An Embarrassing Hero

I saw Dorothy Day at a Mass one afternoon. She sat in a front pew with her head bowed in prayer. I had the same contradictory reaction to her that I do now, forty years later.

Her uncompromising belief in pacifism inspired everyone I worked with in the Catholic Left, activists who worked for the end of the American War in Vietnam, and for a shift in America’s attitude toward war. She is best known for her work with desperately poor people, opening Houses of Hospitality to feed and house the most marginalized in Depression America, and after. She constantly confronted the Catholic hierarchy in their neglect of the Christian message of social justice. Her stand for pacifism was absolute. Christians, she said, had no other choice.

That afternoon, what I saw in her bowed head was a piety and submission to authority that made me cringe. She once said that if the Cardinal told her to stop printing her Catholic Worker newspaper, she’d shut it down immediately. The idea of totally obedient and will-less devotion to a religious authority is a destructive medieval hold-over. It is an infantile approach to church. She was devoted to that obedience.

However, to categorize Dorothy Day as totally obedient or will-less or infantile verges on the ridiculous, and counter to everything we know about her life. So Dorothy Day, enigma, paradox, embarrassing hero, haunts my spiritual life.

This year, when a pastor was arrested for feeding homeless people outdoors in Fort Lauderdale, I swear I could see her right there. She goes to Palestine; she’s in jail for acts of social justice. She is working at the Food Pantry. She is insulating walls to protect the creation she loved. She is striking with fast-food workers for a living wage. She is an unfailing guide for social justice.

But, a spiritual guide? Yes: “How can you not believe in God when there are so many beautiful things?” she asked her lover. Her beliefs about the sanctity of voluntary suffering? No. Her rigidity about women’s roles and about divorce? No. Her humbleness before church authority? No. Her humbleness before God? Yes.

I gave up this year. The only way to deal with a ghost is to face her. I’m reading what she wrote and what is written about her. I’m sitting next to her before God. The result: her paradox is becoming more pronounced – not what I was hoping for. Now the paradoxes in my own soul are clearer to me. Wandering in the celtic knot of Dorothy’s life is making me recognize the knot of my own life. Celtic knots are mysterious and beautiful, however unsettling to live with.

Leggo My Jesus!

I was meeting a friend at a coffee shop in a very large bookstore which shall remain unnamed. From afar I saw a bright, shining cloud. I was drawn to it as if I were ascended, only horizontally. There, on the shelf of bibles, was one I had never seen before. Glowing, as if barcoded from heaven: the Lego Bible in a box. The penultimate of American Christian art! A reflection of how devout bad taste can be! And the combo set of Old and New Testaments with moveable figures for only $29.95!

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the many bibles available to Christians now: the Green Bible, with lines highlighted in green to show us how often dirt is mentioned; the Justice Bible, highlighted to show that God cares about the poor and oppressed “a lot,” and my then-favorite, the American Patriot’s Bible with George Washington on the cover (let the French write their own damned bible).* But this…..
On the cover, I kid you not, DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” with little Lego people. Awestruck, I knelt before it to look closer. I have looked closely at DaVinci’s version, the faces, the expressions, bodies. I’m sorry, but it does not compare to this version: cube heads, blank expressions, little plastic bodies with somewhat moveable arms, primary colors only. So easy on the eye.

Revelations of biblical scenes appeared before me: Jesus knocking all those money-changers off the table onto the floor where the dog can chew them up, a barbie-sized Goliath smiting a teeny tiny David. Are pebbles supplied for stonings? Or do we have to supply our own? I wondered how they would depict Peter cutting off the Roman soldier’s ear since Lego people have no ears.

Turns out, I am years behind the times. The original version came out in 2001. “The Brick Bible,” as it is called, was pulled off the shelves at Toys-R-Us and Sam’s Club because someone noticed the sex scenes. The Brick Bible includes, you guessed it, graphic Lego sex scenes. (This whole blog was worth writing just to be able to use that phrase.)
The creator, Brendan Powell Smith, was astonished at the censorship. The depictions in his bible were nothing compared to the Bible bible’s sex scenes. Why didn’t they ban the original? I’m not sure how his version ended up on the shelves again. Perhaps the graphic Lego sex scenes were removed.

At the unnamed store, my fingers coveted that Brick Holy Book, that igniter of imagination, that simplifier of all things miraculous, the pure Americanism of it, the graphic Lego sex scenes in it, but I resisted. However, Christmas is only eleven months away… (a hint for those who have ears to…. oh, never mind).

>http://religion-sightunseen.com/2011/09/17/the-new-color-coded-bibles-just-for-you/

The Anteroom of Heaven

Religion News Service reports an uptick in the numbers of Protestants who believe in Purgatory. Jerry Walls, a Methodist theologian is leading the rush to change hearts and minds. Not an easy task. Protestants rejected the idea of Purgatory 500 years ago. Purgatory is just too Catholic. No one can pray a sinner into heaven. It’s just a trick to sell indulgences (look it up).

Over time, Catholics have lost interest in Purgatory, but Walls is encouraging them to change their minds back to believe in (to remember) this place they lost interest in.

The article on Purgatory resulted in the longest column of “Comments” I’ve seen at RNS, including on gay marriage. Commentators are arguing whether Purgatory is scriptural. I read some of the comments. The critical thinking method here is: you first decide what you believe, and then go to Scripture to find sentences that back you up. Some people call this “theology.”

Much of the disagreement about Purgatory involves “Salvation by Works” vs “Salvation by Faith Alone.” Simply: do good and you’ll go to heaven vs receive Christ as savior and you’ll go to heaven, never mind good works.

FAITH ALONE TALLEY SHEET:

1. PRO: John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (English Standard Version)

2. CON: Matthew 25: 34-36 -‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ (ESV)

3. ETC:  etc., etc. (EVS)

Baffling. If you believe in Christ, you’ll probably, though not necessarily, read the New Testament where Christ tells you to love and care for your neighbor. On the other hand, if you do good things in the world, you’ll probably agree with what Christ had to say. So in my mind, it’s all six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other.

Walls disagrees: “I think that in the next 10 years, purgatory is going to develop as a serious conversation.” I hope it is limited to a serious conversation. During the Thirty Years War (look it up), 7.5 million Europeans died fighting over these things. Let’s not go back there. Agreed?

Either way, I believe that trying to figure out the best, easiest way to get yourself a ticket to heaven seems, I don’t know, like trying to outsmart God. Think?

The Bible is a memoir

“If you want to understand people, ask for their stories. Listen long enough and you learn not only the events of their lives, but their sources of meaning, what they value, what they most want.”

-Sarah van Gelder (Yes! magazine)

In September, Belding Memorial Library (MA) offered a 4 week memoir writing class taught by Jane Roy Brown. Each week six of us, and Jane, sat in the childrens’ section of the library around a knee-high table learning how to write our lives.

Sitting in the library’s childrens’ section helped conjure up some memories. Long ago I sat in a big, puffy red naugahyde chair and started to read the Bible. I don’t remember my age, but my feet did not reach the hassock. That was when I first learned, to my amazement, that Jesus was not a Christian. It took me a few moments to figure out why.

Unlike autobiography (“Just the facts, m’am”), memoir is personal recollection. Fact matters, but story matters more. Writing style matters, but narrator’s voice matters more. Thoreau could have written his autobiography, but instead he wrote “Walden: Or Life in the Woods,” one of the best known and most influential memoirs written.

When I started the class, I assumed I’d write about the exciting parts of my life: checking for a bomb under Betty Williams’ car, rolling under a car to avoid being trampled by mounted police, getting arrested in front of the White House, keeping house at Gampo Abbey, etc. When I sat down to write, the first thing I remembered was how one of my aunts would sleep on a couch in her living room with the television on.  As  I told the story, I watched my family’s interactions, rhythms, oddities. After fifty years, the story still lived in me.

Autobiography: I was arrested with Quakers in 1971 in front of the White House. Memoir: My family is a rich jungle of attitudes, beliefs, history, secrets, love, anger, which somehow led to this particular young woman being arrested in front of the White House.

Autobiographies, says reviewer Jennie Yabroff, “… were useful for students of history, and, occasionally, were even readable.”  Students of history find that using the Bible to track down historical events is somewhat hit-or-miss. Precise geography, accurate time-lines, detailed descriptions are secondary to the main purpose: telling the personal, meaningful stories of the Jewish people and their relationship with God. The Bible is memoir.

Our spiritual ancestors are sharing “not only the events of their lives, but their sources of meaning, what they value, what they most want.”

God’s Opinion on Everything (for Dummies)

 

God has proved himself (herself) very clumsy and a bit vague on what his (her) opinions are, including whether he or she is he or she. On topics as varied as abortion, capitalism, the environment, child-rearing, Occupy Wall Street, women, yoga, apocalypse, same-sex anything, God sends confusing and contradictory rules and regulations.  What kind of God is that?

God (let’s go with “He”) tried to narrow things down with Ten Commandments, but that doesn’t seem to help much. What exactly does “covet” mean anyway? He probably thought “Thou shalt not kill” fairly straightforward. But translations (“kill”? or “murder”?) and a wealth of interpretations (i.e. “Just War Theories”) muddied the issue. I imagine Him banging His head on His desk.

Maybe the problem is the language He chose. What Christians call the Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a little Aramaic thrown in. Other than a few Yiddish phrases, I’m at the mercy of translators. “Oy vey” doesn’t appear often in Scripture.

Leviticus offers a wealth of mysterious commandments. “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.” So much for companion planting. Carrots are forbidden to lie with tomatoes. But Leviticus is too easy a target. Any book with instructions on exactly how a man should sell his daughter just isn’t going to hold any father’s respect. Except perhaps when she’s in her teens.

After God’s done banging His head on His desk, I imagine Him calling in His Leviticus scribe, “What the hell were you thinking? Who cares if a coat has two fabrics?” By then it was too late. Humans had already taken it as the word of the God – the God of mysterious ways.

I love that the slogan describing the UCC` faith comes from Gracie Allen: “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” Those of us struggling to hear God’s voice can take another cue from Gracie when she was channeling God:  “Try to understand me. Nothing is impossible.”

“Forget Grilling, You Can Cook Your Hot Dogs in a Pringles Can”

-Headline from Huffington Post

I was all set to write a serious column about social justice and spiritual consequences when I saw this headline. It’s July, how can I let hot dogs cooked in a Pringles can pass me by? It has solar energy and the two greatest culinary gifts of the U.S. combined in one headline.

This alternative cooking method was developed by an elementary school teacher and used as a science project for her class. Since we’re talking about grilling, it’s probably his class. Cut a window in the Pringles can. The inside, you will see, is lined with some shiny silver aluminum foil substance. Cut two small holes in either end of the can. Stick a wood skewer in, through a hot dog, and out the other side. Set in sun. Aluminum foil substance catches sun’s heat and cooks the hot dog.

Aside from the mind-bending combination of artificial components creating a single meal, there are questions: who ate all the Pringles? Who ate all the hot dogs? Who allowed this teacher to work with children?

The idea of our bodies being the temple of God, the embodiment of our souls, a wondrous mystery of nature, or all three, is dust.  Nutritionists try to head us back in this direction, but keep bumping into each other. (Butter or margarine, vegan or fish, cooked or raw, green leafed vegetables or something that tastes better, vitamin B-somenumber, vitamin C or too much vitamin C, etc.) They could make their lives easier by simply putting up signs over the Pringles shelf that said, “Your body is a wondrous mystery. Think about it.” I suppose someone might think, “Yeah, it can even process this stuff,” and buy two cans.

Having been first raised in Queens, NY, I never ate a fresh bean until I was twelve.  A friend pulled one from her father’s plant and gave it to me. I’m 64 and can still taste that first taste. My parents, born and bred in Manhattan, ate vegetables taken from cans. As they had grown up city poor, having the luxury of a full plate to feed me was a triumph.

Food itself has become something of a religion. As I was eating an egg in a restaurant, a woman came up to me and said, “How can you eat that embryo?” and walked away. I’d committed chicken abortion?   No matter what you eat, someone somewhere will give you a dirty look. Food purity has replaced sexual purity. In parts of our country being gay is okay; give Pringles to your kid and someone will call child services.

I remember that first bite of a raw bean more clearly than my First Communion. And think of it when I pull a bean in our garden.  I admit I am easily shocked. When I hear Gregorian Chant played in a mall to encourage shoppers at Christmas, I am tempted to stop and yell in frustration. One store  had a “Sale Rack” sign hung on a statue of Guadalupe. I dug my fingernails into my palms to keep from ripping it off. However, I’m no food purist, but hot dogs cooked in a Pringles can is just too much. Some people ask whether there is such a thing as sin.

Beans are from heaven, Pringles are from hell.

 

 

 

 

 

Using the Wound to See

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

May 14 is the 2nd anniversary of my accident. On that date in 2012,  a car hit me as I was crossing the street. Against the odds, I did not die. A surgeon who was skilled in repairing “filleted” ribs was at BayState Hospital. Medical staff and an amazing array of tubes, blinking lights, beeping machines, and knock-out drugs kept me alive through septicemia. I’ve written before about the community of comfort, prayer and song that accompanied me. And needless to say, the gift of my vigilant, loving wife Jeannine.

What about now?

You’d think it was time to let go of the past and resume my Alice-ness. However my old Alice-ness is altered. And I’m still discovering the nature of my altered Alice-ness.

This winter I shoveled snow. Afterwards I was on the floor and couldn’t get up, the pain was so bad.  Yesterday I lifted a tray over a coffee table and the same thing happened. The pain is located just below where my body had six surgeries. So I’m writing this on ibuprofen and an ice pack. My body has changed, but what about the other essential parts?

When I meditate, scary memories arise. When I pray, the space is empty. But I meditate and pray anyway, in some form or another. Is that what people call “faith”?

Something still feels amiss. Sarah Pirtle helped me describe the feeling: part of Alice is still on Maple Street, getting hit by a car. Another part is struggling against wrist bindings. Another is having the horrifying hallucination that I was paralyzed for life. Other bits and pieces of Alice lay strewn between Holyoke, Linda Manor, and home. My body sometimes forgets it’s not in a wheelchair.

I am trying to coax all the pieces back, to get reunited with myself. Some people refer to the process as “Soul Retrieval.” The people in the Prayer Medicine group at church have helped so very much. Praying for Kate O’Shea in the group pulled me up and out, allowing me to send energy, with others, to her healing. Praying, sending energy to another person helps me become whole. Perhaps praying for someone sends out a call to all our parts, “Come home, parts, Kate needs you.”

Someone asked her minister, Kate Braestrup I think, to pray for her. Braestrup was dubious about the effectiveness of prayer. After praying, she realized that, no matter the effect on the person’s health, she herself was changed and blessed by the act of prayer. Having been on the receiving end, I know that prayers have an effect on the pray-er and the prayed-for.

Unexpectedly, Emily Dickinson has taught me many lessons. She confronted pain and grief head-on, no walls. She was not given to comforting thoughts, but to examination of these feelings under a scope. She changed my definition of “healing.” Is the work of healing actually keeping the psychic wound open? Not in masochistic pain, but to transform the wound into a opening. Or, as David Brooks said, “…turning it [suffering] into something sacred.” Perhaps a wound of any kind can become another sense with which to experience the world. Emily used that sense.

My Alice-parts are trudging home in fits and starts, what Emily calls “That precarious Gait.” I am trying to coax all the pieces back, to get reunited with myself.  As my physical gait and snow shoveling improves, I also cherish the parallel journey: continuing to walk with that precarious gait, recognizing how many of us walk with that gait, and using the wound to see.

-Braestrup: Here If You Need MeBeginner’s Blessing

-Brooks, “What Suffering Does” New York Tmes Op-Ed April 7, 2014

 

 

Antidote to Apocalyptism

I enjoy reading things that have “irony” stamped all over them. For instance, the church that offers gluten-free communion wafers, and raffles for assault rifles. Sometimes I think I make these things up, but I saw the church bulletin and bulletins don’t lie.

The danger of enjoying irony is that it can degenerate into cynicism. That, as I’ve mentioned before, is a slide into apocalyptic thinking, by both the right and the left: everything is going to hell in a hand-basket (whatever that means). And only God can clean up our mess.

This morning, I came across the complete opposite of apocalypic thinking. The Franciscan Earth Corps are ecumenical groups of young people across the country, aged 18 to 35, who “connect social and environmental justice activities with Franciscan teachings that stress the interconnectedness of creation.”

For instance, on a recent Saturday in Syracuse, members stocked shelves and cleaned storage rooms at a food pantry. In early March, the group screened “Triple Divide,” a documentary about hydrofracking. Later this spring, they’ll put up bluebird boxes at a retreat center. In Milwaukee they led the “March of the Golden Calf,” complete with golden calf, on the issue of money and politics. They read and discuss Franciscan spirituality and practice prayer and contemplation.

Many churches preach and practice those values: engagement in the work of the world, the interconnection of life, solidarity with the disenfranchised, aiding one another, prayer and contemplation. Sometimes the U.S. seems enveloped in apocalyptic hysteria. Are the Earth Corps, small groups, and wise individuals, just islands in a sea of cynicism? The roots of justice and compassion run deep under the earth, intertwining, nourished by the interconnection of life the abounds there, even in a winter that won’t end. Can you feel it?

Now for the real news: 1) Muslim clerics have issued a religious ruling (“fatwa”) forbidding any Muslim from traveling to Mars. 2) ‘Nice Jewish Guys’ Calendar’ sues ‘Naughty Jewish Boys’ Calendar’ over trademark infringement. Pictures at 11.

 

Breaking News – Violence in Society

CBS News  June 6, 2013 2:47 p.m.

“We interrupt this afternoon’s program for Breaking News.  This afternoon, in Conway, Massachusetts, a man was sighted teaching softball to his three children and numerous others. Onlookers blocked traffic on Route 116 for two hours. Pictures at 11.”

Introduction to “60 Minutes”: “There have been reports from the Mid-West that parents have begun feeding their children breakfast, kissing their heads and sending them to school. Six people carried food to a sick person in North Dakota, and in Arizona, a daughter drove her mother to the hospital after her mother slipped and fell. In downtown Chicago a teenager held a door open for a person in a wheelchair.

Tonight we look into: what is wrong with these people? And is it spreading?”

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Isn’t it great news that violence is what makes the news?