.
…while in other sciences the instruments you use are things external to yourself (things like microscopes and telescopes), the instrument through which you see God is your whole self. And if a man’s self is not kept clean and bright, his glimpse of God will be blurred — like the Moon seen through a dirty telescope.
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word “darkness” on the walls of his cell.
Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.
If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.
Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives.
November 21, 2013
A friend of mine just lost her mother, and through tears and smiles she told me a poem her mother used to read to her often, when my friend was a child. She printed this poem on the back of her mother’s funeral pamphlet. I read it and felt my soul filling with air, with the space and promise of life — here and forever. And I thought about how our lives’ beginnings and their endings are similar in their yet-unexperienced wonder.
How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside–
Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown–
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!
Robert Louis Stevenson
November 20, 2013
Augusten Burroughs wrote once:
“I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.”
I love this. It feels so true sometimes, of me, that I am almost ready to be filled with the smile and the freedom of Burroughs’ formula and shake off all burdens and…just go.
But then I wonder: Where will good intentions lead a patchwork of flaws? Is this an excuse to shirk responsibility?
One of my flaws, you see, is a tendency to overthink.
November 14, 2013
Anna German is often called “the white angel of Polish song,” but her song, her life, her beauty are much more than Polish. To us, she was the epitome of purity, tenderness, motherhood, and hope. She was the soaring swan. Though she is gone, the echo of her lives, on and on.
Anna German spent her childhood in the USSR’s Central Asia during the dark times of World War II and left for Poland with her mother right after. There she studied geology but never quite got to be a geologist: the astonishment of her voice demanded that she sing, and so she did.
She sang in Polish, in Russian, in English, in Italian. She drew multi-thousand crowds that would’t let her start without half-hour applause and wouldn’t let her leave without a dozen encores. She got letters, by hundreds every day, from Siberia, Italy, and America, addressed simply to Anna German, Warsaw, Poland. In the 60’s and 70’s, her face was the embodiment of feminine love, her voice could give one a reason to live.
She died of cancer in 1982, having survived a devastating car accident and returned to the stage after three years of learning to move again. She was 46. Battling the disease, she made a vow to sing only for God should she survive — and was baptized then. This was not to be. And yet, it seems right that engraved on her headstone are the words of Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd.
I cannot pick a favorite song. She sang of love that spans all time and space, of innocence with sparkling humor, of enduring hope that keeps us alive through the night and cold. She sang prayers and lullabies.
This song is one of her first, co-written by her with another, then young, woman, and it is called “Dancing Eurydices.” This one is in Polish, so I understand only half or a bit more of the words, but let me put it this way: Imagine evening Warsaw on a summer night, outdoor cafes by the river, couples in love — the girls in light dresses, drunken wind playing with their scarves, and the guys who cannot take their eyes off their beloved. Dancing Eurydices with wondrous eyes and wondrous lips. Singing Orpheuses with overflowing hearts. The echo of love never-ending.
Click here to listen: Dancing Eurydices
To play on Media Player:
November 9, 2013
These thoughts are by Martin Leahy, Ph.D., for the American Catholic Council.
Woe to you Pharisees who “widen your phylacteries and lengthen your tassels”
Francis is enormously popular
His style is dramatically different from his predecessor’s. But the difference is not in style alone. Behind the style, we find a very different set of beliefs, different answers to basic questions, two world views at opposite poles.
This is usually followed by: “there has been no change in dogma.”But Isn’t It All Style and No Substance?
First, the answers to the basic questions above show a fundamental difference in thinking, a different world view.
Next, we cannot dismiss the import of style. Style refers to behaviors, HOW a person acts. In organizations, leadership style is a powerful tool for change. Substance, on the other hand, usually refers to a WHAT, in this case, what we believe. Jesus never asked us to swear allegiance to a set of beliefs (a What); He did ask us to change HOW we live our lives. Francis is acting like Jesus.
Finally, notice the resistance Francis is generating. Many times over the last few months we have heard something like: what Francis meant to say… The things he is saying are making the institutional watchdogs nervous so they try to walk them back or spin them.
Francis has been an advocate for a few ideas that terrify those who want to keep the status quo. Among the most frightening ideas are: the Church as the People of God, dialogue, and the primacy of conscience. These are Vatican II ideas and there has been a systematic effort for over three decades to squash these ideas or redefine them so as to make them meaningless and powerless.
Why are these ideas so frightening? Because once fully embraced and practiced in the Church they will inevitably lead to major changes in Church teaching. What would happen with current teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, divorce/remarriage, and women priests if the People of God were encouraged to follow their consciences and invited to engage in dialogue with Church leaders? The very fact that the People of God are invited to dialogue changes who and how decisions are made.
The Strategy of the Indirect Approach
A system that is 2,000 years old cannot be changed by acting within it or tackling it directly.
Francis is not addressing doctrinal teachings directly. He is not addressing them at all. To do so would be to invite crippling resistance.
He is not governing through standard management mechanisms in the Vatican. He has set up a permanent group of hand-picked outsiders, 8 cardinal advisors. Wisely, he has kept all of the managers on the payroll and in their jobs until he decides otherwise.
He is not relying on the formal, official vehicles for communications. He speaks directly to the people, unfiltered by Vatican bureaucrats, in his daily homilies and through the press. How ironic is it that the very media who have been accused of hating the Church are the allies of Francis?
From the center of the organization, Francis is creating a vision, clarifying the mission, and reorganizing the structures of government. How do we, out in the dioceses, work with Francis to bring about this transformation? Francis cannot do this alone. He will meet tremendous resistance. His work needs to be complemented by simultaneous efforts from the grassroots to effect changes at the levels of parish, diocese, and country.
We had a strategy for effecting change under the last pope. But, the whole game has changed. Francis is giving us a vision, a mission, and a strategy. How do we strategically live this mission and bring this vision to life?
The People of God need to take up the power and responsibility given at Baptism, we need to see ourselves as the Church, honor our consciences, and engage in a dialogue of equals, first among ourselves, and ultimately with local leaders of the institutional church. And where there is resistance to our being in dialogue, as there will be, we need to manage that resistance and create the conditions for dialogue. Let those who would oppose us occupy themselves by continuing to “widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.”
Martin J. Leahy, Ph.D. is an organizational and leadership consultant and associate professor in the Organizational Leadership PhD program at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
November 8, 2013
We don’t need to look for love. We are love itself, and it is the very fabric of our being. Seeking it, we go out of ourselves and look in empty places, and that’s where we get lost. All we need is look within, build no walls, tear no holes in the fabric of Love.The great Sufi poet Rumi said it so:
“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”
November 7, 2013
Today is November 7th. I grew up celebrating this day in the festive hues of scarlet, in the crowd-filled streets, parades, and the wafting aromas of baking pies. This is the Great Socialist October Revolution Day — or it used to be, in a different world, in a life past.
The things that shape us and teach us what’s good, the things that spell joy… They turn around on us sometimes, turn out uneasy and darker than we thought. Sometimes they disappear altogether. And yet their teachings remain in us, often, in their clearest, distilled form — the best of history. Its meaning. Its legacy.
Red is the color of November 7th. It’s red like the Soviet flag. And it’s red like blood. Scarlet.
In my memory, it doesn’t fade.
November 4, 2013
Here’s just something I’ve thought about as I was glancing through Camus’ The Stranger. This book is often cited as his defining work of existentialism, and yet Camus would hardly call himself an existentialist. In a way, the same is true of Nietzsche: studied in every course on existentialism as an early thought-founder of the direction in philosophy that would lead to the birth of existentialism, Nietzsche himself wouldn’t know what to do with the word and would probably condemn most of its core principles.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his 1888 Twilight of the Idols, “If we have a why in life, we shall bear almost any how.” This sentiment — that following the light of the meaning of life could empower the strong and true to any perseverance, sacrifice, and triumph — this sentiment ultimately shaped his singular philosophy of the Ubermensch. The myth of Zarathustra. His dream of humanity breaking out of its own shell.
Albert Camus wrote The Stranger in 1942, and there’s a line in it that reads, “You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” It’s about giving up the grand and abstract picture for the precious and immediate little we can reach. It’s about the loss of faith and the finding of freedom in the lack of expectation.
Today’s philosophy seems to think that Camus, Sartre, and the thought-movement they rung out of their bleeding hearts — existentialism — arose in the footsteps of Nietzsche. It’s because of his talk of freedom. His crucial, frightening to every fiber of being, nauseating freedom — inescapable by the one who will break out and walk the tightrope, even more by the one who will walk up the hill and ascend over the crowd and be the future of humanity: the next evolution, the Overman.
Sartre’s freedom is nauseating, too, but it’s not like Nietzsche’s: it’s inherent in every poor sod on this poor world, condemned to be free. It is radical freedom, and it spells loneliness so extreme that it leaves us without not only God, not even just fellow humans and creatures, if we are honest with ourselves, but without even the continuity of self. Sartre, the paradigmatic existentialist, looks into the mirror and finds himself so completely alone that he can’t count even on his own past or his own immediate future to provide him predictability. We have no meaningful context in God or the world, we have no others for enduring company, aid, or compassion, and we have no assurance in our own self-coherence. We have only the radical honesty about our radical freedom in this one present moment, if we can face it — or a life of bad faith, of delusion, if we can’t.
From Nietzsche through Camus to Sartre. Sometimes I wonder about the way we order our universe. The labels we apply, the titles we give. They can be correct in a way and lie at the same time. They can confuse. They are never simple, and they are never, never completely true.
Zen Buddhism, I think, deals with the problem pretty well: it just makes fun of every term, word, label, and category there is. Including the Buddha. Including Zen.
November 1, 2013
This song is different. This is my prayer of timelessness and longing, the sound of nostalgia. We all have those: a breeze from the past that rushes by, cools our faces with the freshness of a memory so dear, so pure, so beautiful, that when it flies off into the unfathomable timeless eternity, we are left gasping and shaking off tears, peering into that future mind-bogglingly far and yet so almost touchable, where we will meet again. Longing for the world to be one again.
This song is called “Russian Field,” and it was, like many of our popular Soviet songs at one time, written for a film. Nearly all our movie soundtracks were original music. This song is about coming home. Connections that cannot be severed. Simple beauty of simple places.
Click here to listen: Russkoye Pole
To play on Media Player:
A field… A Russian field… Full moon or snowfall,
In joy and in pain my heart can never forget you.
Russian field… How many roads have I had to walk?
You are my youth, you are my freedom,
All that has come true in life.
Neither forests nor seas can compare to you.
You are with me, my field. Wind is cooling my temples.
My home is here, and I’ll say before the world,
“Hello, Russian field. I am your slender stalk.”
A field… A Russian field… I am a city dweller now,
Yet the aroma of tarragon, the spring rains
Will suddenly burn my heart with longing.
Russian field, like you, I live in waiting.
Trust in silence as in a promise.
On a cloudy day I see blue.
Neither forests nor seas can compare to you.
You are with me, my field. Wind is cooling my temples.
My home is here, and I’ll say before the world,
“Hello, Russian field. I am your slender stalk.”
October 30, 2013
Ricky Gervais says in a tweet, “Thinking you’re on speaking terms with God is like finding out you’ve been playing both parts in an episode of Catfish.” This is a pretty common view and, I suppose, a reasonable reaction if you imagine faith to be a schizophrenic version of online dating and God to be better than a blind date only by a chance that Ultimate Reality won’t turn out to be a lying scumbag. This is a pretty funny way to look at religion. It makes us medieval peasants with computers.
On the other hand, Ricky Gervais and those of us who have gone through a similar shock of awareness have, I think, the following excellent point: When we “talk to God,” in many ways we talk to ourselves. It’s just, this is not because the Grand Divine is an invention of our diseased imaginations or a scam of Church authorities. It’s because we are not separate – from each other, from the Universe, or from its Source and Goal. There may not be some anthropomorphic finger out there pushing buttons to respond to your prayer requests, but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing out there – and it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to your prayer.
So here is my question for Ricky Gervais and for everyone who is thinking about what it means to be “on speaking terms with God”: Is this a reason to stop speaking altogether, or is this the start of an insight that shifts our experience from a juvenile conversation with an imaginary friend to an exploration of reality more complex, more interconnected, and more mysterious? The thing we call “faith”?
Thank God, not every relationship in the universe is akin to dating.
October 27, 2013
In the way that I perceive the world and in my deepest conviction, music is Love Divine made audible. The unifying fabric of reality we hear as pouring sound. Music is not alone in this — other aspects of Love bind us to Her through visual beauty and kindness and the dance of ecstatic abandon and more. Music is the sound of God through time. Music is prayer.
It needs no lyrics to be prayer, and what lyrics are sung need not mention God. Still, when we put our words of love to the sounds of heaven, prayer it becomes: explicit, overflowing, and overpowering. My favorite kind. Sometimes it is quiet, sometimes agonized. Sometimes sparkling and jumping for joy. All are good.
And so, today’s thought is music. This might start a series, perhaps: a drop of music from time to time.
These two pieces are very different prayers. Two songs of love, performed by a Russian a capella sextet from St. Petersburg. They perform no longer, but until recently they called themselves Remake.
“Bist du bei mir” is an aria from the album of Anna Magdalena Bach. Its title (and its first words) means “Be, Thou, with me…”
Click here to listen: Bist du bei mir
To play on Media Player:
“More” was originally an instrumental piece from the soundtrack of “Mondo Cane,” a 1960’s documentary. These lyrics combined with this melody later to create a song that has flown over the world countless times and touched the ears of billions. It’s about the love so great that it consumes completely, carries up and on, and no greater love can be imagined.
Click here to listen: More (N. Oliviero)
To play on Media Player:
October 23, 2013
Today, an article on Reuters.com calls out Pope Francis because a German bishop (known locally as the “luxury bishop”), who recently spent an exorbitant amount of Church money on his residence, has been suspended and removed from his diocese “for a time” until a permanent verdict has been reached. More than one voice calls this reaction from the Vatican “an embarrassment”: after the Pope’s inspiring display of simple living and his explicit call to his priests to stop living like princes, the public expected a harsh and immediate punishment for the “luxury bishop.” He should have been removed quickly and permanently. Disrobed. Dismembered. I don’t know.
What do you think?
It seems from what I’m reading that the investigation is not entirely complete. His spending is clear, but what led to it is not — something like that. He’s been scandalized, humiliated, and separated from his diocese. What will ultimately happen to him is still to be determined. Is Pope Francis taking the time to be strict but fair? Or is he chickening out of his own principles the way the Reuters article appears to suggest?
Say what you think. Say why.
October 21, 2013
I read a critique of Pope Francis today by a feminist Church activist, and her point consisted mostly of moderating the puppy love and the fountain of unmitigated hope she feels too many of us are letting loose regarding the new bishop of Rome — the hope that will, in her opinion, let us down because Francis is not some radical reformer. He will not change the Church’s policies on women or same-sex couples. This animosity is many centuries old, and we are not about to be handed a free pass to equality, she says.
Well, to a great extent, I agree. I don’t think Pope Francis is planning to overturn doctrines or that he is our one-man answer to the all-embracing Church. But then, does he have to be? Is that what we need? Are we really looking to the Pope to dictate climate, mood, and policy? If so, how are we better than a flock of sheep who mindlessly follow our Vatican-based shepherd, and what is all our talk about the reform of Church hierarchy, pastoral governance, and the many-voiced ecclesial community of faith? If we are waiting for this one man to do everything, we don’t deserve to have it done.
What we do need him to do, he seems to have started to do: to lead by rhetoric and by example in changing awareness of priorities toward universal compassion and social justice; to be open to administrative and hierarchical changes that lead to true reform; to insist on transparency and purity in intention, on fiscal principles consistent with the Gospel. We need him to be what we want in the bishop of Rome, the most symbolic diocese in the world — we need him to be the Servant of Servants. And he is doing well. So far.
He is human, and he has his own biases and baggage, his history and folly, and he will make mistakes and hold opinions I will not like. But he appears a sincere servant of the mission we all are on: to love, to learn, to help. Not so much to judge, to rule, and to have. As long as that’s true, I’ll be honored to call him the leader of my Church.
October 17, 2013
There’s a school of thought in Religious Studies that says our great world religions are centered around the numbers One, Two, and Three because these are the numbers that express profound qualities of Reality itself.
That’s good. Reality is certainly monist, binary, and trinitarian in multiple ways. Except…is it not also tetrarian? Does God only count to three?
I am thinking, I’ll be writing a longer essay about this soon. If this interests you, look for a post, my friends.
October 15, 2013
Pope Francis has addressed Catholic nuns around the world, calling them to joy and a motherly approach to humanity and the Church. He proposed that half-empty convents, of which there are more and more in many Western countries, be used to house and shelter migrants and refugees in distress.
Pope Francis has addressed Catholic priests, calling them to material modesty in the face of deprivation lived by so many, to use the resources of the Church for the good of the poor.
Pope Francis seems to be living the message he is preaching. It’s been well discussed that he lives in relatively small quarters outside Vatican instead of the papal apartments and rides in a Ford Focus instead of a Mercedes. And now, he is auctioning his Harley-Davidson (a gift after blessing something like 35,000 bikers in an assembly) to use the proceeds for building a home and soup kitchen in Rome.
Of course, it makes sense. I am not sure, but I don’t think he rides it anyway.
October 2, 2013
There are people whose vocations are of quiet, everyday heroism. The rest of us know — or think we know this — but only from time to time are we truly confronted with the truth of what that means: to be an emergency room nurse, a public defender, an outreach van driver… When your smallest gesture — a smile or a lapse in focus — can be the difference between pain and hope, life and death in a place where noise, desperation, and suffering never seem to cease. When years of somebody’s freedom ride on what you do, and yet there’s so much you can’t control, so few thanks you ever get, so rarely that you win, and still you persevere. When you work through the night in a dangerous place, in the cold and any weather, day after day, for an absolute minimum of money, to bring blankets and food to the most desperate and homeless.
We all know these people and others like them. They get up and go to work like everybody else. But we come face to face with them when it is we who are in pain and terrified, or accused and terrified, or homeless or hungry or in danger — and terrified. And then we need them: nurses, rescue workers, public defenders, social workers — all the caretakers of the world — and after they’ve helped us and saved us, we want to thank and hug them and tell them what it meant to us, but they are gone already, on to the next desperate victim of the world’s suffering.
All we get sometimes is to hope that they know. That they know enough.
September 28, 2013
At the monastery’s cemetery at St. Scholastica, there stands a large crucifix, and next to it an all-white sculpted La Pieta. As all of them, it is beautiful, painful, and poignant, and it will break your heart, but there was something I noticed this time I never had before. I don’t think I’d seen it in any of the others: next to Mary holding her son’s cooling body, by his right hand fallen to the ground, there sits a small basket with nails.
Of course, it makes sense. They would have to have taken out the nails to take him from the cross.
I can’t stop thinking about it.
September 20, 2013
A couple of days ago, the oldest Sister at the monastery passed, as they say, from this life to eternal life. Only a few days before that, she was talking, praying, and joking with her beloved family. Apparently, she was quite the one to tell a joke. She was 103 years old and had spent 85 years as a Sister in religious life.
That’s eighty-five years of working for the benefit of this world through labor and prayer. More time than most of us spend between birth and death.
Oh, and her name was Devota.
September 17, 2013
St. Benedict describes in his Rule a pretty remarkable system of governance for the monastery — remarkable because in any realistic human society throughout history it should not work and has not worked. But it works in monasteries. It’s an authoritarian conciliar system, which means that the leader of the community (the Prioress or Abbot) has the final say in all decisions, can issue orders and punish and demand obedience, but she (or he) is required to make her decisions with the help of (and after carefully listening to) the councils of the community, sometimes in committees, sometimes of everyone together. The idea is that everyone will have input into important decisions, maximizing the wisdom employed in making them, and then the wise, humble, and strong leader makes the decision, and everyone — agree or disagree — will band together to implement it now that she’s said so.
Human history shows that council and individual authority don’t live well together, at least not for long. Either a strong ruler takes over and what council remains, if any, continues only symbolically to appease the masses — or the currents of democracy prevail and put in place safeguards against authoritarianism.
A monastery appears to be a curious exception to this rule. A need for an absolute power of a parent-like leader, assumed in Benedict’s borderline-ancient Europe, has endured into the modern times as an administrative structure of convention and respect. Benedict’s novel insistence on communal council has permeated the spirit of monastic governance with care and humility.
Mostly, I’m saying — humans are still humans, and I know examples of monasteries turning into their Prioresses’ private little cults — but this is a rare occurrence. I am quite astonished by this 1,500-year tradition of authority reigning itself in and followers leaving their opinions in council and not beyond, of differences being kept from becoming hostilities, and opponents, enemies. I imagine, it is the self-selection of monastic communities from the very people who judge themselves capable of living such a life that allows the life to be lived. But it does give me hope for humanity at large, maybe in the future. And it makes me think that one of the roles of a monastery in the world is to model governance — agree or disagree.
September 11, 2013
It is as dangerous to ignore or discard the insights and spirit of humanity’s ancient, accumulated wisdom expressed in religion, myth, and folklore as it is to fail in reevaluating them in light of our deepening understanding of the world, to adhere literally to the terms and rules of bygone cultures, to ignore our moral and intellectual growth. The balance is shifting and uncertain, our perpetual spiritual search. Either extreme leads to war and brutality, spilled blood, repeated history.
Like most of my thoughts, this one is not new, but today in my mind it is more persistent than usual, here among the followers of the oldest monastic tradition. Today is the twelfth anniversary of 9/11. Flags are flying at half mast.
September 9, 2013
I am at the monastery right now, in Northern Minnesota — for two weeks, I will be here, with the community I am discerning to join, working on my book, praying with the rhythm of the Divine Office, having meals with the Sisters, evenings in the community room over puzzles or games or a movie, taking walks into the rapidly yellowing autumn woods. I am likely to write about all that for a little while.
Last night, I was remarking to our Prioress on how much I loved the Liturgy of the Hours here, at the monastery. How the tolling of the bells that calls us to prayer punctuates the day three times with a subtle yet joyful exhortation, “Come! Come! Come!” It is time to gather together. It is time to remember that you are not alone. I was telling the Prioress how beautiful I find the chanting of the psalms, how I lose myself in our choir of voices, and each time a new line floats to the surface of my consciousness and softly but insistently wraps itself around my mind, says something to me I’d forgotten or misunderstood, and changes my life.
And then she said something unexpected to me, “You know, one can hear the prayer in both directions from the chapel, well into the college. It echoes through the corridors, what a sound…”
“I haven’t even thought of that at all… So every day, morning and afternoon prayer and midday Mass, everyone in the Tower Hall can hear? Students, faculty, staff, visitors?”
“It is quite a witness,” she said.
Indeed it must be. I was walking to my room imagining myself a student at a college where every day I would hear from the wide-open doors of the chapel the sounds of the organ and the heavenly voices of the all-Sisters’ choir, singing the psalms; where I could simply stop for Mass every day at lunch time, passing by. I don’t know what it would be like, but I know my impression of Christianity, whatever other tribulations, would be filled with music and a welcoming, open door, and with ideas of fidelity and reliability and joy, and with a feeling of peace.
My Sister the Prioress with one sentence did what I had failed to do in all my happiness and admiration of the Office: she put me out of the center of that picture and focused on those others who weren’t us. And immediately another dimension was added, and the already beautiful and joyful experience acquired so much more meaning… Well, no. It already had the meaning. I just came to recognize it.
It happens a lot.
September 8, 2013
It is only sane for everyone to be convinced that she is right. It is the only rational state of affairs, really, that we all disagree and all think that we are right. Because if I were to realize that I was wrong, I would absolutely have to change my position, immediately — or lose my mind. I could not very well persist in thinking something I didn’t consider to be correct, for it would be entirely irrational: the opposite of the very purpose of thinking. And so, we all live convinced of our own truths. We cannot all be right on all subjects because some of our assertions are logically contradictory. We cannot simply admit we might be wrong and live with it, for it would drive us insane. All we can do is strive, hope, and pray for an ever decreasing time, for every given subject, between becoming wrong, recognizing we are wrong, finding a better position, and changing from old to the new opinion. And then, we can hope that our new opinion is actually right.
August 31, 2013
Practice most often falls short of ideal, but let us not allow this fact to prevent us from holding ideals. Without ideals, toward what shall we direct our practice?
Liberté, égalité, fraternité!
August 25, 2013
Pema Chodron is a Tibetan Buddhist nun from Connecticut — Trungpa’s disciple, writer, teacher, and possibly America’s most prominent contribution to Shambhala Buddhism. She lives in a Canadian monastery. In her book Awakening Loving-Kindness, this is what she says:
The essence of the practice is willingness to share pleasure and delight and the joy of life on the out-breath and the willingness to feel your pain and that of others fully on the in-breath. That’s the essence of it, and if you were never to receive any other instruction, that would be enough.
August 24, 2013
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in May of 2013, 61% of American Catholics favor legal same-sex marriage or legalizing it where it’s not. And this number is growing.
Catholics are not alone. With a range of difference, of course, based on political opinion, geographic location, age, and religious persuasion, on average 51% of the US population now (for the first time the majority) supports gay marriage. Interestingly, regardless of their position on marriage itself, most people say the recognition of gay marriage is inevitable: 72%, with even staunch opponents of it admitting in two-thirds majorities that it is coming.
With 13 states and D.C. having legalized same-sex marriage while, I think, 29 states passed constitutional amendments to ban it, sometimes I don’t know what to think exactly. But the number is growing, and the highest numbers of supporters are among the young. We might just be all right.
Now we just need to eliminate the gap between our young generations’ gut feeling of what is good and just and the moral doctrine of the Church they every day consider staying in or leaving. We must relieve them of the need to battle their own preachers’ messages and of the need to walk against the current of their Church’s ethic. Now we must live up to the moral standard of the natural, Spirit-guided outreach of the faithful.
August 22, 2013
Yesterday, as my friends and I were out celebrating one of our birthdays, we passed on a Philadelphia street a young man, no older than 20, sitting on the sidewalk. He had a backpack and a cardboard sign that said only, “HOMELESS. HUNGRY.” He was trying to get back home to Texas. His mother had gotten him a ticket, and in the meantime he was lost, alone, and with nothing to eat. I had only a few dollars in parking change to give him, and one of my friends, a paper dollar. I could only hold his hand for a few seconds and listen to his story and tell him of a shelter in the city and wish him luck. Then we went on our way — to celebrate, to eat, to watch a movie in good company.
Today, I was sitting in my godmother’s kitchen over a cup of fragrant tea brewed the Russian way and a bag of crunchy pretzels, and we talked about the people we loved and the people we didn’t know. A teenage girl lies at home with multiple fractures after a devastating car accident, her physical injuries healing faster than emotional damage. Catholic Sisters in Cairo are hiding in places they hope for the moment are safe from the rampant burning of churches while Egypt is drowning in blood and fire. Millions of American children have never held a book in their hands because their families cannot afford food, let alone worry about literacy. We talked, then we had more tea. And a few more pretzels.
Tonight, as I prepare for bed, I’ve done nothing for people in Egypt but send a few heartfelt thoughts their way. I’ve remembered the boy on his way home to Texas, and my thoughts for his well-being are strong and focused, like a tether that I hope can help him stay afloat in his turbulent waters. People I know are making sure to take care of the teenage girl after her accident. A friend of mine has signed up to sponsor a child in poverty through the Save The Children foundation.
Billions of others are in pain, despair, and need. I know of a few. I’ve done a few things for a few of them today. For the rest of them, today, I have been me. All in all, I think it was a pretty good day. I can envision better. I can remember worse.
August 20, 2013
Exactly 370 years ago, on August 20, 1643, Anne Hutchinson with almost her entire family died a violent death in the course of recurring, back-and-forth massacres between the Dutch and the native tribes. Today, her house would have stood in The Bronx.
She was something, this Puritan woman Anne Hutchinson, born an Anglican girl Anne Marbury. Having braved the ocean like the rest of the Massachusetts Bay colonists, she was no wall flour, yet in her culture, at the time when “good women” mostly restricted themselves to sowing, cooking, and birthing children (she herself, I believe, had 15), she towered over them all in trouble-making (by early 20th century they coined for it the term “agitating,” and today we call it “community organizing”). While following the theology of “free grace” preached by John Cotton in contrast to the accepted Bostonian theology, she of all the others became the center of the political and religious upheaval that for the second time split the nascent New England — the infamous “antinomian controversy.” The group of “antinomians” she hosted in her house, which started out as a little women’s club, included preachers, prominent men, and a governor, but Anne Hutchinson managed to get herself put on trial, excommunicated, and exiled from the colony. She was hated so dearly by John Winthrop that he called her a “hell-spawned agent of destructive anarchy.” Undefeated, she took her people to Rhode Island and founded Portsmouth before ending up in the fateful pre-Bronx area of what would become New York and dying an untimely death, if there is such a thing, at the hands of raging warriors fighting a futile battle for their land, identity, and future. She was 52.
It is curious, though, probably, fitting, that the two well-known monuments to Anne Hutchinson are erected in Massachusetts not in Rhode Island or New York (which both, I’m sure, contain plaques somewhere I am unfamiliar with). Massachusetts honors her as a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.” That’s what it says on the monument by the State House in Boston. The feminist movement loves her, of course. Her descendants are unsurprisingly numerous and prominent in this country’s politics and include three presidents (FDR and the two Bushes) and two Supreme Court justices (Fuller and Holmes). History seems more and more to subtly agree that she won, after all, the antinomian controversy. In an amusing anniversary-related gesture, in 1987 the Massachusetts governor Dukakis reversed the banishment order issued 350 years prior by governor Winthrop, pardoning Anne Hutchinson. She can now return should she wish to Boston. Perhaps, to haunt the State House.
I like that we like her. I would like it better if we paid better homage to someone we often miss in all our homage to Anne Hutchinson: her parents, in particular her father, Francis Marbury. He was a Cambridge-educated cleric, playwright, and a teacher, and he was a perpetual dissident. Imprisoned several times for speaking out against the Church, he curbed his tongue only in his later years, when nothing was left to feed his children. Francis Marbury gave his daughter an education that very, very few girls in 17th c. England had access to, and I have little doubt that he gave her the spirit of protest and an impudent tongue not to be contained. I have very little doubt that, if she hadn’t had this education and the example of her father who had stood up for his convictions at high cost, we would never have heard of Anne Hutchinson from Massachusetts Bay.
Dear Mom and Dad, I think you know what I am saying.
August 17, 2013
I have been very busy with work, and now I am traveling again, so my daily thoughts have tended to come and go past this page, and I apologize. For today, let me “pass the buck” to someone else and offer you a link to a short article as food for thought. It is entitled, “Pope Francis is unsettling – and dividing – the Catholic right.”
August 12, 2013
Last week I was asked about the book I am writing, and so a short introduction of interreligious dialogue followed. The woman — a server at the diner where I often write — listened to my attempt to summarize a field of study and a grassroots world-wide phenomenon, then asked, “When you say, ‘inter-religious dialogue,’ do you include atheists in it?”
We talked some more about the definition of religion, the goals of dialogue, and why we DO include all kinds of worldviews and why I am proud to say that we do. I was also proud that it was the first thing she’d asked. Sometimes I just really, really like people.
“To you, I am an atheist. To God, I am the loyal opposition.”
August 8, 2013
“Invictus” has been one of my most dear English-language poems since I encountered it almost two decades ago, though I recently discovered that its author did not give it its name. “Invictus” means “unconquered” in Latin and simply sums up the contents of the verses. There is no need. William Ernest Henley left his creation untitled.
It would be named by an editor in the course of publication, it would become Henley’s single enduring contribution to world literature, but I will take this one over some other volumes. This is the miracle of poetry: like a spear she tears through the thickness of our lives, dispels the fogs, shreds all veils, and breaches walls, leaving a hole painful and clear so we can see. She talks of “circumstance,” and we each see our own, its edges torn and mottled where the spear has passed. And she talks of light, and we all see the same: hers, the light that pours into the space that poetry has made.
I am not the first, not the last human being to have held onto the lines of “Invictus” in desperate times. Nelson Mandela recited them to his fellow inmates on Robben Island. Leonard Cohen quoted them before singing “Darkness” in 2010. We repeat these words and whisper them and promise them to ourselves in the last effort before giving up, when nothing will move but lips, when nothing else will help. When from every possible reason and purpose in their ethereal beyond we’ve been separated by a crushing, ever-growing weight of terror, injustice, and loss — and pain, loneliness, unending hopelessness, rage… When we are in prison. In depression. In mourning. Lost, unloved, unfairly accused. Hungry, cold, and uncertain, with no place to go. When we are strangers, or odd, or ashamed.
William Ernest Henley wrote his only famous poem in the 1860’s England because he contracted tuberculosis in the bone of his foot when he was 12 years old. He wrote it in his late teens, when one of his legs had been already amputated. The doctors wanted to take the other, but he refused. At the price of extensive surgery more painful than a 21st-century Westerner is used to imagining, he kept one leg and lived.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley
August 2, 2013
My mother and I were sitting on the porch of our house today, listening to the birds and watching things pass by: clouds, cars, squirrels… And talking. Up the wooden pillar to the railing, a thin little caterpillar was making its way, measuring distance head to toe, folding and straightening, reaching out its head at almost 90-degree angles from its vertical hold before taking the next step, and we watched it and marveled at its casual use of mind-boggling strength, at its inquisitiveness and persistence. We sat. It crawled all about.
Before leaving the porch, Mom and I brought our faces closer to the caterpillar to see what it looked like, and it noticed us. In a split second, the caterpillar was gone, and in its place, there stood, attached to the smooth wood, at an odd angle a tiny twig — indistinguishable. If I didn’t know for sure that this was mimicry, I would never, never have guessed the twig was alive and only a second before had been measuring my porch with its pliable little body.
It stood there, completely still, until we left and long after. I’m afraid we scared it. The strength and patience it has to take to defend yourself this way… The helplessness one must feel to evolve this sort of defense…
Good luck, little caterpillar. I hope you’ve found something good in your travels today.
July 30, 2013
Twice in a row, my thought will be a quote from Pope Francis. What can I say? His just-finished trip to South America has delivered speeches, stances, and sound bites so eminently quotable, so in line with what we’d hoped for so long we would hear from the Vatican, so open and human and good… Francis is talking, and we are listening.
He is not traveling in an armored limousine but in a grey sedan. He is not wearing vestments so gold-laced that they would collapse a body-builder but his old white robe and skullcap. And he is talking about transparency in the Vatican’s affairs, justice in the economy, judging others less and ourselves more, the spirit of outreach and dialogue — and going out there into life and making a scary, beautiful mess.
This is from the Pope’s remarks at the World Youth Day in Brazil. Yes, he is talking to the young.
“I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses, I want the noise to go out, I want the Church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything
comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves. The parishes, the schools, the institutions are made for going out … May the bishops and priests forgive me if some of you create a bit of confusion afterward. That’s my advice. Thanks for whatever
you can do.”
July 28, 2013
It is heartening and joyful to want to share the words of the leader of my Church, and here, the time has come. Pope Francis the bishop of Rome spoke in Brazil yesterday, and said this:
Between selfish indifference and violent protest there is always another possible option: that of dialogue. Dialogue between generations, dialogue with the people, because we are all people, the capacity to give and receive, while remaining open to the truth. A country grows when constructive dialogue occurs between its many rich cultural components: popular culture, university culture, youth culture, art, technology, economic culture, family culture and media culture…
… Peaceful coexistence between different religions is favoured by the laicity of the state, which, without appropriating any one confessional stance, respects and esteems the presence of the religious dimension in society, while fostering its more concrete expressions.
… Others always have something to give me, if we know how to approach them in a spirit of openness and without prejudice. I call this attitude of openness and availability without prejudice, “social humility,” and it is this that favours dialogue. Only in this way can understanding grow between cultures and religions, mutual esteem without needless preconceptions, respectful of the rights of everyone. Today, either we stand together with the culture of dialogue and encounter, or we all lose, we all lose.
July 27, 2013
It is my conviction that regularly and deliberately doing nothing is an absolute necessity for a religious — also for a philosopher and for an artist of any sort. Of course, I happen to be all three to various degrees, so I begin to go nuts if I don’t have the opportunity to do nothing.
I am talking about contemplation. Contemplation in the solemn kind of sense that Thomas Merton used. It is not reflection on a subject, not prayer, and only somewhat akin to deep meditation. This contemplation is the mutually dissolving embrace of a soul and the Ultimate Soulness that begins to happen when all things in and around stop “happening.” When we rest in the world and in ourselves, easily enough, for long enough. When we gaze. Let be. When we Be.
Occupy the here-and-now, but let the boundaries of self and of space and time be porous, permeable, shimmering. Feel without direction. Sense the deep rising and control or expect nothing. Soar and fall at the same time. Fill and empty and don’t know which. Be One. Be Many. Be All.
July 24, 2013
A friend has been telling me about a new TV show he started to watch. It’s about a serial killer and takes place in Belfast. He then said that the show was so dark, he felt the need to pull out a tape of the old Maigret episodes to disperse the funk — and this is no wuss, mind you. He is an aficionado of detective stories — must have them — and we spent some time on the phone discussing what appears to be a cultural pattern in television: the intensifying darkness and violence of the crime drama.
Decades ago, a murder mystery would be but a charming puzzle, where the originality of a plot twist, the wit of the criminal, and the personality quirks of the detective combined to entertain and enliven the audience. Today (with some notable exceptions like Psych or White Collar, where murder admittedly is rare, or to a lesser degree the BBC’s Sherlock), an onslaught of crime shows compete for ratings by becoming more graphic, more shocking, more bloody, more twisted, and more and more filled with utter human despair. Some of them are better than others. Some are very well made — thoughtful, sharp, psychologically feasible, emotionally nuanced, provocative… Criminal Minds, The Mentalist, Dexter, certain Law and Orders, various CSI’s…
The pattern is undeniable. What we show onscreen today we would not have dared to hint at, only a couple decades ago. The question becomes, is this good or bad?
I must admit that I experience a certain amount of nostalgia for the “simpler” times when Miss Marple and Commissaire Maigret and even Columbo pranced through crime scenes leaving no trace and causing no trauma to our minds. Except, of course, those times weren’t really simpler. Murder wasn’t any less messy. Despair was just as utter. Was the escapism of groomed, puzzle-only detective shows equivalent to the “poofing” figures in modern video games, the ones that go “poof” and disappear up in smoke when shot instead of collapsing at our feet in a mess of blood and fluids, spilling intestines, the stench of burning meat, and screams of the kind we will hear until our own deaths? Is brutal realism better than patted-down fantasy? Is it waking us up to the horror of violence?
I don’t know about that. Maybe crime shows have some of that effect, on someone, but there’s just… so much of this brutal realism… It feels neither like a warning nor entirely realistic. It feels more like a supply line for the culture’s adrenaline-based addiction to supercharged imagery. And the more we see, the more we require to feel the effects. The more twisted the imagery gets. And we get desensitized, little by very little.
I don’t know why this is happening. Are we maturing beyond self-deception? Living in a world that’s too dangerous? Or too safe? Are we going through our 13-year-old stage? I don’t know what’s better. But from observing myself, my family, and several friends, I’ve come at least to one conclusion: between the news and the fiction of our TV and computer screens, the average fragile human psyche cannot take much more than one — maximum two weekly crime shows without beginning to descend into depression. Be careful, my friends.
This does not include the oldies: Perry Mason, Magnum P.I., Nero Wolfe, Hardcastle and McCormick, The Cosby Mysteries, The Andy Griffith Show, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (or anything else, for that matter), Columbo, Maigret, Hawaii Five-O, Miss Marple, Meet McGraw, In the Heat of the Night, Quincy M.E., and many, many others. Watch them as much as you like. Just don’t get a headache and don’t be late for work.
July 20, 2013
A thoughtful friend who has read my post On Obligation to Love has just reminded me that the word “obligation” has a Latin root of the verb “ligare” — “to bind,” “to tie.” To have an obligation is more than — not just — to owe but to be tied to something. It’s about being part of something bigger than we are.
This, of course, is what another recurring theme of my writing is about: religion. Religion. Re-ligare. It comes from the same Latin root. It means “bind back” and refers to the communal aspect of religious traditions.
We all are bound to that which surrounds us: this world and its source, our people… We all are part of something bigger. We are obliged — tied — to our reality on many different levels. The good news is, our reality is obliged to us.
July 16, 2013
From “The Future” by Leonard Cohen:
You never will. You never did.
I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible.
I’ve seen the nations rise and fall;
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all.
But love’s the only engine of survival.
When they said, “Repent! Repent!”
I wonder what they meant.
When they said, “Repent! Repent!”
I wonder what they meant.
July 14, 2013
Today we celebrate a complicated holiday — one of those commemorations that intertwine triumph, freedom, bloodshed, hope, futility, fight for equality, disappointment in democracy… It’s what we in America call Bastille Day and what to the French symbolizes the end of absolute monarchy and the beginning of the Republic, even though the two events this day marks (the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the Fête de la Fédération in 1790) were but first steps in unsure direction and led to nothing lasting.
The mobs that stormed the Parisian stronghold prison in 1789 did so out of vague fears, to find ammunition there, and in their fervor and panic caused a great deal more loss of life than the Bastille guard, who had opened the doors for them, were willing to accept. Freeing prisoners became a collateral benefit of gaining arms, and there turned out to be only a few inmates there, none of them of historical note.
I often think on Bastille Day, as I do on American Independence Day and October Revolution Day and others like them, about the messy history of symbols — events, people, images. The storming of the Bastille was a sideline outburst accompanied by unnecessary bloodshed in the course of a long and complex political process. The shot from the cruiser Aurora reverberated through history with so much pride, sorrow, achievement, terror, beauty, and failure that it still shakes the air of Eurasia. The Declaration of Independence was born out of goodness and suffering and led us into war, nationhood, camaraderie, prejudice, compassionate aid, imperialism, freedom, and oppression.
The things we celebrate are never the way we celebrate them. We cannot fathom their bloody intricacies and implications on our feast days. We simply can’t afford to think of it — it would kill us. We choose the one thing that is important, the reason we celebrate, and we celebrate. That’s how an event, a person, an image becomes a symbol.
That’s good. It’s how it’s supposed to be. But there is a price for that.
In my small Pennsylvania hometown, we celebrated Bastille Day last night with much food out on the main street, a live band playing for the dancing crowd, a clown, a portraitist, and a featured French beer at local restaurants. In Philadelphia, at the Eastern State Penitentiary every year people gather to watch Marie Antoinette throw cakes out the window, reenactments and guillotines, costumed tour guides — and, of course, the evening fireworks. All my young friends know what’s going to happen on this day in Philly. Almost none of them know why. To them, it’s a pretty arbitrary date to have music and fireworks.
In marking our messy progress up the slope of social goodness by celebrating key events in human history, we give them meaning. But by leaving them in our celebrations without a context, we lose their meaning.
We should maybe watch out for that.
July 13, 2013
Today’s thought is about yesterday’s thought. I can’t help it.
It’s about things that happen and thoughts that occur and words that sound and then do not leave us — not for hours, for days, but fill in all the little vacuous spaces in our minds and surface to consciousness every second that we are not busy with something else. It’s about things so unobtrusively profound that they become the pattern of our lives — brightly pronounced for a while and then dissolving into the fabric of the life itself, no longer acknowledged yet inseparable.
Haven’t you ever come across a thing you couldn’t put out of your mind? That’s accompanied you everywhere for a day or two? Or three? And every time they asked you to give an example of something, or what you were thinking, it was the only one you could retrieve from your memory’s stores?
This is what happened yesterday and will not leave me, and I can think of nothing else: It rained. It rained completely, with pure abandon, and I drove in the rain with my window rolled down so at least with my hand I could feel its touch, and I came home and walked out of my car and stood in the rain, soaked to a thread. In a way that I now recognize with every bit of me but still cannot describe, I was made to understand something about rain. And I put it in my heart, and I put it into words the best I could.
And so, today’s thought is a poem I wrote yesterday. It is called “Rain” and is now posted in the Cave of Poems. Come. Read what I know about rain.
July 12, 2013
Leonard Cohen, one of the greatest bards of North America, talks much to and about what they tend to call “religion” and is simply “religion” for neither of us. His poetry had reached into the deepest crevices of my soul and stirred up whirlpools there, a heart finding a comfort in another heart’s groove and wind from another’s lungs’ wind, long before I cared to realize that Cohen and I live on different sides of the same intersection of traditions: Jewish, Christian, Tao, and Buddhist. Cohen’s Jewish birthright is even heavier than mine — his family name makes him heir apparent to the high priesthood of the gone Temple of Jerusalem. His search for contemplation and out of depression led him further than it did me along the path of Zen practice to five years of silent life at a zendo. And I don’t know exactly how the crucified Messiah fits into his searches, his comforts, or his needs, but I listen to his song, and the Crucified Messiah is there, and so is His cross reverberating through the ages with the sound of the vespers and church bells.
There will be Cohen on these pages, I’m sure. For now, let me just quote something that speaks to Him, to us, and to the mundane, daily, unfathomable, and customary human contradiction that we live.
This is “Bird on the Wire,” one of the early songs. From the 1960’s.
Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
Like a worm on a hook,
Like a knight from some old-fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for Thee.
If I, if I have been unkind,
I hope that You can just let it go by.
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope You know it was never to You.
Like a baby stillborn,
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me.
But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to Thee.
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”
Oh, like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
July 10, 2013
Of the deluge of reality shows now flooding American TV channels, Treehouse Masters (for some reason on the Animal Planet) seems to be of the better kind. We do not listen to people gossip and stab each other in the backs on camera as they compete for a merit-based job based on votes from people most of whom neither do nor understand the job; we don’t watch obscene and drunken scandals, public displays of personal tragedies, or graphic details of alligator hunting. On Treehouse Masters, an architect with his team of carpenters is hired in each episode to design and build a treehouse — a variety of interesting projects that range from a brewery to a spiritual retreat, and we see the whole process unfold and come together in the space of an hour. There are quite a few shows of this type, from sales to interior design.
It’s basically a nice show. In the one episode I saw because someone else’s TV was on, no one complained or swore or tried to manipulate me, and the finished house was a pleasure to look at as any masterful work is. It took me a few minutes of deliberate thinking to isolate why I disliked having it on, but in the end I realized that it wasn’t the show itself — it was the show in the context of all the others like it. It’s not this show that I watched this one night that was the problem. It’s these shows that we watch so much.
Treehouse Masters did not go into enough detail of the process of building the house to teach us, the audience, how to do it. It didn’t translate the challenges of treehouse-building into other areas of life and invite the audience to think about solutions as the team struggled with them. It didn’t display the neatness and beauty of the finished house until the last couple of minutes. Essentially, a show like that does not engage its audience in life — it shows us a full and exciting life lived by someone else, and on the screen for an hour that life is highly condensed and sped up, so everything happens quickly and cleanly, nothing to wait for, problems resolved immediately, packaged project delivered by someone else’s hands to someone else’s smiling face.
What bothered me tonight was a kind of voyeuristic quality of the time we were spending in front of the TV, a thought I usually have when I encounter shows about hoarders and family interventions. If this were a one-time program about a tree house, I probably wouldn’t have been writing this now. But to think of a weekly hour of watching other people work and produce something — me having enough interest in the product to watch this every week — and not to be learning how to do it… This, considering that people who watch one reality show usually watch more than one — and the person who owns the TV set in question also introduced me to Swamp People (who kill alligators for a living), American Pickers (who roam the Midwest looking for something to buy) and several other series I have blocked out of memory enough to forget their titles.
If you’ve been on the site before you might know that I like good television very much. It can be thought-provoking, emotionally enriching, exciting, imaginative, consciousness-raising and conscience-probing — all the things good literature is. What scares me is the flood of television that is little more than vicarious living of other people’s mundane lives. Even that we no longer seem to want to do for ourselves.
July 5, 2013
I like the woman-authored British literature of the 18th-19th century bracket. You know: Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontё… Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, North and South, Jane Eyre… I get annoyed by their quiet endurance in the face of injustice, their mousy secrets, their waiting obediently to custom until the one person whose opinion matters figures out all on his (or her) own what’s really going on. But then, I am a product of a classless, mannerless, loud, revolution-birthed, crowded, and gender-equal 20th-century Soviet society. Romantic and Victorian women and I have a culture gap. Still, I find those books oddly comforting. I admire their unshakable faithfulness to a set of values, their idealized, perhaps, truly romantic concept of love, their refusal to allow a noble protagonist to give in to gossip, to greed, to snobbery, to flattery, to fear. Their way of raising up the women without bringing down the men. It might be witness to my own quirks, but I find it liberating that two hundred years ago, women wrote about proud and brilliant men who loved judgmental and brilliant women, and the two of them roamed through the thickets of their culture and found and forgave each other. And I always, always love it at the end.
July 4, 2013
There is a very human contradiction in basking in nostalgia for something we ourselves have rejected. As a refugee, I am very familiar with longing for a world I have elected to leave. As an American on 4th of July, I chuckle at an Independence Day celebration held at the Colonial Inn, complete with pre-revolutionary costumes and dishes.
July 3, 2013
Quite a few of us have been told with concern and caution that a physical symptom we were experiencing was psycho-somatic — meaning that whatever mental or emotional stress we have is being expressed through bodily dysfunction. At least Western medicine has stopped thinking that “psycho-somatic” means “fake.” But it still thinks that “psycho-somatic” means “abnormal.” Overly sensitive. Prone to dysfunction for not-good-enough reasons. That channeling emotional pain into physical pain is a noteworthy concern of a pattern to be changed in order to achieve healthy living.
Here’s what I wonder: Why is no one surprised that physical pain causes mental anguish? They have anti-depressants and support groups for that, but no one says a person in pain should not react to it with emotional distress. Yet they are surprised that mental anguish causes physical pain, as if this were a disorder of some sort. Why is a psycho-somatic symptom any more abnormal than a somato-psychic one?
We are holistic, inseparable, intertwined, psychic and somatic entities. We experience life on many levels at once, when it delights and when it hurts. I say, let us recognize that multi-level experience, let us listen to our bodies and our proverbial hearts and let us help those heal each other as they are designed to do. Sometimes the body is more concretely conversant with its pain to signal emotional trouble than the heart, which can be very shy with its complaints. Thank you, body.
July 2, 2013
Today I was reminded once again, in a way both humorous and prosaic, of why I hold so passionately to the cause of teaching our children “proper” English — that is, an ability to express themselves clearly and eloquently and to differentiate between formal and casual language. The reminder came from a question that had arisen in a workplace from someone, my impression was, entirely functional in business and probably in life, but a second-language speaker of English. It was a misunderstanding based on an idiom, because we assume that everyone “gets” it — gets us and our mind-boggling prepositions. Because in contemporary vernacular American English, “to work out of my house” means the opposite of “to work outside the house.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love prepositions and the vernacular language. In fact, the compact, spongy, cavernous, fluid, and punchy idiomatic landscape is what I so enjoy about English, maybe enjoy most of all. But we don’t get to fully appreciate the beauty of a thing unless we can become aware of it from some distance — step away and study it, see its boundaries as well as feel its depths. We can’t become sensitive to those who are only learning to swim, so to speak, and are standing at the boundaries, unless we navigate the whole map of our language and its culture with fluency and competence.
Doctors determine the shape of a sensitive area when they palpate it, in and out, again and again. Well, at least they used to. In a language spoken all around the world, by cultures and sub-cultures quickly becoming countless, a competent speaker must understand his language in enough depth and nuance to feel the rarity of an idiom, the particularity of an expression, the level of advancement of a term, the variations in the speed and clarity of speech required for mutual understanding, the propriety of a particular type of humor. More and more of the world’s population is multi-lingual, and this helps us relativize each of our languages. For those who speak only one language, unless we’ve already done this, the task must be deliberate:
Study English as if we’ve never seen it before. Marvel at it. Find it annoying. See that it makes no sense and ask why. See how it flows and how it jumps and sparkles. Defend it to a foreigner. Correct someone and endure dirty looks. Be corrected, fight tooth and nail, give up, and change a speech pattern. Find the humor of English. Explain an idiom to a second-language speaker.
If you have not done this yet, believe me: It will be worth it.
June 26, 2013
Today, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down two decisions on same-sex marriage. The first invalidated that portion of DOMA which denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples; the second declined to rule on the constitutionality of California’s proposition 8, letting stand the decision of a lower court that declared it unconstitutional, allowing California to resume its practice of marrying same-sex couples. Both decisions were 5 to 4, with different breakdowns.
Some of the discussion on the internet seems to center around whether today’s opinions are a victory for gay rights or an incomplete victory. We were afraid of less. We were hoping for more. Perhaps, it is incomplete in that the Court did not take a stand on same-sex marriage per se. It is legal now in 12 states and in D.C., and today’s rulings do not either encourage or discourage more states to pass the law. They do not declare marriage a constitutional right for gay couples. They flee from the sweeping question of a constitutional right to marry altogether. But what I like about today’s decisions, especially the decision on DOMA, is that it’s less about gay rights and more about equal rights. It’s less about gay marriage and more about marriage equality.
What the Court says in its majority opinion that disassembles Defense of Marriage Act is essentially this: federal government has no right to single out a subset of state-sanctioned marriages for unequal treatment. Today, having to say this was triggered by the unequal treatment of same-sex couples. Today, our most articulated fight is for gay rights. But yesterday, it was for interracial couples. And tomorrow, it will be for someone else. It’s hard to predict ripple effects of a precedent, and as precedents go, this is not a bad one. And it paves the way for more.
Regardless of how much we agree about the states’ ideal role in actions like defining marriage, providing access to healthcare, or choosing models of education, I like that the Court finds its task to watch out for equality at least in the access to rights already stated. At least today. That’s one of its jobs, after all.
June 24, 2013
In the 1998 remake film City of Angels, angels walk the streets and roofs of the world unseen by humans unless we are dying or delirious. The film is a story of love, courage, loss, contemplation of beauty, questions of worth, connection, and recognition, but today I was thinking of one short scene. Two angels happen upon a convenience store robbery, customers on the floor choking on their terror, the clerk dropping money in his trembling haste to clear out the register, the robber so wound up that the gun is dancing in his hand, the heart in his chest, any moment all of it ready to erupt into death and life-long regret and blood on the walls and irreversability. We hear their thoughts, all panic and precipice.
The angels then do what they do in this world of the movie: they come up behind the robber and the clerk and put their hands on the humans’ shoulders, and it does only a bit: it calms the men just enough to let the bag be filled with money and handed over. “Be cool, man. Be cool.” And the robber and gun disappear out the door. Nothing dramatic or visible happens. Nothing to suggest heavenly intervention. Just a store robbery.
We think sometimes of the cosmic help in various circumstances, of goodness or courage or calmness that comes to people as if by an angel’s touch, but we rarely think of the Spirit’s work in a gas station robbery that didn’t turn out worse than what we read in the news. With trauma to all involved, maybe a prison term for the perpetrator, and every sadness of a crime, still… How often could it be worse?
June 23, 2013
Exodus International is being disbanded by its own leadership. For almost four decades it’s been one of if not the largest organization advocating and offering reparative therapy: a change of sexual orientation from LGBT to heterosexual through psychotherapy and prayer. And now Alan Chambers, the Exodus president, issued a long, apparently heart-felt apology to the LGBT community for all the trauma, shame, and scandal caused over these years. For broken hearts, humiliated families, lives lost to suicide and hopes lost to indoctrination of innate sinfulness. He said he was sorry, he affirmed equal worth of all before God, he promised not to hurt the LGBT rights movement, and he called everyone to neighborly love. And then he disbanded Exodus International.
Reactions differ. Some applaud him, some despise him. Luka Carfagna has written a powerful response of her own. (http://lbcarfagna.com/2013/06/23/dear-alan-jesus-made-me-gay-a-letter-to-the-leader-of-exodus-international/) I hope I need do nothing more than quote the Letter to Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither master nor slave, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). If Paul of Tarsus with all his prejudices could bring himself to this statement, how much better should we be able to do here, now, in our great American salad bowl, two thousand years later and armed with so much more science from genetics to sociology to neuroscience?
Alan Chambers, hello and welcome to our house.
June 22, 2013
Every year on this day I mark two events: my aunt’s birthday and Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, which forced USSR’s entry into WWII and began what we call the Great Homeland War. Because of these two events mixing in my heart, this is a strange, intertwined, bitter and sweet day. Birth and death. Trial and hope. We triumphed. We lived. We lost and suffered in ways unimaginable. Actually, imaginable. Imagined. More than imagined — real.
As I mark this day, I often think of the many places around the world where war, explosions, machine gun rounds are an everyday reality, now. Sudan. Pakistan. Syria. Palestine. The list goes on and on.
In Nigeria, rickets is crippling children to such a degree that only multiple surgeries can straighten their legs. They lack calcium. They lack water. They lack food. Villagers have begun to get together in an organized program and hand-dig wells, two hours per shift because of the spare oxygen below ground. They borrow a female goat and give it to a woman in the village, and when she gives birth to a female, she goes to the next woman, and so on until every woman in the village has a female goat. Then the goat goes back, to give life and milk to someone else.
I am making today more than a day of remembrance of loss and hope. I am making it about life. Not that any day is not.
June 20, 2013
Worlds are so small next to each other in this big world… Skin to skin in coexistence, and our encounter of them is so hit-or-miss… Ask a Russian about Russia, then ask another — and chances are, you will have two very different countries before your mind’s eye.
I fell in love with Kansas last week in the vastness of its rural farmland, wind-scrubbed and baked into a crust. This week, I am in the town of Great Bend — 17,000 people only, and only 16 miles from my beloved farm, but Kansas is different here. It is humid and partly cloudy, two profuse storms in the space of four days having drenched the depth of the earth. Lush foliage of mighty trees and the roofs of the convent complex centered around a solidly built red-brick motherhouse obscure my Kansas sky, cut the sunset in uneven strips, amputate limbs from the cloud formations that span the heavens somewhere away, over the fields beyond the town. Manicured flowerbeds burst with well-watered flowers in their strictly circumscribed borders.
Outside the convent, the town is nice and one-storied and is not unlike many other American towns: streets, cars, gas stations, Walgreens, Walmart, and a Chinese buffet. I’ve almost been here before except that it’s flat, very flat, and tornado protocols are posted by every door. Yet I can hardly imagine the almighty funnel sweeping destruction through this normalcy, roar and black dust and death.
Only fifteen miles away, the prairie breathes its rugged peace. And here, lawns, shop signs, and sculptures sit in their place as if the world were well ordered by human hands.
I took a car and drove out to the farm on Tuesday. I weeded a row of garlic and fed some weed to the alpacas mewing in anticipation. I walked out to the labyrinth cut through the meadow grass and danced for the Glory of Creator and Creation until there was no more breath in me and no more sweat and no more strength. Then I returned to the farm house and drank water and rested, and I drove back here, to the town, and took a shower that, once again and for the first time since I left the farm, felt like bliss.
June 19, 2013
I am spending a week in silent, preached retreat in Great Bend, Kansas. This morning, before the morning prayer, I went to the adoration chapel to spend some time in contemplation. This is a tall, nearly featureless room on the other side of the main chapel’s front wall, so the Blessed Sacrament in a rough wooden box can be seen from both sides. It is done in the spirit and the aesthetic of Zen: white walls with bamboo-like accents soaring up to a white ceiling, square cushions on the floor, a candle on the wall, and nothing else — no crucifix, no icons, no symbols. A quiet reign of the imageless God. It is a hall of zazen — seated meditation.
I went there this morning to be alone with Christ in a special way, in a special place, nearer to the mystery unarticulated but localized. But when I walked in, I found one of my fellow retreatants, a young woman, asleep on the cushions. It was an unexpected site — people don’t usually sleep in the adoration chapel — and I could not take my eyes off her. Most blissfully peaceful, she was there as if in her mother’s lap. As if she’d been restless through the night or doubtful or fearful and came to pray and found safety and relief here in His arms, in the nearness of His body, present in this place in a special way.
I went to the chapel to contemplate the Blessed Sacrament, and instead, I contemplated her peace — and blessed it was, and sacramental. A visible sign of the invisible reality. And only after a while I closed my eyes and prayed, and together we were in the nearness of Him: one in prayer and one in sleep, as peaceful as could be.