Feast of Five Martyrs

“In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” — Thomas Merton

Their story isn’t well known, but it should be. On Oct. 23, 1992, three Adorers of the Blood of Christ were killed in Liberia, after two others in the order had been shot three days earlier. They were innocent victims caught in the craziness of civil war.

When I gave retreats to this community, both in Ruma, IL and Wichita, KS, I was impressed by a spunky-wonderful bunch of women. As I learned their history, that first impression turned to awe. One background note among many: in 1985, the Adorers of Ruma became the only Catholic organization in the area to defy the law and offer sanctuary in their houses to Cuban and Central American refugees.

In limited space, it’s impossible to write about all the martyrs (see When the Saints Came Marching In for the fuller picture.) But here are brief cameos of two:

Sister Barbara Ann Muttra was a nurse who wasn’t above bribery. At her clinic, she discouraged the common practice of driving off evil spirits by placing pepper in a newborn’s mouth, (which caused blisters) and mud on the umbilical cord, causing tetanus. She encouraged  parents’ cooperation with baby clothes donated by friends in the U.S. Eventually, she cut infant mortality from 80% to 20%, from two deaths a week to two a year.

Sister Shirley Kolmer loved Liberia because the gap between her front teeth was considered a sign of beauty there. A Ph. D. in Math, she taught it at St. Louis University, and first went on a Fulbright to the University of Liberia in 1977-1978. As provincial, her vision was of “loving the comfort, but ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice–women who dream dreams and continue to promise.” In Liberia, Charles Taylor’s rebels had recruited child soldiers as young as 10, and revived ancient practices of torture and mutilation. So Shirley started a counseling program for boys pressed into war, both perpetrators and victims.

Asked, “what made them tick? Why would they return to Liberia after a dangerous escape a year before?” the sisters who knew them well respond: “If there were five martyrs, there were probably eight motives.” The words “pious” or “prissy” never come up. “Bold” and “tenacious” are more likely to surface. They had practical work to do: teaching poor, illiterate, powerless women, staffing medical clinics, counseling, feeding the hungry. (By 1990, 40,000 civilians in Monrovia had died of starvation.) Over and over, one hears of a love for the Liberian people, the drive to meet their needs and share their lot.

Their persistence also characterizes an ASC sister who, as principal of an East St. Louis school, got garbage collection where there had been none, and celebrated as merrily as the neighbors on the day the trash cans arrived. Let’s praise and celebrate and honor women such as these.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015, litpress.org, 1-800-858-5450

Relative Chaos

In more naïve days, I thought of chaos as garden variety—dashing out the door with multiple children, one who lost a shoe, one who was sick, one who was cranky, one who inevitably forgot the book report. Or a messy house where vital things got lost—checks, glasses, keys, prescriptions to be filled. How mild that all seems in light of the recent wine country fires. As beautiful acres burn in Napa and Santa Rosa, people lose lives, health, mobility, livelihoods, homes, vineyards. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I routinely grow concerned over a tight schedule, complex navigation, or the aforementioned lost keys. How small that chaos seems compared to the devastation in CA, Puerto Rico, FL or TX. How many there would be thrilled to have any shelter all to themselves, even a messy house!

Terrible tragedies DO re-align perspective. If any larger, long-term answer helps explain, it comes from James Finley, writing on Richard Rohr’s website about “the infinite irrelevance of laughter and tears with respect to the oceanic Love that loves you through and through and through and through in your tears, in your laughter, in all things.”

Whatever the chaos, it’s relative. For some people, it’s tragedy, despair, death. For others, it’s the more mundane matter of surviving the day with mild sanity intact. But ultimately, the grief or loss isn’t the final word. All, all is relative to an infinite love which saturates all things. Hard to see sometimes, but so sustaining!

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?”

Therese of Lisieux—Feast Oct. 1

No wonder she’s so beloved. She saw enormous potential in the daily grind; she responded with gusto to confined circumstances. In an era of syrupy piety, she used organic metaphors and spoke with a fresh voice. Best of all, she transformed limited, flawed humanity into Christ’s own life. Or as Richard Rohr puts it, she taught that We know God by participation in God, not by trying to please God from afar.” 

It’s helpful to understand her parents, who adored their youngest child. Her mother died when was Therese was four, a tragic loss. About the time she entered Carmel, her father entered a mental institution—horrid places in the nineteenth century. As she matured, Therese revised her glorious concepts of martyrdom. She came to see the martyr as her gentle father, lying in the mental hospital with a handkerchief covering his head.  

As a young girl in a strict convent, she wasn’t immune to irritation. Caring for grumpy older nuns, directed by a prioress who was probably neurotic, surrounded by a community jealous of her relationship with her blood sisters, she disappeared into Christ. She writes: “One feels that to do good is as impossible without God’s help as to make the sun shine at night.” Freely she admitted falling asleep during her prayers for seven years running.

She would die of tuberculosis at age 24, the age when if male, she would’ve been ordained. Her last illness was excruciatingly painful, yet she drew on a whole repertoire of jokes and puns to cope. One sister wrote, “There are times one would pay to be near her. I believe she will die laughing, she is so happy.” Her honest account described being “stretched out on iron spikes.” Yet she clung to the image of herself as a child, sleeping fearlessly in her father’s arms, hiding her face in his hair. In an era when God was punitive and many Christians wanted simply to deflect God’s anger, Therese is warm, earthy, worth celebrating.

Prayer in Chaos, Change, Commotion and Clutter

  •   10 am– 
  • Graduate Theological Union, School of Applied Theology, Berkeley, CA
  • $180 includes lunch

Presented by Kathy Coffey

https://www.satgtu.org/course-offerings/   510-652-1651

 

Confronting Genocide

A young girl sings on the phone to comfort her grandmother and her younger brother. Sounds sweet. But what’s piercing about the scene is that the girl has made it safely to the US; her family members are trapped in a camp for internally displaced people, surrounded by land mines. They are Rohingya Muslims, innocent targets of ethnic cleansing. While a small minority of Muslim militants have attacked security forces, the military reaction is wildly disproportionate.  More than 500,000 thousand people, half their population, have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. 

The rest are stuck, terrified, or have become victims of brutal genocide. It’s hard to know exactly what’s happening, because the army has barred access to the press. Human Rights Watch satellite images show scorched landscape and the almost-total destruction of 214 villages. The U.N. estimates that at least 1000 civilians, including children, have been killed.

Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the widow who defied Myanmar’s dictators, endured a total of 15 years of house arrest and led a campaign for democracy, was a hero of modern times. Yet today Daw Suu, as the effective leader of Myanmar, is chief apologist for this ethnic cleansing.”

Pope Francis has condemned the killing, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote the country’s leader: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch adds: “We applauded Aung San Suu Kyi when she received her Nobel Prize because she symbolized courage in the face of tyranny. Now that she’s in power, she symbolizes cowardly complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya.”

The worst news: the Burmese army wrecking the atrocities and genocide is funded by American dollars. Here’s where we come in and what we can do:

1. Call the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and say your state in order to be connected with your senator.

2. Either in person or on their voicemail – encourage support of Senate Amendment 607 to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Be sure to mention your opposition to any U.S. military assistance to Burma’s army. Leave your name, number, and city of residence to indicate that you live in the senator’s state.

 3. Read the Human Rights Watch Report: http://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/17/burma-targeted-sanctions-arms-embargo-needed

Prayer in Chaos, Change, Commotion and Clutter

  •   10 am–
  • Graduate Theological Union, School of Applied Theology, Berkeley, CA
  • $180 includes lunch

Presented by Kathy Coffey

https://www.satgtu.org/course-offerings/   510-652-1651

Do the Math

 Gospel for 9/24: Mt. 20:1-16

Today’s gospel is a good one to read when we get snippy about how much we’ve done for others, overlooking how much God has done for us. Before we get our hackles up over the rampant injustice of paying the Johnny-Come-Latelys the same as those who sweated in the sun all day, let’s reconsider.

 

While we may think we’ve done great things for God, we may need a little remedial arithmetic too. How could we put a price on our health, our faith, the simple accidents of our birth? Even those who may not have had ideal circumstances can still point to other blessings: a safe and beautiful world, a caring teacher or social worker, friends, inborn gifts. What about God’s continued care, a steady stream of goodness even in the worst situation? As we reflect on our blessings we may find ourselves in the position of someone who paid out $100, but who inherited billions. What’s the right response? Gratitude.

Prayer in Chaos, Change, Commotion and Clutter

  •   10 am–
  • Graduate Theological Union, School of Applied Theology, Berkeley, CA
  • $180 includes lunch

Presented by Kathy Coffey

https://www.satgtu.org/course-offerings/   510-652-1651

Ordinary Time

Recently writing a sympathy note to a friend whose husband had died, I recalled a happy memory: his catching trout in a mountain stream, her cooking it, several of us savoring it. It seems now such an innocent time, none of us aware that in a few years, a terminal illness would start, later ending his life.

It recalled the haunting question asked by Emily in the play Our Town: “Does any human ever realize life as they live it, every, every minute?” The stage manager or God figure replies, “the saints and poets, maybe, they do some.” I’d always taken that as a challenge to become saints and poets, but perhaps it’s also good to revisit the achy place where we understand how frail and tentative all our experiences are. In a few years (or months) any of us could be sitting painfully in a hospital or retirement center, regretting our blasé, take-it-for-granted attitudes.

Most mystics counsel, Be Present Now. To live in the past is depressing; to live in the future anxious; only the present can bring happiness. And so I write my oldest son’s birthday card with deep gratitude, remembering a friend who said, “My son would’ve been 42 now—if he’d lived.” Or I pick up my grandson from kindergarten with delight, noticing how he holds tight to a new, precious book, even while he’s kicking a soccer ball around the playground.

Perhaps our blissful ignorance is a mercy. If we knew how short-lived everything was, we’d be paralyzed. It could be that heaven gives us back our best times to fully appreciate, undimmed by forgetfulness or flaws, clear and beautiful as they came from God’s hand. Then we turn wallowing to hallowing.

Prayer in Chaos, Change, Commotion and Clutter

  •   10 am–
  • Graduate Theological Union, School of Applied Theology, Berkeley, CA
  • $180 includes lunch

Presented by Kathy Coffey

https://www.satgtu.org/course-offerings/   510-652-1651