Category Archives: Family Spirituality

Feast of Mother Teresa—Sept. 5

Her service seems as simple as the pure blue and white lines of her clothing. Mother Teresa cared for the poor, dying and homeless in the slums of Calcutta. To those who face daily the quagmire of business decisions, tangled relationships and complex scheduling, her work by contrast seems a clear, uncomplicated gospel following.

Yet few of us abandon our routines, don saris and join her movement. Perhaps we want to believe that something of Teresa’s spirit can invigorate our lives; some of her clarity can penetrate our shadows; some of her compassion can move through us to those we touch each day. Our contacts may not be as abandoned and diseased as those Teresa cared for, but they have the same needs for attention and affection.

Teresa apparently had the same luminosity that attracted people to Jesus. Everyone wanted to be near her in life, and after death she exerts the same attraction. Her biographer Malcolm Muggeridge believed that for people who have trouble grasping “Christ’s great propositions of love… someone like Mother Teresa is a godsend. She is this love in person.”

No one was less sentimental or more “earthy.” She would engage in lively discussion with beggars about their “take of the day,” eager to hear how it went. One of her favorite words was “beautiful”—in the squalor and stench of Calcutta slums! Indeed, she believed her vocation was to be beautiful. She gloried in life-surviving-against-all odds, exulting when a tiny baby survived: “There’s life in her!”

Like ourselves, she often felt exhausted, alone and miserable. Indeed, she predicted she’d become “the saint of darkness.” It’s heartening that “one of us,” as prone to depression and negativity, cheers us on.

 

Film Review: “Maiden”

Take a break this week and see a movie that’s not related to politics in any way, and isn’t controversial. It’s about the first all-female crew to successfully sail around the world in 1989-90. The film version, “Maiden” (titled after the name of their boat) begins with the sad story of a ten-year girl named Tracy Edwards, whose happy childhood crashed to an end when her father died. The man her mother later married was alcoholic and abusive. Tracy was suspended from secondary school many times before she was finally expelled at sixteen.  She ran away from home, became a nomad and worked on boats as the cook.

During one of her odd jobs, she met King Hussein of Jordan, who became a close friend and would later fund the boat and historic voyage. Edwards faced intense sexism and plenty of skeptics who said it couldn’t be done, including a Guardian writer who called them “a tinful of tarts.”

But the international crew of fourteen women won two legs, including the most treacherous through Antarctica, of the Whitbread Round the World Race, 32,000 nautical miles from England to Uruguay to Australia to New Zealand and back, with a stop in America. In the worst sections, temperatures fell to 20 below 0, and another ship lost two men overboard. Edwards had wisely brought a doctor on her crew, who coached their competitors via radio on how to resuscitate.

Edwards became the first woman in Whitbread history to be named Yachtsman of the Year. When the yacht came into Fremantle, Edwards recalled, “the collective jaws around the world just dropped.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/07/29/how-tracy-edwards-and-the-sailing-crew-of-maiden-made-nautical-history  In characteristically dry British style, some of their male competitors and critics simply commented, “Blimey!”

To the director Alex Holmes’ delight, archival footage of the 1989 race existed: Whitbread organizers had asked for volunteers to film themselves during the race. Edwards agreed, recalling: “If we triumph, this is a record for any woman who comes after us.” The unseen epilogue, after the highs and lows of the film crashing like waves, was Edwards’ struggle with depression, her mother’s illness, her own most human difficulties.

The mature woman speaks now of her commitment to “creating visibility—about what women are capable of, about mental health, about what’s possible when you put together the right team.” https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/06/maiden-documentary-tracy-edwards-sailing-interview Thirty years later, her daughter Mack Edwards-Mair participated in a refurbished “Maiden’s” round-the-world excursion, a promotion to raise funds for the education of girls. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/07/04/her-mom-broke-barriers-with-an-all-female-crew-shes-about-set-sail-same-yacht/

You go, girls!

Film Review: “Maiden”

Take a break this week and see a movie that’s not related to politics in any way, and isn’t controversial. It’s about the first all-female crew to successfully sail around the world in 1989-90. The film version, “Maiden” (titled after the name of their boat) begins with the sad story of a ten-year girl named Tracy Edwards, whose happy childhood crashed to an end when her father died. The man her mother later married was alcoholic and abusive. Tracy was suspended from secondary school many times before she was finally expelled at sixteen.  She ran away from home, became a nomad and worked on boats as the cook.

During one of her odd jobs, she met King Hussein of Jordan, who became a close friend and would later fund the boat and historic voyage. Edwards faced intense sexism and plenty of skeptics who said it couldn’t be done, including a Guardian writer who called them “a tinful of tarts.”

But the international crew of fourteen women won two legs, including the most treacherous through Antarctica, of the Whitbread Round the World Race, 32,000 nautical miles from England to Uruguay to Australia to New Zealand and back, with a stop in America. In the worst sections, temperatures fell to 20 below 0, and another ship lost two men overboard. Edwards had wisely brought a doctor on her crew, who coached their competitors via radio on how to resuscitate.

Edwards became the first woman in Whitbread history to be named Yachtsman of the Year. When the yacht came into Fremantle, Edwards recalled, “the collective jaws around the world just dropped.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/07/29/how-tracy-edwards-and-the-sailing-crew-of-maiden-made-nautical-history  In characteristically dry British style, some of their male competitors and critics simply commented, “Blimey!”

To the director Alex Holmes’ delight, archival footage of the 1989 race existed: Whitbread organizers had asked for volunteers to film themselves during the race. Edwards agreed, recalling: “If we triumph, this is a record for any woman who comes after us.” The unseen epilogue, after the highs and lows of the film crashing like waves, was Edwards’ struggle with depression, her mother’s illness, her own most human difficulties.

The mature woman speaks now of her commitment to “creating visibility—about what women are capable of, about mental health, about what’s possible when you put together the right team.” https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/06/maiden-documentary-tracy-edwards-sailing-interview Thirty years later, her daughter Mack Edwards-Mair participated in a refurbished “Maiden’s” round-the-world excursion, a promotion to raise funds for the education of girls. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/07/04/her-mom-broke-barriers-with-an-all-female-crew-shes-about-set-sail-same-yacht/

You go, girls!

Reflection on Recent ICE Raids

Driving with a friend recently who was pulled over by a polite officer for a minor traffic violation, we both sighed in relief that it went so well, with merely a warning. But her little daughter in the back seat dissolved into tears, barely able to gasp, “will mama go to jail?” We reassured and comforted her, but I couldn’t help thinking of the many children for whom an encounter with police doesn’t end so well…

On the first day of school in Mississippi, ICE arrested 680 migrants, many of them parents working to support their children in seven poultry plants. The White House ordered this action only days after a massacre in El Paso targeting immigrants and killing 22 people: could the racist hatred linking the two events be any clearer? Of course there was no forethought about care for the children who returned home and found their parents gone. Volunteers, neighbors and social service agencies are scrambling to care for them, but the children are, understandably, devastated.

When evil is so blatant, it’s easy to become depressed. To re-energize, it helps to focus on the good. For instance, the children of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Canton, Miss. who staged a protest in blistering heat. A sign carried by two Hispanic boys read, “I will not sit in silence while my parents are taken away.” Pastor Mike O’Brien stood with parishioners until 4 am outside the Peco Foods plant, awaiting those freed from custody and driving home several who had hidden from federal agents. Many churches have stepped forward to aid the families, and Bishop Brian Seage of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi said forthrightly, “We are called… to speak the truth. And the truth is, this is not right.” Faith in Action has developed a tool kit to understand the issues and influence Congress: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1nMHhSm3c4B7aK8C7jK0STpGeh3UarfbHlK9EZEYw8kA/edit Network’s immigration toolkit may be found at: https://networkadvocates.org/advocacytoolbox/educate/immigrantjustice

This deliberate contempt for hard-working people who happen to have brown skin is a wicked challenge to faith. We know we should “find God in all things,” but in this? Few people have answers, but we can at least fumble towards meaning.

“Jesus wept” and continues to—in the abandoned children, the heartbroken parents, the wretched mess created by apparently unfeeling authorities. And Jesus heals—in courageous protestors, concerned neighbors who make room for one more child in a crowded kitchen, legislators who intervene, teachers and all who try to mitigate the disastrous effects.

For the hundredth time, I turn to Richard Rohr and find his definition of grace: “what God does to keep all things [God] has made in love and alive—forever.” (Immortal Diamond, p. xx) In the larger picture, God is still active. Grace is not fragile nor limited, and in the end will triumph. To this hope, we cling.

“Lamps Shining in a Dark Place”

We must all be struggling numbly to wrap our minds around the successive killings and the torrent of hateful racism from the White House in the last week. Instead of spending a spacious August at farmer’s markets and swimming pools, we read terrible accounts of a two-month old who lost both parents, trying to shield him from gunfire at Walmart, a six-year old who should’ve been starting first grade, killed at Gilroy, a murderer’s deranged, on-line rant that mirrored the president’s incendiary language about immigrants.

But in a letter from 2 Peter on Tuesday, we’re encouraged to attend to the bright lamps. Where are they? First, the crowds who greeted Representative Ilhan Omar, the Somali-born Democrat from Minnesota and target of the Bigot-in-Chief, on July 19 at the Minneapolis airport chanting, “Welcome Home.”

Second, the clergy at the Washington National Cathedral who denounced “the escalation of racialized rhetoric from the president.” (washingtonpost.com/…/have-we-no-decency-local-church-leaders-respond-trumps-criticism-baltimore) Bishop Mariann Budde, Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., protesting outside Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office Aug. 6 also rejected “a sense of false helplessness” and said, “We will look back on these days and wonder how it was that we could have been so collectively aligned to such a needless proliferation of weapons meant to take human life.”

Third, a statement from the Religious of the Sacred Heart that actually recommends specific gun control measures (rare in the abundance of vague abstractions spewing forth):

  • a total ban on assault weapons, which passed in 1994—but which Congress failed to renew in 2004—that definitely saved lives
  • measures that control the sale and use of firearms, such as universal background checks for all gun purchases
  • limitations on civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines
  • a federal law to criminalize gun trafficking

Let’ add to that age restrictions, and up the ante: Any legislator who votes against such common-sense measures, violating the express will of the majority of people they were elected to represent, should be required to clean up the carnage after the next killing.

Seems clear that the wanton destruction of life is an issue which all religious traditions, indeed all people lucky enough to be alive, should condemn—and immediately change the laws. Why can New Zealand ban assault weapons within a week of a shooting in Christchurch, and the US still procrastinates after endless carnage? (Little has changed since Columbine, over 20 years ago.) Hasn’t the NRA, which seems to be collapsing internally, and represents a small minority, dominated the will of the American people long enough? Where is the collective outrage?

Feast of St. Ignatius—July 31

The Basilica of Loyola, Spain is a massive pile of grey stone. But if one persists into the castle, a refreshing simplicity marks the birthplace of St. Ignatius. A simple wooden column stands on the second floor, marked “Inigo, 1491” –his Basque name, the year of his birth. A stunning plaque says simply, “Aqui nacio.” On a literal level, it means St. Ignatius was born here. Symbolically, it reaches vaster regions. Here began an alternate narrative to the sad, centuries-old history of church power and clerical control.

Both Ignatius and Teresa of Avila lived at a time when the clergy were the only intermediaries between ordinary people and God. They begged to differ. What graces they brought to the spiritual life, he saying to regular shmucks: “God has a dream for you,” and she: “the soul’s amplitude cannot be exaggerated.”

Ignatius would later be carried into Loyola castle with a war wound so serious he was given the last rites. But he recovered there, looking out at green mountains, reading the lives of the saints. In nine months of convalescence, some new seed took root. Then Ignatius crossed the worn, mossy stones at the front entrance of his family’s residence. He left behind the fortress mentality, and began a long journey, eventually exchanging his sword for a walking stick. The violence that once constituted the macho drama of a knight’s life, traded in for a mysterious process—he had no idea where it would end, but limped into it trustingly. He made false starts; his dream of Jerusalem didn’t work out. But instead of despairing, Ignatius asked God, “Where else are you? Where are you leading next?”

That journey would take him to the mountaintop of Montserrat, the cave of Manressa, the port of Barcelona, and eventually, to Rome. With genius and craziness, Ignatius realized he wanted his followers in the swirl of cities, where plazas and squares offered places to preach and exchange new ideas—not isolated and distant in monasteries. (Most Jesuit universities are still planted squarely in the midst of cities.)

His directions for Jesuit life are remarkably flexible: no office, no habit, no required fasts or penances. After every directive came the realistic qualifier to fit the circumstances: “or whatever’s best.” At Ignatius’ death, there were 1000 Jesuits.  Indicating their perpetual differences with the powers-that-be, they’ve spent more time in jail than any other religious order.  Their alternate view of Christianity didn’t emphasize external rules, but the long interior process of the Spiritual Exercises, hence not a what? but a who? Called into “conscious living relationship with the person of Christ,” they have achieved greatly, or like St. Alphonsus Rodriguez in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, faithfully watched the door in Majorca.

Perhaps the most famous Jesuit today is Pope Francis. He reflected the Ignatian tradition when he said, “the whole purpose of the church is to create conditions in which anyone can have a relationship with Christ.” Rejecting the usual palatial residence, his words sprang from a long habit of discernment: “I felt in the depths of my being a ‘no’ to the papal palace.” Ignatius points us not to airy realms beyond but to our current reality, bracing, frustrating and ambiguous as it may seem: “Now. Here. This.”

I’m grateful to Matt Malone, SJ, editor of America Magazine for his insights on Ignatius, shared as he led a pilgrimage through Spain, October, 2018.

Book Review: The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, mental illness in the household, loss of caregiver, homelessness and bullying have long been known as toxic to the developing child. But no one understood the full effects and possible healing before Dr. Harris entered the scene. A pediatrician with a master’s in public health from Harvard, working in a rough neighborhood of San Francisco, she implemented basic care where there had been only one doctor for over ten thousand children.

But she was puzzled. Why did that community, where she saw marvelous families struggling mightily, have such a dramatically reduced life expectancy? Why was a child raised there 2 ½ times more likely to develop pneumonia than a child in a wealthier area, and 6 times as likely to develop asthma? Why would serious health problems plague these children into adulthood? She eloquently describes distress over her patients: “At the beginning, they are equal, these beautiful bundles of potential, and knowing that they won’t always be is enough to break your heart.”

Her crystal-clear writing can be humorous too: “like a soap-opera wife whose husband was stepping out with the nanny, I would understand it only in hindsight.” Most people know that the human stress response has helped the species survive, cueing the first people to run when the lion roared. Cortisol helped the body by increasing blood sugar so the brain could think and inhibiting growth and reproduction during food shortages. But children exposed to high doses of stress have “overloaded systems” which can cause long-range health problems and significantly shorter life spans.

This attempt to describe complex processes in a short space with accessible language obviously has its limits, and should nudge the reader to the original text, which reads like a fascinating mystery. With sheer delight, Dr. Harris found exhaustive research done in 1998, linking ACEs to the leading causes of death in adults. Children who experience prolonged adversity and terrifying situations have a de-regulated, near-constant blast of cortisol, or in Harris’ metaphor: “the body’s stress thermostat is broken” and the brain shows measurable changes. The best intervention? An adult caregiver, who serves as a buffer and in many cases, needs therapy as well.

With high energy, Harris relates how she and her team created an ACE screening (which she hopes every doctor will require for every routine physical). They learned how effective it was to talk about the trauma, even with very young children, to avoid their creating an explanation that blamed themselves. The best therapy treats parent and child as a team: child-parent psychotherapy (CPP). This treatment has tremendous effect, as did other interventions Harris  explains:  in mindfulness, sleep,  exercise, nutrition and healthy relationships. Because of her success, the book is joyful: scientific detectives can make enormous improvements in peoples’ lives, especially those who need it most.

But she also tells painful stories, her personal experiences and those of her patients. She pleads for a conversation on ACEs and the courage to implement change. Harris is not only brilliant and heroic, but grounded in reality: the daughter of a Jamaican doctor and mother of four boys. She contributes a splendid voice towards efforts for a more just and healthy world.