Category Archives: Family Spirituality

Feast of St. Clare—Aug. 11

Doing this week‘s newspaper word search with my grandson, all the hidden words contained the root “joy.” That word could name the theme for the life of St. Clare, St. Francis’ lesser known female counterpart (though much more, in her own independent right) and dear friend.

Clare enjoyed the “guarantee of living without guarantees.” That might make us feel insecure and wobbly. We rely heavily on insurance policies; she relied totally on God. Clare saw humans as mirrors reflecting the divine. In the beauty of the Beloved, she found more than enough wealth to offset her life style of poverty.

As Richard Rohr points out in Eager to Love, Clare and her sisters had a topsy-turvy insistence on living without privilege. Totally dependent on God, spending 40 years in one small house and garden, she discovered abundant joy. It seems important to note that in dark times, we can still nurture joy—it’s not a dirty word showing we simply don’t understand our era.

One of the most famous, but misguided, 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 macho demonstration of power or strength, and yet it was effective. The invaders retreated, causing no harm.

Clare’s process of letting go ego and learning to mirror God led her to write: “Place your heart in the figure of the divine… and allow your entire being to be transformed into the image of the Godhead itself, so that you may feel what friends feel…” Given that intimacy, it’s unsurprising that Clare not only lived but even died joyfully, encouraging her soul to go forth with “good escort.”

Feast of St. Ignatius—July 31

A simple plaque placed in the castle of Loyola, Spain dated 1491 says, “Aqui nacio.” On a literal level, it means St. Ignatius was born there. Symbolically, it reaches more broadly: the start of a creative, alternate narrative no one dreamt would spread so far, endure so long.

At a time when clergy were the only intermediaries between ordinary people and God, Ignatius differed. Gloriously, he told ordinary shmucks: “God has a dream for you.” Ignatius’ alternative didn’t emphasize external rules. Instead, the interior process of the Spiritual Exercises asked not what? but who? Called into “conscious living relationship with the person of Christ,” Ignatius exchanged his sword for a walking stick. He traded the macho drama of a knight’s life for a mysterious process. He had no idea where it would end, but limped into it trustingly.

With genius and craziness, Ignatius directed his followers into the swirl of cities, where lively plazas offered places to preach and exchange new ideas. His directions for the order he founded, the Jesuits are remarkably flexible: no office in common, no excessive penances; regarding dress, “the manner is ordinary.” He often inserts the realistic qualifier to fit circumstances: “or whatever’s best.” Just as Biblical prophets clash with worldly authority, so the Jesuits have had perpetual differences with the powers-that-be. Gospel fidelity often conflicts with unjust human law; no other religious order has spent as many man-years in jail.

A recent example is Fr. Stan Swamy, an Indian Jesuit imprisoned for defending the rights of the Dalit (untouchable) people and rural poor. The government charged him with links to violent Maoist groups, which he denied. Despite being 83 with advanced Parkinson’s, he was jailed under anti-terror statutes. Unable to even drink from a cup, he relied on fellow prisoners to meet his needs.  He died of COVID in 2021.

In what seems a tribute to St. Ignatius, Nativity School of Worcester, MA, started flying the Pride and Black Lives Matter flags In January 2021. This was a response to their students, primarily under-resourced boys of color who receive an excellent, tuition-free education there. Laudably, the students wanted to symbolize their stand with the marginalized. Bishop Robert McManus, however, believed “flying these flags is inconsistent with Catholic teaching.” In March 2022, he told the school to take down the flags. When the school refused, he removed its Catholic identity. A letter on the school website (https://nativityworcester.org) from its president assures the community, “Please know that any decisions made by the Diocese will not change the mission, operations or impact of Nativity.” Ignatius might give them a “thumbs up” for spunk. Who could’ve dreamed that seed sown in the 16th century could flower so boldly today?

This reflection was originally published in Give Us This Day, 7/31/20. www.giveusthisday.org, 888-259-8470. The last two paragraphs were added as an update.

Feast of Mary Magdalene–July 22

Let’s hope that on the Feast of Mary Magdalene July 22, we all do our part to correct the misperception of her as prostitute. That error, a conflation of three Biblical texts, was given authority by Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century, and not corrected for 1400 years, until revisions to the Roman calendar of 1969.

Luke’s gospel names her as one of several financially independent women who supported Jesus’ ministry. But her role is more important than financier. Dan Brown’s best-selling Da Vinci Code gave her a romantic role, but again, her centrality in the early Christian community was more than simply a private relationship.

All four Gospels agree she was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. When Jesus calls her name in the garden, it is a pivotal point of human history. Her name is the hinge to a new order. She was the first to realize that God could vanquish even death, and to tell the other disciples. She convinced them and skeptics throughout history that “love is stronger than death.” To silence her voice and discount her primary role does her a great disservice. She calls us instead to the vision of a world free of sexism, suffering, exploitation and death. Arguments over authority simply distract from that larger hope.

Review—“Navillera”

When St. Ignatius said, “God has a dream for you,” he probably didn’t picture a Korean t.v. series about ballet. But “Navillera” gives us fresh images for that traditional theme. Streaming on Netflix with subtitles, the 12 episodes never pall, but show realistically that it can take a long time to achieve a dream.

It all begins when Mr. Sim’s friend dies without realizing his long-deferred goal. He always wanted to go to sea, and feel the waves surge powerfully around him, but the closest he comes is launching a paper boat off the balcony of his care facility just before his death.

That prompts Mr. Sim to re-examine his own dream. As a boy, he’d been drawn to the sight of a ballerina, and tugged on his dad’s hand to pause. “He’s flying like a bird!” he exclaimed in amazement, before dad shuffled him away, mumbling that boys don’t wear costumes and make-up. What follows is a long, boring career as a mailman, a faithful marriage, and raising 3 children in relative poverty.

But when he turns 70, it’s Time. Somehow Mr. Sim persuades a ballet studio to take him on as a student. In an ironic twist, young ballerina Lee Chae-rock is assigned to be his teacher. Almost predictably, the young man’s initial resistance turns to deep, genuine affection by the series’ end.

It’s hard to resist Mr. Sim. He practices daily, shows up faithfully and undergoes grueling physical training with a smile. When he dances, even in the first awkward spurts, his face is transformed with radiant longing. By the time he achieves his dream, performing in “Swan Lake,” the viewer is both weeping and cheering. Then we understand the title: “Navillera” is a Korean word that means “like a butterfly.”

Along the way, the families of both men become entangled. Sim’s family, at first horrified by his plan, eventually comes around to proudly applauding the triumphant performance, deluging dad with flowers and compliments. Chae-rock, so abandoned by his own family that he must write himself sticky notes of encouragement, finds a home with Sim’s and is eventually reunited with his own dad. Before the final show, he writes Sim’s name in his ballet shoes, with the message, “he will soar.”

I was so tied into the series, it made me think about personal dreams. Since most of mine were in the academic/writing field, they were achieved relatively early in life. I’m delighted that dreams of having a family and writing books materialized far better than I ever imagined.

But in physical skills, I lagged behind. All that time and effort which went into writing and child-rearing didn’t leave much surplus to develop any athletic prowess, and friends from grammar and high school know what a klutz I was. Never once did anyone say, “you shine. You soar.”

So, like Mr. Sim, I spent 20 years learning yoga, similar to the slow and painful process he endured. It enabled me to practice in beautiful studios all over the world, with special experiences in Bali, Australia and Ireland. I glowed as he did when, unimaginably, I became certified to teach it, and led classes several times a week. My elderly students never had an injury and we all had great, if sometimes clumsy, fun.

So too, I always envied swimmers who were powerful and sleek as seals, or my grandkids who had no fear of water, but jumped in pools or lakes with ease and grace. I didn’t have a swimming lesson ‘til I was 29, but now I happily take my place in a lap lane twice a week as proudly as Mr. Sim danced with a ballet company. Around me, the quiet plash of other swimmers; above, blue sky; every stroke one of gratitude.

Dance metaphors for the spiritual life abound. I’ll always remember the late Eleanor Sheehan, csj giving a retreat where she acted out her first dancing lesson with her dad. “Don’t look at your feet,” he’d said. “Just follow my lead and hear the music.” It wasn’t a huge stretch to apply that advice to spirituality: don’t fret about the details; follow God’s lead.

Now that insight is enhanced by Chae-rock assuring a nervous Mr. Sim before they go on stage: “Do what you love. I won’t let go of your hand.” As the music swells, the ballet offers the beautiful image of two hands, gracefully extended from opposite directions. In a ripple effect, the closing scene shows the studio director accepting another unlikely candidate: pudgy, eager, older, awkward: an unpromising student. As we all are. But God has a dream…

Feast of Kateri Tekakwitha, July 14

Biographical details are sparse for this Patron Saint of the Environment: daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Christian, Algonquin mother, Kateri was orphaned when her family was wiped out by the smallpox epidemic of 1660, which left her pock-marked and half blind. Adopted by her uncle, she asked for baptism at age 20, and celebrated it in a chapel festively decorated with feathers, ribbons, flowers, and beads. The beauty of nature, which she had always loved, took on new intensity because she knew the creator.

The Mohawks, however, could not accept her conversion and ridiculed her. Eventually she made a long journey on foot to the Sault mission south of Montreal in Canada, where she could live among other Native American Christians. Early French biographers describe her as solid and joyful. She nursed the sick and dying with remarkable cheer, considering that her own health was precarious. Her joy was so contagious that children were drawn to her for storytelling. She showed a key hallmark of holiness: people wanted to be around her. At her burial there was no mourning, only public rejoicing.

At a time when much progress to preserve clean air, water and wilderness is threatened with dismantling, and the recent Supreme Court decision has gutted the Clean Power Plan, we can appreciate how the restrained native American approach might’ve saved the planet. (For more on that topic, see Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.) In desperate, last-ditch circumstances now, we need Kateri’s wisdom, reverence, and sense of the earth’s sacredness.

Book Review: Bittersweet

How can something be both beautiful and sad at the same time? That’s the question Susan Cain sets out to explore in her newest book, Bittersweet. Her fans will remember Quiet, her study of introverts and their contributions to a noisy, extraverted society like ours. Just as the first book felt counter-cultural, so this one praises “negative” emotions like sadness and grief in the face of a relentlessly cheery society. Our longing, she says, the place where we care desperately, points in the direction of the sacred. It is the “beating heart of the world’s religions.” This yearning for a more perfect, beautiful world can be the source of creativity and compassion. In the state of exile from Home, our broken hearts help connect us.

Cain’s finest example comes in the Prelude: the cellist of Sarajevo. Vedran Smailovic, lead cellist of the Sarajevo opera, played Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” in war ruins. Dressed in formal white shirt and black tails, he sat in the rubble and played this haunting melody for 22 days in a row, despite sniper fire, for 22 people killed by a mortar shell as they line up for bread. (To hear this infinitely sad music, go to youtube.com/watch?v=kn1gcjuhlhg) The rubble reminds us of Ukraine. The cellist’s rhetorical question could apply there too: “you ask am I crazy for playing the cello in a war zone. Why don’t you ask THEM if they’re crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”

We can sense longing transformed into beauty in the music of Leonard Cohen or the writing of C.S. Lewis, who described a “joyous ache,” a search for “the place where all the beauty came from.” “God is the sigh in the soul,” said Meister Eckhart. Somehow, living in a flawed world, we sense a place of peace and wholeness, always beyond our reach. The pain of not achieving it permanently can be transformed into beauty; darkness can become light through artistic expression or compassion.

I felt a strong stab of this “joy laced with sorrow” at a recent birthday celebration. My six grandchildren were exuberant as they rushed into my room that morning. Carrying balloons, streamers, gifts and hand-made cards, they sang “Happy Birthday” and tumbled into bed for abundant hugs and kisses. Beneath joyful tears, I also thought: they will never be these ages (6-10) again. Sooner or later, we’ll return to routine. And I can’t imagine this clear innocence in 5 years, when they start becoming teenagers. Perhaps having limited expiration dates sharpens the edges, so humans better notice the miraculous in the everyday. “Poignancy is the richest feeling humans experience, one that gives meaning to life—and it happens when you feel happy and sad at the same time.”

Most of the book is gripping, but it sags in the middle, where Cain becomes extensively autobiographical about her relationship with her mother, and repeats much of what’s been written elsewhere. By now we’re aware of social codes that make us say everything is fine, and smile no matter what is unraveling.  The pressure on students to achieve perfection and never admit failure has been well documented. Brene Brown has published fine work on vulnerability, and many are already aware of the “tyranny of positivity.” Most of us know the power of journaling. It’s tempting to yawn when Cain reviews Sharon Salzberg’s well-known story and breathlessly discovers metta, the practice of loving-kindness which some readers have done for 30 years. The ultimate question on which the book ends, “What are you longing for?” echoes St. Ignatius’ probing our deep desires.   

Nonetheless, Bittersweet is well worth a read, and may name elusive feelings. It certainly clarifies our discontent with “normative sunshine,” and our mysterious yearning which is ultimately for the divine.

Film Review: “Downton Abbey: A New Era”

I attended the second movie which follows the six PBS seasons with a friend who isn’t nearly as obsessed with the series as I. But afterwards he said, “I can see why you like living in that world.”

What’s not to like? Beautiful costumes of the 20s, the men in white tie and tails, the women with long gloves and jewels, stately mansions, elegant meals, lush lawns, sparkly Mediterranean vistas. A gun never appears; though arguments happen, they occur only with the utmost civility. Almost everyone behaves graciously; the characters are nuanced so that no one is all good or bad.

Before some grim justice-advocate breaks in to criticize, I know. I realize it’s a lost world and it was probably quite unfair to many people at the time. But haven’t films always offered us a vicarious experience of Hollywood glamor? As Marah Eakin wrote in Chicago Reader: “‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ is cinematic escapism at its finest and perhaps that’s all it should be.”

This one occurs between two world wars. While people are still suffering the after-effects of the first, few have any premonition that another major conflict looms on the horizon. So most characters can focus on the revelation that their ageing granny has been left a home in the south of France by a man so besotted by her beauty, he didn’t forget her for over 50 years. With no zoom nor e-mail, that leads to an exploratory party checking out the mansion, improbable but handy for the narrative arc.

In typical “Downton” style, simultaneous happenings and twisty plots keep us on our toes. With swift flashes between two countries, one story line follows the group in France, the other a group at home, where a movie company takes over the noble estate for filming. (The roof is sadly in need of repair; one look at the pots in the attic collecting drips convinces the reluctant Earl to take the considerable money offered by the film company.) That eventually leads to a marvelous role reversal, with the servants as film extras dressed to the teeth in 18th century finery, dining “upstairs.”

The old favorite characters are back: Lady Mary, despite her regal distance, the spine of the family, Tom Branson who always seems to say something kind, and everyone’s favorite, the Dowager Countess. As Bill Newcott writes in The Saturday Evening Post: “Here Violet (Maggie Smith) is again, still dying, yet peppery as ever, holding court in the parlour and hurling droll Violetisms that stick to their targets like clumps of warm figgy pudding.”

I’ve always been impressed by the fact that despite the rigid social hierarchy, some members of the Crawley family have closer friendships with their servants than with their family or friends. Both happy and sad events are celebrated by the entire household. Fans who’ve caught prophetic hints will be pleased by the Shakespearean device of tying up loose ends with new marriages, upstairs and down.

If one believes as I do, and Richard Rohr describes eloquently in Immortal Diamond, the natural trajectory of history leads to resurrection, then the new baby’s appearance at the film’s end is no accident. We who’ve watched the whole family: Lady Mary, Lady Edith, Lord and Lady Grantham endure tragedy are pleased by their joy because someday, it may be ours too. It’s not heavy theology; it’s story, but it points in the direction of new life and goodness. It gives us hope in the unfolding Mystery. Wasn’t that what C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien tried to achieve with their fiction too?

The Feast of the Sacred Heart—June 24

Admittedly, my approach to this feast is colored by 23 years of education with the Religious of the Sacred Heart. I could belt out “Coeur de Jesus” with the best of them, but secretly admired my parents for refusing to drive across town for the celebration of the feast at school. School? In summer? When we’d so recently been freed?

That wasn’t the only ambivalence. Ever the sensitive-to-hypocrisy teen, I noticed that though the talk was about love, the practical reality was a fierce discipline, a pervasive obsession with rules, silence and order. Wiser people have counseled, “Let it go!” That was simply the era, a perhaps desperate attempt to corral hundreds of chattering girls. Other writers have explained that the feast itself represents progress from 17th century piety, with its emphasis on the externals of religion.

But somehow the rigidity softened at the front gate. There stood a statue which remains an icon somewhere deep in the psyche. It was a large representation of Jesus as the Sacred Heart, with the odd heart-outside-the-body typical of that art. But more important: his arms were flung wide in welcome. His hands didn’t hurl thunderbolts or brandish law books.

The stance epitomized St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s insight: “The divine heart…is an ocean full of joy to drown all our sadness…” When she tried to convince others of this broadly inclusive approach, authorities called her delusional. (If only the prune-faces could’ve been around when she was vindicated: for the feast proclaimed in 1856, her canonization in 1920.) 

That set the stage. Then in adulthood, I could understand Richard Rohr’s superb book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, where he explains that we can do nothing to make God love us more. “All is given all the time!” because God can’t not love.

If I could really believe that, live out of it, I’d have it made. We all would. So, thanks to the Sacred Heart for that good grounding.

Trinity Sunday

Today’s first reading from Proverbs is a delight:

“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,

   the first of his acts of long ago…

Before the mountains had been shaped,

   before the hills, I was brought forth…

When he established the heavens, I was there,…

   then I was beside him, like a master worker;

and I was daily his delight,

   rejoicing before him always

Rejoicing in his inhabited world

  And delighting in the human race. (Proverbs 8:22, 25, 27, 30-31)

This biblical passage shows God and human engaged simultaneously in the same creativity. An interesting footnote to “like a master worker” in the NRSV translation says “like a little child.” Perhaps the two aren’t so different. They are equally fearless, totally absorbed, and thoroughly given over to delight. C.G. Jung writes, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”                

Just as the baker gives his child a small ball of dough or a potter gives her child a lump of clay, so the child happily does the same work on a lesser scale. Latina cooks learn to make tortillas besides a mother or grandmother who weighs the ingredients in her hands and teaches them by example how to shape the perfect circle. In European museums, apprentices often cluster in front of masterpieces, learning to paint through imitation. So we, in a specific art or an artful life, imitate the work of God. Our happiness springs from God’s presence beside us, our parallel activity.

What is true of God’s creativity and ours is also true of the faithful life. Grace is essential: sometimes an unanticipated shift of direction, a new friendship or idea, a sudden phone call can make all the difference. Originality or uniqueness is also central. In literature we call it voice. No one familiar with their writing would confuse Milton and Shakespeare, or mistake Hemingway for Faulkner.

So in art the styles of Rembrandt and Monet are decidedly different. One who knows the music of Schubert wouldn’t think it had been written by Handel. No self-respecting music lover would confuse U2 with The Rolling Stones. Even musicians or writers of the same era place their distinctive mark upon a piece.

“But,” some may protest. “Isn’t faith a more dogged matter of keeping rules and attending religious services?” Nothing wrong with that.

Approaching faith through the arts is a different lens, the distinction made by Alejandro Garcia-Rivera between “textbook theology” and the living theology we remember better: of story, image and song. (A Wounded Innocence. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003, viii)

If we have inherited a treasure in our faith, as we say we believe, then why do we live like paupers? If we have such a short time on earth, why do we squander it? Let’s paint, as beautifully as we can, the canvas of our lives.

A Trio of Pentecosts

A personal Pentecost happened on a frigid, blustery day in Cleveland, Ohio. The Community of St. Peter had invited me to give their Lenten day of prayer, stressing that the group’s discussion and input took priority over a long-winded speaker. That was a good start, I thought, still surprised by the burst of energy and joy that day brought. We met in a red barn, an event center behind one of the oldest buildings in the city, once a wayside inn from frontier days of transportation. I came to see how appropriate the red color was as the whole building rocked with animated discussion, warm laughter, song, good food and the happiness of being together in person after a long lockdown apart.

From the personal, to the national, to the church…

With whoosh of wind, the Spirit barrels through the US in the Pentecost I imagine. Just as faith leaders of all traditions once joined to march with M. L. King Jr. and enact Civil Rights legislation, so Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists and agnostics rise together as a concerted public voice for gun safety. They move past “thoughts and prayers” to concrete actions which reduce the skyrocketing death toll. They don’t want their country to be known as the nation where guns are the #1 cause of death for children.

Despite what Nicholas Kristof calls “a scandalous lack of research on gun violence,” his article in the New York Times proposes a clear path forward (“How to Reduce Shootings,” updated May 24, 2022). His common-sense proposals are supported with charts that make the statistics easily understandable.

It helps to use auto safety as a model for gun safety, because it has been spectacularly successful, reducing the death rate per 100 million miles driven to less than one-seventh of what it was in 1946. Measures such as mandatory seat belts, car seats for children, federal safety standards, lowered speed limits, airbags and mandatory reporting of defects by car makers may have met with initial resistance, but are widely accepted public health strategies now.

The Spirit doesn’t linger long over political divisions. Following that lead, we could focus on areas of common accord instead of despairing that nothing can be done. There are surprisingly many agreements on gun safety:

● 93% of people in gun-owning households favor universal background checks for gun purchases.

● 89% of both those who own guns and those who don’t agree that the mentally ill should not be allowed to purchase them. A similar high percentage in both groups want prevention of sales to those convicted of violent crimes or on no-fly lists.

● 77% of gun-owners and 87% of non-gun owners favor background checks on private and gun show sales. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/06/opinion/how-to-reduce-shootings.html.

In a move unusual for him, President Trump signed a bill to restore federal funding for CDC and NIH research on preventing gun violence. The $25 million allocated for 3 years is a start, but little compared to the $200 million spent over 50 years to prevent car injuries. Right now, there’s only one federally funded study—we need the Spirit’s intervention for more research.

Some of the most poignant Uvalde stories came from relatives of the dead children who are also staunch gun owners. But they saw the irony in an 18-year old who couldn’t buy a beer being able to buy an AR-15. They are more open to gun safety measures than their Republican leaders, more likely to agree when Catholic archbishop Gustavo García-Siller called the NRA convention in Houston “a culture of death in our midst.”

The Spirit always infuses with hope, a conviction that the long arc of human history bends towards good. In the Christian paradigm, new life come from painful crucifixion. From so much death, the God to whom nothing is impossible can bring improbable resurrection.  

One small breath of Pentecost wind in the Catholic tradition was Pope Francis’ recent naming of Robert McElroy as a cardinal. For those not familiar with the intricacies of church politics, McElroy of San Diego has stoutly protected refugees and won’t deny Communion to anyone. He harshly criticized the bishops who refuse communion to politicians such as Biden and Pelosi. He represents a minority who decry the weaponizing of Eucharist, its being “deployed as a tool in political warfare.” Among his five degrees are a BA from Harvard, an MA and Ph.D. from Stanford. In the creaky old college of cardinals, the stirrings of life.