Sunday, March 26, 2017

2017.03.26 Hail Mary/Ave María

Dios te salve María, llena tu eres entre todas las mujeres. El Señor es contigo. Bendita tu eres entre todas las mujeres y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre Jesus. Santa María madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora ye en la hora de nuestra muerte. AMEN  

(Hail May, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb: Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. AMEN.)

Congratulations on your big moment, Mary: March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation (Luke 1) when the angel told you you were to be pregnant—with God, no less—and you said OK, adding a few questions of your own.  Good woman!

And congratulations to me as I remember the 29th anniversary of my priestly ordination on March 25th, 1988. Mary’s day in ancient times—and mine in 1988. We share.

I first learned to say the "Hail Mary" in Spanish when I spent a summer with a very pious family in Santander, Spain. In 1960, Santander was a smallish fishing town in northern Spain. Now it is my bank. I love the connection, and, despite complaints about questionable banking practices, I will never change banks. Nor will I ever forget Spain, the cradle of my devotion to Mary. I lived with a family who said prayers every single night. The Señora would clap her hands loudly like two small shofars, and we would all come running—for our food, yes, but first for our prayers. 

Lucia Perillo, who wrote this poem to Mary, was known for her humor and being shaped by living with multiple sclerosis. She was born in New York City in 1958 and died in 2016. I find her humor most attractive, because it does not attempt to hide truth but rather expose it. Perillo was a Pulitzer finalist, a blythe spirit. May she rest in peace and make angels laugh with her as they pray.
HAIL MARY

The worst of it was the fruit of thy womb business,
through which the boys muddled in pig-latin sniggers
but being a girl you thought of plums, then grapefruit,
a catalog whose offerings led incrementally
to the one in school who’d gotten breasts,
her mother alky and her dad a pencil mark rubbed out.
After the bell rang she bundled her sadness
and walked it home in her serious coat,
the kind of girl who carried an umbrella, whose socks
defied the gravitational tug. And if other prayers
had someone offstage fumbling sheet metal, this one
made the woof of a broom swatting a rug,
a rhythmic thump below the scream
of the laundry tree she sent off on its wheel
around the backyard like a minor angel
flapping underpant-and-towel wings.
Someday she’d get pregnant by the shy and not-
unhandsome captain of the variety baseball team
without even getting a bad rep; everyone knew
they’d marry quick and he’d die slow
from all those years of Red Man packed behind his lip.
But she wouldn’t have loved him if there wasn’t something
about him to work on; you know the type:
you loved her, you hated her
for ruling your life as penmanship queen,
and you wanted to be her friend except you knew
beside her you’d be dirt. As far as Hailing Mary,
all you wanted to do was get through its last word,
though everyone knew this death was second-rate.
A man-god could get you bread or heaven, but pray
to a woman and all you got was prayed for in return.

    Lucia Perillo, Luck Is Luck. Poems. Random House, 2005


Red Man, in case you didn’t know, which I didn’t, is chewing tobacco. But if you don’t pick the poem apart too much, which is a great temptation because you want to understand it, you get the full picture of a Roman Catholic girl trying to make good as she tries to grow more than breasts and wombs in a patriarchal world and Church full of Mary-Hailing. 

I was a Protestant girl of twenty-one in Spain, also trying to grow more than breasts and wombs while ingesting Catholicism on steroids—too much and never enough. I found a woman who prayed for me.

Yes, Perillo is right: when you pray to a woman all you get is prayed for in return. I will take it with gratitude and affection. Gracias, María, and all women who pray with open heart and blessed intention. I will pray back.




Sunday, March 19, 2017

2017.03.19 The Loveliness of the Sow

"To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment."

Contemporary American poet Galway Kinnell, born in 1927 in Providence, R.I., said this. Kinnell, I first surmised, was Irish—I suppose because of the name Galway, which makes me think of the virtuoso flutist James Galway who is Irish, from Belfast, and sometimes know as “the man with the golden flute.”  Although our Kinnell was a New Englander, ending up in Vermont, where he died in Sheffield in 2015, and in which he was Poet Laureate from 1989-1993.

Kinnell also said: “Never mind. The self is the least of it. Let our scars fall in love.”


The quote about poetry being someone standing up and saying what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment brought to mind the biblical story (John 4:5-42) about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the town pump, so to speak. Jews and Samaritans were arch rivals, having very distinct religious practices. Nevertheless, the Jew and the Samaritan in this biblical story, made a kind of poetry with their theological conversation—debate really.

Jesus stood up with little concealment before a woman from whom he wanted a drink of well water. To her, a foreigner, a divorcée many times over, or perhaps a widow, and a woman whose religion and ethnicity the Jews did not countenance, Jesus revealed who he was on earth at that moment: the Christ of God with access to Eternal Life aka, “living waters,” and the slaking of all thirst forever.

The woman, for her part, likewise stood up with no concealment before Jesus in total honesty about her situation—not precisely sinful by today’s standards, but not exactly stable either, being on her sixth intimate relationship, this time with a man not her husband. Yet she was truthful, open, and theologically astute in her perceptions of this Jew. Jesus took due note.

And the poet takes due note of the loveliness of one of the most maligned creatures in God’s array of critters: the sow. St Francis blessed and beheld ever living thing as sacred. So must we.


Saint Francis And The Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath
them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

© 1980 by Galway Kinnell  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

2017.03.12 Life's Blood—Born and Born again and Again

God, I feel sure, has many wombs. One is the baptismal font. Womb-like, it evokes birth and is filled with water, which breaks when we emerge. We are sealed by baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

Another is the womb of Earth, the planet we call our island home. From it we derive all our nourishment and a full supply of water and air for Life. We cannot sustain biological life without this womb. It must be born again and again. Too often we take it for granted and abuse its rich yield— to our peril and to our shame.

Another womb is the womb of Incarnation: the womb of our own flesh out of which we birth God’s life over and over again. We live in this womb all our life, and each time we connect with enlivening feelings, we are born again. 

Finally, there is the womb of the tomb. From that womb, God births us back into Life forever in God’s own soul.

Here are two poems that bring the mystical experience of being born— and born again—down to  flesh and blood and embodying divinity at once. Both are by the Rev. Regina Walton, a colleague, poet, and Episcopal priest in the diocese of Massachusetts. Regina is the author of The Yearning Life. Poems 2016, Paraclete Press. With her permission and with gratitude, I share these poems.


AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL POEM

I started out small
And got smaller.
Loved, humiliated, self-enclosed.

Some days lifting up my hands,
Others carrying my cross
where my shoulders meet spine.

I was knit together,
And know I’ve knit someone else
Thoughtlessly

Not that it happened without a thought,
But surely
It wasn’t the thoughts that did it.

I bled out when he arrived,
So they filled me back up
With the blood of another.

Now I am the same
By half.
Thank you


FIRST DAY
   
The baby: hale and pink and strong and fine.
But beached and bleached, you are much less sanguine
And so, two pints of blood by plastic line
Leach their slow way into your opened vein.
The scarlet bags like lungs suspended from
The scarecrow pole, unwanted hanger-on
This trinity: child, mater, sire gone
To sleep in a hard chair.

                                     Now the bald sum
Of all your pains naps in a plastic bin.
Your web of tubes a tether to the bed;
The buzzing, ringing, beeping, healing din.
Who thought, on your first day, who expected
So soon, to find so much of yourself gone?
In time, you will get used to being wrong.



from Songs for the Cycle by Michael Hudson.

. . .Seek to grow as all things grow
and trust what grace assumes—
That time will manifest the Life
Received within the womb.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

2017.03.05 Steadfast Love

I, having loved ever since I was a child a few things, never
        having wavered
In these affections; never through shyness in the houses of the
        rich or in the presence of clergymen· having denied these
        loves;
Never when worked upon by cynics like chiropractors having
        grunted or clicked a vertebra to the discredit of these
        loves;
Never when anxious to land a job having diminished them by
        a conniving smile; or when befuddled by drink
Jeered at them through heartache or lazily fondled the fingers
        of their alert enemies; declare
That I shall love you always.
No matter what party is in power;
No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied
        interests wins the war;
Shall love you always.

"Modern Declaration" by Edna St. Vincent Millay from Selected Poems. © Yale University Press, 2016.
My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night, but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light!

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1852-1950) was born in Rockland Maine. Her mother raised three daughters on her own, after asking her husband to leave when Vincent, as Edna preferred to be called, was a child of seven. She was a tomboy who loved to write poetry. Her poem “Renascence” won a prize in a contest and earned her a scholarship to Vassar.

After graduation from college she moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village where she lived in a one-foot wide attic and wrote anything she thought an editor would publish. She and other writers were, according to Millay, “very very poor, and very very merry.” From her experience, and others like her I suppose, we get the romantic stereotype of the starving artist in the garret. At least we know these artists were merry.

Millay was openly bisexual and wrote a lot about female sexuality and feminism. In 1923 she won a Pulitzer for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Millay, openly bisexual, married a widower Eugen Boissevain, a self-proclaimed feminist. They lived like two bachelors. Today we’d call it an open marriage. He died in 1949; she died in 1950.

Intense romantic love comes like a godsend and excites. To me the best kind of love is one that is steadfast—through thin and thin— something like the way the Bible describes divine love. Love is essential to human well being. There is nothing more glorious or soul-quenching than love. By its lack, love is soul-starving. Love is elusive and indescribable, though it is not fickle. Poets and profaners through the ages have tried to capture love in words. Glimpses must suffice.

Millay get to the eternal quality of love in her poem. She does not limit her affections to one  person but to just a “few things” all of which she will love always. This sounds impersonal yet the never-waveringness she describes is true love. It does give a lovely light.



Sunday, February 26, 2017

2017.02.26 Poetry Review: Setting the Mood for Lenten Reflections

I plan to post a poem or two each Sunday during Lent to signal the season and also to remind myself and others that the gift of good poetry is that is gets to the heart and soul of an idea with perfect words and not much persiflage……………  I begin with this review to kick off the season. 

It’s All God, Anyway. Poetry for the Everyday
   by Jennifer (Jinks) Hoffmann
2016, Wipf and Stock, Resource Publications


Jinks Hoffmann’s everyday poetry is the perfect mix of earthen and mystical. As I read Hoffmann's poems I was reminded of Jewish memoirist Etty Hillesum’s wisdom about scraping raw reality down to the bone before one can dare to be mystical.

Jinks Hoffmann is a spiritual director and the poetry editor of Presence, an International Journal of Spiritual Direction. She was born in South Africa and has lived in Canada with her husband Alan, to whom she dedicates this collection. The poems are organized into five sections: A Way of Being in the World, Mysticism, The Work, Family and Friends, and Roots> The collection is like a psalter—intimate and profound enough to sit on my bedside table.

Etta Hillesum died at Auschwitz on 30 November, 1943 at the age of twenty-nine. She wrote: “I am sometimes afraid to call a spade a spade. Because nothing will then be left to the imagination? No, things ought to be called by their proper name. If they can’t stand it, then they have no right to be. We try to save so much in life with a vague sort of mysticism. Mysticism must rest on crystal-clear honesty, can only come after things have been stripped down to their naked reality.” (An Interrupted Life, Diaries 1941-1943)

Hoffmann and Hillesum are spiritual soul sisters. In Hoffmann’s words: “Everything is God: sunsets and a baby’s death; the stillness of a mist-clad lake at dawn and a hurricane; joy and gratitude, grief and despair; kindness and ‘schmutz’ (messy humanity).”
Hillesum
Hoffmann
Reading Hoffman's  poetry, I experienced the deeply sacred quality of all life—with no overt religious doctrine or academic aridity. Like writing, prayer, and the keen observation of minute details revealed in their varied elaborations, Hoffmann’s poetry exposes the profound oneness of all life—and all religions, in fact.

To my delight, I learned many Hebrews words—one of them schmutz, a perfect descriptor of the human condition without reference to sin.  That there are seventy-two names for God in Hebrew delighted me.  And we Christians are picked on for having a mere three?  “Love” is the name Hoffmann uses to address God, as in: what now, my Love?

She does not mean, or imply, that God causes everything that happens, but rather that everything that happens and exists is in God. God is transcendent and also intimate. Is this a particularly female perspective? Maybe, yet it reminds me of the biblical Paul’s insight: “In God we live and move and have our being.” This is what Hoffmann’s superbly crafted poetry accomplishes.

The best way to get myself out of the way and let Hoffmann’s poetry speak for itself is to share a poem, my personal favorite.

 I Don’t Believe in God.

My wife complains a lot.
Mind you, two small children,
my working all those hours,
I don’t blame her. Once,
I was driving along the Don Valley,
and a mattress was laying
right in the middle of the road.
I guess the young men driving
the other car didn’t learn
good knots in Boy Scouts.
Mind you, I shouldn’t talk.
My parents couldn’t send me
to Scouts. I needed to help
in the store. I’ve done better
than they did. I almost own
this cab. When they came
from Pakistan they had nothing.
They don’t have much, even now.

It was a bad winter this year.
Lots of snow. Icy too.
Once my car slid all over
the highway and ended up
in the opposite direction.
I don’t believe in God, but something
saved me. My passengers too.
They were nice, didn’t yell or shout
or anything. My parents came to Canada
with nothing. Look at me now.
A Wife. Two kids. She complains
a lot. It’s hard with small kids.
I get to work seven days a week.
Almost own this cab. Sometimes
I even bring Swiss Chalet
home for a treat. Maybe God
believes in me.


You see what I mean. Buy this book, available on Amazon the “almighty” or from the publisher Wipf and Stock, my own publisher.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

2017.02.19 HIstory on Trial

Recently we watched an intriguing—also superbly well done—movie called “Denial.”  It sounds as if it’s about addiction or the common and dangerous psycho-emotional defense called denial, however that is only true secondarily. 

“Denial” in a 2015 film about a legal trial which took place in the UK in 1996 in which David Irving, an historical writer filed a libel suit against American history professor (Emory University) Deborah Lipstadt and her British publisher Penguin Books for publishing the British edition of Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust, first published in the US in 1993. Lipstadt called Irving a Holocaust denier, falsifier and bigot, and said that he manipulated and distorted real documents. Irving fought back with the libel suit.
The fascinating dynamics of this trial are the subject of the movie. We have watched it twice, each time marveling at the intricacies of the British legal system in which the accused is guilty until proven innocent. In our American legal system the accused is innocent till proven guilty. This assumption has always seemed ethically right-minded to me, yet seeing another system work justice from such a different starting point kept me riveted—in awe and admiration really, especially watching the attorney and an on-high judge in all those top heavy white wigs.

Another difference is that the UK court has two attorneys, specialists, simultaneously at work representing one defendant. The solicitor is the attorney who, with a team of able trainees, researches the data on the case, gathering relevant data to use to prepare the case. The other attorney is the barrister—the one who actually tries the case in court. This latter is the one with sharp legal skills, a steel trap mind, eloquence and calm persuasive presence under stress.

These differences alone make this movie worth watching. What is on display at all times is the value of teamwork, each member, including the defendant herself, bringing individual gifts and passions to the same case for one purpose alone: to win.

Some of the questions raised seemed eccentric but are tragically relevant today: what IS a fact anyway? What IS history anyway?  What kind of data helps most to make a case without direct witness testimony? What is on trial in this movie is the integrity of history itself. How do we tell the truth, swear on Bibles to speak the facts and nothing but the facts, without slant? Is that even possible? What about perspective? What about perception? How do you prove that something happened you know happened but for which evidence, except human testimony, is scant if not absent?

David Irving, the plaintiff, claims to be a Hitler historian, having invested much effort in exculpating Hitler. Annoyed by Lipstadt’s book and her accusations against his manipulations of facts, Irving represents himself, claiming the Holocaust never happened.” He goes on to say: “Why more people died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car in Chappaquidick than ever were killed in the Holocaust.”  He calls attention to the arrangement: he—as “David” (chosen of God of course)—stands alone, while she is surrounded by her team—the mighty Goliath. The visual is telling. The solicitor at one point quotes Goethe: “The coward only threatens when he feels secure.”

What needs to be proved is that Irving manipulated data that proved that Auschwitz was “a killing machine.” And further, that he did not make honest mistakes of commission or omission in his own case against the historicity of the Holocaust, but that he deliberately falsified data in support of his own antisemitic bias. Freedom of speech is a human right. Lying is not. Neither, for that matter, is hate speech.

Lipstadt is aware throughout of her intense desire to have a voice, to exercise her conscience. It is all she has besides her own scholarly research. She is an historian, a Jew, and a woman in pursuit of justice. She wants the voice of suffering to be heard. She wants this hearing desperately, desperately, but not enough to go insane. She keeps her stability in part by running. She runs a regular route through the city, stopping before a large statue of Boadicea—both to lament and to thank. Boadicea was a woman who led a Celtic tribal uprising against Roman occupation in the middle of the first century in the British isles.  Lipstadt could be a modern Boodicea—well, an American one. 
It was painful for me, as a woman with a Jewish grandfather, to watch Lipstadt’s silencing. It made me cry, as well, to see the tender sensitivity with which the older barrister persuaded  her that silence was the best strategy: “Stay seated. Button your lips. Win by an act of self-denial. What feels good is not always what works best,” he tells her.

And then he persuades her that Irving would relentlessly mock the testimony of survivors and outdo the intelligence of jurors unschooled in their history. This case will be decided by a single judge, another piece of a brilliant strategy.  Lipstadt’s superior intelligence kicks in and she knows her lawyer is right. It helps that he is also kind and humble, because one needs these qualities to cement relational trust and hold it secure. 

There is no gore or grim torturous scenario with screams in this movie. It is silent horror. The view of miles and miles, or so it looked, of millions of shoes gathered and left in caged enclosures at Auschwitz, was witness enough. A necessary visit to Auschwitz was part of the barrister's investigation. He had never been there. He carefully walks the bounds and stands to stare at the empty chambers. “This is what I do,” he says. “It’s forensics. How could Auschwitz be just another brief.”
Small details, which are many and carefully orchestrated, make this case. It is often said that the devil is in the details. I think it is more often that God is in the details. “We will box him in with the truth.”

Dick and I were very silent watching this film—twice. Gratefully so in fact. No one got up to get more cookies. We were stunned into awe—not a bad thing at all. It’s not as if we needed the outcome which was obvious really. But we needed the process, the process of viewing history on display and watching its integrity speak for itself by the skill and passion and yes, appetite for good, that motivated the principals.

Oh, did I not relive the trial of Jesus as it is told in the New Testament gospels? I know it by heart and I do not know it at all. The elements were all there in this trial: loud and quickly changing crowds, glacial deliberations, clever questioning, prayers, terror, a clear portrayal of injustice, and then the pungent question right in the middle of it all posed by Pilate to Jesus: What is truth? 

I think I have always wondered about Jesus’s silence, saying I understood it, refusing to accept any stupid ideas that God planned it this way, but really not fully understanding it at all. Seeing such a precarious legal strategy, which could as easily have failed as succeeded,  in which a people’s integrity was at stake, was daunting. Would the discipline of history done honestly prevail? 











Sunday, February 12, 2017

2017.02.12 A Different Kind of Valentine Out of Left Field From the Right Brain

We have been engaged is a difficult task on this gloomy dark day. We are trying to plan something that isn’t really plannable: death. What do we want? What do we not want? Who will serve as health care agents when we are unable to make decisions for each other or ourselves? What kind of burial? 

We are using a document called The Five Wishes. It is a legal document intent on assisting people to die with dignity by allowing them to have some control over end-of-life care choices. It’s thorough and specific, including spiritual needs, even hymns for a funeral.

We have been postponing this for all kinds of nonsensical reasons, all of them labelled denial or fear. We started out in a mood of “let’s get serious” and ended up laughing our heads off. I mean, how many appendices can one add to such an already thorough and elaborated document with plenty of room to add personal notes to clarify?  Can we really control how we are remembered? Is it possible to specify that no burial liturgy have any atonement theology in it at all? You see when you have an opportunity to control a few small things, you suddenly want to be running the universe. We made a few clear decisions then dumped the project for today—choosing life, as the biblical book advises.

This kind of planning is halting and predictably vulnerable to total emotional regression and hilarity, or fits of sorrow. It’s altogether schmutzy. To expect smooth and rational end-of-days planning when there’s no urgency, except that it’s sensible so to do, is like putting a tutu on a hippo and expecting Swan Lake.

We love life too darn much to imagine not being in it anymore. But then on the Writer’s Almanac arrived this valentine kiss to life-in-death by Emily Dickinson.

Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord,
Then, I am ready to go!
Just a look at the Horses —
Rapid! That will do!
Put me in on the firmest side —
So I shall never fall —
For we must ride to the Judgment —
And it’s partly, down Hill —
But never I mind the steepest —
And never I mind the Sea —
Held fast in Everlasting Race —
By my own Choice, and Thee —
Goodbye to the Life I used to live —
And the World I used to know —
And kiss the Hills, for me, just once —
Then — I am ready to go!   


NOTE: the use of the title Lord to refer to God, or Christ, was first used in the first century by early Christians who discerned the work of God in Jesus and used a mantra to invoke the divine presence they saw in Christ: Maranatha, which means Come Lord or Our Lord come was the cry of the early church. The word is actually two words in Arabic: maran atha. It does not mean overlord or ruler, but rather protector. Paul used the expression in I Corinthians 16:22 as a prayer for the early return of Christ to confront deniers. In the Book of Revelations 22:20 it is translated: Come, Lord Jesus.

To call on Christ the Lord to escort her at the time of death, the poet anticipates a swift rough ride with a strong escort as she goes, assured that her Lord will kiss the hills for her, “just once.”

This poem is a prayer, a wish, a hope, a metaphor of the spiritual imagination. It soars above duty and fear, leaving behind any left brain temptations to theorize or make it reasonable.

It’s my Sixth Wish: Tie the Strings to my Life, my God!!