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 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?”

The Body to the Yoga Practitioner

As a slight shift from more serious posts, a poem. For fifteen years, yoga practice has been part of my self care. Thus, today’s blog gives light-hearted voice to the body, protesting long stretches at the computer.

 

Outta shape.

Outta alignment.

Too long since last session–

the body’s chorus protests:

Creak, groan, pop, “ouch,”

moan, tickle, str-e-t-ch,

pinch, whimper, croak.

 

Six hundred forty muscles,

Thirty-seven trillion cells:

The quiet inner voices become

one slam-bang jazz band.

Hamstrings taut as banjo strings,

timpani of heart, trumpets of lungs,

tubas of gluteus maximus,

belt out brassy and bold:

Yes. Do it again.”

Therese of Lisieux—Feast Oct. 1

No wonder she’s so beloved. She saw enormous potential in the daily grind; she responded with gusto to confined circumstances. In an era of syrupy piety, she used organic metaphors and spoke with a fresh voice. Best of all, she transformed limited, flawed humanity into Christ’s own life. Or as Richard Rohr puts it, she taught that “We know God by participation in God, not by trying to please God from afar.”

It’s helpful to understand her parents, who adored their youngest child. Her mother died when was Therese was four, a tragic loss. About the time she entered Carmel, her father entered a mental institution—horrid places in the nineteenth century. As she matured, Therese revised her glorious concepts of martyrdom. She came to see the martyr as her gentle father, lying in the mental hospital with a handkerchief covering his head.

As a young girl in a strict convent, she wasn’t immune to irritation. Caring for grumpy older nuns, directed by a prioress who was probably neurotic, surrounded by a community jealous of her relationship with her blood sisters, she disappeared into Christ. She writes: “One feels that to do good is as impossible without God’s help as to make the sun shine at night.” Freely she admitted falling asleep during her prayers for seven years running.

She would die of tuberculosis at age 24, the age when if male, she would’ve been ordained. Her last illness was excruciatingly painful, yet she drew on a whole repertoire of jokes and puns to cope. One sister wrote, “There are times one would pay to be near her. I believe she will die laughing, she is so happy.” Her honest account described being “stretched out on iron spikes.” Yet she clung to the image of herself as a child, sleeping fearlessly in her father’s arms, hiding her face in his hair. In an era when God was punitive and many Christians wanted simply to deflect God’s anger, Therese is warm, earthy, worth celebrating.

 

The Challenge of Joy

Over the Breckenridge, CO Nordic Ski Center hangs a sign: “Oh, be Joyful!” That’s hard to do, when we can’t quite trust that any grown-ups are running the government or the church. And yet: as St. Bonaventure says, “God is a fountain fullness.” Picture that: burbling over, spilling plentifully, and as I saw recently, the place where a hummingbird, shimmering, translucent, pale green, could dip for a sip or a shower. God never stops spoiling us, pulsing with life within.

When much of the country suffers heat, drought and fire, it’s lovely to think of Jesus’ promise to the Samaritan woman: that he would be gush of living water from which we can all drink deep. Or as Richard Rohr says, “Your deepest you is God, is good, is okay. The True Self cannot be hurt; it’s invulnerable, it’s indestructible.” Knowing that, it seems downright ungrateful to repress our joy.

Jack Kornfield, author of  After the Ecstasy, the Laundry spoke recently about how protests should be joyous and artful. When he demonstrated at the San Francisco airport against the ban on travel from majority Muslim countries, a jazz band accompanied the welcoming words called to refugees. The last thing they need is depression and hopelessness. Instead, trumpets, drums, Ka-zam and bling! Kornfield also quoted Gary Snyder, asked about environmental damage, who responded, “Don’t feel guilty. Save it out of love.” Or Molly Ivins, who said, “Fight for justice but have fun doing it.” It is, after all, a beautiful blue-green planet filled with deep lakes, soaring mountains, the tinsel arc of rivers, the rainbows on trout. How unappreciative to become grim in its defense!

Sad Anniversary Resonates

The names aren’t mentioned much now, 55 years later, but they should be: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair. On Sept. 15, 1963, they were killed in a Birmingham church when it was dynamited. Right after Sunday school, they were innocently changing into choir robes.

The anniversary of their deaths prompts us to ask whether we’ve improved the climate for children in the US. It’s also a unique opportunity to write about gun violence when there hasn’t been a recent school shooting. Typically, concern surfaces then, and ebbs until the next tragic event. But maybe it should be a constant irritant on the national conscience.

Perhaps we should continue to remember the brave Emma Gonzalez, who had to run past her friends bleeding on the floor of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. After she spoke at Washington’s March for Our Lives on March 24, she remained on stage, silent for the 6 minutes and 20 seconds it took for the Parkland shooting to occur.

Her stillness contrasts with the empty political blather which hasn’t yet achieved gun control anywhere near that of most other nations. Emma and other students had done their homework: “Australia had one mass shooting in 1999, then introduced gun safety, and hasn’t had one since. Japan has never had a mass shooting. Canada has had three; the UK had one. They both introduced gun control.” As she said to legislators and the president, “For shame!” The exorbitant amounts of money they’ve taken from the NRA apparently blind them to the inestimable value of one human life.

Our children–bright, vulnerable, filled with potential—are our national treasure. They may resolve the ecological crisis. They may find cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s, AIDS and heart disease. Their generation may learn to solve human problems without wars. But only if we protect them. Only if we make their schools safe. Only if we make gun control a pressing issue in the November elections. And then, vote. Our doing so seems a small way to honor Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia, Denise.

Places of Delight

When Sr. Simone Campbell was interviewed by Krista Tippett for “On Being,” (https://onbeing.org/programs/simone-campbell-how-to-be-spiritually-bold) the executive director for Network was characteristically upbeat. She laughed with great pleasure at how her organization was a tiny, unpublicized, low budget group until the Vatican condemned them. “We only had nine full time staff at the time and we made the whole Vatican nervous?”

Presto Bongo! Instant Free Publicity! The impetus from that buzz of press may have helped them launch the famous project Nuns on the Bus.

Sister Simone could laugh about that, too. After many battles with Paul Ryan over fair wages and justice to the poor, she said how “sweet” that he once defended her. Another congressman said she shouldn’t be believed because she was censured by the Vatican. “Sister Simone is well within the teaching of the Church,” Ryan replied. The ability to laugh at human folly and appreciate the decency of one’s foes has probably preserved Campbell’s sanity through a busy, arduous career.

She does, however, criticize “grim liberals.” “You could offer a bunch of lamentation, but lamentation doesn’t often help…. what gift do you have to offer to this situation? Who can you connect with? Now, the other piece I haven’t really talked about— but I goof off a lot — is joy. That joy is at the heart of this journey. And if we — too often, progressives are really grim. I mean, it’s not a very good advertisement. ‘Come join us. We’re so miserable.’”

How easy it is to fall into that trap, when so many good causes deserve our earnest attention. And how do we avoid becoming what Yeats criticized in “A Prayer for My Daughter” as “an old bellows full of angry wind”?

We might all think about where we find delight—and how much time we spend there. Each one will answer that question differently, but one irreverent example is my Zumba class. I’m often the oldest there, often the only Caucasian, but this U.N. of exercise is marvelous to behold. The music blasts at ear-splitting levels while mostly women of various ages and sizes dance with wild abandon. Some wear abundant bling; others dress in clashing neon shades of lime and purple.

But the bottom line is, we’re all happy to be there. We may not articulate it, but we could be across the street in the quiet, antiseptic hospital, contending with hip surgery or heart attacks. What a marvelous gift to have bodies that dance, not always gracefully or in rhythm, but with energy and co-ordination!

Zumba isn’t everyone’s cuppa. But to continue the good fight, we must all find our places of delight. Is it nature, poetry, music, humor, children, novels, movies, friends, meditation, art? Where do we find the deep pleasure, and just as important, how much time have we spent there recently?

Sorely Needed: Retreats and Renewal

When so much news of the church and nation is grim, let’s turn to something positive: the uplifting effects of retreat houses. I’ve given retreats in many of these centers, and benefited personally from many others. They are often located in scenes of natural beauty, so we can draw near God without books or rituals, with spontaneous delight in creation. Often people, especially those in ministry or parents, arrive at these centers like the “walking wounded,” exhausted, frazzled, frustrated, depleted.

And then the quiet healing begins. It takes a while to adjust to the reality of no meals to prepare, no people to care for, no home to clean, no obligations to meet. Within us is divinity, beyond routine, drudgery, expectations, noise, bills, traffic and deadlines. In a retreat setting, that luminous one can emerge—source of wisdom, guardian of memory, forgiver of wrongs, restorer of losses. Gradually, our child-like exuberance emerges. We sense we are being held and carried in arms of infinite tenderness.

Then we start seeing what’s around us with the proper astonishment. One of my favorite places has always been Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House near Sedalia, CO (www.sacredheartretreat.org). Long paths wander from the lily pond to the gazebo and around 250 acres in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Since moving to CA, I’ve found other refuges here, like the Franciscan San Damiano, (http://sandamiano.org) artfully shaped around a courtyard with fountain and native plants.

My latest discovery is Villa Maria del Mar in Santa Cruz, http://www.villamariadelmar.org located directly on the Pacific Ocean. Some rooms have full ocean views, and the beach is just a staircase away. “The sound of many waters” praised by the psalmist saturates the place; the dining room and meeting room have sweeping sea views. The Holy Name Sisters who own it are a cheerful and hospitable bunch; no wonder so many parish groups schedule their getaways here.

Since people often ask about food (crucial to fuel the spiritual journey), it’s excellent—locally sourced, fresh, with vegetarian options. The salad bar and selection of fruit are outstanding—coming from nearby fields where artichokes, melon, garlic and strawberries grow in abundance. The cookie jar is always full; the hot chocolate/cappuccino machine never fails.

I’ve always suspected one reason we respond to the magnificence of mountain or ocean it that it tangibly represents our inner vastness. Who can stand before the gleaming sea, powerful and playful, silken and mysterious, and not be awed? “Ah,” we may remember there. “I’m part of God’s creation. I too can gleam.”

Sadly, many retreat houses are closing. They’re expensive to run, and must pay many staff salaries. The demographic of people who take 3-8 days away is aging. Some survivors offer creative, innovative programs for young people; others open their doors to a wide variety of groups needing meeting space. But to lose them all would diminish us as a people. Where would we go to renew, refresh, replenish, restore our relationship with God?