Lent 4—Mother of the Man Born Blind

I was so excited my son could see, I couldn’t understand how anyone would twist a miracle into placing blame. But the interrogating Pharisees didn’t have my memories: the blind child, moving on instinct, his hands waving before him, sometimes bumbling into doors or trees, the other children jeering, the times when the attempt to keep up became too much, and he collapsed in exhaustion.

But my boy’s wit served him well. He’d met a long series of bullies, so he knew how to stand up to the Sanhedrin. When they probed for information about his healer, he asked slyly, “Do you want to become his disciples too?” “He can speak for himself,” his father said. And he could—eloquent and bold, even through a grilling that would have intimidated trained orators.

Still, I wondered. The rabbis taught that my sin had caused his blindness. How had I made the light die in his eyes? How had I harmed one most precious to me?

But soon the sudden sparkle in my son’s gaze ended the guilt I carried within. My son’s vision restored my own. Like the scales slipping from his eyes, my burden vanished. Jesus freed me from placating the synagogue crowd when he said, “Neither he nor his parents sinned.” Were the rabbis wrong, or had I just moved to a different stage, a greater light and liberation?

Excerpted from Hidden Women of the Gospels by Kathy Coffey, Orbis Books, orbisbooks.com, 800-258-5838

Lent 3—Woman at the Well

She just wants to fill her bucket and get home before it gets any hotter. The encounter which changes her life comes in the ordinary drudgery—at the well, not the synagogue; in the office, not the church; in the kitchen, not the temple. Almost like finding enlightenment in the frozen food aisle.

But Jesus welcomes desire at the well, indeed, considers it even more important than his own drink. Both the woman and Jesus find so much joy in their conversation, they forget the concerns that brought them here in the first place. He never gets his drink; she abandons her jar. But their deep yearnings meet.

As John Main writes in Word Into Silence, “The consuming desire of Jesus [is] to flood [us] with His Spirit.” (p. 46) Or to give “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” She’s plucky enough to believe him. She responds to a promise, never seeing this miraculous water nor feeling it spill down her sleeves. Maybe she likes his style: to call, never coerce.

Curious how we might respond? Main, says, “numbed by the extravagance of … New Testament claims… we … tone them down in safe theological formulae.” (p. 44) The woman no longer skulks alone and anonymous to the well at noon, when no one else is there. She blazes into the village like a brass band, eager to speak her truth. Newly come to voice, she snags people, holds them in the hollow of her hand.

The Samaritan woman is a model to us all of how to befriend our longing and move towards trust. Her water jar, symbol of domestic duty, is left in the dust. She herself becomes the vessel for the best news anyone could hear.

Transformations and a Positive Spin on Human Nature

As some this weekend read the story of Jesus’ transfiguration into radiant light, it’s a good time to think about our own transformations. As people move from child to teen to adult, some to spouse/partner, parent or grandparent, the really important and interesting transformations occur within. Gradually, we come to see ourselves and believe more in our identity as image of God. Ram Dass describes the transformation into a wise elder, “We move from role to soul.” The ego identities as teacher/caretaker/attorney/ doctor/chef/Democrat/Republican fade. Then we see as the mystic St. Catherine of Genoa did, “My me is God.”

Who I am in God, my true identity, is indestructible. All else passes away as I become “the very goodness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Of course humans still fail, but we get better at holding the paradoxes: we are both time-bound and eternal, empty and full, partial and complete, often wrong and radically OK.

Some balk when they hear of their own deep goodness. But Rutger Bregman in Humankind presents a compelling case that as Anne Frank said, “In spite of everything… people are truly good at heart.” For instance, he sees Lord of the Flies, a novel which details how boys abandoned on an island destroy each other more as a reflection of the author William Golding’s personal outlook than as reality. Golding was depressed, alcoholic, and unhappy. Yet his fiction was a hit, and gave many a harshly negative view of human nature.

But Bregman finds a real-life case: six boys marooned on an island for over a year, rescued by an Australian sea captain.  Their true story is heartening: they began and ended each day with song and prayer, tended a fire that never went out, collected rainwater in hollow tree trunks, planted a garden, set up sports, and resolved quarrels by giving participants time-outs. The squabblers would go to opposite ends of the island and cool down. They suffered storms, terrible thirst, and one boy’s broken leg, but emerged as friends, in fine physical shape.

One isolated incident? Hardly. Bregman cites long-range statistics that show life improving for humanity. Most infectious diseases eradicated, slavery abolished, people living in extreme poverty under 10%. In the Middle Ages, 12% of the European and Asian populations died violent deaths. But in the last 100 years, that figure has gone down to 1.3% world-wide. Of course we face ecological crisis, but Bergman believes, “there’s no need to be fatalistic about civil society.”

During the London Blitz and the retaliatory bombing of Germany, a strange serenity pervaded despite the grief and destruction. Public mental health actually improved in Britain and in Germany, “there was no evidence of breakdown of morale.” Military experts still haven’t caught on; Putin’s heartbreaking bombing of the Ukraine seems to have only strengthened the peoples’ resolve.

Bregman doesn’t skirt the toughest examples, but presents angles on them we may not have seen before. My friends and family know that my personality type is idealistic; maybe I’m just reading what I want to find. But  I keep returning to the astonishingly good news of the gospel: “Make your home in me as I make mine in you.” “Whoever receives one of these little ones receives me”—over and over, God’s identification with muddled, mistaken humanity. Sadly, the Christian message has been used to scold and shame, bludgeon and bully. Perhaps the bottom line is, can we believe awesome news?

Better than Chocolate for Lent

Sometimes when I’m deep into a novel, streaming series or box of cookies, I think of it during the day, anticipating diving in that evening. Now I’m looking forward to Lent, reading more of Joyce Rupp’s Jesus, Companion in My Suffering. (Ave Maria Press, 2023, 800-282-1865)

Full disclaimer: I’ve admired Joyce’s work for over thirty years, benefited from her practical guidance when I entered the field of spirituality writing, and treasure our friendship. Those who first got to know her through early books like Praying our Goodbyes which looked honestly and touchingly at grief, won’t be disappointed in her latest. What Joyce can do in a small space is genius: brief Gospel passage, prayer and practice, all in under two short pages, one for each of the forty days.

She looks at how Jesus shared our sufferings, the ordinary worries, disappointments, failures, fear, rejection and  fatigue as well as the deep griefs like betrayal, violence and death. Over and over, “Jesus enters fully into our human condition,” experiencing and understanding it to the last drop. No matter what we bear, she reminds us, we don’t do it alone.

One of my favorite chapters is Martha in the kitchen, “getting more upset with each stirring of the pot.” How often do we want to welcome Jesus into our hearts, but fail to take the time for quiet reflection, instead accepting or creating more tasks that leave us feeling overwhelmed and angry? The suggested practice is wonderfully down to earth: consider my gripes, especially the self-inflicted ones.

How better to enter Lent than with Jesus as companion who understands us fully because he’s been here?

“I set before you life and death”… Deuteronomy 30:15

Ash Wednesday’s themes of atonement and new life emerging from ashes came together this year when I attended the Violins of Hope concert. The history of these instruments is unique and touching: they were played by Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust. Even in ghettos and camps, music rang out—and continues today.

The project was begun by Amnon Weinstein, a violin maker in Tel Aviv, where a  customer brought a violin for restoration. It had been played by an Auschwitz prisoner, as others were marched to their deaths. (The Nazis also arranged birthday, Sunday and holiday concerts for themselves, so being an orchestra member could preserve a person’s life.)

At first, Weinstein saw ashes within the violin, which reminded him of his 400 family members who had perished. But by 1996, he was ready: word got out, and people brought him 100 instruments. While most of the original owners and musicians were silenced, their voices live on through the restored instruments, or as Avshi Weinstein, Amnon’s grandson said, “now the violins can pray again.”

The poignancy of the event became immediate when Ben, sitting beside us, rolled up his sleeve and displayed a tattooed number on his wrist. That Nazi mark of inhumanity had become a badge of honor. Ben had survived eight death camps, including Auschwitz, and was singled out for recognition and applause.

At this event, violinists played 24 of the original instruments; other violins were touring around the world. Especially meaningful: many free educational assemblies at middle and high schools would reach tens of thousands of students.

The first music played was based on a prayer that stretches back more than 2000 years, expressing the deep human yearning for God. The program continued through the klezmer folk music tradition, Sephardic music from Spain, selections from “Shindler’s List, “and concluded with songs from “Fiddler on the Roof,” which had the audience clapping along. The vibrant conductor coaxed forth a stream of themes: tragedy, resilience, cruelty, resistance, and enduring life. By the time we reached “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “L’Chaim” many in the audience had grown misty-eyed. Life wasted, life silenced, life passing, life renewed and celebrated: what appropriate themes to start Lent.  

“Living” – Film Review

There are no accidents. I’d been wanting to write more about Jung’s view of mortality, when I saw a film that gives the ideas flesh and a face. At first, I hesitated to see “Living,” because the plot seemed hackneyed: buttoned-up, bowler-wearing bureaucrat, given terminal diagnosis, loses inhibitions and crams life into his few remaining months.

But this has a unique spin: the ability of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote “The Remains of the Day” and actor Bill Nighy, who plays Mr. Williams. His life consists of routine: daily train into the city at precisely the same time, only nodding to his colleagues, pushing paper around in the Public Works Dept., return, sleep, repeat. Other critics have mentioned Williams’ British, stiff-upper-lip response to his doctor’s grim news: “Quite.”

He then spins through a somewhat predictable sequence of getting drunk, trying amusement parks, asking a young female colleague out to lunch. She is so dazzled by the prestigious Fortnum’s restaurant and a huge sundae with sprinkles, that he permits himself a small smile.

And then the film begins to clearly prove Jung’s belief, “Life is never so beautiful as when surrounded by death.” Williams, with the urge of the dying to set things right, takes on a cause proposed by three women, which has gotten lost in bureaucracy: building a small playground in a bombed-out London tenement (the action occurs shortly after World War II).

Jung believed we have a foot in each world: the temporal and the eternal. The film shows this in a lovely scene: after long persistence, Williams achieves the playground, and swings there during a light snowfall, singing his favorite Scottish ballad. A policeman later commented, “I didn’t interrupt because he looked so happy.” Death marks not an end but a transition; humans throughout history in a “consensus gentium” or “agreement of the people” have held that life continues in another key. Just as the birth canal is the passage into new life, so too the tomb.

Our mortality brings life tenderness, beauty and wounded glory. The purpose of death is to know life fully; we couldn’t appreciate the intensity of love without the possibility of loss, the preciousness of relationships without an expiration date.

It’s one thing to repeat Jung’s phrases, quite another to live them. That’s what Bill Nighy as Mr. Williams has done, and it’s important that his film is called “Living,” not “Dying.”

Josephine Bakhita—February 8

On this day in 1947, Bakhita, first native of the Sudan to be beatified, died. Her story is not well known, but it should be.

Born in 1869, she was kidnapped from her family at the age of nine, and sold into slavery. It was customary for slaveholders to tattoo slaves because it increased the master’s prestige and profits. The young girl was pinned to the ground, then a witch cut her with a razor in over sixty places. Salt was rubbed into the cuts because it would prevent healing and leave more visible scars. Bakhita’s only comment about the excruciating pain? “I thought I would die.”

She was left on a mat for three months, unable to move. But later an Italian diplomat bought her in the Khartoum market and took her to Italy. There she accompanied his children to school and learned about Christianity from the Sisters of Charity of Canossa. Ordered to return to Africa, she refused: “I can’t risk losing God.” That prompted a diplomatic battle, but because slavery was illegal in Italy, her former master had no hold on her.   

“Here I became a daughter of God,” she said, drawn to a loving, suffering Christ. Traumatized before most girls get a driver’s permit, she could never stop marveling that she was important and precious to God. With that assurance, she could forgive those who scarred her body: “poor things! They did not know God.” She joined the Canossa convent and became a cook who warmed the plates in winter so her meals would arrive hot and tasty.

To those who had never met an African, she reassured, “I am made of chocolate.” She was sweet to children, the poor and sick, but once challenged seminarians, “Become saints, for God’s sake!” Now the patron saint of trafficked children, she teaches us to forgive. A survivor of two world wars, she became known as “Madre Moretta,” the Black Mother, revered by Italians and Africans.

From Women of Mercy by Kathy Coffey and Michael O’Neill McGrath

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.