Monday, December 28, 2009

Benedict

Benedict called and asked me to pray for him today. I realize that I have not written about him in quite a while, and thus newer readers of my blog may not have a sense of who he is, how he breaks my heart, why he has brought me so much joy and tears in our small sporadic interactions over the years. This formerly homeless Vietnam veteran whom I met when he was homeless in my undergrad years has taught me quite a bit in the five years since I met him. Here are the few lessons I’ve mentioned on this blog:
  • He taught me to hope for redemption in the present tense, not only the future (1/9/08)
  • He taught me that love is always the right battle, even if I don’t know how it is best fought (10/29/08)
  • He redeemed a stressful election season with his humility (11/3/08)
  • He taught me about human dignity and what it does to a man to be robbed of it (1/26/09)
Benedict called me this afternoon asking for prayers (it is the first time he’s specifically asked for prayers in a year). With a felony on his record that keeps him unemployed these days, the process of staying off the streets has not been easy during this economic crisis. But he has just connected with some V.A. services that provide veterans with schooling and housing. He entreated me for prayers in the next two weeks as is application is processed.

Perhaps the biggest lesson Benedict has taught me is the value of continued prayers in a situation when God seems so slow to act, so small in his actions. Five years after I met Benedict on a cold night on the streets by campus and he scolded me for wearing sandals in the winter, offering me his spare pair of socks, I am still praying for him. Redemption is so slow, and Benedict’s ambitious hopes of reconciling with his ex-wife this year did not go well, and his faithfulness to make up for lost time with his five daughters and his growing collection of grandchildren often costs him the little resources he his able to build.

But redemption comes. I’ve watched it come to him against all hope, watched it come by means of an unjust felony conviction that got him off the streets four years ago. May it come again now. And since I grow weary of my seemingly ineffectual prayers, I want to ask any pray-ers among my readers to include Benedict in the next two weeks as he waits to see where this small glimmer of hope leads.

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Blood and Feathers

"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

Emily Dickenson
Hope is not a thing with feathers, for
It does not sing or fly. Whoever told
You otherwise has never felt the cold
Despair that spreads it dragon wings to soar
Away. Hope does not fly away, O glory;
It is made of flesh and blood that fold
Around us like a Virgin's womb who's bold
To sing the Word without the tune, the story
That begins and ends in water and
The bloodbath. Any less is sentiment,
Mere air that cannot perch a soul or stand
Against the slings and arrows it is sent.
There may be Hope that flesh and blood can wear,
But disembodied hope is but Despair.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Waiting for what is here

An warning to all genuine luddites out there: this post begins with a Facebook reference. I am sorry. I couldn’t think of a better way to frame this. But genuine luddites shouldn’t be reading blogs anyway.

Last year in January when I was celebrating my first month with my third nephew, friends of mine in Cork were expecting their first son. I remember watching their Facebook statuses as the little fellow lingered in her womb:
Joe can’t wait to be a father!

Maria can’t wait to see her son!
I was struck by the difference. The father-to-be knew that his whole life was about to change at any moment. The mother-who-was knew that hers already had nine months earlier.

And today in our last full day of Advent, I am struck by the hope that lies in the union of those two facts. Yes indeed, we are waiting for something that has not happened yet (and there is hope in that: to think this were the fullness would be despair!). And yes indeed, we are waiting for something that is already here (and there is hope in that: to think the fullness were inaccessibly distant would be despair!).

Our redemption is here, the pregnant Mary knows. And O for our redemption to come, the faithful Joseph beside her awaits. And I who long for his kingdom to arrive and put the world to rights as I am connected to the Church where it has already begun, I who long for his healing to arrive in my soul where he is already present, may rejoice and long beside them.

Come Lord Jesus, you who are already here!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pixie Dust

There is a mendacious rumor abroad that Southerners should be fixed. How can we help the backward agrarians get on the great progressive bandwagon, well-meaning philanthropic carpetbaggers might have asked. I remember reading a history textbook in my undergrad years that puzzled over the reasons why industrialization took so long to set in and improve the quality of life for the rural poor in the South. The answer to me is quite obvious: the rural poor didn’t want improvement.

Today I sat at my corner of my favorite coffee shop, and something magical happened: large chunks of white powder fell from the sky outside the window, initially mistaken for debris from the perpetual construction that plagues every university I have ever attended (that is only two, of course, but doesn’t the superlative make it sound dramatic?), but soon realized to be the 4-letter-word that has been on everyone’s lips like a whirlwind that cleared the grocery store shelves of milk, eggs, and bread ever since the meteorologists had hinted the possibility days earlier: SNOW.

The barista screamed and ran outside to perform her snow-dance. Every eye in the coffee shop was glued to the window. Adults on the street lifted their faces to the sky with open mouths like five-year-olds. Children, many of whom had been let out of school for the mere possibility of snow, gave the adults a run for their money on glee. Even the construction workers paused and extended their gloved hands. There was nary a smileless face anywhere in the city as the chunks of white powder functioned as pixie dust in an otherwise gloomy day.

And then it was gone.

Later I read a (northern) friend’s blog and heard his (delightfully true) take on the experience of trying to find milk and eggs at the grocery store. Despite the utter appropriateness of his caricature of Southern snow-panic, I felt like something magic had happened, and he had missed it. Yes, as my nephew had once reminded me, God did indeed make magic in the world. I saw some this morning.

And now, as the possibility of bonus winter medleys is on the forecast for tonight and my graduation tomorrow afternoon hangs in the precarious balance of Mother Nature’s finicky Southern temperament, I remember that even now in our high-paced, 21st-century culture, there still remains a Sabbath rest for God’s people. It comes rarely and unpredictability, an unplanned holiday that forces begrudging businessmen and ecstatic schoolchildren alike to rest at home despite the ever-driving forces of the stockmarket and academia, but it comes.

At least it comes to backward Southerners when there is a hint of any form of frozen precipitation. That is, it comes to them after they get back from their panicked trips to the grocery store for milk, eggs, and bread.

Monday, December 14, 2009

What then shall we do?

[John] said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “...Bear fruits in keeping with repentance...”

And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?”

And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”
The lovely green cottage where I live is actually in the middle of the city on a historical property full of trees and gardens, nestled between campus and a yuppie shopping center, and surrounded by some of the shadiest corners in the city. I’ve lived in a drug-ridden neighborhood in a poorer city before, yet for some reason the riffraff around my current home has set off more inner alarms in the past two years than I’ve had in the rest of my life put together. It brings out the suspicious cynic in me (yea, even in me!).

Yesterday as I returned home from church (significantly, from a local outreach team meeting held after the service), I got out of my car to open the gate that guards my green oasis in the city and was hailed by two men on the sidewalk. As I stood there cornered between them and my gate, they asked me for money.

A number of things went through my mind:
  1. They smell pretty strongly of alcohol. I can’t pretend I think they’re looking for food.
  2. They may not know this, but I am in front of my house. If they remember me when they’re sober, they could figure out where I live.
  3. I just had to take my car in for a thousand dollars of repairs this weekend, and I haven’t bought Christmas presents yet.
  4. This whole interaction feels degrading.
  5. Damn, what did John say in today’s gospel reading that I happened to hear three times over the weekend?
Frustrated, I gave the men a dollar each. One fellow shook my hand and held it too long. I pulled it away. He said, “I love you.” I said, “Merry Christmas,” and got back into the car feeling dirty.

Sometimes I wish I could either return to the joyful selfless giver I fancy I once had been in college or get hardened enough that all the very good reasons not to give money to riffraff would seem satisfactory to me. In the mean time, from this place in-between where hardness is creeping in but doesn’t have enough Scriptural basis for my comfort, I do the best I can.

After all, it seems that generous compassion is part of preparing places for Christ, perhaps less because it redeems the world than because it prepares places in our hearts. In the end, giving to the needy is part of the sanctification of our own souls, counteracting the cynicism of experience with compassion in hopes that compassion prepares the way for love. I pray my heart may not grow too hard yet.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Feast of the Sts. Emers

Today is the feast day of the two Sts. Emers, and, with the name “Emmers” not altogether unfamiliar to me, I can’t help but take note. Not only do these fourth-century saints nearly foreshadow one of my affectionate nicknames(!), they are Irish(!!), the foster-sisters of St. Patrick himself(!!!).

As the story goes, unreliable and erratic as all the best Irish tales are, after Patrick was kidnapped from his home in Great Britain and sold to Maelchu (or Miluic, if you prefer) in northern Ireland where he spent years in slavery tending sheep, he grew up beside Maelchu’s children, St. Guasacht (feast day January 24) and the two Emers. Why history remembers only one name for the two women I do not know, but since it barely remembers anything more I suppose we should be grateful. Beggars can’t be choosy, after all.

Patrick, as we all know, receives a vision while tending sheep on Mt. Slemish, miraculously escapes Ireland, reunites with his homeland, hears the Irish people calling him in his dreams, and returns to the land of his captivity where he proceeds (from what I can tell) to found churches in virtually every town and to convert personally nearly every fourth- and fifth-century Irish saint (and believe you me, there are many!).

But the first priority is the very family who had enslaved him, and, while Maelchu burns himself alive in his home rather than see Patrick again (evidently those are his only two options?), his three children receive the faith, dedicate themselves to mission of bringing the gospel to the druidic people, and became some of the first bishop/nuns. As Patrick puts the veil on his two foster sisters, their feet sink into the stone beneath them, and the marks are visible to this day.

So today from a less fantastical land of parking lots and laborious rearranging of 1s and 0s where nevertheless the scars of bitterness run just as deep and the power of grace trumps them just as conclusively, I thought I would venerate Patrick’s slave-owners-turned-sisters. Pray for us slave-owners, Sts. Emers; pray for us slaves.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Intercity-high-school-senior blues

Tonight I have a case of the intercity-high-school-senior blues, which may (oddly enough) be appropriate for the Advent season. The students were assigned to write a letter-to-the-editor that addresses any controversial topic. Of course, after (barely) surviving these essays, I’m wondering if perhaps this assignment should have come after many many many many other lessons that they missed.
  • If students could choice the class that they took, I think that the drop out rate would go down quickly. I doubt many of them would choice to took grammar.
  • I believe that other teens should not be exposed to teen pregnancy. This to solve the problem of teen pregnancy: If teens didn’t see other teens pregnant, then they wouldn’t get pregnant themselves.
  • Gang’s in our community was created to improve the community with love and respect so you feel safe in some community’s. I don’t want to touch this one.
  • Catholic people are against abortion, because they believe that pregnancies are woman’s punish. That’s right; Catholics are always quoting that one verse that says “Children are a punishment from the Lord…”
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Now to find an activity a little better for my soul…

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Week 2 of Advent


Enter Love, the burglar in the night
Who looks a lot like Death and fills the room
Before we know he’s there—indeed, to whom
Decay has grown accustomed in the light
Of long exposure. Death prepares her tight
Destruction, carving out a hollow tomb
Where Love can nestle in the livened womb
And burrow to the egg without a fight.
For Love alone is strong as Death, they say,
And has the power to destroy her by
The means of imitation, in the way
That passive glass can kill Medusa. Why,
If Life is formed by an invasion of
A seed, should we expect the less of Love?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

If I only had a Plutonian...

“Whatcha doing, Auntie Em?” my five-year-old nephew asked me as he joined me on the couch and began reading the computer screen on my lap. The kid is already an avid reader.

“Oh, I’m working on some applications,” I answered, pausing my painful, dehumanizing, Thanksgiving-break project to explain. “I’m writing letters to convince ten different schools that they want to pay me money to go there.”

“Well,” he changed the subject, “I need to send a message to NASA. It’s quite urgent. Give me the computer.”

Slightly amused at his lack of decorum, I nevertheless turned down his pressing request. “No, I have to work on this letter for now. Look, I’ve already written this much, and I still need to write more.” I pointed to the screen in an attempt to impress the munchkin.

“Wow, that is a lot of words,” he allowed. “But Plutonians can write ten times that much in five minutes.”

Now, I’m by nature a bit competitive anyway, so if there’s anything worse that being one-upped by fictitious residents of the dwarf planet Pluto (not even a real planet, no less!), it is having a five-year-old point it out to me.

“Well, good for them,” I grumbled. “Maybe they would actually get into some of these schools."

But he was not done. “And they can read books this big,” he demonstrated with the entirety of his (albeit small) arm-span. “They read that much every day.”

“Alright,” I said, looking back at my computer to demonstrate disengagement, “then they can read my applications when I’m done.”

“And Plutonians can speak every language ever,” he continued, “including Chinese, which is much harder than Latin and Greek.”

Come on, kid... academia is already making me feel like enough of an idiot!

Finally, his mother came to my rescue by commanding the munchkin to leave Auntie Em alone, and I returned to the cumbersome task of keeping the requirements of the ten admissions committees to which I was prostituting myself straight. “We place great weight on your personal statement,” I read on one school’s website. “This statement is your opportunity to get the committee interested in you, in your potential as a professional and as a human being...”

This is a what-I-have-been-trying-not-to-listen-to post. God, may this be over soon!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent begins

From the Divine Office for the first Sunday of Advent:


Jesus Christ is the joy and happiness of all who look forward to his coming. Let us call upon him and say:
-Come Lord, and do not delay!
In joy, we wait for your coming,
-come, Lord Jesus.
Before time began, you shared life with the Father,
-come now and save us.
You created the world and all who live in it,
-come to redeem the work of your hands.
You did not hesitate to become man, subject to death,
-come to free us from the power of death.
You came to give us life to the full,
-come and give us your unending life.
You desire all people to live in love in your kingdom,
-come and bring together those who long to see you face to face.

Father in heaven,
our hearts desire the warmth of your love
and our minds are searching for the light of your Word.
Increase our longing for Christ our Savior
and give us the strength to grow in love,
that the dawn of his coming
may find us rejoicing in his presence
and welcoming the light of his truth.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

My God, good or evil!

In what had surprised me by becoming my most controversial post, I once observed some of the peculiarities of the way the writer of Hebrews goes about telling the story of the great heroes of the faith. I failed to mention one of the strangest ones:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
“That’s not faith!” I always wanted to protest. "You're messing up the story! Abraham is our model of costly sacrifice; if he thinks God is going to raise Isaac from the dead, it's no longer costly!" After all, isn’t the story commonly understood as God’s testing of Abraham’s faith and Abraham passing the test by sacrificing even when it was costly? How would it be faith without sacrifice?

But now I wonder... what if the writer of Hebrews was onto something? What if Abraham showed faith not by being willing to suffer for God, but by following a God he knew to be good? I had always assumed we are to follow God simply because of his authority; maybe Abraham showed faith because he insisted on following a God into a place where God's goodness would be tested (and God passed the test! Huzzah!). Maybe faith is not saying, “My God, good or evil.” Maybe Abraham’s obedience was holding God to his goodness.

And on that note, the Psalmist’s words come to mind on this Thanksgiving Day here in the United States. May we all offer to God this ultimate “sacrifice,” like Abraham before us.
Hear, O my people, and I will speak;
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Its Damp but where ok

Friday morning my friends in Cork woke at 2am to the sound of running water, and went downstairs to find water pouring through their floor. Two weeks of record-breaking rain had finally overwhelmed the dam upstream, and officials were forced to let out water to avoid a bigger catastrophe if it were to burst. Cork, lying on an island between two channels of the River Lee, had become part of the river. By the morning, the water had reached the top of the kitchen table where I had sat every day over the summer.

People lost businesses. The art museum lost the works that were stored in its basement. Several houses may be irrevocably damaged. The city has been essentially shut down. Who knows what the costs of repair will be.

Immediately upon hearing the news, I wrote to friends in various corners of the devastated city to let them know of my prayers, coveting the scarce pieces of news I could acquire from their facebook information and my own internet searches.

This morning I heard from Finbar, a native Corkonian whose blue-collar upbringing, shady history, warm hospitality, and simple approach to life (not to mention his nearly incomprehensible accent) set him apart as pure Cork, through and through. He responded to my concern with a short note that, both in its brevity and its message (not to mention its diction), well-depict what seems to me to be the Irish approach to suffering:

“Thanks for the prayers but don't worry where fine out. Its Damp but where ok.”

It’s damp.

How Irish. How delightfully Irish.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bitterness unbridled

We only see you in this world of mud
When both your hands are stained with our own blood.
“Dear Lord,” I remember one of the leaders in my church praying after a local high school shooting back in 2006, “we cannot imagine what would make a child do a thing like this...”

...only I could. High school is brutal, and I remember just what it felt like to be rejected by the savage in-crowd... and I was only a little bit nerdy. I can’t imagine what being a little more outcast would have done to my little teenage soul.

I am a part of a generation that grew up with tragedies, I suppose: the Columbine shooting happened at the end of my sophomore year of high school, the Twin Towers fell three weeks into my college career, and the Virginia Tech massacre happened right as I prepared to begin graduate school. And whenever I hear about another story of unbridled bitterness, I can only shudder and think, “There but for the Grace of God go I...”

So when I bumped into an article yesterday about the execution of the DC sniper from seven years ago, back when I had been a rootless college sophomore whose family lived overseas and who was constantly driving to DC to spend time with my cousin, I could not help but be grieved. I remembered the terror in DC on those mornings when I was visiting my cousin; I remembered the frustration of the African American community back home when the man was caught; I remembered the stories of my housemates who would visit the families of people on death row in the ensuing years.

I don’t mean to poke at controversial political issues, but when I read an article like this I can’t help but be grieved for all parties: for the innocent people who were killed, for their families who lost loved ones with no reasons or a chance to say goodbye, for the man’s ex-wives and children who years ago had lost the man who died yesterday, for the man himself who died without having seen his four children in his seven years in prison. The story seems laced with bitterness from start to finish, bitterness that indeed rots the soul but for the forgiveness of Christ.

Come now, Lord Jesus. Come into those high schools. Come into those broken families. Come into those prison cells. Come into our bitter hearts. Clean the bitterness from us, before we rot completely.

God have mercy on the soul of John Allen Muhammad. God have mercy on the souls still grieving. God have mercy on mine.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lost in Translation

I was in a coffee shop the other day and heard two young men talking. Before I had heard a single Christian reference they made, I could already tell by the language they were speaking (the particular mannerisms and metaphors), to say nothing of the almost-hip way they dressed, that they were Evangelicals, and had somewhat of an idea of what sort of interdenominational/emergent church they probably attended. It brought back four-year-old memories from my senior year of college.

In college I was part of an Evangelical Christian fellowship that was particularly concerned with finding ways to “reach” the broader campus community with the Gospel. Because I had decided against the Bible colleges where my high school friends attended in favor of the largest liberal arts university in the state for the sole purpose of learning to love a wide range of people different from me, this was a compelling mission. Because I was a somewhat of an eclectic girl with a wide range of interests and influences, it was easy for me to get sucked into being the figurehead of various incarnations of this mission.

Since my family moved to Europe after my first year in college, they suggested I could help lead their outreach to international students. Since I was an artsy kid with an eyebrow ring and boy-short hair, they suggested I could help lead their outreach to the hippie/artsy crowd. Since I was attending an African-American political organization in efforts to understand some of my friends better (where I got sucked into being a leader as well), they suggested I could help lead their side-missions of racial reconciliation and multi-ethnicity.

On my last day of leadership as a burned-out senior, our time of worship was cut short by an announcement that the university had double-booked the room where we were meeting and we would have to leave to allow the next group to come in. The lights popped on and the startled 250 Christians looked disorientedly around as if they had been roused from sleep a half-hour before their alarm was to go off. I was certainly surprised as well, and stood back to take the scene in.

The young nicely-dressed Evangelicals began to evacuate the room as if it were on fire, and were replaced by a large assortment of people of various ages and races and classes who were gathering to watch some pro-environment anti-war film. The room smelled different as the hippies arrived.

“Maybe God had orchestrated things this way,” I heard one of my friends say as she evacuated. “Maybe one of those people had needed to hear the words of songs we were singing when they arrived. Maybe the mix-up allowed us to reach people without realizing it.”

Because of my aforementioned connection with the international/artsy/multiethnic crowd that my Christian fellowship had wanted to “reach,” I lingered in the lobby to talk to the collage of people who were arriving as my friends left the building. The organizers of the event apologized to me for the mix-up, and suggested that our groups had much in common. Our group was concerned with loving God and theirs with loving the poor, they suggested; did I think some of my friends would linger to watch the film with them? I did not, so I made my answer ambiguous.

As the heavy-metal sounds of their film began to play in my right ear, my left ear picked up the acoustic sounds of some familiar worship songs outside the building, where my friends had gathered to finish the evening of worship on the steps. On our last time of worship for the year, I could imagine the leaders asserting, we would not need to the technology of the speakers and overhead equipment; we could worship outdoors with two guitars and the whole campus walking by to watch. We could be a witness in our faithfulness to worship.

As I stood in the lobby hearing the sound of one culture in one ear and the other culture in the other, I felt like I was standing between worlds that spoke different languages and did not realize their inability to communicate.

“Did you see what’s going on outside?” one woman in dreadlocks asked her friend in cammoes.

“No, what is is?”

“There’s a group out there on the steps playing... folk songs or whatever. It’s like... ‘movement music’ or something. I’ve never seen anything like it!”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Once again...

Another dear friend of mine lost a baby this week: a seemingly healthy five-day-old little boy whom she put down for a nap only to watch him stop breathing.

There is a name for this syndrome (as it is called): Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. From what I can tell, that is just a fancy way of trying to define the unknown, to diagnose undiagonosability. When life slips through our fingers like sand, we cry out to doctors for reasons, and receive mere descriptions. They could have just as easily named it Frailty; they could have just as easily named it The Fall.

Once again, I find myself grieving for the little momentary miracle that shocks us like a lightning stroke and is gone. Once again I find myself amazed at the human capacity for love, that the human soul can make room for love so quickly, that love can leave a hole so large after so short a life. Once again, I find myself longing for the Resurrection, and find the little seed of love that the little boy’s life creates within us being the germ of hope, the deposit in our souls to remind us that life is not a flame that can be extinguished. But the germ is a small one.

And once again, I find myself pontificating, trying to distract myself with philosophical musings to avoid the only response that makes any sense: grief.
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.

On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;

he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove the disgrace of his people
from all the earth.
The LORD has spoken.

In that day they will say,
"Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the LORD, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation."
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.


Photo taken by Franklin Golden. Franklin is a volunteer with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit foundation that provides professional maternity and birth photos to parents who are losing a child.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Out of the Mouths of Undergrads

The Roman poet Horace once said, “It is when I try to be brief that I become obscure.” I have developed a similar maxim as I struggle through life as a professional paper-grader: “It is when I try to be nice that I become snarky.” Sometimes the students make it quite difficult not to be.

But since this is supposed to be my listening-blog, I thought I would try to extract life lessons from my most recent round of undergraduate pontifications.

* * *

Beware of the ol’ bait-and-switch: "Freedom is there for the taking, but it has to be worked for."

Equality is relative: “They were still limited and not treated as equal as white Americans.”

Any statement can be contradicted by saying the same thing with more words: “This difference that he references is not a social difference, rather it is a difference in perspective and conflict between social identities.”

For postmoderns, stories can be characters: “Being the main character but not the narrator, the entire story is focused on the man.”

What do authors know about the work? “Granted, Hemingway may feel that I am evading his point of the hero…Yet the fact of the matter is that…”

The best metaphors make meanings more obscure: “A slow death has the chance to act as a kind of time-travel reflecting pond.”

And, most importantly by far...

Bloggers are the world’s best humanitarians: “What better way to assist the rest of the human population in deciding how to live than by publishing your opinion on the subject?”



Surely these lessons were worth staying up until 5am to learn!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Losing of our prayers

Since I don’t shout-out to other blogs very often, I thought I’d post an excerpt from one of the blogs I read, in which a mother often writes about her precocious 5-year-old Calvin and his 3-year-old brother Hobbes. In a recent post she writes:
Calvin and I had a rough night tonight, and he was angry when he went to bed. I asked if he would like to pray and ask God to help him get rid of the anger. He prayed, "Dear God, please help the anger to stay inside of me."

Hobbes piped in, "Dear God, please help the anger to go out of Calvin."

Calvin countered, "Dear God, please don't listen to Hobbes. Make the anger stay inside of me. I want to be angry forever, so just don't listen to Hobbes."
Yes, little Calvin, the idea of healing is often offensive to crippled souls. I can’t count how many sermons I’ve heard from John 5 that suggest that Christ’s question to the lame man, “Do you want to be healed?” implies that we bar the doors for our own healing because we would rather be lame. The first step to healing, the standard formula goes, is wanting healing. For the Calvins out there, that prospect can be pretty bleak.

But I wonder... I wonder if, just as little Calvin’s prayers for God to preserve his anger in his spirit forever will hopefully not be answered, our stubbornness is not as detrimental to Grace as we might fear. If I would rather keep my bitterness and God would rather I lose it, maybe I’m fighting a losing battle. Maybe redemption, regardless of the ways I try alternatively to concoct or hinder it, is inevitable anyway.

Be still, my soul; redemption cannot be hurried or slowed. When you would recoil at the thought of healing, maybe it’s only a matter of time before reverse entropy takes you there anyway.

As a better writer once said:
We ignorant of ourselves,
Beg often our own harms, which the wise powers
Deny us for our good; so find we profit
By losing of our prayers.
-William Shakespeare

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Genocide with Morning Coffee

Edmund Spenser was the poet who settled me once and for all on Renaissance literature, and in that way at least you could say he changed my life. While I was still living in my intercity commune imagining that higher education was the Isaac I had sacrificed on the alter of service to the poor, I found myself sneaking cantos here and there of the half-finished masterpiece The Faerie Queene, finding the beauty of the poetry, richness of the allegory, and depth of the ideas just the medicine I needed to keep my spirit alive.

After coming to graduate school, I could only fall further in love with his poetry. I wrote a paper on the Amoretti, in which Spenser is instrumental in directing the Petrarchan love tradition toward marriage. I wrote a paper on the Epithalamion, which C. S. Lewis cites as being one of the few successful portrayals of pure joy in English poetry. And of course, I wrote a paper on the breathtaking, masterful Faerie Queene itself.

I decided that if I were to ever have a son, I would name him Edmund.

“I love Spenser!” I said to Seamus last summer in response to a mention of where he had stayed in Cork. As the words spat recklessly out of my mouth, I anticipated my error, and was tempted to look over my shoulder for fear that members of the IRA or their 16th-century equivalent would emerge from the shadows in response to my flippant utterance.

The Irishman looked uncharacteristically soberly at me, his constant smile dropping momentarily as he gained his composure. “Edmund Spenser essentially lobbied for the genocide of the Irish people,” he stated mater-of-factly.

What does one say to that? I remembered that Spenser had written something called A View of the Present State of Ireland when he was secretary to England’s lord deputy of Ireland, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. “Oh,” I managed.

“He was a terrible man,” Seamus maintained, adding graciously to lighten the mood, “but he did write some beautiful poetry.”

Maybe so... but after all, isn’t that the way with most evil in the world? Weren’t lynch mobs composed of salt-of-the-earth Southerners who rallied after church on Sunday? Weren’t Nazi death camps run by fathers and mothers who were probably otherwise pleasant Germans? Weren’t Rwandan massacres carried out by joyful, hospitable Africans? Weren’t terrible atrocities committed by people like... me? Weren’t their hearts shaped a lot like mine?

It seems an undeniable fact of history that mostly-lovely people can have shocking blinders that somehow allow them to confuse genocide with morning coffee (oops!). Spenser was not the first to make this kind of error; “the man after God’s own heart” found himself committing murder to cover up his adultery (rape, by most modern definitions), and needed a prophet to come spell it out to him before he realized it had been a bad thing. I know a lot of people who are perturbed at God for thinking so highly of such a scoundrel. I sometimes figure that that very egregiously overlooking nature of his is the only hope most of us have.

Maybe the primary reason we are called to forgive is that we don’t know what genocides we may be casually supporting with our mundane morning coffee. Maybe most of us are likewise terrible people who write some beautiful poetry (or, more gently, beautiful people with some terrible blind spots). Thank God he likes the poetry!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bagpipes and Beauty

On Tuesday I was driving my two older nephews, five and three, to a nearby lake to do some plant identification with a horticulturalist friend of mine (a.k.a. Plant Guy). In my efforts to expose my godsons to the finer things in life, I played Celtic music in the car, which to my delight had the boys transfixed.

“This is a bagpipe,” I explained to them during one song. “They play them in Scotland, mostly, but I think there is enough sharing of cultures between the two countries that they play them in Ireland as well. At least, I saw them a few times when I was there, though they might have been there just for the benefit of tourists who don’t know the difference between Ireland and Scotland. They are really funny-looking instruments...”

At this point I began my feeble efforts to describe a bagpipe to preschoolers while I drove. The five-year-old who had developed an early love for musical instruments four years earlier listened intently, my description no doubt giving him a strange picture.

“Oh,” he finally sighed dramatically, “I do hope I get to see a bagpipe in real life before I die!”

I was shocked at his entirely appropriate response. “Well Buddy,” I replied, “I hope so too.”

“Actually,” he continued, “I think everyone should get to see a bagpipe in real life before they die!”

Again, I could not agree with him more.

But he was not finished. “But some people never get to see a bagpipe in real life before they die,” he lamented mournfully.

“No,” I agreed, surprised at the somber turn in the conversation. “It’s very sad.”

“Some people die when they are little babies, and they never get to see a bagpipe in real life. It is very sad when that happens.”

“You’re right, it is quite sad,” I said, never having thought of that particular aspect of the tragedy of infant mortality.

“And some people lived a long, long time ago before there were any bagpipes, and they never even got to hear a bagpipe.”

Again, what could I do but agree?

“But I am still quite young,” he mused, “so hopefully I have a lot of life left in me. I imagine I’ll get to see a bagpipe before I die.”

Well, Little One, I sure do hope so. In the mean time, thank you for the reminder of what I had felt the first time I had heard the bagpipe, and the reminder to love the beautiful things in the world. What a saturated world of gratuitous beauty we live in, full of mountains and skies and the color green and... as if that were not enough... bagpipes on top of everything!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Good Friday, 2009

This is a follow-up from the previous post about the middle voice of faith, but I want to add more explanation because it may sound grimmer than I intend it to. I wrote this on Good Friday after the most bleak Lent I had ever experienced, after trying to maintain faith when I couldn’t understand or feel or do anything. By the time Easter arrived two days later, I was becoming aware that God was redeeming the little hells around me. By a couple weeks later, I realized that it had ceased to surprise me. I seemed to have believed for a while, and had not realized when it had happened.

Faith does not always announce its coming with a trumpet. Sometimes it simply sneaks into the place we have prepared for it like a bandit, and by the time we see it is there we realize it had been living there for a while.
Give me a year or two, and I may call
This Friday “Good,” when savageness and rape
Have ceased to startle me the way escaping
Echoes of redemption do, and all
My over-clenching fingers simply flop
Upon whatever they receive. I’d know
It better if you spoke in Greek, to stop
My pre-established definitions. So,
Call “Good” the bleeding, punctured lung, perhaps
Because it’s swallowed in a bigger story,
The way the food I eat becomes my glory
Or that rivers swallow empty gaps;
And you who call this Friday “Good” because
You own the definitions can say this was
Belief.
And just like he did with Sarah thousands of years before, God did seem to go back over those months and rewrite my doubt into faith. Faith had made its home in the places prepared for it, and I had hardly known when it had arrived. It would figure.

Preparing Places

My little brother’s best friend at the international high school he attended in France was a delightful kid from Norway whom I always appreciated for getting my little brother into poetry. The two boys shared the best parts of themselves with each other, I suppose; the Norwegian gave his sometimes-macho friend a love for poetry, and the American gave his European-atheist friend his faith. By the time both boys moved back to their respective motherlands for their senior year of high school, the former atheist was returning to blaze a new trail as a Christian in an a-religious country. It was quite beautiful.

Which is why it broke my heart when he visited us in the States three years later and broke it to me that he had given up trying to be a Christian, and was back to being as staunch an atheist as ever.

“I really did try for years,” he explained to me. “I prayed. I attended church. I read my Bible. But after two years I looked back and realized I still didn’t even believe God existed, and I could no longer try to fool myself. If I could believe, I would have. It’s not a matter of whether or not I want to believe; I just don’t.”

Had I been a healthier Christian, it might have shaken my faith a bit to hear his account of God not showing up, or at least God not showing up in a way that the young man could identify, not showing up in a way that mattered. Instead, that anecdote went onto some running list of why God is frustrating to me and sat there for a few years.

And then this week my little sister brought it up again, and her words resonated with the seminarians’ thoughts about the middle voice of faith this past summer.

“I was thinking about how he tried to believe for years and then realized that he still didn’t believe,” she mused. “But I wonder if maybe trying to believe is believing.”

Maybe she is right. Maybe, all those times this past spring that I tried to believe God was redeeming the hell of my Muslim friend’s life when I didn’t understand it or feel it or know what to do, maybe trying to believe was believing.

If my friends are right and faith is a gift rather than something we can conjure within ourselves, then maybe the call to have faith is a call to make space for it. Our part in living a life of faith perhaps involves preparing the places where faith would be living if it were there. For me last spring, that involved being a part of my Muslim friend’s life when everyone else seemed to back away. For my brother’s Norwegian friend, it had involved his prayers to a God he didn’t know existed.

Perhaps that is why the Church throughout the centuries has been praying the Liturgy of the Hours. At regular intervals throughout the day, whether one is feeling holy or profane, whether he is happy or sad, whether he connects with the words or numbly reads them off like a grocery list, he prays. If faith were to make its home in a person, I suppose that might be one place it would live.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

They shall not enter my rest

Moses said to the LORD, "Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,' to the land that you swore to give their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, 'Give us meat, that we may eat.' I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness."
“The story of Moses always breaks my heart,” I remember explaining to a friend across the table at a coffee shop. “He clearly had never wanted to lead the people in the first place, but had led them anyway when God called him. He had a miserable time with it. The people were constantly wanting to stone him, and their stubbornness added another 40 years to the journey. During that time God decides he’s going to wipe out the people, and it is Moses who wrestles with him and convinces him not to wipe them out. And after all that, at some point, God tells Moses to speak to a rock and he hits it instead, and then God won’t let him into the Promised Land. Seems like God’s pretty mean.”

“No,” my friend struggled, seemingly unsure of how he knew this, “God’s not mean. Something else is going on there.”

“Seems pretty mean to me,” I persisted. “And I’m no Moses... if this is what a man like Moses can expect after 80 years of serving God, what do we have to look forward to?”

My friend looked at me sadly, unsure of how to speak words of Grace into the world as I saw it.

“I mean,” I continued when he had nothing to add, “he keeps leading the ‘stiff-necked’ people after God tells him he won’t get to enter the Promised Land, and then sits on a mountain at the edge of Canaan begging God to change his mind. But God had some point he needed to make about Moses not showing his name as holy before the people or some ambiguous thing like that. For whatever reason, that was worth more to God than letting Moses enter the Promised Land.”

I concluded strongly, as if I dared him to suggest redemption in a story like that.

“Em,” my friend finally interjected, “Moses did enter the Promised Land.”

I looked stupidly at him, wondering which Bible he had read.

“He did,” he insisted. “At the Transfiguration. Jesus was there with Moses and Elijah. Moses was there.”

I sat there dumbfounded. Truth be told, I was halfway scandalized. My friend was right. My most bleak, grim, hated Bible story had suddenly been tainted with Grace, and my standard extreme-situation trump card had been trumped. While Moses had been cheated out of the Promised Land because of some ambiguous punishment, the Punishment had been cheated out of Moses when Christ came.

And I don’t know why that conversation is coming back to me this week, except that I am being reminded that as much as pain is deeper than the airy, ephemeral sentiments that Christians often confuse with hope, Grace is deeper than the pain.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hazing

There is an ancient form of hazing practiced among a peculiar tribe of creatures from the land of Academia (if the name sounds like a nut, all the better) that we have come to call a “thesis defense.” The ritual involves the victim being forced to endure sundry humiliations for approximately one hour. Some examples are as follows:

Questions about a central point of ones thesis: The victim will assume the interrogator has found a hole in the main argument, some key issue that was not explained well enough in the carefully crafted thesis, and will fumble to formulate a new answer on the spot as if it were possible to say in one minute what he had not said in one year of meticulous research and writing. The interrogators will watch him sweat through his fumbling answer for a while, no doubt inwardly grinning, and then end the torture by saying, “I think you actually answered this question quite nicely on page 12. Let me read your words.”

Questions about complex issues in the broader scope of the cosmos that the thesis innocently provoked: The victim will stare blankly at the interrogator for a few panicked moments, hoping there was some mistake and the interrogator will realize he had meant to say “Thomas More” (who was the subject of the thesis) rather than “Ben Jonson” (who wrote a century later). When it is clear that no such relief will come, if the victim has the presence of mind to refrain from asking “Do you want me to answer that?” (which he may not always have), he will fumble through an elementary sort of answer before finishing with the only definitively true thing he can say: “…but I haven’t yet done the research necessary to speak confidently on the subject.” The interrogator will nod and interject pointedly, “Well, you’re going to need to look into that,” a message that seems to have been the purpose of the question in the first place.

Questions of the softball variety: These questions often come from the kind, outside-the-area interrogator, and are essentially to the effect of “Can you define that word you keep using?” The victim will feel the sudden ecstasy of being given an easy question, ecstasy which is quickly subsumed in panic when he realizes that the other two scholarly giants in the room had defined that very word countless times in his sophomoric youth, nuancing it ad nauseam in rich ways they would no doubt want to hear replicated by their academic progeny. The victim may indeed catch the softball, but do such a sloppy job of it that he may as well have dropped it. No doubt the interrogators feel that their years of teaching the victim have been wasted.

And the purpose of the ritual? That though the victim may walk away initiated into the tribe of Academia with the new title of “Master of Arts,” he will know that he ain’t mastered nothin’ yet.

But ya know, I’ll take the title anyway. You may all call me Master Em now.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Middle Voice of Obedience

During my last week in Ireland, I saw Father Padraic several times: once after mass on Sunday, once for coffee on Monday, once for lunch with the seminarians on Wednesday, and once for gin-and-tonic before I left on Thursday. Over coffee, we talked about (among other things... Fr. Padraic never pushed or even brought up the issue) my interest in the Catholic Church.

“I’m just imagining myself standing next to my little sister on her wedding day,” I tried to illustrate what the thought of being ‘out of communion’ with Protestants looked like for me, “whose diapers I had once changed and who has grown into my best friend, and abstaining from communion just because the Catholic Church wants to make a point that the Protestants’ little crackers and grape juice are not what they never claimed that they were. I understand the issues of Church division that are behind it, but the actual action itself nevertheless feels nasty and divisive. The thought just breaks my heart.”

Fr. Padraic had been listening patiently, every now and then amending my impression of the Catholic view of Protestants with a kinder, gentler (more Irish) view, but at this point he let my difficulty stand.

“Then you’re not ready,” he stated simply and gently.

I was taken aback, and didn’t particularly like the answer. “I’m not ready just because the thought breaks my heart?” I asked dubiously.

“Yes,” he answered confidently, “because God is gentle.”

I chewed over his reasoning a bit. I could never imagine any of the pastors I had known giving this sort of statement to someone knocking at the door of a church wanting to come in.

“God is gentle,” he repeated. “He does not expect all of us to be St. Paul with a dramatic conversion experience that happens all at once. Those exist, but for most of us, conversion—whether that be the conversion from atheist to Christian or from Protestant to Catholic or from Catholic to... Catholic [he chuckled, thinking of his Irish flock]—is a journey. God knows your stamina, and will not ask for more than you are capable of.”

“But Fr. Padraic,” I protested, feeling surprisingly upset at his suggesting I might not be ready to do what he obviously thought was ultimately the right thing to do, “I don’t think the thought could ever not break my heart.”

He shrugged in his happy, Irish way. “Then it might not ever be time.”

I didn’t plan on posting this anecdote (I have no intention of turning my listening-blog into Em’s Catholic Adventures), but it has been stirring deeply in my spirit for the past six weeks since it happened, and applies to the broader scope of how I look at the entire journey of following God. Then last week when I met with the Monsignor of the church back home in the States where I attend, he told me more or less the same thing. Obedience, he insisted, is not enough if it is a mere begrudging obedience; obedience must be coupled with freedom and joy. And, lest I should go out and try to conjure up freedom and joy as if they are the next task on my journey, he insisted that they are the Holy Spirit’s work, and would come at whatever point he wanted. In the mean time, I could only wait.

It’s an entirely foreign picture of obedience for me. I always thought obedience was a matter of seeking out the right thing to do and doing it no matter what at any cost to oneself, believing that even if it was excruciating now it would be the best thing in the end. I never thought to question an action based on anything other than some Platonic notion of whether or not it seemed in keeping with the Good.

But for Fr. Padraic and the Monsignor alike, obedience seems to be something quite different, more passive than I would ever expect something active like obedience to be. Obedience, they seem to say, in my case involves seeking out the right thing to do and waiting for God to prepare the way. That looks almost entirely passive to a doer like me.

Might obedience be conjugated in the middle voice as well, like my seminarian friends suggested of faith over the summer? Might it be the Holy Spirit’s work, not my own?

Might it be, as Fr. Padraic had insisted to me repeatedly, that the almighty, holy God whom I have tried to follow relentlessly for 26 years... is gentle?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Grace to the Gracious

I have a general policy about kindness and friendliness to strangers on the street that goes a good bit beyond most urban American standards. I may be wrong about this, I freely admit, but at some point I decided it would be better to err on the side of too extreme an adherence to Christ’s warning “Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers you did to me” than on the side of over-caution. Somehow, I think the damage that over-caution could do to my soul is worse than the danger to my body everyone imagines is waiting behind the stranger on the street.

As you can imagine for a young woman, this has gotten me into quite a few sticky situations over the years. I admit that the caution that my friends in the conservative-right and the liberal-intelligentsia alike have tried to instill in me over the years would have saved me from many an awkward situation. But what I have also found is that most awkward situations are, in their strange, awkward ways, windows for grace.

Take today for example.

As I walked down a small, empty side-street around the corner from my regular coffee shop at 7am, I was hailed by a man in his 20s or 30s.

He says (politely enough): Excuse me, can I ask you a question?

I say (pleasantly, pausing my walk): Sure.

He says: I’m not from around here; is there a tattoo parlor on that street?

I think: You’re looking for a tattoo parlor at 7:00 in the morning?
I say: I feel like there’s one down that way, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.

He says: You’re not a tattoo person, I guess?

I think: Already changing the subject?
I say (maintaining my pleasantness): Nope, not so much.

He says: It’s for my girlfriend. She wants to get her belly-button pierced. [Face becoming contorted as if pondering a vexing issue] Do you know anyone with a belly-button ring?

I think: I should probably be wrapping this conversation up soon...
I say: Yeah, lots of people.

He says: How does that work? She’s an inny... can they pierce an inny?

I think: I don’t think he’s thinking a lot about his girlfriend right now...
I say: Yeah, they just pierce the skin on top, and the ring hangs down over the belly-button. It works. [Beginning to step away as if the conversation is ending.]

He says (quickly): Wait, it doesn’t make sense to me. Are you an inny? Can you just show me on your belly-button?

I think: Abandon ship! Abandon ship!
I say: Nah, it’s pretty simple... they just stick a needle right above it. [Making feeble hand motions to illustrate the phenomenon]

Right then, as if on cue from out of nowhere, my thesis director (a well-established Renaissance scholar and Catholic intellectual who always wears a suit with a hankie in the pocket and a hat over his gray beard like a proper gentleman) walks up to the post office that is right behind us.

My thesis director says (jovially): I just can’t get away from you!

I say (relieved): Nope, apparently not!
I think: [Grasping for an academic question that will involve walking away from the stranger] How thankful I am that I was not showing this fellow my belly-button right now!

To all of you out there who don’t find the balance between wisdom and grace toward the stranger on the street as easy as it seems to be to others, I empathize with the tension. But I am learning that there is an abundance of grace out there waiting to be poured back out on the gracious.

I mean, what if I had been showing that guy my belly-button right as my thesis director walked up? That’s one catastrophe I could do without two days before my defense!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Today in the Divine Office


Perhaps because I've been thinking so much about forgiveness this year, perhaps because I just stayed up until 3am grading papers that were anything but forgiving when it came to issues of American racial struggles (the most shocking moment was when a student declared that Huck Finn's father should be grateful that the government had not only allowed him to vote as an "ignorant drunk," but even to reproduce), the concluding prayer for this Sunday struck me. This is a beautiful picture of why forgiveness is tied to our salvation, and it also strikes me as an interesting parallel to the passage when the risen Christ tells his disciples, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld":
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in your unbounded mercy
you have revealed the beauty of your power
through your constant forgiveness of our sins.
May the power of this love be in our hearts
to bring your pardon and your kingdom to all we meet.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
May we all be inheritors of the kingdom, and wear forgiveness like a weird birthmark or other strange family trait that characterizes the children of God.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Speaking Oddities

I grew up in the Assemblies of God church (a branch of the Pentecostals), so it should come as no surprise that at some point in my childhood I felt that God had spoken to me. God was speaking to everyone, after all; the Holy Spirit came upon people regularly during our worship services; some spoke in languages they did not know, and others received the translation. The fact that God spoke to people directly was one of the first things I learned about him.

But when it happened to me, it was not like anything I had seen at church or knew to expect (perhaps that was one of the primary reasons I knew it was him). It was not at church at all, and it was not in a sanctified time of worship.

On the contrary, it was right after one of the most violent fights I would ever have with my brother, and I was feeling about as unholy as an otherwise well-mannered child could feel. That afternoon, it had not been the Holy Spirit who had seized upon my body; it was a rage that was borderline demonic, and I wanted for a few frightening minutes to do nothing other than hurt him. Now, having been caught, restrained, and sent outside to cool down while the adults discussed whether or not an exorcism would be in order, I wandered in the woods to face my own inner demons of shame and isolation.

And I knew it was God who spoke to me then, not because he was loud enough to drown out the million other noises in my head—my unexplainable rage, the severe alarm of the adults, my liturgy of despair that repeated its insistence that I was utterly alone—but because it was so much quieter, and yet I heard it anyway. Suddenly—and I remember the exact square foot of sacred wooded ground where I was standing at this moment—a stillness came over me, a stillness that seemed to say one thing:

“I love you.”

In almost two decades since that day, I have never been so sure of God’s voice, nor have I grown out of the need to hear that inaugural message. In these almost two decades, I have cried out for direction that never came, and I have been certain God was telling me things that later seemed to come more from my own idealism. But as I experienced that afternoon, God's voice rarely says what my spirit is prepared to hear.

Christ said that his sheep know his voice, and will not follow a stranger because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice. Perhaps one way we can identify his voice is by its peculiarity; that afternoon in the woods, I knew that voice of love was God’s voice because it was such an oddity. Perhaps he still speaks in oddities, in the last thing we expect or hope to hear, in the dirty baths to cure leprosy or the seven buckets of water to start a fire, in the still whisper that follows the thunder and storms.

I want God to speak to me loud enough to drown out the other voices; sometimes he only speaks in whispers. Odd whispers, at that.
Why do you contend against him,
saying, “He will answer none of man’s words”?
For God speaks in one way,
and in two, though man does not perceive it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Our Lady of Sorrows

Disclaimer: I have no desire to alienate my Protestant readers further (who I realize are 100% of my original readership), nor to say anything unknowingly offensive to the Catholic readers that seem to have trickled in recently. But today is the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, and so if there’s ever a right day for this post it’s today. Receive my apologies for all my inevitable heresies, and I’ll try to be brief.

August 15 had been the Feast of the Assumption, the day the Catholic and Orthodox Churches celebrate Mary rising from the dead and being assumed into heaven where she would be crowned Queen of Heaven. I hadn’t been especially looking forward to the prayers of that particular solemnity in the Daily Office, so when I talked to one of the seminarians the day before he recommended I read Pius XII’s declaration about the Assumption in the Apostolic Constitution, and a document Catholics and Anglicans wrote together about Mary.

The former, which was a bit disorganized and written with a different audience in mind, made me ponder some esoteric things about eschatology. The latter, which was kind and carefully written with a mutual longing for understanding, made me sad.

For Catholics, it is a day of hope fulfilled, of the Arc of the New Covenant entering Jerusalem with rejoicing, of the New Creation that Christ began already gathering the momentum of redemption, of the world suspended between the Already and the Not-Yet being ever so slightly closer to the Already. For a Protestant trying to suspend disbelief, it nevertheless felt stupid.

From any angle you look at it, it certainly seems a dark irony that Mary, whom Catholics believe is the one who draws us to Jesus, is the most repellent point of Catholic theology for Protestants. I’m sure someone in a dark abyss out there gets a good laugh out of that one at both of our expenses. Struck by the sorrow of the impasse, I was ready to solicit the prayers of anyone, even if it felt a little stupid. For better or worse, this is what came out of that.
Oh Mother of our Brokenness, please nod
From where you sit as Queen of all our tears,
The junction of humanity and God
From which your children’s rich division veers.
And Mother of our Sorrow, keep in mind
The sword that pierces the mosaic of
Our souls, for we your brood that trails behind
Have never been immaculate in love.
I do not envy you your crown, because
The price of it has been too great, the steel
That still is piercing, for the serpent was
Within our spirit as upon his heel.
But barren wombs have leapt in Nazareth,
So pray for us the hour of our death.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Miracle

“Well, I’m fading,” I interjected into a pause in the conversation, standing up and making my way across the room to my bereaved friend. It had been over six hours since I had arrived, hours that encompassed a funeral, a potluck, and a walk through the nearby university gardens, and were now dwindling to sitting around her living room with the few family members and friends who were still around.

My friend stood up smiling and met my embrace warmly. “Thanks for coming out,” she said, and then added in a whisper on my shoulder, “Thank you for loving our little boy.”

I realized two things in that moment: I realized that my friend had been comforted in my sharing of love for her son, and I realized that she was right... I did love him. Somehow, I had come to love a boy I would never see or touch.

In some ways, certainly, love is contagious. How could you not love the little guy after watching his parents love him so deeply since their giddy announcement in January, after hearing the weekly updates announcing that their baby was the size of a pea or had developed fingers, after seeing their commitment to love him continue past the tragic day in May when they learned he would not live, after watching slideshows of beautiful photos taken by a non-profit called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep that celebrated the family in the pregnancy and the two hours in the delivery room? The family had been a heartrending monument to love, and no one at the funeral was immune to it.

But while love may in some ways be a gift that we cannot produce ourselves (like faith), I wonder if prayer is an active agent in fertilizing soil that nurtures it. I love that little 3-pound-5-ounce baby I never met because his parents’ love entered into my heart that had been praying for him for three months and especially in the hour of his death. I once mused that prayer is often more a means of opening our own eyes than of catching God’s; now I wonder if it also opens our hearts. Prayer may be as much about our own sanctification as it is the needs of others.

Sometimes the call to love one another and to forgive our enemies feels as much beyond my control as the task of healing my friend’s son would have been. But at least we can pray nevertheless—for our friends, for the poor, for our enemies—and in the absence of the latter miracle, God may surprise us with the former. While the miracle for my friends’ son was not the ex nihilo creation of the bones and organs he was lacking, maybe it was the ex nihilo creation of love in the hearts of us who prayed for him.


Photo taken by Franklin Golden. Franklin is a volunteer with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit foundation that provides professional maternity and birth photos to parents who are losing a child.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Poets of the Word

Some of my readers indicated an appreciation for my esoteric Greek posts, which I promised were about to stop now that language school is over. Rejoice then, O Greek fans; my promises were empty, and Greek posts will evidently continue. My thesis director gave a delightful anecdote in class the other day, and I cannot help but post it.

In his Defense of Poesy, Sir Philip Sidney makes much of the fact that English gets its word for poet from the Greek (ποιητης), which is derived from the verb that means “make, do” (ποιεω). In a literal sense, poets are makers and doers.

For a literary scholar who also dabbles in theology, this is absolutely delightful.

Literally, then, when St. James tells us to be doers of the word rather than hearers only, he is commanding that we be poets of the word (ποιηται λογου). Don’t just be a hearer, he says; be a poet!

After all, we must remember, God himself is a poet. The Apostle’s Creed which Christians have been reciting for centuries declares in Greek, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, poet of heaven and earth” (ποιητην ουρανου και γης). Who could stand on a mountain or stroll through the forest without suspecting that the authors intended the double-meaning?

That alone validates spending a summer in an intensive course to study a dead language!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

To another lightning stroke

This is an old one, but it is pertinent again today.

For just a flash you winked your unformed eyes,
And, sideswiped by your miracle, we froze—
Receiving you like water from the skies
That baffles us the instant that it goes.
You slip between the fingers of the womb,
And we embrace the place you would have been
And decorate your nonexistent tomb
With our ex nihilo love from Eden’s pen.
And so my precious little lightning stroke
You leave just as you entered, I suppose:
With grace to fall asleep who never woke
And rise again who never once had rose.
So in your Easter death and unformed whole
I recognize my undeveloped soul.

Until Then

Monday afternoon I checked my email and saw that one of my old housemates had gone into labor. I sighed and began praying for her. We had known for months that her baby would not live long past delivery.

Just this past Christmas I watched as we welcomed my youngest nephew into our lives, and I was amazed at a world saturated with miracles. But when I went home on Monday and prayed for the little miracle of my friends’ son whose pieces had not come together tightly enough to give him a complete skull and some of his major organs, I felt the sobering tragedy of our brokenness. The little boy was a miracle that entered our lives like a lightning stroke and slipped away like sand between our fingers, and we were left to grieve the loss of someone we had never had.

Later while I was doing my evening prayers and somewhere in a hospital nearby my friends were celebrating the two hours they had with their son, I encountered an unfamiliar hymn in the prayer book.
Now fades all earthly splendor,
The shades of night descend;
The dying of the daylight
Foretells creation’s end.
Though noon gives place to sunset,
Yet dark gives place to light:
The promise of tomorrow
With dawn’s new hope is bright.

The silver notes of morning
Will greet the rising sun,
As once the Easter glory
Shone round the Risen One.
So will the night of dying
Give place to heaven’s day,
And hope of heaven’s vision,
Will light our pilgrim way.

So will the new creation
Rise from the old reborn
To splendor in Christ’s glory
And everlasting morn.
All darkness will be ended
As faith gives place to sight
Of Father, Son and Spirit,
One God, in heaven’s light.
Paul tells us that the whole creation is groaning inwardly with the pains of childbirth in hope that it will be freed from its bondage to decay and brought to the glorious freedom of the children of God. I long for that day: the day the undeveloped miracle of that baby whom I never met is revealed in all his beauty, the day Benedict can have that cup of coffee with me in dignity, the day Russ’s crusty spirit can see clearly without being clouded by his racism or anti-Semitism or misogyny, the day we will no longer watch friends drown or get hit by cars or get shot or OD in despair, the day an offended father no longer needs to disregard the injustice committed against his daughter in order to forgive the offender, the day Church unity is no longer a mere scent in the air but the Kingdom we inhabit, the day we reflect on our struggles with loneliness and homosexuality and alcohol like old tales, the day the intercity kids whose papers I grade will no longer get shafted by corrupt government, the day God rewrites his own story the way my grandmother does, the day his blessings flow far as the curse is found.

Until then, Little One, goodnight.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.


Photo taken by Aimee Bickers of Pure Expressions Photography. Aimee is a volunteer with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit foundation that provides professional maternity and birth photos to parents who are losing a child.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Except for the Exceptions

“I have a question,” I interjected once during week two of Greek boot camp.

“Yes?” the instructor asked, looking up from the textbook.

“So we just learned the ‘regular’ way to construct the future tense. But then you added an exception when the stem ends in α, ε, or ο, which strikes me as most of the vowels.”

“Yes...” he began, and I jumped back in lest he should think my question were finished.

“And then you added another exception for verbs that end in β, π, πτ, or φ. And then there’s the exception for verbs that end in γ, κ, σκ, or χ. Not to mention the exception for verbs that end in δ, ζ, θ, or τ. That was all... until you added another exception for verbs that end in λ, μ, ν, or ρ. Of course, as it turns out, the exception also applies to those that end in ιζ. This strikes me as most of the consonants.”

The class started chuckling, and the young teacher shuffled his feet nervously as the unspoken vibes of mutiny flowed through the room.

“So my question is...” I paused, looking helplessly at my notes that had become quite unintelligible and I began longing for the good old days when Latin seemed complicated, “how regular is a regular verb, really? It feels like this rule for the ‘regular’ formation of the future tense applies to any verb as long as it does not end in a vowel or a consonant.”

The above anecdote doesn’t have anything to do with this post really. But as I continue to pray the Divine Office, it continues to remind me of Greek. The complex system I labored to learn with the Dominican and seminarian friends over the summer applies to regular days in Ordinary Time, as long as they are not feast days.

Ahem.

I guess I could think of worse vices of which the Catholic Church has been charged than too high a frequency of feasting, but I sometimes wish I could have a normal morning prayer time, since I worked so hard to learn how to do it. Are any days not feast days, I want to ask?

Not today, at least. Today is the feast of St. Augustine, and the antiphons in morning and evening prayers were excepts of his writings. In honor of his feast day, I thought I’d post them for those out there who are not gluttons for punishment enough to learn to Divine Office, but who enjoy a good feast anyway. Enjoy, and I’ll let you know if I ever stumble upon a regular Greek verb or a regular day on the liturgical calendar.
You inspire us, O Lord, to delight in praising you, because you made us for yourself; our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you. You called, you shouted and you shattered my deafness.