Category Archives: Family Spirituality

Improved Gratitude

“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel…”—Maya Angelou

Need to jump-start your attitude towards Thanksgiving? Exciting research from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley and A Network for Grateful Living confirms and enlarges what our religious traditions or intuitions may have already told us about gratitude.

As the former points out, in an article by “gratitude guru” Robert Emmons (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu) North Americans, raised on a steady diet of self-reliance,  don’t like to feel indebted or dependent. But the science of gratitude demonstrates how to appreciate that we’re often given more than we deserve. Recognizing gifts from outside ourselves, including our very life from God, and all that others contribute is the antidote to entitlement.

Focusing on the positive is not a Pollyanna-ish “superficial happiology,” or mere politeness, but an ongoing perspective with transformative power. A classic example of reframing by looking for the positive in a negative experience is Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and later murdered by the Nazis. His focus on the good was so strong he could write from jail, “gratitude changes pangs of memory into grateful joy.” So too St. Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. turned obstacle to opportunity, doing some of their best writing in prison.

For most people, circumstances won’t be as dramatic. But at the end of life, do we want to be bitterly cursing the incompetent nurse, or grateful we have medical care and a warm bed? Those attitudes are sown and practiced early, not simply popping up on the deathbed. Humans are remarkably adaptive, even to good things, so we need to cultivate the habit of looking for, and commenting on, our blessings.

Before Emmons, Brother David Steindl-Rast had explored the more spiritual side of the subject in Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness (Paulist, 1984). Born in Vienna, Austria in 1926, he was drafted into the Nazi army as a boy, but escaped and was hidden by his mother until the war ended–which must’ve made him intensely grateful. He defines joy as “a happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.” Gratitude gives the ability to take whatever comes and appreciate it. During an “On Being” podcast, Krista Tippett asked him what he was most grateful for in dark times. He responded immediately: “the next breath!”

A Benedictine monk, he co-founded A Network for Grateful Living, whose website is rich in articles, suggestions, reflection questions and practices of gratitude: https://gratefulness.org. One sample quote from Steindl-Rast: “When I am grateful, I am neither rushing nor slouching through my day – I’m dancing.” A beautiful example of the attitude he upholds is the poem on the website: “Following Treatment, I Wonder” by Terry Martin. Despite the aches, pains and exhaustion of chemotherapy, the poet is grateful for a bowl of crunchy granola made by a friend, the neighbor’s crowing rooster, Chagall’s art, the sun.

Jesus once said, “Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap” (Lk. 6:38). Now science proves the generous measure used for giving will return to us in chemical bodily responses, perpetuating the cycle of gratitude.

Feast of Frances Cabrini—Nov. 13

 

Ironic when a hated immigrant becomes one of the country’s most revered saints. Might that happen again with  a refugee languishing in a detention camp on the southern border? The energy of Cabrini, the Italian dynamo who opened 67 charitable institutions and houses in the U.S. epitomized the zealous, thirsty, upward mobility of every immigrant group. A small orphanage and school begun in 1889 in New York City grew to a national network of educational, medical, and social service institutions. A tough business woman, shrewd about contracts, she outwitted contractors and swindlers trying to cheat nuns. When lawyers were astounded by how astutely she handled a deal, she whispered, “Poor things. They can’t believe we’re able to do a little business.”

Driven by multiple demands, Cabrini could never do enough for Italian immigrants. Her heart went out to the children abandoned when their parents’ hopes of instant wealth in the new country didn’t materialize. There were always too many requests for too few resources. Asked how she managed her huge network, she commented charmingly, “Oh, I put it all in the Sacred Heart and then I don’t get the headache.” She asked God for “a heart as big as the universe;” apparently God replied, “yes.”

Few women traveled as extensively or acted as powerfully in the male-dominated world of her day. With little or no government funding, sisters were financially responsible for all their hospitals, schools, and orphanages. In 1916, Cabrini even tried a little placer mining in Colorado, hoping to finance the Denver orphanage. When skeptics told her “it’d be better to go back home,” it sounds achingly familiar. How often has that taunt been hurled at the immigrants of our day?

Credible Fear

Among the linguistic lunacies used to camouflage a racist and exclusionary immigration policy, “credible fear” must rank high.

On Oct. 1, fourteen US Senators (including Booker, Harris, Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand and Bennet) wrote the directors of Homeland Security, Citizenship and Immigration, and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to express their concern with a new administration policy to have CBP agents conduct credible fear interviews, rather than specially trained asylum officers, as the law requires. “The change endangers the lives of countless vulnerable individuals, including children,” they stated.

Furthermore, the senators underline documented evidence that proves CBO’s hostility and indifference to refugees.  This threshold screening, if passed, simply allows a refugee to present a case to an asylum judge, yet if it is denied or handled thoughtlessly, it consigns many to violence and possible death. A bedrock principle of our democracy, these senators point out, is that an individual should have a fair chance to present his or her case.

This principle, many people could attest, is how their ancestors entered the U.S. During the potato famine of 1840-1850, 1 million Irish people died of starvation; another million emigrated to the US in “coffin ships.” Horror tales abound—for example, of a twelve-year old whose parent died aboard, arriving in New York City alone, speaking only Gaelic. Sound familiar, with the child speaking only Spanish? And what of those fleeing the Nazis? One Hungarian historian describes the slaughter of Jews: “the Danube turned red with the blood of the elderly, women and children who were shot in the back and dumped in the river.” Would these situations and countless others like Syria today constitute “credible fear”?

And perhaps a more fundamental question: who are we, or some overworked CPB agent, to judge the terror of a woman fleeing a murderous ex-husband in Guatemala, trying to save the lives of her two young sons, distraught that the boys will be taken from her? In many parts of the US where population is dwindling, immigrants are desperately needed to replenish the workforce.  What kind of country turns away a life-giving force for its future?

Feast of All Saints—November 1

When Jesus first walked among the crowds speaking the Beatitudes, the promises he made must have seemed astonishing. But Christians throughout history have recorded their own astonishment at the amazing fulfillment of what must have at first seemed utterly outlandish.

 

While many people are struck dumb by the gifts they have received, others are inarticulate. They may feel the amazement, but putting it in words is the work of the poets. So Raymond Carver, who died at fifty, marveled that the last ten years of his life were “gravy.” Because of his alcoholism, he had received a terminal diagnosis at age forty. The love of poet Tess Gallagher, with her encouragement to stop drinking, bought him years he never thought he’d see.

 

C.S. Lewis explains the thinking behind the Beatitudes:

 

“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

 

Metaphorically, then do we settle for living in a dark, damp basement when we could be enjoying the five star resort?

Feast of Alphonsus Rodriguez—Oct. 31

 

The Catholic calendar of saints is heavy on founders of religious orders, who have the personnel in Rome to pursue the cause of canonization. So it’s unusual and delightful to celebrate a saint who did only the ordinary, extraordinarily well.

Rodriguez’ transformation began in tragedy—the deaths of his mother, wife and children, the failure of his business, the refusal of the Jesuits to admit him due to his age and lack of education. Finally, they allowed him to become a lay brother. And for the next forty years, he opened the door of their college in Majorca.  His quiet fidelity is known to most through Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem:

“Yet God…

Could crowd career with conquest while there went

Those years and years by of world without event

That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.”

Saint Peter Claver was one who as a seminarian passed through that door, and was attracted by Rodriguez’ prayerfulness, his attention to Christ in each person. Did that steady influence help Claver’s decision to devote his life to West African slaves arriving in Cartagena, enduring deplorable conditions?

I met a current version of Alphonsus in an 86-year old porter who’d opened the door to the shrine at Aganzazu, Spain for 68 years. He banged his cane on the floor with surprising vigor, announcing “Aqui!” “Here,” he meant, St. Ignatius had prayed before a small statue of Mary found amidst brambles and thorns before he was born. Had that led him to “finding God in all things”?

Such mysterious, unseen networks connect apparently random people and events, all woven with threads of kindness that become a powerful chain, a grace that cements.

St. Teresa of Avila’s Feast—Oct. 15

“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, Good Lord deliver us!”

“May God preserve us from stupid nuns!”

No matter how hard they try, hagiographers can’t camouflage Teresa’s tart brusqueness. In her day, the sixteenth century, the Inquisition tried to force change through threats, imprisonment and violence. One suspects that Teresa’s humor had longer-lasting effects.

She reformed not only the Carmelite order, but also attitudes about women and approaches to prayer. Because her early training had shoe-horned her into trivial conversation with too many women jammed into one house, she created orderly spaces where her sisters could turn inward. “My daughters, we are not hollow inside,” she reminded them.

Then she took on the prevailing ideas of prayer: mindless repetition of rote formulas imposed by the clergy. Most people considered direct experience of God, without priestly intervention, subversive. Teresa gave images of contemplation that were close to daily life: the watered garden, beehive, interior castle, heart of God like the innermost, edible core of the palmetto. The face of God that Teresa reveals is not punitive or distant, but precious as a lover, close as a friend.

All the while she was dancing around the Inquisition, coyly claiming she had no idea what she was talking about. How could others condemn her when she beat them to it? Meanwhile, probably grinning self-protectively, she focuses on God’s generosity: “Do you think it’s some small matter to have a friend like this at your side?”

Protesting Children in Cages

One of the most memorable things Rachel Maddow said in “Raise Hell,” a documentary about reporter Molly Ivins was, “She wasn’t afraid to get angry.” The imprisonment of children near our southern border demands our anger: for details, see last week’s blog. Every religious tradition believes in the spark of the divine in the human and the call to protect the innocent. Hence, as promised, this week’s blog explores ways to protest.

Call Your Representative

This is the phone number for the House and Senate Switchboard.

Tell them who your representative is; they will connect you directly to that person.

202-224-3121

You may talk to a tape or speak with an aide; make your message succinct: “I’m a constituent, calling to ask what N______ (insert name of Congressperson) is doing to stop the imprisonment of children at the southern border. I’m appalled that my taxes are supporting for-profit prisons which keep children in cages and make huge sums off their misery. These children have not committed a crime. How will you stop this human rights abuse?

Encourage members of your church, synagogue or mosque to call too. If you have contacts in the news media, ask them to keep up pressure to close the camps.

Put the creche in a cage; Post this poem

Last year, many churches placed their crib scenes within cages, saying symbolically: the children in cages are Christ himself. For Christian traditions preparing Advent resources, here is a poem drawing a parallel between the holy family and refugee children today. You have permission to reprint in your non-profit bulletins, etc.

                                           Nativity Scene, 2019

                                             by Kathy Coffey

Infant in a cage,

Magi banned from travel.

Desperate parents fleeing

murderous thugs, saving

the child’s life. While

Herod-in-Chief names them

thieves and murderers, amasses

armies to defend rampant fear.

 

The moral unraveling not so

easily packaged as the creche:

we tolerated this atrocity.

Still on southern borders

a child sleeps beneath aluminum foil,

wakes to florescent lights on wire mesh.