Second Sunday of Lent: Prayer in Another Key

 

“Try it in G,” the musician suggests and we hear the same song in a different key. So Jesus models a transition from his glorious mountaintop experience to the verses that follow today’s gospel, about a boy foaming at the mouth, grinding his teeth and rigid. Descending, Jesus scolds a “faithless generation,” who cannot cure him, then rebukes the demon, curing what today we might term epilepsy.

“Will the real Jesus please stand up?” We’re inclined to believe in the one whose face dazzles and whose clothes shine, affirmed by the Father’s voice. Clearly Peter is stunned into babbling an elaborate plan for building tents, so Jesus can converse with the prophets in peace.

Yet it is no less Jesus who repeats, “how much longer must I put up with you?” in exasperation with the disciples’ lack of faith and inability to cure the boy. He heals him “instantly,” so his power is still intact; his compassion still overflows.

We also go through various transformations in our days. We might be praying, then cooking, gardening, paying bills, caring for children or the elderly, chatting, reading, singing, shopping, working on the computer, filling the car with gas or doing the laundry. It’s the same self, in different keys. But because of Jesus’ transfiguration, we do all these things as divine children of the Great King. It’s all prayer in different ways. The disciples who saw Jesus in dazzling light also see themselves anew.  The radiance might not be obvious, but it is there nonetheless, hiding beneath the surface.

 

First Sunday of Lent

As ashes were signed on foreheads Wednesday, some heard what seems like a more meaningful translation: “Turn from fear; trust the good news.” What does that mean? Turn from all that drags us down. Trust God who has always been faithful; it’s the only door into the future.

 

And from what shall we fast this Lent? The old practice of giving up candy bars or cigarettes was almost too easy. It only addressed one side of ourselves, the physical. This year, try fasting from negative put-downs, anxiety, time wasted on fluffy entertainment or games that are beneath us. Substitute compliments, a deliberate direction of the brain channels away from anxiety towards gratitude, time spent in quiet reflection. That will make it seem like a breeze to forego the candy bar!

March 4–Feast of Katharine Drexel

Katharine Drexel’s story shows that even the wealthy can be saints. When her father died in 1885, the financial genius left a $15.5 million estate, divided among his three daughters. About $1.5 million went to several charities, leaving the girls to share in the income produced by $14 million—about $1,000 a day for each woman. In current dollars, the estate would be worth about $250 million. Mmmm—I’m already fantasizing about beach houses, mountain lodges and shoe sales…

But as a young girl, Katharine had been sensitized to the poverty of native Americans. During a papal audience, she pleaded for missionaries to work with them. Pope Leo XIII parried with an astute question: “But why not be a missionary yourself, my child?”

Katharine’s final decision was trumpeted by a banner headline in The Philadelphia Public Ledger: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million.” That May 1889 news, which shocked the city’s elite, wasn’t quite accurate. She didn’t give up seven million; she would during the next 60 years give away about $20 million. It went to support of her work, building schools and churches, paying the salaries of teachers in rural schools for blacks and native Americans.

It began in 1891, with the profession of Drexel’s first vows as a religious, dedicated to work among the native Americans and Afro-Americans in the western and southwestern United States. What quickly followed was the establishment of a religious community with thirteen other women, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. They started in 1894 the first mission school in Santa Fe, and eventually began 50 missions for native Americans in 16 states.

We may admire, but the road wasn’t easy; in fact Drexel faced enormous bigotry.  In 1913, the Georgia Legislature, hoping to stop the Blessed Sacrament Sisters from teaching at a Macon school, tried to pass a law to prevent white teachers from teaching black students.

Furthermore, in 1915, when Mother Katharine purchased an abandoned university building to open Xavier Preparatory School for black students in New Orleans, vandals smashed every window. Her lively sense of humor helped her endure. She was often self-deprecating; humor would remain a gift throughout her lifetime.

Despite the prevailing prejudice, Drexel made possibly her most famous foundation–Xavier University, which sends more African-American graduates to medical school than any other university in the country. Despite harassment from the Ku Klux Klan, by 1942 her order had established a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools.  

Her biography takes a surprising turn in 1935, when Katharine had a heart attack, and two years later retired as superior general. She had traveled constantly by train and stagecoach, gathering knowledge about the Navajos, the Sioux, and the deplorable state of education for native and black children. Until poor health at age 76 forced retirement, she made an annual visit to each of her far-flung foundations (145 missions and 12 schools for native Americans, 50 schools for black students).

It must have been a huge transition for one who had been so dramatically active and always on the move, but from her wheelchair she continued praying for justice to those she had served so long.  She had wanted a more contemplative life, and she spent her last twenty years in prayer. She must have savored a cornucopia of memories, writing: “God has let me see with my own eyes the good results of God’s desire.”

During Drexel’s canonization at the Vatican, a gospel choir sang and native Americans danced. Must’ve livened up the solemn spaces considerably!

Profound Effects from a Somewhat Surprising Source

February 27 won’t be celebrated as a national holiday or marked on the official calendar of saints. But maybe it should be. On this day in 2003, Fred Rogers died of cancer.

I’ll admit that when my children were small, I was simply grateful that Mr. Rogers and “Sesame St.” entertained them for an hour so I could cook dinner. (No coincidence that the two shows appeared during cocktail hour.) Although I overheard the sound track playing in the next room, I didn’t begin to understand what Mr. Rogers was doing until the documentary film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” hit the theaters last fall, and was surprisingly popular.

This ordained Presbyterian minister saw as no one else did the potential in the relatively new medium of television. In the long run, he’d touch more people more deeply than he would’ve by following  a more traditional clerical role. His first show launched in 1968 with a ritual that would calm and settle children for the next 33 years: Mr. Rogers would put on his cardigan and tennies, singing his theme song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” Then off he’d roll into explorations, music, intriguing discussions.

His approach wasn’t as simplistic as it might sound. He tackled topics that were on everyone’s mind, like integration, assassination, divorce, bullying, death, and explained them clearly for children. By enjoying a cool wading pool with a black neighbor, their feet mingling side by side, he spoke profoundly about human equality without a word. He encouraged children to feel the whole gamut of emotions: sad and angry were OK too, and needn’t be stuffed. He was deeply present to everyone he interviewed on the show, and to the many children who attended his personal appearances.

When criticized for making a whole generation feel “special,” he asked if that wasn’t the basis for Christianity? And if everyone isn’t special, we’re in trouble! A vocal critic of slick marketing and violent programming for children, he’d be appalled at what’s foisted on them now. One small note of personal delight: my grandchildren know the “Won’t you be my neighbor?” song. When I asked where they’d learned it: “Daniel the Tiger!” Apparently this character who appeared originally on the show when their parents were young lives on now. May another generation profit from the profound insights, compassion and gratitude conveyed by Mr. Rogers.

Feast of Dorothy Stang—Feb. 12

 

I’ve written extensively about this bold woman, but it seems even more important to tell and retell her story now, when some in government thoughtlessly disregard the precious resources of the environment.

Dorothy Stang was a gutsy idealist, who had always wanted to be a missionary. Arriving in Brazil with her friend Joan Krimm in 1966 was a dream come true. It’s embarrassing that after 400 years of Catholicism in Brazil, they have 18 million homeless and the largest gap between rich and poor of any country in the world. By 1974, greedy loggers and ranchers had destroyed 40 million acres of invaluable rainforest, a process which continues. This extraordinary gift of God’s creation contains 30% of the world’s biodiversity. Worse, the wealthy landowners treat their workers like slaves, and exploit them heartlessly.

Seeing the children’s malnutrition and the people’s ignorance of their rights ignited Dorothy. She worked with women to establish base communities, and even delivered–in a jeep—a baby who was named by her mother “Maria Jeepa.”[1] In Anapu, she built 36 schools in 36 years, then insisted the teacher get the government salary required by law. Perhaps most importantly, she upheld the dignity of human beings constantly threatened by the police, military or landowners.

Furthermore, Dorothy had studied Brazilian law, and had no problem calling federal officials to accountability. They would let her wait for hours, then treat her condescendingly. Impatient with their stonewalling, she would sometimes dig into their files to find the protests they denied receiving. Any small victory loomed large, such as farmers blockading a bridge until the government finally fixed the road.

On her home visits, Dorothy would get medical treatment for worms, study life-giving subjects like Creation Spirituality, enjoy parties and ice cream. She came downstairs for her golden jubilee wearing her usual uniform, a t-shirt and shorts. Other sisters pleaded, “surely for this day, you could wear a skirt?” Her happiness seemed unassailable; she was doing what she loved in Brazil and was eager to return.

Only in later years do her letters reveal some ambiguity. Progress seemed slow, the poor were getting poorer and fighting among themselves[2]. She was growing tired, and her body, older. After she turned 70, long walks through the jungle became harder. Nonetheless, she continued arduous trips to Brasilia, reporting illegal logging. She was up against a hard fact: Brazil was becoming the largest cattle exporter in the world. With a booming logging business, the economy was improving. No government wants to impede that—and few officials wanted to hear the protests of “an old woman,” as Dorothy termed herself in her seventies. The $20,000 bounty offered by loggers and ranchers for anyone who’d kill her seemed astronomical to poor people.

At the same time she got death threats, with an irony that seems peculiar to Brazil, she received awards: the Chico Mendes Medal and Humanitarian of the Year award in 2004. She continued to delight in unscarred rainforest, its green canopy her cathedral, and small reforestration efforts a joy.

One friend of Dorothy, Luis, encouraged other farmers to stay on land that was rightfully theirs. But the rancher Bida sent drunken henchmen to threaten Luis and his wife Francisca’s seven children. Allowing the frightened family a little time to escape, the thugs then burned down his house and crops. Although Dorothy reported the crime to federal police, they had little interest in arresting anyone. Dorothy had a map that clearly showed the land belonged to Luis and other farmers, and planned a meeting with them for February 12, 2005.

She never got there. Beneath magnificent towering trees, two men confronted her on the path. She showed them her map, again explaining the farmers’ rights. Asked if she had a weapon, she replied, “only one,” and pulled out her Bible. She read aloud the Beatitudes, so her last words would have been “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” What a graceful prelude to a violent death. Shooting her several times, the gunmen vanished.

Ordinary people grieved; ranchers and loggers exulted, thinking that after a few days the turmoil would subside and they could continue on their arrogant ways. They didn’t anticipate the solidarity of crowds who were outraged, the banners demanding justice for the killing, the voices of human rights groups, lawyers, Notre Dame sisters and friends, the long series of trials.

Amid shouts of “Dorothy Vive!” she was buried in her favorite dress with a sunflower pattern. St. Julie, the foundress of her order had said, “turn to God as sunflowers turn to sun.” Certainly she had lived the Notre Dame motto, “Women with hearts as wide as the world.”

Excerpted from When the Saints Came Marching In by Kathy Coffey. Liturgical Press: 800-858-5450, http://www.litpress.org

 

Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita—Feb. 8

 

Many people don’t know the story of Josephine Bakhita, but it’s one that should be told and retold. Born in 1869, she was captured by slave traders at the age of nine, and would never see her family again. One particular torture stands out in a list of horrors. Pinned to the ground, Josephine was cut with a razor in over sixty places. Salt was rubbed into the cuts to prevent healing and leave more visible scars, which increased the profits to slave masters when they were sold. She was then left on a mat for three months, without any care. Her only comment? “I thought I would die.”

Fortunately, she was later sold in the Khartoum market to an Italian diplomatic family, and accompanied their child to school in Italy.  Learning the Christian religion there changed her life dramatically. When the family ordered her to return with them to Africa, she refused. It caused an international crisis, but she remained adamant: “I can’t risk losing God.” Finally, she remained, free because slavery was illegal in Italy.

The former slave continued to marvel she was a daughter of God, and eventually became a sister, where she served the community as cook, seamstress and doorkeeper. To children who’d never met an African, she reassured, “I’m made of chocolate!” Steadily, she endured two world wars, humbly and faithfully warming plates in winter to make sure her dishes arrived hot and tasty. Her attitude toward her captors was, “Poor things! They did not know God.” “Survivor” is a term glibly tossed around on reality TV shows, but Bakhita gives the words new meaning—and redefines forgiveness.

On Krista Tippett

 

On Tuesday 1/29, I heard the host of “On Being” (https://onbeing.org) podcasts speak at Stanford University. Sponsored by the Haas Center for Service Learning, Krista Tippett is the Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor; her conversation with Abraham Verghese and Denise Pope centered on “Emerging Generations’ Redefinition of the Meaning of ‘Success.’”

For those not familiar with the project, each episode addresses three questions: What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? Who will we be to each other? Fascinating interviews have been done with John O’Donoghue, Mary Oliver, Martin Sheen, David Whyte, Simone Campbell, Jean Vanier, Brene Brown, Jonathan Sacks, Richard Rohr, James Doty and Nikki Giovanni, among many others. While those interviewed explore the three deep questions, they’re encouraged to avoid dogma, certainty or the mention of God.

Amy Larocca does an in-depth study of the Tippett phenomenon in New York Magazine  1/17/19: (https://www.thecut.com/2019/01/npr-on-being-host-krista-tippet.html#_ga=2.23339834.1069807446.1548957347-348962154.1548957347).

She cites an interesting statistic:

people born between 1928 and 1945—85% identified as Christian

people born between 1989 and 1996– 56% identified as Christian.

While the figures definitely point to a more multi-cultural society, and don’t cite the believers who are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or members of other traditions, it’s still intriguing. It makes one wonder if we’ve reached a point where religious language has grown so tired, overused, or abstract that it doesn’t speak to contemporary seekers.

In the same article, Tippett says, “I do love deep religious conviction, and I really honor that, but I like the idea that we can hold that in a creative tension with a real humility before mystery.” She’s definitely touched a chord with the growing group that now rates their own acronym: SBNR (Spiritual but not religious). As our society grows crazier and harsher, many look for “stories and ideas and attitudes that resist or overwhelm the hostile staccato rhythm of most contemporary culture. All of this means that Tippett has very much met her moment.”

The focus of this discussion was on alternative definitions of success when money, celebrity and power don’t cut it. How could we set more thoughtful, compassionate goals? Pope’s research shows that the expectations placed on high school students come with high costs: anxiety, suicide ideation, eating disorders, sleep deprivation, intense anxiety. And it turns out that the choice of a college which many parents and teens agonize over doesn’t matter as much to life-long happiness as the level of student engagement once there. All the speakers exalted what they learned from failure, and called perfection “the booby prize in life.”

The evening’s most poignant moment came when Tippett asked Verghese (author of Cutting for Stone and professor at Stanford Medical School) to read one of his favorite poems: e.e.cummings’ “i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)”. He began, but teared up and asked Pope to read. A profound, unintended glimpse of what it means to be human!