The Sad and Flailing Bishops

A generous, intelligent and compassionate young mom whom I love dearly texts in astonishment, “Please tell me this isn’t true!”

She’s just read reports of US bishops developing a teaching on Eucharist with a veiled purpose of denying President Biden Communion because of his pro-choice stance. Like many, she is shocked and confused. Fearing that no response is adequate, I nevertheless wade into the fray.

Many columnists have already pointed out that Biden’s efforts to restore jobs, cut child poverty in half, save the environment, distribute COVID vaccine nationally and globally, mourn those who died from the virus, make preschool/community college free and accessible, welcome refugees, and renew a flagging economy are the best of being Catholic.

Furthermore, at the recent global leaders’ summit, he began the process of returning the US to the world community, a cooperation vital to the future of the planet all nations share. He brought adult decency and civility back to the White House, replacing the tirades, bigotry and impulsive chaos of the previous administration. As Jesus said to his critics, “what’s wrong with that?” Who among the bishops’ company has done anywhere near as much? Maybe they should be discussing how to support such gospel-grounded initiatives…

With his sure instincts, Pope Francis has already told the bishops to back off, warning them of stark discord if they continue this course. With their reputation already tanked by their bungling of the pedophile tragedy, their silence on major issues like racism, their continued sexism, homophobia and bullying tactics to force people back to a Sunday obligation of worship, the ground on which they stand is shaky at best.  Sixty Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives, including Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have asked U.S. bishops to avoid “weaponizing” the Eucharist.

The decision to proceed with the document passed with 168 votes in favor, 55 against and six abstentions. The text should be proposed to the bishops in November and would need approval by two-thirds of the U.S. Conference. Within days, they were already tap dancing, maybe remembering the fiasco of their refusal to bless same-sex marriage, roundly rejected. A long-established principle is that a teaching must not only be issued, but received by the People of God. They encountered that disconnect with their birth control teaching, yet seem to chug along the same path, blissfully ignorant.  

John D. Whitney, SJ echoes the finest Eucharistic theologians who have for centuries reminded us that “hunger is the only ticket”—it’s not a question of worthiness or politics:

“It is not your table (nor mine). Bishops, priests, etc. are neither the hosts nor the bouncers nor the ones who wrote the guest list. The Eucharist is the resurrected body of Christ given for the life of the world. Jesus Christ is the one who invites the guests (“all you who labor”); he is the host of those who come; he is the setter of the table; and he is the feast… We are guests at the meal, and sometimes (by his calling) servers. So stay in your lane, please. The wait staff doesn’t get to exclude those who want to come. If you don’t like the company Christ calls (and, admittedly, it is a rag tag bunch of sinners, one and all), it’s you who need to leave the table, not them.”

Holy Trinity, the Jesuit parish Biden usually attends at Georgetown, won’t deny Communion to anyone. The posting on their website read: “As Pope Francis recently reaffirmed, communion should be viewed ‘not as a prize for the perfect, but as a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’ None of us, whether we stand in the pews or behind the altar, is worthy to receive it. The great gift of the Holy Eucharist is too sacred to be made a political issue.”

Fortunately, a few sane voices in the bishops’ conference protest. Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, pointing to a year of COVID deaths, racial strife and economic hardship said, “We need to be issuing a short statement that ‘the church is there for you and let’s continue to journey together so we can face these issues together.’” Otherwise, he warned, “I fear we’re going to sound tone-deaf.” Geeze—ya think?? Worse, they’ll be preaching to a dark and empty mausoleum.

The Mourner Who Lost Her Job

Mark 5: 21-43, the Gospel for June 27

I made a good living, wailing. Don’t scoff. I gave voice to peoples’ wrenching pain and haunting loneliness when they were so numb they could barely stumble through the funeral procession. The deep seated sadness they couldn’t tell even their closest friends? I blared it out boldly. Mourning served a healthy purpose and came from the deepest part of me. I wasn’t faking it, you see. I’ve wrestled the old enemy death too, and carry the scars in my soul.

The corpse we mourned was a twelve-year old girl; her parents looked crushed as if a mountain or tall cedar had fallen on them. I knew the look.

When he silenced me, I was furious. How’s a girl supposed to make a living, feed her family? I was a professional, no charlatan. Others faked it: not I. I knew that pain on a first-name basis. My daughter died too, at six, even younger than this child. I’d never gotten over it, and when I wailed for this girl, I wept for her. I’d raged at God, too, using my filthiest language and cursing with my most blood-curdling expletives. How could a kind and merciful God allow such atrocities?

I got right in his face and yelled even louder with rage and ridicule. His explanation was bogus: “the child is not dead but asleep.” How we hooted and laughed at him with scorn! Wouldn’t we all wish that? How dumb would we be, not to know the difference? Even worse than making his lame excuse, he put us all out. We stood outside, our world overturned, not sure what was happening inside, and even more, worried whether we’d get paid for this job.

But no worry on that score. Jairus was generous, spilling over with joy that his daughter lived. The girl restored to her parents that day opened up questions that haunted me for several years after. Why their daughter, not mine? During sleepless nights, I went over and over the question in my mind, never reaching a satisfactory answer.

Until, one day, I met him again. It was a complete surprise. I’d gone to Jerusalem to visit my cousin, and she dragged me to a horrible scene, the path convicted criminals walked to the hill of crucifixion. I’d been angry at the guy who once disrupted my routine and my sleep, but I burst into tears at the shock of seeing him here. He might’ve been annoying, but I never thought he’d be carrying a cross!

What he said then completely contradicted his message last time we’d met: “Do not weep for me but weep for yourselves and your children.” What? Now we should weep? Was he condoning my work, affirming my natural sorrow? It was as if his sad face held all the terrible tragedies and cruelties humans have ever faced. “Yes,” he was saying. “You’re right to weep for that.” I was grateful he didn’t dismiss us with a brisk head pat, and “stop crying, girls.”

I puzzled over that encounter for several days–until my cousin told me rumors I couldn’t believe. “Some people say he lives again!” Oddly enough, the command he gave the 12-year old–“Arise”–was the same verb people were using now of him. It may sound crazy, but I desperately wanted it to be true. It was as if he called us to a larger life, a bigger wholeness, the intention of God that we should live on and on.

I won’t stop mourning—it’s too important to express that anguish. The people who try to stuff it seem to get even angrier, and never heal. But I have a strong voice, and I could also sing in celebration – for a new baby or a wedding. This life is crazy-full of sorrow and joy. That guy who raised the girl seemed to know them both. Maybe my singing could honor my daughter who was young and joyful—and him. Did lifting that girl from her death bed signal what was to come for all of us?

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

Meditation on a Kitchen Table

Knicked and dented, scratched and scuffed, a large wooden table fills my youngest daughter’s dining room. When I sit there to write a note or eat lunch, the memories flood back.

This table was handed down through my husband’s family to rest in our kitchen for 25 years. What a process unfolded around it—from a newborn held in arms while a parent grabbed a bite, to that baby become a college student bringing home his friends from the rugby team for the weekend. The four small children who once ringed it, eager for conversation and meals, gradually left for different parts of the country, careers and their own families. I can still imagine them there, laughing, telling the stories of their days, hoping there’d be cookie bars for dessert.

Through a complicated dismantling and reassembling, the table moved from Colorado to where it now has a view of San Francisco bay and the Oakland hills. We’ve all moved to various locations, and what my dad at grace before dinner would call “our small circle of affection” has lived in many states, expanded now to two.

The enduring miracle is how four littles learned the language of fidelity, the grammar of care. They knew for certain that no matter what happened that day at school or on the playground, the only admission ticket for the table was hunger. They were nurtured not only by the meals, which were often haphazard, last-minute arrangements of hot dogs and macaroni-n-cheese, but by a grounded sense of belonging.

Their fallible, tired, bumbling parents couldn’t claim the credit for the children’s admirable careers in non-profits or their own families now. But the divine parent was also present at that table, creating, enlivening, guiding, protecting, enriching, nourishing, infusing with humor and perspective. A presence never deserved, always embraced.

There were probably squabbles around that table, arguments over the last roll or who got the car Saturday, but fortunately we weren’t a family whose meals were too seasoned with tension or spiced with anxiety. One measure of ongoing dedication is how we still enjoy lingering at the table, with grandchildren interrupting the conversation, but still delighted to be together. Many families are re-discovering now how much they missed that intimacy of meals forbidden during lockdown.

When I’d underscore the importance of the family meal during workshops for parents, I’d hear the long litany of what makes it difficult: work, sports, meetings all oddly scheduled at the dinner hour. I’d respond with the statistics, showing how many National Merit winners and high-achievers valued dinner together as a key part of growing up. “And if it’s important,” I’d smile. “You’ll find time for it.”  

To the parents scrambling to cook after an exhausting work day, while juggling phone calls and children’s demands, I’d offer all encouragement: it’s worth it. And someday, may you too see a kitchen table marked by scars, and fill with gratitude.

Book Review—Braiding Sweetgrass

St. Francis would love it. So do I. As I reject patriarchal, dualistic theologies and lean towards creation spirituality, I’m drawn to this book written by Robin Wall Kimmerer, an active member of the Potowatomi nation and a State University of New York Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology. She braids together her indigenous knowledge, scientific background and stories “in service to what matters most:” healing humans’ broken relationship with the earth. 

She writes lyrically about a legacy of wild strawberries in her childhood, shaping her “view of a world full of gifts, simply scattered at your feet.” The only response? Eat them with a sense of mystery. Her story of strawberries is pivotal to “living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world… When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.” (p. 31) Familiar echoes of “Canticle of the Sun” or the psalms?

As Fr. Richard Rohr explains in Yes, And… the human incarnation of God in Jesus happened 2000 years ago. But 13.8 billion years ago, the original incarnation occurred through sun, moon, stars, land, plants, trees, fruit, birds, etc. Do we ever wonder what God was doing 10 or 4 billion years ago? “Was God really waiting for the pope to appear and declare his infallibility?” (p. 131) Braiding Sweetgrass puts us in touch with that older, sacred, enchanted universe.

Family ceremonies of gratefulness so grounded Kimmerer that she wasn’t deterred by her college adviser’s dismissiveness when she first responded to the question “why do you want to major in botany?” She wanted to know why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together. Much later, she knew all the scientific names but was humbled by an indigenous guide who understood the plants’ songs.

So she teaches her own ethnobotany students through experiential field trips. They first brainstorm a list of human needs, then are amazed to find many of these fulfilled when they go “shopping at Wal-Marsh.” (“Sitting in a Circle” chapter.) They eat rhizomes and pollen pancakes, soothe bug bites with cattail gel, make a wigwam, sleeping mats and baskets. After several days, they understand one native term for plants, which translates to “those who care for us.” It’s no surprise that breathing the smell of the earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, the chemical that promotes bonding between mother and child.

We name it “landscaping the religious imagination;” Kimmerer makes the mental map of pecan grove, river bend, rock pile, sweetgrass meadow and berry patch. We call it “contemplation;” she terms it “listening.” The nuthatch tapping, water trickling, wind in pine, beechnut falling are the wordless language of wild places. We sing hymns to the creator; natives chant and dance praise of creation, reverently using only the resources they need, replenishing those. Science can polish seeing, but its technical vocabulary has no terms to hold the mystery of the life force, which St. Hildegard of Bingen called “viriditas.” Puhpowee in Anishinaabe translates as the force which causes mushrooms to spring up overnight.

As I look at my nine-year old grandson, knees scratched from soccer, bubble gum blowing, brown eyes wide and innocent, I can’t imagine hiding him under a stream bank to escape the agents who’d take native children to boarding school. There, his language would be considered “dirty;” his customs, pagan; his culture, annihilated. In their zeal, the missionaries and US government asked the wrong question about native peoples: “Are they saved?” Instead they should’ve asked, “how do they see the world?” The chance to hear that answer might help rescue a planet in jeopardy … Start braiding.

The Feast of the Sacred Heart—June 11

Even after 50+ years since my education by the Religious of the Sacred Heart, this feast still captures attention, still intrigues by its contradictions.

On the negative side, the fierce discipline, obsession with rules, silence and order might have been simply the products of an era when few schools were enlightened or relaxed. Some friends have worse horror tales from crazier nuns and more rigid Catholic schools. We may not have been encouraged to be especially creative, but we were never physically punished. We may have sung maudlin hymns, but we were never taught a Mel Gibson-style obsession with the gruesome details of the crucifixion.

On the positive side, I still remember a statue of Jesus as the Sacred Heart which stood outside our school. It had the odd heart-outside-the-body typical of sentimental art. But more important: his arms were flung wide in welcome. His hands didn’t hurl thunderbolts, tick off lists of wrongdoing, or brandish law books.

The stance epitomized the insight of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, credited with popularizing devotion to the Sacred Heart. “The divine heart…is an ocean full of joy to drown all our sadness…” When she tried to convince others of this broadly inclusive approach, authorities called her delusional. Indeed, she had made a huge stride forward from 17th century piety, with its emphasis on the externals of religion. (How had they avoided today’s passage from Ephesians, “may Christ dwell in your hearts through faith”?)

The readings for this feast are marked by tenderness, especially the Hosea passage about God as parent helping a young child walk or lifting an infant to brush the cheeks. The gospel reference to blood and water flowing from the side of Jesus is often compared to the gush of fluid when a woman gives birth.

This tone is consistent with fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich’s writing in The Showings about God as mother. “In the sight of God, we do not fall” (p. 222) because we are always graciously enfolded in love. Just as a mother brims with pride in her child, so we too are God’s joy, treasure and delight (p. 228). More on that in another blog; thanks to a Sacred Heart education for the assurance that God can’t not love.

Attention to the Small, Fleeting, and Sweet

In her most recent novel, Payback, Mary Gordon writes of a woman leaving Italy after making it her home for 40 years, and weeping. “She was crying for the passing of dearness. Of those moments in a life that show its goodness, that have nothing to do with, have not the slightest tincture of, greatness. What might pejoratively be called habit. She was crying because never again would she swim in that gentle sea of small pleasures whose repetition is so nourishing.” (p. 169)

Most of us would admit that our lives rarely veer into greatness. But we have an abundance of small pleasures, some rarely appreciated until we lose them. In his keen attention to birds, vines, wheat and wine, Jesus surely knew the value of such goodness. Indeed, he based his teaching on those images rather than doctrines or rules.

So too, if we take inventory, might be astonished by this steady stream, this sturdy fabric that makes up most days. Each will have a personal list of small pleasures, but mine includes: grandchildren’s heads pressed close as we read Harry Potter on the couch under blankets, birds building nests in the hanging baskets of flowers outside my window, the lovely stretch in limbs walking or doing yoga, a pile of new library books, the cushioned oomph of good tennis shoes, a grand-daughter in bikini, sitting on small stool and silently munching cherries, crimson bougainvillea against dove-grey skies, the silken feel of swim on skin, the quiet fidelity of the newspaper delivered to the driveway each morning, tantalizing flavors of ice cream in the freezer, a bouquet of roses whose scent fills the room, a 7-year old helping his 5-year old sister carefully pull her first, loose baby tooth, going unmasked where it’s allowed now, thus feeling unconstrained, like wild public nudity.

The poet Li-Young Lee captures the precious beauty of such brief moments, in “Black Petal”:

   “the unmistakable fragrance

   our human days afford.”

And in “The Well”:

   “our very looking is the light feasting on the light.”

How sad if, valiantly focused on greatness, we were to miss goodness.

Winds of Pentecost

That powerful force, that supple grace of Pentecost wind continues to blow today. The proposed federal legislation I described last week is surely a movement towards justice, designed to help children in poverty, and those left unemployed by the lockdown. So too are efforts at racial justice, reforming the police, using alternate energy sources.

Another event last week speaks of a painful honesty and acceptance. I know nothing more about it than what I read in the newspaper, which reported that Kevin O’Brien, SJ resigned as president of Santa Clara University. While the murkiness surrounding allegations against him lacked transparency and confused many, his response is admirable.

The press picked up on the theme of “how are the mighty fallen.” Four months ago, Fr. O’Brien was presiding at Biden’s inauguration Mass. Apparently the accusations came from Jesuit graduate students–he’d had joking conversations with them over alcohol that were “inconsistent with Jesuit protocols and boundaries.” Aside from the dinner conversations, no inappropriate behavior. The provincial offered him a leave of absence when he could get outpatient treatment for alcohol use and stress management, but he didn’t want to leave the university without leadership for several months. So he resigned.

Many of us who’ve enjoyed cocktail hours and dinners with Jesuits squirmed uncomfortably. How much of our banter which seemed so innocent violated those protocols? (Don’t even know what they are…)  At first I wanted to find a villain, but now I suspect it’s better to focus on the hero. To fail publicly is hard on the Irish; to admit the need for alcohol treatment even worse. Yet O’Brien did both, with courage and grace, in the glaring spotlight. He countered the joking Jesuit motto, “often wrong but never in doubt.”

In a competitive setting where few want to make mistakes, his letter to the university community upheld a fine model: “no matter the success or positions you achieve in life, it is okay to ask for help when you need it, and to allow others to care for you.” His board, faculty and students all spoke highly of him; now he must follow the hard road of apparent failure which for many can hold surprising insights. Maybe there’s more to the story; maybe the full picture won’t emerge for years.

But we can celebrate Pentecost by appreciating the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in our lives, “filling the entire house.” The processes of ordinary living are so fragile, so immensely significant, so fraught with terror, that we desperately need someone beyond ourselves. We all need the warmth and power of the Spirit to help with whatever we undertake.

Starting Spring with Flourish

Sometimes my day starts with a Beethoven Overture, because Why Not? The energy fits the mood. Whatever sacred moments and surprises that day holds should be heralded with beauty and vigor. And this seems a particularly serendipitous season, with vaccination abounding and virus declining. As one wag phrased it, “we’ve gone off leash!” The freedom, joyous reunions and socializing of this year contrast starkly with last, when we were frightened, unsure and home-bound.

On the national front, we can rejoice that Biden’s proposed American Jobs and Family Plans could help many who desperately need it. Private agencies haven’t been able to meet massive demand; the government must intervene on a large scale. Of course, the bill will look different after Congress makes adjustments, but hope springs; we could look forward to humane improvements.

Especially heartening is the president’s effort to cut child poverty in half, the only flaw an expiration date of 2025, which Congress can fix by making it permanent.  As Nicholas Kristof reports in the New York Times (3/24/21), American children ages 1 to 19 are 57 percent more likely to die than children in other rich countries. How can we let such a scandal continue, when we know how to correct it?

Other parts of the proposal would offer community college free to everyone, invest in early childhood education, rebuild the infrastructure and convert to alternate energy sources. Yes, it’s ambitious, but many commentators are comparing Biden’s efforts to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

I learned more about Roosevelt from a documentary, “FDR” shown on Kanopy (free through our local library) by David Grubin, narrated by David McCullough, excerpts available at https://youtu.be/RSzGRC-NNgg. When the country was dispirited by the depression and millions were out of work, President Herbert Hoover didn’t have a clue what to do.

Taking office after him, Roosevelt was up for trying anything—and if it didn’t succeed, try something else. He got people back to work and fired up the economy in the way we need again, post-pandemic. His scope was large, his vision broad—and when he died at only 63, citizens of all ethnicities and income levels lined the train route of his funeral cortege to honor his passing. People don’t need official sanction to recognize blessings in their midst.

We have a similar chance now to invest in the people of the US. It’s incomprehensible why people of faith could even consider turning aside.

***

Appropriate sarcasm: a Texas judge ruled that the NRA could not evade a law suit by filing for bankruptcy (their leader Wayne LaPierre hid on a yacht after the Sandy Hook and Parkland shootings, a luxury not afforded the parents of victims). The response on Twitter couldn’t have been more fitting: to send the NRA “thoughts and prayers” as meaningless as those offered after killings.

Feast of the Ascension—May 13

Imagine filming this gospel: choosing the music, leading actor, supporting cast, setting. It’s high drama: this invoking of authority in heaven and on earth, commissioning of outreach to the whole world, assurance of divine presence in the task ahead. It is a pivotal moment for Christianity, directing the first followers beyond a small mid-eastern sect to a world-wide religion. But as in Shakespeare, there’s something tucked in for the cheap seats too.

The touching combination of those who worship and those who doubt strikes an earthy, human note. Sometimes we have those extremes within the same family, parish—or even within ourselves. Interestingly, Jesus excludes no one; there is no litmus test for those who join him in this “peak” scene. Nor does he qualify his promise to be with us “all the days”: days of anger and disappointment, days of joy and fulfillment, days of treachery and disease, even days of ordinary routine and boring drudgery.

In How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill describes contemporaries who followed Jesus’ command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”: “…a kindly British orphanage in the grim foothills of Peru, a house for the dying in a back street of Calcutta … an easygoing French medical team at the starving edge of the Sahel.” These unheralded heroes answered the call: not to stare at the sky, but to find the Christ in our midst. 

Book Review: The Boundless Compassion Journal

Full disclosure: Joyce Rupp and I have encouraged and endorsed each other’s work for 25 years. Her Foreword to my first book, Hidden Women of the Gospels, was key to its success. I’m in awe of her prolific writing; one could say of her as the psalmist did of God: “how many are your works!” She has always focused on What Matters, and continues to do so in her newest book.

The bouquet of dandelions, carefully held in two hands on the cover, should signal: you’re in for a treat. Those familiar with Joyce Rupp’s writings will find here her trademarks: practical, uplifting spirituality without being too limited to one religious tradition. Her frame of reference is the natural world, leading to suggestions like “draw your tree of compassion,” then wonder at how it’s grown, or a poem about the giggling of brooks, dance of ocean waves, cracks of glaciers, all “Earth’s melodies.”

Humans are wired for compassion; it’s in our DNA. Joyce Rupp helps that natural instinct become more consistent, thoughtful and tender. Her book, The Boundless Compassion Journal comes at a good time in the pandemic lockdown: when we’ve seen so few people outside our small pods, we’ve almost forgotten how to interact well. With practical prompts, relevant questions and inspiring quotes, she helps us be more compassionate. And how many books can boast that?

While much of the work on compassion has been done in the Buddhist tradition, Joyce christens it. This journal can stand alone, or be used with other components of the series, companion resources like Boundless Compassion, the DVD or Prayers of Boundless Compassion.  All of them together make a fragrant bouquet.