The Important Role of Doubt

Where we might have expected glory and trumpets the first Sunday after Easter, instead we get typical, honest, human groping towards truth. A splendid reunion between Jesus and his friends? Not quite. But maybe something better: Jesus’ mercy, meeting them where they (and we) are stumbling, extending his hand in genuine understanding and compassion.

Despite the fact that it has been celebrated for centuries, the quality of mercy remains an abstraction. Today, Jesus gives mercy a human face and touch.

Before we criticize Thomas too much, we should ask what we might do in a similar situation. Would we also be skeptical if our friends told us that someone had returned from death? Wouldn’t we want to see for ourselves? Thomas may simply voice the questions most disciples harbor secretly.

The first disciples, caught in fear and confusion, are hardly the finest spokespersons for the gospel. But then, neither are we. We have the same mixture of doubt and certainty, anxiety and joy that they had.

Jesus responds to us as he did to Thomas—without harsh judgment. He understands our needs for concrete reassurance. After all, God created us with five senses to help us learn. And if Thomas—stubbornly insistent on tangible proof—can believe, maybe there’s hope for us all.

To us as to him, Jesus extends the same merciful invitation: “touch me and see.” Only by coming dangerously close to this wounded Lord will we know transformation of our wounds—and resurrection. Doubt isn’t evil: it’s the entryway to hope.

More Easter, Please

Sometimes 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 explains why I was so delighted to discover an essay titled “Christ Rising”, by Christoph Blumhardt, a German 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.”

This year, especially, we are beginning to appreciate many joys after a year when they were restricted. We tell ourselves not to take it for granted—being able to eat in a restaurant, travel, take children to school, hug, shop, see families and friends. What could be more in the spirit of resurrection than this coming-back-to-life again?

Fifth Sunday of Lent

What happens in today’s gospel is not unusual. It continues today. Two moms became friends and discovered that their oldest sons both skied. The next, natural step was taking the boys skiing together. The two became friends, and one’s name was—truly—Andrew. He began to meet the other boy’s friends, and became part of a group from another high school, not easy in adolescent society.

During college, the boys skied, kayaked and mountain biked together. Later, they attended each other’s weddings. When Andrew died suddenly of a staph infection, the friends flew from around the country for his funeral. Each then planted a pine seedling and a packet of wildflowers, signs of hope to honor him.

They probably didn’t say it as they scattered seed, but once again, a grain fell to the ground and died, bearing much fruit. The boys couldn’t ski without remembering Andrew; they consciously tried to bring his fierce delight to all their days.

The ripple effect worked for Jesus. Greeks drawn to him approached him through his friends: Philip to Andrew to Jesus. He saw his coming passion through the metaphor of seed. How could his company of friends, now including us, NOT try to act like him?

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Nicodemus gets a bad rap. He’s criticized for coming to Jesus “by night.” But consider the references to him after today’s gospel. Courageously, he defends Jesus against his angry peers, asking whether their law judges a man who has not had a fair hearing (John 7:50-51). After the crucifixion, he helps embalm and bury Jesus’ body (19:39).

He is an honest seeker, who won’t settle for tried-and-true cliches. His colleagues quickly dismiss anyone with a different angle. Nicodemus, however, explores the new teaching carefully, which takes some time. He questions honestly, and Jesus doesn’t reject him. Instead, Jesus welcomes their discussion and reveals himself magnificently, as light coming into darkness.

Jesus even seems to tease Nicodemus as a teacher who doesn’t “get it” (v. 10). Nicodemus must be overwhelmed: he doesn’t respond.

Or maybe he answers through his life. After an avalanche of ideas, he sifts through them and applies them to daily events. Apparently Jesus’ teaching withstands that reality check; Nicodemus becomes an admirable follower, “his works done in God.”

Do we act like him, or do we stagnate in unexamined prejudices and stale beliefs? Are we open to the Spirit’s unsettling winds?  

Third Sunday of Lent

Those who like their Jesus sweet and pious better skip today’s gospel. Those who want to explore his complex depths should read on.

The scene of driving the sellers and money-changers from the temple can’t be camouflaged by platitudes: it is violent and chaotic. What prompted Jesus to act so dramatically? We have a clue in the way “my Father’s house” is used throughout John’s gospel. “In my Father’s house are many rooms” we read in 14:2. That sounds spacious, but there is no room for greed, betrayal or sacrilege. The merchants have made the “Father’s house a marketplace,” desecrated what is most precious to God; thus, they must be expelled quickly and efficiently. 

In Jesus’ ensuing discussion with the religious authorities, their pride is attacked. Any of us who spent forty-six years on a project might react the same way. As is often the case, they remain on a literal level, seeing the temple as a building. Jesus, however, sees it as an image of the self: beloved of God and incorruptible, transcending the most glorious edifice. As he protected sacred ground, so he fights to preserve God’s children from any who oppress, exploit or harm them. Do we respect each other or ourselves as much as he does?

Second Sunday of Lent: Prayer in Another Key

“Try it in G,” the musician suggests and we hear the same song in a different key. So Jesus models a transition from his glorious mountaintop experience to the verses that follow today’s gospel, about a boy foaming at the mouth, grinding his teeth and rigid. Descending, Jesus scolds a “faithless generation,” who cannot cure him, then rebukes the demon, curing what today we might term epilepsy.

“Will the real Jesus please stand up?” We’re inclined to believe in the one whose face dazzles and whose clothes shine, affirmed by the Father’s voice. Clearly Peter is stunned into babbling an elaborate plan for building tents, so Jesus can converse with the prophets in peace.

Yet it is no less Jesus who repeats, “how much longer must I put up with you?” in exasperation with the disciples’ lack of faith and inability to cure the boy. He heals him “instantly,” so his power is still intact; his compassion still overflows.

We also go through various transformations in our days. We might be praying, then cooking, gardening, paying bills, caring for children or the elderly, chatting, reading, singing, shopping, working on the computer, filling the car with gas or doing the laundry. It’s the same self, in different keys: some happy, some frustrated, some neutral. But because of Jesus’ transfiguration, we do all these things as children of the divine. It’s all prayer in different ways. The disciples who saw Jesus in dazzling light also see themselves anew.  The radiance might not be obvious, but it is there nonetheless, hiding beneath the surface.

Lent Begins

This season for Christians, as for other traditions that take time to repent, marks a turning point. From what to what? Jesus didn’t know or use the word “sin,” which wasn’t part of the Hebrew construct. But he clearly understood the context of anything less than the fullness of what God wants us to become.

So he says, “Turn from all that drags you down.” Are we haunted by worries about the future or shame about the past? Are we still angry about something that happened years ago? Lent means springtime: it presents us with the opportunity to slough off like a snakeskin all that deadens. Instead, we turn to the God who made us, who redeemed us and who lives in us.

Just as Jesus would say “the Prince of this world has no hold on me,” so we belong to God, not to all that threatens. If we over-identify with our emotions, achievements, children, work or ideas, we risk being in bondage to one sector of our lives, out of balance as a whole person. Instead, Jesus invites us to belong completely to him, with all we are. The only door into the future is trust. God who has been faithful before can be trusted again. Can we step towards that life source this Lent?

Some gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptations end with the phrase, “and angels waited on him.” After a dreadful ordeal, when Jesus is hungry and probably exhausted, the presence of the divine is somehow still with him. It is possible that angels attend all our lonely desert places. Where we sense the least comfort, there it abounds. Perhaps it’s a relationship, health or job issue, looming decision. And how have light wings touched us during lockdown? Through health care workers, kind friends, relatives who don’t tire of our cranky moods or repeated stories?

A Shot of Hope and Health

While many have described the physical benefits of the COVID-19 vaccination and extolled its remarkable success rate, few have described how it lifts the spirits. It’s wondrous to walk out of a vaccination center thinking, “so many have died. Now I have the chance to live.” Seems like that exhilarating exit should be heralded by mariachis, a gospel choir, brass band or string quartet.

I know: many have not yet had the opportunity for vaccination; many have wasted agonizing hours trying to get scarce appointments; the supply of vaccine seems limited. The communities of color where deaths have been disproportionately high lag behind on vaccinations. So, some readers may want to file this away for the future when all have better access. Pundits have joked how “Operation Warp Speed” turned to “Operation Lost Turtle,” but finally it seems to be accelerating. Old people like myself are getting the chance–so we rejoice.

My appointment came about because a friend, a former ICU nurse called, sounding urgent. “Go to this website,” she said tersely.  This was clearly no time for chit-chat. “They have openings if you hurry.” Indeed, the city of San Francisco in cooperation with Kaiser Medical had opened a huge facility at a downtown convention center. I had no idea where it was or how it worked, but I grabbed a time slot.

I arrived ready to wait, bringing a book and three magazines to read. To my astonishment, the whole process took less than half an hour. Plenty of staff directed us to follow the “yellow brick road” of arrows painted on the floor. They were prepared to inoculate 10,000 a day, but apparently that number had not materialized. Those who came were shepherded so efficiently through that by the time I thanked the nurse who administered the shot, I was almost teary.

“You don’t really need it,” she responded kindly. “But would you like a smiley face band-aid?”

“My grandchildren would love it!” And indeed, one took a photo for all the others.

They understand only that now grammy probably won’t get sick. From her standpoint, it opens the chance, denied for a year, to hug a beloved son and daughter, see grand-daughters in Seattle who have probably grown taller than me in so much time. Travel beckons—after the blessing of that second shot—and restaurants, meetings in person, all the life and culture we once took for granted.

It’s heartening to be part of probably the largest world-wide vaccination effort in history. Yes, our country goofed up a lot. But now we’re trying to remedy.  We’re the beneficiaries of countless scientists and medical researchers working hard, staying up late at night and developing this vaccine with unheard-of rapidity. Writing in the NEW YORK TIMES 2/2/21,  David Leonhardt acknowledged the lack of data on variants, but quoted Dr. Aaron Richterman, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Pennsylvania: “In terms of the severe outcomes, which is what we really care about, the news is fantastic.” Surveying test results of five potential vaccines, Leonhardt concludes: “don’t confuse uncertainty with bad news. The available vaccine evidence is nearly as positive as it could conceivably be.” 

That could lead to the relief of Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt, or survivors of World War II celebrating VE or VJ day. At last, we can live without the constraint of fear, in what the gospel terms “the freedom of God’s children.”

I couldn’t restrain copious thank yous to the staff at the center, and even the most ordinary yellow flowers beside the road going home glowed with new radiance. When we’ve been part of miracle, its light surrounds and pervades us. We walk forward in grace and gratitude.

Relics/Sacramentals Today

In the mystics summit ( this week, Fr. Richard Rohr got quite excited about his relic of St. Therese of Lisieux. With apologies to his friends of other traditions, he explained that Catholics revere sacred objects because the incarnation made everything holy. Or, there’s nowhere that the divine is not. So we hold up that presence in things that have taken on meaning and become dear. In this case, it was a small piece of Therese’s bone, to him as precious as a wife’s favorite earrings to a widower.

This “God amidst the pots and pans” offsets the patriarchal strain of abstraction, dualism and perfectionism.  No, spirit isn’t better than body. We are one whole human. In that vein, I thought about sacramentals in my recent experience.

One was a battered, faded green cap used on almost every hike since lockdown began, when walks became one of our few legitimate forms of exercise. I’d gotten it at Trinity College, Dublin, where I admire the Book of Kells every 20 years or so. During a hike along Willow View Trail, an enormous cracking sound rent the air. At first I thought, “wild animal?,” covered my head, and ran forward to escape whatever it was. Turned out to be a huge tree limb, crashing over the path. I was lucky to escape with minor small bumps. Discovering, after many yards, a missing cap, I returned to retrieve it. I was dubious at first, seeing a long cliff where it could’ve easily fallen. But there it was, smack on the trail, symbol that I too had survived and wasn’t tumbling down the canyon. Cap overlaid with gratitude!

Another is a receipt for a take-out dinner, a scrap of paper I’ve found difficult to discard. It calls up a wonderful New Year’s celebration at Lake Tahoe with my son’s family. Holiday celebrations have been precious few this year, so we went all out for this one. The children dressed up to surprise their mom, who wore her dangliest earrings. She provided us all with headbands, noisemakers, bubbly, wish papers. We ordered a fine feast, enjoyed as we watched a spectacular sunset overlooking the lake. We were filled with hope—for the inauguration, the vaccine, the end of lockdown. One paper slip contained all that, so it has a secure place wedged in my journal for 1/1/21.

Therese and the medieval women mystics were remarkably concrete and fresh compared to their male peers. They wrote in the vernacular; the men in Latin. Their language is juicy, fluent and vibrant—vs.  stodgy, academic, male abstractions. Their metaphors, like Jesus’, are drawn from daily experience.   And so the question for us all: what dear, familiar objects would you place on your small sacred altar?

Stowaway in the Synagogue

As we hear or read this Sunday’s gospel about Jesus teaching in the synagogue, let’s imagine a different, ever-so-slightly more feminine angle. Here’s her version…

“The people were astonished at his teaching…”

Of course, girls weren’t allowed in the inner parts of the synagogue where the action was. So I had to figure out a way to sneak in and listen, unnoticed.

If I pretended to be cleaning, that usually didn’t attract much attention. The men who couldn’t be bothered with sweeping or mopping assumed “someone else” would do it. They had their lofty sights on more important stuff, like whether to approve this teacher—as though they were experts and it were up to them! With a mop as my excuse and camouflage, I slipped into the fringes of the crowd that day, just close enough to eavesdrop.

The little I could hear was astonishing. The usual synagogue bombast told us how wicked we were, so I wouldn’t mind missing that. But this teacher was different. I strained to catch every word, about a powerful Spirit speaking good news—not to the usual audience of wealthy men, but to the poor. Could that mean me?

He left us with a mystery better than all the certain answers I’d ever heard. Now that I’m brimming with questions, I’ve never felt so alive…

Excerpt from More Hidden Women of the Gospels., 800-258-5838. Free shipping now!

Robert Ellsberg, Publisher of Orbis Books, writes how Pope Francis “continually moves back and forth between the stories of Jesus and their impact on our lives,” continuing:

“Kathy Coffey does something similar through her creative and imaginative retelling of the stories of often unnamed or unmentioned women in the gospels. In More Hidden Women of the Gospelswhich follows a previous, much-acclaimed work, she lifts up women like “The Daughter of Herodias,” “Mrs. Bartimaeus,” or “The Servant at Cana,” inviting us to imagine our own response to the Galilean rabbi whose journey intersects with our own.”