The Mood of Advent

We start Advent not with dread or foreboding, but with joyful anticipation. It’s like welcoming into our homes a dear friend or relative whom we haven’t seen for a while. There’s probably a flurry of cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking—all done with delight. When we look forward to renewing a close relationship, the preparation isn’t a burdensome chore. It may be tiring, but it’s happy.   

Jesus gives the disciples similar advice in today’s gospel: don’t be snoozing when an important visitor arrives. Be alert, awake, watchful as people are at an airport, searching the crowd for a beloved face.

How much more carefully we await the arrival of God. God is already with us, always and everywhere. Our Advent preparations highlight that presence, helping us become more aware. If we are lulled into anesthesia by busy schedules or overfamiliarity, Advent is the wake-up call. Look at what richness surrounds us! See how blessed we are! Do we look for God like the gospel gatekeeper, with a sharp eye? Or do we surrender our spirituality for the ersatz cheer of sales and malls?

One way of marking time that has been honored by Christians for centuries is the Advent wreath. Googling the phrase produces over 100,000 results—ways to buy one, make one, pray with one. This circle of pine with four candles nestled within can become the center for Advent prayer, reflection and song. It reminds us to pause, breathe deeply of its fragrance, remember what distinguishes this time of year.

Thanksgiving: Enhanced Gratitude

A “soulful window” into the lives of those we love comes at the moment just before Thanksgiving dinner when it’s customary in many families to take turns saying one thing they’re grateful for. I’ll always cherish my two-year old granddaughter saying: “I am thank you for the marshmellows!”

But for the jaded who may be tiring of the construction paper turkeys, or even of the cranberry sauce, here’s a way to jump-start Thanksgiving. Robert Emmons’ ground-breaking book, Thanks! (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) alerted us to the multiple benefits of gratitude, which he defines as “a feeling of reverence for what is given.” That attitude accepts good and bad as potential gift. It can focus the lens through which we view life on evidence of abundance, not scarcity. Unsurprisingly, that gives an increased sense of personal worth which can offset anxiety and depression.

Emmons characterizes this attitude as not a “superficial happiology,” but a perspective that has transformative power. His original work alerted us to the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal and expressing thanks regularly through calls, e-mails, texts or letters to those who have done us good. Those are a “booster shot” for relationships, benefiting both giver and receiver.

That work has continued through the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Their website is full of wonderful articles and videos:

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu.

Their research confirms with hard science what our religious traditions or intuitions may have told us about gratitude. For example, Science Director Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., draws on the research of Philip Watkins to show how gratitude amplifies good experiences and counteracts habituation. (The classic example for this human tendency is how the “new car smell”—and the novelty of the car itself–fades over time.) It means that pleasure wanes when repeated. In relationships, it helps explain how the charming, handsome date can become a self-centered, boring husband; the sweet infant can turn into a snarling teenager.

To counter this tendency, gratitude gives a “positivity bias” so we notice and appreciate more. Setting aside the negative experiences, choosing to reframe or not focus on them, gives them less power. (True, too, for negative media and violent movies.) So, savoring positive memories magnifies them, building our psychological immune system to cushion failures and disappointments. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who should’ve known through direct experience in the Nazi concentration camp) said, “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into grateful joy.”

Feast of the Jesuit Martyrs, Elba and Celina Ramos—Nov. 16

On Nov. 16, 1989, military thugs murdered six Jesuits at the University of Central America in El Salvador, along with their cook Elba and her daughter Celina. They all lived during terrible Civil War, when 75,000 Salvadorans were killed. But one martyr, Segundo Montes, SJ dismissed death threats and warnings to leave and return to his native Spain: “God’s grace does not leave, so neither can we.”

For those of us who live in our own tumultuous times (I won’t repeat the familiar litany), the Jesuit model offers a heroic witness that we belong where we are planted now. It’s no accident that we live in 2020, and as Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ said, “As the violence increases, we must think harder.” He also pointed out the starting point for our thinking: “all theology is conditioned by its historical present.”

Although the Jesuits were academics, this story is not primarily about thinking. They could have made their university an ivory tower; instead they made it a  public forum for the voiceless. They drew attention to atrocities perpetrated by the military on vulnerable campesinos. They were close to Elba, their cook who tried to make them birthday cakes, even in an unreliable oven.

The day she died, Elba had given her best dress to a woman displaced by the bombing. Ironically, she thought her daughter would be safer if they stayed on campus the night of the slaughter. The custom of Spanish-speaking peoples is always to bless a child departing—for school, market or playground. When the bodies were found, Elba had flung her leg across her 16-year old Celina. An effort to protect? A final blessing?

We’ll never know, but we DO know that her husband, the gardener at UCA, planted six red rose bushes for the Jesuits, and two yellow ones for his wife and daughter. How true to our tradition: the risen Jesus met Mary Magdalene in a garden. On ground wet with martyrs’ blood, new life flowers.

As our own beloved country endures tumult, we ask God for peace, justice and grace during the transition and in the years ahead.

Feast of Frances Cabrini—Nov. 13

Because she is so burningly relevant to immigration issues today, let’s look at the Italian dynamo who opened 67 charitable institutions and houses in the U.S.  Cabrini’s energy epitomized the zealous, thirsty, upward mobility of every immigrant group. A small orphanage and school begun in 1889 in New York City grew to a national network of educational, medical, and social service institutions. A tough business woman, shrewd about contracts, she outwitted contractors and swindlers trying to cheat nuns. When lawyers were astounded by how astutely she handled a deal, she whispered, “Poor things. They can’t believe we’re able to do a little business.”

Driven by multiple demands, Cabrini could never do enough for Italian immigrants. Her heart went out to the children abandoned when their parents’ hopes of instant wealth in the new country didn’t materialize. There were always too many requests for too few resources. Asked how she managed her huge network, she commented charmingly, “Oh, I put it all in the Sacred Heart and then I don’t get the headache.” She asked God for “a heart as big as the universe;” apparently God replied, “yes.”

Few women traveled as extensively or acted as powerfully in the male-dominated world of her day. With little or no government funding, sisters were financially responsible for all their hospitals, schools, and orphanages. In 1916, Cabrini even tried a little placer mining in Colorado, hoping to finance the Denver orphanage. When skeptics told her “it’d be better to go back home,” it sounds achingly familiar. How often has that taunt been hurled at the immigrants of our day?

Our Chance for Historic Change

In his book Balaam’s Donkey, Michael Casey, self-described as “Monk of Tarrawarra Abbey,” Australia suggests that those who pontificate (such as meself) should sprinkle their words with a healthy dose of question marks, indicating “I may be wrong.” In that spirit, the Last Election Blog of 2020.

Why sing the same tune? some might ask. My views on the current administration (which America editor Matt Malone, SJ calls “the national nightmare”) are already clear. Perhaps it’s the compulsion to speak while we still have the chance, so we can someday tell our grandchildren, “we tried.” I can’t shake the conviction that this is our moment in history to boldly say the ancient words, “Adsum,” meaning “I am here.” Each person’s choices, actions and vote matter profoundly.

For some who still question how Catholics can support Biden, I’d suggest broadening the concept of “pro life.” Jesus himself set the law within the wider context of God’s compassion. Surely it can’t be construed as “pro life” if:

–50,000 deaths due to COVID could’ve been prevented were it not for Trump’s “colossal failure of leadership,” according to Larry Brilliant, a veteran epidemiologist quoted in the New York Times Oct. 25.

–the dangerous failure to consider the science of climate change and enact policy to prevent environmental destruction “threatens to end the whole of humanity,” Robert W. McElroy, bishop of San Diego says.

–8 million North Americans have slipped into poverty since May, a Columbia University study found.

–1 in 7 households with children told the census: not enough to eat in the last 7 days

–More than 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health, and an addiction program called Provoking Hope estimates that relapses into addiction have increased 50% since the pandemic.

–Lawyers appointed by a federal judge to identify migrant families separated by the Trump administration can’t find the parents of 545 children.  About two-thirds of those parents were deported to Central America without their children, according to NBC news. Heartbreak is intangible, but consider the trauma to even ONE of those children…

–Divisions of race, class and gender have intensified, driven by the president’s hateful rhetoric. As Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer prize winning author writes, “If we learn anything from this sad passage in our history it should be that rage and contempt are a sort of neutron bomb in the marketplace of ideas… This country would do itself a world of good by restoring a sense of the dignity, even the beauty, of individual ethicalism, of self restraint, of courtesy.”

Last November, Catholic bishops wrote in their new introductory letter to Faithful Citizenship:” “To say that abortion is the pre-eminent issue in a particular political season is to reduce the common good, in effect, to one issue. And that’s a distortion of Catholic teaching.” Or, as Nicholas Kristof asked in his column 10/28/20: “Wouldn’t we all be better off if “pro-life” became not just a zealous slogan but a compassionate way of life?”

Feast of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ Martyrs—Oct. 23

For those who are tiring of pre-election blogs, a brief pause. For those who believe that politics and religion are deeply intertwined, the last pre-election column will post next week.

“In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” — Thomas Merton

Their story isn’t well known, but it should be. On Oct. 23, 1992, three Adorers of the Blood of Christ were killed in Liberia, after two others in the order had been shot three days earlier. They were innocent victims caught in the craziness of civil war.

When I gave retreats to this community, both in Ruma, IL and Wichita, KS, I was impressed by a spunky-wonderful bunch of women. As I learned their history, that first impression turned to awe. One background note among many: in 1985, the Adorers of Ruma became the only Catholic organization in the area to defy the law and offer sanctuary in their houses to Cuban and Central American refugees.

In limited space, it’s impossible to write about all the martyrs (see my book, When the Saints Came Marching In for the fuller picture.) But here are brief cameos of two:

Sister Barbara Ann Muttra was a nurse who wasn’t above bribery. At her clinic, she discouraged the common practice of driving off evil spirits by placing pepper in a newborn’s mouth, (which caused blisters) and mud on the umbilical cord, causing tetanus. She encouraged  parents’ cooperation with baby clothes donated by friends in the U.S. Eventually, she cut infant mortality from 80% to 20%, from two deaths a week to two a year.

Sister Shirley Kolmerloved Liberia because the gap between her front teeth was considered a sign of beauty there. A Ph. D. in Math, she taught it at St. Louis University, and first went on a Fulbright to the University of Liberia in 1977-1978. As provincial, her vision was of “loving the comfort, but ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice–women who dream dreams and continue to promise.” In Liberia, Charles Taylor’s rebels had recruited child soldiers as young as 10, and revived ancient practices of torture and mutilation. So Shirley started a counseling program for boys pressed into war, both perpetrators and victims.

Asked, “what made them tick? Why would they return to Liberia after a dangerous escape a year before?” the sisters who knew them well respond: “If there were five martyrs, there were probably eight motives.” The words “pious” or “prissy” never come up. “Bold” and “tenacious” are more likely to surface. They had practical work to do: teaching poor, illiterate, powerless women, staffing medical clinics, counseling, feeding the hungry. (By 1990, 40,000 civilians in Monrovia had died of starvation.) Over and over, one hears of a love for the Liberian people, the drive to meet their needs and share their lot.

Their persistence also characterizes an ASC sister who, as principal of an East St. Louis school, got garbage collection where there had been none, and celebrated as merrily as the neighbors on the day the trash cans arrived. Let’s praise and celebrate and honor women such as these.

 Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015, litpress.org, 1-800-858-5450

Humanity and Vinnie’s Pizzeria

Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York (https://www.vinniesbrooklyn.com) is an inventive place that, among other creative concoctions, features a small, round pepperoni pie served in a square, custom box made out of pizza. But they’ve outdone themselves with their latest innovation, which has made the national news. Kindly, they checked with their delivery staff before offering it. Now, for $1 extra, the pizza delivery person will look the customer straight in the eye and say, “It’s going to be alright. You’re doing the best you can.”  

As a friend pointed out, it echoes the message from 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich: “All will be well.” How desperately we long to hear that now, and how I wish our churches, mosques and synagogues had said it first. Isn’t that our business, to reassure people in the midst of terrible times, which are harder on some than we can even imagine? And why has Vinnie touched a chord, some deep yearning of so many? One answer might be the tone deaf lack of civility, even common courtesy, in the national leadership.  

Another writer who seems to frame this longing is Elayne Griffin Baker. As she wrote in the newsletter of the Charlotte County Democrats 9/23/20
(www.charlottedems.com › no-joy-in-the-white-house)

“There is no literature or poetry in this White House. No music. No Kennedy Center award celebrations. There are no pets in this White House. No loyal man’s best friend. No Socks the family cat. No kids’ science fairs. No times when this president takes off his blue suit-red tie uniform and becomes human, except when he puts on his white shirt-khaki pants uniform and hides from Americans to play golf. There are no images of the first family enjoying themselves together in a moment of relaxation. No Obamas on the beach in Hawaii moments, or Bushes fishing in Kennebunkport, no Reagans on horseback, no Kennedys playing touch football on the Cape.

I was thinking the other day of the summer when George H couldn’t catch a fish and all the grandkids made signs and counted the fish-less days. And somehow, even if you didn’t even like GHB, you got caught up in the joy of a family that loved each other and had fun. Where did that country go? Where did all of the fun and joy and expressions of love and happiness go?

We used to be a country that did the ice bucket challenge and raised millions for charity. We used to have a president that calmed and soothed the nation instead of dividing it. And a First Lady that planted a garden instead of ripping one out. We are rudderless and joyless. We have lost the cultural aspects of society that make America great. We have lost our mojo, our fun, our happiness. The cheering on of others. Gone. The shared experiences of humanity that makes it all worth it. Gone. The challenges AND the triumphs that we shared and celebrated. The unique can-do spirit Americans have always been known for. Gone. We have lost so much in so short a time.”

One of my favorite non-violent acts of resistance was the Australian choir who broke into Parliament as they debated getting embroiled in the Iraq war. The choir sang lamentations. That might be a good choice for us right now.

St. Teresa of Avila’s Feast—Oct. 15

“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, Good Lord deliver us!”

“May God preserve us from stupid nuns!” –Teresa

No matter how hard they try, hagiographers can’t camouflage Teresa’s tart brusqueness. In her day, the sixteenth century, the Inquisition tried to force change through threats, imprisonment and violence. One suspects that Teresa’s humor had longer-lasting effects.

She reformed not only the Carmelite order, but also attitudes about women and approaches to prayer. Because her early training had shoe-horned her into trivial conversation with too many women jammed into one house, she created orderly spaces where her sisters could turn inward. “My daughters, we are not hollow inside,” she reminded them.

Then she took on the prevailing ideas of prayer: mindless repetition of rote formulas imposed by the clergy. Most people considered direct experience of God, without priestly intervention, subversive. Teresa gave images of contemplation that were close to daily life: the watered garden, beehive, interior castle, heart of God like the innermost, edible core of the palmetto. The face of God that Teresa reveals is not punitive or distant, but precious as a lover, close as a friend.

All the while she was dancing around the Inquisition, coyly claiming she had no idea what she was talking about. How could others condemn her when she beat them to it? Meanwhile, probably grinning self-protectively, she focuses on God’s generosity: “Do you think it’s some small matter to have a friend like this at your side?”

V.O.T.E.

Rarely has voting been more important, I tell myself as I write postcards and letters to places I’ve never heard of: Falfurrias, Beeville, and Flower Mound, TX? But they matter: in a swing state, everyone must vote. Next I write the number to locate the early polling place; my 7-year old assistant highlights it and affixes a stamp. Some friends’ hands are too crippled by arthritis to write encouraging letters or postcards. But they have sworn to be on the phone until Nov. 2 if that’s what it takes. It’s tedious work, and the results are iffy, but I respond viscerally to the ideal offered by Joe Biden, first voiced by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney: This is our moment to make hope and history rhyme.

Recent history has been a sad mess, and let’s not forget that even before the pandemic, federal agents were separating children and parents at the border, consigning them to cages. ICE and for-profit detention centers have treated desperate refugees despicably, in no way aligned with the gospel of a welcoming  Christ. And despite the pandemic, the threat to the Affordable Care Act could jeopardize health insurance for millions. Don’t even start on climate change—I’ve written other blogs about that. These are a simply a few reasons, plus the official refusal to condemn white supremacy, that underscore the importance of voting.

As Biden (I’m honest about my preference) said in his acceptance speech Aug. 20:

“Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot. Who we are as a nation. What we stand for. And, most importantly, who we want to be. That’s all on the ballot.”

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, wrote a fine commitment to voting. Here’s an excerpt for those who missed it:  “I will skip, I will crawl, I will slither, I will bike, I will hike, I will hitchhike, I will fly, I will roll, I will trek, I will trot, I will truck, I will boat, I will ramble, I will amble—and I will wear a face mask, a face shield, gloves, goggles, a hazmat suit, a space suit or a wet suit—but I damn well will get to my neighborhood polling station to see that my vote for Biden and Harris is cast and counted on Nov. 3.”

On display during the first presidential debate was petulance and arrogance (ignoring a two-minute time limit?) poised against compassion for human suffering. As Biden said eloquently, “over 200,000 people woke today to an empty chair at the kitchen table. Countless others tell mom or dad goodbye while a nurse holds up the phone.” This is the language we’ve longed for: not ignorance, contempt or self-aggrandizement in the face of a tragic crisis. But simple humanity at the highest levels of government. It seems so little to ask, but our vote is our voice and our power. Let’s not squander it.   

Book Review: The Overstory

The best argument in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

As fires devastate over 3 million acres in California, Washington state’s air is “hazardous” because of burning forests, and over 500,000 people have been ordered to evacuate due to fire danger in Oregon, it’s time to read The Overstory. Fair warnings: Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel is not an easy read. Some highly intelligent friends found it too long, depressing, convoluted. And it will leave you unable to walk oblivious beneath a forest canopy ever again. The ultimate tribute, as Powers told the Chicago Review of Books: “I just want to walk, look, listen, breathe, and write this same book,” from different angles and perspectives.

He recreates a genre of literature which challenges the notion of human separation from the environment, as the former Stanford professor tells a PBS interviewer: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/the-overstory-author-richard-powers-answers-your-questions. The book’s astonishing scientific data about trees, discovered during the last 30-40 years, is verifiable. To our peril, only 2-5% of US old growth forest remains, and we’re clueless about the mystery and magnificence we have destroyed.

Humans share significant amounts of DNA with trees and through books like The Hidden Life of Trees  by Peter Wohlleben, we’ve learned the scientific processes of how they communicate, support and nurture each other,  protect against assault through their vast root systems. Powers brings an enhanced reverence to the topic, underscoring how some leviathan redwoods are “old as Jesus or Caesar.”  As Powers says, we live in an extraordinary moment, suddenly realizing our grief over what we’ve done to the natural world.

At first the human stories seem as tangled as the undergrowth. But gradually, the connections emerge. To focus on one: A young woman, Mimi Ma, adored her father, who kept meticulous records of every camp site his young family visited in the national parks. The perfume of pine brings back her childhood’s “only untouched days,” and the memory of her father after his death. “She falls into the smell, a devastating whiff of over two hundred million years ago. .. until she and the dead man are fishing side by side again, under the pine shade where the fish hide, in the soul’s innermost national park.” (p.183)

What a lovely phase for the soul’s vast inner expanses, filled with abundance: peaks, firs, wild strawberries, waterfalls, lakes, campfires, clear stars, panoramas, quiet, columbine, cedar, green valleys, birdsong, sun-dappled trails beside streams, deer, stunning vistas, golden meadows, chipmunks, overlooks, sunsets, picas, granite, soft dust, aspen, crashing waves, bubbling wells. Other lyrical phrases: “the bronze spears of beech buds,” “the polite applause of aspens. A yew reaching out, like a parent taking a child’s hand.”

Mimi and four others converge on a legacy tree “five times larger than the largest whale.” (p. 264)  In one day, this mammoth eats four pounds of carbon from the air, in the natural cleansing cycle humans seem hell-bent on destroying. Two live on platforms in its uppermost branches trying to protect it from a logging company.

They fail, but years later in jail, imagining the questions, “Why didn’t you do something? You who were there? How can humanity unsuicide?” can answer with integrity, “we tried.” How bizarre and infuriating that logging companies greedily devastating national forest, which supposedly belongs to the people of the US, are legal, but environmental activists trying to save it must face police, pepper spray poured into their eyes, and prison terms.

The shared humanity of loggers and environmentalists surfaces in poignant moments, though. One occurs when a tree-sitter tosses down his sketches of lichen, huckleberries and pools, and the loggers are impressed at the life forms that flourish two hundred feet above ground. Another comes after a howling storm, when the loggers appear at the base and confess, “we were worried about you.”  (p. 296)

Towards the end, the novel crescendos into sacred text.  One character, dying from an act of botched eco-terrorism, assures her comrades, “what we have will never end” in an echo of the last supper. Another goes to jail, accusing himself, “He didn’t look hard enough. He loved too little.” By doing his time, he saves the woman he loves from a similar fate, but consigns Adam, a collaborator, to a life-long prison sentence.

Adam, like a modern Thomas More with a “heart as good and worthy as wood” feels “If I save myself, I lose something else.” His sacrifice of teaching profession, wife and son re-writes salvation history in another, 21st century key. And the resurrection? Surely it comes through the trees called “sempervirens,” which scientists tell us will survive fires that break open cones of seeds that couldn’t open any other way. The novel quotes the poem:

For there is hope of a tree, if it

goes down, that it will sprout again,

and that its tender branches will not cease.

Reading the book challenges our unconcerned life styles, and may put us in the same mental frame as John Muir, whose love of Yosemite led to making it the first national park. He once admitted, “I only went out for a walk…”