A Shot of Hope and Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relics/Sacramentals Today

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

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

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

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

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

Stowaway in the Synagogue

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

“The people were astonished at his teaching…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ritual at Its Best: the Inauguration

While many have written about the uplifting nature of the inauguration, the deep satisfaction of finally having an adult in charge, and the end of the national nightmare, what surprised me was how teary I became at the elegant use of ritual. What can’t be said in words can often speak more eloquently in gesture and symbol when they are carefully used.

Catholics are sticklers for ritual, which can sometimes become rigid and calcified. What we saw in DC last week, however, was the best: dignified, graceful, accessible. It began with the memorial service Tuesday evening. What brilliant use of landmarks that landscape the imagination: the Lincoln Memorial, reflecting pool, Jefferson Memorial beyond it—all at sunset,  with lights to represent the 400,000 dead. Biden wisely kept it simple. A man who knows grief—Beau’s death was only 5 years ago—the president-elect could speak authentically to grieving people. Many were surprised nothing like this had been done before, no prayer nor official mention of the dead. That’s the abyss created by leadership obsessed with itself.

But this was different: the haunting music, followed by the bells of the National Cathedral tolling 400 times, and bells across the nation ringing: in Dallas, New York, Charlestown, San Francisco. We can coordinate when we try—and what a profound, wordless symbol of national mourning.

Despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic and tight  security, the inauguration ceremony  was masterfully orchestrated and beautifully enacted. Contrast the crisp, disciplined presentation of colors, the soul-stirring music with the deadly violence of the mob waving Confederate and Nazi flags (dark symbols) just two weeks before.  I suspect I wasn’t the only one with misty eyes when Kamala Harris entered, escorted by the capitol security guard who had directed the angry thugs away from the legislators. And the unguarded play of emotions across her face as she took the oath—no one needed to repeat that she was making history in that moment.

A slight indication of how moving it was: my son and I, in a condo at Lake Tahoe, gazing out at the magnificent Sierra Nevadas, miles from the action in DC, stood for the national anthem and pledge of allegiance, hands over hearts. So did mothers and daughters, dressed up, watching t.v.s near Berkeley where Harris grew up. Our national rituals can be that compelling. And when the president’s address quotes St. Augustine and includes a moment of silent prayer, it represents the spiritual roots of the country at its finest.

Worn by the long virus, appalled by Trump’s consistent cruelty, plagued by insidious racism, embarrassed internationally, disempowered by lockdown, all people wanted was a little uplift. And they got it: gentle, affirming tones instead of haranguing bigotry, the parallelism of Biden’s speech and cadence of Gorman’s poem. It enabled us to be proud of who we were again, lift our chins a notch higher, knowing we belonged to something better than the last four years.

Wednesday brought that surge we experience when our anthem plays for the Olympic gold medalist.   As a child, I’d belt out the Chevrolet ad: “America’s the greatest land of all.” Then disillusionment set in. But briefly this week, I could almost believe it again.  

Drum Roll for a New Book, Please

As the nation inaugurates a new president, I publish a new book: More Hidden Women of the Gospels. Delayed when presses were shut down by the pandemic, it’s now available for purchase.

The women of the New Testament were a secret treasure I first imagined in Hidden Women Of The Gospels (Orbis Press, 2003, with an earlier edition from Crossroad Publishing, 1996). This book is its sequel and follows a similar pattern. To recreate Biblical women’s stories, I used a “midrash” technique. “Midrashic stories enhance biblical stories, imaginatively filling in blank spaces, expanding on underdeveloped or missing events, or casting them in a contemporary setting or language. Midrash explores the Bible, not through analysis, but through imagination.”

For women who lack an entry to the Bible where all the characters in the story are male, this approach opens doors. Some religious institutions tend to enshrine the Way We’ve Always Done It, and may be slightly rattled to think of beloved Bible figures as feminine. But we know there were women shepherds and servants at the time of Jesus—why not vineyard owners and potters as well? And who isn’t itching to know the imagined story of Zacchaeus’ daughter or Bartimaeus’ wife? What’s another angle on the persistent widow or forgetful bridesmaid of the parables?

No human experience was foreign to Jesus. With his fine sensitivity, he would never ignore nor exclude half the human race. Instead, he shaped his dominant metaphors from women’s experience. He must’ve overheard as a frantic woman thwacked her broom vigorously in search of a coin, or a young girl sobbed because she’d been locked out of the wedding feast. Leaven in dough, patches on cloth, lamps on stands, vines and branches, washing feet and drawing water: all came from the feminine “image bank.” His first female listeners must’ve nodded in agreement, perhaps astonished that someone understood their world.  

Ultimately, the point is not only do these women get Jesus’ message, but do we? The questions provided at the end of each chapter are either for individuals to take ownership of the material  through personal reflection or for book clubs, through group discussion. Bonus resources include women’s monologues useful for retreats, classes, prayer services, homilies or bulletin inserts.

So what are you waiting for? To order, visit the website https://www.orbisbooks.com/spring-2021/ or call:

Robbed

Returning from a hike among majestic redwoods at an Oakland park, I rejoiced that I’d had time to walk after caring for my grandchildren most of the day. I was surprised when my credit card asked me to approve a charge for $600 I hadn’t placed, but denied it and continued on. Until I saw my car: side window bashed in, trunk open, everything there stolen: purse, wallet, eyeglasses, computer, iPad. Thieves had done the same thing to three other cars; according to Next Door reports, they’d been active in the area, robbing many cars that day.

Of course such loss is stunning; I continue to discover what was lost on that computer, and I’ll waste hours on closing bank accounts, changing passwords, getting new credit cards and a driver’s license, all the paraphernalia of identification and complex 21st century life. But I’ve been touched by my family’s help, and the random strangers who’ve expressed sympathy, helped me navigate without money or ID.

But my loss is nothing, compared to how many people have been robbed this year: of life, health, relationships, employment, socializing, travel, mobility, so much of what we took for granted a year ago. Even final goodbyes are impossible. We’ve all seen the heart-breaking farewells as a nurse holds an iPad for a patient and grieving family.

But one loss could have been prevented. The federal government had not executed anyone for 17 years, then in a last spree, Trump arranged 10 until now, and plans 3 more for next week. It’s a blatant violation of Catholic social teaching and basic human decency. Sister Helen Prejean alerted us years ago to this travesty, through her book and the film Dead Man Walking. Since her ground-breaking work, the climate has shifted and a clear majority now oppose the death penalty. She puts it bluntly: we don’t just defend the dignity of human life when it’s attractive or innocent.

She also reminds us that hope is an active verb. President-elect Biden opposes federal executions. To support his stance, we can all sign the petition at https://catholicsmobilizing.org/.

New Years, Lake Tahoe

Turning to the fresh page of a new year, my skis glide over pristine white snow, sparkling with rainbow prisms. All around, a dark corridor of pines frames the path. A brief vacation at Lake Tahoe sets the stage for 2021.

The well-traveled writer Mark Twain called Lake Tahoe “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Few would argue, especially at sunrise and sunset when waters and sky fill with vibrant fuschias and peach-gold tones. A starry carpet stretches across the lake as the scriptures of this season celebrate light conquering darkness. Like pleats unfolding, each peak is touched by dawn, and the bowls between mountains fill with cloud-scarves the color of rose petals.

Such glimpses of the kingdom launch the new year with what naturalist Helen MacDonald in Vesper Flights calls “hymns of slow moving light.”  Being saturated in so much beauty stills the inner voices that clamor for control or whine with anxiety.

It seems more a time for living than for writing, so Twain gets the last word: “If Lake Tahoe does not cure whatever ails you, I’ll bury you at  my own expense.”

Christmas

Just as the overture to a Broadway musical sounds themes that will recur in later songs, so the Prologue to John’s gospel read on Christmas day begins ideas that will be developed later. One that is especially relevant today is how God seeks out human beings, making them God’s own children. Always, God tries to change human darkness into stunning light.

To apply that truth to our own experience, we might reflect on verse 16:  “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” What have been the special graces in our lives, spilling over from God’s fullness? Have we been aware of them, and thankful?

No matter what our worries are: about scarcity or loss, unemployment or loneliness, illness or death, today we try to rest in the fullness of God’s overflowing love. This is a day to focus on the wonder of God becoming human, uplifting us all to be brothers and sisters of Jesus. Isaiah expresses the good news: “the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (52:9). In this case, Jerusalem stands for all of us: redeemed, graced, blessed, joyful.

On this most difficult 2020 Christmas, we see in stunning clarity our need for redemption. Around us, the death, illness and grief mount. Now more than ever, we can identify with the Christ Child: weak, vulnerable, unable to protect himself. If God can share our lot, pitch a tent within us, maybe we can find some glimmer of hope, some sign we’ve not been abandoned?

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Celebrations

At some point, even the most beautiful liturgy and symbol fail to communicate, because God is so much greater than all our efforts. God doesn’t need our feeble attempts in order to communicate God’s self with astonishing clarity. God is greater than Advent wreath and can burst the bonds of any catechism with startling power. But we start with simple, concrete things, because we need to remind ourselves we stand on holy ground. God is revealed in the material, so we look closely: the great unveiling is at hand.

Around the shortest day of the year, December 21, comes radiant illumination: God takes on human sinew and bone, a child’s voice, toenails and wispy hair. No longer is God remote and distant; God bears the human face of Jesus whom we can love. Furthermore, this incarnation makes us all God’s daughters and sons. It’s our birthday too: we are born again and again into a new identity as “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

So our frail Advent candles could also be birthday candles. Furthermore, they hint at larger light: the return of powerful sun, the crashing open of the gates of paradise, spilling wide with voluminous brilliance. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1). God hasn’t forgotten or given up on us, even if everyone else has. Any debt or guilt we may imagine is erased. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her/ that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid” (Isaiah 40:2). What a relief to see the jail door sprung, the prison gate open wide as a grin. And the light within us is even more dazzling.

If we believe that everything in Christ’s life occurs somehow in ours as well, what does God want to bring to birth in us now? If that sounds like a large order, we must remember that for us as for Mary, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (Luke 1:35). God’s elegant initiative, God’s magnificent doing, the creative vitality of One who spun the planets into orbit more than compensates for our limitations.

To those who pooh-pooh Christmas and its attendant commercialism, saying Easter is the greater feast, Richard Rohr counters: “If incarnation is the big thing, then Christmas is bigger than Easter (which it actually is in most Western Christian countries). If God became a human being, then it’s good to be human and incarnation is already redemption. Resurrection is simply incarnation coming to its logical conclusion: we are returning to our original union with God. If God is already in everything, then everything is unto glory!”  (“Incarnation Is Already Redemption,” Friday, June 5, 2015, Center for Action and Contemplation, Cac.org.)

That seems more than enough reason to light all the candles on the Advent wreath.

Third Sunday of Advent: High Expectations

When John the Baptist appeared, “The people were filled with expectation” (Luke  3:15). How splendid if those words could still describe us: open to wonder, chins uplifted, eagerly responding to the words of the Mass, “sursum corda,” “hearts on high!”

This season seems permeated with impossibilities like the dead stump of Jesse budding. Even if we could wrap our minds around the idea of God becoming human, “pitching a tent in us,“ it’s an even longer leap to see ourselves as God’s children, heirs to the divine kingdom. Irish poet John O’Donohue writes of “being betrothed to the unknown.” Christmas means we are also married to the impossible, getting comfortable with the preposterous. It all began with Mary’s vote of confidence: “For nothing is impossible with God.” When we hear Mary’s “Magnificat,” we might remember Elizabeth’s words that precede it: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord will be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).

It’s a good time to ask ourselves, do we let bitterness and cynicism poison our hearts? Ironically, WE are conscious of our own limitations. GOD keeps reminding us of our high calling, royal lineage and a mission so impeccably suited to our talents and abilities, no one else in the world can do it. Again, Mary is the perfect model. She might not understand half the titles given her son in the “Alleluia Chorus” of the “Messiah.” Mighty God? Prince of Peace? Such language is better suited to a royal citadel than a poor village named Nazareth.  While her questions are natural, she never wimps out with “I don’t deserve this honor.” Instead, she rises to the occasion.

What’s become of our great dreams? Have we adjusted wisely to reality, or buried ideals in a tide of cynicism? Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle more with good news than with bad? If these questions make us squirm, perhaps we need the prayer of Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB: “God help me believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.”

Remember that the adult Jesus hung out with some unsavory characters: crooks and curmudgeons, loudmouths and lepers, shady ladies and detested tax guys. In his scheme of things, our virtue trips us up more than our sin. The ugly stain of self-righteousness blocks our path to God more than natural, human failures.  Limited as we know ourselves to be, we might ask ourselves the question raised by novelist Gail Godwin, “who of us can say we’re not in the process of being used right now, this Advent, to fulfill some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it?” (“Genealogy and Grace” in Watch for the Light. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004, 167)

So the “Gaudete” or Joyful Sunday represented by the pink candle invites us to forget our lame excuses (Oh not me! I got C’s in high school, I can’t tweet or sing on key, I’ve always been shy, blah, blah, blah) and come to the feast, join in the dance. To put it in the simple terms of “Happy Talk,” a song from “South Pacific”: “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”