Beautiful Names for God

How important our names and images for God! What we love determines who we become, and if our God is vindictive, anxious, violent and punitive, guess what we’ll be?

As scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann points out, the development of Hebrew scriptures corresponds to the development of human consciousness. The early books assert certainty, law, order and boundaries. God as rock, fortress, shield gave the people, as it gives young children, the security to grow and develop.

But as we mature, we encounter uncertainty, contradiction. As religion develops from tribalism, our images of God must grow large enough for mystery. But at the same time, they must reflect a God who is close to us, direct, never abandoning.

Islam has 99 beautiful names for God; my list is much shorter. But these have been helpful to me. Briefly described, two appear this week and three Oct. 8:

God as artist

Sept. 23, 2022 marked the first anniversary of the death of artist John August Swanson. His color bursts, swirling forms and general gusto enlivened religious subjects that had been portrayed so often we might grow blasé about them. He gave us a small window into divine artistry.

To focus on only one of myriad objects, the sculpture of a clam shell show God’s precision and grace. The shell is designed to protect the critter within, but beyond that, it’s beautiful. From a creamy center, rainbow arcs in warm earthy tones radiate out. And there are millions of them on every beach! Think too of the tone-poems God creates: a soft, dove-grey morning sky can transform into giant, snowy, puffball clouds against deepest cerulean blue in a couple hours.

God as Guest

We so often think of God as host that we forget the other part of the dynamic, how often Jesus visited others. He was welcomed by Martha, Mary and the woman who anointed him, severely criticized by his pharisee hosts. Sometimes we’re uncomfortable as guests, vulnerable and unsure what to do. We want to take charge and run the show! Jesus models how to let others serve us.

To be continued Oct. 8…

Feast of St. Hildegard—Sept. 17

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)

Germany’s greatest mystic, scientist, and doctor, Hildegard was influential in theology, nature, medicine, cosmology, the human condition and the world-at-large. She also assumed ground-breaking roles for a woman of her time: artist, author, composer, mystic, pharmacist, poet, preacher, theologian, scientist, doctor, and political critic. Named a saint and doctor of the church in 2012, she believed passionately in God’s presence and activity in creation, as well as being a life force within. One of her guiding concepts was “viriditas,” the greening power of God, a word which combines the Latin for “green” and “truth,” with connotations of vigor and freshness. While we can observe it in gardens and forests, Hildegard believed we could also cultivate it in our souls.[i]

During her seventies, Hildegard completed two medical texts, which catalogued over 280 plants, cross-referenced with their healing uses. She saw humans as “living sparks” of God’s love, coming from God as daylight comes from the sun. A poet and composer, Hildegard collected 77 of her lyric poems, each with a musical setting she composed in Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. Her numerous other writings include lives of saints; two treatises on medicine and natural history, reflecting a quality of scientific observation rare at that period; and extensive correspondence, in which are to be found further prophecies and allegorical treatises.

Despite her vows of enclosure—which, in theory, restricted her to the cloister—she managed to remain very much in touch with the outside world. After approval of her book Scivias by Pope Eugenius in 1147, she began to receive visits from and correspond with hundreds of people throughout Europe, including Henry II of England, Louis VII of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the empress of Byzantium

Hildegard  thought connection with nature brings people a “primordial joy.” More than eight hundred years after her death, her message rings so true that she could well be considered patroness of environmental awareness. Although she would’ve been appalled by the destruction to the planet, she would’ve cheered robustly for efforts to save it.

Excerpt from More Hidden Women of the Gospels by Kathy Coffey, Orbis, OrbisBooks.com, 800-258-5838.


[i] https://www.healthyhildegard.com/hildegards-viriditas

No Easy Answer, Only Invitation

How keenly Jesus is attuned to his audience. He doesn’t send them scurrying to committee reports, library stacks or obscure passages in Leviticus. He doesn’t try to impress; he simply targets the common denominator. What doofus gathers grapes from brambles or builds a house without a foundation? Duh.

Then into the same salad he tosses good and evil, the oil and vinegar of their lived experience. To follow his cue, we could sit for a moment with the good fruit. The bus drivers, health care workers, janitors, teachers, many who leave warm beds on dark, frigid mornings. The volunteers from around the world who rescued a soccer team from a flooding cave in Thailand. The school lunch personnel who got food to hungry kids even during lockdown. The small boy who gives his granny her morning kiss despite her scary facial scars.

But even the bad belongs. Jesus is no Pollyanna; he knew brutal Roman oppression in his day. And in ours, he sees big business raking in obscene profits from opioid addiction. Or the rampant racism that murders unarmed people of color. The examples deliberately show the worst extremes, an oversimplification Jesus avoids. He doesn’t insult with glib explanations of evil; he feels the hammer vibrations in his own palms.

He offers his audience a larger capacity to be with everything, to enter Mystery. In that sacred place with firm foundation, no one resolves anything. But we know the Presence stands with us, sure as the probing voice resonating throughout the Galilean hills and beyond.

Kathy Coffey, “No Easy Answer, Only Invitation,” from the September 2022 issue of Give Us This Day www.giveusthisday.org (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2022). Used with permission.

Sacramental

I’m having an argument in my head with St. Gregory the Great, whose feast is today. (If that sounds crazy, St. Hildegard of Bingen created an entire language for her own amusement.) While he was responsible for many fine achievements, his theology reflects his patrician background and dualistic view.

Gregory comes from a 6th century Roman style, which saw each day “hastening toward the final judgment.” Cheery, huh? Had he come from the Celtic style in the same century, he might’ve seen each day as a chance to praise the shining world: trees, rivers, wells. I won’t quibble now with his concept of riches as thorns that wound our minds and entice us to sin. (Whew—so much for riches that enable mind-expanding travel, education or generosity to others.)

What prompts my argument is his condemnation of the transitory: “Why then do you love what is left behind?” Well, how else do we learn to love? Isn’t the meaning of Incarnation that Jesus took on bone, sinew, muscle; ate, drank and blessed the things of earth? He seemed to value flowers of the field, birds of the air, gushing water, leaven in lump, wine and bread, making fairly ordinary things  his vehicles for teaching.

Consequently, some faiths developed the concept of sacramentals: objects, people, places or activities  that convey the divine presence. In this category, we might place a garden bursting with pink and purple sweet peas, afternoon light silvering lake or ocean, pills that heal a painful medical condition, deep conversation over coffee or wine, the first sight of a long-absent friend at an airport reunion, books, music and art that inspire, a flannel shirt soft with memories of mountain trips and cold evenings by a warm fire.  

Certain objects—this candle holder from Connemara, this Christmas ornament that hung on my grandparents’ tree, this sweatshirt from a beloved place, this pearl bracelet from a deceased relative–convey more than their utilitarian purpose. They aren’t simply decorative knick-knacks, jewelry or clothing; they bring back a whole world when I see or use them. Ultimately, they speak of the Creator’s care. To treat them indifferently would be ungrateful.

For a recent birthday, my granddaughter was eager that I open her gift first. She is six; her joy translates to physical wriggling, hugging and helping to unwrap. She had excitedly gotten me a mug which I now use daily. The brown bear on its side represents the Colorado Rockies which I love; a little spoon fits deftly into the handle. Most importantly, she bought it with her own money—and a parental supplement. Each time I sip from that mug, I taste her kindness. I’m transported to a shining morning; it’s my birthday again. Surely an object which can convey so much bears an imprint of the divine.

For the same birthday (it was a milestone), my daughter bought all the grandchildren and myself matching t-shirts that said, “I’d Rather Be Reading.” That’s a family hallmark—we all love to read. How could I ever wear it without remembering her thoughtfulness, and all of us lined up together in identical shirts on a couch?

Theologian Richard Rohr puts it in more sophisticated theological language: infinity pouring itself into finite expression. It’s the “self-emptying of God into physical, visible forms” (The Divine Dance, p. 126). How can I get tangled up in the “dilemma du jour” when that rich outpouring is happening? The sacramental tradition always insists: there’s more to this than meets the eye. Much more…

Thank You, Richard Rohr

I sometimes think of Rohr’s work as the fifth gospel, and own enough of his books to read them in constant rotation. His message is so uplifting, I can never absorb it all, and want to reflect on it over and over. My journals are filled with his quotes, which become mantras to live out each day. Although ALL the books are marvelous, I especially like Immortal Diamond, Falling Upward, The Divine Dance, The Naked Now, Yes, and…, The Universal Christ. For those who prefer podcasts, many are available from his Center for Action and Contemplation, near Albuquerque, NM.

This brief overview can’t begin to do justice to all Rohr has meant to me over many years. Ironically, his common sensical themes are deeply rooted in Christianity, but sadly we rarely read or hear them. Perhaps most important: “it is all finally and forever okay.” (The Divine Dance, p. 180) This is a God of no blame, only acceptance, because God is not punitive, angry nor vengeful. (The wrathful God of some Old Testament passages marked a historical point in humanity’s thinking. But the narrative arc moves “toward an ever-more-developed theology of grace, until Jesus becomes grace personified.” (The Divine Dance, p. 136) Jesus then ignores or opposes punitive, exclusionary or imperialistic texts. Although Rohr provides abundant proof, I won’t go into it all here—but it’s fascinating and consoling.)

As is this passage: “You are bone of God’s bone, and that’s why God cannot stop loving you. That’s why no amount of effort will make God love you any more than God loves you right now. And… you can’t make God love you any less than God loves you right now.” (The Divine Dance, p. 135) Those words come like balm to people raised on the ol’ “just try harder” school of theology—as if we could ever earn God’s freely given love!

Although Rohr is a Franciscan priest, he has a breadth many clerical authors lack. Their frame of reference seems to be primarily the sacraments and liturgy. He looks to the full scope of the Perennial Tradition, gathering wisdom from many of the world’s religions. Because he is a Franciscan, he can sidestep much of the hierarchical nonsense of the Catholic church, and simply take the alternate, still perfectly legitimate path St. Francis did.

In Falling Upwards, he ends forever the stigma attached to failure. After all, the crucifixion of Jesus could be seen as a colossal disaster. Or, like our own disappointments and tragedies, the necessary prelude to Resurrection.

Although I’ve never met Rohr personally, I’ve attended some of his talks and heard many of his interviews. (He once joked that his worst nightmare was to be interviewed by Krista Tippett for “On Being” and appear shallow.) He comes across as affable, self-deprecating and funny. He has welcomed women as co-authors and partners in teaching. Best of all, he shows us that the truths he has reached don’t come via the thinking mind, but from contemplation, a world beyond our usual thought patterns, the only way to approach the infinite divine.

Back to School

Sometimes in a rare bit of serendipity the scripture readings for the day coincide with the seasonal events in the larger culture. Such was the case for the happy occurrence of the gospel: “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt. 19:13-15). That message of welcoming the child (Jesus actually takes them in his arms) clearly echoed as some excellent schools reopened.

The atmosphere was festive as a long line of littles, parents, grandparents, sometimes whole clans converged on the local elementary school. Arches of balloons marked the gates, with large “Welcome” signs for the students. For the first time in three years after lockdown, parents were allowed back on campus to drop off their kids, and what a swirl of  energy that created. The school had even arranged spots for photo ops, thus a record of “First Day Kindergarten, Third Grade, etc.”

Many different ethnicities and backgrounds were reflected in that crowd, but most had the same high expectations. So far, no child had goofed up; everyone more or less began on a level playing field; the future was bright with potential. I overheard in broken English the plea: “Make a new friend!” In a school such as this, children come from a broad variety of homes where 17 languages are spoken, but all will emerge amazingly fluent in English.

My granddaughter had carefully selected her Ensemble for the first day of second grade: sparkly lavender top with frothy ballerina skirt, leopard print vest, blingy jewelry. The designer wardrobe paid tribute to the solemnity of the event. Quickly she was drawn into “hellos” to her friends and new teacher (whom she loves), a hug and goodbye to me.

Walking home, I wondered. Was I ever welcomed back to school? My memory is primarily of drudgery and discipline. It was the era of memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, marching in regimented lines like Marines, keeping silence for long stretches, sitting rigidly in desks for inordinate stretches of time. I’ve often pondered: I hated school and I was good at it. What torture must it have been for classmates less academically inclined? But enough has been written about that subtle, polite form of child abuse. Indeed, many schools were worse. How much creativity, indeed the “freedom of God’s children” was squelched by that militaristic system?

Perhaps the better question for those of us who survived is whether we can welcome our inner child as Jesus did. Under all the accretions of adulthood, she’s still there: playful, vulnerable, often perplexed or frightened. Children can live with the abundant evidence of their screw-ups: a chain of broken objects precious to their parents, lost items (3 sweatshirts in a week?), saying the wrong thing loudly, crashing into people, usually unintentionally, and sometimes hurting them. But at the same time, they know they’re forgiven and loved, in spite of mistakes and sometimes even more. Adults have a harder time accepting that.   

But no matter how wounded we’ve been or how many serious flaws we have, still the invitation is open; we’re welcomed into that cosmic hug; those hands rest upon us.

Film Review: “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”

On one level, this movie is fluffy fairy tale. On another, it’s parable. Let’s look at that angle.

Simple plot: London cleaning lady sees a wealthy employer’s Dior dress and longs for one. The beautiful garment sets Mrs. Harris’ imagination flying; no practical considerations interfere. A long, improbable sequence results where she eventually accumulates enough money, flies to Paris and attends a designer fashion show. As she watches one beautiful garment after another on a series of graceful models, the look on her face is pure delight. A war widow, her usual attire is shabby apron. She is more accustomed to hanging, cleaning and mending other peoples’ clothes than owning anything lovely herself. Her cheeky cockney comments puncture the other-worldly atmosphere of French haute couture. Again defying reality, she makes friends there and orders her dress.

The only realistic note in this sugar-spun tale is the garbage collector’s strike, so scenes of Paris are strewn with piles of rubbish even the formidable Mrs. Harris can’t clean up. (She has briskly arranged a romance, threatened a garment workers’ strike and helped direct the house of Dior towards a more sustainable future, marketing an accessible, affordable line.) But like Cinderella, she returns to her dismal London flat and lonely life. With a few last-minute saves, the film ends on a happy note. But more important elements of parable underlie the plot.

Garment metaphors in Scripture begin with God’s gentle question to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:1-21, “who told you that you were naked?” In the final verse of that passage, God like a protective mum makes soft “garments of skin” to clothe them. Isaiah 61:10 says that God clothes us as bride and bridegroom adorn themselves. The father of the prodigal son clothes him with “the best” robe, sandals and ring to restore his lost dignity (Luke 15:11-32). Our identity is affected by what we wear: contrast the doctor or nurse in white coat or scrubs with their at-home attire of jeans and sweats. Sometimes in a new shirt, we feel like “hot stuff.”

African-American theologian and author Howard Thurman learned from his grandmother that knowing one was God’s daughter or son affirmed the dignity even of slaves. He writes in Jesus and the Disinherited: And you know, when my grandmother said that she would unconsciously straighten up, head high and chest out, and a faraway look would come on her face.

Ah, Mrs. Harris, internal daughter of royalty beneath your apron and beyond your floor scrubbing! If we truly believe in our inherent dignity and preciousness to God, then aren’t we all the cleaning lady lifted into the swishing beauty, the dream of what-could-be?

Feast of St. Clare—Aug. 11

Doing this week‘s newspaper word search with my grandson, all the hidden words contained the root “joy.” That word could name the theme for the life of St. Clare, St. Francis’ lesser known female counterpart (though much more, in her own independent right) and dear friend.

Clare enjoyed the “guarantee of living without guarantees.” That might make us feel insecure and wobbly. We rely heavily on insurance policies; she relied totally on God. Clare saw humans as mirrors reflecting the divine. In the beauty of the Beloved, she found more than enough wealth to offset her life style of poverty.

As Richard Rohr points out in Eager to Love, Clare and her sisters had a topsy-turvy insistence on living without privilege. Totally dependent on God, spending 40 years in one small house and garden, she discovered abundant joy. It seems important to note that in dark times, we can still nurture joy—it’s not a dirty word showing we simply don’t understand our era.

One of the most famous, but misguided, images of Clare was her holding the monstrance high, so that Saracens invading Assisi shrank back in fear and left her monastery alone. It’s true that soldiers did enter her home, San Damiano, but they were European mercenaries hired by Frederick II. The monstrance didn’t exist then—in 1240.

What Clare actually DID, confronting the genuine threat of invasion far outside the city walls where she and her sisters lived unprotected, was take “her usual posture for prayer,” lying prostrate.  It seems the exact opposite to a macho demonstration of power or strength, and yet it was effective. The invaders retreated, causing no harm.

Clare’s process of letting go ego and learning to mirror God led her to write: “Place your heart in the figure of the divine… and allow your entire being to be transformed into the image of the Godhead itself, so that you may feel what friends feel…” Given that intimacy, it’s unsurprising that Clare not only lived but even died joyfully, encouraging her soul to go forth with “good escort.”

Feast of St. Ignatius—July 31

A simple plaque placed in the castle of Loyola, Spain dated 1491 says, “Aqui nacio.” On a literal level, it means St. Ignatius was born there. Symbolically, it reaches more broadly: the start of a creative, alternate narrative no one dreamt would spread so far, endure so long.

At a time when clergy were the only intermediaries between ordinary people and God, Ignatius differed. Gloriously, he told ordinary shmucks: “God has a dream for you.” Ignatius’ alternative didn’t emphasize external rules. Instead, the interior process of the Spiritual Exercises asked not what? but who? Called into “conscious living relationship with the person of Christ,” Ignatius exchanged his sword for a walking stick. He traded the macho drama of a knight’s life for a mysterious process. He had no idea where it would end, but limped into it trustingly.

With genius and craziness, Ignatius directed his followers into the swirl of cities, where lively plazas offered places to preach and exchange new ideas. His directions for the order he founded, the Jesuits are remarkably flexible: no office in common, no excessive penances; regarding dress, “the manner is ordinary.” He often inserts the realistic qualifier to fit circumstances: “or whatever’s best.” Just as Biblical prophets clash with worldly authority, so the Jesuits have had perpetual differences with the powers-that-be. Gospel fidelity often conflicts with unjust human law; no other religious order has spent as many man-years in jail.

A recent example is Fr. Stan Swamy, an Indian Jesuit imprisoned for defending the rights of the Dalit (untouchable) people and rural poor. The government charged him with links to violent Maoist groups, which he denied. Despite being 83 with advanced Parkinson’s, he was jailed under anti-terror statutes. Unable to even drink from a cup, he relied on fellow prisoners to meet his needs.  He died of COVID in 2021.

In what seems a tribute to St. Ignatius, Nativity School of Worcester, MA, started flying the Pride and Black Lives Matter flags In January 2021. This was a response to their students, primarily under-resourced boys of color who receive an excellent, tuition-free education there. Laudably, the students wanted to symbolize their stand with the marginalized. Bishop Robert McManus, however, believed “flying these flags is inconsistent with Catholic teaching.” In March 2022, he told the school to take down the flags. When the school refused, he removed its Catholic identity. A letter on the school website (https://nativityworcester.org) from its president assures the community, “Please know that any decisions made by the Diocese will not change the mission, operations or impact of Nativity.” Ignatius might give them a “thumbs up” for spunk. Who could’ve dreamed that seed sown in the 16th century could flower so boldly today?

This reflection was originally published in Give Us This Day, 7/31/20. www.giveusthisday.org, 888-259-8470. The last two paragraphs were added as an update.

Feast of Mary Magdalene–July 22

Let’s hope that on the Feast of Mary Magdalene July 22, we all do our part to correct the misperception of her as prostitute. That error, a conflation of three Biblical texts, was given authority by Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century, and not corrected for 1400 years, until revisions to the Roman calendar of 1969.

Luke’s gospel names her as one of several financially independent women who supported Jesus’ ministry. But her role is more important than financier. Dan Brown’s best-selling Da Vinci Code gave her a romantic role, but again, her centrality in the early Christian community was more than simply a private relationship.

All four Gospels agree she was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. When Jesus calls her name in the garden, it is a pivotal point of human history. Her name is the hinge to a new order. She was the first to realize that God could vanquish even death, and to tell the other disciples. She convinced them and skeptics throughout history that “love is stronger than death.” To silence her voice and discount her primary role does her a great disservice. She calls us instead to the vision of a world free of sexism, suffering, exploitation and death. Arguments over authority simply distract from that larger hope.