Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014.12.28 The Soul Feels Its Worth

O holy night
the stars are brightly shining
it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
long lay the world in sin and error pining
till he [Christ] appeared and the soul felt its worth. 

I love this hymn, in part because it is quiet and offers a counterpart to the loud confidence of the world, and yes, sometimes the church, thinking itself triumphant. Christians do joy very well at Christmas. We shout out, Hail! and Go tell it! and Gloria in Excelsis!— and much more. These are our favorite songs and stories. I love them, too. The mood soars. My mood soars, too.

Yet . . . do we know what we are saying?  What is Christmas, deep down and really? Is it Easter?

There is nothing more powerful than the vulnerability of a newborn or the suffering of human flesh. Both summon exquisite compassion, divine and human—compassion that can change the world.  

 Oh Holy Night, indeed! 


The other reason I love this hymn is that my father loved it and used to sing it in his deep bass voice with dignity and reverence. In fact, he sang it, softly and to his nurse, just a week before he died in 1983 after a short devastating bout with esophageal cancer which left him unable to eat and drink, except by artificial means. When he sang this hymn, something happened. I don’t know what, yet as a child, I thought he was God. I wasn’t that far off.

This year I have been haunted, sometimes annoyed, by one line of this hymn hammering in my brain: Christ appeared and the soul felt its worth. (I replace "he" with "Christ" because, well, "he" is too masculine, too constrictive for the enormity of divine hospitality herein proclaimed.) Over and over, I heard this phrase. Consider it: Christ appeared and the soul felt its worth—felt it, not thought it up. Christmas is a soul feeling its worth, immediate and ultimate, because God takes up residence in mortality. You are divinely human, and all humanity with you. Oh, if only we could ingest and digest this God, we'd never harm ourselves or others. 

[NOTE: the original text in French, written by Placide Cappeau in 1843, is a carol about Christ's birth, entitled Minuit, Chrétiens. Literally translated it reads: Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour/When God as man descended unto us/To erase the stain of original sin/And to end the wrath of His Father/The entire world thrills with hope/On this night that gives it a Saviour.]

The line that has caused my heart to have a meltdown comes, not from this French translation but from an 1855 translation by Unitarian minister, John Sullivan Dwight. I prefer the simplicity of Dwight's translation. The essential meaning is intact: rejoice because your flesh is worthy of God's indwelling. My soul does not feel much worth from the 1843 version about God's wrath and original sin-stains.

What is soul-worth? It doesn't mean feeling happy, nor the thrill of a spiritual selfie, nor a blast of confidence or bravura, nor a burst of extraordinary courage or aplomb. Soul-worth is profound; it come from an inner well which nothing can destroy, eradicate, or desiccate—even death itself. 

Mystics tell us of direct, unmediated spiritual experience. They do not proclaim a God of wrath or an author of sin so indelible that it requires human sacrifice, even if lovingly offered, to erase it. Julian of Norwich writes: "There is no wrath in God." I wonder why we cling to this notion with such tenacity? Or should I say vengeance?  We love sin, especially the sin of others! 
*  *  *  *

On December 14, 2014, I read in the Boston Globe a good opinion piece by Jennifer Graham, headlined: “Holiday nitpickers deserve coal in their stockings.” She made a good point that Christmas, of all times, was not the time to obsess about facts or clear history, but rather to listen and take in the story, like a work of great art. Swallow it whole. 

From Graham’s article I learned, to my amazement, that “O Holy Night” had been banned in France when it was discovered that the composer, Adolphe Adam, was Jewish—just like the babe in the manger, but who would let that secret out in the 19th century? The stated reason for the banning was the song’s “total absence of the spirit of religion.”

The author of the French text was a professed atheist and anticlerical, the composer, Jewish, and the English translator, Unitarian—not exactly star-studded Christians, yet these people understood and communicated the mystery of Christmas within— and beyond —its religious particularity. It seems a supreme irony. Perhaps it is good that Christmas is now a secular holiday, as well as a religious one. Christmas goes beyond Christianity.

It has also been noted that all that “pining in sin and error” was a comment on French politics. Perhaps so, but could the same be said of 21st-century American politics?

In the middle of her editorial, Graham commented that the proper time in the ecclesiastical calendar to obsess about facts would be Easter, not Christmas. “For Christians, everything hangs on the cross, and the Resurrection; nothing hangs on the manger.” My hackles flew up as I raced to my computer to type a letter to the editor, courteous yet firm.

I wrote: “I enjoyed Jennifer Graham's wry humor and her insight about Christmas not being an occasion to obsess about facts ("Holiday nitpickers deserve coal in their stockings," December 14, Ideas.) Graham writes: "For Christians, everything hangs on the cross and Resurrection; nothing hangs on the manger." I would counter that everything, for Christians, hangs on the cross and lies in the manger. It's not by fact but on faith that Divinity dwells in human flesh, even a humble manger.”

There is nothing more powerful than the vulnerability of a newborn or the suffering of human flesh. Both summon exquisite compassion, divine and human—compassion that can change the world.  

They didn’t publish my letter, and one could shoot a million theological/historical holes in my abrupt statement, however, the message of both manger and cross hang (great word) on a theological truth that Godde always appears as life abundant—on birthing bed or deathbed. Christmas and Easter live together. Both assure the soul's worth.

 When God appears in whatever form, souls feel their worth.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014.12.21 Nativity Pageant: Getting Christ Born Again—and Again, and Again

I jumped into something for the wrong reason, or so it seemed. The Nativity Pageant, a drama I have witnessed many times over in various Christian parishes, is a tradition I’ve loved and still do. Taking on the organization of a parish pageant is, however, quite another thing from being an adoring parent watching—and not the usual comfort zone for an introvert like myself. Angels, help!

I can remember when our 4 children were young and used to put on their own home pageants. They would dress up in bathrobes, crowns, aka old hats, a broom for a shepherd’s crook, wire hangers with tissue paper (or ripped pajamas) for angels wings, and a makeshift cradle. I don’t remember what they used for straw. The two older sisters would produce, direct, and have the most important roles, i.e.Mary and the Narrator. The younger brothers would follow orders, very happy to wear crowns and hold crooks, or be Joseph. The reluctant Siamese cat, Coco, was always cast in the role of the baby Jesus, a star role in which she was most uncooperative, scratching anyone who tried to restrain or swaddle her. Mostly there was an audience of one, me. I applauded and adored, as one should for any effort done with such earnest care and cool.

I said I offered to help with this parish pageant for the wrong reasons. What I meant was: I was tempted by my own idea that I could give this great Christian story some extra gravitas within its essential simplicity. Such arrogance!— however, there was a natural break in the adult director roles, so I jumped in, running a phrase from Psalm 107 (translation by Pamela Greenberg) through my mind: They cried out to you about all that made quiver their minds. From all constraints, you lifted them safely away.

I had two agendas. First, that a pageant is a procession with a tableau, not a play. And second, that the story be narrated as it is in the scriptural texts. Oh, one more item: I wanted a swaddled baby doll, not a real baby, to play Jesus. (I was thinking of Coco the cat and the real possibility of a screeching infant. I’m sure Jesus squawked, as all babies do, but just not for this pageant, please.) Others agreed, and off we went. I put together a new script, added a verse of appropriate carols for traveling music to get shepherds, angels, Magi, and the pregnant espoused Mary up the aisle, her faithful, beloved Joseph at her side.

Besides the Narrator, there was only one speaking part for a child. The Angel Gabriel announces to Mary her key role: helping God do a new thing in the world. Our Gabriel, a beautiful young girl of about 10 delivered her one line with angelic flourish and we got a tall redheaded boy to be the Star of wonder. Gabriel's offer was one the young Mary could not refuse. Well, she protested a little. Scripture, tactfully, doesn’t tell us much about Joseph’s feelings, but we can only imagine. My bet is that he helped deliver his son.

Two wonderful Church School teachers and several parents helped, really directed, because I don’t know the children well yet, and I'm terrible at diving into such things, scrambling through mounds of varied costuming variations to locate just the right outfit amongst years of accumulated gear. (I am a good mother, but I'm not as good a mother for young children. I'd rather watch and listen to their amazing antics and verbal precocity, then later listen to their wisdom and their trials as they grow up.) 

The night before the pageant I had a small nightmare: what if we don't have enough wings for all the angels?

But I needn't have worried. The marvelous sea of childhood chaos, earnestness, and innocent wisdom prevailed to offer this gift to parents, to the church, and most of all to Christ. We all helped God get Jesus Christ born again this year.  Thumbs up and high fives....... we did it: Christ is born again in Bethlehem or Massachusetts or Anywhere.  

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 

And sure enough, my mind stopped quivering and I felt born again myself!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014.12.14 Fear Not . . .But . . .

The phrase most frequently repeated in the New Testament is “Fear not,” or some version thereof. I find the phrase a comforting half-truth. Of course we have fear, and the wise writers of scripture acknowledge our fear, yet “fear not” is not a condemnation but a consolation.

Being able to feel fear is healthy. Like pain, fear tells us, that something is threatening, something is amiss.  Fear can be a motivator. It shoves us into action, often with great courage—not to erase fear, but to refuse to let it dominate our psyche and soul, to refuse to let it paralyze us. 

When fear dominates we can not hear the Word of God inside us, nor can we listen well to our own good sense or the counsel, or even love, of others.  When the disciples felt afraid they either went into high-gear military mode (let’s fight to kill) or they fell asleep (let’s refuse to acknowledge that there is danger, let’s take care of it tomorrow.)

Ironically, Jesus Christ presented a real trauma (something over which you have no control happens to you that scares and scars you, almost to death) to the world in which he lived, and taught, and healed, and died, and was resurrected. He scared the living hell out of them with his gospel. Jesus advertised a God who could reverse the worst of human conditions by the power of Love.

Jesus trusted the God he proclaimed, yet he was not free of fear; in fact, according to the accounts of the New Testament gospel writers, he sweated it out in the garden of Gethsemane where he prayed fervently just scant days before he would be arrested and executed. What made Jesus different, and therefore irresistible—followable—was that he did not succumb to terror’s paralysis. He was neither free of fear, nor naive to its effects, both internally and externally. Terror was all around. He just did not let it cause a mental, emotional or spiritual blackout!
Fear not is a prayer.

Jessica Stern, in her 2010 memoir,  Denial. A Memoir of Terror, relates her own experience of  the terror and trauma of rape. She writes about the disturbing side effects of trauma: “Denying one’s fear makes it possible to survive a life-threatening event but also impairs the capacity to feel fear and worse still, impairs the ability to love.”

I think this is why Jesus Christ spoke of love and fear in almost the same breath. It’s so easy for Christians to deny and push away the fear in our story. In Advent we want to jump into Christmas jollity. In Lent we want to leap into Easter joy. My God, you can hear Christmas jingles blasting in gas stations as you pump your gas. Ick! This is why Advent is important. It reminds us of the dark side of our world. The only way we can feel the love, is if we also can feel fear.

In Easter images that depict Christ resurrected, the wounds from his cricifixion are always pictured. Without them it wouldn't be a true image. The wounds of Christ survive biological death!

Do Christ's wounds also survive biological birth? Are the wounds present from the beginning? I've never seen an artistic rendering of the manger scene with wounds on the infant Christ, have you?   That would be too much, no? Symbolic crucifixion marks on a newborn, the wounds of human mortality on divinity from the beginning? Way too frightening! Or not.......... 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

2014.12.07 A Very Wise Spiritual Autobiography

Some clergy have definite ideas on the timing of calls to ordained vocation. If you’re not called before you’re 50, or some definite age, well, it is too late for you to fulfill your calling. That sounds ageist to me. It also is not my take on vocation. Such a schedule is too tight and rigid, ungodly really, and we gave up corsets for us, and for Godde, long ago, no?  I think Creation is about becoming, unfolding, calling and being called —over and over and over. Like this..................
Autobiography In Five Short Chapters

Chapter I
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost... I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in this same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

 Chapter III
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in... it's a habit... but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V
I walk down another street.
- Portia Nelson

Walking down another street, of course, is not the end of this story. Can the deep hole be repaired? If it's a pot hole in Cambridge, MA, probably not. But if it is a rent in a relationship, there is hope to rebuild torn trust. It takes time and willingness on all sides. But repair is as much a way of life as endless creation, vocation, becoming. We keep on walking down streets.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

2014.11.30 Final Shout Out for Thanksgiving

I'm resisting letting go of Thanksgiving, mostly because it's my favorite holiday. My first reason for that is that at Thanksgiving there are no gifts!  More deeply, gratitude has become such a cheapened virtue, sadly akin to grace. We live in a very spoiled culture—consumed by consumption. It's nice to have a holy day devoted just to being grateful for who we are, and that's all.

Author Steve Almond, in his November 30, 2014, Boston Globe article, "Full of Nothing," poses a good question: "How do we summon gratitude in an age dominated by grievance. . . . It is this grinding ingratitude that leave us spiritually empty . . . and drives our ravenous consumption."

Would we rather gripe than be thankful?  Sometimes, yes, but not always. 

When I worked in an Alcohol/Drug rehabilitation Center some years ago, I'd get tired of the patients always talking about having "an attitude of gratitude." It sounded like such a cliché—until I saw tears roll down cheeks and listened to story after story about how their Higher Power had given them another chance, and a third and a fourth and a fifth. Gratitude overwhelmed the gripe and the groan for many. Those who stayed with the gripe refused the grace—until they showed up again, and often again. We used to joke about the revolving door, yet these same hopefuls, driven by a tragicomic combination of hope and despair, were always welcome and always ready to try again—and fail again. 

A poem I saw on the NYC Subway train, part of an poster promoting “Ragtime,” a musical first produced in 1996 and revived in 2009, is by the poet, Kevin Young, born in 1970. I liked it!

Like hot food
I love you

like warm
bread and cold

cuts, butter

or, days later, after

when I want
whatever’s left.

Is gratitude what's leftover, or is gratitude where we locate the leftovers of God?  Or both?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

2014.11.23 Book Review and a Touch of the Reign of Christ

 BOOK REVIEW:   A CALL TO ACTION. Women, Religion, Violence, and Power by Jimmy Carter

This Sunday marks the Feast of the Reign of Christ in the Christian church. It is the last Sunday of the Christian year—a final blast of triumph for God's intervention before Chicken Little season: Advent when we all cower in fear and call on God to change the world, which Godde does four weeks later on Christmas through child birth.  It is also our 28th wedding anniversary.

There are a lot to things to be thankful for. Jimmy Carter is one.

Jimmy Carter may be our most famous EX-president. Right now he is the oldest at 90, and his voice is strong and more courageous than ever. In this book he packs it all in—everything you would want to know about the issues facing women in the world and church today. This book is a reference book—and more.

Carter roots his amazing capacity for justice in his childhood: biblical religion, the church community where he is still a member, his family, and the deep south. As a young boy, Jimmy felt the incongruence between the free spirit of interaction he experienced with black children and adults, and the segregations imposed on them by his church and culture. How come they couldn’t grow up together being together?

To this childhood truth and question, he devoted his life—understanding this strange injustice and doing something about it. His “Mama,” I’m sure, gave his politics a push. At a White House function she once exclaimed to the King of Morocco, who gave her an enormous bottle of Chanel #5, “You’re just like every other man off on a trip without his wife!”

I first “met” Jimmy Carter on television in 1969 when we were living in Alabama, a foreign country to my cold-conditioned dour New England bones and my, sometimes snarky, feminist discontent. He was campaigning for the governorship of Georgia. I was suddenly arrested by his voice. Who was this man—a deep-south southerner named Jimmy? Not usually my type, but I was hooked. I couldn’t vote, but I hoped he’d win.  

We moved back north within a year, and I forgot about Jimmy Carter until he turned up running for President as a political outsider talking about truth in government in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Political truth-telling sounded refreshing. I voted for Gerald Ford because I was proud of his courage in pardoning Nixon, but Carter won. He wasn’t a charismatic president, however he kept his word about truth, staying true to his early egalitarian vision. 

In the midst of my midlife madness, I more or less forgot about him again. But when, in 2000, Carter, a third-generation Southern Baptist, severed, after 70 years, his ties with their Convention over its opposition to women serving as pastors, I finally knew what I’d seen in him that day in Alabama. He had religious convictions, not just political positions. 

Then I read A Call To Action and found all Carter’s theology, spirituality, religion, politics, and bits of his personal story articulated in a way that turned me into a fan for life. He argues that “the deprivation and abuse of women and girls, largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts has a devastating effect on economic prosperity caused by the loss of contributions of half the human beings on earth.”

Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, have risen above many things that keep the world and the church  warring, while maintaining their own deep religious and moral convictions and spiritual practices. Such equanimity is remarkable, especially in this age of fear and narcissism.

The Carters oppose abortion, extramarital sex, and other practices that today in some circles and countries are acceptable, yet their governing belief transcends personal ethics, especially when it comes to non-violence and the dignity of all living things. It sounds like the Book of Common Prayer's baptismal covenant, our code of ethics in the Episcopal church.

The overarching issue that drives this book is eradication of violence against women and those made vulnerable by poverty, disease and other conditions.  “Violence and sexual abuse is easy if the “victim” is considered inferior—even by God.” Carter includes a lot of biblical interpretation and condemns literalist male clergy who preach in ways that perpetuate injustice and confuse God’s will with their own for the sake of keeping their power in tact.

Well before liberation theology became official theology, Jimmy Carter noticed that Jesus Christ was the greatest liberator who ever lived, and that the lex talonis (eye for an eye morality) was more important to Christians than the teachings of the Prince of Peace. 

This book is thorough to a fault—really an elaborated reference book. Chapters include: The Bible and Gender Equality, Full Prisons and Legal Killings, Sexual Assault and Rape, Violence and War, Women and the Carter Center, Genocide of Girls, Slavery and Prostitution, Spouse Abuse, “Honor” Killings, Genital Cutting (justified by NO Holy Scriptures,) Child Marriage and Dowry Death, Politics, Pay, and Maternal Health.

Quotes and documents about every aspect of the political process toward peace and justice are included. There are fascinating stories and details about human rights heroes around the globe, and specific examples of what Carter and Rosalynn have done for the cause, not the least of which was to found, in 1982, The Carter Center—Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. It's a non-governmental, not-for-profit organization.

Jimmy Carter is not a prophet like MLK, or a charismatic orator like JFK; he is a steady-state, devoted plodder and activist for the common good. This book is no page turner. Its very thoroughness, as well as the clear and dispassionate writing style, can get boring. Nevertheless, it is a book for study and enlightenment, individually and communally, and a book for every parish library.  

From Rita Sharma, Cofounder and President of Women Thrive Worldwide: 

There is no religion that despises women.
Hatred cannot come from the heart of God . . . only humans
 have the capacity to see and treat others as less than they truly are.
It is our minds and hearts that must change to release
women, girls, men and boys
from the bondage of gender-based limitation or violence.
 That change is coming, have faith.  It will be here soon.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

2014.11.16 Stretching for Age in Gratitude

It seems odd to be grateful for aging, yet I am, because aging calls me to do things I might not have done, oh, even ten years ago.

What stretches me, quite literally, is my yoga practice.We are instructed to stretch our bodies to our "edge," but not beyond, not to create pain. Now, what a temptation such instruction wards off! (This lovely image is called Dancer's Pose. It's not me. I can do the pose but I sure don't look like this:0)

My culture would tell me to push—do more, be more. My ego would say, show off.  I’ve done this most of my life. Push. Push. Push. This is what my Lord’s prayer warns me against, the temptation I pray God will lead me away from. All my life I’ve prayed this, and all my life I’ve pretty much failed to heed its wisdom. Aging, however helps. It forces mindfulness; it makes me listen.

My attitude, mind you, isn’t greatly transformed. It’s my body. She talks back to me now. Living in a older body that can be crotchety, keeps me mindful of my “edge.” The yogic instruction is good body wisdom. It is also good spiritual wisdom. 

When I stretch my body, I also stretch my soul. We work together more closely now. We don't go over the edge. If it weren’t for the gentle reminders of aging, I’d push the edge.

I know this because when we first retired we moved into a city. I grew up in a big city, New York. I was thrilled to get back to city sidewalks and storefronts to gaze into, watching for my reflection and checking out the wares. There is a lovely 55-acre park near where we live, so I have plenty of opportunity to walk in nature and watch the garb of each season unfold in its course. It’s a perfect balance.

Then I fell, not once but thrice, and apparently for no reason, though I blamed the heaving sidewalks.

But I know I didn’t trip. I was lucky and only suffered black eyes and bruises, but I felt afraid. Medical tests revealed that nothing was wrong with my brain or bones. So? Aging? Yes, brains age along with everything else. My elderly brain let me know that it could no longer stretch itself to walk and daydream at the same time. I would have to be mindful of my steps.

Grateful for these little salvations, I developed a body-soul practice: Every day before my feet hit the floor, I thank God that I can walk. Every day that I take my first morning stretch and breathe, I thank God for my aging lungs that still inhale and exhale, like a bellows to keep me going. Every day I bless my body and give it a word of thanks for accompanying my wild and wandering mind and my roaming spirit—just not over the edge.

With each step I take, I say this mantra to the rhythm of my pace: pick up your feet and fear not. The first part is my own reminder to my feet, and the second I got from Jesus and Mary.

I also thank Godde for the blessing of marriage and a good man (also full of gripes about THE church!) Also, lots of good friends and good Mercy sisters where I am an associate. And for the Holy Eucharist that feeds me daily with grace. If God can stuff grace into that tasteless old wafer we call “bread,” then Christ can surely get some grace into me—and you and you and you, aka everyone who reaches for it.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

2014.11.09 Suicide Prevention and Preventive Parenting

In the Nov/Dec, 2014 issue of Poets and Writers Magazine there is a piece by Kevin Nance about Charles D’Ambrosio, a writer who uses words to write with imagined sympathy about his father, who found no fathering within himself.  D’Ambrosio is the author of a new book of creative nonfiction essays called Loitering.

The article tells some of the painful story about a rejecting abusive father, two of whose sons attempted suicide, one succeeded the other survived. D’Ambrosio manages to conveys unimaginable yet imagined sympathy for a dad with whom he never could connect, despite efforts. The article revealed some information I had intuited, but not known, from an outside source about suicide dynamics and prevention. It also sent me a memory, one that told me I had an empathic heart—always a good thing to remember.     

I remember Bradford, the name I will give this cousin. He used to stand in a corner looking sad, if not gloomy, at the annual, command performance, family Thanksgiving gatherings at my grandparent’s home. I used to look forward to these gatherings. The food was plentiful, the grandfather of choice was there with his quiet chuckle and enormous cigar, and the variety of cousins were fascinating to observe. I was particularly observant of Bradford.

He was ten or more years older than I was. Even at young ages I knew he was moviestar handsome—thick black hair, dark brooding intensity, and large eyes. He was an amazing tennis player, I’d heard, and went to some prep school I’d never heard of. He was not approachable, at least by me. I was probably just as shy and introverted as he was, yet I didn’t feel as sad as he looked.

Bradford’s mother was what today we would call certifiable. She was an angry little woman, a jokster who thought nothing of tormenting her children with belittling remarks she thought were hilarious. I shudder to think how she might have been treated as a child. I also couldn’t understand why my uncle, whom I thought pretty decent and kind, did nothing to reach out to his son, at least that I saw.

One seminal story is enough. When Bradford was a teen his mother began to screech at the elevator operator in the  NYC apartment building to stop the elevator at once: “Stop, stop the elevator,” she shouted in front of several people. Then she turned to her son to say, “Bradford, we’ve forgotten your teddy bear.” Some personalities could slough this kind of humiliation off, but not sensitive Bradford who shrank from such assaults. It was cruel. I hated this woman. I refused to think of her as “aunt.”

We all grew up and life changed as it does. I didn’t think more about this until I heard from my parents that Bradford had committed suicide, in his late twenties I think. I remember my first nasty thought, something like “No wonder.” And I felt so sad, wishing I had tried harder to befriend him.

I know this is a small slice of life and I know few details. I know things were very much more complex than my own vicarious trauma for Bradford. I also know the family had a story and  a history that is not mine to know. Bradford’s siblings survived well enough. Now I’m sure that Bradford probably suffered from ongoing untreated depression, which, back in the 40s, was misunderstood and shamed, just as suicide was. Depression is a medical diagnosis but despair is not. It’s a spiritual diagnosis.

When Bradford died I had another thought I kept secret: “She won.” I don’t remember any funeral or further talk. I forgot Bradford, and I never forgot him. I hope he rests in peace in the vast embrace of God whose love, I believe, compensates for all the failings of human love.

The new information on depression and suicide I referenced above is relevant to Bradford’s situation. D’Ambrosio’s "killer" father tyrannized his household and created despair in his sons. But his mother taught him sympathy.

“Suicide is very often granting someone else that person’s wish. In this case I believe that to be true,” D’Ambrosio said about his father, to whom “the idea of family was heinous—antithetical, really to how he saw himself,” according to Jon Fontana who is married to one of D’Ambrosio’s sisters. Of course D’Amrosio’s father was terrorized by his own father, but does the beat have to go on?

According to the late Edwin Shneidman, a professor of thanatology at UCLA and the putative father of suicidology, “In one way, suicide is homicide to the 180th degree.” I thought of Bradford. I also thought of the book This Is How It Feels written from the inside of suicidality.

Of course this is only one perspective about the issue, but it is an important one to consider. Kudos to Charles D’Ambrosio for using his writing gift to write with such poignancy, authenticity, and, yes, compassion about the terrorism and tragedy he survived.

So what’s preventive here and where is the good news?

-I’m not planning anything rash, in case my interest in this topic alarms anyone.
-Parents always reject their kids to varying degrees; it’s usually not personal to the child.
-Schools address this topic with honesty. Promote mental health. Don’t wait for a tragedy.
-Consider preventive parenting/mindful parenting: If you are contemplating having children, disregard religious pressure and any literalistic interpretations or the biblical mandate to procreate. Rather, know yourself, and the mate who will parent with you, very very very very well, history and all— even if you need therapeutic help to accomplish this. Love isn’t enough. If you're not fit to parent in any way, be humble. Forget the Holy Family model—sweet, but dated.
-If you become a parent and can’t cope, don’t take it out on the child. To abandon is better than to destroy.
-Have conversations in church about the wisdom, or not, of setting up parental dynamics with God and clergy.  Is that really a healthy projection?  Jesus did grow up, remember.
-Pray for yourself.

I am filled with gratitude for my parents and all parents who do their very best, often against odds.  I give thanks for those who choose against parenting for good reasons, and with cost. I am grateful for myself, my former and present spouses, my children and theirs. Thanksgiving.  


Sunday, November 2, 2014

2014.11.02 A Roman Catholic Priest Speaks Out—of Turn:)

To hear a “silenced” RC priest speak out was, to be honest, a pleasure. Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist Father and a native of Galway, Ireland, is on a speaking tour in the US, having refused to be silent about reforms in his Church. The group that arranges such reformist speakers is called Catholic Tipping Point. This event was sponsored by three organizations: Dignity, Call to Action, and Spirit of Life Organization.

In 2012, the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith was “unhappy” with Flannery’s views, chiefly on the origins of the all-male priesthood, in part because of economics but mostly because of institutional misogyny and the necessity for collective discernment on matters of faith and morals. He declined to recant, was forbidden to minister as a priest, and silenced. His non-confirmity is, he said, “a question of conscience,” the title of his new book.

Jean Marchant, a  woman Roman Catholic priest, introduced Flannery—with joy in her voice. I felt the lilt and remembered the joy so many of us felt when our Episcopal church finally deigned to ordain women as priests in 1976. We are a smaller and more limber institution, but, believe me, the issue of women’s place in the church is not settled. Women do not enjoy equity.

Tony Flannery spoke for an hour with Irish charm, humor, and little bombast. He is the founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, which, he quipped, is “not exactly al-qaeda.”  He feels sad about what has happened to him— but not defeated. The Spirit will be alive in the Church if we get certain basic items understood, he told his listeners (perhaps 100 people, most RCs, I’m sure.)

Flannery believes that two very basic modus operandi must change in order for other things, such as women’s ordination and the rethinking of Catholic teachings on sex, will flow from these changes. They are:
       1) Centralized authority: decisions can be handed down without processes of discernment. “When the church centralizes too much it loses its ability to listen. No conversation is possible. Centralized authority is the scourge of the Church.” He called the infallibility doctrine a “millstone” for popes who are, after all, human men.


(No woman can be chosen for this office, but I do wonder if she would accept it anyway. I think women in church politics will slowly change the way things operate.)

       2) The Magisterium: Who exactly IS this magisterium, this teaching authority? The Vatican II Council reminded the Church that this authority is not just the Vatican’s, but rather the sensus fidelium, that is, the conscience of faithful people. Flannery cited the way Pope Francis presided over the recent Synod of Bishops, asking for discussion, input, feedback and discernment. Francis encouraged speaking without fear and offered his own willingness to listen, even though the final decision will be his. This is a conciliar model. Flannery called this “hugely important” and an openness for the voice of the Spirit.

Flannery said he wasn’t sure of many things about God, but said: “I am sure of the  Holy Spirit—or we wouldn’t have a Francis.”

I believe that women hold up half the sky, over half the church, and half the divine image. (Genesis 2:27)

[I find it ironic that the originator of the idea that women hold up half the sky was Mao Tse-Tung, First Chairman of the Communist Party in China, and a dictator who, despite his progressive reforms, also oversaw many human rights abuses.]

Nothing, and no one, is pure. AMEN. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

2014.10.26 How Mercy Happens

The poet, perhaps, says it best. Would you do this kind of thing for someone you loved, or just for a pigeon?  For some this act would seem gruesome, but I shed a tear for the gentle mercy in the gesture, coupled with this husband’s immediate and heroic act—without thought or delay—on behalf of his wife’s ease. Many would have spirited her away with some natural law explanation, as any rational  person would do. Am I sentimental, or is there a powerful depth to this love poem—a kiss of divinity breaking into quotidian routines?

        by Ron Koertge

My wife and I were jogging, like we do every morning. Down Mission, left
at Trader Joe's, then up Grand Avenue and past the stately houses we will
never be able to afford. We'd just turned the corner by Senior Fish, scattering
a flock of pigeons strutting their stuff. One of them took off late, veered
right into the path of a silver Lexus, then lay against the curb beating his
one good wing like he was trying to put out a fire. My wife asked me to, for
God's sake, do something, so I turned the delicate head clockwise until I
heard a click. Then darkness poured out of the small safe of his body. That
is when I realized I used to merely love my wife. Now I would kill for her.

Mercy is a piteous word, really. So many eschew pity, as if it were a sin to need pity, to be pity-full. But Mercy comes from old French, merci—as in thank you. Oh, thank you.