Thursday, October 13, 2016

Tipping Point

This is quite an election.

Things are incredibly nasty out there in Facebook land when DT or HRC come up. I am quite astonished at the language even "good Catholics" are using against those they disagree with. Tempers are frayed and feelings are high.    The level of rancor is, at least in my experience, unprecedented.

In a far-ranging discussion yesterday, a friend of mine mused "Sometimes I have to stop and assess myself and ask whether I am trying to control things? Usually I am, so I have to step back and let things unfold."

That may be part of the problem with voting this time around, and with these awful discussions.  We are focused on controlling the outcome (which we cannot) rather than contributing our part and letting things unfold. We are just certain that we are absolutely right and that we can argue others to our side to change what is happening. We aren't and we can't. And because we are so intent on outcome (on both sides), I think we forget that the power that is our witness, even in our differences. Too often that has not been positive these days, neither different in kind or degree from the secular world. And different in kind and degree we are called to be.  

Others are watching.  If we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ disrespectfully, how can those on the outside expect to be treated, especially when the issues at stake are sensitive and divisive?

For me this election boils down to this tipping point: my utter inability, for any reason, to vote for a party and candidate so focused on extolling the virtues of abortion and enshrining them in law and culture, one so focused on eradicating Catholic thought from the public square.  It also hinges on my reluctance to fail to exercise what puny power I do possess in my ballot to prevent same. That is the point at which I meet God in my conscience and at which I must decide to witness for Him or not, and how to do so. 

Not everyone shares that perspective. I understand that, and I doubt I can change it.  For all of us, it's a bit like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: Ultimately, there is that point at which we say, "No! If I bend that far, I'll break."

I am mistaken if I really think I can accurately predict the outcome of this election and these clashes, either in the near term or the long one, though I think that the general consensus is that Catholic life will not be easy under Hillary Clinton, and possibly not for years after.  On how to avoid that, or mitigate it, not so much agreement, given the multiple factors in play and the inherent uncertainty of the process.  Hence, the angst and the anger, the strong words and the vitriol.  We really do want to control the outcome and we cannot, though we are giving it our best shot.  In some measure, our rage is the rage of impotence at events beyond our control, coming to rest in the person of a person with whom we disagree.

The outcome of this election is not up to me; it's not in my hands and I delude myself if I think it is. 

What is in my hands is my stand on what I see as central to my faith and my relationship with God.

What is also in my hands is whether I can pause long enough to hear another person's tipping point, and respect it even if I disagree. If we can do that, we'll be able to join together after the election in whatever ways are needed. If we can't, the wounds we have inflicted on one another will keep us apart. The Scatterer's work.

That's it, at least for me. I think that is all it has ever been and all else is distraction. And it calls for a lot more civility (and humility) in the bargain, if recent Facebook threads are any measure.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016


On the shelf in my living room, amongst a collection of kachinas, are several clay figures.  They are storyteller dolls, a traditional Pueblo motif.  The figures show an adult with children gathered around. The adult is passing on the stories of the culture,  a powerful symbol of the responsibility of those who tell tales to the next generation.

A recent article about the Stanford rape set me to thinking about storytellers and culture.  The article raised an interesting point—that the woman was a victim not only of the rape but of the insistent narrative that drives the hook-up culture on campus, a narrative that encourages young people, men and women, to engage in behavior that is risky and personally very damaging because “everyone does it.” 

It struck me that one reason we’ve experienced such a rapid cultural decline is because we have lost the importance of storytellers.  Young people today don’t hear competing narratives.  They really don’t know anything other than the hook-up culture that the media and the arts relentlessly promote.  They have no idea that there is an alternative because their experience has been scrubbed clean of it.  And we as a society have let that happen, in part perhaps because we too have been beguiled by the narrative and in part because we have not rejected it by our presence or with out pocketbooks.

Once upon a time, storytellers were the custodians of culture. In ancient society, history and culture were passed from generation to generation not only in behavior and customs, but in the tales that reinforced them.  Stories reminded us of ideals and heroes and passed on in subtle form the shaping of the culture through the ages.  If they reflected the darker side of life, it was usually with an eye toward something better if difficult to achieve. 

Were those tales perfect? Not at all.  But generally speaking, they preserved the valuable and left room for improvement. 

Parents in particular seem at a loss these days.  A friend recently bemoaned the sorts of things his 13 year old daughter saw on a popular cartoon series. When I reminded him that there is an “off” knob on the TV, he shrugged .  “What’s the point?  She’ll just hear about it from her friends and at school.”

The point is that she will have heard from her father that it isn’t acceptable.  She will know that there is another way of looking at things.  One of my most vivid memories from my teen years was the day my mother found Catcher in the Rye amongst my books.  She perused it, and commented, “Some pretty rough language in that.”  That led to our talking, not just about the book, but about language and the power of it and the reasonable limitations on it--the power of the storyteller.  Mom wasn’t afraid to tell me something was unacceptable and she wasn’t afraid to talk about it.   She didn’t accept the social meme that Catcher in the Rye was a great book.  She demanded something more of her storytellers than simple social acceptance, and she taught me to do the same.

It astounds me that a society that gets its collective knickers in a twist over trans-fats can’t manage to get in an uproar over the damage,  quite personal,  that literature, music, television and movies inflict every single day.  Parents who swoon at the thought of their children being exposed to non-organic food don’t bat an eye that they are constantly exposed to media that, in large part, seems aimed at changing the very foundations of how we think about ourselves and about others, a narrative that seems to say that anything goes unless, of course it involves traditional morals and values, especially if religious.

Maybe it’s time to take control of story telling again.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Jesuits, Rabbis, Strangers, and Awe.

I have a prayer partner.  Every morning we connect across the miles and exchange intentions.   Yesterday morning, we texted as usual:

How may I pray? she asked.

Not sure what I need.

I will ask Mary to accompany you today and meet every need that arises.

I smiled.  My friend is much more direct in her faith than I am, much more aware of those events that communicate God’s love and presence to her than I am, much more conversant with our Blessed Mother.  On the other hand, I have been reading The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, finding that both my formation and inclinations are much more Ignatian than I would have thought and that perhaps--just perhaps--I experience God and His saints much more than I realize.  One of the last passages I read before getting off the plane Thursday afternoon was this (a quotation form one of my favorite Rabbis, Abraham Joshua Heschel): more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding.  Awe itself is an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves…Awe enables us to perceive  in the world intimations of the Divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to see the ultimate in the common and simple.

In passing I wondered what Mary’s accompaniment would look like, and I envied my friend her ability to truly experience that presence, with Heschel’s sense of awe.

Later in the morning, I headed out from my hotel to mass, passing a storefront still decorated from Valentine’s Day.  I stopped in surprise—here in New York, on the route I chose to take, was a three story window decorated with gold and silver images of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.    I was taken by the image: red clothes, extravagant puffed hearts aflame, and the whole of the city reflected in the window.  My friend’s words came to mind.

Mass at St. Patrick’s these days is interesting—the interior is still covered with scaffolding and the daily faithful at compressed into a few pews, surrounded by orange cones and yellow tape and gawking tourists.    I took my place at the end of a pew, near one of the columns.  Ahead of me to my right was an older man, long, thinning, grey hair spilling over the collar of his worn, brown coat.  He held an old missal, gilt edges gone brown with use, the onionskin pages, well thumbed and stained, the ribbons faded and frayed.  

I suppose I noticed him because he was so oblivious to anything but his book and the cross on the high altar, lost in his own world of prayer: turning pages to reveal an old-fashioned image of Christ crowned with thorns, fingering and occasionally lifting his rosary, sitting, kneeling, extending his hands, book and all, in some private gesture of worship.  

Before long, a well-dressed man entered the pew right in front of me and next to the man.  He looked askance at him for a moment, then gathered himself for mass, quiet, reserved, typically New York in a long black coat with a black hat on the pew next to him.  The older man continued to rattle his beads and turn his pages until mass began.  His private devotions continued, beads hitting the wood of the pew, pages rustling, hands extended, even as his eyes were fixed on the priest at the high altar.  The man in front of me edged away a bit.

As the priest announced the peace, the strangest thought flitted through my mind. Please let him offer me the peace.  Please me see Your eyes in his.  I need to see  Your eyes today.

That’s about like asking for a tropical day in Antarctica.  New Yorkers aren’t known for eye contact, particularly with strangers.  I think it may actually be against the law up here.

Just then, the man with the missal turned right to me and reached his hand to mine and took it, enfolding it in his other hand, soft, warm, like the hands of a priest.  He looked right at me, so directly I wanted to pull away but couldn’t.  Wide, bright,  blue eyes, almost unblinking, set in a face worn by the years but open and untroubled.  It wasn’t more than a second before he spoke, but it seemed like an eternity.  The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.  His peace be with you.  Then : He loves you, you know. He loves you. He wants you to know that.   You are child of the love of Jesus and of Mary.  He continued to hold my hands, looking straight at me, with no more words until the Agnus Dei began.  All I could do was whisper Thank you as  he dropped my hands and I turned to the well-dressed man—something I never do once the  words of the liturgy have taken themselves up again.  He shrugged his shoulders a wry look on his face and brushed my hand with his before turning back to the mass.  I can’t remember what he looked like, but I think I will remember the other man’s face for a very long time.

I will ask Mary to accompany you today and meet every need that arises.

We all need to look into the eyes of Jesus.  Sometimes we can’t escape the fact that we do.  And Mary's job is only and always to bring us Jesus.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My Favorite Sins

There’s already been an ocean of ink spilled over the synod and the relatio that has come from it, with plenty of disappointment on both sides.  The relatio retains the vague and non-specific language that characterizes thinking-in-process, but it does offer a few challenges for us as Catholics, at least the way I read it.

One of my favorite bloggers responded to this language:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

With this:

This can only refer, therefore, to Catholic exclusion of men and women who are living an active homosexual lifestyle. Are these individuals to be granted “a fraternal space in our communities”? How so? How can we reject their lifestyle while accepting them? In what way exactly are we to grant them “fraternal space in our community”?

Fair enough questions.  There is a reason to be concerned that the Church not sacrifice truth for comfort, and I think that’s what this particular blogger is getting at.   Those concerns are not the only ones.  Nor do I think the relatio aims at that, despite his misgivings and distrust of the language of the document. 

Permit me a small anecdote.

A year or so ago, a friend of mine from Maine came to visit.  Our friendship came from relatively rocky soil: a Yankee and a Southerner, whose lives are very different. An “uber-Catholic” and a lapsed Catholic who can’t accept the Church because, in her mind, it can’t accept her for who she is.  A forty-years married woman and a committed lesbian.  A businesswoman and a scientist.  Not a great deal in common, but still a friendship developed.

Maine had recently passed its law permitting same sex “marriages;” I wondered as we went out for dinner whether my friend had taken advantage of it and what my response would be.  We’ve had enough conversations over the years that she knows something of my faith; I know something of the pain of a life abandoned early by a father after the death of a young brother and the difficulties of being different in a seemingly uniform and content world.  In the back of my head echoed all the proscriptions of various writers who have, at one time or another or in one way of another counseled that recognizing in any sort of positive way these “marriages” constitutes an affront to the faith and an erosion of the family.  All sorts of admonitions to present the hard truths of the faith clearly rattled about in my brain and I prayed desperately to be excused from any such conversation.

We were waiting for our entrees when she finally spoke.

“I just wanted to let you know that Sue and I got married.”

For a woman who makes her living with words, I was oddly silent, and my friend knew it.  Her next words were quiet and disappointed.

“I thought you might congratulate me.”

There it was.  A painful request for acceptance, not so much of gay lifestyle as of a friend who, in her imperfection, had sought solace and stability.

“Of course you have my congratulations,” I said.  “I am happy for you,” thinking to myself and God: If this is sin, I’m sorry.  It’s the best I can do.  You and I can talk about that later. 

She hurried on to add, “It’s not like I think this is a marriage like you and Steve have.   I know it isn’t.  I don’t expect it to be.  It isn’t a sacrament, I know that.  I don’t expect it to be, that isn’t right.  But Sue and I are worried about what happens when one of us gets sick.  We wanted to be able to visit each other in the hospital. This seemed the best way for that to happen. “

My friend is a cancer survivor, twice over, and bad cancers at that.  Her concern isn’t academic.  There it was: the most human of desires, to be comforted by those we love when we are ill, not some great desire to pressure me into affirming something she knows I do not, will not, can not.

I have some up close and personal knowledge about her concerns.  I was working in health care law years ago when hospitals began to deal with these issues of visitation rights.  The stories of gay (divorced, estranged, single, abandoned)  patients denied the comfort of those nearest and dearest were not common but they were tragic.  State laws and hospital rules regulated those who were admitted to visit patients especially in ICU settings. 

It didn’t end there. In the absence of written documents stating otherwise, state law defined who was able to act as a surrogate for the incompetent patient and gay friend with whom I have lived for forty years wasn’t on the list.  Parents, from whom I have been estranged for those forty years because of an admission of homosexuality were.  Loving woman who has shared my life these past fifteen years was not listed but son, who moved away ten years ago and has not spoken to me since was.  Moreover, there was a hierarchy that defined whose decision would control.  Friend, when listed at all, was at the bottom of the list.  For most of us, the list would work fine—but for most of us, there would not be a problem in the first place.  The legal deck was stacked against those falling outside the realm of usual from the very beginning especially those whose most meaningful relationships had no recognition in law.

I understand the reason for these laws: to protect the institution from legal liability in the case of surrogate decision making and to provide broad legal guidance when conflicts arose.  Certainly there were options to challenge the order of the surrogates built into the law but those options were unwieldy, time consuming and expensive and involved courts and judges too often inclined to support the legislative priorities rather than enter into a measuring of the equities. 

Real injustices were done in the name of legal convenience.  Liability limiting statutes for institutions became a mechanism for restricting the rights of patients.  The default justification became that it was possible to designate surrogates by appropriate written instruments and the remedy began to be to require them on admission.  Tough for you if you happened to be admitted incompetent and hadn’t executed one in advance.

I did a lot of work on the ground and in the trenches in this area, some of it for a hospital in a Catholic hospital system.  I don’t recall vast numbers of Christians—Catholic or otherwise-standing up in the public arena and saying This is nuts!  These are sick people entitled to their consolation.  We will not be a party to a one-size-fits all system that puts the onus on the sick person.  Figure something else out.  In point of fact, a lot of professed, good Christian people were responsible for putting into place a system that really did cause a lot of pain and fear for folks who didn’t fit the norm.  I think we have to answer for that. 

It’s clear that there are those in the gay community who use the push for same sex “marriage” as a vehicle to condone a homosexual behavior and push for acceptance of it as it is.  That’s clearly not something that Catholics can or should accept.  But there are others—like my friend—who do not. The issue is both greater and smaller than we see.  The piece my friend mentioned is just that—a piece, not the whole, but it was the piece that mattered to her.

Which brings me to the subject of my favorite sins.  There is no question that the assault on marriage is an assault on society, but it’s not the only one.  Nor are homosexuals asking for same sex marriage the ones responsible for the greatest decline.  Heterosexuals—even those in the Church—have done a fine and dandy job dismantling marriage all on their own. The striking difference is that the Church has found a way for many of them to remain in the fold, even in their chronic sinfulness.  Where else can they experience the love of Christ, the help of His body and the call, however slow and faltering the response, to continuing conversion? 

In theory, the Church welcomes all her children and asks a great deal of change from each of them.  In practice, the Christians in the pew sometimes—often, usually—fall short in their dealings with each other.  Those failures have consequences.  The reality is that we have not been very good at communicating the love and acceptance of the Church for a good many people. Too often our language—though explicable and theologically correct—builds a wall that is nearly insurmountable.  Try explaining to someone already hurt by rejection and name calling that “intrinsically disordered” isn’t a reflection on their person.  Too often we lead with the need for change instead of the welcome.  Too often we make change a prerequisite for fellowship, rather than understanding that only in relationship can we change.   Too often we look like hypocrites when we do and those outside the circle are acutely aware of it.

I can understand why one might not want an openly gay couple who flaunts a sexual relationship in a leadership position in Church.  But doesn’t the same thinking extend to the divorced and remarried-without-a-decree-of-nullity Catholic housewife who heads the parish council?  Or to the businessman whose hard dealings are a matter of court and public record who chairs the finance council?  And aren’t they all supposed to be in the pews with the rest of us, starting worship by reminding ourselves that we have no right at all to be there except by the grace of God:

I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned….

That same favorite author of mine, in discussing the call for pastoral care of those cohabiting wrote of the need to offer cohabiting couples alternatives, such as residence with a local widow, a room with a happily married Catholic family or an apartment furnished through the Church as an alternative to cohabitation: Come now. Let’s cut the crap.  If the reasons for cohabitation really are financial, and the couples require pastoral care, then why don’t we offer the sort of pastoral care I was suggesting?

My guess is that we don’t offer it because the parish won’t really provide it.  We’ve come to think of sins and problems as individual, not collective.  I have no role in that gay man’s choice to “marry” his lover; the decision of those young people to cohabit has nothing to do with me and shame on them.  They just need to make another choice.  It seems to me that later in the Mass, just before we receive Jesus,  we pray forgive us our sins….

I remember a few years ago our pastor making a call from the pulpit for a family to take in a young exchange student who needed a place to live because of dire circumstances that had developed in his living arrangements  The parish isn’t large, but it’s wealthy with an abundance of relatively young retired folks with empty homes and comfortable circumstances.  He got exactly one offer, from a working couple.  One wonders how many people in any parish would leap at the chance to invite a stranger into the home? I’m not suggesting that it is everyone’s charism to do so; I am suggesting it is the parish’s role to figure out a way for that need to be met by the parish and I am not sure we are particularly good at that.  

Our local Catholic high school holds football practices on Sunday.  We can’t even give up an addiction to sports and the desire to funnel our kids into the best colleges in order to keep holy the Lord’s Day.  What makes us think we are self-sacrificial enough as a community to provide no-cost housing for cohabiting couples? 

Perhaps we need to take a look at other sins that are destructive to the human spirit and the family.  St. Ambrose taught that if one has two shirts in his closet, one belongs to the poor.  Where does that leave me with clothes I have not worn for years, empty bedrooms and four cars in my drive?  It’s not the sin of unchastity, but as I recall, Dante thought avarice was a greater sin than lust.  And avarice abounds….

The older I get and the more time I spend examining my own poor self, the more I realize my tendency is to tell others how to act, to offer my sage counsel on where they have gone wrong in their thinking and acting, especially when their behavior involves sins that I don’t see myself sharing.  Sometimes I am even right in what I have to say.  What I too often ignore is what role I have had in bringing about, fostering or failing to alleviate  their problem, their error, their sin.  It’s that mote/plank thing again.  I am more than willing to rationalize my favorite sins and more than willing to heap opprobrium on those I am not personally tempted to.  I am not so sure God sees it that way.

I am guessing that there are those in the blogosphere who would criticize my response to my friend.  Certainly there’s room.  I’m not sure that I offered her my congratulations out of real sentiment so much as from a desire not to appear churlish—Southern women are, after all, gifted with a politeness gene that supersedes all others.  But God only gets mixed motives out of me and at any given moment and I am as likely to find myself outside His perfect will as in it.  He makes do.  Maybe I blinked when I ought to have stared.  I hope did what I did to respond in the best way I could to a friend who dared to present me with a naked need for human connection.

We are still friends, perhaps better than before, perhaps not.  We talk, often about the tough issues of the day, including the call to holiness and the need to conversion—hers and mine.  We talk about issues political, social and religious, including same sex attraction.  I see some of her sins; she sees many of mine and that doesn’t alter either the clarity of our call to holiness or our struggles getting there. 

Someday, perhaps, I will be able to show her clearly enough for her to risk coming back home the love of the Church, who really does welcome her and want her at the family table.  I’d like to make the journey toward God, stumbles and all, with her at my side.  I wish for her the sacraments, the Magisterium in all its glory and all its demands, and the whole Body of Christ.  I wish it in spite of my sin and hers.

I think maybe that’s what the relatio means by accepting with fraternal kindness without compromising the teaching on marriage.