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.

Grateful for Demon Copperhead

At this time of year, a litany of gratitude often fills my head from the first dozy hours of the morning until I hit that first intractable problem on the computer. My gratitude journal bulges with things like this:

a lavish pour of sunset, like being in a basket of red-gold peaches,

the frothy Netflix drama “Enola Holmes,”

burrowing cold hands into my grandchildren’s sweatshirt pockets,

the quiet chit-chat of five small birds in my hanging flower basket,

the smell of wet leaves, essence of autumn,

setting the table for three of my children to come for breakfast,

the immense comfort of flannel shirt, old sweatshirt and jeans,

hot tea in a special mug, with an oatmeal cooky to fuel the writing,

the glimpse of water-colored hills in the far distance,

a splendid library system with automatic renewals and no fines.

It is to the last item on the list that I feel special gratitude, for getting me the newest Barbara Kingsolver novel, Demon Copperhead.

I’ll leave it to the Dickens scholars to probe the parallels with David Copperfield,  but both books vividly describe the harm that poverty and neglect can wreck on children. Demon, (who was named Damon at birth) the hero and narrator is innocent and vulnerable, the son of a teen-aged single mom with a drug problem, born in a single-wide trailer.

As starters, these strikes against him might sound too depressing for some readers to continue. But what saves the day are the number of good people who genuinely try to help, or at least understand, which feels to Demon “like not being hungry.” Other stellar elements are the formidable resilience of the hero, his wicked sense of humor, and a stoic sense of how doomed he is from the start. His vision of Social Services, foster parents, being the free-lunch kid at school and recipient of food sacks sent home by church ladies on weekends is clear-eyed, and sometimes hilarious. Although he refers to himself with Hilary Clinton’s unfortunate word “deplorable,” he quickly has the reader in his camp. 

On his eleventh birthday, his mom dies and the social worker who brings the news has a one-word explanation: oxy. That’s when we come to detest Big Pharm even more, if that is possible, for the way it preyed on the vulnerable. The opioid epidemic soon wipes out the small gains Demon has made, kills many of his friends, and leaves most of the county’s youth in a sad stupor.

In high school, Demon is briefly retrieved, adopted, funded by his grandmother, and becomes a star on the football team. But an injury and consequent chronic pain start his long descent into narcotics. He describes his inner “wanting disease,” “the hopeless wishes that won’t quit stalking you: some perfect words you think you could say to somebody to make them see you, and love you, and stay.” (p. 281) A coach and two teachers desperately try to save him, but he “follows doctor’s orders,” when Dr. is nothing but a murderous drug-dealer.

Like Dickens, Kingsolver goes to the dark places which many kids must frequent. The reader follows along in a kind of “when it can’t get any worse, it does” tension. The hero, despite his downward spiral, is still funny, and becomes more compassionate as he hurts more: “I know pain if I see it.” (p. 535) Kingsolver herself has Appalachian roots which give her deep empathy with her characters, an understanding of the place, and an ear for its language. Lest the reader be too wary, the novel ends on an uplift, restoring hope and redeeming Demon.

Those of us who judge it a Crisis to misplace our cell phones can’t begin to imagine the desperation, hunger, fear, humiliation and pain that drive someone to addiction. But reading this book is a small step towards deeper understanding and broader compassion.

All Souls, All Saints and Zumba

I’ve continued thinking about last week’s feasts of all saints and souls, once clearly delineated between the officially canonized, and others who’ve died. Now I’m not so sure about that hard, fast distinction. I’d prefer to think of heaven as those singing slightly off-key belting out tunes with Maria Callas, Mozart conducting the orchestra. Or my dad, who specialized in the Russian novel, having earnest discussions with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky about their themes. Dualistic thinking is bad enough in this life; let’s not project it onto the next. The Communion of Saints is a broadly inclusive concept referring to all people in this life and eternity. As Thomas Merton put it in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: “the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

In this time and space, I sometimes wonder if Zumba class is a gate or a preview. All these women, with various shapes, ethnicities, ages and sizes are dancing and whooping together: from Asia, Afghanistan, Africa and all over the US. Muslim women shed their burkas in the dressing room, and enjoy what may be a rare chance to exercise freely. Our Ukrainian teacher, on their Independence Day, wears her distinctive blue and yellow t-shirt, socks and cap, weeping as she plays their national anthem. We may not all know each other’s names, but we energize each other, commiserate during the strenuous numbers, and would in a minute help anyone who fell or flagged.

It’s an improbable chorus line, usually moving right or left together, but no guarantees whether we’ll stick out an arm or a foot when cued. Having been trained too long in perfectionism (trudging grimly, carrying the whole burden), I like the playful, shared sloppiness of it. As my favorite author Richard Rohr points out, when we don’t realize we’re part of a larger whole, we take our small part too seriously. It’s not about figuring it out alone, or doing it perfectly by myself. All I gotta do is participate in God’s life.

What a relief! This may be a long stretch from Zumba, but I’m greatly comforted by the idea that “My holiness is, first of all—and really only—God’s, and that’s why it is certain and secure. It is a participation…not an achievement or performance.” (A Spring Within Us, pp. 289-90.) I guess this is why I value teachers in the company of saints (e.g., all of us) who are positive and uplifting, not ranting and finger-pointing. After hearing too many condemning sermons, I’ll take my spot with the awkward Rockettes, dancing, elevating their heart rates, laughing at mistakes and doing it again next week.  

Feast of All Saints and All Souls—Nov. 1 and 2

During the last week, we celebrated the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, our ancestors who have preceded us into eternal life. People in some churches heard or read the Beatitudes on Tuesday.

When Jesus first walked among the crowds saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven,” his promises must have seemed extraordinary. But Christians throughout history have recorded their own astonishment at the amazing fulfillment of what must have initially seemed utterly outlandish.

Some people seem unaware or struck dumb by the gifts they have received. They may feel the amazement but putting it in words is the work of the poets. So Raymond Carver, who died at fifty, marveled that the last ten years of his life were “gravy.” Because of his alcoholism, he had received a terminal diagnosis at age forty. The love of poet Tess Gallagher, with her encouragement to stop drinking, bought him years he never thought he’d see.   

C.S. Lewis describes the abundance that underlies the Beatitudes:

“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

So perhaps these feasts lift our sights, restoring the spectacular knowledge that the holiness of ordinary folks is a participation in God’s, that our inheritance is that of God’s daughters and sons, and that jankety and limited as we are, we are still sure, redeemed, everlasting.  

The Daughter of Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10)

A slightly different spin on this Sunday’s gospel

He taught me to climb trees, and not many girls did that in Jericho. Sycamores were his favorite; he’d show me the knotty hand-holds. Once we were swaying at the top, he’d sweep the horizon with one open hand. “Box seats on the whole town, sweetie!” I’d grin back at him and feel like I was queen of the world. From my leafy perch, I ruled with kind nobility, tall and true. And he would be my king. Later, I’d appreciate his giving me a spunk my friends didn’t have. By the time I was twelve, I stood as tall as he. We’d play like buddies together, tuning out any disapproving clucks about the bark in our hair or the scrapes on our shins.

But as I grew older, I noticed grumbling. People hated daddy’s profession and his wealth. The Roman military occupation meant some people lived in constant fear they’d lose their livelihood or land to high taxes. Probably because they were scraping to eat regularly, we seemed by contrast too carefree in our high balcony of branches. But swaying there, imagining I could touch lacy clouds, I didn’t much care.

Of course, dad took me with him the day that Jesus entered town. He never wanted me to miss anything, so we ran ahead of the crowd like lookouts, gasping and flushed. I had scrambled up the tree beside dad when suddenly, I glimpsed an upturned chin. Even better: the face below us was grinning and inviting himself to our house.

Closing the door of our home firmly on the gossips outside, Dad broke out the best wine—how else to celebrate such an uninvited, honored guest, bringing a welcome message of acceptance to his house? While he and his guest exchanged toasts, I scurried to the kitchen, dreading what I’d find. As I’d guessed beforehand, my mother was flummoxed, whispering in irritation: “No one told me about dinner guests! I had enough lamb and bread for us three, then unannounced, another hungry one appears at the door!”

But I liked this surprise guest, because he had the same lilting laughter as my dad. So I didn’t mind helping to prepare a meal. Who else would run next door to borrow more food? The stranger breathed deep of the roasting fragrance, and complimented both mom and me. To him, I wasn’t the annoying kid. I was the princess who ruled with wisdom and grace. I wonder if he’s a tree climber too?  

Excerpt from More Hidden Women of the Gospels by Kathy Coffey. Orbis Books, 800-258-5838 http://www.Orbisbooks.com 

“Extraordinary Attorney Woo”

Fair warning: I’ve already convinced three people to become as addicted to this Netflix series as I am. You, dear reader, could be next. It’s fiction, but often quite realistic. It won the seventh highest audience for a show in Korean cable history and in its seventh week on Netflix, was the most watched series around the world.

The star of this Korean show is 27-year-old attorney Woo Young Woo, a genius who’s on the autism spectrum. She graduated summa cum laude from Seoul National University law school. Her single father, the essence of goodness, worried when she didn’t speak at age five. But suddenly and unexpectedly, she began spouting laws, having memorized his law books lying around their home.

That was just the beginning; with an IQ of 164, she eventually got a job at the prestigious Hanbada law firm in Seoul. Each episode covers a different legal case, while at the same time, her relationships with her colleagues grow. Most touching is her friendship with Jun-ho, who first teaches her how to dance into a revolving door, one of many predicaments that initially baffle her. The two eventually “like” each other; his kindness, patience and restraint are admirable.

Though it may seem cheesy, I enjoyed the graphics when Woo gets an inspiration. Her favorite, obsessive topic is whales; she must be warned repeatedly not to bore people with her detailed knowledge of them. So, as she suddenly sees how to creatively resolve a courtroom dilemma or legal issue, a breeze blows her hair and whales breach in the sea or float through the room or past her train car. If each of us could envision some natural phenomenon for our own bursts of insight, what might it be?

Also inspiring is the small circle of friends who learn how to work with Woo’s disability and admire her strengths. In high school, Dong Geu-ra-mi protected her from bullies, and remains her confidante in adulthood. Another attorney, Choi Su-yeon, resented Woo’s easy superiority in law school, but as colleagues in the firm, Choi defends and befriends Woo.

The series offers moments of challenge, insight, intellectual stimulation and laughter, with the only blemish being the English voices that are dubbed into later episodes, perhaps for those who have trouble reading subtitles. They ring false and distract from many other pleasures of watching. Another possible flaw: some critics think it’s an unfair representation of the autism spectrum, because not all are as bright and happy-go-lucky as Woo.  But an early episode shows a boy at the sadder end of the spectrum, unable to speak. And I’m pleased to discover how I can relate to her dread of loud noises and confrontations, her difficulty opening plastic water bottles.  

In the last episode, Woo creates an apt metaphor for her life: she feels like a narwhal among whales. Nonetheless, she smiles, “It’s a beautiful life.” Series 1 ends on a joyful note, with several threads left unresolved, so it’s heartening to know that Series 2 will start in 2024. Motivation to live that long!

Feast of St. Teresa

Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582)

Teresa was the first female doctor of the church, named in 1970. A non-ordained woman was a departure from tradition, but Pope Paul VI said she exercised the priesthood of all the baptized. Thirty-five years earlier, under Inquisition scrutiny, the papal nuncio called her “a restless gadabout, a disobedient and contumacious woman who invented wicked doctrines.” Teresa seemed to inspire extreme responses.

Context

The Influence of the Italian renaissance on Spain produced a golden age of literature, and the Bible translated into the vernacular. Study groups led by women were like the Vatican II renewal. But the challenge to the clerical monopoly on God incensed the Inquisition, which became a doctrinal watchdog, forbade women teachers, and destroyed vernacular Bibles.

In a rigid hierarchy and dangerous climate of suspicion and fear, Teresa danced nimbly around her critics. She became expert with coy disclaimers she didn’t know what she was talking about. How could others condemn when she beat them to it?

Biography

Teresa’s grandpa was a Jew, forced to convert to Christianity. Punished and humiliated in Toledo, Spain, he moved the family to Avila and became successful again.

Her youth was frivolous and flirtatious and she deeply regretted 20 years of indifference. But they were a “happy fault”—giving reason to praise God’s infinite mercies. In convents then, the wealthy had freedom to come and go, an entourage of family, friends, and servants, good wine, food and social life. Illness brought Teresa to deeper spirituality and by 1562, she founded her first reformed convent.  Despite lawsuits, she established 17 convents separated by muddy roads and terrible traveling conditions. These may have prompted her metaphor: “Whoever truly loves you, my God, travels by a broad and a royal road.”

Themes

At the time, prayer meant rote formulas; Teresa shifted it to intimate conversation with a friend. She introduced metaphors like the spiritual life as garden. We work hard at watering, but grace brings rain. One of her most popular books The Interior Castle shows Christ within, the soul’s radiant light. She reminded her sisters, “We are not hollow inside.” “The soul’s amplitude cannot be exaggerated.”

Among her endearing sayings: “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord deliver us!” She learned to avoid scruples, and once digging into a feast, chortled, “there is a time for fasting and a time for partridge. THIS is the time for partridge!” Brisk, practical and fun, she admitted she was a sucker for affection: “I could be bought for a herring.”

From “Extraordinary Influencers” by Kathy Coffey, Liguorian.org, Oct. ’22, 866-848-2492, p. 13.

More Beautiful Names for God

We humans grasp at metaphors for the divine because God is so utterly and always beyond us, within us, ahead of us, and around us.  We know any comparisons miss the mark, but the Mystery is so compelling, we keep trying to wrap our minds around it somehow.

God as Lamplighter

We often think of Jesus as light of the world, and know that in our better moments, we shine like lamps. Interesting to think of God like the lamplighters in “Mary Poppins,” busily climbing poles, and to think what that must’ve meant to people before electricity was widespread. How they must’ve transformed the darkness into warmth and welcome. Indefatigible, God lights the stars each night and the dawn each day. Sometimes, deep rose tints splashing clouds at sunrise wake us, bleary-eyed, into beauty.

God as Gardener

One stroll through a farmers’ market at harvest season shows God’s abundance. The air is fragrant with strawberries; those crimson jewels will gleam in my cereal or yogurt soon just as they light up the Rodriguez’ farm stand now. Mistaken by Mary Magdalene as the gardener after the resurrection, Jesus like a seasoned farmer also told the parable of the weeds and wheat. Let them grow up together, he advised, or you’ll ruin the wheat trying to pull the weeds. Wise—both for our inner lives and for the cantankerous problems we struggle so hard to solve. How much the farmer leaves to chance—no control over weeds, birds, calamities that could easily befall a small and unprotected seed. Good to remember that next time we turn into control freaks!

God as Dancer

The early Christians coined the marvelous Greek term “perichoeresis” to describe the life of the Trinity. It means the three persons “dancing around,” a dance that fills the universe. We too are part of this all-pervasive dance, invited, never coerced to be partners with God. God is always coaxing us out of our narcissism, anxiety and self-obsession, into a wild and beautiful dance.

While this can only skim the surface, a much fuller, developed and exhilarating book on the subject is Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance: the Trinity and Your Transformation. He says there that everything, simply by being, offers praise to God in this universal circle of dance. “Might a hand reach out and lead us into the divine dance, whispering in our ears that we were always made for this?” (p. 21)

The Shaker song “Lord of the Dance” sings of God dancing all creation, then Jesus inviting others to join his dance, and continuing the Dance even after his crucifixion. “And” Rohr adds, “the only thing that can keep you out of this divine dance is fear and doubt, or any self-hatred.” (p. 193) Imagine your favorite dancer, style, and music. Then imagine God doing that, being that, your joining in. Like the famous line in “Anna and the King of Siam,” or “The King and I,” “shall we dance?”

Perhaps these initial suggestions can prompt the reader’s own wondering names for God. Even as we try to name, we know God is the mystery beyond any name, and the vast gathering of myriad names.

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.

Beautiful Names for God

How important our names and images for God! What we love determines who we become, and if our God is vindictive, anxious, violent and punitive, guess what we’ll be?

As scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann points out, the development of Hebrew scriptures corresponds to the development of human consciousness. The early books assert certainty, law, order and boundaries. God as rock, fortress, shield gave the people, as it gives young children, the security to grow and develop.

But as we mature, we encounter uncertainty, contradiction. As religion develops from tribalism, our images of God must grow large enough for mystery. But at the same time, they must reflect a God who is close to us, direct, never abandoning.

Islam has 99 beautiful names for God; my list is much shorter. But these have been helpful to me. Briefly described, two appear this week and three Oct. 8:

God as artist

Sept. 23, 2022 marked the first anniversary of the death of artist John August Swanson. His color bursts, swirling forms and general gusto enlivened religious subjects that had been portrayed so often we might grow blasé about them. He gave us a small window into divine artistry.

To focus on only one of myriad objects, the sculpture of a clam shell show God’s precision and grace. The shell is designed to protect the critter within, but beyond that, it’s beautiful. From a creamy center, rainbow arcs in warm earthy tones radiate out. And there are millions of them on every beach! Think too of the tone-poems God creates: a soft, dove-grey morning sky can transform into giant, snowy, puffball clouds against deepest cerulean blue in a couple hours.

God as Guest

We so often think of God as host that we forget the other part of the dynamic, how often Jesus visited others. He was welcomed by Martha, Mary and the woman who anointed him, severely criticized by his pharisee hosts. Sometimes we’re uncomfortable as guests, vulnerable and unsure what to do. We want to take charge and run the show! Jesus models how to let others serve us.

To be continued Oct. 8…