Boring, Sweet, Ordinary Time

Most seasoned travelers will admit that one of the best bits of a trip is the first night back in our own beds. After spending the last three weekends away, I’m blessing the routine. Each reader will have unique specifics, but mine form a litany:

Oatmeal and scone in the morning, popcorn by the fire at night

The rare confluence of good books and time to read them

A long conversation with a dear daughter

The thinning faux leather of slippers comfortable as cloud

Laundry drying outside on the line in the sun, with its fresh fragrance

Zumba class with a Ukrainian teacher who could deter the Russian invasion with her energy and joy

Meditation on the warm patio, punctuated by the whir of a crimson throated hummingbird

A negative COVID test, signaling, “It’s just a cold. Life can resume as planned!”

It’s always a balance between crawling into hobbit hole seclusion and not hiding our light under a basket. Or as a friend pointed out about the last blog on Jung, sometimes the particularity intrinsic to Christianity can get devoured or diminished by the universality of archetypes.

But Jesus seems to hold the tension: at once transcendent divine and incarnate human in sinew, bone and blood. He was born “while Quirinius was governor of Syria” in Bethlehem of Judea—hard to get more specific. His friends had individual names and unique quirks; his miracles occurred at Cana, Naim, Bethsaida. He taught using seed, leaven, vines and sparrows. Yet he speaks to the whole world: witness art depicting Jesus and Mary in the native dress of Japan, Bolivia, Poland, or Kenya.

He modeled the best of humanity, “both/and”—limited yet vast, particular and universal, now and forever. For those who travel and those who stay home, he guides the real journey: away from fear. The pilgrimage to the center means we needn’t go to Assisi, Mecca, Jerusalem. In our funny, awkward, crazy, sacred selves, we contain worlds.    

The Sense of a Larger Self

“The psyche, in its deepest reaches, participates in a form of existence beyond space and time and thus partakes of what is inadequately and symbolically described as eternity.” –C.G. Jung

Whenever I study Jung, he conveys a sense of humans containing so many worlds beyond the conscious—indeed, vast seas within. We are creatures of time and eternity, psyche and matter, conscious and unconscious, this and More. A diagram of the human framework developed by Morton Kelsey in his book The Other Side of Silence shows only 10% which is conscious: the ego, five senses, and physical perceptions. We all contain another huge world: encounters with the divine, the messages of dreams, the collective unconscious, a door to the deceased, or what Catholics term “the communion of saints.”   

When it seems mysterious, an image might help: recently, my family drove to Lake Tahoe for a weekend vacation and some skiing. Snug within the van, each of the seven people held an infinite world, and around us, an infinite number of snowflakes fell and infinite number of pine trees towered. It is on that eternal stage that human life evolves. A recent weekend with Don Bisson, a Marist brother who has a doctorate in Jung prompted my study, which will continue with many more books and deeper contemplation.

Humans have always had intuitions of eternity, a felt sense of more than time and space. For instance, a sudden memory can carry us back forty years, or we return to an old neighborhood or sacred place and it fills with the presence of deceased mentors, friends and family who once lived there.

This kind of knowing isn’t the logical, linear kind where the left brain is active. The right-brain language of the soul is intuition, creativity, dream, E.Q. or the ability to read another’s emotional state and the dynamic between us. The 90% of us that is unconscious is open to the holy, to awe and an encounter with the Other greater than the self. The soul expresses itself in the language of creativity: music, poetry, metaphor, symbol, pointing to a reality that can be described only in these ways. We have within an unlimited capacity for joy, love, surrender and affirmation of all things.

In the Christian tradition, Christ unites in peace: or as John Main says in Moment of Christ: “Paul speaks of Christ as having broken down all the barriers symbolized by the dividing wall in the Temple, which separated the outer from the inner court, the outer from the inner reality. In Christ reality is one again.”

We live with a foot in each world—the temporal and the eternal. Jung saw both as real and points to synchronicity and dreams as connectors.

Synchronicity is “a phenomenon where an event in the outside world coincides meaningfully with a psychological state of mind.” These are the almost impossible ways things come together: for example, an image from a dream appears in the environment. Or a friend understands something deep within, which we haven’t verbalized. Or a father dies 20 seconds after his son travels from the other side of the country: “he waited for your coming.”   

The dream is part of our connection with the divine, giving the unconscious a language to reach the conscious. Dreams figure prominently in the nativity narratives, giving both Joseph and the magi clear directions. Jung’s definition of dream: “a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious.” What a rich fund of inner knowledge, that we so often ignore.

Indeed, we often live on the surface, experiencing only a fraction of our greater reality. We can be grateful to Jung and others like him, who help us broaden our lens to the deeper sea beneath the superficial waves.

Book Review– Our Missing Hearts

Many of us got upset about the Trump policy to separate children from their parents at the US southern border. But most of us just signed petitions or sent letters to Congress. Celeste Ng channeled the outrage into a masterful novel titled Our Missing Hearts. Her previous novels, like Little Fires Everywhere also deftly unveil the evil underlying a society’s apparently calm surface.

But this tragedy takes on new significance as Russia uses a similar tactic of removing Ukrainian children. The ultimate hurt is to take what’s most precious, someone’s child—for all the righteous reasons, of course—such as the native American children put in now-notorious government boarding schools like Carlisle, PA. Ng’s poignant description fits a wide variety of these situations: No one who lost a precious person ever said, “We had enough time,” or “this was enough.”  

The family central to this story lives under a harsh regime designed to protect “American culture,” and the parallels to Trump’s nationalistic policies, excluding people of color, hit us over the head like bricks. The lead characters are so innocent—Ethan, the father was a linguistics professor, demoted to shelving library books because his wife Margaret is suspect. She’s Asian and inadvertently, a line from one of her poems, now officially banned, has become the rallying cry for the resistance: “our missing hearts.”

Cleverly, the hope and practical steps for finding missing children circulate through an underground network of librarians, incensed because many of their books have been burned and their buildings stand almost empty. Wisely, Bird, the 12-year-old son of Ethan and Margaret, gravitates there when his mother mysteriously disappears in order to protect him. His father continues the deception, but Bird heard enough fairytales when he was younger to know how to follow mom’s clues and undertake a hero’s journey.

Hearts beating fast, readers accompany him, to ultimately discover how his mother is undermining inhumane policies, racism and intolerance of dissent. Her plan is brilliant, and as she points out, people just get angry when a protest stops traffic and slows their progress to work or home. But guerrilla art attracts thoughtful attention, because it shows that nonviolent protestors are more creative than their oppressors. Ng bases fictional examples on real ones: pacifist yarn-bombings, children’s statues carved in ice, and the Nativity scenes of the Holy Family in cages that surfaced for several years around Christmas. As Ng says in “Author’s Note”: “Bird and Margaret’s world isn’t exactly our world but it isn’t not ours, either.”

That same authenticity continues throughout, when Ng avoids a happy ending, but leaves it darkly ambivalent, unresolved as real life often is. What a grace to have authors hold a clear mirror to the unvarnished selves we’d rather not see.

Epiphany: “Welcome, Everyone!”

It’s not over yet. Sad to take down the Christmas decorations, but the feast of Epiphany still burns bright.

Long before Jesus preached inclusivity, Mary practiced it. Imagine being the mother of a newborn, exhausted from a trip to register for the census in Bethlehem. Then picture giving birth in a stable, which was probably not as cozy and clean as most Christmas cards depict. Mary is far away from her support system, so she can’t rely on her mother, sisters or friends for help. No casseroles, no baby blankets. 

Then, according to Luke, a crowd of shepherds arrives. They must be strangers, but there is no record of Mary feeling uncomfortable with these uninvited guests. Instead, she “treasures” the memories and is filled with gratitude. Matthew’s account of the magi doesn’t mention Mary’s response, but she must have wondered: how many more strangers would crowd into their temporary housing? These surprising visitors aren’t even Jewish–and bring the strangest gifts. 

Mary’s experience should give us fair warning. If we hang around with Jesus, we’d better keep our doors open. He brings along an odd assortment of friends. They may not bring frankincense or myrrh, but they arrive unexpectedly when there are only two pork chops for dinner. They come disguised as the children’s friends or the lonely neighbor who talks too long while the rolls burn. They phone at the worst possible times and they interrupt our most cherished plans. And in these, says Jesus, you’ll find me. This feast seems to celebrate James Joyce’s description of the Catholic church: “here comes everybody!”  

Feast of Elizabeth Ann Seton—Jan. 4

The curved colonnade of the Watson house is unique in the Battery area of New York City. Where skyscrapers probe ramrod straight into the sky, this rounded, red brick colonial seems a quaint anachronism. Businesspeople in serious suits stride purposefully past it, while swarms of tourists move towards the Staten Island ferry. Yet this small place still holds some pulse of the city’s and country’s life. Once the home of Elizabeth Ann Seton in a fashionable neighborhood facing the Hudson River, it’s now the Church of the Holy Rosary, with a shrine to Seton at the back. She is rightly heralded as the first native-born American saint. Not a martyr, she lived instead with many heartbreaks: the deaths, before she was 4, of her mother and infant sister, then when she was 29, of her husband, and finally of two daughters as young girls. Late in life, she marveled that she had lived through it all.

Contemporary issues that would’ve interested her swirl around this small oasis in New York traffic. Immigration would’ve concerned her because when her husband William Seton sickened, the medical recommendation was that a few months in Italian sunshine would restore his health. Instead, the Seton party was confined to a lazaretto (a place like prison) because the Italians feared yellow fever. (He actually died of tuberculosis.) Once at the height of society, they quickly became the refugees.

International business thrives here. So too the Seton shipping company had commerce around the world. William had worked with the Filicchi family in Italy for two years learning the shipping business before he met Elizabeth. Interfaith dialogue, the ecumenical movement prompted by Vatican II might’ve amazed her, since her conversion made her an outcast of upper crust society. She agonized over the right path to God, believing there was only one. Many of her Episcopal friends and family rejected her, since Catholics were at the bottom of the social heap, but some friends remained faithful despite what they saw as folly.  

New trends in education? She would’ve gobbled them up, wanting nothing but the best for her students, whether they paid a small tuition or came “dutch,” free. In the early days of her first school, she’d study herself after classes ended at five o’clock, “stuffing her brain” with math and grammar to teach the next day.

The biographical details provide an outline: Born two years before the American Revolution, Betsey Bayley was the doctor’s petite and beautiful daughter, raised in privilege, but still lonely. His remarriage after her mother’s death and subsequently seven more children meant Elizabeth had to live with various relatives. When she met Will at age 16 and married him four years later, she wrote, “My own home at twenty—the world—that and heaven too, quite impossible!” The attractive couple were compatible in many ways: especially charming were duets with her playing the piano, and he the violin.

But the idyllic times were short-lived. They had five children in seven years, and Will’s shipping business began to fail. Elizabeth tried to help with accounts and her father gave money, but bankruptcy or debtor’s prison seemed inevitable. Then Will’s father died, and his own health failed. The solution, which most of their friends thought madness, was the Italian climate, voyaging with their oldest daughter Anna, leaving the four younger children with relatives. After forty days jailed in quarantine, Elizabeth wrote, “To be sent a thousand miles on so hopeless an errand…”

When Will died two days after Christmas, Elizabeth was left penniless, with five children under eight. But the church of Italy had a profound influence. After much agonizing and delay, Elizabeth became Catholic on March 25, 1805. Seton could easily be patron saint of single parenthood, financial anxiety, household drudgery, and bottomless grief. In early widowhood, she had to rely on the charity of others, but joy in her new-found faith seemed to carry her through the worst.

The only hope for the small family’s security came from the president of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore. He wanted Elizabeth to start a school for girls. In fact, he had only two prospective students, his nieces. But he was a charming and persuasive Frenchman and she had nothing to lose.

Saying goodbye to New York City where she had been so happy, never to return, Elizabeth wrote, “can the heart swell so high and not burst?” Male clergy tried to force on her small group of women the French rule of the Daughters of Charity, but  Elizabeth was adamant that nothing should interfere with her “darlings,” her children, her first priority. Her early years in Maryland were difficult, with constant illness and death, squabbles with tyrannical clergy, tedious conflict over the rule and leadership, a grueling schedule, brutal cold, fleas, food shortages and uncertainty about the school. Always the leader, Elizabeth coped with it all, admitting, “Tribulation is my element.” Then her beautiful, 16-year old daughter Anna died of tuberculosis, followed soon after by her sister Rebecca.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s community was asked to staff orphanages in Philadelphia and New York, a ministry that would eventually expand to hospitals, schools and social services all over the country. As one sister predicted, their quiet work in a valley would “give such a roar one day that the noise will sound over all America.”

Seton could address many contemporary quandaries. Difficult teenagers? Her sons were “a thorn in the heart,” of whom she said, “what’s a parent to do but pray and dote?” Tedious housework? She shoveled snow off the children’s beds in Emmitsburg. Advocacy for the marginalized? She welcomed the first African-American students, and insisted on the education of girls, apparently deflecting questions about why they weren’t learning simply to embroider.

Her self-deprecating one-liners could out-quip Stephen Colbert. She called herself the “Old Lady,” who simply doled out affection. After founding what would become the American Catholic schools, she dismissed an arduous body of work: “A ruined carcass, bundled up in old shawls and flannels, I never do the least work of any kind.”

Her humor transcends eighteenth century piety; her mysticism resonates with the best of contemporary spirituality. When she had lost almost everything–husband, beloved sister-in-law, home, comforts, she wrote drily, “is Poverty and Sorrow the only exchange?… Well, with God’s blessing, you too will be changed into dearest friends.” That is the voice of the spacious soul, welcoming whatever comes, finding even in the worst surprises the mysterious presence of the Holy.

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

Christmas!

Perhaps the challenge of the Christmas season is whether we can hear familiar stories and songs with wonder, not the yawn of “déjà vu.”  Our model might be the three-year old boy, who,  entering a vast, baroque cathedral for the first time at Christmas, seeing the trees, banners, huge statues, a jillion tiny white lights, glittering mosaics arching overhead into infinite space, breathed one word: “wow.” Can we allow the stories we’ve heard a thousand times—of a journey to Bethlehem, a stable, angels, shepherds and magi, to resonate at a deeper level this year? Can we attend with care to whatever God wants to birth in us during this season? As Eugene Ionesco warns, “over-explanation separates us from astonishment.” Perhaps the rest of the year can be cut-and-dried, but this is the season for mystery to flourish.

If ever we misperceived God as stingy or punitive, the scriptures of this season should correct that image, as God pours forth God’s self in the only Son, who begins his great adventure now. Like beautiful bells, the prophets foretell: something spectacular is on the way!

The psalms keep the focus where it belongs: on the praise of God, not on human predicaments nor flaws. They bring out today’s equivalent of the big brass band: lute and harp, the songs of forest, plains, earth and sea.  And limited human beings brush shoulders with angels as all sing God’s glory.

John’s letters after Christmas might startle those who spent their childhoods following the rules, pleasing authorities and winning awards. God gives everyone gold stars, an inestimable gift of adoption as God’s heirs that no one can deserve. This inheritance would fill us with confidence and gratitude if we weren’t numb to the implications. One response might be to break into the glad abandon of dance—or to carry that exuberance more quietly within. The season also celebrates saints who took the lavish promise seriously, raising the question, “Can I too believe that God delights in me?”

Fourth Sunday of Advent

This season seems permeated with impossibilities like the dead stump of Jesse budding. Even if we could wrap our minds around the idea of God becoming human, “pitching a tent in us,“ it’s an even longer leap to see ourselves as God’s children, heirs to the divine kingdom. Irish poet John O’Donohue writes of “being betrothed to the unknown.” Christmas means we are also married to the impossible, getting comfortable with the preposterous. It all began with Mary’s vote of confidence: “For nothing is impossible with God.” During liturgies when we hear Mary’s “Magnificat,” we might remember Elizabeth’s words that precede it: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord will be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).

It’s a good time to ask ourselves, do we let bitterness and cynicism poison our hearts? Ironically, WE are conscious of our own limitations. GOD keeps reminding us of our high calling, royal lineage and a mission so impeccably suited to our talents and abilities, no one else in the world can do it. Again, Mary is the perfect model. She might not understand half the titles given her son in the “Alleluia Chorus” of the “Messiah.” Mighty God? Prince of Peace? Such language is better suited to a royal citadel than a poor village named Nazareth.  While her questions are natural, she never wimps out with “I don’t deserve this honor.” Instead, she rises to the occasion. As did Joseph in today’s reading from Matthew: maybe not understanding, but doing as the angel commanded in his dream.  

What’s become of our great dreams? Have we adjusted wisely to reality, or buried ideals in a tide of cynicism? Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle more with good news than with bad? If these questions make us squirm, perhaps we need the prayer of Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB: “God help me believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.” Remember that the adult Jesus hung out with some unsavory characters: crooks and curmudgeons, loudmouths and lepers, shady ladies and detested tax guys. In his scheme of things, our virtue trips us up more than our sin. The ugly stain of self-righteousness blocks our path to God more than natural, human failures.  Limited as we know ourselves to be, we might ask ourselves the question raised by novelist Gail Godwin, “who of us can say we’re not in the process of being used right now, this Advent, to fulfill some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it?” (“Genealogy and Grace” in Watch for the Light. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004, 167)

Notice the angel Gabriel’s first word to Mary: “Rejoice.” The baby in Elizabeth’s womb as she greets Mary “leaps for joy.” Let’s remember that tone this week, which can be one of the most hectic in the year. The angel says, “rejoice.” Not “spend. Clean. Cook. Decorate. Shop. Bake. Wrap. Shop again. Create the perfect holiday ambiance. Work to exhaustion. Make everyone in the family sublimely happy.”

As we do seasonal tasks this week, may we do them not as perfectionists, but with a mantra of gratitude and praise: “I get to do this. Let me do it all with thanks.”

A Tribute to Dolores Curran

We pause the Advent reflections to honor the death of a dynamic, ground-breaking woman, Dolores Curran.

At a time when the US Catholic church was dominated by priests and religious, she introduced the then-shocking notion that perhaps the laity might also play a part. In her ground-breaking book Who Me, Teach My Child Religion?, she suggested that the home was an arena for spirituality and that parents just might find God there in themselves and their children. In the family were “hearts of flesh” often not found in the sterile institutional “hearts of stone” that still can’t embrace the gay or lesbian kids. Now her ideas seem mild; then they were wildly coloring-outside-the-lines.

She recalled with disappointment the origins of Call to Action in the sixties. The bishops had asked lay people like herself for consultation, then after long, grueling hours when many had to leave young families, they totally dismissed their recommendations. (Apparently the same ideas, like allowing married men and women into the priesthood are still surfacing in the current synodal discussions.)

Although writing 12 books, a column, “Talks with Parents” for 30 years, and numerous articles might seem grim work in the clerical climate, Dolores did it all with spunk and humor. In one article she described driving through Nebraska when some ridiculous bishop there had excommunicated members of Call to Action. Her kiddos in the back seat picked up on the hint they might not have to go to Mass and were thrilled, cheering. She wrote one for America Magazine when the only names on their masthead had “S.J.” after them, about women in the church being like the builders, coerced by the English, of the Irish famine roads that went nowhere… The book that bridged from the Catholic world into the larger one was the Christopher Award-winning Traits of a Healthy Family.

Typical of Dolores, she focused not on pathology, but on characteristics parents might recognize and say, “Hey! We’re not doing so badly!” That work led to even more lectures nationally and internationally, and service with the White House Conference on Family in the 1980’s. 

Her sense of humor carried over into a project in Denver when some of us started an alternative to the diocesan newspaper, which featured 15 pictures of the archbishop in almost every issue. We began Leaven for the “thinking Catholic,”and included book and liturgy reviews, thoughtful pieces questioning some of the more egregious policies of local church leaders and the Vatican, and when we were lucky, a funny piece from Dolores. She and Sr. Mary Luke Tobin served for many years on our board, always generous with their support.

Personally, I’ll always be grateful for the vital encouragement Dolores and Sr. Joyce Rupp gave me when I transitioned from teaching college to writing and speaking in the spirituality arena. If it hadn’t been for them, I probably would’ve floundered and quit within two weeks. Now, I continue to cherish her bold perspective, breath of fresh air, and model I’ve tried to follow. Brian Doyle names eloquently what she was: “if we cannot see God in the vessels into which the electricity of astonishing life is poured by a profligate creation… then we are very bad at the religion we claim to practice, which says forthrightly that God is everywhere available…” (Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace, p.9)

With grief for the loss and gratitude we had her, I think of St. Thomas More’s line about “meeting merrily in heaven.” I know she’s laughing uproariously now with her husband Jim, their daughter Theresa who died young, and her many siblings. In fact, Dolores and God are probably cracking zany jokes together.

Tantalizing Whispers of Promise

I’ve been guilty of writing about Advent as a time of intense preparation for beloved family and friends to gather. Baking, shopping, decorating, and wrapping—all designed to wel­come travelers—create happy chaos around the table with extra chairs wedged at the corners.

True. But since the pandemic, Advent fatigue seems dif­ferent. It’s the loneliness of those whose kids aren’t coming home, the spouses who couldn’t reconcile. It’s the sad resigna­tion of the incarcerated whose daily routine is unchanging.

It’s the despair of the refugee girl who speaks only an indig­enous Central American language, who can’t understand the English, Spanish, or Farsi in her international school and sometimes simply puts her head down on the desk.

To all these, even to these, the Advent readings are perfectly timed wellsprings of hope and energy. God promises through Isaiah: “They will run and not grow weary, / walk and not grow faint.” Jesus beckons: “Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.” Note: personal promises, not sure answers that ring hollow in the depths of despair.

Promise opens a different perspective: the tender God sees beyond limited human vision. God, source of all goodness, promises to walk close beside us. Jesus stakes his very life on us. Often our judgments of what’s positive or negative are wrong. What first seemed dire calamity can become surpris­ing joy. Hold it all, say Wisdom teachers. This season points to the coming of One who shares the suffering, enters the worst. Then the star brightens the night sky; the Advent candle lights.

Kathy Coffey, “Tantalizing Whispers of Promise” from the December 2022 issue of Give Us This Day, www.giveusthisday.org (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2022). Used with permission.

The Mood of Advent

We start Advent not with dread or foreboding, but with joyful anticipation. It’s like welcoming into our homes a dear friend or relative whom we haven’t seen for a while. There’s probably a flurry of cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking—all done with delight. When we look forward to renewing a close relationship, the preparation isn’t a burdensome chore. It may be tiring, but it’s happy.   

Jesus gives the disciples similar advice in today’s gospel: don’t be snoozing when an important visitor arrives. Be alert, awake, watchful as people are at an airport, searching the crowd for a beloved face.

How much more carefully we await the arrival of God. God is already with us, always and everywhere. Our Advent preparations highlight that presence, helping us become more aware. If we are lulled into anesthesia by busy schedules or overfamiliarity, Advent is the wake-up call. Look at what richness surrounds us! See how blessed we are! Do we look for God like the gospel gatekeeper, with a sharp eye? Or do we surrender our spirituality for the ersatz cheer of sales and malls?

One way of marking time that has been honored by Christians for centuries is the Advent wreath. Googling the phrase produces over 100,000 results—ways to buy one, make one, pray with one. This circle of pine with four candles nestled within can become the center for Advent prayer, reflection and song. It reminds us to pause, breathe deeply of its fragrance, remember what distinguishes this time of year.