Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Three stages

A few years ago when my nephew was four, he pontificated to my brother from the backseat of the car:

There are three stages to life, Daddy. The first stage is when you are kid and you do what your parents tell you to do. The second stage is when you are an adult and you have to do the things adults have to do. The third stage is when you get thrusters on your feet and can fly.

The little fella had quite a sophisticated eschatology, I must say. I can't say much about the third stage yet, so I have no room to correct him. But now is as good a season as any to rejoice that the God who has seemingly entered all three of my nephew's stages of human development is preparing the way for us who are caught up in the second to enter the third. I'm looking forward to my thrusters.

God speed the day, Little One.

The woman I am

In order to guard against the graduate student tendency to write scathing, sophomoric criticism of other scholars, one of my professors gave us a rule of thumb for writing literary reviews: “Always pretend the author is sitting beside you as you write it,” she told us, “and that he is in a wheel chair.” A good rule of thumb.

For Christmas this year, my family (the few of us who are not in China, at least) are hosting my two elderly grandmothers: the frail Southern lady in her late 80s who could talk the ears off of an elephant and the short Polish woman in her early 90s who could keep Armageddon a secret. It’s been one of the strangest Christmases I’ve ever had.

And somewhere in-between the occasional “yes’um”s I inserted to punctuate the stream-of-consciousness tales that went from her father’s scandalous affairs that were ironic considering he had initially joined the KKK because he thought it existed to beat up men who walked out on their wives when he was a cruel man anyway and forced her to drop out of high school so she could work at his firm and make money for him to pocket while he told her that all she would ever have going for her was her good looks, which she used to the best of her abilities anyway at least four times over beginning with the blond teenager whom she married because she was getting a little too old to be single and whom she convinced to joined the marines because she liked their uniforms the best until she sent him a “Dear John” letter when he got shipped away during the War because she had never been all that crazy about him anyway, not anymore than the man whose marriage produced her first daughter right before it was annulled, not like my grandfather who nevertheless wouldn’t initially sell his car to buy the particular ring she wanted which almost cost him her hand in marriage because she determined he didn’t value her enough to show her off as the high class person she was, the high class of person she declared us all to be which my brother’s nice car and new job demonstrated.... somewhere in-between these stories and the lite suggestions for selective breeding of humans that ironically harkened to the eugenics that I associated with the Nazis her various husbands had been fighting.... somewhere in-between all this I realized two things:

One: that my grandmother is not unlike the various girls who had made my life miserable when I was in high school and who I strove tirelessly to avoid becoming.

Two: that in her withered frailty I could not criticize her the way I had spent my adult life criticizing those women.

It made me reflect that every one of those cheerleaders who hurt me in high school will all be old frail women like my grandmother one day, unable to see the make-up they still put on their face every day and the wig that covers their bald heads, unable to color coordinate their clothing that is still important even if they can’t see it anymore than they can control their bowels or taste their food. We are called to forgive our enemies because the eugenics that Hitler organized is not unlike my frail grandmother’s suggestions for selective breeding at the dinner table, because the arrogance of the prom queen is not unlike my grandmother’s haggard dignity.

Then I reflected that I will be like my withered grandmother one day as well.

Then I reflected that I already am. In contrast to the woman I was created to be, I am that frail woman trying to maintain a dignified poise while wearing Poise panty-liners. In contrast to who we have it in us to be, we are walking on brittle bones and can hardly make it up the stairs. We are called to forgive demented autocrats because we ourselves suffer with dementia. Sin is an ailment we all suffer through together, like old folks at a nursing home sharing the latest news of our recent medical disorders.

Rejoice, Christmas reminds us: Christ has taken on our osteoporosis. He is sharing our dementia and our irritable bowel syndrome, our blindness and deafness and shriveled skin. Rejoice; if he could cross from radiance into dung, there is hope that we may cross from our dung into his radiance.

Any hope I have to be reborn into that radiance is the same hope my grandmother has, and that those cheerleaders have, and that my great-grandfather who may have been a Klansman had. What is there to do but to forgive?

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Nativitie of Christ

A Christmas-Eve word from Robert Southwell, the sixteenth-century English poet, Jesuit priest, and martyr under Queen Elizabeth I:

Beholde the father, is his daughters sonne:
The bird that built the nest, is hatched therein:
The olde of yeares, an houre hath not out runne:
Eternall life, to live doth now beginne.
The word is dunne: the mirth of heaven doth weepe:
Might feeble is: and force doth faintly creepe.

O dying soules, beholde your living spring:
O dasled eyes, behold your sonne of grace:
Dull eares, attend what word this word doth bring:
Up heavie hartes: with joye your joye embrace.
From death, from darke, from deafenesse, from dispaires:
This life, this light, this word, this joy repaires.

Gift better then himselfe, God doth not know:
Gift better then his God, no man can see:
This gift doth here the gever geven bestow:
Gift to this gift let each receiver bee.
God is my gift, himselfe he freely gave me:
Gods gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

Man altered was by sinne from man to beast:
Beastes foode is haye, haye is all mortall flesh:
Now God is flesh, and lies in Manger prest:
As haye, the brutest sinner to refresh.
O happie fielde wherein this fodder grew,
Whose tast, doth us from beasts to men renew.

-Robert Southwell

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chosen to Choose

In the first conversation I had with my Irish priest in Cork, Father Padraic mentioned some of the disputes between various parties during the Protestant Reformation dealing with predestination and free will.

“The Catholic Church has never found that a divisive issue,” he told me, “because we have always looked at Mary as the example of what happens to us all when Christ enters us. She was chosen and she said ‘Yes.’ She was predestined and she freely obeyed. The same happens when Christ enters any of us.”

This is not intended to be a Marian post in particular, not one that goes from her being “highly favored” to the Immaculate Conception or from all generations calling her blessed to the role of Mother of the Church. But since the readings from the Book of Common Prayer for today depict her meeting with Elizabeth and her song of rejoicing afterwards, I remembered Father Padraic’s words over two years ago, and found comfort in the paradoxes of the Incarnation: the Creator is created in creation, we are chosen to choose.

Rejoice, my friends: as the Word has been made flesh in the womb of a virgin, he has entered the womb of creation, sanctifying the ground he treads. The Creator is in the womb, and creation will be reborn. As with her, so with us; he enters the world through his people, and we await his bursting forth from us. Blessed are we whom he has chosen; blessed are we who have chosen him.
Sonnet XXVI of Advent

My soul declares his greatness, for he’ll do
What he has done before: yea, he will stir
His might just as he stirs the barren womb,
And look upon the sojourner like her
Who served in lowliness. The Mighty One
Has done his wonders while our hearts were far
Away: He gives the rain and hides the sun,
He spreads abundance as he spread the stars.
Soon Lebanon will be a fruitful field
And fields be forests; we who dwell in night
Will live in light; the nations will be healed,
The hungry fed, the blind receive their sight.
And blessed is the chosen for her choice
To bear the ripened word and to rejoice.

Psalm 80, 147, 148
Isaiah 29:13-24
Revelation 21:22-22:5
Luke 1:39-56

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lake Effect

Last year I mused about the magical quality of snow in the South. Here in the Midwest it is not quite so ethereal, but it does provide the opportunity to bring neighbors together.

I saw her from across the street through the cloud of snowflakes. She was crouched over her plastic snow shovel as if it were a cane, and she inched forward slowly as if she were walking through ankle-high glue rather than fresh, fluffy snow.

“Would you like me to shovel that for you?” I called out to her.

She stood hesitantly and looked me over, seeming to determine I was safe. I suppose my neighborhood is one in which little old ladies might need to be cautious. “How much?” she asked guardedly.

“What?” I asked, a bit flabbergasted at the thought of charging an elderly woman for such an easy task. “No, not for money. It won’t take any time at all; I’m just on my way back from church, and I can shovel this for you in no time.”

She looked at the job before her, such a small job for me, such a large one for her. “Well, yeah!” she finally said, handing me the shovel and backing up. In no time I had finished her walkway and was beginning the sidewalk. “Just get up to the driveway and shovel a space for a car to pull in. There is a man on his way to pick me up for church, and I wanted to have a space cleared for him.”

I looked at the woman’s frail body and the walker she had abandoned on the front porch when she began her shoveling. There was something beautiful and pitiful about her, about her haggard dignity that would go to great lengths to ensure that the able-bodied fellow who was picking her up for church would walk to her door on a shoveled sidewalk.

“He’ll think I did this myself!” she said with a devilish twinkle in her eye. “He’ll think I’m quite a frisky lady!”

As it turned out, she was able to enact no such deception; when I finished the job, we kept talking up until the fellow arrived (who did not pull into the freshly-shoveled driveway nor walk down the cleared sidewalk at all). But I had the feeling that she appreciated the conversation more than the potential rouse.

* * *

It was my first weekend of Lake Effect snow: I shoveled my sidewalk Saturday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday night, but was in too much a hurry to shovel it before going to school on Monday morning. As I watched it pour down while I was in class, I wondered how packed the sidewalk would be when I returned home that evening. As I walked home after dark over some rough sidewalks and saw what became of well-walked places that were not shoveled, I dreaded what I would find when I got home.

I needn’t have worried. My sidewalk, including the stretch of empty yard beside me that I doubt the owners will shovel, had been cleared for me already. Someone had taken care of me while I was at school, doing what I was unable to do as I had for the little old woman the day before. (I later learned that it was the man next door whose fiancée works at the abortion clinic. They hate the neighborhood, but they are nevertheless becoming good neighbors.)

I don't know how well I'm doing preparing for the coming of Christ this Advent season, but in my neighborhood we are at least beginning to prepare places for one another.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Waiting in the Middle Voice

As another partial repeat to keep this blog active through to the end of finals, I'm posting another article I wrote for my church's Advent devotional last year. This is partially derived from a discussion on this blog the previous summer that compared faith to the Greek middle voice, but since that was one of my most popular entries I thought you wouldn't mind the thematic repeat.

* * *

I spent the past summer in a brutal Classical Greek boot camp, fighting in the trenches of grammar complexities like the infamous middle voice (not active, like “the boy at the banana,” or passive, like “the boy was eaten by the banana,” but somehow between the two in a way that English cannot articulate). In that dismal struggle, classmates became trench buddies, and I found myself soliciting their aid for difficulties that went beyond grammar.

I remember one particular conversation I had with a seminarian. It had begun with a minor theological point and had moved into the realm of the very nature of faith. After months of doubting God’s attentiveness to redeem a particularly dark situation in a friend’s life, this was a sensitive topic for me.

“What do you mean by faith?” I asked him. “What does faith mean when you can’t understand?”

“Well,” he puzzled, “faith is not at all an intellectual exercise. Sometimes faith involves seeing your doubt and despair as your own deficiencies and trusting other Christians to get your bearings.”

“But then what is faith?” I repeated. “Is it a feeling?”

“No, it certainly not a feeling,” he quickly asserted. “Feelings come and go, and I don’t think they would commend or condemn you. Your faith can’t rest on feeling good about God anymore than it would be hindered by feeling frustrated with him.”

“So is faith simply action?” I asked, feeling like we were running out of options. “Is faith acting as though God were good even when you don’t feel that he is or understand how he is?”

My friend pondered a bit as if we were trying to articulate ideas in slightly different languages. “No,” he struggled, “I think faith is different from all these things because it is not something we do at all. Faith is a gift; it is something God does. Faith is something we receive.”

“So faith is passive?” I asked, a bit surprised and unhappy with that answer.

“Well, it looks that way...” he struggled. “But it’s active as well because we have to receive it. It’s more like...” he glanced down at his textbook as he tried to articulate his response...

“The middle voice!” he suddenly exclaimed. “Just like in Greek: it looks passive, even though it’s meaning comes across as active. It is somehow neither and both.”

And on the off-chance that there are other people with the ability to find comfort in complex grammatical points, or on the far-more-likely chance that there are other people who struggle to maintain faith when understanding and feelings and actions all fall short, I thought I would share this conversation. If my friend is right that faith is the middle voice, then perhaps all I can do in times of doubt and despair is to prepare places for it, to dust out the corners where Faith would be living if it were there and wait for it to arrive.

Indeed, perhaps Advent embodies the entire posture of faith: the posture of preparation and waiting. Perhaps faith in the midst of doubt and despair, or even in the midst of simultaneously mundane and busy lives, is the act of creating the places for it and waiting for it to arrive. That may involve carving out places for prayer. That may involve holding out in the lives of those we cannot save but can only love. One way or another, it certainly involves preparation and waiting, and perhaps a little hospitality when it arrives.

“I am going there to prepare a place for you,” Christ said to his disciples on the night he was handed over to suffering and death. And as we are left wading through our fluctuating emotions and ideas and disasters, perhaps faith is the posture of preparing places for him. Take heart, then: faith can neither be conjured nor killed; it can only be welcomed.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Veni, redemptor gentium

Today in celebration of the feast of St. Ambrose, my Latin professor had us translate a fourth-century Ambrosian hymn. My Latin is far from expert, but I thought in the spirit of Advent (and because I'm doing a poor job posting anything for you this semester) I'd give you my best shot at a translation. Better Latinists out there are welcome to correct me for the benefit of all.

* * *
Intende, qui regis Israel,
Hark, King of Israel,
super Cherubim qui sedes,
who sits above the Cheribum,
appare Ephraem coram, excita
who appeared to Ephraim, stir up
potentiam tuam et ueni.
your power and come!

Veni, redemptor gentium,
Come, redeemer of nations,
ostende partum uirginis;
show forth your virgin birth;
miretur omne saeculum:
let all the ages rejoice:
talis decet partus Deo.
for such befits the birth of God.

Non ex virili semine,
Not out of the seed of man,
sed mystico spiramine
but out of the Holy Spirit
uerbum Dei factum est caro
the word of God is made flesh
fructusque uentris floruit.
and the fruit of the womb blossoms.

Alvus tumescit uirginis,
The womb of the virgin swells,
claustrum pudoris permanet,
the seal of chastity remains,
uexilla uirtutum micant:
the standards of virtue shine:
uersatur in templo Deus.
God is turned within his temple.

Procedat e thalamo suo,
Let him advance from his chamber,
pudoris aula regia,
from the royal courtyard of chastity,
geminae gigas substantiae
the giant with twin substances
alacris ut currant uiam.
keen to hasten on his course.

Egressus eius a Patre,
Going out from the Father,
regressus eius ad Patrem;
returning to the Father;
excursus usque ad inferos,
going out even to Hell,
recursus ad sedem Dei.
returning to the seat of God.

Aequalis aeterno Patri,
You who are equal to the eternal Father,
carnis tropheo cingere,
gird yourself with a trophy of flesh,
infirma nostri corporis
strengthening the weaknesses of our body
uirtute firmans perpeti.
with your eternal virtue.

Praesepe iam fulget tuum,
Now your stable gleams,
lumenque nox spirat nouum,
and a new light shines forth,
quod nulla nox interpolet
where no night corrupts
fidesque iugi luceat.
may perpetual faith shine forth.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Long Wait

I don't expect the semester to lighten for a bit, so rather than leave my blog untouched I thought I would post an article I had written for my church's Advent devotional two years ago, which is itself an adaptation of a post I had written here the previous summer. Long-term readers may receive my apologies for the partial repeat, and I hope to return to the land of the musing soon.

* * *
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.
-T. S. Eliot
This past summer, I went with some friends kayaking and camping on an island off the coast of North Carolina. It sounded like a great idea.

Among the many well-conceived, ill-executed adventures, the camping escapade is the primary reason we classify the trip as a great experience we would never repeat again, nor wish upon our worst enemies. We all drifted off to sleep sometime around 10 or 11, the four of us in sleeping bags lying side-by-side on a tarp we placed over the cacti and other prickly brush that carpeted the island. The stars were brilliant, satellites and meteors moved, and the Milky Way shone in its full splendor.

I don’t know how long I slept, but eventually I woke to stings of pain piercing my face. I rubbed my skin with my sandy hands, but whatever manner of carnivorous insect inhabited the island remained. I tried to suffocate myself inside my sleeping bag to find refuge, but to no avail. I told myself that perhaps if I didn’t think about the pain it would prove only a minor annoyance, but my skin kept twitching with startling stings. There was no going back to sleep.

I finally got on my tired feet (blistered from a previous ill-executed adventure) and walked along the shore. I found that if I kept moving quickly enough, the bugs would not bite me. Through the long night we wandered the beach for an ambiguous number of dark hours, waiting for the sun to bring relief, feeling like we were in purgatory.

And though we expected the waiting to end with the dawn, the knight faded into a murky glow from a thick shield of fog. By the time the longed-for sunrise would have come, we could only guess its existence from the dim light that finally allowed us to see the red welts that covered our skin as the tiny gnats continued to torture us. The sun had risen, but we were still waiting.

The entire Christian journey is a long narrative of waiting. Job waits for a hearing. Abraham waits for a son. The Hebrew slaves wait for deliverance from slavery. Suicidal prophets wait for God’s presence. And by the time Advent rolls around, we stand with captive Israel waiting for a Messiah.

But the waiting is not exceptionally Christian. Even pagan mythology bears themes of the Fall in the decline from the golden to the silver to the bronze ages, and nearly every tale is infused with grief, sorrow and loss. David’s cries of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are not unique to the Christian story, even if they are fundamental to it. We stand among the company of all creation “groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”

Beyond that, we as Christians tend to forget that the story of waiting is still our story. When the Messiah comes, after all, he is only a baby, and we are left waiting. When he begins his ministry, he does not bring the deliverance we have been longing for, and we are left waiting. When he reaches the climax of his ministry he dies, and we are left waiting. After he trumps death and rises again as the first fruit of the New Creation, he ascends to heaven and tells us he will return, and we are still left here waiting.

Let us take heart as we wander the shore; the sun has risen, and the fog is not forever. Sometimes faith is not a glorious adventure; it is a long walk that we wouldn’t have the option of quitting if we tried. Let us remember that the posture of waiting, through often excruciating difficult, is also fundamentally Christian. We would do well to practice it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rejoice the Lord is King!

As I’ve had the chance in recent years to participate in the Church calendar, I’ve appreciated the profundity of living into the Gospel story year after year, experiencing the same traditions that Christians have been practicing for century upon century.

Christ the King Sunday, incidentally, is not one of those. On the contrary, it only began in 1925, the period l’entre deux guerres, between World War I and II, when Pope Pius XI was concerned about the growing threats of nationalism and secularism that Christians were swept up in.

And so here at the end of Ordinary Time, we remember that it is Christ who is King, not our party politics of choice, and that he reigns now over our oblivion. And unlike the forces that tore through Europe during the 20th century, Christ enters his glory as he is lifted up on a cross; and though James and John had campaigned to be on his right and left as he entered his kingdom, those places were reserved for two criminals. The Kingdom has come as the King is lifted up, and we are welcome to follow.

Your kingdom come, Lord, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Come to the waters

I ate a lot of popcorn before bed last night and woke up quite parched in the middle of the night. I got up to get a drink of water, watching eagerly as the cup filled and gulping the water down with great fervor.

However, I realized with every gulp that my thirst was strangely untouched by the water, and as soon as the glass was empty I began filling it up again, hoping a second glass would do the trick.

This process was repeated several times before I began to put the pieces together and figured out that I must be dreaming. Annoyed that I was spending my few precious hours of sleep so miserably, I tried to wake myself up to no avail. Quite a bit miffed, I filled up another glass of water.

And as Christ told the woman at the well “Whoever drinks the water I give him shall never thirst” and cried out within the temple in Jerusalem “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink” just as God said through the prophet Isaiah “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters,” there is quite a lot of room for a Christian analogy here. Indeed, Christ did promise that “Whoever believes of me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Streams of living water will flow from within him.’” We have passed through the waters, we have entered into that rest, and he has met our thirst.

But there is another way that I am still guzzling water like I was in my dream, still carrying a thirst that water is meant to fill, still drinking the memories of water or the hope of water, still waiting for the fullness of the ultimate water. To whatever extent I can say that, it seems dangerous to me to emphasize the thirst-quenching nature of Christianity without an acknowledgment that we are still waiting for the eschatological fulfillment of our longings, still waiting for the full quenching of the thirst that has already been met in a preliminary way.

As we approach Advent, we remember that we are lonely, longing, wandering, expectant people. How could we not be? We have tasted the beginning of a fulfillment that is still in progress.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

All Souls

Beloved, I would grasp you like your weight
In water, or as many grains of sand,
But you would let me go;
For my own liquid fingers, as of late,
Have slipped like Time around your fleeting hand
And yielded to its flow.

So fall then like these precious autumn leaves
And dance around in winds I cannot chase—
For we’re not solids yet.
Yea, fall like tears along the heart that grieves,
For even tears will not maintain their place
But always leave it wet.

Ephemeral, we have found that Love alone,
Whose fixity we’d seek to imitate,
Is solid—like a soul—
Extending farther than the winds have blown
To gather grains that crumbled through Time’s grate
Into her greater bowl.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Call to Die

In fact, every command of Jesus is a call to die...
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer
On Sunday I concluded fall break by saying goodbye to six members of my immediate family who will get on a plane tomorrow for four years of service in east Asia. I will miss them tremendously.

Calling is never divorced from loss: Abraham gives up his country and his people (and even the child of the Promise himself!), Israel gives up their firstborn sons and the firstfruits of the flock and field, the prophets and disciples give up father and mother and brothers and sisters. Never is there a suggestion that these sacrifices were easy for those who made them, and never does it seem suggested that they will be for us.

It is part of a greater story of redemption, I know, part of a story wherein God redeems the world from the inside using the resurrection he has already begun in us as his Church. It is part of the story of my own resurrection, I know, part of uniting my soul to Christ who likewise gave up everything so that I can likewise share his resurrection.

But this week is not that part of the story. This week is the part wherein my brother and sister-in-law and three nephews and sister give up everything, and where I and my mother and father and brother give them up. This is the time of loss, and it would feel wrong to pretend otherwise, a disservice to the intense love we have for one another.

Christ said "Take my yoke upon me and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." I know it is true. But he said it to people who would die martyrs' deaths, who would give up their families to similar deaths, and it doesn't seem to me that the yoke is "easy" the way we understand the term. Now, at any rate, is the time to die, to unite ourselves with Christ who died before us and paved the way to resurrection. One day, I'll be able to tell ya what it looks like on the other side.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The space between our houses

It took a while to get to know my neighbors next door on the west side of the house. Eventually I managed to find one them outside long enough for me to say “hi,” but it wasn’t until the second such meeting that I managed to pull out a conversation with the fellow. We chatted about a number of things: how long he had been in town, how much he hated the neighborhood, and our respective occupations.

“And what does Veronica do?” I asked, referring to his fiancée who evidently owned the house but whom I had yet to meet.

“She’s a nurse,” he answered.

“Oh, over at the hospital down the road?”

“No,” he hesitated with a bit of a controlled pleasantness, “at the abortion clinic.”

I don’t remember how I responded; I probably managed to act naturally enough, straining to think of what I would have said if she said any other profession. In reality, I realized that, while I’ve managed to render my brain tied into too many knots to be useful regarding every other political issue, abortion was still one that did not have any ambiguity. And though I’ve counted plenty of pro-choice people among my friends and acquaintances over the years, I had never met one who actually performed the abortions we disagreed about.

I suppose they have to live somewhere, I found myself musing, as if it would have surprised me less if the entire staff resided in the abortion clinics whose insides I had never even seen.

Over the next few weeks in which I managed to meet Veronica at least once, I wondered what she and I might agree on, where we would be able to find common ground. Could I see her as someone who cared deeply about the plight of the abused or confused woman, someone whom—but for our difference in understanding the other human life at stake—I might be fighting beside rather than against? I did not know. I had no idea what I would say if the conversation came up. I almost hoped I wouldn’t get the chance.

As it turned out, the chance came on a Sunday afternoon, the day after I had attended a Saturday morning mass outside the local abortion clinic (hoping desperately that Veronica wouldn’t be going to work on a Saturday morning, which she indeed did not). I was doing some Sabbath pleasure reading on my front porch, and Veronica came out to put her dogs in the yard. I walked over to her yard, and we talked for quite a while—about why she hated the neighborhood, about her previous marriage, about my research, about the town.

“So are you Catholic?” she abruptly interjected with no lead-in twenty minutes into the conversation. The question was common enough so near a major Catholic institution, but I held my breath before saying yes.

“Yeah, it ended up working out that way,” I said awkwardly, treating the question as if related to the university rather than (as I assumed) the pro-life movement. “I didn’t come here for that reason though; I applied to 10 schools, and most of them were state universities.” By bringing school into it, I managed to change the subject quickly enough.

But as Veronica had introduced the topic without a lead-in, she did not have any trouble returning to it when we were wrapping up our afternoon chat.

“I want to thank you for talking to me, even though you know about what I do,” she said (she had evidently been upset at her fiancé for telling me where she worked, assuming that I would not speak to her as a result). “I didn’t realize when I moved here what a lion’s den I was moving into. Most people when they find out where I work don’t talk to me anymore.”

And after spending weeks wondering what I would say if the topic came up, I suddenly found my response came quite naturally, especially in a conversation in which I had squirmed a bit to admit my faith.

“Oh, I can imagine how hard it is,” I empathized. “Sometimes being a Christian in academia feels like that: it’s not anything I’m ashamed of, but I normally worry that if it’s the first thing people learn about me it could cut off some friendships before they start.”

“Huh,” she pondered, looking out into the yard thoughtfully, “I can see that...”

I didn’t have to strain to find common ground after all; as it turned out, we were two women with undisguisable allegiances that put us at odds with opposite halves of society. In that common ground of the no-man’s-land between the two entrenched armies, we both knew that we were on opposites sides, that we both believed our respective side was right, and that neither of us wanted to shoot each other. That afternoon in the space between our houses, our fear of alienation had united us.

Monday, October 11, 2010

My dear angry Lord

Posts are going to stay rather sparse this semester, I am afraid, while my class load is higher than it ever will be again (I hope!). But as I begin a project that compares John Milton's Paradise Lost to the book of Job, I am pondering the theme of wrestling with God that seems rather central in the story of the nation of Israel (so named because Jacob had "wrestled with God and won," whatever that means), and then by extension of the Church. I don't know what to do with the strange ending of the book of Job (and I feel pretty certain that Milton did not either), but it does seem clear to me that Job's faithfulness and his wrestling went hand-in-hand, even if his questions were not answered with words but with God's power. And in the light of these questions, a poem of good ol' George Herbert has been coming to mind:

Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Slow Work of God

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
something new.
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
—that is to say, grace—
and circumstances
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser.

-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

(bonus points for any of my readers with enough time on his/her hands to hunt down the original French)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hidden Valley

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being an explorer. In fact, I remember the day when I sadly realized, like the scene in The Truman Show, that everywhere had already been discovered, and there would be no secret continents hiding in a corner of the ocean. Instead of continents, my explorations would have to remain where they had always been: the 80-acre forest that surrounded my childhood home, owned by the old widow Mrs. Obadiah who refused all offers to sell family land.

Though there were lovely glens where the river (read: creek) would cascade (read: trickle) over boulders that were family favorites for woodland adventures, I preferred to find my own havens, precisely because they would be my own. I found a place where the honeysuckle vine hung as a thick blanket over overhanging branches to create a sweet-smelling hollow. I found an old trail left by loggers that made me feel like a character from The Lord of the Rings on my way through Mirkwood Forest. I found an old stump that kept more bark than tree and shaped itself like a throne, and I imagined it the throne where God would sit during his similar strolls through Mrs. Obadiah’s forest. And my crowning discovery was when I found the stumps that stood at the top of a cleared hill in the middle of the forest, giving me the sensation of standing on a mountaintop. I named it Hidden Valley.

The first time I stumbled on my private mountaintop was exhilarating enough to keep me coming back with a strangely sacramental assurance that God was really present at Hidden Valley in a more tangible way than he was on my walk there, and it became a favorite pastime for me to tote a lunch there, sharing a meal with the God I knew would join me for the simple reason that he had once before. The very contours of the ground declared the glory of God, and the sloping valley (such as it was) proclaimed the work of his hands.

Soon after my discovery of Hidden Valley, I dragged my childhood best friend out to see it on an afternoon when she was unfortunately tired, hungry, and about to go home. She didn't want to cross the long field to get there (a prairie in size, as I recall), but I described the view vividly enough to convince her to come.

"There," I said when we arrived. "Stand on this stump to get the best view."

"This is it?" she asked incredulously, her tone betraying her utter disappointment, as if I had promised wealth and delivered a penny.

"Uh..." I hesitated, noticing that my mountain seemed to shrink before her gaze, and feeling suddenly quite foolish. "Maybe not. I must forget how to get there. We can go back home." I had suddenly developed a desire to be anywhere other than Hidden Valley whose magic had become temporarily invisible, even to me, knowing that I did not possess the power to make the magic return.

"Well, we already came all the way out here," she conceded with needless graciousness. "We can look around for it if you think you can find it again."

"No," I struggled in a brief panic, forced to lose face by admitting this was the place I had described so superlatively. "This is actually it, but it looks different now. I think some trees must have fallen and blocked the view." (It probably commends me that I was such a bad liar. It evidently didn't occur to me that we would have to see fallen trees for them to be obscuring our view, not to mention that trees are more obtrusive when standing up.)

At any rate, I never took anyone else out there, and the sacramental magic of the place from that time on remained more in the memory of what it had once looked like than in my future views. It was as if God had once removed a veil to reveal the splendor of his creation that he wondrously created and even more wondrously restored, and I knew the secret afterwards even if the veil had returned.

According to GoogleEarth, there is a subdivision now in the places of my childhood explorations. I suppose that must mean Mrs. Obadiah is dead, and that I might have been the last person to experience that hill as a place of wonder where God's glory may choose to dwell for an afternoon. I like to hope at least that some family's driveway is paved over it so that some kid can get the raw exhilaration of riding down it on his bike and thereby experience a bit of the wonder I felt, if that is not a profane use of what is surely sacred ground. And two decades and 700 miles removed from my afternoons at Hidden Valley, I pray that God may lift the corners of the veil again from time to time, and that my desire to save face never allows even a friend to put it back. In the mean time, I will keep looking for him in the meadows he has strolled with me before.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Diverting Apologetics, II

I was invited again to write an article for the theological blog of a few friends of mine, this time touching on the understanding of sainthood from a Catholic perspective. Feel free to give it some feedback, whether or not you are sympathetic. Any qualms would be helpful for me to ponder because a) I am hoping to write a follow-up article about Marian theology in a few months and I want to make sure these bases are covered first, and b) I have been invited to help with a project in the relic chapel of the local basilica and multiple perspectives would be helpful for my own ponderings. I promise to listen!

Friday, September 17, 2010

While Waiting

There was a photo on the cover of the April, 2004 edition of Touchstone Magazine that depicted a girl looking wistfully toward the clouds with a pained expression on her face. Below her in the background you can make out the outer edge of the architecture of Mont Saint-Michel in northern France, and above her hangs the heading “While Waiting for Heaven.”

The girl was my little sister, who, as I recall from when I snapped the photo, was not waiting for heaven but for lunch.

When my family moved to Paris, my sister was ten years old, an age almost ideally selected to be as traumatic and disorienting as possible (admittedly not quite as ideal as when they moved back when she was thirteen). I remember the day she and my mom arrived in the city and the three other family members who had preceded them by a month showed them around the city. There was a rude juxtaposition of one of the world’s most popular tourist cities and my tortured sister whose life had just been shattered.

“Our apartment is down that street about a kilometer-and-a-half,” I pointed from the top of L’Arc de Triomphe with tourists all around. “That’s a little more than a mile, so it’d be about the same distance as the walk from our old house to Food Lion…” I realized too late my error of bringing up the home she had just been torn away less than a day earlier, and I gave her the privacy of pretending not to notice her tears.

It was a mocking irony: the girl’s agony set against the glow of Europe. Paris is a genuinely lovely city, but there was no conceivable way she could have enjoyed it that day.

In order to compound the irony, her health was a little spotty over her three years in Europe, and she always seemed to get sick whenever my family took mini vacations in the surrounding area: Belgium, Rome, the Italian Alps, Greece, Egypt, Prague. She was in a place of wonder whether she could enjoy them or not, but it is hard for anyone to appreciate an alpine ski resort or a Grecian cruise ship while throwing up.

And I wonder if I am there with her, lying on a hotel bed in Cairo with a stomach bug or dragging myself through the streets of Venice with a migraine. It is undoubtedly a world saturated with the miraculous: whether in the Sacraments of the Church or the sacramentals erupting from a world brimming with life that enters the world “trailing clouds of glory” (as Wordsworth says) and still bears hope of glory’s fulfillment, God is oozing from his creation.

Like my sister, I am incapable of appreciating the wonders that are nevertheless present around me, that I trip over just as certainly whether or not I appreciate their presence. I think part of the purpose of various disciplines in the Church, regular prayers and sacraments and fasts and celebrations whether you can engage or not, is a matter of conditioning our souls to appreciate those very mysteries. I pray that as I approach something closer to health, heath of body and heath of soul, I’ll be able to enjoy these mundane wonders a little more. I’m waiting for it, at any rate.

Monday, September 13, 2010

They shall not enter into my rest, II

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
Psalm 127:2
Thursday evening I celebrated the end of an exhausting week (in which I learned that keeping up with five courses that utilize three dead languages, one of which I haven’t learned yet, might have been a bit ambitious for my first semester) by having a dear friend over for dinner. Toward the end of her visit we found ourselves in a conversation about contemplative prayer, a spiritual discipline my soul has been quite slow to learn.

Ever since I was first introduced to the Divine Office, I have become increasingly aware both of the value of contemplative prayer and of my great deficiency in it. Prayer was always something I did, whether that was journaling (by far the most natural form for me) or talking casually on the way to class or venting in a fit of angst or fasting from food or sleep or any other bodily need I could think of (asceticism was also quite natural for me). I have never learned prayer that was not an intellectual exercise or a willful discipline, prayer that was found outside myself rather than inside, prayer that involved uniting myself to something and someone else rather than exploring my own mind.

But that night in a strange intersection of my academic weariness (I had turned in two papers and took a Latin quiz that day) and my soul’s deficiency in finding communion with her maker, I realized something as if it were a novel concept:

I was tired.

I was always tired. I had lived on sleep deprivation since I discovered books as a young girl, and exhaustion became a matter of principle by college. Dualism, the heresy that separates spiritual matters from physical matter as if they are distinguishable, had been so pervasive in my thinking that rest still feels overly indulgent. But if dualism really is a heresy after all, then it may be that a neglect of my body is not only damaging to my body; it may be damaging to my soul.

At any rate, on a sudden impulse soon after my friend left, I went to bed hours before it was absolutely necessary, and I let myself sleep an hour past my alarm.

When I awoke my soul was refreshed, as if it had just spent eight hours communing with God. I began to wonder if my tired body was connected to my restless soul. I began to wonder what it would be like to wake from eight hours of sleep more often.
...for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The porch next door

I’m sure any faithful readers out there thought that either I or my blog had given up the ghost. Not so: the latter simply went into hibernation while the former went into the hyperdrive of moving across the country, settling into her first home, and fighting through the first two weeks of a PhD program. The former now hesitantly yawns awake...

Alas! The onion you are eating is someone else’s water lily.
-Presumably a Chinese proverb, taken from a fortune cookie
I fell in love with my neighborhood the first time I drove through it in late February on my way to the university recruitment day. I loved the colorful century-old houses, each its own unique design. I loved the front porch culture that reminded me of my beloved South I would be leaving behind. I loved the eclectic assortment of neighbors, from grad students to pastors to Wal-Mart employees to social workers to those whose cases they worked on. There was no doubt in my mind: if I were to accept the offer to the university, this would be the neighborhood for me.

My suspicions were confirmed three weeks ago when I finally moved into my cozy little house. My mother, sister, and I pulled in a little after sundown and prepared to move the mattresses and suitcases inside to hunker down for the night. Before I could get working, I was heralded with a “Hello, neighbor!” from the porch next door.

It was apparent right away that I would not have to work to get to know my neighbors, especially these ones whose porch was constantly occupied with a steady stream of friends and family members shouting similar greetings over the sound of their music. They keep my block a bit noisy, but they also keep it warm.

But this weekend when I had my first chance to try out my guestroom on two friends who drove up to attend the first football game of the season, I was struck by the difference in their reaction to my neighborhood.

“I was kind of worried when I drove up and saw all those people outside,” one of them said with concern. “Are they always out there?” Apparently what had been a selling-point for me was a worrisome deterrent for him.

Avoiding the temptation to make any racial or socioeconomic speculations about the reason for his doubts about my neighbors (as if I wouldn’t be caught doing the same in different circumstances, or as if initial concern is never valid), I will end with the mere observation that there was a difference. The neighborhood that had impressed me with its warmth and personality repelled him with its noise and activity (some of it, admittedly, being dubious actively).

It seems to me that the Christian story makes room for both responses, for the glorious and the terrifying sides of human potential, for my neighbors to gladden my soul for my six years in this house or to rob me out of house and home. But we are, even at our most terrifying, a twisted form of glorious, saturated with beauty and oozing with hope to return. I pray for the grace to see my neighbors through those eyes.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Surprised by unrefinement

“I can’t remember his name,” my 90-year-old grandmother grumbled at some point in our conversation. “I tell you, when you get to be my age, your brain just starts slipping away.”

The woman is of course the sharpest 90-year-old I know, so I didn’t take her momentary memory lapse very seriously. “Well Gramma,” I absolved her stupidly, “at your age, you’ve earned the right to forget a few things.”

The 4-foot-10, one-armed Polish woman looked at me with her silent eyes where the struggles of the Great Depression and World War II were long buried, and she raised an eyebrow that indicated her wit had spotted a opening. “Well,” she retorted gruffly, “I wish I coulda earned something I’d enjoy having a little more.”

No Gramma, I wanted to counter, your brain is clearly intact.

But she was right: we don’t always earn a particularly enjoyable trophy for all the hardships we endure to arrive at the other side. I always want to punch the people who say “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (except that it would probably make them stronger). Sometimes whatever doesn’t kill you makes you crippled or makes you bitter. I always hope to come out of adversity with confidence; instead I tend to come out of it with a limp. Yes, Gramma, I wish I coulda earned something I’d enjoy having a little more too.

Here on this process of sanctification, we don’t always get to choose our curriculum, and we certainly don’t get to choose our lessons (after all, they wouldn’t be lessons then, would they?). I would rather have the curriculum that involves turning me into someone a bit more stable; instead I get the one that turns me into a twitchy dog. I often want to question God’s pedagogy.

And when we limp our way to the finish line on aching joints and reach for the railing with our shriveled hands, surprised by our own unrefinement, I hope we will learn whatever it is that takes us 90 or more years to realize. Reaching sainthood is not about becoming superheroes. I rather wonder what it is instead.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Kids these days

In on one of my last weekends before setting out for my PhD, my siblings and I found ourselves visiting the city where my little brother was finishing an internship. It was our last "sibling weekend" before we scatter: my older brother and his family-of-five to east Asia as missionaries, my little sister to nanny their boys for a year before she begins her freshman year of college, my little brother to his first job after he finishes business school, and me to my new home in the Midwest after the dust has settled from my academic adventures in Ireland and Italy.

On Saturday night we baked some cookies, which drew a crowd of young, undergraduate business interns, most of them loud and self-absorbed enough to make me think kids-these-days thoughts as if I were five decades their senior rather than five years. One young woman who tended to dominate the conversation and take it to places no one over the age of 22 could follow asked us if we had seen Arrested Development. We all answered in the negative.

"Ohmygod!" she gasped. "You have never lived!"

By "lived," I suppose, she meant "lived vicariously through those particular characters."

I was too flustered to respond.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Feast of the Transfiguration

The Pentateuch ends rather anticlimactically. As a cohesive narrative, the five books of the law could be read as the life of Moses rather than the history of Israel: after Genesis sets the background for the nation and how they got into Egypt, Exodus begins with the birth of Moses and Deuteronomy ends with his death.

Moses reluctantly accepts his calling to lead the people out of slavery, brings them out of Egypt with many wonders, enters the cloud of smoke on Sinai to receive the books of the law, leads the people to the Promised Land only to have them rebel, intercedes for them when God wants to wipe them out, and wanders through the wilderness with them for forty years. Then in Deuteronomy he delivers his farewell speech as they prepare to enter, walks Mt Nebo to look on the land, dies there, and is buried by the Lord in an unknown grave.

Though we know that the people do enter the land in the book of Joshua, as far as Moses is concerned (and as far as the Pentateuch is concerned), it ends there. The great work is left unfinished, unaccomplished, and the people are never at rest—not after Joshua conquers the land, not under the judges, certainly not under Saul, not even under David himself. The land is never at peace, though prophets continue to call out:
Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, “They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.”
As I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.” (Psalm 95)
Today, however, is the Feast of the Transfiguration. Christ takes his disciples up a mountain like the one on which Moses died with his work unaccomplished, on which Elijah hid ingloriously as he was hunted like a criminal after his victory over the prophets of Baal. Mountains are a place where God appears to prophets, but they are also a place of refuge in defeat.

And there on that mountain in the presence of Christ, Moses enters the Promised Land. The long awaited time of rest has come in the arrival of the Messiah who would proclaim from the height of his apparent defeat, “It is finished,” before he himself rested in the tomb on the Sabbath day. Christ reveals today what remained unfinished after 40 years in the wilderness, the elusive kingdom that brings rest for the people of God.
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:8-10
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Abide with me

Continuing on the theme of comfort in the midst of transitions, departures, and death, this hymn struck me today:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word;
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

-Hen­ry F. Lyte, 1847

Monday, July 26, 2010

Death is not our home

As I mentioned once when a friend was shot, I have a tendency to respond to death by railing against it, which ought to strike me a bit like railing against the ocean for lapping up on the shore. “Death is natural,” people would reason with me. “Death is just a part of life.” “This world is not our home.” “Our citizenship is in heaven.” “He has gone on to a better place.” (Etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.)

I was never sure what exactly I was protesting. On the surface, after all, these adages were true, and I certainly had no argument against them other than the fact that my spirit kept rejecting them like a failed organ transplant. If death was indeed as natural as it seems to be, why would it shock us as it does? If this world was not our home, why would we have to keep reminding ourselves of the fact?

It didn’t help that Scripture is not half as clear on the topic as we make it out to be. It was downright frightening to imagine all the unsatisfying sorts of resolutions that could fit within the vague descriptions of the afterlife that were given to us by a God who never seems to spell the future out as clearly as we expect him to.

If this were a theological blog, that would have been a great set-up to introduce N. T. Wright, whose eschatology (theology of the end times) regarding the New Creation and the Resurrection (of us) I found to be quite healing after my years of railing. (He infamously says that “Heaven is not our home; we’re just passing through”—as we wait for our coming bodily resurrection in the transformed earth.) For now at least, I am friends with too many Biblical scholars to feel comfortable presenting Wright’s eschatology. Let’s just say that I have found great hope in the belief that just as the material creation fell (not only our souls) and just as Christ’s material body was raised from the dead (not only his soul), we are awaiting the restoration of the material creation (not only the spiritual), the resurrection of our material bodies (not only... well, you get the idea).

On the contrary, this is still my listening-blog, and yesterday as I sat through a funeral hearing my rector encourage the grieving family with the emphatic hope that the dead man had gone on to his true home where we would eventually spend eternity with him as well, I forbade myself from questioning his eschatology. Instead, I remembered my sister-in-law’s grandmother who died this past spring. When her son talked to her a bit about the possibility of a bodily resurrection, the dying Appalachian woman simply brushed him off by interjecting, “I don’t know what will happen, but as long as Jesus is in charge I know it will be good.” After a long life of walking beside Jesus, she had confidence in his goodness, and it was enough to face the unknowns on the other side of death.

I may not ever be graced with the simplicity of faith that Appalachian woman had, the faith that could find comfort in adages about heaven or that would not care either way. I’m grateful at least that in the Church my overly-intellectual faith can learn from her simplicity, that her confidence in the person of Christ can shed hope on my endless queries. As I learned from my unsettled spirit, a robust eschatology is important; as I learned from that grandmother, intimacy with Christ is more important.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dwarven Hermeneutics

In the past two months, I joined the Catholic Church, moved out of my cottage, submitted my first potential article for publication, spent a month in Ireland, bought a house in the Midwest, and enjoyed a week at the beach with my family. My brain has not been able to function more than one or two steps ahead.

Suddenly, as the dust of the past two months settles, the next step is my move across the country to start my PhD at a school I never expected to get into, and I am realizing something for the first time: I am afraid. Though my transition into academia surprised neither my friends nor my family, it still does surprise me, and I have a keen awareness that I have no idea what I am getting myself into or where it will take me.

I am quite a little girl with a finite brain stepping out into a world of intellectual giants. I feel like Bilbo Baggins, stumbling out the door with no hat, no stick, no pipe, not even a pocket handkerchief. But here's to the unplanned adventure, and here's to hoping for some Longbottom pipe weed along the way!
There were days when giants roamed the earth
With minds of iron, hearts of witty fire,
And we have tread their steps, for what that's worth,
Like bumbling dwarves aspiring to admire.
But in the caverns of these footprints, we
Have chiseled half with hubris, half with awe,
And nestled in sophomoric flattery,
Pontifications on the dirt we claw.
And I have trembled half with terror, half
With love, and stumbled on my hobbit toes,
Afraid to find a troll along the path,
Discovering as he nears he also grows.
Be gentle, giant, if ambition's charming
From a midget seeking her disarming.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Southern Welcome

After a day of recovering from jet-lag, I drove from my parents’ house in the country to the nearby city to run a few errands (finding that I was never quite sure which side of the road to drive on after five months in Ireland). The South gave me a (literally!) warm hello.

I began my stroll congratulating myself for losing the limp I had maintained for the past four weeks after an ill-fated leap from the ruins of a castle. “Hey,” shouted a construction worker from the roof of a house, “you got a bit of a limp there! Is it a ball injury?” Oh well.

Lest I suspect the alleged limp was only momentary, an hour later another stranger stopped me with genuine concern in his voice. “Are you okay?” he asked. “You’re limping there! Do you need help?”

One of my last errands involved some repair work for my car. I dropped car off and waited in the waiting room for my mom to pick me up. The summer heat was bordering on oppressive outside (or so I thought... those who had been around all summer commented later that the day was rather mild), and we in the waiting room were thankful for the AC.

“Do you want a coke or water or anything?” the man behind the counter asked the three of us as we waited. (“Coke,” incidentally, refers to any carbonated drink, called “soda” or “pop” or “soft drink” in other American cultures.) We all turned him down. Five minutes later another employee asked us the same thing. Again we turned him down. When the third employee offered a beverage, I finally accepted a water to keep them from offering. It didn’t work; I was asked a fourth time.

On our way home, we stopped at a rural produce stand. The owner greeted us warmly and kept chatting us up while we browsed, throwing a couple extra items in for free when we checked out. “Come by anytime,” he told us as we left. “If I’m not here, just take what you want and leave some money in the can.”

As I returned to my parents' house, I knew that the South had welcomed me home, that Southern hospitality was still fit to rival the Irish hospitality I had been enjoying for the past month. In this case, all the hospitality offered came from strangers, all people who had never seen me before and would likely never see me again. Southerners are not hospitable out of self-interest, out of a calculated investment with a hope of return. They are not even hospitable in an enlightened attempt to make the world a better place, to do their part to benefit the common lot of humanity. From what I have been able to tell from the past 22 years, Southerners are overtly hospitable simply because that is the decent way to be.

Oh my beloved South, how I shall miss thee!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Delightful misery

“Why Padraic, how are you now?” the cheerful Irishman asked as we navigated the isles at Tesco on our work-day at the priory.

“Terrible, terrible,” the priest answered brightly as if he had won the lottery, “but nobody cares now, do they? And how are you?”

“Truthfully about the same, but isn’t that always the case?” came the chipper, polite answer. “But you can’t complain about the weather we have today at any rate. What are you here for?”

“This young lady and myself are getting an apartment ready for some visitors tomorrow,” Fr. Padraic began, and the conversation never returned to their mutual miseries.

The Irish are without a doubt the most delightfully miserable people I have ever met. Their suffering is quite real and never forgotten, but that is somehow not enough to ruin an otherwise lovely day (or even to worsen a rainy one).

As I commented last year, the Irish wear suffering like a well-worn t-shirt. It is unmistakably present, but has become so well-worn over time that it could almost be considered comfortable. After all, there is always tea to greet the morning and beer to greet the night, and perhaps even a few cigarettes to get you from one to the other.

Of course, I don’t mean to minimize their pain and oppression over the centuries, to brush it aside and gloss over the raw evil of it. But they sort of do that for me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

This is the will of God...

'Tis the season of transitions: graduations, moves, new jobs, new programs, new unknowns. In this season, I am always struck when people declare "God's will" for their (or my) future. Here are a few that have struck me and given me pause this week.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
-I Thessalonians 5:16-18

Yes, it is his will that we see and enjoy everything in love. And it is in our ignorance of this that we are most blind. Some of us believe that God is almighty, and may do everything; and that he is all wise, and can do everything; but that he is all love, and will do everything—there we draw back. And as I see it, this ignorance is the greatest of all hindrances to God's lovers.
-Julian of Norwich.

May you filled with the immense joy of the Lord. May it lighten your steps every day of your life. May you forever be aware that the peace of the Risen Christ surrounds, protects and guides you and that God's will for yourself and all people is quite simple: to be happy, always happy in the Lord.
-Fr. Padraic

Sunday, July 11, 2010

But all shall be well

One day my soul may be wide enough to take in the mystics. In the mean time, I have nevertheless managed to find encouragement in Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love, and the intimacy described therein provides balance for my all-too-intellectual approach to the Faith. This paragraph struck me yesterday. I don't know if this is the kind of statement that can start a fight ("Are you saying that sin does not exist?" or "Are you saying God does not hold us accountable for sin?"), and I don't mean to tread dangerous ground. But I at least find it healing to remember that my sin is a twistedness rather than a contrary force of evil, and that God looks at my sin with the compassion of a doctor rather than the sternness of a judge.
But I did not see sin. I believe it has no substance or real existence. It can only be known by the pain it causes. This pain is something, as I see it, which lasts but a while. It purges us and makes us know ourselves, so that we ask for mercy. The passion of our Lord is our comfort against all this—for such is his blessed will. Because of his tender love for all those who are to be saved our good Lord comforts us at once and sweetly, as if to say, “It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” These words were said most tenderly, with never a hint of blame either to me or to any of those to be saved. It would be most improper of me therefore to blame or criticize God for my sin, since he does not blame me for it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Misfit Mortality

This poem comes from a more melodramatic stage of my writing, but the subject of death is rather conducive to such a style at any rate. I wrote it five years ago when it looked like my mother had cancer; for some reason, the death of my dog reminds me of these lines, awkward and choppy though they may be.

July 1, 2005
It seems our life is but a struggle we
Will lose with death, for but a moment here,
Like grass on rocky crags that fights with fear
Until the mudslide wins supremacy.
“But death is natural,” they say to me,
Like incantations echoing to sear
It on our disbelief. Nay, it is clear
That breath is; death we taste unnaturally.

With spirits that reject what bodies taste,
We fight what Reason knows we can’t defeat.
“This world is not our home,” they say in haste...
“But still it could be,” adds a homesick breeze,
“For maybe once it was,” his heart agrees,
And proves man is a longing piece of meat.

Groaning together

Rahab was born the summer when I was sixteen, a tiny, blind, black sausage. I was in the room when she arrived. I loved her because she was the smallest of the litter. I loved her because she was the blackest. I loved her because she took a liking to me, and while her wiggly brothers and sisters squealed away, she would nestle in my hands and fall asleep there peacefully. Rahab chose me as much as I chose her.

She was mine, still the only dog I have ever had that was fully my own. I trained her. I slept with her. I took her camping at night and slept soundly in the woods, waking with the alert German Shepherd having hardly moved an inch beside me. I understood her timid, self-conscious personality quirks. I empathized with the way that she carried love and fear together like a hand and glove, with the way she longed for encouragement and shrunk from disfavor.

This evening, less than a week before returning to the US, I received the word that my 11-year-old dog is dead. I don’t know if I’ll ever be old enough to lose an old friend well, but today is not that day at any rate. I will miss my Rahab.

The death of an old dog should come across as an entirely natural event, a regular phenomenon for my strange demographic of humanity that cares for smaller creatures with shorter life-spans. Nevertheless, as my soul utterly rejects the news as if it came from a cheap, tasteless dime-store novel written by an author with no internal consistency or artistry, I can’t help but think that death is wrong, even if it is real.

I wonder if the death of animals is an example of creation groaning with us in the pains of childbirth as we await the fullness of redemption. Perhaps it is. Creation groans, Rahab groans, I groan: Come, Lord Jesus; something has gone terribly wrong out there!
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Nothing covered up

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.
-Luke 12:2-3
We felt like we were in a war-zone right away. On one side of the river we were welcomed into the city with red, white, and blue and a sign that read “Londonderry – West Bank – Loyalists Still Under Siege – No Surrender.” On the other we were greeted by green, white, and orange and a sign that read “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” to introduce a host of disturbing murals commemorating the victims of Bloody Sunday (1972) and the Troubles. The tension was almost palpable.

I had come to Derry to deliver a gift to a Franciscan friar, and had failed to connect the city I was visiting with the news of the previous week: 38 years after the shootings in Derry that had served as an iconic representation of the Troubles, the Saville Report had just been published a week earlier, and the British government officially recognized the killings as atrocities.

The killings had become burned in the Irish memory, a travesty of justice white-washed by the perpetrators which, even if extreme, was certainly an iconic example of what they suffered throughout the centuries. Over lunch on Sunday I was struck by two things: how present the pain still is (an Irish couple described the sheer terror they had experienced whenever they had to drive through the North and stood the risk of being shot if they failed to notice a road blockade), and how much an apology makes a difference nonetheless. Present pain not withstanding, there were seeds of hope and goodwill.

Though there is nothing pragmatic about it, no tangible removal of consequence, confession is nevertheless powerful. When a party can strip its pride and dignity to say “I was absolutely wrong,” can expose hidden (in this case, quite ineffectively) wrongs to the light, can do so even when they are decades old and even if the admission is not forced, there is a place for healing. Some wrongs cannot be “made right”; they can only be admitted to be wrong. And no wrongs are private wrongs; all are public, and can only be healed publicly.

This past weekend, I was given hope for that healing in Northern Ireland, and it was beautiful indeed.

* * *

A few recommended articles:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The path to sainthood

Today is the feast day of (among other people) St. Thomas More, the patron saint of my master’s thesis. I’m not thinking much about martyrdom today, nor, despite the fact that Ireland always reminds me of the tragedy of Church division, about unity. Instead, remembering his prayer scroll that he read from the Tower of London as he awaited execution, I am thinking about the ultimate vocation of the Christian: Love.

Those who are the most holy, from what I can tell, do not get there by trying to be holy. They most certainly do not get there by hammering out whatever imperfections linger with them, nor by striving to be better people. The holiest people I’ve met, at any rate, radiate not perfection but love. Love for God and for ones brother does, after all, sum up the law and the prophets, and we are able to love only because he has first loved us, as John reminds us in his first epistle. The path to sainthood, as it turns out, is a path of receiving the love of God.

I don’t have a clear idea of why that seems to come easier to some folks than to others, how I (for example) could have tried to follow Christ for decades without a sense that he loved me. I don’t know how much love (and then sainthood by extension) is a gift we receive passively or actively (the middle voice, as a friend once speculated). But I do know that a call to holiness, a call to sainthood, is a call to receive God’s lavish Grace.

On that note, on the feast of the good St. Thomas More, I will end with the poem the saint read 475 years ago today as he watched John Fisher marched to the scaffold where he would follow two weeks later. We are called like More not as much to martyrdom as to love; in the light of love, martyrdom almost becomes incidental.
Rede distinctely
pray deuoutly
syghe depely
suffer pacyently
meke youe lowly
giue no sentenc hastely
speke but rathe and that truly
preuent youre spech discretely
do all your dedes in charytye
temtacyon resyst strongly
breke his heade shortly
wepe bytterly
haue compassion tenderly
do good workes busyly
loue perseuerently
loue hertely
loue faythfully
loue god all only
and all other for hym charitably
loue in aduersytye
loue in prosperyty
thinke alway of loue for loue ys non other but god hymselfe. Thus to loue bringeth the louer to loue without ende.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

And there was a great calm...

There're Graces strewn like wildflowers that turn
Their gatherer into a child, and all
The grubby roadside violets, she will learn,
Have clutched the very hands that let them fall.
And Grace has wrapped around like ocean foam
That's deeper, fuller, older than Despair, and in
That vastness even sorrow finds a home
In depths extending deeper than the sin.
Be still, my soul, for Home is larger than
Your restlessness. Be still, for Peace is deeper
Than your tears. The runner and the sleeper
Never leave the place where they began;
For we the restless wander to the stars,
Surprised to find our roots extend that far.