Category Archives: Family Spirituality

Feast of St. Mary Magdalene

Hope this isn’t “beating a dead horse,” but her feast July 22 offers a good time to revisit what happened to this central figure in Christianity. In the seventh century, Pope Gregory lent authority to a mistake: the conflation of texts about 3 women in scripture. The mud-slinging against Mary Magdalene continued until a correction in 1969, but the good news of scholarship takes a long time to reach the public. In many groups, one still hears the identification of her with a prostitute. Or in Dan Brown’s novel, the wife of Jesus.

All four gospels agree she was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection, apostle to the apostles. Why did early church fathers shift her role to financier/ crazy woman/Peter’s rival, or ignore her? Partial answers include sexism, misogyny, opposition to women’s leadership, growing emphasis on celibacy. For 1400 years, the authority of a major woman witness was sadly reduced. The amount of energy that has gone into suppressing Mary Magdalene’s voice indicates she must have posed a huge threat to the religious establishment.

Reclaiming her true identity, we can appreciate how Jesus calling her name in the garden after his resurrection is a pivotal turning point, not only for her but for all subsequent human history. She was the first to realize that God can vanquish even death. Which makes all other obstacles seem minor.

Movie Review–“Sophie Scholl: The Final Days”

 

This film takes on new meaning in the Trump era, when many people feel the need to resist, but are torn: on which despicable, unjust, racist, inhumane act of the administration should we focus? And how to best use our energies?

Viewers may already know the story of the White Rose: a group of brave German youth who wrote leaflets detailing their opposition to a war which Hitler could “prolong but never win.” Hans Scholl, 24, a medic with the German forces on the eastern front, had seen first-hand the callous waste of life and devastation there. His sister Sophie, 21, supported him and assisted in distributing the illegal leaflets at the university in Munich and throughout the city. The small group of students were armed only with a duplicating machine, their conviction and intelligence. Presbyterians, they seemed marginally aware of Nazi treatment of Jews, a rumor whispered among neighbors.

One measure of their audacity was how it threw the Nazis into unhinged vehemence. According to the film, convicts usually got 99 days before they were beheaded. The brother and sister were caught on Feb. 18, 1943, convicted of treason, and killed on Feb. 22, shortly before the German defeat. She was a pediatric nurse; he a medical student—what a waste of resources the war-torn nation could’ve used.

The film, available on Amazon Prime, is stark, befitting its subject. Sophie remains cool and calm, with only a few scenes that show her humanity: weeping in fear for her parents, basking in the sun on her face as she walks to her execution. Photos of the actual Sophie at the end show her laughing, beautiful, alive. Even a Nazi interrogator seems intrigued by her clarity and conviction. He once offers her real coffee, but then follows the dull path of many sycophants. (Et tu, Archbishop Dolan?)

Perhaps the most dramatic scene is the trial, when the defense attorney doesn’t say a word on behalf of the Scholls, and the judge rants in a belligerent, deranged, repetitive tirade. (Does the style sound familiar?) Because of its focus on the last days, the film omits one of my favorite details in the story: when their dad was earlier imprisoned by Nazis, the siblings played classical music at his window so he could listen through the bars. As the young people walk to the guillotine, one has a strong sense that their story doesn’t end with the clank of the blade. Indeed, British planes would drop their smuggled leaflets all over Germany, near the time of the Allied victory.

Sophie referred to herself as “a little candle,” but she still shines a brilliant light on our inertia and complacency.

One Good Parish

“It is essential to know all the times and seasons of one good place.” –Thomas Merton

An unexpected benefit of quarantine has been returning via computer to a parish in Denver I’ve always loved: Most Precious Blood. Seeing pictures on-line of the sanctuary with audio of the choir singing helped me realize how much it meant to me for many years. I began attending there when I was in graduate school nearby—alone and brand new to the area. Later, I taught in their school, then began bringing my infants and toddlers, later children who attended the school too. When my sons began seriously dating the women who’d become their wives, we brought them there on Christmas Eve. Although my residence changed three times in a 50-year span, MPB parish remained a steady constant.

When I’m in town, I always return and find familiar faces. Not to idealize: over the years, there were inept pastors, terrible preachers, annoying parishioners and time-wasting activities. But the whole human spectrum played out in one arena: there were also fine lectures, lotsa coffee and potlucks, superb music, an introduction to RCIA which would be important personally and professionally, deep friendships. I’d always objected to the way priests toss around the term “community,” as if rubbing elbows with 500 strangers were the be-all and end-all. But for a few years, I think I experienced its bonding blessings there, spilling into the watering hole across the street and many private homes.

Often, I was eager to escape after Mass since demands loomed: guests for dinner, grocery shopping, exercise, social or work commitments, a trip to the mountains. But maybe I should’ve lingered: pervading the place was a sense of faithful people doing tons of good. Their list of ministries is long, and now, fine people anchor the staff: music and liturgy directors, education leaders, social outreach coordinators.

The pastor, Pat Dolan combines unique talents: extraordinary musical ability and a wild sense of humor. Over the years, my journals have been sprinkled with his memorable ideas. He phrased beautifully the mantra I’ve used since moving OUT of my comfort zone several years ago: “I’m not in my element here, but how can I help?” Committed to a Spirit “much bigger than us,” he never gets too lofty or self-impressed. In a recent reflection on “Salt and Light,” he described attending a racism protest wearing full black clerics and face mask, unable to find the other ministers he planned to meet, in 90 degree heat. “It wasn’t an ethereal moment,” he grinned.

For some, MPB may be too liberal, and for others, too conservative. But for many it has been a blessing that stretches through seasons and years.

Part of the Glistening Cosmic Web

“What drew you to this course?” asks the instructor of my climate change course, offered through Stanford University’s continuing studies program.

Although I gave a quick, polite answer, the real, more complex one has tangled roots in 4th century Ireland. One reason I’ve always been drawn to Celtic spirituality is its emphasis on the sacredness of matter, God’s first and ongoing revelation through creation. Within the radiance of moon, speed of lightning, strength of stone, and clarity of water shine God’s graces. Wells and groves are sacred, “thin places,” where heaven and earth meet in close proximity. To ungratefully tarnish or endanger any of nature, then, insults the divine giver.

I can’t begin to summarize here the writings of so many who have articulated this vision better than I: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Ilia Delio, John Philip Newell, Barbara Brown Taylor. I can simply continue to read and study, endlessly refreshed and appreciative. Meanwhile, on a small personal note, daily solace during quarantine comes through a walk—along a shoreline or lake, through a forest. The green glimmer of sunlight on water shines through the frame of dark trees. The crisp air exhilarates, the beauty revives. And I wonder, how could we have limited God’s vast presence to the confines of a church?

In the Stanford class, one professor pointed out that if we simply listen to the fear-based diatribes, it will paralyze our creativity to implement wisely the solutions that we already know. Another scientist asked, “why would we use an energy source that’s toxic (fossil fuels), when we could use the clean, free energy of wind, water and sun?” His great-uncle had worked on highway 5, a major artery in CA, when there was little of our current road system. It took a massive effort to build interconnected highways, but a similar national effort could be mounted today. Indeed, it must be, for our own quality of life and the sake of our children. When we see God’s elegance and energy active in our world, how could we NOT work as intelligently as we can to preserve it?

The Irish Blessing

When one has been locked down too long and friends, family or one’s fragile self grows cranky, a remedy is near. Listen to the Irish Blessing:  https://youtu.be/TascsWZPj8U. It is a distinctly Irish take on the blessing sung world-wide, this one based on “Be Thou My Vision” with part of the Breastplate of St. Patrick.

Only those who understand the centuries-long enmity between Northern Ireland and the Republic, between Protestant and Catholic, can appreciate the rare harmony of over 300 Christian churches, in ALL the counties, singing together. With their blood-soaked history, the Irish never deny pain and suffering. Instead, they are keenly aware of dangers and threats: the coronavirus, recession and unemployment more in a long list. Summoning the High King of Heaven for protection admits that humans are small and vulnerable. But they don’t waste time and energy on ultimately futile psychological strategies, which ultimately tie us in knots. The defenses built by the undefended child can grow into the grim walls of the anxious, paranoid adult.

The blessing gives confidence to go forth wrapped and enveloped in Christ our companion: beside, before, behind, within, around. Celtic spirituality doesn’t rely only on puny human powers, but trusts God’s ear, wisdom, hand to uphold and legions to save. God’s presence in the most ordinary life is intense, vivid, sure—surrounding, encircling. Of course people still wobble, but they can always return to that grounded certainty.  Maybe that assurance accounts for over ½ million views world-wide as of June 9.

Viewers may also be drawn to the fiddlers, drummers, Irish dancers, harps, flutes, bodhrans, signers, and intermingled shots of spectacular scenery: distant castles and waves crashing on the rocky coast. Each group who sang dedicated their effort to a wide variety of causes, including a Centre for Asylum-Seekers, a cardiology department, delivery drivers, the homeless, a children’s hospital, firefighters, a primary school, “those sick and alone in hospital, those with addictions,” parents of small children. Indeed, all listeners are blessed by this heart-felt, grateful, powerful, generous outpouring.

 

Heartening Examples of Faith

In a week of unspeakable sadness, many brave actions uplifted the spirits. The first was the bold response to the president’s thugs tear-gassing peaceful protestors, clearing his way to St. John’s Episcopal church near the White House. Bishop Mariann Budde has consistently opposed his inhumane and unjust policies, and told the Washington Post, “My major outrage was the abuse of sacred symbols and texts. There was no acknowledgment of grief, of wounds. No attempt to heal. The Bible calls us to our highest aspirations, and he used it as a prop. … I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call.”

Trump’s choice of church was also bumbling. St. John’s is a liberal church that supports much that the evangelical right opposes, including same-sex marriage and abortion rights. In an interview on CNN, Rev. Budde said that the president is not a man of prayer and does not worship regularly at St. John’s—or anywhere else—calling his photo op “a charade.” In contrast, many Episcopal clergy had been supporting the protesters practically, with water and snacks.

The more wicked among us can gleefully savor the irony that the Bible fished from Ivanka’s designer purse, which Trump brandished, was the outdated RSV translation (NRSV replaced it in 1989), which many evangelicals don’t consider authoritative.(https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/06/oops-trump-brought-the-wrong-bible-to-his-church-stunt/)

On an uplifting note, Christian voices joined in a stunning international outpouring of blessing, resounding from Thailand to Wales, Moose Jaw to Winnipeg, Bournemouth, UK to Melbourne, Australia, Hamburg to Memphis, Zimbabwe to Sweden, S. Africa to Malaysia. In Elevation Worship’s “The Blessing,” the words of Numbers 6:24-26 have been jazzed up, added to and given flourishes, accompanied by various instruments and sung by children (sweetly, a brother and sister share the family set of ear buds.) The unprecedented pandemic invited a creative response, each country giving their version a unique style and twist. All are heart-felt, powerful, inspiring. Check them out on You Tube. The Irish Blessing is so unique, next week’s blog will describe it.

On Re-reading Old Journals

One sport during lockdown has been dipping into old journals to discover: what was I doing 5, 20, 25 years ago?

For an addicted journal-keeper like myself, who taught hundreds of writing students the habit, these small books can hold treasures. They record 4-month-old milestones for the son soon turning 40, the beauties of seasonal change, the delight of a grandchild’s birth, the cherished memory of conversation with dear friends or excitement of new library books or films.

It’s especially poignant now to read of the mobility we took so lightly then: lunch with Karen, dinner with Mark, hugs, swimming, yoga classes, in-person discussion groups with shared snacks. The travel plans alone seem to echo from another lifetime: pack, prepare talks, print boarding pass. Hard to believe, but in one month, I actually completed two 11-day trips, to CA, WA, Victoria BC and MN, then after doing the laundry, to Ireland!

The struggles seem perennial: to get adequate time for prayer, reading, reflection; then the joy of finding it, the low-energy days of illness, the doubt, worry, then surprise when complex plans work out. Some people are totally forgotten: who was Laura, who required so much mental juice at one time? Events that once seemed disastrous led to surprising new doors and unfolding chapters. Reading with God’s compassion, one can smile wryly at enormous expenditures of time and energy on things that in retrospect matter so little.

And running through journals and lives like a golden thread: the divine presence that sustains through the difficult times and enriches the beautiful ones, giving confidence through tough decisions that God always accompanies.

In difficult times, two blessings:

From Ireland: https://youtu.be/TascsWZPj8U

And from the Bay Area: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLPDcqwdcto

Pentecost

One of the most striking sentences in the first reading from Acts (2:4) describes people speaking different languages, yet still being understood. We all know that even those who speak the same language can have a hard time communicating. Pentecost reverses The Tower of Babel story, which tries to explain why people began speaking in different languages. The people that day achieved understanding, despite their linguistic differences.

 

Pentecost continues today, as African students in an ESL classroom learn English and across the hall, North Americans learn Spanish. A young California woman who had emergency gall bladder surgery in a Tokyo hospital felt alone and afraid, unable to communicate with or understand her nurses and doctors. She was placed in the oncology ward because a few nurses there knew some English. But another patient broke down the language barrier. She simply lifted her hospital gown and showed the American her scar, a silent signal that she could relate to the girl’s pain.

 

One way to celebrate Pentecost is to appreciate the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in our lives. The processes of ordinary living are so fragile, so immensely significant, so fraught with terror, that we desperately need someone beyond ourselves. We need the warmth and power of the Spirit to help us in whatever we have undertaken.

 

If you look back over the last 5, 10 or 20 years, where could you could say this? “Ah yes. So you, life-giving Spirit and Guide, were there all along, enlightening and accompanying through whatever came.”

 

More Easter, Please

As the end of the Easter season nears, I feel like the pathetic child in “Oliver,” holding out his porridge bowl and pleading, “more please?” In this case, more Easter.

 

If resurrection means beginning again and again anew, then our best experiences of love or beauty should show us who we most deeply are. We seek these out instinctively, suspecting we’re made for the garden, not the tomb. God’s life penetrates ours, boring through every dark corner.

 

We Catholics can be a somewhat narrow lot, most of us having had little exposure to the other great traditions. To be fair, fully appreciating Teresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich could be a full-time occupation. But that gap in knowledge explains why I was so delighted to discover an essay titled “Christ Rising,” by Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, a German Lutheran pastor who lived from 1842-1919.

 

He points out that because of Christ’s rising we are “of an entirely different order.” Worries and anxieties should mean no more to us than a face cloth or shroud cast aside. Blumhardt says not to focus on the evil, imperfection, or unresolved question. “All that has nothing to do with us.” Instead we simply “ask Jesus to give us more and more of his resurrection, until it runs over, until the extraordinary powers from on high that are within our reach can get down to work on all that we do.”

 

In an analogy I often use, why hang out in the basement when we could have the ballroom?

An Inadequate Tribute: Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB

She was witty, poetic, deeply insightful, self-deprecating, widely read, charming, intelligent. It’s hard to pay adequate honor to Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB who died April 24 at age 80 of brain cancer.  She laughingly referred to the “Dead Blog Cemetery” since she didn’t post regularly on her website, http://macrinawiederkehr.com/.  But even a dip into its treasures reveals a woman of vast interests and deep seeking. As she says there, “My hunt is for the great Source of Life we call God. My hunt is for meaning and purposeful living.”

Most people will know her from her writing: spiritual classics like Seven Sacred Pauses, A Tree Full of Angels, Seasons of Your Heart, The Song of the Seed and Gold in Your Memories. In the most recent, The Flowing Grace of Now, she asks God: “protect me from congealing. Plant deep in my heart an intense desire to be flexible, bendable and always open to your transforming breath.” She corrects the misconception of faith as an unyielding stone pillar, and offers as some of 52 teachers: Christ’s energy alive in you, your need for healing, joy in another’s good fortune, the things you’re reluctant to see and hear, curiosity, the hem of God’s garment. These and other teachers make a formidable faculty, for the small tuition of $16.95 and deliberate time to reflect.

Other fortunate people met Macrina through her retreats. There, she kept us laughing so much we quickly realized there wasn’t a pompous, pious bone in her body. She’d welcome by saying that lots of stuff comes with people on a retreat, including anxiety or grief. “OK to bring it,” she’d say briskly. “But let it know it’s not in charge.” Quickly she corrected any idealized notions of community life, admitting she’d easily be capable of murdering another sister.

On a deeper level, she taught how time could be organized in a Benedictine frame. Putting everything in order, she adapted the Liturgy of the Hours to fit contemporary life, seeing it as seven sacred pauses through the day and night. Time, through her lens, wasn’t an enemy to battle, but a loving companion. With her soft Arkansas voice, she persuaded us, sleepy and bleary-eyed, to sit in silence before a picture window and watch the gradual increments of dawn. Rather than waiting with impatience, we could transform that time to vigil, seeing where we need to pay attention in the larger mystery of our lives. What part of the mosaic of life do I need to bend over and bless, saying “holy, holy, holy”? “Each day calls us to a beautiful task,” she’d encourage. “What is it? How do I turn each day into prayer?” Through poetry, music, scripture and humor, she filled us with rich “nourishment and gladness.” (Acts 14:18)

She warned us of obstacles—not the usual platitudes, but virtue, which trips us up, blocks the path to Jesus more than failure. Inner voices saying “you’re not enough” cripple us, rob us of vision. And best of all, she gave us a motto I’ve repeated in countless publications and talks:

“I will believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.”