The Feast of Mary’s Assumption

Some readers know that I am recovering from (thankfully successful) heart surgery.  Thus far I have too little energy for blog writing, though I hope that energy might return soon enough.  So I am copying below a text about the Assumption of Mary which I first published some years back (August 17, 2012) in “Hark,” The Denver Post‘s religion blog .  Like most of my blogging, it’s a bit preachy.  Yet I enjoyed reading it today, on the feast day six years later.  I hope you might find it of interest.

On August 15, Catholics around the world celebrate “The Assumption of Mary” into heaven.

More typically referred to simply as “The Assumption,” to distinguish it from Jesus’ resurrection and “ascension” into heaven, the holy day celebrates Catholic teaching that Jesus’s mother, after the course of her natural life, was taken body and soul into heavenly glory. There is no formal Catholic teaching about whether Mary, like her son Jesus, actually died.

Yet this Catholic teaching — that Mary of Nazareth was assumed bodily into heaven — is but one of a number of “stumbling blocks” that Catholic devotion to Mary creates for other Christians, other faiths and even some Catholics. Perhaps these days, even for many Catholics, it is simply a matter of indifference, for it runs contrary to so many of our assumptions about what is real — about life and death, politics and possibility, on earth and in heaven.

My wife, for instance, is a good Presbyterian. We met in a small and entirely Catholic town in Bavaria while studying the German language. The course ran through Aug. 15, a town holiday because it was a Catholic holy day, Maria Himmelfahrt. For my wife, and probably for most of our fellow students, it was simply a day off from school and occasion for a bit of a joke about the word “himmelfahrt.” We knew it meant “heavenly journey,” but the English resonance of the sound “fahrt” was unavoidable. Beyond that, it has remained for her a matter of indifference in our otherwise ecumenically active marriage.

So for my wife and for many others, I offer these few comments and reflections:
The Scripture readings for the feast begin with the description of the pregnant women in the heavens “clothed with the Sun,” from Revelations 12. They then move to Paul’s discussion of Christ “conquering death” by his resurrection and so becoming “the firstborn of many” (1 Corinthians 15). And finally to the Gospel narrative traditionally referred to as “the Visitation” (Luke 1:39) — the young and pregnant Mary’s visit to her older, about-to-give-birth cousin Elizabeth.

Elizabeth greets Mary as “full of grace” and then hears in Mary’s response the poetic canticle still widely referred to as “The Magnificat” (from the first word of the older Latin text). Mary proclaims that her soul glorifies God (“magnificat anima mea Dominum”), who has thrown down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the poor and lowly, has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

As liturgical readings — as poetry and proclamation for the feast of the Assumption — these texts are rich in suggestion about the meaning of Catholic belief. I am struck above all by how physical, bodily and worldly is their content. Yes, they celebrate a move beyond the present world, beyond death; yet, they do so in remarkably earthly terms. A heavenly woman gives birth in pain, yet stands as sign of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Jesus defeats death, and by being the firstborn of a new creation (a “new world ‘a comin,” not just some vague, vaporous heaven). Above all, two pregnant women proclaim God’s presence and grace, active then and there, and his good work of overturning the rich and powerful of this world and exalting the poor and hungry.

In different terms, Catholic belief about Mary is all about the proclamation of a new creation, a new world — from the idea that she herself was conceived (sexually) in Anna’s womb, but free of the curse of sin, to her physical, yet miraculous, pregnancy, and her very political experience of giving birth to a hunted new king. There is her embrace (the Pieta) of that king’s tortured and murdered body. And, yes, her life on earth ends with her bodily assumption.

Mary’s story is not about escaping this world, however much Christian teaching and Marian devotion may have been understood in such “spiritualist” terms. Rather it’s about the transformation of the world. And if Jesus by his resurrection is “the firstborn” in this new world, then Mary’s bodily assumption makes her the second-born.

Mary’s Assumption is, in other words, one part of the larger Christian belief about a kingdom that will and does transform this real physical world — where women get pregnant, suffer childbirth, and are so often terribly treated; where the poor are still with us, suffering and oppressed; where the rich and powerful glory in their excess and use terrible brutality to defend their kingdom.

The Assumption is part of that larger, though too easily dismissed, Christian teaching about “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Now about belief in a new creation, a new kingdom coming, I must admit that I’m among the first to doubt — to find such ideas hard to accept, even fantastical.

As I write I have a friend who is dying. [True again in 2018, though a different friend.]  Most of us know death, often close up, and know its terrible finality. Just as we daily witness power and wealth increasing their death grip on our national dreams of equality and justice, to say nothing of the dreams of the vast majority of our world’s population that is terribly poor. So I’m often not sure what to make of talk about defeating death and some new world ‘a comin’ — perhaps it is just opium for believers?

What I do know, however, and am called to celebrate, is that Catholic teaching about Mary and Jesus — regardless of what some preachers and even some bishops and popes have made of it — is not about fantastical dreams of someplace else. It’s essentially incarnational — bodily, physical, worldly, human, political. It’s about this world and about the hope for its transformation, in God’s good time (which is both now and to come).

Perhaps hard to believe, but that’s what it’s about. And it challenges many, many of our assumptions.

So let me end with Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and writer. He tells of a moment when, on a street corner in Louisville, where he’d gone for a doctor visit, he had this experience of seeing all the people on the street “shining like the sun.” He says that he wanted to shout to them, call to them to see how they really were “clothed with the sun.” Instead he gave his life to writing about how all of us, in our deeper and more real selves, are indeed “full of grace” and “clothed with the sun,” even in the midst of our daily busy-ness, our greeds and lusts and angers, our wars and crimes.

Pay attention to those moments, glimpses, when we notice ourselves or others “clothed with the sun.” Maybe if we did it more, paid greater attention to such deeper presence, we too would occasionally see a new world ‘a comin’ even now. It might even change some of our assumptions.

Israel Again…and Again…and Again…

With many of you, I’ve been following news from Gaza as Israeli snipers have killed and wounded many in the large weekly crowd of non-violent protesters seeking an end to their fenced-in border. I’ve always been skeptical of Israeli news releases about such events.  Now international reports and even some US reporting has moved me from skepticism to outrage. To the point where I recently added an opening line about “f…ing Israeli murders” to a form letter to Congress. Won’t do no good since our politicians have long been swayed by AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) money and lobbying.

I won’t trouble you here with such ranting. I’m just writing to ask you to join many other US Christians and Jews in protesting our governments unquestioning support for Israeli terrorism in Palestine – now exacerbated by Trump.

I recently went back through my writings about Israel and Palestine over  the past 20 some years. Many blogs posts and letters and op-ed pieces for the Denver Post, as well as commentary and reviews in a small magazine I used to edit.  

I began by writing carefully balanced pieces about “Israel and Palestine.” At some point I reversed the order, writing about “Palestine and Israel” and hoping to give more attention to realities in the occupied territories and Gaza, and to the legitimacy of the Palestinian quest for freedom.

I’ve never denied the reality of Palestinian terrorism and the terrible character of their internal politics. Even as I’ve tried to put a light on Israeli terrorism and the terrible character of their politics.

Now, though, while I remain aware of Palestinian problems and violence, I write mainly about Israel. For it remains one of the most dangerous states in the world. Yet its military continues to be underwritten by US tax dollars even as it’s become a sacred cow for our politicians and media. Because it’s been since the Cold War a paid foreign legion protecting our oil interests. And also because of the distorting influence of Jewish money on US politics and media.

To be sure, mention of Jewish money and media power risks resurrecting terrible anti-semitic stereotypes. I’ll take that risk because we Christians need to be willing to risk offending Jews by criticizing Israel. Indeed, we need to join many US Jews in alerting this country to the ways Israel continually undermines efforts for peace with Palestine and throughout the Middle East.  (When I speak of “we Christians” I exclude those US fundamentalists whose crazed faith has so contributed to building this golden calf.)

Here, then, is a highly condensed summary of how I have come to understand the situation of Israel and Palestine and the need for our response:

1) The state of Israel.  Despite the better dreams of early Zionism and because of colonial power politics after World War I and then the immense effect of the Holocaust on Zionism, Israel established itself after World War II by means terror and the expulsion of the native population. It has grown ever since in the exercise of such realpolitik by war, by massive military build up (grounded on nuclear weapons and supported by the US) and a world class (world- supplying) arms industry.  It’s propaganda regularly seeks a moral high ground with claims about being the only reliable democracy in the Middle East and by provoking Western and Christian guilt about the Holocaust.  So that we will always have some reason to give Israel a “good buddy pass” for its latest violent expansion towards the goal of a mythic Eretz Israel (the goal of taking over all of Palestine and reducing Palestinians to an “apartheid like” subservient labor force).  There are of course many Israelis seriously engaged in opposing that goal, yet it seems (though I hope I am wrong) that their numbers and influence have declined of late.

2) US Christians and Jews. Despite some legitimate (and many illegitimate) fears about militant Islam, religious folk in this country must awaken to similar threats from Israeli militarism and must work for peace in Palestine.  Of course many humanists are already providing leadership in this effort.  Yet it is this country’s broad religious mainstream  that especially needs to be challenged if there is to be any movement towards a different politics in this country.

3) US Christians. Precisely because we have acknowledged that centuries of Christian anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust, we Christians must challenge not just ourselves but the mainstream of US Judaism for its complicity (by active support or passive silence) in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the continuing militarization of the entire Middle East.  Public and private dialogue with our Jewish sisters and brothers will be very difficult.  Hopefully we will all learn much, and be much humbled, as we struggle in our different ways for peace in Palestine and Israel, and at home.

I end by appending a short list of resources for those interested in deepening their understanding of Israel and Palestine and US politics.

Reports on Events in Gaza:

The New York Times and the Washington Post,  while like most US media in following the foreign policy mainstream, nonetheless provide good on-the-ground reports from Gaza as well as from NGO’s and other international news sources.

England’s Guardian is an especially good resource, as in its recent publication of a letter from former Israeli snipers openly challenging what Israel is doing on the border.

A recent example of informed Christian comment, “Bodies Against Bullets at the Gaza Border,” comes from America Media, the national Jesuit resource.

Online Resources for news, commentary, and background:

  1. Foundation for Middle East Peace, an almost 40-year-old Washington based foundation “to promote a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”  Sends daily and weekly reports via email.
  2. Jewish Voice for Peace, a US Jewish activist/advocacy group geared mainly towards enlisting Jews in the struggle for real peace.  It’s report on the current situation in Gaza is perhaps the most succinct and accurate available.
  3. Wall Writings, the single best blog about Palestine and Israel written by former Christian Century editor James Wall.
  4. B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.  Their name says it all.
  5. Sabeel is an ecumenical Palestinian Christian group working for non-violent peace. See also Friends of Sabeel North America and local affiliates such Friends of Sabeel Colorado.

Among many good books, I especially recommend:

Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace is a very good Presbyterian study guide geared to church folk.

Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006) remains an important and readable history and policy analysis.


Holy Saturday — Between Death and Resurrection

I have many memories of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Of Thursday evening foot washing and images of Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners. Of silent adoration in dark chapels through Thursday night. Of a child’s efforts to be quiet from 12:00 to 3:00 on Friday, and then of adolescent awe at mournful Latin chants as I knelt to kiss the crucifix. And of Easter baskets and egg hunts (as a child and with my children) preceded recently by the fire and candle lighting and the great “Exultet” of the Easter liturgy.

But I have no memories of Holy Saturday. Or perhaps just a vague childhood reminiscence of waiting for the Easter candy that will finally end Lent.

The absence of any special sense of Holy Saturday is perhaps what’s meant to be. Something like the sound of silence without the angst of Paul Simon’s song. Or like the emptiness of a subway station late at night when even the sound of wheels screeching up or down the tunnels has disappeared. (Maybe you need to have lived in New York.)

Yet I recently read a reflection about Holy Saturday which opened me to deeper sense of the day. (Unfortunately I can’t give a reference because I’ve misplaced the copy I brought home from church.) The writer, an Irish nun, focused on the sense of loss we need to allow ourselves to feel on Holy Saturday. Think of the disciples, having fled and then perhaps viewing Jesus’ crucifixion from a distance. Even more of Mary and the women who stayed with Him. And recall the haunting words and melody of the slave song “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”.  Imagine the pain of their terrible loss, their guilt and shame, their fear and confusion. Trembling as their dream ended in such trauma.

Ignatius Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, urges us to enter imaginatively into that loss and confusion, and to know that it remains ours. To let the death of Jesus expand to include, as it surely does, the death and violence of our world – the death of loved ones, the murder of innocents, the martyrdom of saints. (I recently joined others at my university to celebrate the life and murder of Oscar Romero, and the many other murders, known and unkown, which preceded and followed his in El Salvador during the 1980s.)  And the murder of innocents today in Aleppo and Bhagdad, the Congo and the Philippines. And in schools, churches, and cities throughout our country.

Think, too, not just of the high priests and pundits who continue to justify such murder and loss. But even more of the tyrants and militarists who cause them – the many, many Pontius Pilates of our era. Not only Hitler and Stalin and Mao, but so many “lesser” war criminals in Syria and Serbia, Moscow and Washington.

On Holy Saturday we are asked to open hearts and minds not only to the execution of one just man, but to all death — of those we know or know about – and to the guilt we often feel about not having done enough, of even contributing by our failures and indifference.  And, perhaps especially but not only for religious folk, to the confusion these realities cause for human faith and hope. About where God or goodness is in all this? We believers hope that God prevails even amidst such evil and suffering, and  Christians  believe that Jesus’ death reveals that even God suffers within all evil.

But how often does that answer help? How much more are we like those disciples on Friday night and throughout the following Saturday. Alone, afraid, confused, trembling, terrified. “Were you there…?”

Such, as I understood her, was the challenge of Holy Saturday described by this Irish nun.

And yet I still have this vague childhood memory of anticipating Easter candy throughout Holy Saturday. A memory now grown into the many dimensions of Easter hope.

A granddaughter was born to us this year exactly two weeks before Holy Saturday – early on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day. Her presence will highlight this year’s Easter as her “older” brother searches for eggs and gobbles candy, just as we and our children did.

Every birth nourishes our hope. Every celebration is rooted as much in hope as in memory. The resurrection of Christ is not a one-off. Rather it embraces and embodies all the joys and hopes humans have experienced throughout history. For many in the world the Easter story is a symbol or myth about the reality of rebirth and renewal. For Christians it is far more than symbol or myth, important as they may be. It is what some theologians call an “eschatological” event, something we believe really happened even  though it remains mysterious, but something that reveals the fullest depth and widest horizon of all time. For just as Jesus’ brutal death embraces all death and violence and injustice, so too does His resurrection announce and embody all joy and hope.

Of course, such assertions trip too easily off the tongues of church folk. Early on Paul proclaimed his resurrection faith by challenging Death itself: “Where now is thy sting?” (I Cor 15: 55). Yet he later, according to tradition, knew the sting of death by beheading, just as we too regularly experience the sting of the death of others and will inevitably experience our own death.

Yet (again) we nonetheless know the many joys symbolized by (or embodied in) the resurrection. In events and moments both big and small. In lovemaking and birth, baptisms and graduations, good jobs and good neighborhoods, even (if we pay attention) in much good business and good government – and of course in the poetry and song, the good food and drink, whereby we daily celebrate this world’s goodness – the goodness of God’s creation and of God’s saving  grace (“how sweet the sound”).

Here then (finally) is the point. Holy Saturday is not just the day when we’re challenged to remember together both terrible loss and tremendous hope. It is rather a reminder of everyday, of all times and seasons when we are challenged to live “between death and resurrection.”

“Between” is, I think, the important word here. It’s a matter of holding together in one fundamental form of experience both the bitter taste of death and the sweet taste of life. Not splitting them apart, fleeing the one and chasing after the other, as I typically do both in my imagination (here the bliss, there the bitter) and in my actual living. As our media typically does (good guys and bad) and as it shapes our imaginations to do.

Authentic or full human living is always about this “between” – this tension and intermixing. It requires a constantly challenging both-and rather than an easy either-or. It requires the inner and outer work of integration rather than the escape of separation and polarization.

How such integration “plays out” (what it’s story and drama may be) in your life will be different from the way it is in mine. Different across family and ethnic stories, and in the history of different nations and cultures. Yet the basic challenge is the same for all.

Holy Saturday is everyday – far more than Good Friday or Easter Sunday. Yes, of course, those great days enable us to know (whether in faith and fact or simply as symbol and myth) the realities of good and evil within which we live. Yet it is the experience of Holy Saturday – both the sting of death and the anticipation of candy – that most embodies the ever ambiguous and challenging character of our human life .  Between death and resurrection, in both terrible sorrow and great joy, both courageous realism and real hope.

The Yin and Yang of Aging

Years ago I team-taught a course on aging. We, profs as well as students, were all young and we studied issues about the elderly in contemporary society. Today I write not about “them” but about “us”. I write less from study than from experience, my own and that of friends and family.

I want to explore some of the “yins” and “yangs” of aging these days – of entering the third stage, becoming elders or senior citizens, or any of the other ways we talk about aging, even about approaching death, though we still don’t talk enough about that.

Clearly my experience of aging is not yours nor that of spouses and friends. For there is something inescapably unique about how each of us moves through the stages of our lives, even if there is significant similarity in the stages. Still, there are generalizations we may make about each of these stages and, more fundamentally, about the fact that human life takes time, is bounded by time, must move through time’s stages even when we may wish to leap ahead or retreat back, slow the pace or speed it up.

As I’m using the terms, “yin” refers to the receptive or passive or suffering dimensions of human consciousness and experience. (By “suffering” I mean both what we typically mean, but also the broader meaning of the Latin “passio” as both receiving and enduring.) Some explain yin as the “feminine” dimension, though that is problematic since women clearly embody and experience yang as much as yin. For yang refers to the more active or assertive, even aggressive, and the so-called “masculine” dimensions of life. Together they are, if you will, the tough and the tender or any similar set of words which seek to capture this fundamental tension of contraries. The terms are from ancient China and are central to Taoist philosophy. They have recently gained a certain currency in Western culture.

Classical Hindu thought describes “four stages of life” that are also helpful for thinking about aging. We first live early years of training and learning; then we live through the long period of being a “householder,” rearing children, working in the world, caring for family and society, and generally being responsible and busy; third is the stage of gradual retirement from those activities and increasing focus on the soul’s journey; and finally there is a stage of complete renunciation, going off into a forest hermitage or on a solitary trek like the Buddha’s.

Very few are called directly to that last stage, though some, like Prince Siddhartha, may experience its call while quite young, and all of us will eventually experience it as we slip into final frailty and death.

For most of us, then, retirement and aging are something like that third Hindu stage where we have left many of the immediate responsibilities of the householder yet are still involved to some degree in family and world — perhaps by continuing careers or by new responsibilities. The degree of such continuing engagement will vary, as too the degree of retreat from such engagement. The balance of yin with yang will shift with our situation and opportunities, our health and talents.

The most obvious forms of yin for the aging are physical diminishments – slowing down, aches and pains, sometimes serious illnesses, typically various forms of bone loss and memory loss. But there are also more enjoyable forms of yin – more time for reading and relaxation, time with friends and for travel, even if just for walks in the park. More broadly there is, as in the Hindu scheme, more time for care of the soul – for real leisure (not just entertainment) and various forms of contemplation, for poetry and song and perhaps prayer.

As for yang, in addition to continuing work and family responsibilities there is the responsibility that elders have for the human community – something sorely needed these days. We elders have all gained various forms (big but mostly small) of what should be called wisdom as we have moved through the stages of our lives. Nor do I mean something esoteric by that term. Grandmothers, to take but one widely acknowledged instance, continue to provide caring hearts and prudent advice to their children and grandchildren – as do grandfathers. Senior citizens are mainstays in voluntary organizations – from membership on boards to service in soup kitchens, from leadership in churches to work with schools and hospitals, and in many forms of social activism. Jimmy Carter is perhaps our most visible national icon of such senior wisdom and service. And thankfully there are millions like him in this country, giving back every day in ways both big and small.

Yet there is also a far less healthy and helpful form of yang that plagues the process of aging these days. For too many, as I see it – and as I see it portrayed in drug and travel advertisements or news features about some 70-year-old weightlifter – are pressured to feel that they must continue to be very active even if in a changed form: home office instead of workplace, or constant travel and a mandatory club and social round. Such continued and sometimes even expanded activity may, of course, be the fate of a particularly energetic biology or of an ongoing responsibility even when energy is lacking. This could be a good fortune, but it may also be a curse – as it would seem to be for so many of the world’s poor who can’t even dream of retiring.

Yet the fate or necessity of continuing full-time responsibilities is quite different from the more culturally driven compulsion to activity when it is no longer necessary.

Such compulsion is rooted largely in our culture’s fear of inactivity and passivity (of yin), with the corresponding rejection of real leisure — of simply being present, of listening, of wide-ranging admiration and deeper contemplative attention. The best thing I ever read about the foundational human good of leisure, and the best critique of our cultural compulsion to activity and so-called “productivity,” is Leisure, the Basis of Culture by the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. It was written after World War II as a critique of the German cultural ideal of “total work” that came to its fullest and most damnable embodiment in the Nazi program for total war production. Yet, as the book details, this ideal of total work – interrupted only by the worker’s need for rest and entertainment – has far deeper roots both in Enlightenment (scientific/technical) rationalism and even earlier in “the Protestant Ethic” which Max Weber saw as foundational to “the Spirit of Capitalism.” Pieper’s book was published in English in the late 1940s and has been in print ever since. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I have friends and colleagues who refuse to retire or hope to delay the date as long as possible. I do not judge the uniqueness of their situation and spirit, but I nonetheless wonder whether cultural compulsions and fears are not strongly at work in such inclinations. Some say quite explicitly that they don’t know what they’d do without the harness of the workplace – though they rarely use a word like “harness.”

When asked why I retired eight years back I typically say that I wanted to “retire while I still had legs.” Still, in other words, had the strength for activities I’d long done and for new activities I’d wanted to take up. That response has been acceptable, to myself as much as others, since it gives expression to the shared cultural emphasis on yang. What I often failed to add, since it seemed too pious or romantic, was that I also wanted time for contemplation, for what Hindu wisdom calls attention to the soul – to both atman (soul) and to Atman-Brahman, the Great Soul which we call God. For I have long wanted, even hungered for a new or much renewed dimension of prayer in my life, even as I still find taking up the passive or attentive disciplines of prayer very challenging.  I suspect this  hunger goes back at least to my early years as a member of an “active” religious congregation of teachers that also prized a monastic style of community and stability.

As I see it, then, an ideal aging involves both yin and yang. BOTH the richness of continuing activity – especially those activities that bring joy and those that serve the needs of our world – AND the joys of contemplative leisure. Yet that balance is rarely easy. And it takes time. For the transition from householder to retired (as the earlier transition from school years into adult responsibilities) typically involves much discernment along with trial and error. Even when the transition is sudden – from full-time to free time, and perhaps especially when retirement has been forced – it will still take time for the new stage to find its shape and substance: time and experiment, action and suffering.

Our “retired” forms of yin are not simply nor even primarily matters of physical slowing. They are far more matters of spirit or soul. Thus they may well involve declining spiritual energy and even the lure of laziness and other seductions from the “noon-day devil.” Yet they can (and should) also involve the emergence, slow or sudden, of unsuspected spiritual energies and the attention needed for their development.

Some may appear to escape the diminishments of aging, may seem carried by energy and culture in a seamlessly smooth transition into life’s third stage. Yet I wonder about that. My guess is that even for such folks there is an inner drama which they hide even from themselves. Yet repression rarely works for long. The real challenge is to move on through time without illusion, especially without the illusions of great leaps forward or nostalgic retreats to past ways. For most of us the ongoing drama of this third stage — and it is ongoing, not static but further phases or transitions, often with real struggle, leading eventually to death – this third stage has its joys as well as its sufferings, its confusions as well as its wisdom. And the specific joys and sufferings experienced by each of us are themselves the signs or sacraments of our unique aging, the very real occasions for thought and prayer and often for service.

One immensely important resource that Western culture adds to Asian ideas about aging is Christianity’s deeply affirmative appreciation of time. Of course, as already suggested, the positive Christian evaluation of time has in the modern era too often been reduced to little more than an exaggerated emphasis on action, on yang, justified by various notions about progress, some quite silly but others very dangerous (think both Communism and savage capitalism, or the supposedly inevitable “developments” like nuclear weapons). Yet despite this widespread contemporary aberration, we Christians do believe in the fundamental goodness of time, and thus the goodness of all of life’s stages and phases, all of time’s yins and yangs. For God created time and “knew that it was good.” And God even more fully affirmed time by  entering completely into its reality in the  life of Jesus.

It is only through the stages of our lives that we come to realize time’s goodness. That is especially true in the stage of retirement where the quiet disciplines of a more contemplative form of life are more crucial than ever.

Yet such brief mention of Christian faith in time’s goodness can seem little more than a spiritual banality or even a mystification. It is neither. Any banality or mystification would be a result of our own failure to appreciate what is really good, our failure to live within and through the yins and the yangs of aging.

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” – Simone Weil

A Philosophical Forecast for 2018 or Not Moving Too Quickly From The Many to the One

Reader Alert: I probably shouldn’t post this writing. It’s too long, too abstract, too scattered. Yet it’s taken me so long to draft and redraft — and then I had a week of computer problems — so I  post it with a “caveat lector” warning: feel free to pass on reading or get ready for a slow, but hopefully interesting ride.

Here is my forecast for 2018. There will be much evil this coming year, and much good. I’d like to say “much more good,” but that’s a matter for faith, not philosophy.  I can be even more precise: there will be many evils and many goods. I can also, using ancient categories, also predict that many fates will be realized during 2018, and that will mean, for some fates, the experience of many furies. Finally I can also confess my faith that whatever happens in 2018, God will continue to “write straight with crooked lines.”

I need to keep such pretty obvious forecasts in mind through the coming months lest fancy distract me, as it so often does, from facts.

Yet the effort to understand these forecasts led me back to “the problem of the one and the many.” (Such is the strange fate of philosophy!)

I first heard about the “problem of the one and the many” in a college course on “metaphysics.” Even by the end of the course, I didn’t have a clue about what metaphysics meant. Yet the priest-professor was a wonderfully quirky elder. Short and bald, with granny classes over sharply-focused eyes and a weirdly quizzical smile. A mix of Yoda and Merlin. On the first day he announced that the “problem of the one and the many” remains the central problem of philosophy. Then he said that the first problem with this problem is that the problem itself is hard to understand,  Rather it just “has to hit you.” At which point (I said he was quirky) he slapped himself on the forehead and fell over backwards. It was, I now realize, a well-practiced routine.  We were shocked and then we laughed. Yet he laughed last, knowing that none of us really “got it.”  But he hoped his pedagogical comedy might help us when we finally began to “get it.”

Years later I remember the moment I began to get it. I was walking the dog after a morning of reading and writing. Perhaps under the influence of wine with lunch or a relaxing puff. Mid-walk, while the dog stopped for business next to a tree, I was suddenly stunned by a question as if from the heavens: why does “one” always seem more important than “two”? And only now, in telling this story, do I recognize a small symbol in that pee-tree with its one trunk, many branches and still more roots!

I know the question “why does one seem more important than two?” may sound very odd, but think about it. E pluribus Unum. One nation under God. And so One God. Perhaps even One Holy Catholic Church. Or for more modern tastes, “my identity” or “my one self” and then perhaps one “marriage of true minds.” And then (if you’re so inclined) think about the mathematical importance of “1,” or the philosophical centrality of “being,” or the (for some) religious importance of “resting in Thee.”

It would seem that the human heart (as well as our mind and spirit) is indeed restless until it finds forms of integration or unity or “oneness” – whether within (in soul/psyche), or in relationships (in marriage and other forms of com-unity). The “soul”, or these days the “self,” is simply one of our many ways of trying to talk about the unity or “oneness” of our personal existence. For who does not fear schizophrenia or other forms of personal disintegration. And who does not prefer some form of “com-unity” in our relationships to division and fragmentation.

Yet (and now “the many” returns) we’d have a pretty thin self and pretty empty community if our various unities did not include significant diversity. What would one’s self or one’s community be without a history of many experiences and relationships, without memories to hold that history together, and without hope for a plenty-full future?

At the time of my dog-walk moment, this newly-minted professor was swept along by strong cultural currents affirming all kinds of diversity. We wanted to break free from what seemed (and often were) the procrustean “unities” or the “conformity” imposed by “the system.” Thus the question came: why was “one” so important? What about two and three, or four and more? What about those many claims to diversity (racial and religious, ethnic and gendered) moving through the “60’s” and ever since? What about so many different people and places, causes and events; the many memories encompassing them and many hopes for their futures? We needed, we correctly felt and still feel, an awareness of significant diversity to break through forced and phony unities.

These days, in my dotage, I tend to worry more about recovering or finding real unity in the midst of so many divisions and so much fragmentation. Yet I also remain deeply concerned about superficial and phony “unities” — whether national nativism or the universalism of the global market; whether consumerism or racism or any other fundamentalism which rushes into the vacuum created by fragmentation.

Thus my mentor Lynch urges me, as I seek real forms of unity, “not to move too quickly from the many to the one.” Not to rush into “one place” of seeming security or clarity or rightness, whether that be a set of fixed ideas or some quick conclusion or absolute position. He urges me rather to move more care-fully and attentively through difference and diversity and change as the only realistic way, in any situation, of moving into a “one” or unity of understanding and conviction, of conclusion and position.

As an undergrad, even though I majored in Lit, I didn’t begin to understand the intertwining of “one and many” in good poetry and story, fiction and film. I did feel such unity as I enjoyed the writing, but did not understand how it was accomplished. Only years later, when I understood Lynch’s great book about literature, Christ and Apollo (1960), did I begin to see that good art – whether in poems or plays, fiction or film – always involves the intertwining of “one and many.” Such intertwining is what made the work humanly interesting and artistically significant. It involved the gradually growing relationship (line by line in a poem, scene by scene in script or story) between many words and images, many different characters and plot twists, and the one or unifying intuition which guided both the artist’s work and the reader/viewer’s imagination. Many parts contribute to the making of one significant whole. Yet both writer and reader only get to a realization of that whole by moving step by step, slowly and attentively, through those many parts. A plot summary or statement of “the” theme, even with details from some “CliffsNotes,” simply won’t work. Think of reading Dickens or Dostoevsky, Eliot or Frost, or viewing Romeo and Juliet or Shakespeare in Love, or any really good poem or story or drama. Tolstoy’s War and Peace remains for me the clearest example of a sweepingly diverse narrative (about politics and war, and also about different individuals and families) which achieves a rich unity of vision and sensibility as the many parts contribute, each in its own way, to one artistic whole.

By contrast, what we get in the trite and sensational stuff we often read or see or hear is just more of the same constantly repeated — more and more violence (essentially all the same, just growing in explosive intensity); more good guys being strong-good or sexy-pretty again and again and again (and ditto for the bad guys); more inane lyrics repeating the same banalities and beats ad nauseam.

I recently went to see the latest Star Wars release because several critics claimed it actually involved some significant development in the unending saga. I do suspect the devout were pleased by fresh faces, cute new animals, and new robots. Yet I found it depressingly long and essentially repetitious – just deja-vu over and over again (even though I too liked the new pretty faces). It was just another sequel setting up for the next sequel, great for money making but utterly lousy art. Lots of action and noise and graphics, but nothing of substance beyond the first film I saw more than 30 years ago.

Now let me return from these notes about “one and many” to my forecast for 2018.

We do sense, each in our own way, what seems destined for predominance in the big world during 2018. And we also have a sense of our hopes and fears for the smaller stage of our lives in home and workplace, neighborhood and city.

And so we know, again each in our own way, that there will be many evils and forms of evil in 2018. And many goods and many forms of good.

Let me dwell here on the evils, since we tend to be more aware of them.

We know there will be “big stage” evils. Here’s my list to compare with yours (or to skip if you disagree): There will be increasing inequality and political oppression, abroad and at home. And there will be much intolerance and violence because of racism and gender or religious or ethnic differences. There will be continuing sexual and environmental abuse along with increasing global militarization and wars of many kinds. And all these evils will be overshadowed by the dark fate of climate change and environmental despoliation.

And we also know about the “smaller” evils we will experience daily in our streets and buildings, with both friends and foes. And, as the Bible suggests, we’ll typically be far more aware of the evils we blame on others than of the personal evils we may discuss in therapy or confess in church or at a favorite bar.

Our traditions also remind us that the evils we’ll experience in 2018 – big and small – will come in different forms. Some will be “moral evils,” caused by the sins of individuals or groups. Some will be “natural evils,” consequences of our embodied natures – the evils of hunger and thirst, sickness and diminishment and death. And such natural evils will often be compounded by the moral evil of persons and systems which place power and profit over care for fragile human persons.

Finally, we also know about (and may accept) that some of our traditions of thought find the deepest source of evil to be human failure – sin or powerlust or whatever – while other traditions find that such sin is more deeply rooted in a force like Satan or Kali or another “Dark Lord”.

If you’re still with me, you’ll notice that I have quite deliberately tried to describe the many kinds and varieties of evils we will be affected by in 2018.

I could and should write the same kind of broad description of the many goods we will experience in 2018 – on both the big and small stages of our lives, in many different forms and from different sources. But this writing is already too long. So I urge my reader to pause a bit and begin to imagine the many goods s/he foresees for 2018.

Yet, in order to make my point about “one and many,” I will for the moment stay with the many forms of evil we can easily foresee for 2018. As we suffer and resist and combat various evils this coming year, we need to understand that we are dealing with many different evils. Fortunately, that is what most of us do as we respond to the evils we experience. For we know, from habit and intelligence, that we are dealing with specific and different evils. Illness is not the same as job loss or betrayal or war, and we’ve usually learned to respond differently to each. Yet precisely because there is so much complexity in the evil realities we face, and because of the hard suffering and fear which such evils cause, we often need to blame some “one” thing or some one class or group or SOMETHING we can hate and oppose…and to find some ONE SOLUTUION for all our problems. We want, in other words, to “move quickly from the many to the one.”

To repeat: there will be real evils, real dangers and concerns, which will and should occupy our attention and resistance in 2018. Yet the fundamental problem with such attention and with its accompanying anger and condemnation is that in the face of threats we humans all tend to “rush too quickly from the many to the one.” To see “it all” through one narrow set of lenses – whether of apocalyptic fear or escapist fantasy; whether of ideological purity and absolutized polarization (“they” are to blame; not “us”) or of dread and depression and perhaps despair.

Yet what we most need is the strength to go more patiently and care-fully into 2018. To see that there are many different evils with different causes. I personally find the root of many evils in capitalist economics and pseudo-scientific mechanism. Yet if I’m not simply to rage, I need constantly to remind myself that there are many economic systems, many different capitalisms and different socialisms, many different sciences and technologies and mechanics. And above all many different people, each with their own different virtues and vices.

And, of course, there are simultaneously so many and such different goods.

Most of us, unless we’re paralyzed by rage or the need to run, or seduced by some fantasy of a “final solution,” know this when it comes to action against evil and work for good. We can’t start everyplace, only someplace. We can’t join all movements, only this or that one, in this or that place (big or small) and moment.

I watch with admiration how the “Me 2” movement begins to spread from media and politics to store and factory, and undoubtedly to neighborhoods and schools and families. Just as I see environmental activists working in so many places and at so many levels: from farms and rivers through forests and seashores; in politics and personal habits; in schools and laboratories and churches. I am also immensely grateful for those who seek restorative justice for native populations and refuge for migrant populations.

A friend recently told me of his efforts, both academic and political, to counter the anti-aboriginal “nativism” again on the rise again in Australia. Especially his participation in the effort to work for a multi-national constitution for Australia – something beyond the competing ideologies of liberal democracy (we’re all just one) and of nativism (we whites are the only ones); something which can affirm both the different Aboriginal nations and the predominant European nation as essential parts of the one nation called Australia. This challenge of competing nationalisms is today a major and often violent problem not only in Australia and in the US and Western Europe, but throughout the post-colonial world in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (think Myanmar), and in post-Soviet Eastern Europe (think the Balkans or Ukraine).

I also note with admiration the many ways that artists – through photography and film, story and stage, poem and song – call attention to all such different people and movements, causes and concerns. And even more broadly how good art of all kinds helps us understand the many different evils we face and the many different goods that sustain us.

Because, again, good artists and serious activists do not move too quickly from the many to the one.  They move, even when motivated by legitimate outrage and condemnation, with the strengths of attention to detail and difference, of real  care and real courage. Not with simplistic rage and the pseudo-courage of some narrowly fixed idea.

May such strengths be with most of us in 2018.

Mater Misericordiae

I went to the courthouse not knowing what to expect.

I just knew it was for sentencing the drunk driver who had killed a good friend, the wife of a former student (I’ll call her “Margaret”) who’d been our friend for many years, and the father of their children (a high school boy and a middle school girl).

During the days after his death and at the lengthy celebration following the funeral mass, I’d heard not one word about the driver who’d killed my friend. Not one word. Clearly it was a decision by the families (hers and his) to focus on mourning their loss and celebrating the life of a very good man. Nor had I heard anything about the perpetrator in the many months since.

When I joined the crowd of twenty-some family and friends outside the courtroom, that’s when I first learned something about the man to be sentenced — a late-twenties unmarried worker with one prior DUI, clearly an alcoholic (something widely understood these days as a disease), and an Anglo (something I need to add since our minds easily jump to ethnic stereotypes). And there I also first learned the far more important fact that Margaret did not want him sentenced to prison.

To my surprise, the prosecuting attorney came out to us to explain what might happen and ask if there were others, besides Margaret, who would like to speak before sentence was imposed. Several did.

He told us that he had agreed to Margaret’s wishes but that the judge (earlier that morning) had expressed opposition to the prosecutor’s recommendations – worked out with Margaret, I assume, over a long period of discussion and discernment. He would still recommend a six year prison sentence to be suspended, a very strict and carefully monitored four-year probation (with any infraction leading immediately to the full prison sentence), and an immediate 90-days in jail with work-release for the man to continue his job. But he again reminded us that the judge might not accept that recommendation.

As it turned out, the judge did accept it.

That’s the background, but not the reason I write. It is, rather, my experience during the late afternoon hour in the courtroom that leads me to write. And not just my experience, but “ours” – Margaret’s family and friends, the man’s family and friends, and (I believe this) most of the “hardened” courtroom staff, from the judge himself to the bailiff. As one of Margaret’s friends wrote in an email the next day, that late afternoon hour was an experience of “Redemption. Humbling. Love. Grace. God. And to them, I would add Restoration.”

As a young woman, Margaret had tested the idea of becoming a Franciscan Sister. She became, instead, a school teacher whose career has been spent in middle and high schools serving minorities, immigrants, and the poor, an equally Franciscan vocation. Yet I said to her after we left the courtroom that she had never been more “Franciscan” than at that hour.

In the court, where all knew that it was her decision not to seek prison punishment, she spoke with eloquent words and occasional sobs about her experience seeing her husband dead in the street, and about the darkness in the months since and still. She spoke of her husband, their life together, and all the good he had done for their family and for the larger community. About their family joy in camping and skiing. About his skills in home renovation, his work as an electrical engineer, his service to his neighborhood and the larger community, and to a non-profit dedicated to helping needy women and children in Asia.

Finally she urged the man being sentenced to use this opportunity not only to clean up his life, but to do more – to do something better for the larger community and world as a small measure of making up for what he had taken from the world.

I have entitled this writing “Mater Misericordiae.” It’s the second phrase from a medieval Latin chant which we sang in the seminary as a final prayer before retiring at night. Some readers may know the translated English prayer I remember from  my youth: “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy….” I urge readers both to listen to the beautiful chant and to read the prayer’s pious words .

At one point in my life I resisted some of that piety about us being “exiled children of Eve” in this “vale of tears.” I wanted to affirm the goodness of the world that God has created and the beautiful Kingdom that Jesus preached. Yet the older I become — the more violence and injustice I see, the more friends and relatives who die, at times so diminished by disease – the more I recognize that our world is both terribly good – a goodness lived by Margaret and her husband and family – and also a place of real exile and tears.

In the chant and prayer, the “mother of mercy” is, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus.  She is now the Queen of Heaven who embodies (in her life and through her Son) God’s tender if at times also harsh mercy for our world.

Yet I also intend that title here for Margaret (though I suspect she will reject it). And for all the mothers (and fathers, sisters and brothers) who continue to bring the reality of mercy – of Mercy – into this world. In great acts of hope and loving kindness like the one we experienced in that courtroom. And in ordinary, everyday acts – in classrooms as well as courtrooms, at our tables and on our streets, in churches and workplaces.

The song ends with a plaintive cry to Mary – “O clemens, O pia, O dulchis virgo Maria” (Oh merciful, oh holy, oh sweet Virgin Mary). We don’t often, I suspect, think of the sweet savor of God’s grace, though the rightly famous song does say “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” And we may well think more of such sweetness were we more in touch with God’s feminine and maternal reality – manifest for Catholics and Orthodox above all through Mary.

Mercy is indeed sweet. So I pray that this young man may be led by that taste to a better life. And I thank Margaret for enabling us to taste again, in dark times, that sweet Mercy.

A Brief Note About Modesty

As a footnote to my last post about the “Me Too” movement (see below), I want to say something about modesty.

Modesty, according to the dictionary, is about measure and moderation. It is a virtue for all of us, men and women equally. These days it mostly refers both to dress and behavior, and typically refers to women’s dress and behavior.

I will leave discussion of women’s modesty to women, perhaps especially to mothers and daughters. I will add only one note from my male perspective. I have come to suspect that many women are somewhat naïve about the effect of their fashions on men. Other women, of course, are quite conscious about that effect and quite deliberate in dressing and acting to manipulate it.

As to modesty for men, I also urge women to speak out. Men mostly are aware of immodesty in their behavior, but need constant reminders. Hopefully this might be one of the ripple effects of the “Me Too” movement. Regarding men’s clothing, I had not thought much about modesty until one day on campus, after I’d complained about the parade of tight fitting shirts and low-cut blouses on female students, a young woman caught me up with comments about similar clothing on many young men.

Yet my primary point in this writing is to recall the idea of “modesty of the eyes.”  It’s a term I first heard during seminary training so many years ago – Catholic seminary training for young men committed to lives of celibacy. The term was new, but not the idea. Anyone, perhaps men especially but also women, who wishes to have a sane sexual life needs to be measured and moderate, even carefully cautious in what they look at, the sights and images that catch and hold their eyes.

If you continue to look with lust (whether at a human body or a bottle of whiskey) you’re already in trouble.

As a life-long admirer of women’s beauty, I would only add that immodest dress is almost always a distraction from real beauty — a fashion-mandated and often desperate call for attention.

That’s it. Nothing new; all obvious. Just my brief contribution to the recovery of an ancient but perennial virtue. Modesty in dress and behavior is not a particularly Christian or religious thing. Just a form of sanity and beauty, measure and moderation.

It remains true, of course, that a there is always also a moderate need for occasionally immoderate excess.

“Me Too” and the Image Industries

Our news media, thankfully, continue to focus on revelations of sexual abuse (mainly of women) by predators with power (mostly men).  I admire the victims and the vulnerable who keep coming forward in the “Me Too” movement and I hope those who see this as a watershed moment in the struggle against abuse and for women’s dignity are right.  Yet in current commentary, I’ve found little discussion about the role of our “image industries” in the history of recent sexual abuse.

What follows are just a few comments about those industries, mostly things we already know but need to emphasize.   I ask readers to add their reflections below as well as links to related and perhaps more substantial discussion.

The first obvious thing – at least obvious to those of my generation – is the continually increasing sexualization of our media at least since the 1950s.  And by “our media” I mean not only cinema and TV, but advertising and fashion, magazine and news photography, and now the internet.  And by sexualization I mean primarily the sexualization of women’s bodies in both pose and action.  (Who knew that TV’s growing number of women detectives would need not just pretty faces but deep revealing cleavages in order to do their increasingly violent deeds!)

I hope I’m not naïve about the long history of both pornography and the sexual depiction of female beauty.  I remember a male guide in the ruins of Pompei who asked only the men in the group to enter one room decorated with remnants of ancient Roman pornography.  It was the early 1960s when his pseudo-modesty for the women was already becoming laughable.

Yet I also remember, and it is more to my point, a recent visit to Viet Nam with an American Catholic Sister who had grown up near Saigon.  What struck both of us was the omnipresent westernization of the scantily and sexily clad Vietnamese models on billboards and in shop windows.  (It is an ironic victory for the West that even communist economies now make immense profits from media sexualization.  What the military could not do, the market quickly accomplished.)

It’s not surprising that the upsurge of “me too” accusations began primarily in our media – in news (Fox) and entertainment (from Cosby to Weinstein to the latest headline) – and has spread thence to politics and beyond.

As I say, all this is obvious, and perhaps not even much noticed by younger folks raised entirely within this pervasive media regime.  (Here, again, I would invite comment and links about the impact of this sexualization on succeeding “generations” of young adults, adolescents, and children.)

As an aside: while I much admire and support the media women who initiated the “Me Too” movement, I nonetheless wonder about their active participation in this broader sexualization – by the roles they play, the fashions they sport, the notoriety and popularity (and wealth) they have attained.  I am NOT blaming the victim, but I am asking for women’s reflections about women’s participation in the “sexualization” of our media.

Nor I hope am I being a prude – one of the capital sins of contemporary culture.  Sexual liberation or the sexual revolution has not been some one simple thing.  Many of us (myself included) have benefitted immensely from greater cultural and religious acceptance of the good and beauty of human sexuality, even as most of us (myself included) have had more than a few stumbles and sins along the way to real liberation.

My concern about the sexualization of our media (with its strangely simultaneous trivialization of sex and spread of sexual abuse) is not a call for moral crusades to clean up our media – though such crusades are probably one inevitable consequence of our (hopefully) watershed moment, and may well prove helpful in a variety of ways.  Rather it is above all a call for serious public discussion, spurred by the reports of abuse, to diagnose the deeper imaginative and economic diseases of our media regime.

Clearly the prime movers of the sexualization process have been the commercial masters of our media.  Sex sells, and profits are huge.  Weinstein’s fat ugly face provides (at least for me) an apt image for the economic disease ravaging our media.  (I expect to see many such faces in any update of Dante’s Inferno.)

Yet I am here more concerned with the even deeper imaginative diseases metastasizing through our media.  Which brings me to my second obvious point – that the sexualization of media is but one aspect of the broader and in the end far more destructive process of sensationalizing.  One could also speak of the pervasive “fantasizing” and “infantilizing” of media images and “creative” imaginations.

If sex sells, excitement and intensity and shock are what make it sell.  And the pervasive emphasis on excitement and intensity in all our media — enhanced by technical “improvements” for faster pace, mind-blowing visuals, and spirit-deadening sound – is needed to “re-capture” the diminishing attention and sensibility of audiences, viewers, even readers.  (Years ago, reggae artist Jimmy Cliff lamented: “Poor slave, they took the shackles from your body; poor slave, they put the shackles on your mind.”) The media came to “shock and awe” long before the military, even as militarization has always depended on media fantasy to maintain popular support.

My mentor William Lynch, SJ, analyzed the imaginative diseases of our media in his still important 1959 book The Image Industries.  The book was in part a response to the Catholic Church’s “Legion of Decency” campaign which as early as 1933 sought to counter the sexualization of our media.  That campaign, as I experienced it, attained an apogee of sorts in the 1950s, but Lynch was concerned that, however well-intentioned, it distracted from the larger problem in image industries.  The commercial masters could (and on occasion did) easily “clean up” this or that objectionable scene while leaving untouched the remaining 90 minutes of infantilizing junk that was then becoming standard (and increasingly profitable) fare for the dream factory.  Lynch called for the collaborative work of artists and critics, schools and churches, in the development of a critical public sensibility which would demand better.  A call still much needed.

Many good critical essays and books have been written over the years about the sensationalizing of our media and the infantilizing of our imaginations.  Many good films and TV productions have themselves sought to counter the spread of these diseases.  There have been, to note but one especially relevant example, many good films and programs about romance and sexual experience, some quite “explicit,” yet artistically and humanly so.  And the same for films about war and violence, crime and punishment.  Indeed many good films and programs have deliberately mocked the sensationalizing and infantilizing process, helping us to laugh at our own seductions and hoot the phony and fantastic from the stage of our spirits.

Yet it’s been mostly been band-aids.  Nothing yet has significantly impeded the manic metastasizing of our media diseases, much less led to real healing and transformation.

Enough.  I am simply writing a reminder about what we all know, but has so far gotten too little attention in “Me Too” news and commentary.

Perhaps this “Me Too” moment might provide occasion for real change in our image industries.  I hope, but am not hopeful.  Let me know (below) what you think.

A Death in the Family and the Ways We Mourn

 I recently wrote about the death of a longtime friend. I’m writing now, on All Saints Day, because of the death of a young relative who was, as they say, “spiritual but not religious.” Having been asked by the family to speak at the memorial service, I was led to think about how our ways of mourning are changing to be inclusive of the growing diversity of belief in our families and communities. It’s something like what’s happening in our rituals for marriage. I am concerned – as are others – about what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost, and perhaps need to develop, in the language and rituals which might help all of us in times of great loss. So below, as but one example of the effort to find appropriate words, I share (with his family’s permission) words I spoke for the memorial service for Jake – a young husband and father who died after a year-long battle with cancer. It may help to note that the service was held not in a church, but in the outdoors. At the end I’ll ask you to comment about the rituals and language which have helped you, or which you might like to hear and see.

Clearly all of us here, each in different ways, experience the pain of terrible loss at Jake’s passing, probably shock and numbness, perhaps doubt and confusion and even anger. About such pain I say what we know – that it is not only inevitable, but necessary, even right, for it is expresses our love for Jake.

So yes, today we shed tears. We’ll also tell stories and smile, even laugh, as we move around, greeting and touching and hugging in a communal dance far deeper than words.

It may be enough simply to say that this is how we both mourn and begin to heal.

But I want to suggest that our sorrow is, in a very human way, mingled with, grounded on a sense of affirmation, even deep joy.

Mostly because we affirm the goodness of Jake’s life as husband and father, brother and son, friend and companion.

But also because many of us believe, in our different ways, that Jake now lives in the company of his Granny, his Aunt Mary and Uncle Ed, and his brother Peter. It’s why we speak of death as “passing” or “passing on.”

Yet there’s also a more immediate and for most of us more important reason for the affirmation we experience within our pain.

Let me try to explain.

Many know the story of Prince Siddhartha who attained Nirvanna while walking among us. For Buddhists, Nirvanna is not an afterlife, but complete immersion here and now in the river of compassion that flows through everything. It flows most obviously through the lives of saints like the Buddha, but also through many so-called “ordinary” people. And even the rest of us have times when we are held by the flow of that river. The fundamental affirmation and deep joy we may feel today are perhaps such a momentary and also communal immersion in that river. It does not take away pain, but cleanses it with our shared compassion.

Some of you may also know about the Lakota holy man Black Elk. He had survived Wounded Knee and knew the evil that murdered his people. Yet as a boy Black Elk had a vision of Great Power for his people. He saw them and all of us living in harmony with the four directions or powers coming from North and South, East and West. They are the daily power of sunrise freshness and noon warmth, of evening quiet and night sleep. They are the annual powers of spring rebirth and summer growth, fall’s harvest and winter’s blanket of snow. They are also the great powers we experience in childhood energy and maturity’s strength, in elder slowing and in the final passage of death (even when it comes far too soon). These are real powers, here in this world. We know them more in our bodies than in our minds. Black Elk says they are gifts from the Grandfathers. For most of us they are spirit-strengths given by our Mother Earth.

I find much in Black Elk’s teachings that resonate with the teachings of Rabbi Jesus.* Both men believed in an afterlife, but each affirmed that the Spirit’s power is with us “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The pain of Jake’s death is, I say again, rooted in his goodness, his journey to harmony with the Four Directions. And we travel still with him, on streets and slopes and across continents and cultures. We work with him still for a justice rooted in such harmony.

Now a final way to explain this comingling of sorrow and joy: The monk Thomas Merton (a quite Buddhist Christian) tells us about the Great Dance:

“No despair of ours [he says] can alter the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. We are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood whether we want it or not…. We are [he concludes] invited to forget ourselves on purpose…and join that dance.”

The rhythms of that Great Dance move through us now as greet and embrace, cry and laugh. Jake calls us to join him in that Dance, not only today but tomorrow and through all our tomorrows.

I end by repeating my request that you might respond below, not to my remarks for Jake, but to the general issue about how we are finding words and rituals for death.

*In mid-life, Black Elk became a Catholic lay minister while retaining his Lakota beliefs and practices. He has been nominated for canonization by the Catholic Church in North Dakota.

The Gun as Anti-Sacrament

I first posted this essay in 2013 on the Denver Post’s religion blogsite “Hark.”  I post it again (with minor corrections and additions) since we are again in a seemingly fruitless discussion about gun control.  Please make replies below (on this site) and feel free to share with others if you find it helpful.  John

First, a short version:

In trying to understand the passionate outrage of some folks at efforts to pass gun-control legislation, I have come to think of “the gun” as an “anti-sacrament” – not so much the actual gun one might possess or want to buy, but the symbolic gun that pervades thinking and provokes passions.  (Yet we should not underestimate the significance of holding the actual weapon, of its sense of weight and power for the owner and user.) For Christians, sacraments are ritual actions involving physical things like water, bread and wine – actions which evoke a sense of safety and salvation because they embody a narrative about what really hurts us (evil and sin) and what really heals (God’s love, grace, and assurance). Their ritualized repetition, in other words, enacts a story about what we should fear and resist, and also about what we most need for help and hope. In the contemporary gun debate, it often seems that those resisting any infringement on gun rights are held captive by a different story about fear and hope – fear of governments and other threatening powers, of criminals and intruders and strangers, of the dangerous and unexpected; and hope in self-reliance and self-defense, in “our way of life” and the possession of guns. In this latter narrative, perhaps especially by ritualized repetition at rallies and protests, the gun becomes a kind of sacrament – a symbolic or sacred object that embodies a pervasive sense of what threatens and what protects and saves. I call it an “anti-sacrament” because its narrative distorts realistic fears and hopes to such a degree that it produces an illusory but absolute sense of both evil and salvation – and thereby contributes to even more real evil and much less actual safety.

Now a longer, more nuanced version:

I am writing this essay in an effort to understand the passions of many gun-rights folks in this country – passions I find quite terrifying.

I write as someone who has never owned a gun, but once had a typical American boy’s fascination with them. (I allowed my son to indulge that fascination at age 13 with a pellet gun – something he himself chose never to touch again after he killed a chipmunk with a lucky shot.) Thus I write from ignorance about the hunting culture which grew from the necessity of food to become today an ecological necessity. I admit as well to some ignorance about our cultures of security – the world of police and military and others recruited to “serve and protect.” I have no insider understanding of these cultures. I accept their necessity, yet view them with wariness and studied skepticism.

I write as someone who thinks that most proposed gun control legislation simply makes common sense, that the 2nd Amendment’s meaning has been distorted beyond recognition by its supposed defenders, and that the most powerful opposition to gun control comes from those who profit most – manufacturers and dealers and the propaganda they hire.

I have little interest in these contemporary gun-runners other than to expose the deceit of their proclamation of principle which really serves to mask their far more fundamental pursuit of profit. Yet I do want to try to understand the ordinary folks – a term I intend here as a title of respect – those who are whipped into fury by the NRA and other propagandists. I want to understand their fear and resentment, as well as their anger and righteousness.

My title’s description of the gun as an “anti-sacrament” tries to suggest both the roots of such fear and the dangers of such anger.

The idea of a “sacrament” is, of course, a traditional Christian one, especially favored by Roman Catholics and Orthodox, but also affirmed by Protestants, and found as well in different ways in most other religions. At root it expresses the belief that certain rituals (like baptism and communion) are sacred ways whereby we are opened to God’s healing presence. More specifically, it is the belief that life-sustaining material things like water and wine, bread and bodily touch, can become vehicles for such opening and healing. In traditional language, sacraments are earthen vessels that mediate God’s grace, assurance and salvation.

By extension, sacraments are found widely in human experience – in special places (like holy mountains or sacred springs) or in special moments when the ordinary (like a glass of wine, a sunset, or a song) becomes extraordinary. Writers of good fiction of have helped us imagine such extensions of the sacred into everyday experience. Admirers of Andre Dubus, for instance, know not only his stunning reflection on the sacramental peanut butter sandwich infused with parental love, but his even more remarkable ability to evoke sacred presence (without naming it as such) in his stories about ordinary and mundane events. The same, of course, can be said about many other good writers. It can also be said about much good cinema and television, where writers and actors, cinematographers and directors, at times conspire to evoke the sacred in secular settings and stories.

Yet it is also painfully evident to most of us that contemporary cinema and television, as well as much fiction, is filled with repeated and ritualized presentation of what I am calling “anti-sacraments.” For if sacraments are objects and actions that evoke real healing and protection, anti-sacraments are objects and actions which, while pretending to protect and heal, actually achieve the opposite. They mislead our fears, misdirect our hopes, and actually increase our hurt and insecurity.

What, then, does understanding the gun as an anti-sacrament tell us about the passions manifest in the present gun-control debate?

It tells us that people have important fears about real dangers – the danger of crime and violence; the danger of strangers in our midst; the danger of political and economic systems over which we have little control; the danger of change happening too fast and also beyond control. It tells us that people rightly resent forces that intrude with great power, yet with too little care. It tells us, most fundamentally, that we fear hurt and death.

Yet the idea of “gun as anti-sacrament” also reminds us that legitimate fears and resentments too often grow beyond all relation to reality. Fear alone can do this, but the disproportionate and illusory effect happens mostly when our imaginations are manipulated – by sensational news and propaganda, by deliberately distorted and exaggerated stories and cinema and television.

And the idea of “gun as anti-sacrament” should remind us that thus-distorted imaginations and fears have real and very dangerous effects, in individual lives and in the shared life of society. They are anti-life, not protective of life. They drive us into defensive postures that cut off healing contact with others, and with the real. They drive us to anger and violence both in imagination and, too often, in reality. They thus pollute our lives and our politics.

Of course, in saying these things, I may be indulging my own distortion and exaggeration. Yet I actually fear that, if anything, I err on the side of understatement. For the narrative embodied in the gun as anti-sacrament is today pervasive in our culture and our politics. It has, for too many hearts and minds, replaced not only the once honored (even if only rhetorically) religious narrative about evil and safety, but also the kind of common sense reasonableness we used to count on finding among ordinary folk – in our towns and neighborhoods, among parents and elders.

And, to repeat, this replacement and pollution of once sane and shared stories has not happened by fate or accident. It has happened because of the power of money – that most fundamental anti-sacrament we are forced to live with these days.

Of course we need money for all sorts of exchanges, just as some need guns for various legitimate purposes (from hunting to policing).  Yet like guns, money so easily becomes “sacramental,” part of a narrative about security and power, and “anti-sacramental” when that narrative nurtures illusory fears and hopes.  The result, in the case of guns and even more in the case of money, is a culture and society dominated by illusion and violence.

Which, I submit and urge, is very much where we are today in this country and around the world.