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.”

 

Delight, Continued

Yes, I know there are an overwhelming number of deadly serious topics and terrible news to address now. And I appreciate the skilled columnists and humorists who are doing so. But in the words of Ross Gay, author of The Book of Delights, “Delight doesn’t truck with ought. Or should, for that matter.” See last week’s blog for why I’m so smitten with this book, which coordinates beautifully with what Dorothy Day, quoting Ruskin, called “the duty of delight.” Greg Boyle, SJ, in turn refers to Day’s sequel to The Long Loneliness: “This way will not pass again, and so there is a duty to be mindful of that which delights and keeps joy at the center, distilled from all that happens to us in a day” (Tattoos on the Heart, p. 148).

If Boyle, in the midst of grim poverty and Los Angeles gang wars, could keep such a clean focus on what lifts the spirits, it signals the rest of us. Or as Gay says, “the more stuff you love, the happier you’ll be.” And that stuff can be simple or silly, rarely dramatic or profound. As the Book of Proverbs says of Wisdom, “her ways are pleasant… and all her paths are peace” (3:17).

Many people now celebrate the exuberant color of July’s abundance in the garden. I was also touched by a burst of creativity from our local library. After arranging a contact-less pick-up of books ordered online, the website asked, “would you like a bag of picture books too?” Ever the eager grandmother, I of course ticked “yes.” What a delightful surprise to find waiting, at the precisely scheduled time, a bag designed to be colored and made into a house. The books within were carefully calibrated to what I’d checked out before, honoring the ages and interests of my grandchildren. AND it contained a package of sidewalk chalk for drawing in a contest encouraging the census. Piling into bed with a small grand-daughter and bingeing on books was another delight in that chain. In a messed-up society, a few rarities are true and good.

Of other delights: a hike along cliffs overlooking the ocean where the sense of time vanished. And a visit afterwards with a beloved daughter to Wildflour bakery in Sonoma County. The area is rightly famous for its wine and cheese, but we’ve found there the finest scones anywhere. What great happiness to drive with an armful of warm bread, nibbling a nectarine raspberry scone, past ripening apple orchards and fields of cows who seem to have strolled in from the ads for eating local.

I’ve laughed with friends at how something like a socially distanced happy hour at 5, which once would’ve been the PS of the day, has now become its centerpiece. Or the rare joy of finding a bookstore open, requiring masks and distance, but still almost like The Time Before. Quarantine may have forced us into the duty of delight, but by whatever path we arrive, it’s a fine place to be.

 

A Detour—or a Doorway?

I suspect many people like myself are using the added gift of time during quarantine (yup, CA is still locked down) to educate ourselves about racism. I enjoyed hearing Ibram Kendi speak at the on-line Aspen Institute, and will continue with his book HOW TO BE AN ANTI-RACIST. It contains gems full of hope such as this:

‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced            based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos.

It’s helped blur (probably not erase) my tattoo to read THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS by Ross Gay, African-American poet and professor at Indiana University. I’d enjoyed his first book, a catalogue of unabashed gratitude (Please don’t correct; he prefers the lower case title), all poetry.

With this one, he set out to write “a daily essay about something delightful.” In doing so, he discovered the development of a “delight radar” or “delight muscle.” So too, people who keep gratitude journals find that the regular discipline of writing down what they’re grateful for increases their appreciation. Themes emerge: travel, gardens, food, kindness, cafes, relationships. His lyrical prose touches lightly and insightfully on racism, but for the most part, we’re on happy, shared, human ground here.

Some of the more unusual delights are friends who dutifully write their names and phone numbers in the spaces provided in journals or backpacks, a trust in human decency—someone will return this if it’s lost. Or a “new brand of flummoxment” when Gay, a large, athletic man, is caught off kilter and almost sprains his ankle trying to re-align his arms for a friend’s hug. Or the purple stain on the skin from mulberries. Or carefully carrying a tomato plant on a plane, seeing the friendliness it evokes.

While many of the themes are familiar from religious traditions (valuing the meal, “the encyclopedia of human gestures,” the ego’s come-uppance), it’s a joy to read fresh, non-religious language. The word “vulnerable” must be over-used, so Gay’s “small and hurt-able” seems stronger. The poetic phrasing helps us see anew and think twice. His description of a grove of pawpaw trees could fit CA redwoods or mid-western oaks too: “something ancient and protective”… “the groveness also a kind of naveness.” Lotsa sacred places outside of church!

Popular media has conflated suffering and blackness, so Gay brings a unique twist: “A book of black delight. Daily as air.” He also challenges us to find our own: what delights might this day hold?

Feast of St. Mary Magdalene

Hope this isn’t “beating a dead horse,” but her feast July 22 offers a good time to revisit what happened to this central figure in Christianity. In the seventh century, Pope Gregory lent authority to a mistake: the conflation of texts about 3 women in scripture. The mud-slinging against Mary Magdalene continued until a correction in 1969, but the good news of scholarship takes a long time to reach the public. In many groups, one still hears the identification of her with a prostitute. Or in Dan Brown’s novel, the wife of Jesus.

All four gospels agree she was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection, apostle to the apostles. Why did early church fathers shift her role to financier/ crazy woman/Peter’s rival, or ignore her? Partial answers include sexism, misogyny, opposition to women’s leadership, growing emphasis on celibacy. For 1400 years, the authority of a major woman witness was sadly reduced. The amount of energy that has gone into suppressing Mary Magdalene’s voice indicates she must have posed a huge threat to the religious establishment.

Reclaiming her true identity, we can appreciate how Jesus calling her name in the garden after his resurrection is a pivotal turning point, not only for her but for all subsequent human history. She was the first to realize that God can vanquish even death. Which makes all other obstacles seem minor.

Movie Review–“Sophie Scholl: The Final Days”

 

This film takes on new meaning in the Trump era, when many people feel the need to resist, but are torn: on which despicable, unjust, racist, inhumane act of the administration should we focus? And how to best use our energies?

Viewers may already know the story of the White Rose: a group of brave German youth who wrote leaflets detailing their opposition to a war which Hitler could “prolong but never win.” Hans Scholl, 24, a medic with the German forces on the eastern front, had seen first-hand the callous waste of life and devastation there. His sister Sophie, 21, supported him and assisted in distributing the illegal leaflets at the university in Munich and throughout the city. The small group of students were armed only with a duplicating machine, their conviction and intelligence. Presbyterians, they seemed marginally aware of Nazi treatment of Jews, a rumor whispered among neighbors.

One measure of their audacity was how it threw the Nazis into unhinged vehemence. According to the film, convicts usually got 99 days before they were beheaded. The brother and sister were caught on Feb. 18, 1943, convicted of treason, and killed on Feb. 22, shortly before the German defeat. She was a pediatric nurse; he a medical student—what a waste of resources the war-torn nation could’ve used.

The film, available on Amazon Prime, is stark, befitting its subject. Sophie remains cool and calm, with only a few scenes that show her humanity: weeping in fear for her parents, basking in the sun on her face as she walks to her execution. Photos of the actual Sophie at the end show her laughing, beautiful, alive. Even a Nazi interrogator seems intrigued by her clarity and conviction. He once offers her real coffee, but then follows the dull path of many sycophants. (Et tu, Archbishop Dolan?)

Perhaps the most dramatic scene is the trial, when the defense attorney doesn’t say a word on behalf of the Scholls, and the judge rants in a belligerent, deranged, repetitive tirade. (Does the style sound familiar?) Because of its focus on the last days, the film omits one of my favorite details in the story: when their dad was earlier imprisoned by Nazis, the siblings played classical music at his window so he could listen through the bars. As the young people walk to the guillotine, one has a strong sense that their story doesn’t end with the clank of the blade. Indeed, British planes would drop their smuggled leaflets all over Germany, near the time of the Allied victory.

Sophie referred to herself as “a little candle,” but she still shines a brilliant light on our inertia and complacency.

One Good Parish

“It is essential to know all the times and seasons of one good place.” –Thomas Merton

An unexpected benefit of quarantine has been returning via computer to a parish in Denver I’ve always loved: Most Precious Blood. Seeing pictures on-line of the sanctuary with audio of the choir singing helped me realize how much it meant to me for many years. I began attending there when I was in graduate school nearby—alone and brand new to the area. Later, I taught in their school, then began bringing my infants and toddlers, later children who attended the school too. When my sons began seriously dating the women who’d become their wives, we brought them there on Christmas Eve. Although my residence changed three times in a 50-year span, MPB parish remained a steady constant.

When I’m in town, I always return and find familiar faces. Not to idealize: over the years, there were inept pastors, terrible preachers, annoying parishioners and time-wasting activities. But the whole human spectrum played out in one arena: there were also fine lectures, lotsa coffee and potlucks, superb music, an introduction to RCIA which would be important personally and professionally, deep friendships. I’d always objected to the way priests toss around the term “community,” as if rubbing elbows with 500 strangers were the be-all and end-all. But for a few years, I think I experienced its bonding blessings there, spilling into the watering hole across the street and many private homes.

Often, I was eager to escape after Mass since demands loomed: guests for dinner, grocery shopping, exercise, social or work commitments, a trip to the mountains. But maybe I should’ve lingered: pervading the place was a sense of faithful people doing tons of good. Their list of ministries is long, and now, fine people anchor the staff: music and liturgy directors, education leaders, social outreach coordinators.

The pastor, Pat Dolan combines unique talents: extraordinary musical ability and a wild sense of humor. Over the years, my journals have been sprinkled with his memorable ideas. He phrased beautifully the mantra I’ve used since moving OUT of my comfort zone several years ago: “I’m not in my element here, but how can I help?” Committed to a Spirit “much bigger than us,” he never gets too lofty or self-impressed. In a recent reflection on “Salt and Light,” he described attending a racism protest wearing full black clerics and face mask, unable to find the other ministers he planned to meet, in 90 degree heat. “It wasn’t an ethereal moment,” he grinned.

For some, MPB may be too liberal, and for others, too conservative. But for many it has been a blessing that stretches through seasons and years.

Part of the Glistening Cosmic Web

“What drew you to this course?” asks the instructor of my climate change course, offered through Stanford University’s continuing studies program.

Although I gave a quick, polite answer, the real, more complex one has tangled roots in 4th century Ireland. One reason I’ve always been drawn to Celtic spirituality is its emphasis on the sacredness of matter, God’s first and ongoing revelation through creation. Within the radiance of moon, speed of lightning, strength of stone, and clarity of water shine God’s graces. Wells and groves are sacred, “thin places,” where heaven and earth meet in close proximity. To ungratefully tarnish or endanger any of nature, then, insults the divine giver.

I can’t begin to summarize here the writings of so many who have articulated this vision better than I: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Ilia Delio, John Philip Newell, Barbara Brown Taylor. I can simply continue to read and study, endlessly refreshed and appreciative. Meanwhile, on a small personal note, daily solace during quarantine comes through a walk—along a shoreline or lake, through a forest. The green glimmer of sunlight on water shines through the frame of dark trees. The crisp air exhilarates, the beauty revives. And I wonder, how could we have limited God’s vast presence to the confines of a church?

In the Stanford class, one professor pointed out that if we simply listen to the fear-based diatribes, it will paralyze our creativity to implement wisely the solutions that we already know. Another scientist asked, “why would we use an energy source that’s toxic (fossil fuels), when we could use the clean, free energy of wind, water and sun?” His great-uncle had worked on highway 5, a major artery in CA, when there was little of our current road system. It took a massive effort to build interconnected highways, but a similar national effort could be mounted today. Indeed, it must be, for our own quality of life and the sake of our children. When we see God’s elegance and energy active in our world, how could we NOT work as intelligently as we can to preserve it?

The Irish Blessing

When one has been locked down too long and friends, family or one’s fragile self grows cranky, a remedy is near. Listen to the Irish Blessing:  https://youtu.be/TascsWZPj8U. It is a distinctly Irish take on the blessing sung world-wide, this one based on “Be Thou My Vision” with part of the Breastplate of St. Patrick.

Only those who understand the centuries-long enmity between Northern Ireland and the Republic, between Protestant and Catholic, can appreciate the rare harmony of over 300 Christian churches, in ALL the counties, singing together. With their blood-soaked history, the Irish never deny pain and suffering. Instead, they are keenly aware of dangers and threats: the coronavirus, recession and unemployment more in a long list. Summoning the High King of Heaven for protection admits that humans are small and vulnerable. But they don’t waste time and energy on ultimately futile psychological strategies, which ultimately tie us in knots. The defenses built by the undefended child can grow into the grim walls of the anxious, paranoid adult.

The blessing gives confidence to go forth wrapped and enveloped in Christ our companion: beside, before, behind, within, around. Celtic spirituality doesn’t rely only on puny human powers, but trusts God’s ear, wisdom, hand to uphold and legions to save. God’s presence in the most ordinary life is intense, vivid, sure—surrounding, encircling. Of course people still wobble, but they can always return to that grounded certainty.  Maybe that assurance accounts for over ½ million views world-wide as of June 9.

Viewers may also be drawn to the fiddlers, drummers, Irish dancers, harps, flutes, bodhrans, signers, and intermingled shots of spectacular scenery: distant castles and waves crashing on the rocky coast. Each group who sang dedicated their effort to a wide variety of causes, including a Centre for Asylum-Seekers, a cardiology department, delivery drivers, the homeless, a children’s hospital, firefighters, a primary school, “those sick and alone in hospital, those with addictions,” parents of small children. Indeed, all listeners are blessed by this heart-felt, grateful, powerful, generous outpouring.

 

Heartening Examples of Faith

In a week of unspeakable sadness, many brave actions uplifted the spirits. The first was the bold response to the president’s thugs tear-gassing peaceful protestors, clearing his way to St. John’s Episcopal church near the White House. Bishop Mariann Budde has consistently opposed his inhumane and unjust policies, and told the Washington Post, “My major outrage was the abuse of sacred symbols and texts. There was no acknowledgment of grief, of wounds. No attempt to heal. The Bible calls us to our highest aspirations, and he used it as a prop. … I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call.”

Trump’s choice of church was also bumbling. St. John’s is a liberal church that supports much that the evangelical right opposes, including same-sex marriage and abortion rights. In an interview on CNN, Rev. Budde said that the president is not a man of prayer and does not worship regularly at St. John’s—or anywhere else—calling his photo op “a charade.” In contrast, many Episcopal clergy had been supporting the protesters practically, with water and snacks.

The more wicked among us can gleefully savor the irony that the Bible fished from Ivanka’s designer purse, which Trump brandished, was the outdated RSV translation (NRSV replaced it in 1989), which many evangelicals don’t consider authoritative.(https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/06/oops-trump-brought-the-wrong-bible-to-his-church-stunt/)

On an uplifting note, Christian voices joined in a stunning international outpouring of blessing, resounding from Thailand to Wales, Moose Jaw to Winnipeg, Bournemouth, UK to Melbourne, Australia, Hamburg to Memphis, Zimbabwe to Sweden, S. Africa to Malaysia. In Elevation Worship’s “The Blessing,” the words of Numbers 6:24-26 have been jazzed up, added to and given flourishes, accompanied by various instruments and sung by children (sweetly, a brother and sister share the family set of ear buds.) The unprecedented pandemic invited a creative response, each country giving their version a unique style and twist. All are heart-felt, powerful, inspiring. Check them out on You Tube. The Irish Blessing is so unique, next week’s blog will describe it.

On Re-reading Old Journals

One sport during lockdown has been dipping into old journals to discover: what was I doing 5, 20, 25 years ago?

For an addicted journal-keeper like myself, who taught hundreds of writing students the habit, these small books can hold treasures. They record 4-month-old milestones for the son soon turning 40, the beauties of seasonal change, the delight of a grandchild’s birth, the cherished memory of conversation with dear friends or excitement of new library books or films.

It’s especially poignant now to read of the mobility we took so lightly then: lunch with Karen, dinner with Mark, hugs, swimming, yoga classes, in-person discussion groups with shared snacks. The travel plans alone seem to echo from another lifetime: pack, prepare talks, print boarding pass. Hard to believe, but in one month, I actually completed two 11-day trips, to CA, WA, Victoria BC and MN, then after doing the laundry, to Ireland!

The struggles seem perennial: to get adequate time for prayer, reading, reflection; then the joy of finding it, the low-energy days of illness, the doubt, worry, then surprise when complex plans work out. Some people are totally forgotten: who was Laura, who required so much mental juice at one time? Events that once seemed disastrous led to surprising new doors and unfolding chapters. Reading with God’s compassion, one can smile wryly at enormous expenditures of time and energy on things that in retrospect matter so little.

And running through journals and lives like a golden thread: the divine presence that sustains through the difficult times and enriches the beautiful ones, giving confidence through tough decisions that God always accompanies.

In difficult times, two blessings:

From Ireland: https://youtu.be/TascsWZPj8U

And from the Bay Area: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLPDcqwdcto