Second Week of Advent

Our theme for today: Embracing What Comes.

Mary 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?

Excerpt from an article originally published In Liguori Magazine, Dec. 2015.

First Week of Advent

The four candles on the Advent wreath can be a measure of the season, a way to mark its stages reverently, so that nothing gets lost in the rush. The wreath itself speaks without a word: evergreen as God’s unchanging care, circular as love, the ring without end.

Time moves forward in measured ways, as we light each subsequent candle. Love grounds and endures: fragrant green boughs anchor us and promise life even as the landscape outdoors may look snowy or barren.

A theme for the first Sunday might be our crying need. One candle may seem alone, frail in the darkness of December, during the shortest days of the year. But it speaks powerfully of our acute need for God. The solitary flame which could so easily be extinguished by a gust of wind or a careless hand reminds us of our own vulnerability. As the Leonard Cohen song says, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” In many areas we know nothing or blunder badly, though we may bluff or pretend arrogantly. This Sunday reminds us: it’s time to turn to God.

To prepare a place in our hearts for a small Christ child, we must dispense with any arrogance, pride or falsity—sharp prods to tender skin. In the “Magnificat” Mary says God comes into her lowliness, not her great virtue. The Creator of galaxies and oceans nestles into the arms of a young girl, rests in a little straw.  The adult Jesus came to those who needed a physician, not those who were smugly self-righteous. No matter how cruelly we’ve sinned, God enters our worst failures and calls us friends.

Excerpt from an article originally published In Liguori Magazine, Dec. 2015.

Feast of Christ the King

In the Catholic tradition, the last Sunday of the liturgical year honors Christ the King. The following Sunday will start the new year with the first Sunday of Lent.

This day is a good time to remember that our own longing for justice mirrors God’s deepest desire.  We can be confident that in God’s own time, God will see justice done.

The musician David Haas once told of visiting a friend who was dying. He asked, “how ya doin’?”
His friend replied, “the bad news is, I don’t feel so hot.  The good news is, Christ reigns.”

The next logical step if we believe in Christ’s kingship is letting go of the anxiety we carry around like a heavy backpack. Even seeing Christ’s sacrifice, we prefer lugging the burden, holding it closer than him.  If we can hand over the worries to the divine parent who cares for us more than anyone has ever loved us, then we belong to Christ. Then Christ is King. Even if our world looks desolate, God created and sustains it, Christ died for it, and the Spirit invigorates it. News worth celebrating!

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Do we make decisions and initiate actions from a frightened, reptilian brain or from a prayerful center? What may help movement towards the latter is a new book called Prayer in the Catholic Tradition, edited by Robert Wicks, www.FranciscanMedia.org. Full disclosure: my essay, “Prayer in Chaos, Commotion and Clutter” is the last in the volume.  Especially fine are the opening chapter on prayerfulness, Joyce Rupp’s article on praying through difficult traditions, and Richard Rohr’s “How Can Anyone Pray ‘Always’?”  Numerous articles by thoughtful people who have seriously studied their own tradition will make this a treasure trove for months to come.

Seeking Solace

Half of North Americans found the events of 11/9 as shocking as those of 9/11. For them, some directions towards healing:

  • Reaching into that deep reservoir within, that spacious sanctuary where always and everywhere, we are God’s beloved children, no matter what. This secure identity, which transcends political, gender, age or race distinctions, is the only secure place from which to step into the future.
  • Borrowing Anne Lamott’s phrase, we don’t “buy a cute throw rug to toss over the abyss.” In other words, legitimate mourning is appropriate. Denial is not. We acknowledge that this mysterious threshold in the national history may summon all the intelligence and courage we can bring to it.
  • Recalling a long and noble history of resistance: the Christian martyrs, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war protests. As civil war raged in El Salvador, Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ (later murdered by the military) said, “when the violence increases, we must think harder.” We must also pray harder. The current situation in the US has not led to bloodshed, but we can follow the spirit of his idea: studying more, practicing inclusion more deliberately, engaging in sane and courteous conversations, hoping fiercely, praying because we need intense help.
  • Remembering that historically Christians have been strongest when oppressed. Groups that will resist attacks on immigrants, targeting of minorities and assaults on the environment are clear and articulate in their opposition now. Depending on what happens in the months ahead, they’ll need our support to continue.
  • Turning to life-giving sources: each other, reflection, music, the sacred texts of each tradition, whatever has helped in difficult transitions before. For some, it’s poetry: Palestinian-American Naomi Shihab Nye reads “Gate A-4,” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwDXJ50U22o. The touching story of cooperation among different ethnic groups concludes, “All is not lost.”

Kathy’s First E-course Starts Nov. 14

If you cringe at shameless self-promotion, quit reading now. But if you’ve ever had the slightest titch of a problem with control issues, stay tuned…

The first e-course I’ve ever written starts Nov. 14 at the Redemptorist site, http://bit.ly/MarysLens. It’s called “Through the Lens of Mary;” the designers have made it easy to access (just create your own password) and beautiful with art.

Five sessions follow pivotal moments in Mary’s life, seeing how splendidly she trusted God when her initial, human response must have been to seize control. The sessions, which can be used individually, include self-assessment, discussion, questions for reflection, prayer prompts, and practices.

Although not specifically tied to Advent, the course would make a fine Advent practice, and can all be done at home. No driving to church in a blizzard—just make a hot cuppa and cozy up to the computer, proceeding at whatever pace you like.

There’s a minimal charge–$8, but that’s only one and a half Starbucks lattes! Do something inspiring for yourself: sign up at http://bit.ly/MarysLens.

Feast of All Saints–Nov. 1

“I don’t much like the saints,” admitted an eighth grader. “They’re too perfect.” Isn’t it high time our young folk met the real saints, who are just as filled with flaws and quirks as any other human beings? But many of them would’ve been really interesting to hang out with!

 

We in the U.S. are fortunate to brush elbows with many saints–both officially canonized and not quite there–who grew and flourished here. It’s intriguing to imagine them sitting down together at a heavenly banquet, unbounded by the usual human constraints. Their shared values, hopes, beliefs and actions are strong membranes connecting them beyond time and space.

 

Elizabeth Ann Seton and Pierre Toussaint exchange news about their parish, St. Peter’s in New York City; she thanks him for donations to the orphanage staffed by her sisters. Katharine Drexel and John Neumann chat about their home town, Philadelphia. Marianne Cope, the first to admit alcoholics to the hospital at a time when they were jailed instead, thanks Bill W., Dr. Bob and Sister Mary Ignatia for founding Alcoholics Anonymous. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez discuss with Henry David Thoreau his essay, “On Civil Disobedience.” He preferred jail to paying a tax which would finance the Mexican War and extend slavery; his stance on resisting injustice underlay their movements. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop and Elizabeth Ann Seton compare notes on their shared experiences of being widowed, converting to Catholicism when it was most unpopular, losing a child, and constantly caring for the sick. Frances Cabrini discusses immigration with contemporary experts and marvels that the issues of her day still have not been resolved. Thea Bowman and Katharine Drexel roll their eyes about black women being denied admission to religious communities in the early 1900s. Sister Mary Luke Tobin and  Rachel Carson measure women’s progress in the arenas they pioneered: church and science. Dorothy Day, Helen and Cesar Chavez reminisce about their visits to each other, and her imprisonment in 1973 for picketing several California vineyards. Dorothy Stang and the sisters martyred in Liberia talk with Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel about the ties that bound them so closely to their people, they couldn’t leave their missions even when their lives were endangered.

 

Lest anyone consider them superheroes, let’s remember that saintly people walk with all the longing and limitation, reluctance and resistance of ordinary human beings. They share (and have documented in their letters and journals) the failures, fears and frustrations, effervescent joys and stinging pains of all humanity. Looking way back in church history, the fifth century Council of Carthage insisted that saints remain sinners who rely on God’s mercy. If not, they’d be too distant to imitate. And isn’t that the point?

 

A question which arises naturally in this context is, what makes North Americans unique in the larger communion of saints? Typical of our nation’s settlement and growth was a fluidity, vitality, and sense of possibility previously unknown in Europe. Historian Daniel Boorstin comments: “By the early 19th century, in crowded, pre-empted Europe, ‘No Trespassing’ signs were everywhere; control by government covered the map. America offered a sharp contrast.”[1]

 

Old World nations knew clearly defined boundaries. But the sense of geography in the U.S. was vague at best. “The map of America was full of blank places that had to be filled.”[2] This unique mix of hope and illusion became fertile ground.

 

Few clucking rulers murmured, “it can’t be done.” Call it, if you will, less of a “wet blanket effect.”   Americans often seem happiest when on the move, and this was certainly true of John Frances Neumann or Frances Cabrini—who began as immigrants, and served their new country by difficult journeys through it.

 

The frontier has always been vital to the North American experience. So let’s broaden the idea of frontier to unexplored realms of holiness. In the North American context, the quote from Revelation 21:5, “See, I am making all things new” takes on richer meaning. Our saints went into what some would term North America’s “hell holes”: the raw frontier, the leper colony, the squalid slum. They were “explorers” in many realms: civil rights, science, education, health care. There they brought the vigorous, transforming energy of the Resurrection.

 

Shouldn’t our young people have heroes like Marianne Cope, Pierre Toussaint, John Neumann, Dorothy Stang, Rachel Carson, Cesar Chavez and Mychal Judge? Don’t these pioneers have more to teach the soul than a sports or film hero? Let’s read their stories, model their actions, praise them like honored family members!

 

 

 

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015, litpress.org, 1-800-858-5450

 

[1] Daniel Boorstin, THE AMERICANS: THE NATIONAL EXPERIENCE (New York: Random House, ’65), 65.

[2] Boorstin, 223

Unanswerable Questions, Inexplicable Joy

“In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” — Thomas Merton

As the jangle of politics hits a feverish pitch, let’s turn to something timeless, human values that uplift and endure: the feast of five recent martyrs. On Oct. 23, 1992, three Adorers of the Blood of Christ were killed in Liberia, after two others in the order had been shot three days earlier. They were innocent victims caught in the craziness of civil war.

When I gave retreats to this community, both in Ruma, IL and Wichita, KS, I was impressed by a spunky-wonderful bunch of women. As I learned their history, that first impression turned to awe. One background note among many: in 1985, the Adorers of Ruma became the only Catholic organization in the area to defy the law and offer sanctuary in their houses to Cuban and Central American refugees.

In limited space, it’s impossible to write about all the martyrs (see When the Saints Came Marching In for the fuller picture.) But here are brief cameos of two:

Sister Barbara Ann Muttra was a nurse who wasn’t above bribery. At her clinic, she discouraged the common practice of driving off evil spirits by placing pepper in a newborn’s mouth, (which caused blisters) and mud on the umbilical cord, causing tetanus. She encouraged  parents’ cooperation with baby clothes donated by friends in the U.S. Eventually, she cut infant mortality from 80% to 20%, from two deaths a week to two a year.

Sister Shirley Kolmer loved Liberia because the gap between her front teeth was considered a sign of beauty there. A Ph. D. in Math, she taught it at St. Louis University, and first went on a Fulbright to the University of Liberia in 1977 and 1978. As provincial, her vision was of “loving the comfort, but ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice–women who dream dreams and continue to promise.” In Liberia, Charles Taylor’s rebels had recruited child soldiers as young as 10, and revived ancient practices of torture and mutilation. So Shirley started a counseling program for boys pressed into war, both perpetrators and victims.

Asked, “what made them tick? Why would they return to Liberia after a dangerous escape a year before?” the sisters who knew them well respond: “If there were five martyrs, there were probably eight motives.” The words “pious” or “prissy” never come up. “Bold” and “tenacious” are more likely to surface. They had practical work to do: teaching poor, illiterate, powerless women, staffing medical clinics, counseling, feeding the hungry. (By 1990, 40,000 civilians in Monrovia had died of starvation.) Over and over, one hears of a love for the Liberian people, the drive to meet their needs and share their lot.

Their persistence also characterizes an ASC sister who, as principal of an East St. Louis school, got garbage collection where there had been none, and celebrated as merrily as the neighbors on the day the trash cans arrived. Let’s praise and celebrate and follow  women such as these.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015, litpress.org, 1-800-858-5450