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.”

What We’ve Learned from Lockdown 2

To accept “doing nothing” when the greatest contribution most people can make is staying home, because “life depends on withdrawing from life” (David Remnick, “Life at the Epicenter,” New Yorker 4/13/20, 11.)

To lose track of time, gazing at green hillsides, dappled shade, the first blue break in marbled clouds

To appreciate the quote: “Introverts, you’ve been training for this your whole life; now’s your time to shine.”

To find the long-lost joys of phone calls and letter writing, create new forms of connection such as zoom

To wear old, out-of-fashion, mismatched clothes, ‘cuz who’ll see, who cares?

To adapt recipes, as even great New York chefs are doing, to whatever we’ve got in the pantry

To see—because now we have time—the silvery undersides of leaves, and understand maybe what Psalm 96 meant by “the trees of the wood will shout for joy.”

To pronounce “epidemiologist”

To fail. Personally, we may be thrust into arenas where we don’t excel as we might at a job or the arena of our own choosing. Nationally, the US has bungled the crisis in significant ways, lagging far behind countries like South Korea in testing. The crisis may teach us anew that from death springs life.

To rejoice in every load of groceries, an ongoing surprise to see what’s stocked and what’s not.

To discover hidden streets and by-ways which we’ve sailed past a hundred times in a car, but now have the chance to explore on foot

To cherish “the sound of seven,” the time when in many cities the clapping, accordions, signing, hooting, whistles and bells break forth from windows, porches and balconies to honor the courage of the front line professionals,  As the psalmist said, “Blessed the people who know the joyful shout.” (89:16)

To keep up those gratitude journals, lifting morale and as W.S. Merwin wrote in the poem “Thanks,”

we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

See “Everyday Resurrections” by Kathy Coffey in April issue of St. Anthony Messenger: https://blog.franciscanmedia.org/franciscan-spirit/everyday-resurrections-a-meditation-on-easter

What We’ve Learned from Lockdown, Part 1

To “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.” As the grim tragedy of US deaths tops 59,000, thoughtful people can only pause, enter into that enormous pain with all the empathy we can muster. Our reflection and prayer can wrap those who suffer in the vast compassion of God.

Paradoxically at the same time, we try to lift the morale of those in quarantine: with parodies and cartoons, zooms, postcards, donations, music, notes, food, phone calls, because joy is also an essential part of being human, especially at this saddest of times

To identify the real miracles: not some wishful fantasy, “it’ll be gone by April,” but the consistent care of medical professionals, cleaning people, homeless advocates, bus drivers and garbage collectors, grocery store staffs, delivery people and food bank workers who take daily risks to maintain the fabric of life

To delight in the tiniest flowers and newly planted blades of lettuce

To listen to leaders with “gravitas,” intelligence and a keen sense of a tough situation, like Govs. Newsom and Cuomo, Dr. Fauci, Queen Elizabeth and the PM of New Zealand

To understand we’re not the first in history to cope with pandemics, relating to what Alexander Pushkin told a friend in 1831: “Hey, look: gloom is worse than cholera, one kills only the body, the other kills the soul”

To plunge into frequent “forest baths,” which the Japanese have discovered offset too many hours working in cubicles. A large draught of green rejuvenates, the tree canopy filled with light and song

To rediscover the treasure of bookshelves at home—so many forgotten goodies waiting—and find new stimuli on-line

To speak a language we didn’t know two months ago: flattening the curve, abundance of caution, herd immunity, PPE, social distancing

To cheer the arrival of Navy hospital ships in Los Angeles and New York City, the deliveries of ventilators and making of masks, the researchers at work on vaccines and the volunteers who’ll bravely test them

As with hiking, we may think we’ve reached a summit, but there are more plateaus, mountains beyond mountains… Stay tuned.

 

See “Everyday Resurrections” by Kathy Coffey in April issue of St. Anthony Messenger: https://blog.franciscanmedia.org/franciscan-spirit/everyday-resurrections-a-meditation-on-easter

Creation: God’s First Sanctuary

God’s first word to humanity came through creation, and through nature, God continues to heal and restore. So those rightly saddened by the closures of churches, mosques and synagogues can rejoice. In the heart of matter is the heart of God, Light within all light. Celtic spirituality in particular has affirmed that creation contains God’s grace and goodness. Rather than, or along with, lamenting the temporary absence of familiar rites and religious practices, all we need do to pray is step outside.

It’s fortunate that quarantine didn’t come in the midst of winter, but in many parts of the country, during spring. The lace of tiny leaves, the freshness of wind, the blown yellow cloud of flowering mustard, a wave of blue forget-me-nots, the wobble of duckling fluff following mom, the wrinkle of wave on lake or sea, the music of rivers: all these lift spirits too long confined indoors.

Even COVID can’t cancel spring, a theme developed by Grammy-winning musicians the Okee Dokee Brothers (Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing) in their new song, “Church of the Woods” https://youtu.be/ZMQ50fIJ6C0. Spirituality and Health describes their newest album:
https://spiritualityhealth.com/articles/2020/04/09/springs-resurrection-cant-be-canceled-in-the-church-of-the-woods

To quote Fr. Richard Rohr in his on-line Daily Meditation April 18, “A few years ago, I wrote, somewhat facetiously, that the Church should close all programs for a year and simply teach people to pray. It seems to me we may unintentionally have just such an opportunity right now, although I sincerely hope it won’t last a year!” Rohr is, of course, a Franciscan, for whom the natural world is a temple. But if those who are able take a cue from him and walk outdoors, they may be pleasantly surprised and richly rewarded. As Michelangelo said, “My soul can find no staircase to Heaven unless it be through Earth’s loveliness.”

Easter, Expanded

“Of this we are witnesses.”

The “amazement and astonishment” (Acts 3:10) which characterized the first Easter continue in circumstances few could’ve imagined just over a month ago. A small Episcopal congregation in Fort Collins, CO discovered a creative way to tell the good news from lockdown. Recording in advance, one mom had two children hide in the living room. She called out, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” Then the two littles popped up, yelling with excitement, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” All giggled and did it again; other church members shouted an echo.

Hardly the Mormon Tabernacle choir, but the same heart-felt message that resonated through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: “Resurrexit sicut dixit. Alleluia.” Broadcasting from his home, Richard Rohr reminded us that it’s not only the good news of spring and Easter bunnies or of one man’s experience. What is true for Jesus is true for us all—death may change a life, but not end it. Such words of hope are sorely needed as the world-wide death toll rises.

On April 12, the New York Times reported that over 100 priests have died in Italy, trying to offer last rites and consolation from a threshold, drawing crosses with black markers on their protective gowns. They regret that often the last touch people feel is a gloved one, the last face they see is on screen.

A doctor at Stanford has tried to reduce the fear of patients meeting health care workers shrouded in masks and plastic gear. She and others like her slip a photo of themselves, smiling, into a plastic sleeve worn around their necks. At least then the sick patient can focus on the reassurance of a human face.

Michael Jordan Laskey reflected in Give Us This Day April 13 that two different fears met the news of the risen Jesus. The chief priests and elders felt their power threatened, so they tried to bribe, lie, and cover up the disturbance. The women, on the other hand, were “fearful yet overjoyed.” They didn’t run away; they approached the risen Jesus and embraced the source of their confusion.

Can we, as well, lean into the current crisis and tragedy, to learn what it can teach? Julian of Norwich, who endured the 14th century plague, reminds us that we are made not only “by God,” but “of God.” She barely mentioned social upheaval, but wrote instead about the “extraordinarily peaceful, powerful meaning of the love of the one who wants to speak to us, who is entirely without wrath, and because of the serenity of whose power we need be afraid of nothing at all.”[1]

[1]
[1] James Alison, Undergoing God (New York: Continuum, 2006), 31-2.

See “Everyday Resurrections” by Kathy Coffey in April issue of St. Anthony Messenger: https://blog.franciscanmedia.org/franciscan-spirit/everyday-resurrections-a-meditation-on-easter

 

A Most Unusual Easter

Look at the nations and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were  told.” Habakkuk 1:5

Rarely have the deep meanings of Good Friday and Easter brushed so closely in ordinary human experience. So, too, Jews celebrating the Passover movement from confinement to freedom say, “Maybe this year we’ll get it.” Tragedy abounds; one can’t imagine the heartbreak for those dying separated from loved ones—sadness on both sides of the hospital walls. No need to add to the list of miseries quarantine and unemployment brings—everyone has probably read and heard enough. It resonates to know that on the eve of his passion, “Jesus was deeply troubled.” (Jn. 13:21)

Everyone has a personal favorite story of the heroism and creativity emerging from the crisis. Craft breweries retool to make hand sanitizer, businesses that once made other things now produce ventilators and protective equipment, restaurants deliver gourmet meals to hospital staffs, who are heroes in their own right. It was admittedly a slow start, but now everyone seems to be jumping aboard, with humorists and cartoonists helping us to sometimes laugh at this weird, vulnerable predicament.

Still, a caution: let’s not rush to resurrection. It may be glib to start finding silver linings as so many still suffer. Jesus in the Garden of Olives clearly wanted to avoid the terrible pain and leap ahead to the glory. But his story didn’t go that way; neither will ours. There may be much more to learn from quarantine before we make happy plans for “when it’s over,” a vague, uncertain future.

The learning might begin by asking, “what’s left when everything is taken away?” Most folks shore themselves up by what’s on the calendar: this meeting, that lunch, this party, that trip, this class, worship, deadline or presentation, that time with friends, this sport or exercise, that family gathering.

Nothing wrong with any of it. But this year there will be none of it: no Easter brunches nor dinners, no egg hunts nor church services with choirs belting out Alleluias. And for many, this year will bring far worse agonies: loss of income, terrible illness, anxiety over the survival of a beloved, separation from the sick, bottomless loneliness or grief. Crucifixion takes many forms.

When we remove the usual markers of identity, who are we then? Ah, there’s the Easter mystery. Still beloved, still redeemed, despite losing all that once defined and protected us. Because God’s love is unbounded and endless, we need no other security nor success. What’s left? the quiet beauty of nature, alertness to the surprising ways that love might enter each day, sensitivity to surprising good news that can filter even into this horrific time.

Hosannas from Lockdown

 

Lamentations are surely in order this Holy Week of the pandemic. The numbers of deaths and infections mount, unemployment increases, and it’s probably too soon to seek hints of good news, inklings of lowered numbers. At a time when no one meets in churches, synagogues or mosques, we turn to the liturgy of the world.

And there, where evidence of suffering and evil is mind-numbing, we also find cause to rejoice. A personal favorite: Tony’s Pizza in San Jose CA, a small shop that delivered a free pizza to anyone over 70. So many supportive donations poured in, Tony was able to add a salad. Hard to imagine how much that could mean to someone hungry, fearful, aching and isolated.

Then the example of Don Giuseppe Berardelli, 72, parish priest in a small village near Milan, Italy. As he lay dying of COVID, his parishioners bought him a respirator.  But he gave it away to a younger patient, also struggling to breathe, whom he didn’t know.  No funerals now in Italy, but when Berardelli’s casket rolled through the village, people applauded from their windows and balconies.*  A different version of a small procession entering Jerusalem many years ago, which Christians commemorate this day.

Another news article by Chuck Barney of the Bay Area News Group tells of Berkeley authors Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, who started buying 25 meals a week from local restaurants, delivered to the ER staff at Oakland’s Highland Hospital.  Restaurants needing business are rising to the occasion, and donors have given over $5000 to expand the program.

These three examples are heartening, but a loud chorus of praise ascends from people dutifully sheltering in place, sacrificing fun plans and rewarding activities, confronting loneliness and boredom.  Unaware of all they do, parents and other caretakers of young children confined to small spaces are exercising enormous creativity and restraint. (When this is over, appreciation for teachers should skyrocket, leading to million-dollar salaries for them all.) Staying home and avoiding social contact seems like a small thing, but it may well be like the tiny mustard seed that blossoms into a giant bush, sheltering the birds. If, as medical experts hope, this effort “flattens the curve” and reduces the pressure on hospitals, it will be well worth the exasperation, frustration and anxious question, “How much longer will this last?”

Holy Week 2020 may well mark a time of stunning bravery, astonishing dedication, graced quiet, and a silent celebration unlike any other in history.

*Leonard Pitts column, Miami Herald, 3/26/20

Lent 5

Today’s gospel (John 11:1-45) prompts us to ask where we ourselves are bound and death-like. Have we capitulated to the culture’s definition of us as consumers? Have we bought into the put-downs tossed off by the careless that do unintended harm? Do we resort to old categories (gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, socio-economic level), caging unique human beings? Jesus’ call comes to us all: “Lazarus come forth!” Shed those paralyzed trappings; enter into new and abundant life.

It is marvelous to consider Martha’s role in this miracle. She starts with an understandable complaint: “If you’d come sooner, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Yet she dares to hope for more, just as Mary once told Jesus at Cana, “they have no more wine.” Martha is far more creative than the bystanders, who never dream that this “Johnny-Come-Lately” could defy death and wrench their friend from the tomb.

Approaching his passion, it’s almost as if Jesus needs one slight affirmation. He must wonder whether those who’d been with him so long had the slightest glimmer of understanding. Peter had once professed that Jesus was the Christ, but in the next verse, Jesus is warning him because of his stupidity, “get thee behind me, Satan!” Martha, on the other hand, gives Jesus what he needs: her belief that he is “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Encouraged by her trust, Jesus asserts his truest identity: “the resurrection and the life.”