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?”

Excerpt from Women of Mercy by Kathy Coffey,  art by Michael O’Neill McGrath, Orbis  Books, 800-258-5838

Autumn Threshold

When I lived in Colorado, autumn was defined and clear as a political opinion. Labor Day meant pack away the shorts and retrieve the ski sweaters. The third weekend of September brought peak aspen-changing, when mountain roads clogged with leaf peepers and newspapers inevitably captioned photos, “Colorado’s Other Gold.” By Halloween it often snowed, so the costumes were buried under down jackets, and hot chocolate sounded better than a Hershey bar.

Now I’m puzzled when Californians speak of seasonal change. It may get a bit cooler, but trees are green in December, flowers still bloom in January, and by February fruit trees are flowering. The changes must be so subtle, I’ll need to explore them more carefully.

So too for seasons of life. Once I was the Wage Earning Adult, teaching classes that began strictly at 9 am. No waffling in the “I’m Mom” department either. “Do it because I’m bigger.” Roles were rigidly defined, without much room to breathe.

So does semi-retirement make one a quasi-adult? My next deadline isn’t ‘til end of October, and I can write the article in my pajamas. My four children are the busy ones, with responsible careers and heavy obligations. I get delegated to chauffeur, supervise the playground, and build sand castles with Louisa while the grown-ups clean the beach house.

My more responsible side resists the change. But the better self likes lingering on this threshold. I can observe and delight in grandchildren as I never could when my constant mantra was, “I don’t have time!” With the surprising gift of time, I can find out if “California fall” is an oxymoron. I can glow with professional pride when the 4-year old tells his mom, “grammy made us a great dinner!” meaning she nuked the mac-n-cheese in pre-measured plastic bowls. I can look forward all day to 5 pm, not for faculty cocktails or the end of a work day, but to the explosive joy when a 20-month old barrels across the day care center, knocking over smaller children and yelling, “Gammy!” Not to brag, but I’ve measured just the right amount of gravel to voice Thomas the train engine for the 3-year old.

Once I was quite serious about my resume, listing every award and publication. Our society values achievement and by gum, I was an Olympic ladder climber. Now the tiny steps downward into being more fully human won’t be recorded. But a threshold beckons, mysterious as autumn in California.

First Death Certificate of 9/11—Fr. Mychal Judge

Someday it may seem mild, but a priest who openly admitted being alcoholic and gay, then went rollerblading in his sixties was pushing the narrowly defined boundaries of priesthood in the seventies and eighties.

At one time, Mychal Judge drank so heavily he had blackouts. The drinking began in the seminary with little sips of altar wine. By 1976, “his alcoholism had become so serious that it became both crisis and opportunity.” After joining AA, Judge later attended as many of its meetings as he could. Some thought he was more familiar with the AA book than with the Bible.

The risk was dramatic at a time when “if a friar had drinking problem, it was hushed up or he was sent away for therapy.” So too for his second frontier: being gay. Judge was open about his gender preference even at a time when Archbishop O ‘Connor was quoted in the  New York Post as saying, “I would close all my orphanages rather than employ one gay person.” At first hesitant to march in New York’s first inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2000, Judge received wild acclaim from the crowd—and nervous disapproval from the church.

That continued when he was reported to the diocese for not wearing vestments at firehouse Masses. Judge told the young clerical bureaucrat who called him on the carpet: “if I’ve ever hurt the church I’ve served and loved so dearly for 40 years, I want to be burned at the stake on 5th Ave., at the front doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” “No matter how many robes Cardinal [O’Connor] put on or how much power he tried to exert, he still could not… quash Mychal Judge.”

The story of his death is well known: Judge rushed to the World Trade Center to be with the fire fighters responding to the disaster. Some speculate that he removed his helmet to pray the last rites over a dying firefighter, was struck on the head by debris and died. Five rescue workers carried him out through the rubble; Shannon Stapleton’s photo of them was widely published. (His friends joked that even in death, Mychal still loved a photo-op.) Firefighters laid Judge’s body before the altar in a nearby church, covering it with a sheet, his stole and badge. His eulogist pointed out how appropriate it was that Judge died first; then he’d be in heaven to meet over 400 first responders who arrived later.

Judge’s biographer comments on the impromptu ritual of two cops praying over his body at Ground Zero. It’s not only OK for laity to give last rites in an emergency. It “was, in fact, entirely in keeping with Father Mychal’s own sacramental theology of hallowing the moment and was typical of the way ordinary people generated light in the darkness of that day.” [1] The overflow crowd outside Judge’s funeral proved what his eulogist said: “When he was talking with you, you were the only person on the face of the earth.. . . We come to bury his heart but not his love. Never his love.”

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In by Kathy Coffey, Liturgical Press, 800-858-5450

Canonization of Mother Teresa

Her service seems as simple as the pure blue and white lines of her clothing. Mother Teresa cared for the poor, dying and homeless in the slums of Calcutta. To those who face daily the quagmire of business decisions, tangled relationships and complex scheduling, her work by contrast seems a clear, uncomplicated gospel following.

Yet few of us abandon our routines, don saris and join her movement. Perhaps we want to believe that something of Teresa’s spirit can invigorate our lives; some of her clarity can penetrate our shadows; some of her compassion can move through us to those we touch each day. Our contacts may not be as abandoned and diseased as those Teresa cared for, but they have the same needs for attention and affection.

Teresa apparently had the same luminosity that attracted people to Jesus. Everyone wanted to be near her in life, and after death she exerts the same attraction. Her biographer Malcolm Muggeridge believed that for people who have trouble grasping “Christ’s great propositions of love… someone like Mother Teresa is a godsend. She is this love in person.”

No one was less sentimental or more “earthy.” She would engage in lively discussion with beggars about their “take of the day,” eager to hear how it went. One of her favorite words was “beautiful”—in the squalor of Calcutta slums! Indeed, she believed her vocation was to be beautiful. She gloried in life-surviving-against-all odds, exulting when a tiny baby survived: “There’s life in her!”

Like ourselves, she often felt exhausted, alone and miserable. So to one of us we say, “Happy Feast, St. Teresa of Calcutta!”


Excerpt from Women of Mercy by Kathy Coffey, Orbis Books, 800-258-5838

Human Trafficking, Part 2

Human trafficking means the enslavement of the innocent, the child made in God’s image, in God’s very likeness, who bears within the spark of the divine. If we truly believe each child is sacred, what are we doing to save and protect them?

Children who have been trafficked have multiple wounds: physical, emotional, spiritual. Thus, their healing is complex and must be guided carefully by highly trained professionals. As one who works in the field says, “If this were easy, everyone would be doing it!” Indeed of 160 Catholic Charities nationally, only one has tackled the question of housing victims after their rescue. (Please correct if I’m wrong!)

There are only about 300 beds available nationally for those who are rescued. There are none in the Oakland, CA area, which ranks #3 nationally for trafficking. Therefore, Nancy O’Malley, DA for Alameda County, who has prosecuted over 400 traffickers locally, asked Bishop Barber for help.

He responded in the only way a Christian could: “Of course. The whole diocese will help.”

And so, Catholic Charities of the East Bay will open Claire’s House, a safe haven for minor girls who are victims of trafficking. These children need more than a bed; they need a home. An institution can’t repair deep psychic and physical damage; that’s the work of a trained and merciful staff. Here, victims will receive respite, hope, trauma counselling, medical care, educational and vocational training, and a spiritual dimension without which their healing is incomplete.

In the ancient Latin, “Adsum” means “I am here.” No matter what the evil has been, the Catholic community has across centuries, arisen to meet the challenge. This is one effort that can make us all proud.

Remember: if you have suspicions that someone, especially a child under 18, is forced to engage in sex or a labor activity and cannot leave, call:

National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888

Children for Sale

When we hear the ugly word, trafficking, what comes to mind? We may think first of the congestion on highways at rush hour. But human trafficking is a far more horrible thing. The average age when first trafficked is 13 for girls, 12 for boys.

Let’s first imagine that you are 15 years old, male or female. You live in perpetual fear. Not of algebra tests or getting a prom date or passing the driver’s license exam–the usual worries of your peer group. No, you are the possession of a human trafficker, who uses and abuses you, exploits you at whim and keeps you isolated. You are convinced that no one knows about your private hell; no one cares. No one has ever told you that you’re bright or beautiful—or that this deplorable situation isn’t your fault.

Somewhere deep within you know this isn’t right, that somehow you are better than this. But you have no idea how to break out of your cage. Once trafficked, your life expectancy is 7 years. It’s unlikely you’ll ever celebrate your 21st birthday.

Until one day—the freedom you’ve dreamed of arrives. Police beat down the door where you’re held captive and arrest your owner. “You are free!” they announce.

Except that–you don’t know what this means. Furthermore, there is nowhere to house you.

Let’s leave your imagining there, and interrupt with statistics. 100,000 children a year in the US are trafficked; it’s a $32 billion business nationally. The U.N. estimates that 2 million children world-wide are trafficked.

There are only about 300 beds available in the US for those who are rescued. Most kids wind up in foster care or juvenile detention. Neither placement is appropriate: often, they ran away from foster homes which were abusive or negligent. And they’re the victims, not the criminals. Read next week about what a group in Oakland, CA is doing to provide a house of healing for minor victims.

Meanwhile, if you have suspicions that someone, especially a child under 18, is forced to engage in sex or a labor activity and cannot leave, call:

National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888

De-Sanitizing the Saints

For some mysterious reason, we want to prettify our holy ones, make them antiseptic and perfect: a great dis-service which places them on a distant, unattainable pedestal. (And easily gets us off the hook of becoming like them!) Since St. Clare’s Feast was Aug. 11, let’s look at how it happened to her.

One of the most famous 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 demonstration of power or strength, and yet it was effective. The invaders retreated, causing no harm.

Her strategy fits perfectly into what Richard Rohr describes in Eager to Love as a topsy-turvy insistence on living without privilege or guarantee. Totally dependent on God, spending 40 years in one small house and garden, she discovered freedom and joy. The process of letting go her ego and learning to mirror God is far more dramatic and transformative than the phony images we use to beef up the saints. So why not focus on the true story?

For more about St. Clare, see:

Blessed Among Us: Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses by Robert Ellsberg for more about the book and a 20% off introductory offer.