The Mood of Advent

 

We start Advent not with dread or foreboding, but with joyful anticipation. It’s like welcoming into our homes a dear friend or relative whom we haven’t seen for a while. There’s probably a flurry of cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking—all done with delight. When we look forward to renewing a close relationship, the preparation isn’t a burdensome chore. It may be tiring, but it’s happy.

Jesus gives the disciples similar advice in today’s gospel: don’t be snoozing when an important visitor arrives. Be alert, awake, watchful as people are at an airport, searching the crowd for a beloved face.

How much more carefully we await the arrival of God. God is already with us, always and everywhere. Our Advent preparations highlight that presence, helping us become more aware. If we are lulled into anesthesia by busy schedules or overfamiliarity, Advent is the wake-up call. Look at what richness surrounds us! See how blessed we are! Do we look for God like the gospel gatekeeper, with a sharp eye? Or do we surrender our spirituality for the ersatz cheer of sales and malls?

One way of marking time that has been honored by Christians for centuries is the Advent wreath. Googling the phrase produces over 100,000 results—ways to buy one, make one, pray with one. This circle of pine with four candles nestled within can become the center for Advent prayer, reflection and song. It reminds us to pause, breathe deeply of its fragrance, remember what distinguishes this time of year.

Dorothy Day—d. Nov. 29, 1980

While Day’s cause for canonization was introduced in 2000, she believed that “there are many saints, here, there and everywhere and not only the canonized saints that Rome draws to our attention.” At the same time, she “didn’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

She probably didn’t do it consciously, but it was almost as if Dorothy Day found the notion of sainthood had grown tarnished and irrelevant. Briskly, practically, as she did everything, she dusted it off and made it serviceable. In a world of violence, social upheaval and war, she called for saints who would disarm the heart.

A casting director looking for saint material would’ve rejected her on multiple grounds: a leaning towards Communism, multiple relationships with men, an abortion and a child born out of wedlock. With tongue firmly in cheek, she summed up the gossipy accusations against her in a 1936 letter: “I’m supposed to be an immoral woman, with illegitimate children, a drunkard, a racketeer, running an expensive apartment on the side, with money in several banks, owning property, in the pay of Moscow, etc.”

Stir into the mix the narrow-minded church of her day, whose leaders wouldn’t dream of listening to “radical” lay women. The vast majority of Catholics then saw their role as following the rules, and were content to pay, pray and obey.

Early in her career during her first visit. to the south, Dorothy was shocked by the poverty in Arkansas. Never one to dither, she telegraphed Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, also a lady who got things done. Mrs. Roosevelt contacted the governor, who—unsurprisingly—stonewalled.

No amount of brisk bureaucratic subterfuge could stop her for long. The Catholic Worker newspaper she edited and wrote skyrocketed from 2500 to 35,000 copies printed in its first six months. By 1938 they’d reached 190,000 copies. Ever the writer, she first proposed houses of hospitality in print, but didn’t actually begin one until a desperate young woman told her she’d been sleeping in subways with a friend, who in desperation, had thrown herself in front of a train. Gradually, Dorothy and her staff rented other apartments and houses for the homeless. It was all rather ragged, with no one drawing a salary. Yet in those first five years, more than thirty houses of hospitality were founded beyond the shaky, original New York beginning in Dorothy’s apartment. Today 227 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless. (www.catholicworker.org)

Even a few excerpts from her letters are enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that sainthood is a sunny stroll through a flowery meadow. She knew that when the Catholic Worker failed, it was often because of her explosive judgmentalism.  Like the rest of us who recognize bundles of contradictions within, she regretted parts of her early life, and what seems to have been a constant impatience with others.

One of her favorite quotes was Russian novelist Dostoevsky’s, “the world will be saved by beauty.” She tried to live out Ruskin’s “duty of delight.” Throughout her life, she loved reading, opera, films and nature. The sea brought her peace and strength; wisely, she visited it often. Even a half-hour ride on the ferry brought the taste of salt spray, the wheeling arcs of gulls, sunset, silence, refreshment. Living with neediness, congestion and often chaos, she turned to nature for quiet space.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching InLiturgical Press. Kathy will be speaking on the North American Saints and on grandparenting at the Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference, Santa Clara Convention Center, on November 30. For details see:

https://scffc.org

 

Gratitude, Enhanced

 

A “soulful window” into the lives of those we love comes at the moment just before Thanksgiving dinner when it’s customary in many families to take turns saying one thing they’re grateful for. I’ll always cherish my two-year old granddaughter saying last year: “I am thank you for the marshmellows!”

But for the jaded who may be tiring of the construction paper turkeys, or even of the cranberry sauce, here’s a way to jump-start Thanksgiving. Robert Emmons’ ground-breaking book, Thanks! (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) alerted us to the multiple benefits of gratitude, which he defines as “a feeling of reverence for what is given.” That attitude accepts good and bad as potential gift. It can focus the lens through which we view life on evidence of abundance, not scarcity. Unsurprisingly, that gives an increased sense of personal worth which can offset anxiety and depression.

Emmons characterizes this attitude as not a “superficial happiology,” but a perspective that has transformative power. His original work alerted us to the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal and expressing thanks regularly through calls, e-mails, texts or letters to those who have done us good. Those are a “booster shot” for relationships, benefiting both giver and receiver.

That work has continued through the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Their website is full of wonderful articles and videos:

Greater Good Berkeley

Their research confirms with hard science what our religious traditions or intuitions may have told us about gratitude. For example, Science Director Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., draws on the research of Philip Watkins to show how gratitude amplifies good experiences and counteracts habituation. (The classic example for this human tendency is how the “new car smell”—and the novelty of the car itself–fades over time.) It means that pleasure wanes when repeated. In relationships, it helps explain how the charming, handsome date can become a self-centered, boring husband; the sweet infant can turn into a snarling teenager.

To counter this tendency, gratitude gives a “positivity bias” so we notice and appreciate more. Setting aside the negative experiences, choosing to reframe or not focus on them, gives them less power. (True, too, for negative media and violent movies.) So, savoring positive memories magnifies them, building our psychological immune system to cushion failures and disappointments. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who should’ve known through direct experience in the Nazi concentration camp) said, “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into grateful joy.”

A Church/State Parallel?

I watched election returns Tuesday during a deep snow in Breckenridge, Colorado with two old friends, one aged 84 and one aged 78. Their ages are relevant only because the first had once battled mightily to allow girls’ sports in school. The second had assumed her role was to be only the cheerleader for the boys, never dreaming she too might play basketball.

Imagine our delight when over 100 women were elected to office. Accompanying the fire in the fireplace, the popcorn and wine on the table, the snow falling softly outside the window were rowdy hoots and hollers around the t.v. “I thought I’d never live to see the day!” seemed a constant refrain.

As one commentator said, “It seems as if something old is dying, and something new is being born.” Oddly religious language for MSNBC, but it got me thinking (always dangerous).

Could the church learn an important lesson from civil society? When we hear of US bishops meeting next week in Washington to deal primarily with the sexual abuse crisis, their agenda seems so tedious. No new ideas surface; it seems an endless rerun of appointing committees to monitor, composed of the same people who have consistently failed to solve the problem. People tend to yawn, skeptical that anything creative might come of the gathering, dreading those long red dresses yet again.

Remember the old definition of insanity? Doing the same things in the same way and expecting change. Enough of repetition! Imagine the Congress convening in January with young, fresh faces. Not to gender-stereotype, but it offers hope for improvement. Surprising potential lurks in that diversity. As we know, bio-diversity is essential to the health of the forest. Jesus often made surprising discoveries and comments when he was in precarious, unsettled border zones. Recently, I was thrilled to meet Rosa M. Del Saz and Ashley McKinless, vibrant, brilliant young women on the staff of America Magazine. Umpteen years ago, when I wrote for America, only Jesuits filled the masthead.

At a relative’s funeral this week, my children and I were asked to bring up the gifts. With no preparation, I had a moment of slight panic, seeing three items for four people. My older daughter figured it out in an instant. She and her brother shared the plate of bread; she handed cruets to my younger daughter and me. What I cherished was the male and female hands, holding the gold circle together, cooperating on this as they had on so many other ventures. Why is male/female collaboration so hard for the Church?

Please, dear bishops, consider opening yourselves to that bracing wind of the Spirit. Of course having women in the Ol’ Boys Club would be uncomfortable. But you stand precipitously close to “too little, too late.” It seems almost ludicrous that an issue at the recent synod was giving two votes to nuns. You risk losing an entire generation, raised without the gender biases yours holds. It may sound crazy to you to invite women into decision making, but don’t waste their time with some head-patting “advisory” role. Full voting rights or fergit it. Embrace the reality of the 21st century. And remember, when God launched the great adventure of becoming human, God didn’t go to general or rabbi. God began with a young girl. The stakes are high—you have much to gain.

Book Review: The Secrets Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

 

Finally, women’s voices are speaking loud and clear. We’ve been fortunate to hear Christine Ford, Emma Gonzalez, and others who at personal risk, say forthrightly what has needed for a long time to be said. (And kudos to Gov. Jerry Brown, who made CA the first state to require that companies have a woman on their board of directors.)

But this book explores women’s silences, springing from their terrible abuse and exploitation. Readers who have met Bhima and Parvati in these pages will never look at two old Indian women the same way again. Although they are desperately poor, they have more fortitude, resilience and chutzpah than most of us raised in sheltered and educated ways. While the first instinct may be to pity, stand back. One realizes quickly that one is in the presence of a formidable force here. Despite horrific obstacles, buried wounds and psychic trauma, they survive, thrive, and nurture others.

While North Americans may not fully understand Indian culture, the taboos governing employer and employee relationships, or how these are changing now, the author does. Umrigar has proven in previous books  (The Story Hour, The World We Found, The Weight of Heaven, The Space Between Us and others) a compassion for women, a refusal to stereotype men, and a deep knowledge of the human qualities that transcend gender or national borders. It’s particularly interesting to watch Bhima evolve from horror at a lesbian couple who employ her, to shock that they would treat her like a friend, to uncritical love and appreciation for their kindness to her granddaughter Maya.

The reader develops such a kinship with the two leading ladies that she reads with gusto, sometimes shock at how mercilessly they’ve been insulted, and finally with triumph at the reconciliation one engineers for the other.  Arrogant, angry, bitingly intelligent, irreverent, blasphemous, raunchy, rigid, caustic, funny, street smart, defiant Parvati enables her friend Bhima to escape the squalor of Mumbai and enter a scene of lush green beauty where she realizes a dream she’s suppressed so long she’s rarely voiced it. No more clues, lest they ruin an ending so beautiful every reader should experience it for him or herself.

Feast of All Saints–Nov. 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 St. Tabitha, Oct. 25

 

Acts 9: 36-42 in her own words…

It was the sweetest sleep ever. For the first time in ages, I didn’t need to be busy, achieve or accomplish, just rest. No whiny demands, no rude interruptions, no desperate pleas for help. Being “completely occupied with good deeds and almsgiving” takes its toll—I was exhausted. But as I slept, I dreamt of the beginning…

 

Always I had loved fabric, the ways its color could dance together, or light a sallow face. The way it draped across a figure could camouflage the flaws and accent the lovely curves. I’ve always been intrigued with the contours of cloth, its weight and shimmer in my hands. Into my coastal town, Joppa, flowed imports from around the world. So I was enchanted with Roman linen, Chinese silk, Arabian sunrises woven into stripes. I imagined women at their looms everywhere, pouring their artistry into this tunic or that skirt. I too created clothing. My name means “gazelle,” and I designed cloaks that swished with the animal’s swift grace. Threaded through the garments were the stories: this shirt made for my husband’s birthday; that shade matched my daughter’s hair or son’s eyes.

 

When I first heard about Jesus, I was captivated. The man spoke my language—and enlarged it somehow. Of course I was drawn to his examples: “Notice how the flowers grow. They do not toil or spin. But I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of them.” I could understand that first-hand. All my spinning and weaving couldn’t come near the softness of petal or the radiance of the lily’s throat.

 

So I was dreaming of a field of wildflowers, bending in the wind. Their fragrance filled me with joy. And Jesus was woven in somehow, just as I’d weave a rare gold or copper thread into a fabric. He knew too about not sewing a new patch on an old garment. He spoke my language in a way no other teacher did.

 

Then a distant growling ended my beautiful rest. Peter, that bear of a man, blundered into my sick room. My cherished friends showed him the tunics I’d embroidered, the cloaks I’d made as strong protection against the heaviest winds. They were wasting their time—the guy didn’t know satin from sandwich. But his voice was kind as I heard him say my name as through a tunnel, “Tabitha, rise up.” Where had I heard those words before? [CF LK 8:40-42, 49-56 & Mk. 5:41, “talitha, koum, maiden get up.”]

 

The call to life was familiar but at first I protested. NO! Let me rest. I’ve earned it. Please don’t make me everyone’s savior again. There’s only one, and Jesus was all we need. Enough of do-gooding! Can’t I just enjoy that dreamy meadow? But the touch of a hand on mine was warm, comforting, life-giving.

 

As I struggled stiffly to my feet, I remembered others who’d made that precarious journey: the daughter of Jairus, Lazarus, Jesus himself. Death to life was taking on another connotation to me, though. To be God’s precious daughter, I didn’t need to DO anything, serve anyone. I could take it easier. I could enjoy just being myself. God wasn’t nearly the steely-eyed taskmaster I had set myself. During that sleepy time of great happiness, I had been still, and free and blessed. I could do it again. If God “so clothed the grass,” I too could wear the green gossamer fabric of trust. I rose to a different awareness.

 

As my vision gradually focuses, I notice Peter’s cloak is ripped. Vaguely, I start planning. Think I’ll show him how to thread a needle…