Category Archives: Family Spirituality

Feast of St. Martha–July 29

Today, she’d be the CEO of Google or Apple. Brilliant, outspoken, direct, she gave Jesus exactly the affirmation he needed to proceed to Jerusalem and his passion. But let her tell the story…

“I was at my worst then: exhausted, vulnerable, grieving for Lazarus, angry at Jesus. I was so outraged, I spewed pure venom when he arrived. Lazarus’s place at our table was empty, the brother I loved had vanished, and Jesus’ delay became the target for my fury.

People with better social skills might have welcomed him with, ‘Thanks for trying,’ or even, ‘Your friend is dead,’ but I dumped the guilt trip: ‘If you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.’

The accusation hurt; I could tell by the sadness in his eyes. Still it didn’t paralyze him; maybe he continued our conversation because he could trust I wouldn’t mask the truth. I would look him straight in the eye and speak without a shred of syrupy politeness.

Still, he hesitated. It was as if he needed something from me, some mysterious affirmation before he plunged ahead. The roles were reversed: just when I needed to lean on him in grief, he asked for my support!

Even if I’d lost Lazarus, I could still encourage Jesus. Maybe he had taught me how to give people exactly what they need. He had wept with Mary; he had discussed the afterlife with me; now it was my turn to answer the question he hated to ask. So few people understood him; all he wanted was one person to show some inkling.

And I did know who he was. In some quiet, sure place within, I was bedrock certain of his identity. So I said it aloud. Not to sound arrogant, but Jesus forged into that foul-smelling tomb as if propelled by my words. I ran after him, just in time to see Lazarus lurch forth. Three days before, weeping, I had covered my brother’s face with the same linen. Now, I unwound the burial cloths as if unwrapping a splendid gift.

I barely thanked Jesus or noticed him leave. But neighbors said he walked purposefully toward Jerusalem, driven as he had been to Lazarus’s grave. Did my words still echo in his ears? Had I ignited some fire within him? As I had a hundred times before, I asked myself, ‘Now what have I said?’”

Excerpted from Hidden Women of the Gospels by Kathy Coffey, Orbis Books, orbisbooks.com, 800-258-5838

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 suffering, exploitation and death. Arguments over authority simply distract from that large hope.

Book Review: The Lost Words and Spell Songs

Enough of last week’s bishops—with their tedious, dualistic, patriarchal exclusion. Let’s turn to something more creative and life-giving: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarland and Jackie Morris.

This collaboration between him–a Cambridge professor/naturalist, and her—a skilled, stunning artist–came about when the Oxford Junior Dictionary, widely used in schools around the world, dropped 40 words concerning nature. These “lost words,” no longer used enough by children to rate their inclusion, included: wren, acorn, bluebell, fern, lark, otter, heather and willow. In classroom after classroom, children were unable to name something simple as a dandelion. As Morris asked, “how could we stand by and let this happen?”

They couldn’t. Macfarlane wrote a clever acrostic “spell poem” for 20 common names of ordinary species, designed to speak or sing and summon them back.  Believing that “as artists our main function should be a responsibility to awe,” they saw their work as a “beautiful protest against the loss of everyday nature from everyday lives.”

Their gorgeous book (over-size, full color, Anansi Press, available from Amazon, book stores or libraries) took on life and energy. Grass-roots campaigns to “re-wild childhood” earned enough money to place copies in every primary school in Scotland, half of England and a quarter of Wales, with similar efforts in the U.S.  Every hospice in the UK has a copy, and an Orthopedic Hospital has four levels decorated with the art and spells. Children practicing motor skills can thus be encouraged to “walk as far as the kingfisher,” or “go find the owl.” Like a selkie, it has also slipped its skin and transformed into Spell Songs.

Listening to that lovely music as I drove my granddaughter to camp through misty hills on a cool, grey morning, I felt I’d gone to Ireland without a plane ticket. The accent, the lyric voices and flutes, fiddles, harps underscored our emotional attachments to certain landscapes.  As a Senegalese musician said, “when it’s gone, you never get it back. Your landscape, your horizon is irreplaceable.”  

Many of us survived lockdown by taking daily walks outdoors. The healing benefits proved the truth of a line in “Lark:” “Right now I need you/for my sadness has come again.” To lose words not only impoverishes our appreciation of the natural world; it dilutes our language.

Any of my writing students at the University of Colorado could attest that the specific word is one of the best tools in the writer’s kit. They knew their lazy use of “nice,” “good” or “interesting” would draw a quick and savage strike of the red pen from their instructor. When the names of precious species, unique creations are replaced by blog, broadband and bullet-point, how have we cheated our children?

The Sad and Flailing Bishops

A generous, intelligent and compassionate young mom whom I love dearly texts in astonishment, “Please tell me this isn’t true!”

She’s just read reports of US bishops developing a teaching on Eucharist with a veiled purpose of denying President Biden Communion because of his pro-choice stance. Like many, she is shocked and confused. Fearing that no response is adequate, I nevertheless wade into the fray.

Many columnists have already pointed out that Biden’s efforts to restore jobs, cut child poverty in half, save the environment, distribute COVID vaccine nationally and globally, mourn those who died from the virus, make preschool/community college free and accessible, welcome refugees, and renew a flagging economy are the best of being Catholic.

Furthermore, at the recent global leaders’ summit, he began the process of returning the US to the world community, a cooperation vital to the future of the planet all nations share. He brought adult decency and civility back to the White House, replacing the tirades, bigotry and impulsive chaos of the previous administration. As Jesus said to his critics, “what’s wrong with that?” Who among the bishops’ company has done anywhere near as much? Maybe they should be discussing how to support such gospel-grounded initiatives…

With his sure instincts, Pope Francis has already told the bishops to back off, warning them of stark discord if they continue this course. With their reputation already tanked by their bungling of the pedophile tragedy, their silence on major issues like racism, their continued sexism, homophobia and bullying tactics to force people back to a Sunday obligation of worship, the ground on which they stand is shaky at best.  Sixty Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives, including Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have asked U.S. bishops to avoid “weaponizing” the Eucharist.

The decision to proceed with the document passed with 168 votes in favor, 55 against and six abstentions. The text should be proposed to the bishops in November and would need approval by two-thirds of the U.S. Conference. Within days, they were already tap dancing, maybe remembering the fiasco of their refusal to bless same-sex marriage, roundly rejected. A long-established principle is that a teaching must not only be issued, but received by the People of God. They encountered that disconnect with their birth control teaching, yet seem to chug along the same path, blissfully ignorant.  

John D. Whitney, SJ echoes the finest Eucharistic theologians who have for centuries reminded us that “hunger is the only ticket”—it’s not a question of worthiness or politics:

“It is not your table (nor mine). Bishops, priests, etc. are neither the hosts nor the bouncers nor the ones who wrote the guest list. The Eucharist is the resurrected body of Christ given for the life of the world. Jesus Christ is the one who invites the guests (“all you who labor”); he is the host of those who come; he is the setter of the table; and he is the feast… We are guests at the meal, and sometimes (by his calling) servers. So stay in your lane, please. The wait staff doesn’t get to exclude those who want to come. If you don’t like the company Christ calls (and, admittedly, it is a rag tag bunch of sinners, one and all), it’s you who need to leave the table, not them.”

Holy Trinity, the Jesuit parish Biden usually attends at Georgetown, won’t deny Communion to anyone. The posting on their website read: “As Pope Francis recently reaffirmed, communion should be viewed ‘not as a prize for the perfect, but as a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’ None of us, whether we stand in the pews or behind the altar, is worthy to receive it. The great gift of the Holy Eucharist is too sacred to be made a political issue.”

Fortunately, a few sane voices in the bishops’ conference protest. Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, pointing to a year of COVID deaths, racial strife and economic hardship said, “We need to be issuing a short statement that ‘the church is there for you and let’s continue to journey together so we can face these issues together.’” Otherwise, he warned, “I fear we’re going to sound tone-deaf.” Geeze—ya think?? Worse, they’ll be preaching to a dark and empty mausoleum.

The Mourner Who Lost Her Job

Mark 5: 21-43, the Gospel for June 27

I made a good living, wailing. Don’t scoff. I gave voice to peoples’ wrenching pain and haunting loneliness when they were so numb they could barely stumble through the funeral procession. The deep seated sadness they couldn’t tell even their closest friends? I blared it out boldly. Mourning served a healthy purpose and came from the deepest part of me. I wasn’t faking it, you see. I’ve wrestled the old enemy death too, and carry the scars in my soul.

The corpse we mourned was a twelve-year old girl; her parents looked crushed as if a mountain or tall cedar had fallen on them. I knew the look.

When he silenced me, I was furious. How’s a girl supposed to make a living, feed her family? I was a professional, no charlatan. Others faked it: not I. I knew that pain on a first-name basis. My daughter died too, at six, even younger than this child. I’d never gotten over it, and when I wailed for this girl, I wept for her. I’d raged at God, too, using my filthiest language and cursing with my most blood-curdling expletives. How could a kind and merciful God allow such atrocities?

I got right in his face and yelled even louder with rage and ridicule. His explanation was bogus: “the child is not dead but asleep.” How we hooted and laughed at him with scorn! Wouldn’t we all wish that? How dumb would we be, not to know the difference? Even worse than making his lame excuse, he put us all out. We stood outside, our world overturned, not sure what was happening inside, and even more, worried whether we’d get paid for this job.

But no worry on that score. Jairus was generous, spilling over with joy that his daughter lived. The girl restored to her parents that day opened up questions that haunted me for several years after. Why their daughter, not mine? During sleepless nights, I went over and over the question in my mind, never reaching a satisfactory answer.

Until, one day, I met him again. It was a complete surprise. I’d gone to Jerusalem to visit my cousin, and she dragged me to a horrible scene, the path convicted criminals walked to the hill of crucifixion. I’d been angry at the guy who once disrupted my routine and my sleep, but I burst into tears at the shock of seeing him here. He might’ve been annoying, but I never thought he’d be carrying a cross!

What he said then completely contradicted his message last time we’d met: “Do not weep for me but weep for yourselves and your children.” What? Now we should weep? Was he condoning my work, affirming my natural sorrow? It was as if his sad face held all the terrible tragedies and cruelties humans have ever faced. “Yes,” he was saying. “You’re right to weep for that.” I was grateful he didn’t dismiss us with a brisk head pat, and “stop crying, girls.”

I puzzled over that encounter for several days–until my cousin told me rumors I couldn’t believe. “Some people say he lives again!” Oddly enough, the command he gave the 12-year old–“Arise”–was the same verb people were using now of him. It may sound crazy, but I desperately wanted it to be true. It was as if he called us to a larger life, a bigger wholeness, the intention of God that we should live on and on.

I won’t stop mourning—it’s too important to express that anguish. The people who try to stuff it seem to get even angrier, and never heal. But I have a strong voice, and I could also sing in celebration – for a new baby or a wedding. This life is crazy-full of sorrow and joy. That guy who raised the girl seemed to know them both. Maybe my singing could honor my daughter who was young and joyful—and him. Did lifting that girl from her death bed signal what was to come for all of us?

Excerpt from More Hidden Women of the Gospels by Kathy Coffey. Orbis Books, 800-258-5838, OrbisBooks.com

Meditation on a Kitchen Table

Knicked and dented, scratched and scuffed, a large wooden table fills my youngest daughter’s dining room. When I sit there to write a note or eat lunch, the memories flood back.

This table was handed down through my husband’s family to rest in our kitchen for 25 years. What a process unfolded around it—from a newborn held in arms while a parent grabbed a bite, to that baby become a college student bringing home his friends from the rugby team for the weekend. The four small children who once ringed it, eager for conversation and meals, gradually left for different parts of the country, careers and their own families. I can still imagine them there, laughing, telling the stories of their days, hoping there’d be cookie bars for dessert.

Through a complicated dismantling and reassembling, the table moved from Colorado to where it now has a view of San Francisco bay and the Oakland hills. We’ve all moved to various locations, and what my dad at grace before dinner would call “our small circle of affection” has lived in many states, expanded now to two.

The enduring miracle is how four littles learned the language of fidelity, the grammar of care. They knew for certain that no matter what happened that day at school or on the playground, the only admission ticket for the table was hunger. They were nurtured not only by the meals, which were often haphazard, last-minute arrangements of hot dogs and macaroni-n-cheese, but by a grounded sense of belonging.

Their fallible, tired, bumbling parents couldn’t claim the credit for the children’s admirable careers in non-profits or their own families now. But the divine parent was also present at that table, creating, enlivening, guiding, protecting, enriching, nourishing, infusing with humor and perspective. A presence never deserved, always embraced.

There were probably squabbles around that table, arguments over the last roll or who got the car Saturday, but fortunately we weren’t a family whose meals were too seasoned with tension or spiced with anxiety. One measure of ongoing dedication is how we still enjoy lingering at the table, with grandchildren interrupting the conversation, but still delighted to be together. Many families are re-discovering now how much they missed that intimacy of meals forbidden during lockdown.

When I’d underscore the importance of the family meal during workshops for parents, I’d hear the long litany of what makes it difficult: work, sports, meetings all oddly scheduled at the dinner hour. I’d respond with the statistics, showing how many National Merit winners and high-achievers valued dinner together as a key part of growing up. “And if it’s important,” I’d smile. “You’ll find time for it.”  

To the parents scrambling to cook after an exhausting work day, while juggling phone calls and children’s demands, I’d offer all encouragement: it’s worth it. And someday, may you too see a kitchen table marked by scars, and fill with gratitude.

Book Review—Braiding Sweetgrass

St. Francis would love it. So do I. As I reject patriarchal, dualistic theologies and lean towards creation spirituality, I’m drawn to this book written by Robin Wall Kimmerer, an active member of the Potowatomi nation and a State University of New York Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology. She braids together her indigenous knowledge, scientific background and stories “in service to what matters most:” healing humans’ broken relationship with the earth. 

She writes lyrically about a legacy of wild strawberries in her childhood, shaping her “view of a world full of gifts, simply scattered at your feet.” The only response? Eat them with a sense of mystery. Her story of strawberries is pivotal to “living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world… When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.” (p. 31) Familiar echoes of “Canticle of the Sun” or the psalms?

As Fr. Richard Rohr explains in Yes, And… the human incarnation of God in Jesus happened 2000 years ago. But 13.8 billion years ago, the original incarnation occurred through sun, moon, stars, land, plants, trees, fruit, birds, etc. Do we ever wonder what God was doing 10 or 4 billion years ago? “Was God really waiting for the pope to appear and declare his infallibility?” (p. 131) Braiding Sweetgrass puts us in touch with that older, sacred, enchanted universe.

Family ceremonies of gratefulness so grounded Kimmerer that she wasn’t deterred by her college adviser’s dismissiveness when she first responded to the question “why do you want to major in botany?” She wanted to know why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together. Much later, she knew all the scientific names but was humbled by an indigenous guide who understood the plants’ songs.

So she teaches her own ethnobotany students through experiential field trips. They first brainstorm a list of human needs, then are amazed to find many of these fulfilled when they go “shopping at Wal-Marsh.” (“Sitting in a Circle” chapter.) They eat rhizomes and pollen pancakes, soothe bug bites with cattail gel, make a wigwam, sleeping mats and baskets. After several days, they understand one native term for plants, which translates to “those who care for us.” It’s no surprise that breathing the smell of the earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, the chemical that promotes bonding between mother and child.

We name it “landscaping the religious imagination;” Kimmerer makes the mental map of pecan grove, river bend, rock pile, sweetgrass meadow and berry patch. We call it “contemplation;” she terms it “listening.” The nuthatch tapping, water trickling, wind in pine, beechnut falling are the wordless language of wild places. We sing hymns to the creator; natives chant and dance praise of creation, reverently using only the resources they need, replenishing those. Science can polish seeing, but its technical vocabulary has no terms to hold the mystery of the life force, which St. Hildegard of Bingen called “viriditas.” Puhpowee in Anishinaabe translates as the force which causes mushrooms to spring up overnight.

As I look at my nine-year old grandson, knees scratched from soccer, bubble gum blowing, brown eyes wide and innocent, I can’t imagine hiding him under a stream bank to escape the agents who’d take native children to boarding school. There, his language would be considered “dirty;” his customs, pagan; his culture, annihilated. In their zeal, the missionaries and US government asked the wrong question about native peoples: “Are they saved?” Instead they should’ve asked, “how do they see the world?” The chance to hear that answer might help rescue a planet in jeopardy … Start braiding.

The Feast of the Sacred Heart—June 11

Even after 50+ years since my education by the Religious of the Sacred Heart, this feast still captures attention, still intrigues by its contradictions.

On the negative side, the fierce discipline, obsession with rules, silence and order might have been simply the products of an era when few schools were enlightened or relaxed. Some friends have worse horror tales from crazier nuns and more rigid Catholic schools. We may not have been encouraged to be especially creative, but we were never physically punished. We may have sung maudlin hymns, but we were never taught a Mel Gibson-style obsession with the gruesome details of the crucifixion.

On the positive side, I still remember a statue of Jesus as the Sacred Heart which stood outside our school. It had the odd heart-outside-the-body typical of sentimental art. But more important: his arms were flung wide in welcome. His hands didn’t hurl thunderbolts, tick off lists of wrongdoing, or brandish law books.

The stance epitomized the insight of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, credited with popularizing devotion to the Sacred Heart. “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. Indeed, she had made a huge stride forward from 17th century piety, with its emphasis on the externals of religion. (How had they avoided today’s passage from Ephesians, “may Christ dwell in your hearts through faith”?)

The readings for this feast are marked by tenderness, especially the Hosea passage about God as parent helping a young child walk or lifting an infant to brush the cheeks. The gospel reference to blood and water flowing from the side of Jesus is often compared to the gush of fluid when a woman gives birth.

This tone is consistent with fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich’s writing in The Showings about God as mother. “In the sight of God, we do not fall” (p. 222) because we are always graciously enfolded in love. Just as a mother brims with pride in her child, so we too are God’s joy, treasure and delight (p. 228). More on that in another blog; thanks to a Sacred Heart education for the assurance that God can’t not love.

Attention to the Small, Fleeting, and Sweet

In her most recent novel, Payback, Mary Gordon writes of a woman leaving Italy after making it her home for 40 years, and weeping. “She was crying for the passing of dearness. Of those moments in a life that show its goodness, that have nothing to do with, have not the slightest tincture of, greatness. What might pejoratively be called habit. She was crying because never again would she swim in that gentle sea of small pleasures whose repetition is so nourishing.” (p. 169)

Most of us would admit that our lives rarely veer into greatness. But we have an abundance of small pleasures, some rarely appreciated until we lose them. In his keen attention to birds, vines, wheat and wine, Jesus surely knew the value of such goodness. Indeed, he based his teaching on those images rather than doctrines or rules.

So too, if we take inventory, might be astonished by this steady stream, this sturdy fabric that makes up most days. Each will have a personal list of small pleasures, but mine includes: grandchildren’s heads pressed close as we read Harry Potter on the couch under blankets, birds building nests in the hanging baskets of flowers outside my window, the lovely stretch in limbs walking or doing yoga, a pile of new library books, the cushioned oomph of good tennis shoes, a grand-daughter in bikini, sitting on small stool and silently munching cherries, crimson bougainvillea against dove-grey skies, the silken feel of swim on skin, the quiet fidelity of the newspaper delivered to the driveway each morning, tantalizing flavors of ice cream in the freezer, a bouquet of roses whose scent fills the room, a 7-year old helping his 5-year old sister carefully pull her first, loose baby tooth, going unmasked where it’s allowed now, thus feeling unconstrained, like wild public nudity.

The poet Li-Young Lee captures the precious beauty of such brief moments, in “Black Petal”:

   “the unmistakable fragrance

   our human days afford.”

And in “The Well”:

   “our very looking is the light feasting on the light.”

How sad if, valiantly focused on greatness, we were to miss goodness.

Winds of Pentecost

That powerful force, that supple grace of Pentecost wind continues to blow today. The proposed federal legislation I described last week is surely a movement towards justice, designed to help children in poverty, and those left unemployed by the lockdown. So too are efforts at racial justice, reforming the police, using alternate energy sources.

Another event last week speaks of a painful honesty and acceptance. I know nothing more about it than what I read in the newspaper, which reported that Kevin O’Brien, SJ resigned as president of Santa Clara University. While the murkiness surrounding allegations against him lacked transparency and confused many, his response is admirable.

The press picked up on the theme of “how are the mighty fallen.” Four months ago, Fr. O’Brien was presiding at Biden’s inauguration Mass. Apparently the accusations came from Jesuit graduate students–he’d had joking conversations with them over alcohol that were “inconsistent with Jesuit protocols and boundaries.” Aside from the dinner conversations, no inappropriate behavior. The provincial offered him a leave of absence when he could get outpatient treatment for alcohol use and stress management, but he didn’t want to leave the university without leadership for several months. So he resigned.

Many of us who’ve enjoyed cocktail hours and dinners with Jesuits squirmed uncomfortably. How much of our banter which seemed so innocent violated those protocols? (Don’t even know what they are…)  At first I wanted to find a villain, but now I suspect it’s better to focus on the hero. To fail publicly is hard on the Irish; to admit the need for alcohol treatment even worse. Yet O’Brien did both, with courage and grace, in the glaring spotlight. He countered the joking Jesuit motto, “often wrong but never in doubt.”

In a competitive setting where few want to make mistakes, his letter to the university community upheld a fine model: “no matter the success or positions you achieve in life, it is okay to ask for help when you need it, and to allow others to care for you.” His board, faculty and students all spoke highly of him; now he must follow the hard road of apparent failure which for many can hold surprising insights. Maybe there’s more to the story; maybe the full picture won’t emerge for years.

But we can celebrate Pentecost by appreciating the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in our lives, “filling the entire house.” The processes of ordinary living are so fragile, so immensely significant, so fraught with terror, that we desperately need someone beyond ourselves. We all need the warmth and power of the Spirit to help with whatever we undertake.