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 fiancĂ©e 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 fiancĂ© 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.