Kindergarten Graduation

 

We gather to honor small people wriggling on blankets in the grass.  Such tiny recipients hold such big dreams, their diversity astounding. Some are missing both front teeth; others “don’t even have a wiggle.” Beyond that easily observed difference stretches a multiplicity of first languages, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds. One dreams of being “a garbage man just like my dad!” then gives his teacher a huge, warm hug. Another wants to be a paleontologist. Some began the year barely knowing letters and now, miracle of miracles, all 25 can read.

That points to the achievement of heroes-never-acknowledged-enough: teachers. Daily, they contend with head lice, quirky language, sloppy kisses, runny noses, petty quarrels, helicopter parents, potty talk, hyperactivity, contagious rashes, endless rambly stories, serious learning challenges, super hero band-aids, vision problems, shifting friendships and discipline issues. For this and litanies more, they are paid relatively little. Nothing can compare to the irreplaceable gifts they give: abilities to read, calculate, and write. Valiantly, they return day after day to the rewards of watching a human being unfold. Our society shrugs off their achievements, then focuses on the really interesting, highly compensated jobs, like tossing a football. But to a small cluster of parents and grandparents, gathered with cameras, balloons and flowers, they walk on water.

It’s entertaining to speculate: will that small boy, punching his friend, research a cancer cure? Will the little girl in the flowered headband negotiate peace in the middle east? Will that one be a distinguished professor, or this one a compassionate nurse? Will one face addiction, another jail, a third a fulfilling marriage, another a spectacular career? Impossible to predict, and probably futile in the rush to home-made muffins and Krispy Kremes.

Thousands of graduations are happening now at schools around the world, and perhaps this one is a microcosm of all such milestones. Neither the certificate nor the applause can capture the wonder: that one who so recently learned to toddle, talk, separate from mom, and hoist a backpack stands firmly now on the path to life-long learning, continuing exploration, inexhaustible treasuries of heart and mind. The whole precarious, tumultuous, soaring, crushing, creative, greedy, generous, flowering, barren, tragi-comic human adventure contains such sweetly endearing moments. Gerard Manley Hopkins said it best:

Nature, bad, base, and blind,

Dearly thou canst be kind; …
I’ll cry thou canst be kind.

Look for the June 29 Soul Seeing column in National Catholic Reporter: “Jew, Christian, Muslim: See the Beloved Everywhere” by Kathy Coffey

Sequoias and Spaciousness

Sometimes the confluence of experience and learning is splendid. Recently, I journeyed to Calaveras Big Tree state park in CA and admired 2000-year old giant sequoias. A tree that old may live through more than 100 fires, which benefit the trees by opening the cones to release their seeds and clearing the ground of litter so seedlings can reach mineral soil and receive sunshine. At their bases flowered mountain dogwood. The contrast between the solid, towering, rusty brown trunks and the floating, lacey white flowers spoke powerfully of male and female, yin and yang, the vast spectrum contained in and expressed by the Creator.

During a mindfulness class the next week, we were led in a meditation where we envisioned an image of spaciousness, like ocean, mountains, or God. Through this expansion, we delighted in an infinite vista, an everlasting care. Then we were asked to hold up against the first image another: of suffering. Placing the problem or sorrow in a larger context helps neutralize or defuse it. Buddhists use the comparison to a spoonful of salt placed in a water glass: the salty taste will be strong. But if that same spoonful were poured into an ocean or lake, the taste would be negligible. So, too, the suffering is real; we don’t deny it, but we don’t let it overwhelm us.

The meditation showed that we can stay present with difficult things, not immediately default. Most people are inclined to flee suffering, stuffing it or denying it. But consider how trees breathe in carbon monoxide, poisonous to humans, and transform it to life-giving oxygen. Humans breathe in cooler air, and without any effort, breathe out warmer air. So my image now for unlimited spaciousness will be the giant sequoias, some estimated at 2600 tons, the weight of 18 blue whales, and the delicate white dogwood blooms. Placed beside that spaciousness, any problem seems less formidable. We’re not only about the small self; we’re also part of a larger picture, a more radiant brightness.

 

The Feast of the Sacred Heart–June 8

Admittedly, my approach to this feast is colored by 23 years of education with the Religious of the Sacred Heart. I could belt out “Coeur de Jesus” with the best of them, but secretly admired my parents for refusing to drive across town for the celebration of the feast at school. School? In summer? When we’d so recently been freed?

That wasn’t the only ambivalence. Ever the sensitive-to-hypocrisy teen, I noticed that though the talk was about love, the practical reality was a fierce discipline, a pervasive obsession with rules, silence and order. Wiser people have counseled, “Let it go!” That was simply the era, a perhaps desperate attempt to corral hundreds of chattering girls. Other writers have explained that the feast itself represents progress from 17th century piety, with its emphasis on the externals of religion.

But somehow the rigidity softened at the front gate. There stood a statue which remains an icon somewhere deep in the psyche. It was a large representation of Jesus as the Sacred Heart, with the odd heart-outside-the-body typical of that art. But more important: his arms were flung wide in welcome. His hands didn’t hurl thunderbolts or brandish law books.

The stance epitomized St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s insight: “The divine heart…is an ocean full of joy to drown all our sadness…” When she tried to convince others of this broadly inclusive approach, authorities called her delusional. (If only the prune-faces could’ve been around when she was vindicated: for the feast proclaimed in 1856, her canonization in 1920.)

That set the stage. Then in adulthood, I could understand Richard Rohr’s superb book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, where he explains that we can do nothing to make God love us more. “All is given all the time!” because God can’t not love.

If I could really believe that, live out of it, I’d have it made. We all would. So, thanks to the Sacred Heart for that good grounding.

What the Catholic Church Needs Now: RBG

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s law school class of 500 in the late ‘50s included less than 10 women. In photos taken then, as in those taken later of her as a Justice on the Supreme Court, the scarcity of women is startling. She defined her goal in the ‘70s: “to end the closed door era. There were so many things that were off limits to women: policing, firefighting, mining, piloting planes.”

And in 2018, we could add to the list: priests. Or any authoritative, decision-making voice in the Catholic church. Then we wonder why young people aren’t attracted? Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese dramatically attacked the blatant misogyny of the Catholic Church (https://kathyjcoffey.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/0851e-voicesoffaithaddress_marymcaleese8thmarch2018.pdf). Recently, Pope Francis DID appoint three laywomen as consultors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly women had been only support staff.) So little, so late?

The documentary film “RBG” features a quiet, introverted, brilliant woman who changed the legal system for women in the US. As Ginsburg says of herself: “How fortunate I was to be alive and a lawyer when, for the first time in United States history, it became possible to urge, successfully, before legislatures and courts, the equal-citizenship stature of women and men as a fundamental constitutional principle.” Hildegard of Bingen might’ve termed it the “viriditas” or greening of God in this hard-working woman (and Marty, her wonderfully supportive husband).

The first case Ginsburg argued (and won) before the Supreme Court concerned a woman who’d joined the Air Force. She assumed it was a simple mistake that her husband didn’t receive a housing allowance, as did the wives of all the males around her. What seems so obvious to us today was revolutionary when Ginsburg proposed “that notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers—manmade barriers, certainly not heaven sent.”

Of course, some will insist, the church is no democracy. Yup. We noticed, as endless lines of men in dresses file into synods and conclaves to make the big decisions and elect the pope. Maybe the Church should try the ploy of orchestra auditions. As Ginsburg describes them, “When I was growing up, there were no women in orchestras. Auditioners thought they could tell the difference between a woman playing and a man. Some intelligent person devised a simple solution: Drop a curtain between the auditioners and the people trying out. And, lo and behold, women began to get jobs in symphony orchestras.” Hmmm—drop the curtain, scramble the voices and see whose homily best reflects people’s lived experience?

Departing briefly from Ginsburg, let’s look at other Christian traditions. Nicholas Kristof , writing in the NEW YORK TIMES (3/31/18) quotes the Rev. Serene Jones, the first woman president of New York City’s Union Theological Seminary — where almost 60 percent of the students are now female. “’We’re seeing a new day of understanding of who God is,’ Dr. Jones added. ‘When the people who are representing God, making God present, have female bodies, that inevitably changes the way you think about how God is.’ Dr. Jones argues that over time women will come to dominate religious leadership and that this will powerfully reshape Americans’ understanding of God from stern father to more of a maternal healer and nurturer.”

Ah, how we’ll welcome that shift in Catholicism! From Ginsburg’s own religious tradition comes the legend in progressive Judaism that a man once angrily protested that a woman no more belongs at a synagogue pulpit than an orange belongs on a Seder plate. So these days when celebrating Passover, some Jewish families include an orange on the Seder plate.

Today, 85-year old Ginsburg’s thoughtful, minority opinions begin with two simple but powerful words: “I dissent.” She knows that over time, the minority can become the majority. As she says, “So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.”

Thank you, Mrs. Ginsburg. How many of us in different spheres join you in that hope!

***

All quotes from Ruth Bader Ginsburg
at: https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/ruth_bader_ginsburg

Pentecost

One of the most striking sentences in the first reading from Acts (2:4) describes people speaking different languages, yet still being understood. We all know that even those who speak the same language can have a hard time communicating. Pentecost reverses The Tower of Babel story, which tries to explain why people began speaking in different languages. The people that day achieved understanding, despite their linguistic differences.

 

Pentecost continues today, as African students in an ESL classroom learn English and across the hall, North Americans learn Spanish. A young California woman who had emergency gall bladder surgery in a Tokyo hospital felt alone and afraid, unable to communicate with or understand her nurses and doctors. She was placed in the oncology ward because a few nurses there knew some English. But another patient broke down the language barrier. She simply lifted her hospital gown and showed the American her scar, a silent signal that she could relate to the girl’s pain.

 

One way to celebrate Pentecost is to appreciate the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in our lives. The processes of ordinary living are so fragile, so immensely significant, so fraught with terror, that we desperately need someone beyond ourselves. We need the warmth and power of the Spirit to help us in whatever we have undertaken.

 

If you look back over the last 5, 10 or 20 years, where could you could say this? “Ah yes. So you, life-giving Spirit and Guide, were there all along, enlightening and accompanying through whatever came.”

A Shout-Out to Catholic Charities

Although I’m familiar with only one Catholic Charities, East Bay in Oakland, CA (CCEB), I’m guessing that their work is typical of many organizations, so this praise goes to all 139 offices nationally. In a dark time, when immigrants are terrorized, the poor are pushed even further into the margins, and the vulnerable are demonized, they offer hope in crisis, and shine like bright lights.

The price of housing in CA is so astronomical that even people with healthy salaries have a hard time buying or renting a home. Teachers can’t afford to live in the districts where they work, and those on minimum wage can’t begin to compete. Last year, CCEB received over 8,000 requests for housing assistance, and could help with less than 1% of those.

But they don’t get discouraged. They press on, and with generous supporters, branch into other areas too, like welcoming immigrant families and helping them with jobs, housing, schools and cultural adaptation. One of their films shows a Burmese family who’d spent years in refugee camps arriving at the airport, where parishioners, translators and a pastor waved flags in welcome. Those of us without refugee experience can only imagine what that sight must’ve meant—and it was just the beginning of ongoing care to ease difficult transitions.

I’ve written before about Claire’s House, one of the first shelters for young girls rescued from trafficking. CCEB has carefully pioneered in this complex arena, hopefully paving the way for other homes of refuge. A tangle of licensing and other state requirements has slowed the process, but the staff’s perseverance will make sure it won’t close, and can continue to offer healing to those who need it most.

Here’s where you come in. Studies from The Greater Good Science Center have found that giving to others makes us happier than spending time and money on ourselves. So if you know someone at your local Catholic Charities or similar organization, send their staff this column—with a bouquet, chocolate and a big donation. If you don’t know anyone, do the same—surreptitiously posting your praise in a break room or on a website. Even saintly humans need reinforcement and thanks. The research mentioned above proves that giving it increases oxytocin (the “feel good” hormone) in the bloodstream of the giver. Maybe we can’t all be on the front line. But we can support those who are. Let’s launch a campaign: Three Hundred Cheers for Catholic Charities!

Shame at the San Diego Border

The National Guard must be mortified. Excerpts from the recruitment pitch read as if they’ll be joining Doctors without Borders or some other humanitarian group that saves the world:

TAKE A PATH WITH PURPOSE. BE PART OF SOMETHING BIGGER THAN YOURSELF.

This is a message to anyone who ever believed they could be something great when they grew up. It’s an invitation to all who want to build a better world.  As a Guard Soldier you’ll respond when disaster strikes at home. You’ll also answer the call when your country needs you around the world. (www.nationalguard.com)

The $20,000 signing bonus must appeal too. As Helen Thorpe reveals in her splendid book Soldier Girls, it draws desperately poor young people, eager for education, who are then amazed when they wind up killing civilians in Afghanistan.

Or enmeshed in the current fiasco: saving the country from babies, and mothers who respect the U.S. so much they’ve walked long, treacherous distances to get here. Yet Jeff Sessions, Attorney General accuses them of “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.” What kind of system can’t absorb 200 unarmed civilians? An editorial by Eugene Robinson (Bay Area News Group, 5/2/18) adds, “President Trump has spoken of these people as if they were some kind of rampaging horde.”

So one-year olds, barely walking, can lug howitzers and machine guns all the way from Honduras? And their parents, facing death threats at home, want to undermine the only place they might find safety and hope for the future? Doesn’t the country face more of a threat from lax, NRA-friendly gun laws that have led to murders in our schools? Or a president who accepted $30 million in campaign contributions from said NRA, but doesn’t know asylum or international law?

Those laws were passed after World War II when the US disgracefully refused entry to German Jews, sentencing many to death in concentration camps. Does a Spanish-speaking Anne Frank wait agonizing today in Tijuana? And what’s happened to the ancient moral code that a society is judged by its treatment of the most vulnerable?