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 ordinary days? Through health care workers, kind friends, relatives who don’t tire of our cranky moods or repeated stories?

Film Review: “Parallel Mothers”

Ash Wednesday arrives next week, and Lenten reflections will start the following weekend.  Beforehand, the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has recently released a thought-provoking film that deserves notice.

“Parallel Mothers,” set in Madrid, stars Penelope Cruz as Janis, an unmarried photographer who becomes pregnant accidentally, and crosses paths with a 17-year old single mom in the hospital maternity ward. That story becomes a bit melodramatic, more interesting for its intersections with the larger story: uncovering the horrors of the Franco regime.

Janis’ great-grandfather was brutally murdered and buried with his friends in a mass grave; she asks the forensic anthropologist Arturo to help the families of her village put some closure to their grief and find remains to bury with loved ones. When this finally happens and the skeletons are exposed, it’s a moving scene.

The families, a small army of women, some holding pictures, some crying, arrive at the grave site like a community of remembrance. Arturo says, “we will withdraw now. It’s your moment.” As he and his crew step back, these ordinary villagers stand like a monument to the Bible verse “love is stronger than death” (Song of Solomon 8:6). Another ending quotation pays tribute to the fact that no one, despite their best efforts to suppress, can erase history.

How do the two stories relate? Perhaps the first story of the two mothers is a holon, defined as being whole within itself, yet also part of something larger. The symbolic links to the communal story are the repetition of mouth-swabbing DNA tests to establish identities, and the use of cameras, not only Janis’ profession, but a record of the fascist atrocities.

As Leah Greenblatt’s review says in Entertainment Weekly, the film is “chaotically and improbably plotted,” but nonetheless a “freighted tale of memory and identity.” A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times adds, “Injustice festers across generations. The failure to confront it casts a persistent, ugly shadow.” In our time and place as well as in mid-20th century Spain.

“Anxious People” Film Review

The title of this Netflix series might first seem to refer to the people we’ve become and who surround us during COVID. The experts say that rates of mental illness are soaring, and those who were nervous or edgy before the pandemic have gotten worse.

But this film isn’t depressing; indeed, it’s the kind of parable about forgiveness that Jesus would’ve told, or liked. The theme is similar to that of another film by director Felix Herngren, “A Man Called Ove”: Ordinary people undergo dramatic transformation.

A group of eight strangers are caught up in a hostage situation when a robber ruins a chance at a bank, and instead takes over an apartment open house. Why they’re all there reveals their underlying stories and subsequent plot twists. Somehow, it strikes the perfect balance of goofy humor and poignance.

We begin with the cops, a father-son team who are laughably incompetent, deeply human. Perhaps in Sweden where this film is set, the police don’t have such a bad reputation, but it’s a good reminder to North Americans that ours are human too. When the emergency announcement of the bank robbery comes, the younger one, Jack is getting his hair cut; he dashes out and tries to proceed heroically with clips in his hair, half trimmed and half long. We smile benignly and admire his youthful gusto. 

As the story unfolds, the humanity of each character emerges. The bank robber, it turns out, isn’t a hardened criminal, but simply a desperate human. (No more clues—don’t wanna spoil.) When the older cop Jim, delivering pizza to the hostages, hears the robber’s story, he becomes an ally.

As do the other inadvertent heroes/hostages, who devise a clever way to protect their nemesis-turned-friend. Without wrecking the plot, let’s just say it’s a tale of redemption. By the end several key characters have huge burdens lifted off their shoulders. One banker who thought she was guilty of a man’s suicide early in the film because she denied him a loan, finds out otherwise. Anna Lena confesses to her husband that she really hates IKEA and his remodeling efforts. And Estella, lonely in a big apartment after the deaths of her husband and son, rediscovers a family to fill it. Even the bumbling cops, distraught by their daughter’s/sister’s drug addiction, reach a reconciliation with her and each other. Jack discovers there are more important human values than solving a crime—like preserving a family.  

Dorothy Stang—d. 2/12/05

Dorothy Stang’s story has all the attributes of a folk tale, so let’s tell it that way. First, the setting(s). In Brazil, less than 3% of the population owns 2/3 of arable land. Displaced farm workers can’t find jobs in the city, so the government grants them land in the northeast, the last frontier. However, loggers and ranchers consider the Amazon their domain. They burn poor settlements, sell valuable timber, then use land for grazing cattle (to supply our McDonald’s!) The consequent loss of the rain forest is tragic. Some call it “the lungs of the planet.” As it shrinks, global warming increases.

It’shard to imaginea place more distant from the Amazon than Dayton, Ohio. Young Dorothy Stang lives here, her backyard a model of organic gardening, because her father is a chemical engineer. She learns composting and the dangers of pesticides. In a typical 1948 story, she becomes a Sister of Notre Dame and teacher. You expect her to become a benevolent nun who dies of old age in a quiet convent, right? That’s when her story gets interesting.

Our heroine volunteers for Brazil when her order calls for missionaries. In the 70’s she accompanies families to Para, bordering the rain forest, where they’ve been given land. Sr. Dorothy organizes people into co-ops: they learn about crop rotation, read the Bible and worship with music and dance. (Because priests are rare, she becomes the “shepherd.”)

When her people are attacked, she tells them brusquely to quit crying and start rebuilding. Her car, an old VW Beetle, wobbles over bridges with rotting planks. For her people, she travels to Brasilia and camps out at government offices. When officials deny receiving her letters, she finds them in their files. Persistenty, she asks for protection of poor farmers, but nothing is done.

Here’s the amazing part—she keeps this up for 38 YEARS. Dorothy starts fruit orchards with women and projects for sustainable development. The Brazilian Bar Association names her “Humanitarian of the Year” in 2004.

Enter the villains. The ranchers hire gunmen who shoot her six times on February 12, 2005. Dorothy doesn’t run, cower, or plead for her life, as most folks would, when she sees the gun. Instead she pulls out her Bible and reads the Beatitudes aloud.

Despite her brutal murder, her model continues to resonate. Without much in the way of institutional church, she finds God in the green canopy of trees, the cathedral of forest.

She asks the right questions: not narrow denominational or territorial concerns, but “How do we preserve the earth’s treasures? How do we empower God’s beloved people?” She reminds that we all need the large stage of the natural world. When we lose our sacred connection to the earth, we’re stuck with small selves and petty concerns. Her wonder at the miracle of the rain forest’s resilience is contagious.

Her brother David explains, “she was so in love with what she was doing, she didn’t notice her dirt floor, primitive plumbing or no electricity.”

As the population ages, Dorothy is patron saint for slow butterflies and reluctant caterpillars. She didn’t remain captive to her traditional upbringing. Vivacious and feisty, she tried new things, journeyed to new places. Her face is so youthful, it’s hard to think of her as 73. She could’ve hunkered safely into the retirement center, counted her wrinkles and monitored her ailments—as some elders do. Instead, she pours the wisdom of her experience into service of poor Brazilians.

Finally, she models innovation in the church. Brazil’s tremendous needs for ministry can’t be restricted by gender-defined roles. It didn’t much matter if Dorothy was male or female, ordained or not. What DID matter, burningly, was “no greater love than this–to give one’s life for one’s friends.”

Similar material has appeared in Kathy’s book When the Saints Came Marching In (Liturgical Press, 2015) and a “Wise Guides” feature in US Catholic.

A Cure for the February Blahs

In her newest collection of essays, These Precious Days, the novelist Ann Patchett writes about the children’s author Kate DiCamillo. Each of her books, Patchett believes, is an elegantly crafted jewel—which can be read in an evening! I followed her model and began a DiCamillo binge, which has been richly rewarded.

The adult characters tend to be clueless, sunk in their own misery, or absent. (For example: Raymie’s dad ran off with the dental hygienist and Sistine’s with his secretary who can’t type. Rob’s father hit him so hard, dad ripped his jacket sleeve—because the boy cried at his mother’s funeral.) Given that pattern, the reader can focus on the children, who are all deeply hurt but magnificent.

Raymie, 10-year old heroine of Raymie Nightingale has the profound insight that “we are all heartbroken.” Nevertheless, she bands together with two other girls from baton class to right what wrongs they can. (A clue to their pathos: her friend Louisiana gets excited about going to Raymie’s home, asking eagerly, “will there be dinner?” Although meals aren’t a regular occurrence for the child, hunger doesn’t dim her pluck. When the filling station manager offers her a free pack of peanuts, she takes eighteen.) All three girls, for various reasons, want to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest, (DiCamillo wryly delights in southern shlock) but they don’t let competition overshadow an alliance that leads to a small, satisfying triumph.

How could anyone resist the opening sentence of The Tiger Rising? “That morning, after he discovered the tiger, Rob went and stood under the Kentucky Star Motel sign and waited for the school bus just like it was any other day.” The caged tiger, we discover, symbolizes the wounded children’s emotions stuffed tightly into locked suitcases. His new friend Sistine (yup, named for the chapel) is filled with anger as he is with grief. But she can recite the Blake poem, and he can deftly carve wood. Within one hundred twenty-one pages, they reach a healing which is neither contrived nor gimmicky, but springs from natural, limited human efforts. (Though Sistine does recognize Willie May, a motel maid, the only adult they can confide in, as a “prophetess.”) Despite the tiger’s death, the reader ends with a comforting sense of closure and new beginnings. No wonder it was a finalist for the National Book Award.

The Magician’s Elephant could be a theological parable of grace and redemption. Ten-year old Peter lives with a crazy, abusive soldier who has always told him that his little sister Adele is dead. But when Peter gets the first hint that might not be true, he follows an arduous path, people by colorful characters, to discover her. Not to spoil the plot: when he finds her alive, he carries her as if he could do so forever. Even when she leaves the room for a brief time, he’s elated by her return. The author earns the insight that could’ve come from John’s gospel: “she was struck with a peculiar feeling of having been well and truly seen, having at last been found and saved.” As Meister Eckhart and other contemplatives have taught, we are truly seen in God’s gaze, the only one that matters. We rejoice because we are finally found.

As a child, I’d sometimes leave the library with utter glee because my arms were full of books. I felt the same way after scooping up the DiCamillo offerings at our local library. And blessings abound—I’ve got three more to read!

The Power of a Quiet Voice

Tired. The “up-with-sick-kids-for-three-nights-running” or the “36-hour-flight-through-nine-time-zones” kinda tired. Where even an airplane tray table or a boat cushion looks like a comfy pillow. That’s how tired Jesus was. And the dis­ciples take him along, “just as he was.”

The Gospel brings to mind a Fr. Greg Boyle story. The founder of Homeboy Industries, Fr. Boyle was saying Mass in prison. The inmates did the readings; one proclaimed, “God is exhausted.” The original said, “God is exalted.” But what a felix culpa, “happy fault”! We can connect with a God as exhausted as we are.

It gets better. Jesus is so relaxed, undefended, at one with the water, that he doesn’t notice his toes getting wet. He doesn’t blame nature as the enemy and cause of plague and disaster, or try to dominate it with machinery, behavior that’s created our current ecological crisis. Instead, he understands the mystery of a wave being a wave, and shows utter ease, stilling it. It’s not a clever party trick; knowing that nothing is outside the divine, Jesus engages calmly with what Zorba the Greek called “the full catastrophe.”

Jesus views the sea as sanctuary. Seeing water metaphori­cally, Nathan calls forth the divine wellspring in David, “just as he was.” The prophet trusts that a poignant story will tickle the king’s best self—rage at injustice, even if he committed it. We too—sleepy, missing the mark, “just as we are”—par­ticipate in the larger story. Can we believe that every particle of nature and ourselves is saturated in God? Subversive, that sacred knowledge.

This meditation on the readings of January 29 appears in the January 2022 issue of Give Us This Day, www.giveusthisday.org (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2022). Used with permission.

Stowaway in the Synagogue

(Luke 4:14-30)

This imagined version of today’s gospel from a different viewpoint goes slightly further into the narrative than the verses proclaimed in many churches.

Of course, girls weren’t allowed in the inner parts of the synagogue where the action was, especially that day when our town was turning out for the local boy. The rumors had circulated around Nazareth, over cooking fires and wells, as women hung out laundry and men gathered for long conversation. Not much happened here in this sleepy backwater, so excitement was high. I wasn’t going to miss the biggest event of the year. All I had to do was 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. That had to mean me! And a promise that blind people, like my neighbor Sarah who was always so kind, would see? I avoided the jails in town—terrible places of iron bars, revolting smells, and somewhere lurking in the darkness, evil people. But even they would go free?

It unleashed a torrent of questions in my mind. Would this small man who from a distance looked so ordinary, start a revolution? Everyone stared at him in a hushed silence. I longed to be my cousin Ben, to whom he’d handed the scroll. Even an attendant got near the center of this whirlwind, which began with praise for gracious words.

But then why would he anger them? The challenge that followed—was it intended to weed out the looky-loos, those in the audience just there for a thrill to break the boredom that day? He reminded my people of those beyond Israel, to whom God had been kind. The nerve of God—sending Elijah to a widow in Sidon, or Elisha by-passing all the good Jewish lepers, and curing Naaman the Syrian. I suppose we knew the stories, but banished them to the margins, rarely ever aired them this publicly. Small and weak, we wanted assurance that we were the chosen people, with a special claim on God, and this teacher rubbed our noses in the fact that God had a larger view of humanity. As if God had created all?

Then the grumbling began, like thunder moving through distant hills, but growing louder in intensity and venom. The tide of self-righteous people that propelled Jesus out of the synagogue and towards a cliff was so strong, I got caught up in it. My mop lost in the swirl, no one seemed to notice a girl in the crowd.

I was terrified of peering down that hillside, dreading the heap I’d see at the bottom. But the most amazing thing happened. How could one man survive against so many bent on his destruction? When he “vanished into their midst,” I felt his shoulder brush mine. Ah—so that’s where he went! Like me, he took advantage of chaos and blended in. And there in our midst, somehow, is where he belongs and where he’ll always be. He left us with a mystery better than all the certain answers I’d ever heard.

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

A Servant at Cana

The weekend of January 15-16, some Christian denominations will hear this reading from John 2:1-11

My toes curled, I tell you.

Watching burgundy sheen

lapping the limpid water,

tinting the stone. A blush

warmed my own limbs.

There’d been commotion,

a woman’s voice so earnest

I hurried: not the usual crisis.

The steward clueless as always.

Before he even tasted, I knew:

this was good stuff. Now I

extend my empty glass,

yearning for your wine.

Color my diluted days again.

If water glows like ruby, so can I.

In my world, being a woman AND a servant was the double whammy. Long, exhausting days faded numbly into each other, each identical to the last. No wonder we anticipated a wedding, even though it meant more work. At a wedding banquet, people who never feasted got to eat more than they’d ever dreamed. Even we servants sneaked more food. From a meager diet, we plunged into seven days of eating. For once, we all felt full.

Slogging heavy stone jars, I simply cursed the weight of 120-180 gallons of water. My aching arms were stiff, but the woman’s voice I overheard in the crowd was unique. She didn’t speak loudly, but the force of her conviction was powerful. Usually I’d question—she was just an ordinary guest–but something mysterious compelled me to follow her words: “Do whatever he tells you.” What had she said to her son, or he to her?

What force of his hand shifted the color in the water jar? Was he an artist? A magician? I had no idea, but still: crazy-hopeful, I sneaked a ladle-full. That unexpected wine surpassed anything I’ve ever tasted!

Sipping it, I understood for the first time what the rabbis had always taught. Marriage was a symbol of the relationship between Israel and God. I’d always loved the promise God made through Isaiah of rich food and well-aged wines (Isa. 25:6). I could picture it because I’d served a few of those feasts. But I never thought I was invited to the banquet.

Now with incomparable deliciousness filling my mouth, I thought: God chose me. From the beginning of time, God sought me like a bride. Always God’s compassionate hand had reached towards me. Maybe it was through a friend, or an angle of light as I walked home after a long day. Maybe it was morning energy after exhaustion, or my reliable good health. My name means “green herb,” and I felt the vital juice running through me. Words couldn’t capture my awe, but water-turned-wine could. This odd intoxication wasn’t the usual drunk. It lasted long.

Life afterwards became dull again, the daily trudge repeated endlessly, grueling hand-to-mouth survival with no relief in sight. But I would remember how the colorless water became effervescent. I’d carry that taste within.  

Just when I thought I might be getting used to this radical about-face attitude, a friend told me a story from that surprising wedding guest, whose name I learned later: Jesus. He shocked people when he told the story of the servants being served (Lk. 12: 35-40). This man seemed to have an odd affinity with us bottom-of-the-heap sorts. A master acting as a servant? The rumors even said he called himself a servant. Almost as if God cared about folding sheets and blankets or mopping the mess on the floor! Maybe it’s not so startling. Jesus also said only the “little ones” get it (Mt.11:25). Couldn’t get much littler than me!

Now, after that dramatic shift of water-into-wine, I don’t feel so belittled and denied. I can picture an endless series of rooms opening up, each doorway marked “yes.” I walk nobly through the arches, sipping a glass of That Wine. Strong and confident, I wonder what powerful effect this stranger’s had on me. When the rabbis or my boss tell me I’m evil and filled to the brim with putrid sin, I close my eyes for a minute and return to the taste of loveliness that better shows who I most truly am.

Was the wine in his words? It’s as if he said, “I don’t want you to ever feel small again.”

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

Jesus’ Baptism

Scholars say that the mythic elements in today’s story– the sky opening, the voice of God, the descent of the dove—are common to spiritual experiences in many religious traditions. What makes Jesus’ unique?

Even in more ordinary circumstances, he remained attuned to the source of that experience: to God his father. Whether he was engaged in hot debate, confronting hideous disease, or teaching in the marketplace, Jesus didn’t forget that voice, that spectacular affirmation. He acted always as God’s beloved child. Furthermore, he saw everyone else through that same lens—no matter how cantankerous, sick, or stupid they were.

Do we? When doing dishes or driving, do we remember we are precious? Confronting a crisis, do we carry into it the same qualities that have gotten us this far: our courage, strength or skill? When we’re angry, mistaken, rejected, exhausted, ill, betrayed, depressed, unemployed, or told we’re worthless, does that sense of affirmation rise up within? 

What God said to Jesus, God says to us: “you are my dearly beloved child. I’m pleased with you.” That should matter more than all the applause or awards in the world. And we should in turn hear that same description of everyone we meet.

This experience marks a pivotal point for Jesus: he emerges from it energized and inspired for his public ministry. Even in the long desert days, he must hear the echoes of that voice. When we’re tempted to focus on the criticisms, we could turn instead with joy to that life-giving praise.

Epiphany: “Welcome, Everyone!”

It’s not over yet. Sad to take down the Christmas decorations, but three lights still burn bright: the feasts of Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord and Wedding at Cana.

Long before Jesus preached inclusivity, Mary practiced it. Imagine being the mother of a newborn, exhausted from a trip to register for the census in Bethlehem. Then picture giving birth in a stable, which was probably not as cozy and clean as most Christmas cards depict. Mary is far away from her support system, so she can’t rely on her mother, sisters or friends for help. No casseroles, no baby blankets. 

Then, according to Luke, a crowd of shepherds arrives. They must be strangers, but there is no record of Mary feeling uncomfortable with these uninvited guests. Instead, she “treasures” the memories and is filled with gratitude. Matthew’s account of the magi doesn’t mention Mary’s response, but she must have wondered: how many more strangers would crowd into their temporary housing? These surprising visitors aren’t even Jewish–and bring the strangest gifts. 

Mary’s experience should give us fair warning. If we hang around with Jesus, we’d better keep our doors open. He brings along an odd assortment of friends. They may not bring frankincense or myrrh, but they arrive unexpectedly when there are only two pork chops for dinner. They come disguised as the children’s friends or the lonely neighbor who talks too long while the rolls burn. They phone at the worst possible times and they interrupt our most cherished plans. And in these, says Jesus, you’ll find me. This feast seems to celebrate James Joyce’s description of the Catholic church: “here comes everybody!”