Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015.12.27 Vision Interrupted Not Lost

Dick and I first met the Rev. James Keegan, SJ, at Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, perhaps ten years ago. He was then a lively spirited man, full of chutzpah and good humor, with a challenging vision for the future of the retreat house where he was the Executive Director.

Jim is still lively and full of good humor, and he still believes in his vision. Sadly however, the implementation of his vision and his own health were interrupted by the onset of Parkinson’s disease.

Jim had put together a team of people, all of whom were united, not by religious practice or commitment, but by their singular commitment to the need for spiritual retreats for all people and to the ongoing vitality of Eastern Point as a retreat center. Jim’s idea was a good one, and also perhaps threatening to Roman Catholic, not to mention Jesuit, solidarity, read, control over the way of things. Still, I bet Jim and his vision for this magnificent place by the sea will not be lost.

Dick had been invited to serve on the discernment and planning team for the future of the retreat house. He was honored and excited. Jim had more than once attended Mass at St. John’s Episcopal parish where Dick was the rector—possibly recruiting for his dream team.

Very soon after Jim’s diagnosis, however, he left his position as the head of Eastern Point. It was a loss. We agreed. Jim moved on to deal with his own health and develop his ministry as a spiritual director. With his departure his vision vanished. 

Years passed. I often thought of Jim. Occasionally, we would see him at the Campion Center in Weston, MA. where aging Jesuits retired and where we went for Education for Ministry (EfM) trainings. The sight of him still jovial lifted my heart. But then we didn’t see Jim at meals any more. I wondered. I imagined him dead. Inquiries reveled that he was alive and living in The Pierce Pavilion for medical care  a Campion. I could get no information, because of “HPPA regulations, you know.” I kept wondering.

In November, 2015, I attended a day-long conference for spiritual directors, sponsored by Spiritual Directors International (SDI) at Campion, and there was Jim in the front row seated in an elaborate chair that gave him some mobility on his own. I was thrilled, as if I'd seen a resurrection. Jim grinned. We sat together and tried to catch up with each other, snatching time between the many process directions in the day, which we both thought was ineffective at best.  “Come visit me sometime,” Jim said. “Both of you. Call first. I have a cell phone and take messages.” I kissed him goodbye and left with his phone number in my bag.

On December 8, Dick and I visited Jim. The nurse knew we were coming and told us to wait while she ran down the hall calling out, "Father Jim, are you decent? Visitors."  We spent nearly two hours in delightful remembrances and church-only humor.  Jim is alive! Not well, but alive and mentally alert. He sees some 18 spiritual directees and has his signature humor, grin, and vision. “I had a great team,” he said, recalling his vision for Eastern Point.

Daily during Advent and Christmastide, Jim motors out to the central rotunda of the immense building and sits to meditate before the enormous Christmas tree. The big chapel is nearby, but Jim sits with the tree. I imagine him to be contemplating “the blessed sacrament” in arboreal incarnation. 

Jim writes poetry, some of it published. He gave me some of it to read. Without the use of his hands, Jim’s joy in writing and typing is limited, if not gone. He gave me permission to quote some of his poems. I relish it as a gift and as a sign of resurrection hope for his withered body to be made whole and taken home—resurrected into the soul of God.

These Hands

When did these hands become foreign to me?
Skewed like a lobster’s calls: about ten degrees
off at the wrist—and boney? Puffy blue rivers
of blood run north-northwest up their back side.

And when did these hands make enemies of
buttonholes, zippers, clasps, fasteners of
all sorts, screws, safety pins, paper clips or
any kind of knot? Did it happen in my sleep?

My sleep has been visited in recent weeks
by a newborn baby in a crowd. He looks at me and laughs,
stretches out to me ten perfect fingers and
holds my scarred flesh in his divine grasp.

Jim’s favorite poem:


If you can tell me how the frequent burst
of pheasants from the brush, the swagger
of the moon-struck waves, the dark receding
of the snow and, in the morning sprawl,
the news of robins, all are spring,
can you explain how spring
and you arise so clearly in my mind

Thank you, Jim, friend and brother priest, for yourself and your gifts. Hang in there, spring is a mere 85 days off!!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

2015.12.20 Nativities Everywhere

Nativity means birth, plain and simple, full of labor and pain, and the emergence of a tiny new life, entering the world with gusto.  It's a story fundamental to all human life. It is also a mystical story, fundamental to divine life—always calling us to See the New!

Traveling this season to see beloved family, we also took two days to visit old and cherished friends, all of whom well into their 80s and all in more advanced stages of decline since our last visit. I felt overdosed, overwhelmed, afraid for my own future, and sad. I called a friend to make sure she was still 61! This is the first time in my 77 years I've thought: Shoot me first.  

My anxiety shared and expended, I began to see the new in the very old. Each circumstance was different, yet each beloved friend shone with some peculiar newness within the clear, and new, advancement of the diminishments of age. One friend had even had had a new cancer which turned out not to be cancer—medical error or miracle? No matter, there was renewed rejoicing!

I listened to one 89-year-old friend speak about how grateful she is to be able to pick up the phone and order an egg in the morning if she's feeling "collapsed." What does collapsed mean, I shouted, because I knew she'd lost one hearing aid, and the other is "somewhere in the bed where I spend most of my time." Despite several reminder calls, one just 20 minutes before our arrival, she didn't remember we were coming when we arrived. Still, she appeared, after another 20 minutes,—downstairs, out of bed, not collapsed, and full of toothless cheer to see us.

A Nativity.

My friend chattered on as we ate sandwiches in the dining room of the residence where she lives. I listened, interjected some queries, and struggled mightily to make sense of all the pieces of roaming story my friend related—until I gave up and, without reason, felt sweet all over. It was terrifying and exquisitely tender all at once. The many intriguing unhinged tidbits, loosely strung together and unbound by requirements of time and space mattered as much as anything ever could. Like the Bible, I thought, mercifully free of facticity yet full of grace and truth. Whether you believe or understand a story or not is not what matters.

Take Mary, mother of Jesus, full of grace and truth we are told. Her story is a whopper. She is the most famous woman in the world, making it onto the cover of the current National Geographic magazine. But in the New Testament her story doesn't get much play, and only four times does she speak:
1) To ask an angel, who delivers terrifying news about pregnancy and the birth of a son called Son of God: "How can this be since I am a virgin?"
2) In the wake of the angelic elaboration, Mary hears the punch line: Nothing will be impossible with God and utters her brief acceptance speech of the the angel's proclamation and her role in it: "Let it be to me according to your word." (In other words, Ok I'm in!)
 3) Mary rejoices and delivers her lengthiest oration, the ancient hymn, Magnificat, to her cousin, Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant, though in her old age.
4) Mary's last speech is to an adult son, Jesus, something like "We've run out of win, son. Time for a miracle."

A Nativity.

All this is a very long way to say that in this 21st century world so full of violence, war, terror and genuine inhumanity, the best stories to notice, and to praise as signs of divine presence, are those which intrigue us, hold our attention, are new to us, have beauty, no matter how strange, make us exclaim in wonder and joy, and infuse all life with hope. All Nativities. Here are three more.

Urban Sacrament:  This week across the street, construction workers are building a house. We have watched from our windows as it evolved from foundation to rooftop. It has come in pieces, all ready and put in place atop the sturdy foundation. Today we saw the crane. I'd seen cranes before but never up close. This one was enormous and bright orange-gold. Wonderstruck, we watched as the crane, manipulated by a skilled operator, himself coached by many men shouting and swarming to make sure things fit right in their proper places, module by module, slowly descended without knocking down trees in the way. The crane did the heavy lifting and never dropped its charge until the exact right moment into the right place. In one day a whole house was born, while people gathered about gawking, craning their own necks to look up at the splendid machine, pointing and exclaiming with joy at this "miracle"—something completely new in our neighborhood.  

Nativity: Unto us a child is born............


The artist who created this beautiful image of human birth within groves of evergreen trees—ever green—is MaryKay Eichman, RSM  You can see more of her work at

Little Reader:   Dylan Robert Brakeman, age 16 months, loves his books even more than stuffed animals. He is the youngest of 12 in our brood of grandchildren from our blended family group.

Nothing will be impossible with God. Nothing therefore is ever new to God. Nativity everywhere. Just notice. See the new. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

2015.12.13 Guns and Hope—Unlikely Peace Duo?

I had a stunning thought just two days ago: I wonder if we should get a gun? I scared myself. My very next thought was something like: But if someone armed and with intent to kill harm or terrorize into submission broke into my house, how likely would it be that I’d be sitting there with a handgun in my pocket, or next to me on my computer desk, or on my bedside table— ready and loaded? Really! Or maybe my husband should wear a holster like a cowboy? Okay, I was humoring my fear, but honestly being armed seemed a little silly. It was the very thought of it, however, that alarmed me to chills. No, I don’t want a gun in my house. EVER!

In the 1970s, my dad bought a gun. He’d never had one before. After the Truman Capote book, In Cold Blood, came out Dad immediately went out and bought a huge shotgun. The idea that strangers could break into one’s sacred home and brutally murder all its occupants was beyond my father’s capacity to imagine, even though he knew this story to be true. His fear got the better of him. He kept the gun under his bed, at the ready. But who knew if he took instructions to operate it?
Dad was a city-bred “Mad man” just retired. I suppose the move to a semi-rural country setting with lots of land and no urban or suburban surroundings, like people and buildings, made him feel naked. I was a young mother of four living close by. But my sister was living with my parents at the time, and she was afraid of the gun. One night she wanted to go into my parents’ bathroom to get a Tylenol, or some such, and was terrified to do so for fear of being shot. My dad’s gun made us more afraid of him than of any stray killers, the likes of Leopold and Loeb. That gun changed the tenor of the house just by its presence.

I nevertheless remember that, as a child and true girl, I had a brief pre-estrogen phase of fascination with guns. My favorite show (yes, on the radio!) was the Lone Ranger. I was in love with all the cowboy heroes, like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. I wanted to be one of them, not one of their girlfriends.  I had a horse on a stick I used to mount and gallop around our NYC apartment with my cap gun, shouting Hi Ho Silver away!! I loved the loud bang of my weapon and the smoke and the smell that came from the fired pistol. Honestly, I felt very powerful and fierce.

But a gun? Now? Cowboys aside, and despite the current cultural idolatry of guns and the security they represent to so many people, having a gun would not make me feel safe. I do not believe that having a gun would protect me from anything or anyone; nor do I think it is my civil right to purchase a gun. Having a gun in my home would symbolize everything I despise—yes, even organized military or religious violence. It would signal an abandonment of my spirituality, my trust in Godde, whose divinity, I believe, is implanted within all human flesh as the healing and saving power of Compassion and Hope and Peace. These were Jesus’s “weapons" and they’re good enough for me.

I want our government, specifically our paralyzed Congress, to get its act together, cross the aisles, establish a bipartisan approach again, have clear-headed conversations, and draft some reasonable legislation to regulate guns and who gets to purchase them. I don’t care if the time-bound second amendment is either radically amended or eliminated. 

Sometimes when I hope and pray for peace, odd, ironic ideas slip into my mind—ideas that confuse me, amuse me—and help me practice what I preach.

Heck, I thought, Congress, and religions, have been “shooting” smoking cap guns across aisles for years. And now they argue over the control of real guns with real bullets? But what if guns can force the issues of peace onto the table, make us disarm, verbally and literally? God knows they're loud enough! 

Bang bang! You’re dead?
Bang, bang! Let’s go! 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

2015.12.06 Where Is Compassion?

On one cloudy cold morning I awakened feeling grumpily ungrateful. It would be easy to blame the equally gloomy weather for my mood, of course, but my agitation went beyond the personal.

Thanks to the Internet, my mindset is getting global—such brain strain. Now my heart is, too. Creeping mental global awareness hurts, and spiritual globalization nearly kills the soul. There’s bad news everywhere. And it’s Advent, the lost season, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Advent warns : BE AWAKE, ALERT, WATCH. Good Godde, I feel like Chicken Little—so in need of heart-sheltering.

When we celebrate again the birth of Christ, will it make a difference? Will that seasonal spirit we call Christmas bring compassion into the world? Can it save?

Where is compassion? It seems almost a perverse virtue in the face of the world’s travail: shaken by apocalyptic terrors, violence, little children mutilated, daily/hourly murder of innocents, institutional abuse, parents capsized with grief, opioid deaths mounting. Good god, there is even a program of cathartic boxing for women —not for sport, but to vent their rage and grief. The tenor and energy of violence spread with the news, as if the strategy of terrorist groups had become our own, posing as mere retaliation of course.

Compassion. Is it dead? Is there such a thing as radical compassion, and had I felt a snatch of that—a compassion seizure, the kind that can grip your gut and wrench it free of sweet sentiments, recited prayers, empathic sighs, rote prayers, the kind that can make you feel a little sick. I suddenly thought: I bet compassion can spread like violence, maybe faster. Can it?


Yes!  This Greek word, limply translated “moved with pity” in the New Testament. I learned it in a course called Compassion with a capital C, taught by Henri Nouwen. We flocked to it. Okay it hadn’t much of a reading list, and Nouwen was a guru, but in truth all hundred or more of us seminarians were tired of hearing about compassion. We wanted it. We salivated for it. We wanted to be  Compassion. Oh, we knew only God had flesh-rending Compassion— but oh, we wanted it, too!


The guttural sound repeated over and over. Splawch! Ach!  The word is the strongest possible word the New Testament could use to describe what Jesus felt when confronted with the overwhelming needs of his world. “Listen,” Nouwen said the word over and over, jumping up and down, near-hysterical himself. “It’s the same root as the word for womb, your bowels!”


I was getting aroused, my belly tightened. I couldn’t take notes to calm myself. I couldn’t spell it!  Instead I distracted myself to recall the feel of a baby doing what felt like calisthenics in my womb. Was that the kick of divine compassion trying to get out?  But Jesus was a man. Never mind. Nouwen was near-apoplectic, and we all were right there with him, giving birth. He shouted. “You are pregnant with Christ. Can you hear all the loudly begging people? Let your gut be wrenched like Jesus’s.”   (Godde, it’s awful to be asked to be like Jesus, really!)


I wanted this scphlank-word. I also wanted this lecture to be over. It wasn’t soothing. I wanted compassion like this to go away. Others must have felt the same, because after the lecture  we sought relief in gallows humor, one way to cope with a power too great to manage: “Bowels of mercy gently pressing.” “Jesus shit.” 

My own compassion seizure, if that’s what it was, passed—and will recur. Compassion has rage and roar in it. It is not sugar-coated. It is a potent life-force. Compassion created the cosmos—splawch like that. Compassion evokes Magnificats, grand biblical hymns in the mouths of women whose wombs had been instruments of compassion. Compassion leaps alive in every willing—and unwilling—heart.

Beggars in the city are polite and ingratiating. They even bless my meager offerings. Sometimes I stop to chat. Susan’s husband had a work-related accident. They have two young children.  It’s not about drugs and alcohol, like everyone thinks. The family applied for housing, which will be effective this month. In the meantime, Susan sits on the sidewalk with her cup, wrapped in a warm blanket, to beg. Marcus is older and out in the rain with his handwritten cardboard sign. I know what it says without reading it: out of work. I ask, like a mother, if he wants my umbrella. All I have on me is a dollar. I apologize, then silently wonder if these folks should get the little machines that swipe credit cards. Marcus tells me there’s a laundromat down the street where he can dry his jacket. He’s taking care of me! So I give money and get a blessing.

“My son died, and I don’t know why,” sobbed a father. I read it on Nov. 28, 2015 in the Boston Globe. (The son was a bystander shot dead outside a bar in Boston.) His son died. He didn’t know why.  Don’t bury me under politically correct theology, please. A son of God died, and God didn’t know why either.

There’s not enough compassion in the world, or the gospel, to go around for these people—or is there? I’ve come to believe that what I periodically feel is a compassion that is buried in human flesh, planted there in the beginning. We might call it the image of God. Thomas Merton, monk theologian, called it “hidden wholeness.” Everyone has it; in fact, it is what humanity has in common—seldom tapped and never trapped, yet available when we dig deep to our inner core: salvific Compassion.

There is no original sin. There is original compassion.