Category Archives: Family Spirituality

Book Review–Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others

 

Barbara Brown Taylor is a favorite author, an Episcopal priest who sometimes presents with Fr. Richard Rohr. Her latest book began when she taught World Religions for 20 years at a small liberal arts college in Appalachia. She had grown burnt-out and weary in parish ministry, so she opted to learn “about other ways of approaching the divine mystery that were strange enough to upset my parched equilibrium.”

Sometimes an author describes to a T the journey we’ve been on ourselves, so we sit up and take particular notice. Brown speaks of an experience where she declines Communion because the Jewish friend standing beside her refuses. The sentence “I had chosen to abstain with him rather than to participate without him” rang bells, because twenty years ago, I did the same thing.

I was attending a Mass and graduation ceremonies at the Catholic Biblical School for my friend Jo, now deceased, one of the holiest people I knew. Her husband was an Episcopal priest; she too was a reverent Episcopalian. The diocese had issued the dire warning ahead of time—“no Communion for anyone but Catholics.” It was so sanctimonious, so reeking of unfriendliness, so unlike Jesus, that I made the same decision Brown did: “I did not want to celebrate any Communion that did not include” Jo.

When you’ve heard for years that you’re God’s only child, it rocks your boat to hear about other faiths that have sustained millions of people for centuries. The “rude awakening” of many Christians to the world’s pluralism led to Krister Stendahl, a Scandinavian biblical scholar and dean of the Harvard Divinity School, coining the term “holy envy.” Brown translates this to her own “spiritual covetousness”: of  Hindu inclusivity, Buddhist non-violence, Muslim prayer and Jewish sacred debate. Young folk are aware that the Christian path is one among many ways to God, but have we relaxed our staunch truth claims to help guide them?

Since “religious illiteracy is a luxury they can no longer afford,” Brown wisely leads her students to the major mosques, synagogues and temples in nearby Atlanta, and asks their respective guides to introduce the “saints and villains” every tradition has.  Initially, some students worried about “losing their faith” (this was in the south, where Christians made up a large majority), but they, and Brown found it only deepened what they already had, or introduced “the way of sacred unknowing.” She puts it better: “I want to keep leaving my comfort zone on a regular basis in order to visit the neighbors, without expecting them to exemplify their faith any better than I exemplify mine.”

This approach back happy memories of a spirituality group I led in Denver, who made the same kinds of visits. I remember how touched we were to see synagogue furniture that survived the Holocaust, and how hard we tried to keep scarves from slipping off our heads at the mosque. I continue today with monthly meetings of Muslim, Jewish and Christian women who have become fast friends as we try to understand our differences and similarities.

Giving up the hard, fast certainties of the “one true faith” preached in my youth is never easy. Brown encourages: “You will have to leave your bags of spiritual sweets behind….Sooner or later you will have to leave all your soothing props … entrusting yourself to the God who cares more about your transformation than your comfort.” She is unstintingly honest and gracefully humorous about that process: what a blessing to have such a companion.

Justice through a New and Different Path


 

Uplifting most religious traditions is concern for the underdog and care for the poor. We’re enriched by reading and hearing regularly about people who started schools, orphanages and hospitals for the sick and destitute who had nowhere left to go. In the Catholic community, we name them saints, and their lineage is inspiring.

Can we recognize the same thirst for justice when it presents a little differently? Could Mother Teresa wear a suit and speak eloquently into a mic at a congressional hearing? Setting aside superficial differences, the same strong current runs through a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QKOLydDfNg) of First-term Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) grilling JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who made $31 million last year. Chase received billions of bailout money in 2008.

She asks how a full-time, entry level employee at his bank, making $16.50 an hour for a total of $35,070/year can survive financially. Calculating minimal expenses, such as a one-bedroom apartment in Irvine, her district, she arrives at a shortfall of $567/month. This bank teller, the single mom of a six-year old, shares a room with her daughter, and must pay for after-school care, since the bank is open beyond the school’s closing time. The only options seem to be taking out a loan or running up a credit card, both solutions carrying exorbitant interest.

Mr. Dimon, who runs a $2.6 trillion bank, had no answers. He mumbled inadequately about looking at the financial picture, but avoided the obvious: Pay a Living Wage! Interestingly, JPMorgan Chase could give every one of its 250,000 employees a $25,000 raise, and it would cost the bank only about two-thirds of the profit it made just in the first quarter of this year. (See Washington Post article cited below.)

Brilliantly, Porter recorded the numbers on a white board, so any moron could see the impossibility of living on a salary so unjust it reeks. On the YouTube site, “Johnny” commented about Dimon’s squirming: “I knew his life was OVER as soon as i heard the top twist from the dry erase marker.” It may be a different version of the Lives of the Saints than we’re accustomed to, but it’s no less powerful. Porter, by the way, is a law professor with expertise in bankruptcy, author, mother of three and survivor of domestic violence. Her delivery is disarmingly dead-pan. Wouldn’t it spice up (and strengthen) our religious education, church bulletins, and sermons to insert a word from her?

Writing in the Washington Post April 12, Paul Waldman points out that as a result of the recent tax cut, “twice as many of the largest corporations in the United States paid no taxes in 2018 as had the year before, despite making billions of dollars in profit. For example, Chevron made a $4.5 billion profit and got a refund of $181 million.” (www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/04/12/this-exchange-between-democrat-ceo-should-shape-campaigns/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5af894ea1c92)

St. Vincent de Paul and St. Frances Cabrini would be whistling “When the Saints Go Marching In” and applauding Katie Porter.

Kudos to the Governor of VA

After the shooting of 13 in Virginia Beach, Gov. Ralph Northam called the VA state legislature back to consider enacting basic gun control measures. Notably, he said the devastation should bring “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.”

Home to the NRA headquarters, VA has previously smothered such obvious bills as those proposed: a ban on silencers and high-capacity magazines, mandatory, universal background checks before gun purchases, a limit of one handgun purchase per month and prohibition of guns in city buildings. Northam also wants every lawmaker to go on record for or against his proposals during the special session. He’s the same leader who faced a scandal about a photo in blackface which he said wasn’t his, but let’s support any efforts to curb the gun epidemic. His “F” grade from the NRA is a badge of honor.

Even feeble attempts become noteworthy in light of a cover story in Time Magazine 11/29/18 about the parents of shooting victims, and how they try to comfort each other. They don’t necessarily agree on solutions, but they know the vast abyss confronting each new group of victims’ families and turn out to console them. Among the heart-breaking quotes:

“One father tells Time that for weeks after his son was killed, he set his alarm and left the house at 7:30, even though the school drop-off was no longer necessary. Another mom still catches herself reaching for her daughter’s small hand before crossing the street.” It took months for Nicole Hockley to stop calling her six year old son Dylan, killed at Sandy Hook, to dinner. “Pamela Wright-Young, whose 17-year-old son Tyrone Lawson was shot to death outside a high school basketball game in Chicago in 2013, had to consciously break her habit of walking sleepily to his bedroom to wake him up. ‘Something in you stops when your child dies,’ she says.”

Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in Parkland, was elected to the Broward County school board in August after campaigning to improve school security. When 13 people died in a mass shooting in Binghamton, N.Y., “that punched through the fog” of her grief, she says. “I’d always thought that someone was going to do something about this, because we live in America and we’re taxpayers and this is a civilized country. But I realized no one’s stopping this. It’s just going to keep happening and happening. And that’s on us.”

It IS on us. And where oh where is the concerted religious voice of all denominations calling gun violence a life issue and roundly condemning these ceaseless, unnecessary deaths?

The Last Week of School

The jasmine, honeysuckle, other vines and bushes are flowering with dizzying sweetness. That harder-to-identify breeze is a collective sigh of relief heard across the land: “We made it through another school year!”

In November, first or third or fifth grade seemed interminable. Now, children have sprouted another foot or two, and walk confidently into class because they know the routine. (It’s only their addled grammy who dreads confusing Crazy Hair Event with Fancy Dress Day.) Their teachers deserve a brass band marching up the hill to school, serenading them all as the superintendent bestows plentiful raises and prodigious bouquets.

The day-in, day-out work of elementary schools is seldom applauded, but how miraculous it is when a class of varying first languages and ethnic backgrounds enters with chins lifted in anticipation. They can sniff some interesting potential here… And they walk out able to read, divide, draw, sing, write, subtract, and more or less get along with each other. Such formidable achievements from such small people!

Don’t forget their entourage of support staff: the cafeteria cooks, crossing guards, school secretaries who keep track of sick kids and lost lunches, aides, bus drivers, principals, parent-teacher associations and bedraggled dads who every morning, haul the scooter and helmet back home. Kudos too to the grandparents wearing saris, burkas, hijabs or turbans who bring their little ones into an environment which must seem utterly strange, yet do so with high expectations. Maybe they’ve not yet mastered all the American customs or nuances of English, but odds are great and hopes are high this child will. And some fortunate native speakers will leave with some newly acquired fluency in Mandarin or Spanish.

For those who haven’t been part of the school scene recently, it’s worth a stroll down a block or two simply to observe this quiet phenomenon. Not to idealize that all schools work miracles, but many do, and the daily procession in and out is worth watching to gain a wee dose of gratitude or joy. As the academic year winds down, some achievements are surely worth celebrating.

Viva Viriditas!

Depending on geography, spring is finally springing now (perhaps dubiously, perhaps vigorously) for most readers. This annual resurgence of life, warmth and energy prompts me to  reflect on the concept of “viriditas.” The word which combines the Latin for “green” and “truth,”was coined by Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) to mean the greening power of God, filled with connotations of vigor and freshness.

Hildegard also assumed ground-breaking roles for a woman of her day: artist, author, composer, mystic, pharmacist, poet, preacher, theologian, scientist, doctor, and political critic. Named a saint and doctor of the church in 2012, she believed passionately in God’s presence and activity in creation, as well as being a life force within. While we can observe “viriditas” in gardens and forests, Hildegard believed we could also cultivate it in our souls. Learn more at: https://www.healthyhildegard.com/hildegards-viriditas

Contemporary Dr. Victoria Sweet has utilized the idea in medical treatment, believing that the body isn’t a machine to be fixed, but a plant which will grow and heal, given sufficient time and nurture. “In Dr. Sweet’s TEDx talk at Middlebury College, (‘The Efficiency of Inefficieny’) she describes Hildegard’s belief that human healing resembles the greening power and regenerating capabilities of plant life. In 2014, Dr. Sweet published a book on the subject called God’s Hotel.  More recently, Dr. Sweet published a related book, Slow Medicine, also featuring viriditas as a central theme.”

During her seventies, Hildegard completed two medical texts, which catalogued over 280 plants, cross-referenced with their healing uses. She saw humans as “living sparks” of God’s love, coming from God as daylight comes from the sun. She thought connection with nature brings people a “primordial joy.” More than eight hundred years after her death, her message rings so true that she could well be considered patroness of environmental awareness. Although she would’ve been appalled by the destruction to the planet, she would’ve cheered robustly for efforts to save it.

Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere

 

I may be late to jump on the bandwagon praising Celeste Ng’s second novel, but it’s a skillfully crafted, absorbing read. She writes from the unique perspective of the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong who came to the US, both parents pursuing and earning doctorates. Ng wanted to explore “what it is like to feel in between two different cultures, to have to negotiate that gap.” As that experience becomes more common, it helps to have a wise navigator’s insights.

Ng starts with a fire that destroys a wealthy family’s mansion, set by their youngest daughter. At the beginning, it seems implausible, unfathomable: why?? By the end, it seems perfectly logical: the clues or little sparks have been planted carefully throughout. Three intertwining stories make up the plot: complex, but easily accessible and seamlessly interwoven.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking sub-plot raises the question of adoption. Does a Chinese child belong with her birth mother, despite her mistakes and poverty, or with an affluent couple, desperate for children, who can meet every material need? That question seques into the larger one of motherhood: several relationships portray different styles. The anxious, controlling mom whose primary concern is for rules, order and perfection, loses her daughter in the end. That daughter is drawn to another mom who flaunts the rules, and cherishes her own daughter through an unconventional life as a vagabond artist. The reader is left reflecting whether anyone can ultimately control what matters most.

The setting itself contributes: Shaker Heights, OH, where the author grew up, so precisely planned that unsightly trash cans are never placed on the street,  but concealed behind the homes and discreetly picked up out of sight. The novel is filled with such rich metaphors for the human condition.

Ng quotes novelist Ian McEwan: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.” At a time when some people seem to have closed the shutters on the experience of others, it’s refreshing to read Ng’s thanks to her readers: “who have taken the great risk of stepping into another person’s mind and experience and letting it change them; who have allowed their minds to be open to another point of view, even if only for the space of a book.” And readers are grateful to her for graciously opening that door into another world.

May 21—Feast of Christian de Cherge and Trappist Martyrs of Algeria

Born in France, Christian de Cherge spent his youth in Algeria, where his parents taught him to respect Islam. His dad told the kids, “Let’s not kill each other over names.” As a young adult, he could share God-talk more easily there than in France. One friend, Mohammed, the father of ten, who shared a common love of God intervened when thugs aimed their rifles aimed at Christian. Because he defended Christian as a godly man, Mohammed was himself killed that night.

 

Christian later wrote, “In the blood shed by this friend, who was assassinated because he would not practice hatred, I knew that my call to follow Christ would be lived sooner or later in the same country that gave me a tangible sign of the greatest love possible.”

 

Studying for the priesthood in Paris and Rome, Christian added intense study of the Qur’an. He wanted to seek “the notes that are in harmony” between Christianity and Islam, incorporated in a “both/and” spirituality. Later, as prior at Our Lady of Atlas monastery in Algiers, he created there a safe space for respectful Muslim-Christian dialogue and prayer. Chapel bells mingled with the muezzin’s call to pray. Christian once counseled a Muslim woman worried about marrying a Christian, “we are only an envelope around a soul. Don’t worry about your skin.”

 

The Trappists farmed, became friends with local villagers and distributed medicine to the sick. Yet as violence escalated, the monks debated whether to remain, knowing they were in danger.

 

When one monk said, “we’re like birds on a branch—we don’t know if we’ll be leaving,” a Muslim woman complimented their commitment: “We’re the birds. You’re the branch.” Eventually all came to peace with the decision to stay, realizing that they rested in God’s embrace. They relied on their strengths: God, each other, their common prayer.

 

Eventually, rebels kidnapped and killed seven monks, but Christian had written a prophetic and forgiving letter three years before. He worried that his death would intensify anger at Islam. Despite his concerns, the last testament is filled with gratitude, extending even to his “friend of the last moment.” He meant his murderer, whom he would meet in heaven “like happy thieves,” who had both stolen paradise.