Wednesday, April 28, 2010

As a hen gathers her brood

Grading high school English papers gives me a new appreciation for the passage in Isaiah where the prophet exclaims, “Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you...” Come on kid, I find myself groaning, just put down anything! I’d give you a decent grade for a wrong answer; I can’t give you anything for a blank!

It makes me understand how my thrown-together papers in high school did so well. I never dreamed that half of the kids might not write papers at all. I feel like Desdemona talking with her servant Emilia after the former has been falsely accused of infidelity in Shakespeare's Othello:
DESDEMONA I have heard it said so. O, these men, these men!
Dost thou in conscience think,--tell me, Emilia,--
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind?
EMILIA There be some such, no question.
DESDEMONA Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?
EMILIA Why, would not you?
DESDEMONA No, by this heavenly light!
EMILIA Nor I neither by this heavenly light;
I might do't as well i' the dark.
DESDEMONA Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?
EMILIA The world's a huge thing: it is a great price.
For a small vice.
Dost thou in conscience think that there be kids do abuse their teachers in such gross kind? Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?

Indeed, many a highschooler would do (or not do) such a deed, and not for all the world but for nothing. O student, student, the highschoolers that kill the teachers and stone the graders who are sent to them! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Buried there like mushrooms

Once upon a time while I was beginning graduate school, I started an epic. It was roughly around the same time that I started this blog and was written toward the same end: to teach me to listen to the voice of Grace after years of allowing different voices to narrate my life. It was an entirely unpublishable combination of Christianity, pop psychology, and the epic tradition with absolutely no audience but the author, but I had fun with it.

I only got about 400 lines into it before grad school ran away with my brain, and no doubt by the time it is returned I will have other ambitious projects to accomplish, and it will forever remain just a prologue (which I included in a post once before) and 1.1 cantos.

But toward the beginning of that first canto I included my three earliest memories, which all involve my mother: trying (unsuccessfully) to eat dog food discretely without her noticing, coloring on the wall in an altruistic attempt to fill in a place where a painted mural had chipped and being spanked for it, and going through paper after paper in a vain attempt to draw a smile until she discovered me and my pile of frowny-faces and taught me to follow the curve of the chin.

It is an interesting conglomeration of memories: a young woman and her toddler winding their way through mischief, misunderstanding, and love. My mother was the eighth child of Polish and Czechoslovakian immigrants who had learned English from scratch and taught it to their nine children, and she took on the adventure of learning a life of Faith from scratch while teaching it to her four children. This past weekend as that young woman turned 53 and her toddler is roughly the age the mother was in the dawn of my memories, I find myself grateful for that young woman and her quest to nurture four children’s faith from conception to adulthood, and grateful to Love who consumed them all along the way.

This one’s for you, Mom. I love you.

From Grace Regained, Canto 1, lines 33-112

...So Fascination was her founding friend
And wed itself to every future trend.
Ambition grew as Wonder’s alibi
Beyond the corner of her mother’s eye
Where dog-food was a myst’ry unexplored,
And Cheerios were bland until they poured
Across the kitchen, where cherubic hands
Would gather them like well-shot rubber bands
Where they were strewn, before the muraled wall
On which a lake, electric blue, would call,
“Invade the drywall paint, and touch the pine
Trees’ vibrant green, and promenade the line
Of cartoon mountain ridges—beauty’s found
Within adventure.” But one day a round,
Endented hole transgressed her singing lake
With drywall white unsuited for its make,
Exposing vuln’rability of yea
The greatest craftsmanship, whose plight one day
Inspired a stroke of brilliance in her brain,
Unsettled by the awkward, whited stain—
For had she not a marker of that hue
That may disguise disruption of the blue?
But with dismay she found her instrument
Was insufficient to disguise the dent,
Though it was made more subtle now (she prayed)
Due to the scope of her Crayola aid.
And halfway satisfied she walked away
Partaking in diversions of the day
Until a castigating voice compelled
Her back under reproach, where she beheld
Her craftsmanship with helpless shame, the scorn
Of her she longed to please. Her heart more torn
To be considered bad than by the blows
Received, she fled for refuge where her toes
Could feel the grass, and there she saw her dad,
Yet unaware of the office she had
Committed. How she longed to meet his smile
A worthy daughter, to conceal a while
Her careless shame! So sing, O Muse, across
The mem’ry fields oppressed by concrete dross.
Proclaim thine all-sufficiency of care
To favor-craving frail ones, failing where
They long to please; proclaim forgiveness to
The child her mother, built with stronger glue,
Who read herself into her daughter’s eyes
That bore resemblance, and assumed her cries
Were from a fiery will. Forgive the two
Who hurt themselves; they know not what they do.

For thine inclusive eyes had seen the days
The child devoured paper in the maze
Of art, unable to compose a simple smile
Until her mother came and saw the pile
Of sad, discarded frowns of she who threw
Out too much paper, but whose mother knew
The mystery of teaching hands to see
And eyes to draw and will to bend its knee
Enough to parallel the present curve
She had emblazoned there with gallish nerve.
Thou saw’st the unencumbered, raw delight
The girl extracted in her mother’s sight
Because her casual discovery
Upon the deck of broom and energy
To save her mother of the chore bore fruits
Of giddy joy of bringing joy that suits
A munchkin dressed in Love. For Love it was
That strapped the kids on bikes the way it does
The fam’ly to each other, Love that blew
Upon them like Chicago wind; and through
The dampened corners of the forest, Love
Was buried there like mushrooms, treasures of
The eyes that stopped to look, of fingers who
Could bear a little dirt to probe into
The mossy corners and to gather gems
Of fungus into wicker baskets, stems
And all; Love the second language which
Her parents’ nimble fingers learned to stitch
Together fluently enough to speak
It in the home, just as the strongly meek
Bohem’an immigrants with English one
Short generation earlier had done.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Diverting Apologetics

As promised, I wrote an article for a friend's blog on "Why I am joining the Catholic Church," which provides me the chance to send this link your way without turning my blog into a place for apologetics. The article deals with some basic principles that the more controversial issues are founded on, and I'll deal with the latter category later. It's an ecumenical enough article to allow my friend to write a "Why she is right but I am still Protestant" article for next week, so hopefully it won't be enormously offensive to folks in other camps. He is also inviting me to be a regular contributor to that blog, so if you enjoy the discussion you can keep going back there for more. In the mean time, Merry's Cloister will continue to be reserved for things I hear rather than things I assert.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sacrament of summer days

Sacramental theology, the belief that the spiritual realm and the physical realm are in fact the same realm, completely inseperable, came quite naturally to me even though I didn't come from a sacramental background. I did not need the theology behind it to know that God himself is revealed in the eruption of the color green each spring, in the grandeur of the Southern pines that towered over my little head, in the wooded groves and creeks of my childhood stomping grounds. In those sweaty summer days, God was as present as the dirt under my fingernails; I may have been tempted to think he was present in the dirt under my fingernails.

Today after sleeping off some jet-lag after the long journey home that ended last night, I walked out the door of my parents' house in the country and was halted by what I saw: the explosion of the color green. Having been in Italy for two-and-a-half weeks, I had missed the unfolding of my last spring in the South, and instead was shocked by the vibrant brightness all at once upon my return. Though I'm normally not a fan of Emily Dickinson (is that as bad as not being a fan of Jane Austin?), it brought her fitting words to mind.
These are the days when Birds come back —
A very few — a Bird or two —
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies resume
The old — old sophistries of June —
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee —
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear —
And softly thro' the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze —
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake —
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

-Emily Dickinson

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Lady in Red

After making our way through the metal detectors and other layers of security and finding our seats near the processional wall, the seminarian and I were looking through the mass booklet that talked about John Paul II, for whom this mass was being offered. It was my first evening in Rome.

“Oh my...” my friend suddenly gasped. “Is that her?!”

I looked up to see a large man in a suit forcing his way to a woman in a bright red jacket two seats down from us in the row ahead. She, like many others with seats against the processional wall, was already standing and leaning against it in preparation for the Pope’s entry.

“Who?” I asked as the man, obviously a security guard, began whispering to her.

“The crazy lady who attacks the Pope!” he answered, seeming to find it difficult to stand still. Benedict XVI, despite the controversy in the Church (one of the scholars at the conference I attended this weekend pointed out that “There has been scandal in the Church ever since the cock crowed”), is quite a loved man, and my friend received the attacks against him like attacks against his father.

Sure enough, it was her. We watched as the large guard finished his whispered conversation with her, removed her chair from against the wall so she could not use it to climb over, and wedged himself against her. Then we all continued to wait for the processional as before.

“They’re letting her stay?” I asked my friend.

“They have to,” he answered with a combination of laughter and anguish in his voice. “They’re not about to ban someone from attending mass if she wants to.”

“Even if it’s a known habitual Pope-attacker?”

“Yep. She needs the presence of Christ in her life as much as the rest of us, and it is not our place to say whether or not she is repentant. We have to let her come.” He continued to squirm uncomfortably at the thought of her leaping over the wall to attack the Holy Father. “But if she tries anything tonight, I’m not letting her near my Daddy!”

The Catholic Church is under a lot of heavy criticism these days for its eagerness to forgive. Certainly, the cases in question are quite different from a lone woman attacking a well-guarded 83-year-old man in public, but it was nevertheless beautiful to see the eager-to-forgive principle applied to physical assaults against the Pope as well.

Sacramental theology (not just a belief in seven or in two Sacraments, but a belief that the physical matter of the world and the spiritual substance are inseparable) will do that to you. Forgiving the lady who attacks the Pope does not merely involve wishing her well, and wishing her well does not merely involve positive feelings. Since the Catholic Church believes the Real Presence of Christ is in the Eucharist physically, they cannot ban her physically from the room. Forgiveness, in this case, involves a severe physical risk that no other tight security of a well-loved world leader would ever allow.

Benedict, in case you’re wondering, ended up just fine that night, and the woman left right after the processional, giving me the chance to take her seat against the wall for the recessional. I don’t know if she showed up for any of the other events that week, but I do know that as far as the Church is concerned, she is forgiven.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”
-John 20:23

Saturday, April 3, 2010

God rested

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
-From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday
Today we have been sitting with the death of Christ, the great, deep silence that will not be broken until tonight (not to get ahead of the story).

If I had posted on Thursday, I would have mentioned something about the New Testament reading in Hebrews 5 that says “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (a peculiar use of the word “heard,” I would say). I mentioned before that this seems to be Christ’s credentials as the Great High Priest. Rejoice, he tells us; we have as a mediator a man who similarly prayed seemingly unanswered prayers. What kind of a high priest is a man who begs God to let the cup pass from him but willingly drinks it anyway?

But he did drink it yesterday, and it is finished. Now, on the seventh day, God rests. At morning prayers we read from the previous chapter of Hebrews that “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.” Christ has offered his prayers to let the cup pass, he has drunk from it anyway, he declared his work finished, and today he rests. This is our high priest. This is the mediator of the new covenant. This is our model of suffering.

I read yesterday in a sermon of Melito of Sardis:
It is he who endured every kind of suffering in all those who foreshadowed him. In Abel he was slain, in Isaac bound, in Jacob exiled, in Joseph sold, in Moses exposed to die. He was sacrificed in the Passover Lamb, persecuted in David, dishonored in the prophets.
Now, it turns out, he is also prefigured (or postfigured) in everyone who has or will ever offer seemingly unanswered prayers, anyone who has ever tasted suffering he longed to avoid, anyone who has ever faced the silence of God.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Therefore let us keep the feast

When I was a kid, I found myself baffled by the idea of eating crackers and grape juice to remember the crucifixion. Really, I wanted to tell the adults, if remembering is the goal, then surely we could come up with better ways to remind ourselves. Even when I pondered the connection between the Jewish Passover customs and Christ’s death as our Passover Lamb, communion didn’t quite make sense. Why would we eat the things that remind us of Jesus? Isn’t that a bit disrespectful? (I was a bit of an odd, overly-pensive child, I’ll freely admit!)

Holy Week in Rome is a bit too heavy for me to sort into short and pithy posts, but I can at least say that with a Sacramental understanding of, well, of the Sacraments, there is nothing more beautiful than the idea of eating Jesus. Christ entered our world not just spiritually, but physically; Christ enters the sanctuary not just spiritually, but physically; Christ enters us not just spiritually, but physically. Just as he comes to heal our broken souls, he comes physically to nourish our needy bodies. Just as we receive the whole of Christ, he receives the whole of us, bodies and all.

Receiving the whole of Christ, of course, is not only wonderful; it is offensive (and until I saw true evil at work, I never realized how offensive its redemption can be). As I mentioned once before, it is not a mere matter of “trading our sorrows” for his joy. We enter with him into his suffering as Mary and John and the daughters of Jerusalem did on Good Friday. We embrace it willingly, as Christ who prayed “Lord if it be possible let this cup pass from me, but not my will but yours be done.” In a Catholic Good Friday service, we even embrace it physically as the congregation processes to the cross and kisses it.

It is because our sufferings are united with his (wholly, sacramentally, physically) that Christ can tell his followers who will mostly all be martyred one day, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Christ has prepared the way through suffering into resurrection...

...but I am getting ahead of the story. Tonight, suffering is not to be triumphed over; it is only to be embraced.