Category Archives: Family Spirituality

A Plea to the New Congress

 

Yes, you have much to do. You confront a massive agenda; many people are counting on you for reform. First on your list should be sane, national gun control.

The Parkland students rallied the country and changed some Florida laws—but too briefly, too little. Since then, we’ve had the Thousand Oaks and synagogue shootings. In what kind of country are kids afraid to go to school? “You go to a movie theater in Aurora and all of a sudden your life is taken,” Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis said. “You’re at a shopping mall in Portland, Oregon, and your life is taken. It has to stop, these senseless deaths.”

The U.S. must follow the lead of Canada, Australia, Japan, the UK, France and every other civilized nation, to abolish or severely restrict firearms. Other countries’ death rates by guns are miniscule compared to ours. U.S. residents aren’t inherently more violent; they simply have an unrestricted access to deadly weapons that astonishes residents of other countries.

The Second Amendment gave citizens the right to muskets–not military assault rifles. Although polls suggest most people favor stricter gun laws, the NRA contributed $31 million to Trump’s campaign, and countless more to other legislators. The popular slogan puts it pungently: “teachers stand up to gunmen but Congress won’t stand up to the N.R.A.”

Richard Blanco continued that theme in a poem read at the 2013 inauguration:

“the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain

the empty desks of twenty children marked absent

today, and forever. “

Tom Teves, whose 24-year old son was killed in the Aurora CO shooting says, “If you can’t shoot a deer with one bullet and kill it, you’re not a sportsman.” No hunter uses the kinds of weapons nor large magazines that have caused such devastation. Yet, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, has not been renewed.

You could change that. As you prioritize issues, ask the parents of a six-year old, murdered at Sandy Hook, what should come first.

Movie Review: “Green Book”

 

We interrupt the liturgical flow of this season for a bulletin about a film, so readers can catch it before it leaves their cities. One of the finest this year, it features a black classical pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), and his driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer who had been working in New York City’s Copacabana club.

Based on a true story, the two embark on a concert tour of the south in the sixties–when they need a guide book (the “Green”) to identify hotels and restaurants that will serve African-Americans. Most of those places are pretty dismal, and it’s painful to watch the highly educated, refined Shirley adapt to such scruffy quarters.

But the journey (as in most metaphors) becomes more than a series of scheduled performances. It’s poetic to watch the fastidious Don Shirley eat fried chicken with his hands for the first time—Vallelonga got a bucket of Kentucky Fried in Kentucky. Tony is so uneducated, he refers to a classical trio as “the band” and Chopin as “Joe Pan.” His letters to his wife begin at a third grade level, but Don coaxes him into a lyric romanticism. Their discoveries of each other are shot through with humor, and the random match brings together two who are brilliantly suited.

The duo encounter blatant, violent racism and the audience legitimately fears for their safety. Tony is shocked by the insults to the superb musician, but always defends him, so his “bruiser” skills come in handy. Deep down, Tony holds marvelous good, which Don comes to appreciate. With frequent starts and stops, they develop a friendship which continued until their deaths in 2013, within a few months of each other.

Those who have studied the True and False self can see how much energy Don pours into maintaining his tuxedoed façade—which may explain why he drinks so much. But in the final scenes, he heroically drives his exhausted driver through a blizzard so Tony can rejoin his family for Christmas Eve dinner. In Don’s climactic meeting with these loud Italians, they are at first shocked into silence. But then someone orders in best “mange bene” style, “get the man a plate!”

Some valid criticisms have surfaced in reviews of the film, and it’s probably not perfect. But it’s one of the best vehicles for the message of incarnation anyone is likely to see this holiday season. How much we mean to each other.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

At some point, even the most beautiful liturgy and symbol fail to communicate, because God is so much greater than all our efforts. God doesn’t need our feeble attempts in order to communicate God’s self with astonishing clarity. God is greater than Advent wreath and can burst the bonds of any catechism with startling power. But we start with simple, concrete things, because we need to remind ourselves we stand on holy ground. God is revealed in the material, so we look closely: the great unveiling is at hand.

Around the shortest day of the year, December 21, comes radiant illumination: God takes on human sinew and bone, a child’s voice, toenails and wispy hair. No longer is God remote and distant; God bears the human face of Jesus whom we can love. Furthermore, this incarnation makes us all God’s daughters and sons. It’s our birthday too: we are born again and again into a new identity as “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

So our frail candles could also be birthday candles. Furthermore, they hint at larger light: the return of powerful sun, the crashing open of the gates of paradise, spilling wide with voluminous brilliance. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1). God hasn’t forgotten or given up on us, even if everyone else has. Any debt or guilt we may imagine is erased. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her/ that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid” (Isaiah 40:2). What a relief to see the jail door sprung, the prison gate open wide as a grin. And the light within us is even more dazzling.

If we believe that everything in Christ’s life occurs somehow in ours as well, what does God want to bring to birth in us now? If that sounds like a large order, we must remember that for us as for Mary, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (Luke 1:35). God’s elegant initiative, God’s magnificent doing, the creative vitality of One who spun the planets into orbit more than compensates for our limitations.

To those who pooh-pooh Christmas and its attendant commercialism, saying Easter is the greater feast, Richard Rohr counters: “If incarnation is the big thing, then Christmas is bigger than Easter (which it actually is in most Western Christian countries). If God became a human being, then it’s good to be human and incarnation is already redemption. Resurrection is simply incarnation coming to its logical conclusion: we are returning to our original union with God. If God is already in everything, then everything is unto glory!”  (“Incarnation Is Already Redemption,” Friday, June 5, 2015, Center for Action and Contemplation, Cac.org.)

 

That all seems more than enough reason to light the Advent wreath.

Third Sunday of Advent: High Expectations

 

When John the Baptist appeared, “The people were filled with expectation” (Luke  3:15). How splendid if those words could still describe us: open to wonder, chins uplifted, eagerly responding to the words of the Mass, “sursum corda,” “hearts on high!”

This season seems permeated with impossibilities like the dead stump of Jesse budding. Even if we could wrap our minds around the idea of God becoming human, “pitching a tent in us,“ it’s an even longer leap to see ourselves as God’s children, heirs to the divine kingdom. Irish poet John O’Donohue writes of “being betrothed to the unknown.” Christmas means we are also married to the impossible, getting comfortable with the preposterous. It all began with Mary’s vote of confidence: “For nothing is impossible with God.”

It’s a good time to ask ourselves, do we let bitterness and cynicism poison our hearts? Ironically, WE are conscious of our own limitations. GOD keeps reminding us of our high calling, royal lineage and a mission so impeccably suited to our talents and abilities, no one else in the world can do it. Again, Mary is the perfect model. She might not understand half the titles given her son in the “Alleluia Chorus” of the “Messiah.” Mighty God? Prince of Peace? Such language is better suited to a royal citadel than a poor village named Nazareth.  While her questions are natural, she never wimps out with “I don’t deserve this honor.” Instead, she rises to the occasion.

What’s become of our great dreams? Have we adjusted wisely to reality, or buried ideals in a tide of cynicism? Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle more with good news than with bad? If these questions make us squirm, perhaps we need the prayer of Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB: “God help me believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.”

Remember that the adult Jesus hung out with some unsavory characters: crooks and curmudgeons, loudmouths and lepers, shady ladies and detested tax guys. In his scheme of things, our virtue trips us up more than our sin. The ugly stain of self-righteousness blocks our path to God more than natural, human failures.  Limited as we know ourselves to be, we might ask ourselves the question raised by novelist Gail Godwin, “who of us can say we’re not in the process of being used right now, this Advent, to fulfill some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it?” (“Genealogy and Grace” in Watch for the Light. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004, 167)

So the “Gaudete” or Joyful Sunday represented by the pink candle invites us to forget our lame excuses (Oh not me! I got C’s in high school, I can’t tweet or sing on key, I’ve always been shy, blah, blah, blah) and come to the feast, join in the dance. To put it in the simple terms of “Happy Talk,” a song from “South Pacific”: “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

Second Sunday of Advent  

Mary’s “Magnificat” models the perfect response to God’s unexpected, even scandalous intervention in her life. When she told Gabriel, “May it be to me as you have said,” she had no guarantees, no script foretelling the future. All she’d learned was the trust handed on by great great-grandmothers: if it comes from God’s hands, it must be perfectly tailored for me.

In times of central heating and plentiful food supplies, we no longer battle the winter as our ancestors did, finding it a precarious season to stay alive. Isolated from others, running low on resources, great-grandparents endured many cold, gloomy nights. How they must’ve rejoiced at those glints of light in dark forests , when almost imperceptibly, the planet tilted towards spring, and the days became longer.

We too have reasons for despair, crippling fears, anxiety over how much we need to do before Christmas. If problems are more serious, do we run from them, or lean into them, wondering what they might teach us? Can we befriend our pain, knowing we’re more than its sting? Could we embrace for once an imperfect holiday, not scripted by Martha Stewart, but perhaps closer to the first, where an unmarried couple had to scrounge an inhospitable place to have a baby?

The Mood of Advent

 

We start Advent not with dread or foreboding, but with joyful anticipation. It’s like welcoming into our homes a dear friend or relative whom we haven’t seen for a while. There’s probably a flurry of cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking—all done with delight. When we look forward to renewing a close relationship, the preparation isn’t a burdensome chore. It may be tiring, but it’s happy.

Jesus gives the disciples similar advice in today’s gospel: don’t be snoozing when an important visitor arrives. Be alert, awake, watchful as people are at an airport, searching the crowd for a beloved face.

How much more carefully we await the arrival of God. God is already with us, always and everywhere. Our Advent preparations highlight that presence, helping us become more aware. If we are lulled into anesthesia by busy schedules or overfamiliarity, Advent is the wake-up call. Look at what richness surrounds us! See how blessed we are! Do we look for God like the gospel gatekeeper, with a sharp eye? Or do we surrender our spirituality for the ersatz cheer of sales and malls?

One way of marking time that has been honored by Christians for centuries is the Advent wreath. Googling the phrase produces over 100,000 results—ways to buy one, make one, pray with one. This circle of pine with four candles nestled within can become the center for Advent prayer, reflection and song. It reminds us to pause, breathe deeply of its fragrance, remember what distinguishes this time of year.

Dorothy Day—d. Nov. 29, 1980

While Day’s cause for canonization was introduced in 2000, she believed that “there are many saints, here, there and everywhere and not only the canonized saints that Rome draws to our attention.” At the same time, she “didn’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

She probably didn’t do it consciously, but it was almost as if Dorothy Day found the notion of sainthood had grown tarnished and irrelevant. Briskly, practically, as she did everything, she dusted it off and made it serviceable. In a world of violence, social upheaval and war, she called for saints who would disarm the heart.

A casting director looking for saint material would’ve rejected her on multiple grounds: a leaning towards Communism, multiple relationships with men, an abortion and a child born out of wedlock. With tongue firmly in cheek, she summed up the gossipy accusations against her in a 1936 letter: “I’m supposed to be an immoral woman, with illegitimate children, a drunkard, a racketeer, running an expensive apartment on the side, with money in several banks, owning property, in the pay of Moscow, etc.”

Stir into the mix the narrow-minded church of her day, whose leaders wouldn’t dream of listening to “radical” lay women. The vast majority of Catholics then saw their role as following the rules, and were content to pay, pray and obey.

Early in her career during her first visit. to the south, Dorothy was shocked by the poverty in Arkansas. Never one to dither, she telegraphed Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, also a lady who got things done. Mrs. Roosevelt contacted the governor, who—unsurprisingly—stonewalled.

No amount of brisk bureaucratic subterfuge could stop her for long. The Catholic Worker newspaper she edited and wrote skyrocketed from 2500 to 35,000 copies printed in its first six months. By 1938 they’d reached 190,000 copies. Ever the writer, she first proposed houses of hospitality in print, but didn’t actually begin one until a desperate young woman told her she’d been sleeping in subways with a friend, who in desperation, had thrown herself in front of a train. Gradually, Dorothy and her staff rented other apartments and houses for the homeless. It was all rather ragged, with no one drawing a salary. Yet in those first five years, more than thirty houses of hospitality were founded beyond the shaky, original New York beginning in Dorothy’s apartment. Today 227 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless. (www.catholicworker.org)

Even a few excerpts from her letters are enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that sainthood is a sunny stroll through a flowery meadow. She knew that when the Catholic Worker failed, it was often because of her explosive judgmentalism.  Like the rest of us who recognize bundles of contradictions within, she regretted parts of her early life, and what seems to have been a constant impatience with others.

One of her favorite quotes was Russian novelist Dostoevsky’s, “the world will be saved by beauty.” She tried to live out Ruskin’s “duty of delight.” Throughout her life, she loved reading, opera, films and nature. The sea brought her peace and strength; wisely, she visited it often. Even a half-hour ride on the ferry brought the taste of salt spray, the wheeling arcs of gulls, sunset, silence, refreshment. Living with neediness, congestion and often chaos, she turned to nature for quiet space.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching InLiturgical Press. Kathy will be speaking on the North American Saints and on grandparenting at the Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference, Santa Clara Convention Center, on November 30. For details see:

https://scffc.org