The Challenge of Joy

Over the Breckenridge, CO Nordic Ski Center hangs a sign: “Oh, be Joyful!” That’s hard to do, when we can’t quite trust that any grown-ups are running the government or the church. And yet: as St. Bonaventure says, “God is a fountain fullness.” Picture that: burbling over, spilling plentifully, and as I saw recently, the place where a hummingbird, shimmering, translucent, pale green, could dip for a sip or a shower. God never stops spoiling us, pulsing with life within.

When much of the country suffers heat, drought and fire, it’s lovely to think of Jesus’ promise to the Samaritan woman: that he would be gush of living water from which we can all drink deep. Or as Richard Rohr says, “Your deepest you is God, is good, is okay. The True Self cannot be hurt; it’s invulnerable, it’s indestructible.” Knowing that, it seems downright ungrateful to repress our joy.

Jack Kornfield, author of  After the Ecstasy, the Laundry spoke recently about how protests should be joyous and artful. When he demonstrated at the San Francisco airport against the ban on travel from majority Muslim countries, a jazz band accompanied the welcoming words called to refugees. The last thing they need is depression and hopelessness. Instead, trumpets, drums, Ka-zam and bling! Kornfield also quoted Gary Snyder, asked about environmental damage, who responded, “Don’t feel guilty. Save it out of love.” Or Molly Ivins, who said, “Fight for justice but have fun doing it.” It is, after all, a beautiful blue-green planet filled with deep lakes, soaring mountains, the tinsel arc of rivers, the rainbows on trout. How unappreciative to become grim in its defense!

Sad Anniversary Resonates

The names aren’t mentioned much now, 55 years later, but they should be: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair. On Sept. 15, 1963, they were killed in a Birmingham church when it was dynamited. Right after Sunday school, they were innocently changing into choir robes.

The anniversary of their deaths prompts us to ask whether we’ve improved the climate for children in the US. It’s also a unique opportunity to write about gun violence when there hasn’t been a recent school shooting. Typically, concern surfaces then, and ebbs until the next tragic event. But maybe it should be a constant irritant on the national conscience.

Perhaps we should continue to remember the brave Emma Gonzalez, who had to run past her friends bleeding on the floor of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. After she spoke at Washington’s March for Our Lives on March 24, she remained on stage, silent for the 6 minutes and 20 seconds it took for the Parkland shooting to occur.

Her stillness contrasts with the empty political blather which hasn’t yet achieved gun control anywhere near that of most other nations. Emma and other students had done their homework: “Australia had one mass shooting in 1999, then introduced gun safety, and hasn’t had one since. Japan has never had a mass shooting. Canada has had three; the UK had one. They both introduced gun control.” As she said to legislators and the president, “For shame!” The exorbitant amounts of money they’ve taken from the NRA apparently blind them to the inestimable value of one human life.

Our children–bright, vulnerable, filled with potential—are our national treasure. They may resolve the ecological crisis. They may find cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s, AIDS and heart disease. Their generation may learn to solve human problems without wars. But only if we protect them. Only if we make their schools safe. Only if we make gun control a pressing issue in the November elections. And then, vote. Our doing so seems a small way to honor Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia, Denise.

Places of Delight

When Sr. Simone Campbell was interviewed by Krista Tippett for “On Being,” (https://onbeing.org/programs/simone-campbell-how-to-be-spiritually-bold) the executive director for Network was characteristically upbeat. She laughed with great pleasure at how her organization was a tiny, unpublicized, low budget group until the Vatican condemned them. “We only had nine full time staff at the time and we made the whole Vatican nervous?”

Presto Bongo! Instant Free Publicity! The impetus from that buzz of press may have helped them launch the famous project Nuns on the Bus.

Sister Simone could laugh about that, too. After many battles with Paul Ryan over fair wages and justice to the poor, she said how “sweet” that he once defended her. Another congressman said she shouldn’t be believed because she was censured by the Vatican. “Sister Simone is well within the teaching of the Church,” Ryan replied. The ability to laugh at human folly and appreciate the decency of one’s foes has probably preserved Campbell’s sanity through a busy, arduous career.

She does, however, criticize “grim liberals.” “You could offer a bunch of lamentation, but lamentation doesn’t often help…. what gift do you have to offer to this situation? Who can you connect with? Now, the other piece I haven’t really talked about— but I goof off a lot — is joy. That joy is at the heart of this journey. And if we — too often, progressives are really grim. I mean, it’s not a very good advertisement. ‘Come join us. We’re so miserable.’”

How easy it is to fall into that trap, when so many good causes deserve our earnest attention. And how do we avoid becoming what Yeats criticized in “A Prayer for My Daughter” as “an old bellows full of angry wind”?

We might all think about where we find delight—and how much time we spend there. Each one will answer that question differently, but one irreverent example is my Zumba class. I’m often the oldest there, often the only Caucasian, but this U.N. of exercise is marvelous to behold. The music blasts at ear-splitting levels while mostly women of various ages and sizes dance with wild abandon. Some wear abundant bling; others dress in clashing neon shades of lime and purple.

But the bottom line is, we’re all happy to be there. We may not articulate it, but we could be across the street in the quiet, antiseptic hospital, contending with hip surgery or heart attacks. What a marvelous gift to have bodies that dance, not always gracefully or in rhythm, but with energy and co-ordination!

Zumba isn’t everyone’s cuppa. But to continue the good fight, we must all find our places of delight. Is it nature, poetry, music, humor, children, novels, movies, friends, meditation, art? Where do we find the deep pleasure, and just as important, how much time have we spent there recently?

Sorely Needed: Retreats and Renewal

When so much news of the church and nation is grim, let’s turn to something positive: the uplifting effects of retreat houses. I’ve given retreats in many of these centers, and benefited personally from many others. They are often located in scenes of natural beauty, so we can draw near God without books or rituals, with spontaneous delight in creation. Often people, especially those in ministry or parents, arrive at these centers like the “walking wounded,” exhausted, frazzled, frustrated, depleted.

And then the quiet healing begins. It takes a while to adjust to the reality of no meals to prepare, no people to care for, no home to clean, no obligations to meet. Within us is divinity, beyond routine, drudgery, expectations, noise, bills, traffic and deadlines. In a retreat setting, that luminous one can emerge—source of wisdom, guardian of memory, forgiver of wrongs, restorer of losses. Gradually, our child-like exuberance emerges. We sense we are being held and carried in arms of infinite tenderness.

Then we start seeing what’s around us with the proper astonishment. One of my favorite places has always been Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House near Sedalia, CO (www.sacredheartretreat.org). Long paths wander from the lily pond to the gazebo and around 250 acres in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Since moving to CA, I’ve found other refuges here, like the Franciscan San Damiano, (http://sandamiano.org) artfully shaped around a courtyard with fountain and native plants.

My latest discovery is Villa Maria del Mar in Santa Cruz, http://www.villamariadelmar.org located directly on the Pacific Ocean. Some rooms have full ocean views, and the beach is just a staircase away. “The sound of many waters” praised by the psalmist saturates the place; the dining room and meeting room have sweeping sea views. The Holy Name Sisters who own it are a cheerful and hospitable bunch; no wonder so many parish groups schedule their getaways here.

Since people often ask about food (crucial to fuel the spiritual journey), it’s excellent—locally sourced, fresh, with vegetarian options. The salad bar and selection of fruit are outstanding—coming from nearby fields where artichokes, melon, garlic and strawberries grow in abundance. The cookie jar is always full; the hot chocolate/cappuccino machine never fails.

I’ve always suspected one reason we respond to the magnificence of mountain or ocean it that it tangibly represents our inner vastness. Who can stand before the gleaming sea, powerful and playful, silken and mysterious, and not be awed? “Ah,” we may remember there. “I’m part of God’s creation. I too can gleam.”

Sadly, many retreat houses are closing. They’re expensive to run, and must pay many staff salaries. The demographic of people who take 3-8 days away is aging. Some survivors offer creative, innovative programs for young people; others open their doors to a wide variety of groups needing meeting space. But to lose them all would diminish us as a people. Where would we go to renew, refresh, replenish, restore our relationship with God?

Priest Sexual Scandal–Another Abuse of Children

Many of us are still reeling from the news of 300 priests in PA raping over 1000 children. We felt utter disgust that the crime was covered up for years by the hierarchy, and finally revealed not by any church authority but by a grand jury. Shock probably progresses through several forms: revulsion, questioning, action. Even Pope Francis could not muster any stronger condemnation than the poignant line, “we showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”

The Pope’s advisor, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, voiced truth: “The clock is ticking for all of us in Church leadership. Catholics have lost patience with us and civil society has lost confidence in us.” Theologians have proposed all the bishops resign; other leaders suggest cutting off church donations.  Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi, abused himself by a priest when he was in eighth grade, has proposed eliminating the statute of limitations for prosecutions. All excellent ideas, but no one talks much about dismantling the clerical culture that created this mess, or paying attention to the victims.

And what does the ordinary person-in-the-pew do?  How in our concern do we avoid re-victimizing? This early in the process, I’ve come to one practice, the Buddhist tonglen. While rage is appropriate, this prayer also calms and centers, for as the Dalai Lama says, “Inner disarmament first, then outer disarmament.”

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, because most people flee suffering, I begin by inhaling the suffering of the child abuse victims. It almost breaks my heart to do this, because I think of my own grandchildren, so small, vulnerable and innocent. But I try to continue, breathing in the pain, confusion, shame and betrayal the raped children must have felt. Their suffering can seem like a black cloud, which overshadows my narcissistic delusion I could do anything to change what happened.

But I bring them to the only source that can affect their terrible injury: Infinite Love and Healing Light. Some imagine this as Christ, always so fond of children, so quick to defend them from his stupid disciples. I imagine him dissolving the dark cloud and bringing comfort. I may never know these victims, but he does. He cherishes them and wants their healing with all his heart. Knowing they are in safe hands,  I exhale peace, balm, joy.

Tonglen may not be everyone’s style of prayer, but it seems better than being helplessly overwhelmed by the problem. It might even be used by compassionate people to pray for the priest-rapists. What terrible wounding caused their actions? Was it a clerical culture that denied the most natural human warmth and touch, stalling their psycho-sexual development around age 14? Was it seminary training that made them feel so entitled they could grab whatever satisfaction they wanted, with no thought for the damage they wreaked? Did they live in dread of discovery? And what bizarre mental illness persuaded them that preserving the pristine image of the church was more important than ruining countless lives?

I don’t mean to suggest here the meaningless cliché of “sending thoughts and prayers” that surfaces from politicians after shootings. I mean a practice that takes time and concerted effort, that truly believes “with God all things are possible.” It awakens our finest self, and for some may flower in appropriate action.  All of us doing it together is the Mystical Body at its best, wrapping the terrible suffering in tremendous care.

The Scandal of the Separation

It’s a terrible juxtaposition: Mt. 18:1-5, read in Catholic churches August 14, and the treatment of refugee children on US borders. In the former, Jesus says the Kingdom belongs to children: “whoever receives one child…in my name receives me.” It hasn’t been in the press much lately: all the more reason to remember that this administration tore approximately 3,000 children away from their parents, their only buffer/security in a strange country with another language. What happened to them next?

In an editorial August 5, the Washington Post reported horrific treatment like refusing water. In “a detention center for migrant minors in Virginia — children as young as 14 stripped naked, shackled, strapped to chairs, their heads encased in bags, left for days or longer in solitary confinement, and in some cases beaten and bruised.” And that’s only one report.

The courage and persistence of U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw forced the government to return some children, but it’s unclear how many remain alone and frightened. “The reality is that for every parent that is not located, there will be a permanently orphaned child and that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration,” the judge said. Not only did the Trump government fail to meet the reunification deadline, it failed on its vow to notify the ACLU (which brought the original lawsuit on behalf of separated families) of the time and place of each reunification, so the organization could verify them.

Record-keeping was spotty; the judge recently said he was impressed by the efforts, but who can believe the testimony of the callous, cruel people who instigated this heartbreak? They now say some parents are “ineligible” and others deported. That leaves a child lonely, vulnerable, the Christ in our midst abandoned.

Another contrast: the film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about Mr. Rogers’ t.v. show. I must admit that when my children were young, I rarely saw it, but I overheard a lot. A half-hour of it and a half-hour of “Sesame Street” kept the darlings entertained while I cooked dinner. I didn’t realize that he treated controversial topics like integration, assassination and self-doubt in ways that children could understand. Later accused that his emphasis on every child as special may have made a whole generation feel entitled, the response was: If every child ISN’T special, that undermines the very foundations of Christianity. Which brings us back to the beginning, Matthew’s gospel, and the abusive ways that’s been violated.

De-Sanitizing the Saints

For some reason, we want to prettify our holy ones, make them antiseptic and perfect: a great dis-service which places them on a distant, unattainable pedestal. (And easily gets us off the hook of becoming like them!) Since St. Clare’s Feast is Aug. 11, let’s look at how it happened to her.

One of the most famous images of Clare was her holding the monstrance high, so that Saracens invading Assisi shrank back in fear and left her monastery alone. It’s true that soldiers did enter her home, San Damiano, but they were European mercenaries hired by Frederick II. The monstrance didn’t exist then—in 1240.

What Clare actually DID, confronting the genuine threat of invasion far outside the city walls where she and her sisters lived unprotected, was take “her usual posture for prayer,” lying prostrate.  It seems the exact opposite to a demonstration of power or strength, and yet it was effective. The invaders retreated, causing no harm.

Her strategy fits perfectly into what Richard Rohr describes in Eager to Love as a topsy-turvy insistence on living without privilege or guarantee. Totally dependent on God, spending 40 years in one small house and garden, she discovered freedom and joy. The process of letting go her ego and learning to mirror God is far more dramatic and transformative than the phony images we use to beef up the saints. So why not focus on the true story?