Relative Chaos

In more naïve days, I thought of chaos as garden variety—dashing out the door with multiple children, one who lost a shoe, one who was sick, one who was cranky, one who inevitably forgot the book report. Or a messy house where vital things got lost—checks, glasses, keys, prescriptions to be filled. How mild that all seems in light of the recent wine country fires. As beautiful acres burn in Napa and Santa Rosa, people lose lives, health, mobility, livelihoods, homes, vineyards. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I routinely grow concerned over a tight schedule, complex navigation, or the aforementioned lost keys. How small that chaos seems compared to the devastation in CA, Puerto Rico, FL or TX. How many there would be thrilled to have any shelter all to themselves, even a messy house!

Terrible tragedies DO re-align perspective. If any larger, long-term answer helps explain, it comes from James Finley, writing on Richard Rohr’s website about “the infinite irrelevance of laughter and tears with respect to the oceanic Love that loves you through and through and through and through in your tears, in your laughter, in all things.”

Whatever the chaos, it’s relative. For some people, it’s tragedy, despair, death. For others, it’s the more mundane matter of surviving the day with mild sanity intact. But ultimately, the grief or loss isn’t the final word. All, all is relative to an infinite love which saturates all things. Hard to see sometimes, but so sustaining!

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 day, 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?”

Therese of Lisieux—Feast Oct. 1

No wonder she’s so beloved. She saw enormous potential in the daily grind; she responded with gusto to confined circumstances. In an era of syrupy piety, she used organic metaphors and spoke with a fresh voice. Best of all, she transformed limited, flawed humanity into Christ’s own life. Or as Richard Rohr puts it, she taught that We know God by participation in God, not by trying to please God from afar.” 

It’s helpful to understand her parents, who adored their youngest child. Her mother died when was Therese was four, a tragic loss. About the time she entered Carmel, her father entered a mental institution—horrid places in the nineteenth century. As she matured, Therese revised her glorious concepts of martyrdom. She came to see the martyr as her gentle father, lying in the mental hospital with a handkerchief covering his head.  

As a young girl in a strict convent, she wasn’t immune to irritation. Caring for grumpy older nuns, directed by a prioress who was probably neurotic, surrounded by a community jealous of her relationship with her blood sisters, she disappeared into Christ. She writes: “One feels that to do good is as impossible without God’s help as to make the sun shine at night.” Freely she admitted falling asleep during her prayers for seven years running.

She would die of tuberculosis at age 24, the age when if male, she would’ve been ordained. Her last illness was excruciatingly painful, yet she drew on a whole repertoire of jokes and puns to cope. One sister wrote, “There are times one would pay to be near her. I believe she will die laughing, she is so happy.” Her honest account described being “stretched out on iron spikes.” Yet she clung to the image of herself as a child, sleeping fearlessly in her father’s arms, hiding her face in his hair. In an era when God was punitive and many Christians wanted simply to deflect God’s anger, Therese is warm, earthy, worth celebrating.

Prayer in Chaos, Change, Commotion and Clutter

  •   10 am– 
  • Graduate Theological Union, School of Applied Theology, Berkeley, CA
  • $180 includes lunch

Presented by Kathy Coffey   510-652-1651


Confronting Genocide

A young girl sings on the phone to comfort her grandmother and her younger brother. Sounds sweet. But what’s piercing about the scene is that the girl has made it safely to the US; her family members are trapped in a camp for internally displaced people, surrounded by land mines. They are Rohingya Muslims, innocent targets of ethnic cleansing. While a small minority of Muslim militants have attacked security forces, the military reaction is wildly disproportionate.  More than 500,000 thousand people, half their population, have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. 

The rest are stuck, terrified, or have become victims of brutal genocide. It’s hard to know exactly what’s happening, because the army has barred access to the press. Human Rights Watch satellite images show scorched landscape and the almost-total destruction of 214 villages. The U.N. estimates that at least 1000 civilians, including children, have been killed.

Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the widow who defied Myanmar’s dictators, endured a total of 15 years of house arrest and led a campaign for democracy, was a hero of modern times. Yet today Daw Suu, as the effective leader of Myanmar, is chief apologist for this ethnic cleansing.”

Pope Francis has condemned the killing, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote the country’s leader: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch adds: “We applauded Aung San Suu Kyi when she received her Nobel Prize because she symbolized courage in the face of tyranny. Now that she’s in power, she symbolizes cowardly complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya.”

The worst news: the Burmese army wrecking the atrocities and genocide is funded by American dollars. Here’s where we come in and what we can do:

1. Call the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and say your state in order to be connected with your senator.

2. Either in person or on their voicemail – encourage support of Senate Amendment 607 to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Be sure to mention your opposition to any U.S. military assistance to Burma’s army. Leave your name, number, and city of residence to indicate that you live in the senator’s state.

 3. Read the Human Rights Watch Report:

Prayer in Chaos, Change, Commotion and Clutter

  •   10 am–
  • Graduate Theological Union, School of Applied Theology, Berkeley, CA
  • $180 includes lunch

Presented by Kathy Coffey   510-652-1651

Do the Math

 Gospel for 9/24: Mt. 20:1-16

Today’s gospel is a good one to read when we get snippy about how much we’ve done for others, overlooking how much God has done for us. Before we get our hackles up over the rampant injustice of paying the Johnny-Come-Latelys the same as those who sweated in the sun all day, let’s reconsider.


While we may think we’ve done great things for God, we may need a little remedial arithmetic too. How could we put a price on our health, our faith, the simple accidents of our birth? Even those who may not have had ideal circumstances can still point to other blessings: a safe and beautiful world, a caring teacher or social worker, friends, inborn gifts. What about God’s continued care, a steady stream of goodness even in the worst situation? As we reflect on our blessings we may find ourselves in the position of someone who paid out $100, but who inherited billions. What’s the right response? Gratitude.

Prayer in Chaos, Change, Commotion and Clutter

  •   10 am–
  • Graduate Theological Union, School of Applied Theology, Berkeley, CA
  • $180 includes lunch

Presented by Kathy Coffey   510-652-1651

Ordinary Time

Recently writing a sympathy note to a friend whose husband had died, I recalled a happy memory: his catching trout in a mountain stream, her cooking it, several of us savoring it. It seems now such an innocent time, none of us aware that in a few years, a terminal illness would start, later ending his life.

It recalled the haunting question asked by Emily in the play Our Town: “Does any human ever realize life as they live it, every, every minute?” The stage manager or God figure replies, “the saints and poets, maybe, they do some.” I’d always taken that as a challenge to become saints and poets, but perhaps it’s also good to revisit the achy place where we understand how frail and tentative all our experiences are. In a few years (or months) any of us could be sitting painfully in a hospital or retirement center, regretting our blasé, take-it-for-granted attitudes.

Most mystics counsel, Be Present Now. To live in the past is depressing; to live in the future anxious; only the present can bring happiness. And so I write my oldest son’s birthday card with deep gratitude, remembering a friend who said, “My son would’ve been 42 now—if he’d lived.” Or I pick up my grandson from kindergarten with delight, noticing how he holds tight to a new, precious book, even while he’s kicking a soccer ball around the playground.

Perhaps our blissful ignorance is a mercy. If we knew how short-lived everything was, we’d be paralyzed. It could be that heaven gives us back our best times to fully appreciate, undimmed by forgetfulness or flaws, clear and beautiful as they came from God’s hand. Then we turn wallowing to hallowing.

Prayer in Chaos, Change, Commotion and Clutter

  •   10 am–
  • Graduate Theological Union, School of Applied Theology, Berkeley, CA
  • $180 includes lunch

Presented by Kathy Coffey   510-652-1651

First Death Certificate of 9/11—Fr. Mychal Judge

Someday it may seem mild, but a priest who openly admitted being alcoholic and gay, then went rollerblading in his sixties was pushing the narrowly defined boundaries of priesthood in the seventies and eighties.

At one time, Mychal Judge drank so heavily he had blackouts. The drinking began in the seminary with little sips of altar wine. By 1976, “his alcoholism had become so serious that it became both crisis and opportunity.” After joining AA, Judge later attended as many of its meetings as he could. Some thought he was more familiar with the AA book than with the Bible.

The risk was dramatic at a time when “if a friar had drinking problem, it was hushed up or he was sent away for therapy.” So too for his second frontier: being gay. Judge was open about his gender preference even at a time when Archbishop O ‘Connor was quoted in the  New York Post as saying, “I would close all my orphanages rather than employ one gay person.” At first hesitant to march in New York’s first inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2000, Judge received wild acclaim from the crowd—and nervous disapproval from the church.

That continued when he was reported to the diocese for not wearing vestments at firehouse Masses. Judge told the young clerical bureaucrat who called him on the carpet: “if I’ve ever hurt the church I’ve served and loved so dearly for 40 years, I want to be burned at the stake on 5th Ave., at the front doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” “No matter how many robes Cardinal [O’Connor] put on or how much power he tried to exert, he still could not… quash Mychal Judge.”

The story of his death is well known: Judge rushed to the World Trade Center to be with the fire fighters responding to the disaster. Some speculate that he removed his helmet to pray the last rites over a dying firefighter, was struck on the head by debris and died. Five rescue workers carried him out through the rubble; Shannon Stapleton’s photo of them was widely published. (His friends joked that even in death, Mychal still loved a photo-op.) Firefighters laid Judge’s body before the altar in a nearby church, covering it with a sheet, his stole and badge. His eulogist pointed out how appropriate it was that Judge died first; then he’d be in heaven to meet over 400 first responders who arrived later.

Judge’s biographer comments on the impromptu ritual of two cops praying over his body at Ground Zero. It’s not only OK for laity to give last rites in an emergency. It “was, in fact, entirely in keeping with Father Mychal’s own sacramental theology of hallowing the moment and was typical of the way ordinary people generated light in the darkness of that day.” [1] The overflow crowd outside Judge’s funeral proved what his eulogist said: “When he was talking with you, you were the only person on the face of the earth.. . . We come to bury his heart but not his love. Never his love.”

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

[1] Ibid., 11.