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 fiancĂ©e 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.