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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

UH-OH, IT'S THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN--LENT!

For many of us who profess to be Christians (often a dangerous journey), Lent looms at the end of a cold winter before anything green has sprung above the icy snow gripping my meadow and gardens.  It seems cruel to think about giving up anything when the whole experience of winter is basically--giving things up: being warm, going for long walks with your dog, sitting on your deck sipping crisp wine, all of those things which make being human such a festive occasion.

Instead, 7-8 pounds heavier than I was in October, possibly drinking two glasses of wine per night instead of one, and inhabiting a snarky space with my spouse which is bad for my soul, I hit Lent.  Like a car going up an already rocky road, suddenly I hit the pothole that is Lent.  The car shudders.  I shudder with it.

"Give something up?  You must be kidding!"  What happened to checking into a Day Spa instead, sending around for gourmet take-out, and having people come for in-house massages?  What happened to a religion which professed THAT as a spiritual practice?  I could really get behind that.

Instead, we are faced with the giving-up thingy--be it chocolate, books from Amazon.com, criticizing our friends, gossiping, indulging in retail therapy, whatever is your particular drug of choice to get through winter.  I have taken on a rather large deprivation for the next 6 (six! my mind screams) weeks--no wine drinking.  Period.  Take the money I spend per week on wine and give it to the Survival Center.  Sounds good, right?  That could buy a lot of diapers and baby formula.

By untying myself from this attachment to delicious white wines (sigh), I think and hope to tie myself more closely to the God I worship.  I hope that my small effort to peel away something that is truly not needed in my life in order to give out more to people who truly are in need, I will be following The Way.  Just a little bit more.

I'll let you know how this goes.  Self-discipline is not something I shine at. I do love my wine, but think it is time to be more disciplined about the whole thing.  At the end of 6 weeks (6 weeks!) I shall be thinner, possibly purer, maybe closer to God, and definitely, certainly more cranky.

Monday, February 10, 2014

CHRIST'S TOENAILS


This has a decidedly medieval tone to it, don't you think?  The Medievals lived in a world that was, in some ways, far more interesting than ours.  It was so vital, so carnal, and religion permeated society in ways we have forgotten.  You could take all parts of Christ's body and his Father in creative and inventive exclamations.  And if you think cursing and religion don't go together, consider these words of the inestimable G.K. Chesterton:  "Blasphemy itself could not survive religion; anyone doubts that let him try to blaspheme Odin." Here are some of my favorites:

--"God's wounds," which became S'wounds or later, Sounds!

--"God's blood," which got transmuted into "bloody hell" in modern Britain, a phrase that polite people still avoid.  I like it because it connects me intimately to our past.  Some scholars think that it was "by our lady" which morphed into "bloody."

--"God's toenails."  I may be making this up, but I don't think so.  If you're going to swear on parts of God's body, this could be a good one. I recommend using it with toddlers so they won't learn the more common and vulgar profanities of our age.

--"God's bones."  This brings up rather horrible yet sacred images of Jesus' bones being broken while he hung on the cross, but maybe that's not such a bad thing to be reminded of.  This would be a good swear for times in traffic when you are stuck behind a Mack truck or stopped in rush hour traffic.  Other people will be flipping the bird and shouting at their windshields, and you will be calling on the bones of our savior.

--"God's teeth" is another useful swear.  You can imagine situations when this would be appropriate, but I am reserving it for the dentist's chair when the doctor probes my mouth with sharp instruments, asking me about a recent holiday.  "God's teeth, woman!" I shall mumble with feeling.  "Cease asking."

I leave it to you to make up more creative swears based on God's incarnate body.  Feel free to include His wrists, arms, legs, hair, eyes, ears, whatever.  This may feel a bit sacrilegious at first, but I think it was one of the ways our ancestors wove Christ into their daily speech and everyday lives.  I like that.  I feel we've become too separated from God's presence in our lives, and these exclamations can keep us grounded in Who we come from and Who created us--with delight, mercy, patience, and I suspect, forgiveness for our occasional exclamations about His miraculous body.

Friday, November 22, 2013

DEATH CLUBS & VIAGRA MALLS

Isn't that a fabulous title?  Don't you wish you had thought of it?  The other title I had was, "Recent Head-Snappers" which was also fun but not quite as inviting, I think.  Death clubs and Viagra just seem to go together.

So this is my morning ritual, which involves copious cups of Dark Magic coffee (with some attendant nervous mutterings about how un-ecological it all is) and reading my various faith books.  It is a time of spiritual renewal, sort of like a religious shower, and the way I always start my day.

But every now and then the world invades my pious, caffeinated time with something so strange and warped that I spill my coffee and shout to my husband (I have started shouting due to his hearing loss, and will he consider a hearing aid?  Nooo...), "Did you read about the Death Clubs, honey?"

"Death pubs" he said in a considering kind of voice, perhaps the way Piglet pronounced the sign, "Trespassers Will."

"No, that would be too good, actually.  DEATH CLUBS!" I repeated loudly, "for people who have no religion or faith life but are desperate to talk about things that matter.  Like death."

"Why don't they just talk about sex instead?" he replied.  "Much more interesting I should think, not such a downer."

"Apparently not.  People need to talk about death, how they feel about it, what their plans are for it..."  I subsided, taking a sip of my cooling coffee.  Clearly I had been talking too much, and my coffee was objecting and getting stroppy.

I felt sad for these people, even though I understood and applauded their courage.  Sad because I am so fervently and deeply religious, actually believing in most of what the Gospels say, as in: The Raising of Lazarus, the Resurrection, the Grilling of Fish on the Beach, the Ascension, and the Shroud of Turin which is not in the Gospels.  But it should be.  Because where I live and my spirit with me (and also with you), I don't need to go to a Death Club to talk about my last days.  My religion pretty much maps it out for me, and I trust in that.  It's not that I am not completely without fear regarding my personal ending; I would just as soon God gave me a special dispensation to live for--oh, another century or so, but only if I get to keep my teeth.  But that would be violating the natural law, and I have some fondness for said law.

So what do I expect to happen in those final days?  It's a mystery, of course.  And there's no guarantee that I'll have a "good ending," as they say.  We pray to St. Joseph for "a good death," and I plan on starting that real soon.  I could, of course, like my darling Aunt Lucy descend into Alzheimer's, with the last light in my eyes disappearing so that they appeared to be windows with the shades drawn down.  I would prefer to die by cancer than by that slow, insidious withdrawal of cognition and memory.

I expect to see darkness.  I expect to see light blooming in that darkness, a warm and glorious shining I shall head towards.  I hope to be wrapped in that light and drawn in with the unspoken words, "My, you made some messes in your life, Annie, and we'll figure that out, but oh, how I love you. Welcome home, baby!"

That's my hope and why I don't need to attend a Death Club.  Oh, and the other recent head-snapper, the Viagra mall, seen in my spam folder?  (Where else would it be?)  I think I will wait for another time to address that one, because frankly, the mind boggles.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

DON'T BE STINGY WITH HOPE


Why are we so chary with hope, so stingy with it?  It's as if hope is a commodity that Americans hold in their hands and dole out in dribbles to other people who--for the same reasons we like living here--want to come and put down roots in our country.

We are a country of immigrants.  We are founded on them.  The roads we drive on, the rivers we traverse, the buildings we worship in, the places where we eat--so much has been built with the help of the Irish, the Chinese, people from Africa (acknowledging that slavery is not the same as immigration), from the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Asia, and so much more.

I am minded of this when I read recently in the Lectionary of the great saga from Exodus where Moses is commanded by God ("Who me? I stutter, I am too weak, I have a wedding to attend, my gimpy hip won't take me that far...") to lead his people out of Egypt, the place of slavery.

And the Israelites hope.  It is their birthright; it is written into their DNA; it is in all of their stories that God is THEIR God, the ONE who will attend to their sorrows and save them.

The Pharaoh made a strategic error, a huge, strategic error.  He was complaining of how fertile the Hebrews were, how they were multiplying like insects, how--if the Egyptians were not careful--the Hebrews might take over.  He was in this moment forgetting that it was the Hebrew people who worked the fields, mixed the straw and mud for bricks, built his buildings, and so much more.  He forgot their intrinsic dignity and worth before God. He was governed by fear and not by hope, a common failing of rulers.

That brings me to our present day and to our xenophobic fear and mistrust of immigrants, particularly those coming up from countries south of us, especially Mexico.  This blog is not the place to discuss how we could take the money we are investing in that evil wall and invest it instead in industries and agriculture in Mexico to make life better for people there, thus reducing the flow over the border.  That would be too reasonable, too humane.  Instead, we take our fear of "the other," the fear that Pharaoh was ruled by, that there won't be enough to go around; that the immigrants will "take over," take up too many resources, be a weight on the state--you name it.  Fear is big enough to contain many things.

Those who want a huge wall and more border guards (Really? Have they studied history as in, um, Hadrian's Wall?  Or the Chinese Great Wall?) are forgetting some crucial facts:  Immigrants contribute to the prosperity of our country.  They are not a drain on our resources, as many fear.  The N.Y. Times recently ran an article containing clear data showing that illegal immigrants have contributed mightily in taxes which repair our roads, contribute to Medicare, and also, unfortunately, fund our wasteful wars.  But that's another story.

This story is about allowing hope to others and seeing that we live in a world of abundance, not scarcity.  Probably the only thing I totally supported in former President George W. Bush's government was his plan to allow illegal immigrants to become legal.  He got it.  Bless his soul.

We might find--if we allowed others to hope for a better life, for good schools for their children, for decent health care--that we might have another Moses in our midst, or perhaps an inheritor of Dr. Martin Luther King's prophetic witness, or another Dorothy Day.  We cannot imagine the riches which immigrants might bring to this country.  We just cannot.

I applaud the support that the Catholic Church is offering to immigration reform, to finding a way to "offer a path to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants in our society. This is the kind of church leadership which makes my heart lift up.

 My hope for this year and the next is that we Americans will open our hands to those wanting to come to our country; that we will allow hope to fly free like a beautiful bird circling over the heads of people heading North, heading towards hope.Face Book

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

JUST WAR THEORY

I have been swimming in the murky waters of the Just War theory as our nation appears balanced on the edge of a spear, about to lance itself into conflict with the Middle East.  Again.  With no hope of success.  Again.  With no support in the international community, save France, and divisive voices at home.

There is something to be said for taking a look at Just War theory and what it might--and might not--have to say to us as we reflect upon what it will mean for us, for Syria, and for the entire Middle East if we become involved militarily in this bloody, sectarian struggle.  So I go to Catholic theology to see what it has to say about just and unjust wars.  (Note:  This discussion does not address whether any war can ever be just; it simply looks at what moral principles can be thoughtfully applied to armed conflict and its justification.)

Ok, tighten your seat belts, make a cup of strong coffee, sit up straight in your chair, and let's begin. The Just War theory (also known as jus ad bellum, right to go to war) has a long history, beginning with Cicero who believed there were right causes for war.  St. Augustine weighed in heavily on this theory, developing central reasons, and these were later refurbished by St. Thomas Aquinas. (Apparently, some 12th-century Arabic thinkers also discussed this.)

There are several crucial components to the Just War theory, which after all is about looking at possible conflicts and trying to decide not only where justice lies, but how justice might be achieved.  My sources for this essay include:  The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; Wikepedia, the Just War theory; the Mt. Holyoke site on Just War; the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2307-2309; George Lopez, Professor of Peace and Justice at Notre Dame from the August 30th Religion & Ethics Weekly Broadcast; and the U.S .Catholic bishop's pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace," the source of quotes used in this essay.)

The first step includes Just Cause:  This means that nations must not go to war for frivolous reasons such as revenge, punishment, or even simply national interest.  The war must confront a "real and certain danger," such as self-defense.

The second step is Competent Authority:  This tells us that individuals or groups like the Tea Party cannot wage war on their own; it must come from a government committed to the "public order."

The third criterion is Comparative Justice:  This is an interesting one as it tells us to look at the other side in the conflict, to weigh the reasons involved in force being used by the "enemy."  It also says we should use "limited means" to achieve our goals.

The fourth criterion is Right Intention:  This ties in with "Just Cause" in looking at the motivations for going to war, that war not be based on revenge or hatred of the enemy.

The fifth step is Last Resort:  This states that every other peaceable means has been tried to settle the conflict before going to war.

The sixth criterion is Possibility of Success:  Obviously, this means that officials waging war must have a reasonable chance of succeeding at their goals (what values are at stake) in the conflict.  And the stated goal should always be the re-establishment of peace and justice.

The seventh and last step is Proportionality:  This states that the evils and harm brought about by war be "proportionate to the good expected by using arms."  In other words, the final good must exceed the present destruction.  People must be better off after the conflict than they were before.

Then (take a deep breath and gulp your coffee, pleas), there is what is called jus in bello, which defines the right way to wage war.  This includes:  That war not kill innocent civilians; and that weapons of mass destruction not be used.

So.  There we are.  Need a nap? More coffee?  Single-malt Scotch?  If you apply these conditions to the prospect of intervening in Syria's Civil War, what do you come out with?



Wednesday, August 28, 2013

THE HUNGER OF ANTS

I've been watching the hummingbirds whirring up to our feeder and resting on the convenient little perches while they sip and drink.  I can almost feel their hunger and fierce need for sugar water to fuel their darting flights through the air--flights that will soon take them to their winter quarters far away.

But what struck me most was the ants.  The red sugar water had sunk to unnoticeable levels, so I unhooked the feeder and took it inside to wash in the kitchen sink.  As I unscrewed the bottom and blasted it with water, a cluster of small black corpses floated into the sink trap--ants, maybe 30-40 of them, hard to count as they were such infinitesimal slivers of DNA.

To clarify their journey, envisage our house on a hill.  Our deck rises a good fifteen feet above ground level, and the feeder is hung from the second-story deck (what were we thinking of to build so many decks!), another ten feet up.  How do those little slivers of DNA make their way up from the ground, along the foundation, then crossing the rough clapboards to the hummingbird feeder?  What infinite hunger drives them?

It reminded me of our hunger for God in St. Augustine's words, "...our heart is restless until it rests in you."  What won't we do to put ourselves into the presence of our creator?  What obstacles won't we climb, what walls won't we haul ourselves up in order to sip from God's nectar?

When I wake in the morning and sleepily fumble for my rosary (recently bought at the Museo de Vaticano) to say a few rounds before beginning my day, I feel that emptiness within like an echoing chamber.  Then my fingers touch the beads and my mind repeats the endless, comforting prayer, "Hail Mary, full of grace..."  As my fingers travel along the beads, my hunger is appeased, my being filled with a sense of God's presence, with his warmth and unlimited love.  I have not climbed any tall walls, but I have taken the time to put myself in his presence so I can be fed, so I can give back the love which overflows from him to me and back again.

Like many writers, I am reluctant to let go of such a lovely metaphor--the ants' hunger and what they are willing to do to fill appease it.  I have recently been trying once more to practice St. Ignatius' Examen and am reading various books on it, one in particular, Sacred Story, by William M. Watson, SJ.  I feel heartened when I read his words about Ignatius and about that saint's efforts to put himself in God's presence; I feel as if ground were being put beneath me, that something sturdy is going up inside.  If I can simply get myself to do the Examen daily, then I have a sense of climbing a wall with it, of making an effort to be with God.

So I am going to be like the ants (not the grasshoppers, please God, not those creatures who fiddled their summer away and failed to prepare for winter's exigencies), and let my hunger for God drive me to his presence and to the wonder of being fed over and over, again and again, by his succulent love.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

I CAN'T FIND THE SAVE PLACE!

Home from college for the summer, my grown daughter is riding out the wet and rather depressing days partly by playing some entrancing video games.  Both my "kids" grew up playing video games, despite my occasional hand wringing and guilty murmurs about "corruption of creativity," "encouraging violence," etc. etc.  Which reminds me of the hilarious comment by Gilda Radner in an old "Saturday Night Live" performance; "There's too much violins in the world!"  Would that there were.

However, supper was about to be served, and as a rather serious foodie, meals are very important to me, as are their preparation (and the shopping and the thinking about and the moseying through cookbooks).  I believe this night it was spicy chick peas in a clay pot with Moroccan preserved lemons added at the last minute.

From the living room came the plaintive wail, "But I haven't reached a Save Place yet, Mom!"  For those of you who have never had kids playing video games and the inventive and creative RPGs (Role Playing Games), you don't want to exit a game into which you have put great effort; fighting monsters, battling through strange landscapes with pits and flaming swords.  Because if you exit before you can save your game, then all your former work is down the drain, and it's back to the beginning again for you.

Here I go again, running with a metaphor like a sweaty halfback holding a football.  How often in your life do you wish you could press the "Save" button and keep everything in place, save the demons you have overcome and pass beyond the fiery pit?  I do.  I fervently hope that once I come through a hard time in my life that I can just be past it, that it is done, and I am safe.

I wish that were the way human life worked--like an RPG in which we can conquer and move on.  Wouldn't that feel wonderful?  If you had conquered the demons of alcoholism, it would be so done!  You'd never have to worry about struggling with the temptation to drink ever again.  If you had come through the fiery pit of cancer treatments, you could sit back in your chair and heave a sigh of relief, knowing that those treatments were over and would never have to be part of your life again.  Or, if you have a child or a young adult who has had many difficult and painful moments, once you had passed through the thorny land of their adolescence, it would be behind both of you, and things could be easier once again.

Oh, I wish!  I'm deathly tired of safe spiritual leaders who tell us we have to just live through the sufferings, accept them, and stop trying to resist them, because that just makes them go deeper into our souls.  These comments actually make me feel rather violent, as if I could commit mayhem should I ever meet any of these enlightened souls.  I don't want advice or hardships which might expand my soul, encourage me to go deeper, or make me more compassionate to the marginalized folks in our world.

I just want to sit back in a lounge chair on our deck (with the sun shining, oh, please God, is that so much to ask?), iced tea in hand, with no worries on the horizon more serious than whether I need to weed the herb bed, check for potato beetles on my potato plants, or wonder if my bathing suit's elastic has become so degraded that I shouldn't be allowed on a public beach in it, for fear of scaring little children.

Then I realize, with a little uptick of hope, that I do have a "Save Place" in my life, and it is prayer.  When obsessing about my grown kids, health worries, my friends' health, and the horror that is Syria, I can calm my worried heart by breathing in and saying, "Help, God, just help.  Please create some calm within.  Help me to be compassionate and not worried all the time."

"I am your peace," Jesus said.  For me, he is our "Save Place."  And I am going there right now, just after I finish up a last bit of productive worrying and some leftover pain.