The Ascension and Abandonment Issues

•May 1, 2013 • 3 Comments

I always have trouble with The Ascension.  It’s become a little bit of a joke between God and myself.  When I’m praying my rosary in the morning, I always have to think a minute to remember what comes after the Resurrection in the Glorious mysteries.  And then I remember, oh yes, the Ascension, and laugh a little, and get on with my prayer.

The Ascension has never completely made sense to me.  Intellectually I understand the whole thing about Jesus returning to heaven to be an Advocate for us with the Father.  Plus it makes sense on a practical level.  Jesus wants to have a deep, intimate relationship with every one of us, which would pretty difficult if he were still physically on earth, bound by matter to one physical location at a time, with a limited amount of time that would have to be guarded by gatekeepers.  I mean, I know that my local bishop is my spiritual father, but that doesn’t mean I actually get to see the man more than once a year at most, and that’s only if I go specially out of my way to see him.  I feel lucky that once, a few years ago, I had an actual conversation with him.  And while I know that he cares about me as he cares about all of the souls entrusted to his care, I would not call my relationship with him deep nor intimate.  If my relationship with Jesus were on that level, there wouldn’t be much point to being Christian.  Plus, what would it do to the meaning of the Eucharist to have Jesus himself physically still on earth?  So that much makes sense.

However, in my heart of hearts, in the irrational side of me that does not like the idea of being left behind, the part that still remembers what it was like to be a five year old who suddenly realizes that her family has left the house and forgotten all about her, I don’t understand the Ascension.  I don’t see why Jesus had to leave us.  I want him here, someone I can see and touch and hug.  I mean, hugging a Tabernacle may technically be the same thing, but it’s not as comforting as putting your arms around a live person, and feeling them hug you back.

However, I’ve come to understand that part of living in this world and yet preparing myself to live eternally in the next is accepting this kind of discomfort.  Our world here will never be perfect, will never be everything we want it to be, because this world is not our home.  My home is really in heaven, where at long last I will be able to put my arms around my God, and feel him hugging me back.

I do believe that it will be worth the wait.

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The Body of Christ

•February 4, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Today I went to my Parish Credit Union to cash a check. It’s a tiny credit union, tucked away in a corner of the basement of what used to be my parish grade school (now the common grade school for three inner-city Catholic parishes, of which my parish is one). It’s only open three afternoons a week, and is accessed by going through an unmarked door at the bottom of a flight of concrete steps on the back of the school. There is no sign, no posted hours, no advertising. You only know that it is open because when you try the doorknob it is unlocked. I’ve been a member of this credit union since I was in third grade. The ladies who run it, a gang of almost-geriatric matriarchs who could run the parish if they ever cared to try, have known me since my family moved to the area when I was five. When I went in, I didn’t bother to bring my bag or wallet in with me. I presented the check I wanted cashed, the woman behind the counter asked me my account number, had me sign on the dotted line, and handed over the money. Just like that, with inquiries after my family’s health, and telling me how good it is to see me again.

On the way out, I passed another Matriarch of the Parish, Mrs. Richardson. She smiled and asked how I was. I replied politely, and it seemed that was it. Then she stopped and asked me how was Lisa, where was she now? Lisa is my little sister, who is currently in Kenya. She arrived there shortly before Christmas to begin a five month stint teaching grade school at St. Jude’s Academy, the second half of her year of service in Africa. I don’t know how many of you guys have been following the news, but the country is in a downward spiral of violence that is threatening to turn into a total meltdown. Just after Christmas there was an election in which the two main candidates were members of rival tribes. The election was massively corrupt. Protests by the party that lost turned violent, there were reprisals, and everything quickly spiraled out of control. Now there are gangs of men from one tribe armed with machetes and clubs studded with nails actively going out to hunt down members of the other tribe, and being disappointed when they can’t find any to kill. So far the police have been unable to stop the violence, and have lately been given orders to shoot to kill. The US State Department’s warnings have been growing progressively grave, although they have not yet warned US citizens to leave the country.

I told Mrs. Richardson that Lisa had made it safely from the small village where she had been staying to Nairobi, where hopefully she would be able to make arrangements to come home soon. She smiled and nodded, and said she was praying. We parted, but as I walked away, I was shaken. You see, Mrs. Richardson’s sister is Sr. Dorothy Stang, the Sister of Notre Dame who was martyred in Brazil in 2005. She was gunned down on a forest road by hired killers in the pay of rich landowners who didn’t like her work with poor farmers. Her death stunned her family, and our parish. Mrs. Richardson’s sister went into a dangerous situation and never came back. Now she was asking me about my sister, who is in a dangerous situation. Hopefully, however, my sister will come back.Most of the time I take for granted the kind of community I live in. Even though I usually attend Mass elsewhere, I’m still part of the parish I grew up in. My family is embedded deep in the web of relationships. Because of the strength of that community, I can walk into the credit union and cash a check without ever having to produce any ID, a situation most people haven’t experienced since the 1950s. Every person I encountered knew who I was, knew who my family is, and cared about us. This is partly because we’re an unusual family, but it’s because they’re unusual too. We are a parish that gives birth to martyrs and missionaries and free spirits. We are a parish that cares about God and about each other. We are a parish that trusts and prays for one another.

This is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.

No Nonsense Marian Theology

•May 30, 2007 • 1 Comment

Our Lady of GuadelupeToday I am wearing my Our Lady of Guadelupe t-shirt, one of my favorite articles of clothing.  My friend Chris asked about it, and I started telling her the whole story: Juan Diego is on his way to Mass, and a lady dressed as an Aztek princess tells him to go to the bishop and instruct him to build a chapel in her honor on that spot.  My friend pointed out that this was like a picture of Abraham Lincoln coming to life, and asking me to go to the President of the United States and telling him that he should build a new library on the corner of Fifth and Main because Abraham Lincoln said so.

The funny thing is that Mary does this a lot when she appears to people.  She comes to visit, and tells them to do something totally ridiculous.  Tell the whole region to repent.  Drink from a spring that isn’t there.  Whatever.  The visionary whines about it some, and Mary tells them to suck it up.  Just do it, cuz I’m going to make it work.  So they do, and it does, and we have miracles like roses in December, and springs of healing water and things.

It occurred to me that this is very like a mother.  The mom tells the kid to do something, the kid whines, and the mom tells the kid to suck it up.  And then the kid does it, and it’s cool.  Because it was never about the kid.  It was about the mom and the power of God.  We do these things, not because we can, but because God can.  It’s a good thing for me to remember these days, when so much seems impossible.  Suck it up.  It’s not about me, it’s about God.

Theology and Poetry

•April 28, 2007 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been working on my final project for my poetry writing class, which involves looking back over the work I’ve done this semester.  In the course of this, I found this essay I wrote at the beginning of the class.  It sums up so much about who I am and what I want to do with my life that I thought I’d post it here.  Enjoy!

The question of what I want to write about is inextricably tied up with what kind of writer I wish to be.  Although I have been writing poetry longer, I have come to realize that my true vocation is to be a theologian.  I anticipate spending much of my professional career writing and teaching about God.  However, theology and poetry have much in common – they are both about something that cannot really be expressed or explained.  God is the ultimate mystery.  No matter how deeply we delve there will always be more depths to explore.  I think every poem (at least good poems) are small mysteries.  A true poem is a sum that is greater than all its parts, using everyday words and constructions to brush up against those depths.  In some ways poetry can be understood as the attempt to use words to show us something that cannot be described.  The theologian would say that this is God.  To be a great theologian is to be a person so full of God that He leaks out of your pores.  One of the ways God can leak out of a person is poetry.  There is a long tradition of theologian poets.  Thomas Aquinas was one.  We sing his great love poems to the Eucharist every Holy Thursday.  John Paul II was another.  I hope that one day I may be one too.

            I was once told that every artist who paints the human figure, no matter who that portrait is supposed to be, really paints themselves over and over again.  I do not know how much I believe it – my source has a history of being careless about the things she cares to repeat – however, I think that there is something to what she said.  We are all of us narcissists.  What we really want to write about is ourselves.  However, there is more to it than narcissism.  The only experience of being human we will ever know is our own.  To know what it means to be human, what distinguishes the human from all the rest of the world, means to begin with ourselves.  If you believe, as I do, that the human person is created in the image and likeness of God, then to know ourselves we must also know God.  And we’re back to theology again.

            They say that St. Francis of Assisi once sat up all night asking God, “Who are you and who am I?”  They don’t say whether he ever got any answers.

            To write about humanity is to write about love.  We are such odd things, we human beings.  We are body and soul, all mixed together such that, even when artificially separated from our bodies in death we cry out to be reunited.  We are fragile and terrible at the same time.  And we do not exist in this world alone.  We live with other people, and interact with them.  Sometimes we even love them.  By this I do not mean romantic love, although that is a part of it, and traditionally the part that poets find easiest to write about.  Instead I’m talking about the blood and bone sort of love, the kind of love that came to us with nails through His hands and thorns on His head.  This is the love that does dishes and changes dirty diapers and takes out the trash without being asked.  This is the stuff of everyday heroism, the stuff that adds up to true holiness, the stuff out of which saints are made.

            So this is what I want to write about: what it means to be human, to be made, both body and spirit, in the image and likeness of God, and what it means to love other embodied persons as we experience it in the most concrete details of our everyday life.  This is a project that would demand the best of both theology and poetry, applied over a lifetime of continuous effort.  I can’t wait!

The Stories We Tell

•April 6, 2007 • 1 Comment

Once, a long time ago, I was talking to a complete stranger.  She stopped me and said, “You’re a writer, aren’t you.”  Taken aback, I asked how she knew.  “You tell stories.” she said.

The stories we tell are important.  They give us our history, our sense of where we belong in the world, a way of understanding what’s happening to us (a friend and I have a game of fitting whatever relationship drama we’re going through into the plot of a Jane Austen novel).  Paul Ricoeur, however, would say that there’s more to it than that.  The stories we tell determine who we are.  We are not completely transparent to ourselves.  As we grow and change we are always discovering new things about ourselves.  The human person is a mystery, a terra incognita that will always remain incompletely unexplored, even by the person herself.  We discover who we are, not only through the stories we tell about ourselves and our world, but by listening to the stories that others tell as well.  Our identity is defined by our community.  Although language can conceal as much as it reveals (Ricoeur calls this the “hermeneutics of suspicion”), it is only through the use of language that we ever come to know ourselves as “the worthy subject of a good life.”

The more I think about this, the more profoundly true it seems to me.  The story we fit ourselves into makes a deep difference in how we view ourselves and our world.  For example, the Christian believer sees Good Friday (today) as the climax of Salvation History, a profoundly meaningful day, full of hope in the midst of the deepest suffering.  For a person who does not buy that particular story, Good Friday is at best a curious societal anachronism, perhaps the occasion for an extra day off work, otherwise meaningless.  It’s all in which story you tell, which story you believe.

This is an especially interesting idea when I think of the blogging community.  Here are untold numbers of people, mostly unknown to one another in their everyday lives, who nonetheless choose to divulge details of their personal life, their deepest thoughts, or whatever other offerings they think someone might be interested in.  They tell stories, day in and day out.  The stories they choose to tell determine who they are in the online community.  And then others in the community comment, or leave trackbacks, or respond in some way.  The comments feature is almost more a part of the blogging experience than the blog itself!  And so we have not only the stories that one particular person tells, but the stories that others tell in response, or the stories that others tell about them.  From all these, we create a particular identity.

The interesting thing, theologically, for me is that all this communication is going on in a disembodied way.  At no point are all these communicators physically connected, or even witnesses to the other’s physical presence.  You can build a close friendship with someone you’ve never actually laid eyes on.  This can lead to a degree of unreality.  The stories you tell are entirely determined by what part(s) of yourself you are willing to reveal.  There is often no cross-referencing with a community that actually knows you and is part of your daily life.  Online reality can often become very unreal, dependent upon images and profiles that may have little or nothing to do with the actual person.  If it is our bodies that ultimately reveal the whole truth about who we are, what does this mean for a community that is entirely incorporeal?

Everyday Torture

•March 5, 2007 • 4 Comments

Every two weeks my roommate goes to get tortured.  They take her to a back room, sit her in a chair, and start pumping poison into her veins.  The chemicals are so strong they burn her skin around the injection site.  She returns home to us, weak and inarticulate, unable to eat or breathe normally, and most cruel of all, unable to sleep normally.  She identifies with her torturers.  After all, they’re part of the medical profession, a profession she shares (we do not dare to use the past tense).  She asked them to do this.  This was her choice, the dreadful choice for life at any cost over death.  She wants to see her daughter graduate from college (four long years from now).  She wants a chance at seeing her grandchildren.  She has liver cancer, and she will do whatever she has to in order to survive.

My roommate is not alone.  There are many people who have gone through this, although most have not chosen it.  In Latin America, repressive regimes snatch innocent men and women from the streets and subject them to torture.  They beat and rape them, inject them with poisonous chemicals, burn them and subject them to electric shocks.  They manipulate their emotions and weak psychological state, convincing them that this agony is their own choice or their fault, that the torturers have no choice but to do these things.  The torturers are not trying to save lives or cure cancer, but to shore up totalitarian political regimes.  Their victims do whatever they have to in order to survive.  They choose life at any cost over death.  Then they return to their families, weak and inarticulate, sometimes unable to eat or breathe normally, almost never able to sleep normally.  Their experience of pain has cut them off from normal human interaction, and the suspicion and fear of those around them increases their isolation.  While their bodily wounds may heal, their minds and souls possibly never will.

William Cavenaugh, in his book Torture and Eucharist (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998) says that pain is the ultimate isolater.  We have words to describe degrees of pain (fierce, agonizing, excruciating) and words to describe kinds of pain (piercing, throbbing) but all of those words do not really capture what it is to feel that pain.  When pain becomes intense, the sufferer starts using metaphors (the headache was like an ice pick), then loses words entirely in inarticulate moans, groans, and sometimes howls.  The reality of pain is that it is eternally your own.  No matter how much sympathy or empathy another person might have, they can never really “feel your pain.”

So what are we to do in the face of so much anguish?  Is there any hope for us?  Can our world heal from so many mortal wounds?  Cavenaugh seems to say that it can.  The answer is found in the title of his book: Torture and Eucharist.  When we go to take part in the Lord’s supper, we are not just celebrating a liturgy.  We are making ourselves again, still, part of the Body of Christ.  We are no longer fragmented, but one with those around us and with all those who partake in this sacrament throughout the world and throughout time.  My roommate is not alone in her pain, but joined with us and with her fellow sufferers here and around the world.  Through the grace of the Eucharist, she receives the courage to go on, to return to the hospital one more time, to climb out of bed one more morning.  Through the Eucharist I receive the grace to continue to love her.  Through His stripes, we are healed.  This is our hope, both for ourselves, and for our world: that though His stripes, we all will be healed.

Sometimes I can forget how powerful the Eucharist is.  I forget what I am doing every time I make my way up the center aisle of my parish church so that the Eucharistic minister can lay a small white wafer on my tongue.  I am distracted, thinking about the itchy tag at the back of my neck, the errands I have to run as soon as Mass is over, or that cute guy sitting two rows behind me.  But the truth is that what I am doing, standing under the fluorescent lights while the inexpert choir makes its way through another round of One Bread, One Body, changes who I am.  It reaches down into the depths of my soul, and I am not the same.

Now I am not alone, but joined in the Body of Christ with the entire Church.  I am united with my roommate, fighting for her life, and with the tired Catholic woman in Honduras, seeking the strength to keep putting food in her family’s mouth for one more week, and with the Jewish convert to Catholicism in Hitler’s German, and the Japanese martyrs gasping out their last breaths, crucified on the hills above Nagasaki, and with every Catholic in heaven and on earth who has loved God and received His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  Through the Eucharist, we suffer together, rejoice together, and learn together how to love as Christ loves.  Through receiving the Eucharist, together we become strong enough to be healed of all our wounds.

Confessions of a Drama Queen

•February 2, 2007 • Leave a Comment

I tend to have a rather dramatic life.  I do interesting and unusual things.  I have interesting friends.  I have adventures on a regular basis.  In the last year I went dancing at least twice a week every week, made a feature length film (which I co-wrote and was featured in) and a short film, saw my poetry published in a real book for sale in real bookstores, got my butt licked by an overeager calf, had my car catch on fire (while driving it!), made some lifelong friends and said good-bye to others, discovered my vocation, and found out that my roommate has liver cancer.  That’s just the highlights (and not even all of them).

The adventurous nature of my life also tends to lean towards Drama.  I have always been rather conflicted about this.  Having a dramatic life seemed something like a moral failing or a character defect.  If I were only holier, healthier, saner, more organized, then my life would calm down. It would be more boring, but I thought that it would be worth it.  To my surprise (rather like when I stopped flirting and discovered that I got more attention from guys, not less), as I learned to refuse to generate Drama, to allow life to be what it is without trying to make it any more or less than reality, the drama did not abate.  Instead, the character changed, from interior angst over real or perceived situations (oh, the unrequited crush!) to the need to respond to exterior situations (my roommate has liver cancer, this guy keeps paying attention to me, he won’t go away, I’m not sure that I want him to, and meanwhile he keeps doing these things that impact me).  I ran into a dilema.  How do I live a dramatic life if Drama is a kind of character defect?

Recently I came to a realization that no matter how much I might try to stifle the drama, it’s not going to go away.  This is who I am, my reality.  The dramatic character of my life is part of being fully the person that God created me to be.  As long as I am not creating the drama, I can embrace it as part of God’s will for my everyday life.  There is nothing inherently virtuous about living a boring life.

Soon after reaching this conclusion, I was introduced to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s concept of Theo-drama, his answer to the age old question of predestination versus free will (which I will not go into here).  He offers the metaphor of the stage to model how God’s omnipotence intersects with grace and our personal choices.  He says that it is as if we are all actors performing a play which is written, directed, and produced (Divine Providence) by God.  In this play we are given lines to speak and specific actions to perform, whispered to us moment by moment by the Holy Spirit, the Divine Prompter.  The audience we are performing for is God Himself, and He acts along with us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Each of us has the choice of how we are going to perform our roles.  We must choose whether or not we will speak the lines and perform the actions given us, and how we will perform them.  Will it be grudgingly, or with our whole hearts?  What interpretation will we give our role?  How much will we become the role given us?  The saints, he says, “are the authentic interpreter of theo-drama.  Their knowledge, lived out in dramatic existence, must be regarded as setting a standard of interpretation…” (Theo-Drama Book 2, p.14, quoted in Pattern of Redemption by Edward T. Oakes, p. 225).

In reflecting on this, I began to see a new way of looking at my dramatic life.  As I live the life that God has given me, responding to the situations He has placed me in and the relationships He has called me to, I am performing my part to the best of my ability.  By embracing this reality I am really embracing God’s will for me, the role He has given me to act out for His glory.  If I am constantly responding to the Holy Spirit as He prompts me in my part, my life can be, not Drama, but Theo-Drama.  May He enjoy the performance.