Homecoming

One benefit of travel is the way it awakens our senses, stirs us to see new sights, taste new flavors and relish new adventures. I’ve long cherished travel, but also delight in the blessing of returning home.

Fans of scripture may well point out how Jesus said that, unlike the fox or bird, he didn’t have a den or nest. But in one of the inconsistencies that make him so intriguing, he laces his teaching with references to home: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” (Jn. 14:2). “We will come to them and make our home in them” (Jn. 14:23). Perhaps he draws on his childhood experiences of bread rising, vineyards, cloth, shining lamps and flower gardens to teach with metaphors that ring warm and familiar to his listeners. 

This time, I’ve returned from an autumn visit where the maples blazed scarlet, the rain poured often and the temperatures were cold. Even more dear then, the return to a patio for lunch outside by a singing fountain draped with crimson bougainvillea, or basking on the couch in California sun, surrounded by pillows from Sonoma in fabric gold and blue with sunflowers.

With blissful independence, I make my own pot of coffee, not wrestling with someone else’s French press, inevitably producing a cup of sludge. The stash of ice cream, the books and music by the fire, all carefully chosen to reflect my particular taste await quiet solitude in which to enjoy them. One gift of the pandemic was learning to enjoy our solitude, discovering we were OK with empty calendars and no social commitments. Rooted and grounded, we were at home with ourselves, a surety we don’t want to lose as busier schedules resume. 

I know. Home is a luxury much of the world doesn’t have. But we’re talking a small and unspectacular sanctuary—the frig. surface overflowing with grandchildren’s art, the surfaces of tables rarely uncluttered. Kristin Hannah’s novel The Four Winds about terrible living conditions during the Dust Bowl taught me to appreciate a solid roof and floor, a bed and sheets. A little can be enough.

From past experience I know the initial delight wears off; we grow concerned with dusting and laundry, the tasks of maintaining the space. A slight tinge of boredom shadows that first thrill. But just at first, fresh from the airport, home is greatly savored.

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!”

No matter how hard they try, hagiographers can’t camouflage Teresa’s tart brusqueness. In her era, 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?”

Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux—Oct. 1

At first her story seems treacly sweet. Then you look beneath the surface.

There is a reason why this girl who never left her French village, and died at 24, is so universally popular. And it’s not the syrupy piety later writers tried to foist onto her.

The biographical facts are stark: a pampered childhood, then the devastating death of her mother when Therese is four. Four sisters are devoted to her, but the closest one, Pauline, a “second mother,” leaves home to join the Carmelite convent when Therese is nine. At fifteen, she enters the same convent, having convinced the pope she’s old enough.

Simultaneously, her beloved father is hospitalized for mental illness. The teenager subsequently revises her glorious concepts of martyrdom. She sees it instead as her father lying in the 500-bed hospital, a handkerchief covering his head. Therese was never allowed to see him again, and she died an agonizing death, without painkillers, from TB.

For a teenager, life in Carmel can’t have been easy. Many nuns see the way of life as a penance deflecting God’s anger. Therese sees herself as a little child, sleeping fearlessly in her father’s arms, hiding her face in his hair. That contrast fits with how people for centuries equated holiness with grandiose male adventures: bolding fighting battles, founding organizations, dying bravely. She shifts the emphasis to the ordinary grind, no accomplishments, remaining little in God’s greatness, sleeping through her prayers.

So few Christians seem to get it—that the way of Jesus is one of descent, imperfection, disappointment. Instead, we’re hell-bent on ego-driven achievement and success, like everyone else. Therese seemed to understand what it means to follow a crucified Christ. Because her “little way” is one of confinement and failure, it is enormously appealing to those who know the humble limitations of being terminally human.

Rite of Christian Initiation, Adapted for Children, 2

When the early Christians experienced a controversy over whether male converts needed to be circumcised, they concluded that people should be “received with no undue burden.” That attitude from Acts continues in more building blocks for the Christian Initiation of Children:

Prayer

The process of initiation is all about the child’s falling in love with Jesus. And any relationship needs communication. We call this prayer. For children, the four main types might be:

WOW! (praise)

OOPS! (contrition)

THANKS! (gratitude)

GIMME (petition)

God, like an eager parent, welcomes the voices of God’s children, no matter how hesitant they may sound. At this stage, learning formulas is less important than encouraging the habit of turning internally to God. So, while children might learn the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary,” they also learn to meditate silently, pray verses from scripture, and make ritual gestures like blessing and the sign of the cross.  

Community

Initiation is the work of all the baptized, says the Rite (#9). In other words, it’s not what we give the child but who. In the process of meeting the parish community, the child may make sandwiches for the hungry with the Peace and Justice Committee, learn some songs with the choir, flip pancakes at breakfast sponsored by the youth group, visit the home-bound with those who take them Communion. Most people went into their profession or line of work because of an influential person; this interest in and modeling of parish members is no different.

Lectionary Based Catechesis

If we want to teach effectively, we learn to do it as Jesus did. He didn’t analyze the dysfunctional family; he told the parable of the prodigal son. He didn’t propose the doctrine of divine providence; he painted mental images of wildflowers and sparrows. He didn’t write a dissertation on the problem of evil; he suffered torture and died on Calvary. When he taught, he told a story with a zinger ending. He also gave people images they’d remember longer than any rules: vine and branches, leaven in dough, lost coins, water gushing to eternal life, lamps not hidden under barrels. So the children follow the gospel readings of the liturgical year and become sensitized to the symbols they’ll encounter in full initiation: water, oil, light, bread and wine.

Service

Prayer and scripture flow naturally into action. Otherwise, the church runs the risk of becoming a “feel good,” privatized therapy group. Not that children will solve the problems of climate change, world hunger, refugees or homelessness. But they’ll build an attitude that they can do their small part to help, even if that’s simply turning off the lights, reading to a younger sibling or taking out the trash when mom is exhausted. They also absorb the attitude that the people we really admire aren’t the stars or athletes making millions, but the people who run the addiction treatment center, homeless shelter, soup kitchen and Head Start class.

Dedicated catechists might well ask what the children need to know by the end of their catechumenate or preparation period. The answer is contained at the Rite of Election, when the presider will ask the parents, godparents and assembly:

∞ “Have they shown themselves to be sincere in their desire for baptism, confirmation, and the eucharist?

∞ Have they listened well to the word of God?

∞ Have they tried to live as faithful followers?

∞ Have they taken part in this community’s life of prayer and service?”

A resounding “yes!” and the children are well on their way to a life-long journey deeper and deeper into the mystery of Jesus.

To order My Path to Easter/Mi Camino Hacia La Pascua, initiation journals for children, from Pflaum publishing: https://bayardfaithresources.com/products/my-path-to-easter?_pos=10&_sid=169b1578a&_ss=r

Rite of Christian Initiation, Adapted for Children, 1

The official title is a mouthful, but the pervasive spirit is that of the Baptismal rite: “The Christian community welcomes you with great joy.” Note: joy, not judgement.

I’ve recently renewed my respect for this process of welcoming unbaptized or uncatechized children into full initiation in the Catholic Christian community. While the resources I first published in 1995 have gone out of print, Pflaum has now published the children’s journals (My Path to Easter) in English and Spanish. (pflaum.com 800-543-4383)

When Vatican II restored the catechumenate for adults, with its ancient roots, it became a world-wide source of renewal for parishes. It was adapted for children ages 7-17 in the last 45 years, and still remains vibrant. This week and next, we’ll consider some of its outstanding features.

One of the things I like best is its roots in ordinary experience. So people begin by remembering how they met their best friend, spouse or partner. How did they learn about this person’s favorite foods, movies, stories, quirks, family members and ethnicity? Probably not through the academic process of studying books and subsequent testing. Instead, the goal is that children fall in love with Jesus and continue a life-long friendship with him.

As I remind catechists who recognize the unpredictable, messy nature of such a project, “we do our best, but ultimately, it’s God’s work, Jesus who draws them.”

Some of the key building blocks are:

Personal conversion

The Rite has a profound respect for a child’s spirituality. It acknowledges that children have thought long and hard about some of the questions that concern the finest thinkers: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?

Furthermore, the child has a deep hunger for God, an insatiable thirst for love that can be filled only by a God who is love. Whereas adults may think and speak more abstractly, children are grounded in the here and now, the concrete: their five senses are alert antennae.

But it’s hard to fit the development of a crucial relationship onto a time table. Catechists besieged by some parents who “just want ‘em to git their sacraments” find it hard to respond, “it takes as long as it takes.” It’s not a quick fix; it’s the slow, inefficient work of grace, gradual and proportionate to age.  

Family

Because institutions can exert only 10% of the family’s influence, the family is encouraged to participate. Some parents learn as much if not more than the children, and should be included as much as possible. If parents decline, the parish can appoint a sponsor or sponsoring family.

Liturgical Catechesis

This term simply means the power of symbol and story to speak loud and clear. Advertisers long ago learned the value of a jingle or a logo. Over the centuries the community of faith has also developed a ritual language that conveys more than words. Paul Philibert calls this “landscaping the religious imagination.” “The child’s nostalgia for being lovingly touched by the cosmic mother lives on in us. The church meets that nostalgia with washing, anointing, embracing, laying on hands, and gestures of reverence.”

To be continued next week…

Feast of St. Hildegard—Sept. 17

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)

Germany’s greatest mystic, scientist, and doctor, Hildegard was influential in theology, nature, medicine, cosmology, the human condition and the world-at-large. She also assumed ground-breaking roles for a woman of her time: artist, author, composer, mystic, pharmacist, poet, preacher, theologian, scientist, doctor, and political critic. Named a saint and doctor of the church in 2012, she believed passionately in God’s presence and activity in creation, as well as being a life force within. One of her guiding concepts was “viriditas,” the greening power of God, a word which combines the Latin for “green” and “truth,” with connotations of vigor and freshness. While we can observe it in gardens and forests, Hildegard believed we could also cultivate it in our souls.[i]

During her seventies, Hildegard completed two medical texts, which catalogued over 280 plants, cross-referenced with their healing uses. She saw humans as “living sparks” of God’s love, coming from God as daylight comes from the sun. A poet and composer, Hildegard collected 77 of her lyric poems, each with a musical setting she composed in Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. Her numerous other writings include lives of saints; two treatises on medicine and natural history, reflecting a quality of scientific observation rare at that period; and extensive correspondence, in which are to be found further prophecies and allegorical treatises. She also for amusement contrived her own language.

Despite her vows of enclosure—which, in theory, restricted her to the cloister—she managed to remain very much in touch with the outside world. After approval of her book Scivias by Pope Eugenius in 1147, she began to receive visits from and correspond with hundreds of people throughout Europe, including Henry II of England, Louis VII of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the empress of Byzantium

Hildegard  thought connection with nature brings people a “primordial joy.” More than eight hundred years after her death, her message rings so true that she could well be considered patroness of environmental awareness. Although she would’ve been appalled by the destruction to the planet, she would’ve cheered robustly for efforts to save it.

Excerpt from More Hidden Women of the Gospels by Kathy Coffey, Orbis, OrbisBooks.com, 800-258-5838.


[i] https://www.healthyhildegard.com/hildegards-viriditas

Gun Violence from Another Side

The terrible poignancy of seemingly random events: parents call out “Have a good day!” as their children tumble into schools around the country, Mark Barden reflects that his son Daniel would’ve been starting his sophomore year in high school had he not been killed at age 7, attending Sandy Hook, and Sue Klebold records a Ted talk about her son Dylan, one of the Columbine killers.

We’ll focus on the latter today, and for those growing weary of the topic, next week will consider the energetic St. Hildegard of Bingen. But it’s well worth 15 minutes to see and hear Mrs. Klebold:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXlnrFpCu0c. She leads with a heart-breaking admission: “My son Dylan, with his friend Eric killed 12 students and a teacher, wounded 20 others on April 20, 1999.” Her audience is receptive and sympathetic, probably marveling at what it must cost this woman to stand before them. 

She must speak with hope that her painful, candid revelations will help other parents to recognize the signs she missed before the tragedy.  The question “How could I not know?” has haunted her as she’s combed through memories and later information. She gradually made the horrible discovery that Dylan was in agony, cutting himself and wanting to die, during a two-year downward spiral that could have offered plenty of time to get him help.

But her son was a perfectionist, unwilling to ask for aid. He was filled with rage at school bullying that debased him, and he interpreted reality through a filter of pain. He wasn’t alone: 75-90% of suicides have diagnosable mental health conditions, many never treated, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-34.

Mrs. Klebold is remarkably restrained and credible as she says, “It was appallingly easy for a 17-year old boy to buy guns.” She has paid the price for the tragedy with her own cancer and mental health issues, and speaks with the integrity of one who has suffered profoundly. Shortly after the Columbine slaughter,  some of us glibly judged the parents: “Where were they?” It’s humbling to know now how rashly we once rushed to judgment.

Homilists encouraging us to broaden our compassion often use the example of the homeless person on the street. But it’s an unusual and commendable stretch to forgive and include the mother of a murderer/suicide.

Gun Safety 2

Parkland leader Emma Gonzales once asked a poignant question: do you care more about guns or us? She pointed to a disturbing fact: The rate of gun homicides among children ages 5-14 in the U.S. is 18 times higher than the rate in other high-income nations.

As if to silently answer her question, parents who’ve dropped children at school in the morning sometimes linger a few moments longer, gazing through the fence for the last look of the day at a precious son or daughter. In order to protect those children, we need to translate that fierce affection into practical steps towards safety from the weapons that have plagued our nation. Continuing last week’s theme, some of these efforts are:

Growing Suicide Awareness

New understandings of suicide–which accounts for 2/3 of all gun deaths– can help anyone intervene. The decision to take one’s own life is impulsive, usually made within 5 to 10 minutes. Research showing the brain isn’t fully developed until age 21 would suggest that teens are especially impulsive. Whether or not an attempt succeeds depends on the choice of means, with firearms most likely to kill, and drugs least likely. When a gun is in the home, suicide is 3 to 5 times more likely to occur. Veterans are twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves, and 2/3 of vets who died used a gun. So while mass shootings grab headlines, the silent, less discussed killer is the easily available firearm for the impulsive act.

No one wants an innocent to die. Gun owners naturally wanting to safeguard family members can place simple barriers around firearms. Easy and effective precautions: locking the case and placing the key where children and teens can’t find it or storing ammunition separately from weapons.

In several states, a partnership between gun shops and public health officials has developed. The store displays information about safe gun storage and suicide prevention hot lines—helpful information for everyone, without a political tinge. Brochures are available on the counter: while it’s hard to track the effect, participants are hopeful and the incentive is spreading. Given the surge in gun sales and suicides since the pandemic, this collaboration seems crucial.

Rapid Intervention

“Stop the Bleed” provides life-saving equipment originally used by military medics that doctors hope will become as widespread as defibrillators for schools, malls, law enforcement agencies, and community public safety. Often, the victim of a shot bleeds to death in the first five minutes, before emergency personnel arrive. But by-standers can grab the kit’s tourniquets, dressings and gauze to save a life immediately.

Sandy Hook Promise

Founded and led by those who lost loved ones (20 children, 6 educators) at Sandy Hook school on 12/14/12, this heroic group hopes that no one else should suffer what they have. So far, they’ve trained over 12 million students to build empathy and inclusivity through their no-cost program to schools. While a policy arm works on federal and state legislation, this initiative seeks to offset “too much focus on the gun, not the human.”

The profile of serial killers shows most were badly bullied before they attacked. So, “Start with Hello,” at levels K-6 and 6-12 helps students minimize social isolation. “Know the Signs” establishes student-led organizations for information, recognition of warning signs, and support to discuss areas of concern. “Say Something,” grades 6-12 provides an anonymous arena for students to voice their safety issues.

Their website (https://www.sandyhookpromise.org) in addition to heart-breaking photos of the children who died, presents fascinating videos. In one, children draw the monsters-under-the-bed that frighten them, while their parents talk about creative strategies to defeat those monsters. But when asked how to protect their children from school violence, the same parents fall oddly silent. It’s a topic no one wants to consider, but how can we live with ourselves if we don’t?

Better to adopt the confidence of this quote from the website: “Many students fear that it’s only a matter of when, not if, a shooting will erupt on their school campus. Subconsciously accepting shootings as regular occurrences has become the ‘new normal’ at schools and public spaces across the country. But it doesn’t have to be this way. By focusing on early identification, action and intervention it is possible to prevent tragedies.” 

Research

For a more detailed account of the latest studies see https://rockinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Public-Mass-Shootings-Brief.pdf. This clear, coherent report was produced by the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium. This group of professionals “is dedicated to the reduction of gun violence involving firearms through interdisciplinary research and analysis.” They offer “evidence-based, data-driven policy recommendations to disrupt the cycle of firearm-involved mass shootings, homicides, suicides, and accidents.” Their charts show clear profiles of perpetrators, locations of shootings and types of weapons. They conclude: “Knee-jerk reactions rooted in emotion will not solve the problem. The evidence produced to date shows that the problem requires solutions that are versatile and grounded in evidence to be effective.”

Amen. The work on this issue by many different groups brings hope and confidence to a once-dark scene.

Back to School and Gun Safety 1

Every year, it’s inexplicably moving: the annual parade of kids back to school. Not the hype to sell notebooks and pencils, but the pedestrians, bikes, buses and cars arriving: a wide range of ages, ethnicities, sizes and backgrounds, all converging on schools. This year, it’s especially meaningful, since for many it’s the first full-time, in-person return since the lockdown began, approximately a year and a half ago.

It’s also a poignant time, because delivering children and teens to school doesn’t seem much safer than it did on April 21, 1999, the day of the Columbine shooting. In what kind of country are kids afraid to go to school? “You go to a movie theater in Aurora and all of a sudden your life is taken,” Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis said. “You’re at a shopping mall in Portland, Oregon, and your life is taken. It has to stop, these senseless deaths.”

Nearly 40,000 Americans die from gunshot wounds each year. Two million acts of violence occur in schools per year. The rate of suicide is skyrocketing.  “’Since…1968, there have been more civilians killed by guns in the United States than soldiers have been killed on the battlefield in all the wars in American history,’ said David Hemenway, Director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center, adding that this is a uniquely American problem among high-income countries.

It is urgent that the U.S. follow the lead of Canada, Australia, Japan, the UK, France and every other civilized nation, to abolish or severely restrict firearms. Other countries’ death rates by guns are miniscule compared to ours. U.S. residents aren’t inherently more violent; they simply have an unrestricted access to deadly weapons that astonishes residents of other countries. The tired platitudes that typically follow mass shootings must sputter out and be replaced by concrete legislation, grass roots efforts, and grounds for hope. This week and next, we’ll look at some evidence for those.  

Grass Roots Groups

Moms Demand Action

When you fear your family might not be safe, doing nothing is not an option. “Women don’t do hopeless” is the mantra of Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, with its related group Students Demand Action. Website: https://momsdemandaction.org/

Pointing out that the gun violence crisis has gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re asking the Senate to take bipartisan action on background checks. They’ve also targeted “ghost guns” which “may be the scariest and fastest growing gun safety threat in the country, allowing anyone to make an untraceable weapon in less than an hour.” They’ve asked the public to voice their opposition to this proliferation via docket #ATF 2021R-05  through www.regulations.gov

SAFE—Scrubs Addressing the Firearms Epidemic

On Sept. 16, 2019, healthcare providers across the country called for action to end the public health crisis of rampant firearms. Taking time from busy schedules, they proclaimed, “this is our lane.” They were responding to a 2018 NRA tweet, “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.” As one response from forensic pathologist Judy Melinek said colorfully: “Do you have any idea how many bullets I pull out of corpses weekly? This isn’t just my lane. It’s my f****** highway.”

Founded at the Stanford Medical School in 2018, SAFE has since spread to 50 medical schools. Their lobbying in DC led to the first research funding in 20 years, $25 million to CDC and NIH researchers providing scientific data on gun violence.

Even a glance at their website, (https://www.standsafe.org/) is hope-filled: healthcare providers and medical students of all ages and ethnicities wear white coats or blue scrubs with the prominent SAFE logo. SAFE has named the gun situation in the US “a medical threat of epidemic proportions.” On a personal note, a pediatrician and parent adds: “If one of my own children gets shot, I will have to live with the fact that I could have done more about the gun violence problem in this country, but didn’t.” 

To be continued next week…

Recording of RCIA Adapted for Children – August 4, 2 021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qb1_IURrIh0

Feast of St. Clare—Aug. 11

Doing this week‘s newspaper word search with my grandson, all the hidden words contained the root “joy.” That word could name the theme for the life of St. Clare, St. Francis’ lesser known female counterpart (though much more, in her own independent right) and dear friend.

Clare enjoyed the “guarantee of living without guarantees.” That might make us feel insecure and wobbly. We rely heavily on insurance policies; she relied totally on God. Clare saw humans as mirrors reflecting the divine. In the beauty of the Beloved, she found more than enough wealth to offset her life style of poverty.

As Richard Rohr points out in Eager to Love, Clare and her sisters had a topsy-turvy insistence on living without privilege. Totally dependent on God, spending 40 years in one small house and garden, she discovered abundant joy. It seems important to note that in dark times, we can still nurture joy—it’s not a dirty word showing we simply don’t understand our era.

One of the most famous, but misguided, images of Clare was her holding the monstrance high, so that Saracens invading Assisi shrank back in fear and left her monastery alone. It’s true that soldiers did enter her home, San Damiano, but they were European mercenaries hired by Frederick II. The monstrance didn’t exist then—in 1240.

What Clare actually DID, confronting the genuine threat of invasion far outside the city walls where she and her sisters lived unprotected, was take “her usual posture for prayer,” lying prostrate.  It seems the exact opposite to a macho demonstration of power or strength, and yet it was effective. The invaders retreated, causing no harm.

Clare’s process of letting go ego and learning to mirror God led her to write: “Place your heart in the figure of the divine… and allow your entire being to be transformed into the image of the Godhead itself, so that you may feel what friends feel…” Given that intimacy, it’s unsurprising that Clare not only lived but even died joyfully, encouraging her soul to go forth with “good escort.”