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.

Reviewing the Gratitude Journal–2021

As Thanksgiving approaches, some might grumble that there’s little to be thankful for in a year filled with environmental devastation, world-wide refugees, an attack on the Capitol, anti-vaxxers and assorted evils. True, but that’s where the gratitude journal comes in. In his book THANKS!, Robert Emmons recommends the practice of writing down what we’re grateful for, articulating blessings rather than have them free-floating, thus enhancing our gratefulness.

At this time of year, I look back over the year’s entries, record some highlights. They are of course idiosyncratic and personal. But all to the good if they spur readers to create their own. Heading the list this year: VACCINES, that miracle which restored our lives, travel, family time, friendships, exercise, simple pleasures like going out for lunch, or taking children to school.

Nowhere near the same magnitude, and no special order for other entries:

Vivaldi on the radio and raspberries in the cereal bowl waking me in the morning

Kind gestures from friends: invitations, gifts, hospitality, humor, affirmation, stimulation

Wonderful books read: Hamnet, The Vanishing Half, Finding the Mother Tree, The Lost Words

Fine streaming entertainment: “Atlantic Crossing,” “Lupin,” “Call the Midwife,” “Atypical,” “Dopesick,” “Worth,” “Convergence”

Marvelous on-line courses: from Mickey McGrath about art, Matthew Fox and Mirabai Starr about Julian of Norwich, Stanford scientists about climate change, Chris Pramuk about music and hope, Commonweal series on justice

Wildly creative Halloween costumes, after precious few last year

Energetic lifeguards, Zumba teachers and yoga instructors

Delight in nature a constant theme: from the first flowering trees, white against evergreen, to the blaze of maple leaves in fall, with a whole range of color, texture and shape in between

Not that I’m a foodie, but I often record the special pleasure of a mocha in the morning, a cookie treat, enchiladas or lasagna shared with family or friends, the Honeycrisp apple when I was SO hungry!

This barely skims the surface; gratitude can be deep ocean, vast sea. But sometimes it helps to dip in our little sandpail, wield our small shovel. Heartening to know we can never exhaust all the reasons for thanks.

Feast of Frances Cabrini—Nov. 13

Because she is so burningly relevant to immigration issues today, let’s look at the Italian dynamo who opened 67 charitable institutions and houses in the U.S.  Cabrini’s energy epitomized the zealous, thirsty, upward mobility of every immigrant group. A small orphanage and school begun in 1889 in New York City grew to a national network of educational, medical, and social service institutions. A tough business woman, shrewd about contracts, she outwitted contractors and swindlers trying to cheat nuns. When lawyers were astounded by how astutely she handled a deal, she whispered, “Poor things. They can’t believe we’re able to do a little business.”

Driven by multiple demands, Cabrini could never do enough for Italian immigrants. Her heart went out to the children abandoned when their parents’ hopes of instant wealth in the new country didn’t materialize. There were always too many requests for too few resources. Asked how she managed her huge network, she commented charmingly, “Oh, I put it all in the Sacred Heart and then I don’t get the headache.” She asked God for “a heart as big as the universe;” apparently God replied, “yes.”

Few women traveled as extensively or acted as powerfully in the male-dominated world of her day. With little or no government funding, sisters were financially responsible for all their hospitals, schools, and orphanages. In 1916, Cabrini even tried a little placer mining in Colorado, hoping to finance the Denver orphanage. When skeptics told her “it’d be better to go back home,” it sounds achingly familiar. How often has that taunt been hurled at the immigrants of our day?

Book Review: Finding the Mother Tree  (NY: Knopf, 2021) by Suzanne Simard

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” Psalm 96:12

I’ll never again walk through a forest obliviously. The research of Dr. Simard has revealed what a fascinating place it is—much of its genius unseen. Under a single footstep spread 300 miles of fungal networks linking trees. “A cubic foot of soil is packed with a hundred miles of mycelium” (p. 224) or fungal threads that transport water, nutrients, and distress signals to cue adaptation when trees are threatened by insects or disease. The signals are as precise as those sent by neurons in our brains. Like the network of arteries, veins and capillaries in the human cardiovascular system, this vast underground system creates a web of life. When her first article was published in Nature, editors coined the phrase: “the wood wide web.”

Simard’s initial research showed an exchange of carbon between fir and birch that tipped her off to a massive underground communication network. When she began, she was one of only a few women employed by the Canadian forest service. They ignored her advice and Canada consequently holds the unenviable record for being first world-wide in forest disturbance rate, thereby sending more greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere. Global deforestation causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all trains, planes and automobiles combined.

Simard tried desperately to show that clear-cutting was a terrible policy because it destroyed the natural biodiversity that keeps forests healthy. Intent on producing more commercially lucrative pines and stuck on a wrong theory that trees are competitive, foresters routinely destroyed aspen, birch and alder whose collaboration would’ve produce healthier growth in the long run.

After years of having her rigorous research debunked, Dr. Simard left for a professorship at the University of British Columbia. This gave her the benefit of many graduate students trained to ask the right questions and eager to conduct more experiments, continuing and expanding her work.

Some of her experiments are hard for a non-scientist to follow, but one I did understand was planting seedlings isolated in bags with pores allowing only water to filter through. (p. 224) Cut off from the “subsidies” sent by older trees, their survival rate was poor. Indeed, the excess carbon sent to seedlings from a hub or mother tree increases their survival rate four times. Much like a healthy human family…

Perhaps that’s why Simard interweaves the scientific study with personal stories and photos. Some will be distracted by the autobiography; others enchanted. One story, of her grampa’s dog falling into the outhouse “opened up a whole new world” for the young girl. As four men dig down to free the dog, they uncover a layered underworld of tree roots, tenacious and multi-colored. It was the budding scientist’s first clue that the mushroom on the forest surface is only the tip of the iceberg. Forty years later, she’d write of mapping the hidden network: “I thought we might see a few links. Instead we found a tapestry.” (p. 285)

Even a dying tree sheds seed, provides habitat for birds, mammals and fungi, and sends its excess carbon stores to younger trees, recognizing those that are “kin” and supplying them with more than other species. (p. 262) Big mistake, then, to cut those down! “Elders that survived climate changes in the past ought to be kept around because they can spread their seed into the disturbed areas and pass their genes, energy and resilience into the future.” (p. 288) A decomposing nurse log protects new trees “from predators, pathogens and drought.” (p. 271)

“The land wants to heal itself.” (p. 302) Towards the end, Simard starts learning aboriginal knowledge about treatment of the earth’s resources. It gives her hope for transformative thinking that will help the planet regenerate. Her sense of awe is contagious; we want to help preserve the precious forest in which she takes obvious delight.

Despte Simard’s frustration with policies that haven’t changed much in 30 years, her work is becoming increasingly popularized. Her Ted talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un2yBgIAxYs) has had more than a million and a half viewers since 2016, and her book will be made into a film starring Amy Adams.

This tantalizing glimpse of creation’s intricate, elegant design invites us deeper into mystery. And there’s always more to explore…

Feast of All Saints: Varied Paths

Anyone seeking directions on a website or application will discover many routes by different forms of transportation: bus, car, foot, rapid transit, etc. So too, the saints have found multiple ways to God—or perhaps with vast creative power, God finds multiplies ways to reach them.

Consider, for instance the dazzling diversity between Junipero Serra, who poured energies into building a string of churches, and Thomas Merton, who wrote of the same building: “The church was stifling with solemn, feudal and unbreathable fictions. … The spring outside seemed much more sacred. . . .  Easter afternoon I went to the lake and sat in silence looking at the green buds, the wind skimming the utterly silent surface of the water, a muskrat slowly paddling to the other side… One could breathe. The alleluias came back by themselves. “[1]

Unsung saints continue to pioneer wildly diverse roads today: in the research hospitals that seek a cure for Alzheimer’s, the labs that discover new ways to purify water or use solar power in Africa, the schools that encourage and educate neglected or traumatized children. They carve paths in subtler ways that are no less holy: the parents caring for the autistic child who try different ways each day to touch him, the artist or musician who gives audiences another way to see or hear, the mother trying a new recipe for the hungry kids, the spouse of the Alzheimer’s patient, the scientists who discover alternate forms of energy and innovations to preserve the planet’s resources.

The church’s shorthand often refers to a puzzling group. For instance, St. Isaac Jogues “and companions.” Did the unnamed ones not bleed as profusely, scream in as much pain, shake with as many convulsions when they were tortured? Or in more peaceful terms, did the initial six and many sisters who later accompanied Marianne Cope not work as hard in the leper colony of Molokai? When her energies flagged, she probably still got up in the morning because they were all counting on each other. Father Palou, Serra’s friend and biographer, shared the heartache and ordeals, but who’s ever heard of him? Fifteen unknown sisters helped Katharine Drexel found her first school for native Americans in 1893; by 1903, eleven Navajo women were nuns prepared to carry on her work.

And what about the Irish priests who defended Julia Greeley, or arranged for the early education of Augustine Tolton, who escaped slavery in Missouri as a child and became the first black priest? What of the Franciscans who, when Tolton was rejected by seminaries in the U.S., sent him to Rome for education and ordination, or who supported Cesar Chavez’ early efforts?  

Americans love heroes, but sometimes we overlook the people who support the star. As Carol Flinders points out in Enduring Grace, we must “see the incandescent superstar for what it is, but … see the constellation in which it has come into being, too, the reverent and loving care that has surrounded and nourished it.”[2]

Theologian Elizabeth Johnson names the feast of All Saints the one for “’anonymous,’ whom the world counts as nobodies and whom the church, too, has lost track of but who are held in the embrace of God who loses not one.”[3] The letters of Paul address all the early Christians as “saints,” even when he gets frustrated with their angry feuding.

In what arenas do we still need pioneer saints today? Surely, in health care, immigration, poverty, the environment, rightful places for women in church and society, education, an end to human trafficking; the list is endless. And in many other fields, needs are still undefined. There the saints of tomorrow will shine. If we’re alert, we might even notice them moving subtly among us now.

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


[1] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 295.

[2] Carol Flinders, Enduring Grace (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 219.

[3] Elizabeth Johnson, Friends of God and Prophets (New York: Continuum, 1999), 250.

Film Review–“Convergence: Courage in Crisis”

I’m intrigued by what stays in the mind when the film ends. What lingers after the credits roll? Remaining from this documentary are stunning images of courage. We may think we’re tired of COVID, but we owe ourselves this broader, more uplifting perspective. One critic called “Convergence: Courage in Crisis,” free on Netflix, the “best documentary of 2021.” It shows the extraordinary bravery of ordinary people all over the world, from a doctor in Peru to a researcher at Oxford, working on the vaccine.

Every religious tradition honors its holy ones: the saints in Christianity, the bodhisattvas in Buddhism. The pandemic may have inspired a new, multicultural version: tough, pragmatic and relentlessly faithful. As Dr. Henderson works the night shift at a Miami hospital, the viewer thinks, “he must be exhausted.”

That instinct is confirmed when he leans his head against the elevator door for a brief rest between floors. Then we see him with his wife and two young children, then with the homeless population he serves during the day, under bridges, vulnerable to floods, far removed from any other medical treatment. The worst blow comes when he’s racially profiled and handcuffed by police outside his own home.

Dr. Rosa Luz Lopez looks around her ICU in Lima, and remarks almost casually, “we’ve intubated 8 doctors here.” The stress on the remaining staff must be horrific, especially when they treat COVID patients as young as 15.

Meanwhile in Geneva, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Gebreesus comments, “There is no vaccine against false nationalism.” His sad resignation is juxtaposed with a brief clip of Donald Trump ending US aid to WHO when the organization most needs it. The former president blames them for “COVID mismanagement” when perhaps he needs a scapegoat?

The film’s director, Orlando von Einsiedel, has characters tell their own stories; we’re all familiar enough with the narrative arc that began last January. Renata Alves is a GPS navigator for the first reliable ambulance in a Sao Paulo, Brazil favela. It didn’t come from government, but from personal donations. She herself is grieving her mother and brother, but continues to seek COVID patients in the darkest warrens of the slum.

There are several bright spots. A Syrian refugee who’d escaped torture at home offers to help clean hospitals in London. It’s grueling, unheralded labor, and the British government extends bereavement packages to doctors and nurses, but not to immigrant workers like him. When he posts a plea on social media, the policy changes. In Delhi, India, a terrified, pregnant couple passes funeral pyres on the way to a crowded hospital. But their baby arrives healthy; the cry of new life is especially welcome when surrounded by mourning dirges.

Throughout the two hours, the film cuts to University of Oxford Professor Sarah Gilbert furiously peddling her bicycle to work. She is developing the AstraZeneca vaccine and when it’s completed, the celebration is well deserved and mighty. What a triumph for humanity, after such a dark hour.

The film made me feel as I do in the morning when I stand a notch taller, listening to classical music written by a Finnish composer, performed by an orchestra in Prague, featuring a Canadian pianist. It makes me proud to belong to a human family which can generate such beauty, vigor, skill and power.

Homecoming

One benefit of travel is the way it awakens our senses, stirs us to see new sights, taste new flavors and relish new adventures. I’ve long cherished travel, but also delight in the blessing of returning home.

Fans of scripture may well point out how Jesus said that, unlike the fox or bird, he didn’t have a den or nest. But in one of the inconsistencies that make him so intriguing, he laces his teaching with references to home: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” (Jn. 14:2). “We will come to them and make our home in them” (Jn. 14:23). Perhaps he draws on his childhood experiences of bread rising, vineyards, cloth, shining lamps and flower gardens to teach with metaphors that ring warm and familiar to his listeners. 

This time, I’ve returned from an autumn visit where the maples blazed scarlet, the rain poured often and the temperatures were cold. Even more dear then, the return to a patio for lunch outside by a singing fountain draped with crimson bougainvillea, or basking on the couch in California sun, surrounded by pillows from Sonoma in fabric gold and blue with sunflowers.

With blissful independence, I make my own pot of coffee, not wrestling with someone else’s French press, inevitably producing a cup of sludge. The stash of ice cream, the books and music by the fire, all carefully chosen to reflect my particular taste await quiet solitude in which to enjoy them. One gift of the pandemic was learning to enjoy our solitude, discovering we were OK with empty calendars and no social commitments. Rooted and grounded, we were at home with ourselves, a surety we don’t want to lose as busier schedules resume. 

I know. Home is a luxury much of the world doesn’t have. But we’re talking a small and unspectacular sanctuary—the frig. surface overflowing with grandchildren’s art, the surfaces of tables rarely uncluttered. Kristin Hannah’s novel The Four Winds about terrible living conditions during the Dust Bowl taught me to appreciate a solid roof and floor, a bed and sheets. A little can be enough.

From past experience I know the initial delight wears off; we grow concerned with dusting and laundry, the tasks of maintaining the space. A slight tinge of boredom shadows that first thrill. But just at first, fresh from the airport, home is greatly savored.

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 era, 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?”

Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux—Oct. 1

At first her story seems treacly sweet. Then you look beneath the surface.

There is a reason why this girl who never left her French village, and died at 24, is so universally popular. And it’s not the syrupy piety later writers tried to foist onto her.

The biographical facts are stark: a pampered childhood, then the devastating death of her mother when Therese is four. Four sisters are devoted to her, but the closest one, Pauline, a “second mother,” leaves home to join the Carmelite convent when Therese is nine. At fifteen, she enters the same convent, having convinced the pope she’s old enough.

Simultaneously, her beloved father is hospitalized for mental illness. The teenager subsequently revises her glorious concepts of martyrdom. She sees it instead as her father lying in the 500-bed hospital, a handkerchief covering his head. Therese was never allowed to see him again, and she died an agonizing death, without painkillers, from TB.

For a teenager, life in Carmel can’t have been easy. Many nuns see the way of life as a penance deflecting God’s anger. Therese sees herself as a little child, sleeping fearlessly in her father’s arms, hiding her face in his hair. That contrast fits with how people for centuries equated holiness with grandiose male adventures: bolding fighting battles, founding organizations, dying bravely. She shifts the emphasis to the ordinary grind, no accomplishments, remaining little in God’s greatness, sleeping through her prayers.

So few Christians seem to get it—that the way of Jesus is one of descent, imperfection, disappointment. Instead, we’re hell-bent on ego-driven achievement and success, like everyone else. Therese seemed to understand what it means to follow a crucified Christ. Because her “little way” is one of confinement and failure, it is enormously appealing to those who know the humble limitations of being terminally human.

Rite of Christian Initiation, Adapted for Children, 2

When the early Christians experienced a controversy over whether male converts needed to be circumcised, they concluded that people should be “received with no undue burden.” That attitude from Acts continues in more building blocks for the Christian Initiation of Children:

Prayer

The process of initiation is all about the child’s falling in love with Jesus. And any relationship needs communication. We call this prayer. For children, the four main types might be:

WOW! (praise)

OOPS! (contrition)

THANKS! (gratitude)

GIMME (petition)

God, like an eager parent, welcomes the voices of God’s children, no matter how hesitant they may sound. At this stage, learning formulas is less important than encouraging the habit of turning internally to God. So, while children might learn the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary,” they also learn to meditate silently, pray verses from scripture, and make ritual gestures like blessing and the sign of the cross.  

Community

Initiation is the work of all the baptized, says the Rite (#9). In other words, it’s not what we give the child but who. In the process of meeting the parish community, the child may make sandwiches for the hungry with the Peace and Justice Committee, learn some songs with the choir, flip pancakes at breakfast sponsored by the youth group, visit the home-bound with those who take them Communion. Most people went into their profession or line of work because of an influential person; this interest in and modeling of parish members is no different.

Lectionary Based Catechesis

If we want to teach effectively, we learn to do it as Jesus did. He didn’t analyze the dysfunctional family; he told the parable of the prodigal son. He didn’t propose the doctrine of divine providence; he painted mental images of wildflowers and sparrows. He didn’t write a dissertation on the problem of evil; he suffered torture and died on Calvary. When he taught, he told a story with a zinger ending. He also gave people images they’d remember longer than any rules: vine and branches, leaven in dough, lost coins, water gushing to eternal life, lamps not hidden under barrels. So the children follow the gospel readings of the liturgical year and become sensitized to the symbols they’ll encounter in full initiation: water, oil, light, bread and wine.

Service

Prayer and scripture flow naturally into action. Otherwise, the church runs the risk of becoming a “feel good,” privatized therapy group. Not that children will solve the problems of climate change, world hunger, refugees or homelessness. But they’ll build an attitude that they can do their small part to help, even if that’s simply turning off the lights, reading to a younger sibling or taking out the trash when mom is exhausted. They also absorb the attitude that the people we really admire aren’t the stars or athletes making millions, but the people who run the addiction treatment center, homeless shelter, soup kitchen and Head Start class.

Dedicated catechists might well ask what the children need to know by the end of their catechumenate or preparation period. The answer is contained at the Rite of Election, when the presider will ask the parents, godparents and assembly:

∞ “Have they shown themselves to be sincere in their desire for baptism, confirmation, and the eucharist?

∞ Have they listened well to the word of God?

∞ Have they tried to live as faithful followers?

∞ Have they taken part in this community’s life of prayer and service?”

A resounding “yes!” and the children are well on their way to a life-long journey deeper and deeper into the mystery of Jesus.

To order My Path to Easter/Mi Camino Hacia La Pascua, initiation journals for children, from Pflaum publishing: https://bayardfaithresources.com/products/my-path-to-easter?_pos=10&_sid=169b1578a&_ss=r