Third Sunday of Advent: High Expectations

 

When John the Baptist appeared, “The people were filled with expectation” (Luke  3:15). How splendid if those words could still describe us: open to wonder, chins uplifted, eagerly responding to the words of the Mass, “sursum corda,” “hearts on high!”

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.”

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.

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)

So the “Gaudete” or Joyful Sunday represented by the pink candle invites us to forget our lame excuses (Oh not me! I got C’s in high school, I can’t tweet or sing on key, I’ve always been shy, blah, blah, blah) and come to the feast, join in the dance. To put it in the simple terms of “Happy Talk,” a song from “South Pacific”: “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

Second Sunday of Advent  

Mary’s “Magnificat” models the perfect response to God’s unexpected, even scandalous intervention in her life. When she told Gabriel, “May it be to me as you have said,” she had no guarantees, no script foretelling the future. All she’d learned was the trust handed on by great great-grandmothers: if it comes from God’s hands, it must be perfectly tailored for me.

In times of central heating and plentiful food supplies, we no longer battle the winter as our ancestors did, finding it a precarious season to stay alive. Isolated from others, running low on resources, great-grandparents endured many cold, gloomy nights. How they must’ve rejoiced at those glints of light in dark forests , when almost imperceptibly, the planet tilted towards spring, and the days became longer.

We too have reasons for despair, crippling fears, anxiety over how much we need to do before Christmas. If problems are more serious, do we run from them, or lean into them, wondering what they might teach us? Can we befriend our pain, knowing we’re more than its sting? Could we embrace for once an imperfect holiday, not scripted by Martha Stewart, but perhaps closer to the first, where an unmarried couple had to scrounge an inhospitable place to have a baby?

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.

Dorothy Day—d. Nov. 29, 1980

While Day’s cause for canonization was introduced in 2000, she believed that “there are many saints, here, there and everywhere and not only the canonized saints that Rome draws to our attention.” At the same time, she “didn’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

She probably didn’t do it consciously, but it was almost as if Dorothy Day found the notion of sainthood had grown tarnished and irrelevant. Briskly, practically, as she did everything, she dusted it off and made it serviceable. In a world of violence, social upheaval and war, she called for saints who would disarm the heart.

A casting director looking for saint material would’ve rejected her on multiple grounds: a leaning towards Communism, multiple relationships with men, an abortion and a child born out of wedlock. With tongue firmly in cheek, she summed up the gossipy accusations against her in a 1936 letter: “I’m supposed to be an immoral woman, with illegitimate children, a drunkard, a racketeer, running an expensive apartment on the side, with money in several banks, owning property, in the pay of Moscow, etc.”

Stir into the mix the narrow-minded church of her day, whose leaders wouldn’t dream of listening to “radical” lay women. The vast majority of Catholics then saw their role as following the rules, and were content to pay, pray and obey.

Early in her career during her first visit. to the south, Dorothy was shocked by the poverty in Arkansas. Never one to dither, she telegraphed Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, also a lady who got things done. Mrs. Roosevelt contacted the governor, who—unsurprisingly—stonewalled.

No amount of brisk bureaucratic subterfuge could stop her for long. The Catholic Worker newspaper she edited and wrote skyrocketed from 2500 to 35,000 copies printed in its first six months. By 1938 they’d reached 190,000 copies. Ever the writer, she first proposed houses of hospitality in print, but didn’t actually begin one until a desperate young woman told her she’d been sleeping in subways with a friend, who in desperation, had thrown herself in front of a train. Gradually, Dorothy and her staff rented other apartments and houses for the homeless. It was all rather ragged, with no one drawing a salary. Yet in those first five years, more than thirty houses of hospitality were founded beyond the shaky, original New York beginning in Dorothy’s apartment. Today 227 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless. (www.catholicworker.org)

Even a few excerpts from her letters are enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that sainthood is a sunny stroll through a flowery meadow. She knew that when the Catholic Worker failed, it was often because of her explosive judgmentalism.  Like the rest of us who recognize bundles of contradictions within, she regretted parts of her early life, and what seems to have been a constant impatience with others.

One of her favorite quotes was Russian novelist Dostoevsky’s, “the world will be saved by beauty.” She tried to live out Ruskin’s “duty of delight.” Throughout her life, she loved reading, opera, films and nature. The sea brought her peace and strength; wisely, she visited it often. Even a half-hour ride on the ferry brought the taste of salt spray, the wheeling arcs of gulls, sunset, silence, refreshment. Living with neediness, congestion and often chaos, she turned to nature for quiet space.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching InLiturgical Press. Kathy will be speaking on the North American Saints and on grandparenting at the Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference, Santa Clara Convention Center, on November 30. For details see:

https://scffc.org

 

Gratitude, Enhanced

 

A “soulful window” into the lives of those we love comes at the moment just before Thanksgiving dinner when it’s customary in many families to take turns saying one thing they’re grateful for. I’ll always cherish my two-year old granddaughter saying last year: “I am thank you for the marshmellows!”

But for the jaded who may be tiring of the construction paper turkeys, or even of the cranberry sauce, here’s a way to jump-start Thanksgiving. Robert Emmons’ ground-breaking book, Thanks! (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) alerted us to the multiple benefits of gratitude, which he defines as “a feeling of reverence for what is given.” That attitude accepts good and bad as potential gift. It can focus the lens through which we view life on evidence of abundance, not scarcity. Unsurprisingly, that gives an increased sense of personal worth which can offset anxiety and depression.

Emmons characterizes this attitude as not a “superficial happiology,” but a perspective that has transformative power. His original work alerted us to the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal and expressing thanks regularly through calls, e-mails, texts or letters to those who have done us good. Those are a “booster shot” for relationships, benefiting both giver and receiver.

That work has continued through the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Their website is full of wonderful articles and videos:

Greater Good Berkeley

Their research confirms with hard science what our religious traditions or intuitions may have told us about gratitude. For example, Science Director Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., draws on the research of Philip Watkins to show how gratitude amplifies good experiences and counteracts habituation. (The classic example for this human tendency is how the “new car smell”—and the novelty of the car itself–fades over time.) It means that pleasure wanes when repeated. In relationships, it helps explain how the charming, handsome date can become a self-centered, boring husband; the sweet infant can turn into a snarling teenager.

To counter this tendency, gratitude gives a “positivity bias” so we notice and appreciate more. Setting aside the negative experiences, choosing to reframe or not focus on them, gives them less power. (True, too, for negative media and violent movies.) So, savoring positive memories magnifies them, building our psychological immune system to cushion failures and disappointments. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who should’ve known through direct experience in the Nazi concentration camp) said, “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into grateful joy.”

A Church/State Parallel?

I watched election returns Tuesday during a deep snow in Breckenridge, Colorado with two old friends, one aged 84 and one aged 78. Their ages are relevant only because the first had once battled mightily to allow girls’ sports in school. The second had assumed her role was to be only the cheerleader for the boys, never dreaming she too might play basketball.

Imagine our delight when over 100 women were elected to office. Accompanying the fire in the fireplace, the popcorn and wine on the table, the snow falling softly outside the window were rowdy hoots and hollers around the t.v. “I thought I’d never live to see the day!” seemed a constant refrain.

As one commentator said, “It seems as if something old is dying, and something new is being born.” Oddly religious language for MSNBC, but it got me thinking (always dangerous).

Could the church learn an important lesson from civil society? When we hear of US bishops meeting next week in Washington to deal primarily with the sexual abuse crisis, their agenda seems so tedious. No new ideas surface; it seems an endless rerun of appointing committees to monitor, composed of the same people who have consistently failed to solve the problem. People tend to yawn, skeptical that anything creative might come of the gathering, dreading those long red dresses yet again.

Remember the old definition of insanity? Doing the same things in the same way and expecting change. Enough of repetition! Imagine the Congress convening in January with young, fresh faces. Not to gender-stereotype, but it offers hope for improvement. Surprising potential lurks in that diversity. As we know, bio-diversity is essential to the health of the forest. Jesus often made surprising discoveries and comments when he was in precarious, unsettled border zones. Recently, I was thrilled to meet Rosa M. Del Saz and Ashley McKinless, vibrant, brilliant young women on the staff of America Magazine. Umpteen years ago, when I wrote for America, only Jesuits filled the masthead.

At a relative’s funeral this week, my children and I were asked to bring up the gifts. With no preparation, I had a moment of slight panic, seeing three items for four people. My older daughter figured it out in an instant. She and her brother shared the plate of bread; she handed cruets to my younger daughter and me. What I cherished was the male and female hands, holding the gold circle together, cooperating on this as they had on so many other ventures. Why is male/female collaboration so hard for the Church?

Please, dear bishops, consider opening yourselves to that bracing wind of the Spirit. Of course having women in the Ol’ Boys Club would be uncomfortable. But you stand precipitously close to “too little, too late.” It seems almost ludicrous that an issue at the recent synod was giving two votes to nuns. You risk losing an entire generation, raised without the gender biases yours holds. It may sound crazy to you to invite women into decision making, but don’t waste their time with some head-patting “advisory” role. Full voting rights or fergit it. Embrace the reality of the 21st century. And remember, when God launched the great adventure of becoming human, God didn’t go to general or rabbi. God began with a young girl. The stakes are high—you have much to gain.

Book Review: The Secrets Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

 

Finally, women’s voices are speaking loud and clear. We’ve been fortunate to hear Christine Ford, Emma Gonzalez, and others who at personal risk, say forthrightly what has needed for a long time to be said. (And kudos to Gov. Jerry Brown, who made CA the first state to require that companies have a woman on their board of directors.)

But this book explores women’s silences, springing from their terrible abuse and exploitation. Readers who have met Bhima and Parvati in these pages will never look at two old Indian women the same way again. Although they are desperately poor, they have more fortitude, resilience and chutzpah than most of us raised in sheltered and educated ways. While the first instinct may be to pity, stand back. One realizes quickly that one is in the presence of a formidable force here. Despite horrific obstacles, buried wounds and psychic trauma, they survive, thrive, and nurture others.

While North Americans may not fully understand Indian culture, the taboos governing employer and employee relationships, or how these are changing now, the author does. Umrigar has proven in previous books  (The Story Hour, The World We Found, The Weight of Heaven, The Space Between Us and others) a compassion for women, a refusal to stereotype men, and a deep knowledge of the human qualities that transcend gender or national borders. It’s particularly interesting to watch Bhima evolve from horror at a lesbian couple who employ her, to shock that they would treat her like a friend, to uncritical love and appreciation for their kindness to her granddaughter Maya.

The reader develops such a kinship with the two leading ladies that she reads with gusto, sometimes shock at how mercilessly they’ve been insulted, and finally with triumph at the reconciliation one engineers for the other.  Arrogant, angry, bitingly intelligent, irreverent, blasphemous, raunchy, rigid, caustic, funny, street smart, defiant Parvati enables her friend Bhima to escape the squalor of Mumbai and enter a scene of lush green beauty where she realizes a dream she’s suppressed so long she’s rarely voiced it. No more clues, lest they ruin an ending so beautiful every reader should experience it for him or herself.