Thursday, May 3, 2012

Reflection for May 6, 2012

“I saw new heavens and a new earth”

            When someone you love dies suddenly, the world seems so empty.  Work, supper, errands, bills, plans - everything seems so irrelevant.  Your mind and heart are elsewhere.  The landscape as you drive to work now looks strange; like the receding panorama you see from the rear platform of a moving train, a panorama rapidly being taken over by the past tense.  It’s a world that you feel you have somehow left behind – of little interest anymore.

            I wouldn’t call it simply a state of depression.  There is something positive or curious about it.  I think you begin to feel distant from your everyday surroundings because the death of the one you love has made you suddenly more conscious of other dimensions you were till then too preoccupied to notice.  It’s like a wake up call. Caught up in this merely three dimensional world; caught up in the daily melodrama of the workplace, in the ever changing, never changing politics of “current events”; performing the several roles of breadwinner or housewife or entrepreneur or bureaucrat or “life of the party”; reciting the lines expected of us - it’s no wonder we assume that this theatre of our own preoccupations is the only world there is.
            And then someone like my young son suddenly departs (4/28/93) and you experience grief yes, but also what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke describes in a poem called “Death Experienced”.  “The world is full of roles we act,” he says:

                        But when you went, a streak of reality
                        broke in upon this stage through that fissure
                        where you left: green of real green,
                        real sunshine, real forest.

                        We go on acting.  Fearful and reciting
                        things difficult to learn and now and then
                        raising gestures; but your existence,
                        withdrawn from us and taken from our play,

                        Can sometimes come over us, like a knowledge
                        of that reality settling in,
                        so that for a while we act life
                        transported, not thinking of applause.

            No - that initial sense of emptiness or distraction we feel when someone we love suddenly departs this life cannot be simply called depression.  It can be the commencement of an awareness of a realm so real, so wonderful, so durable that it leaves us – as it were - standing upon our every day stage immersed in the descending light, colors,  pattern and theology of the rose window of some grand cathedral.

                        I am so grateful to a dear friend for giving me this poem – unwittingly - on the second anniversary of the very hour I received a call that my son was dead.

Reflection for April 29, 2012

You must change your life
            It has been said that poems or paintings or any worthwhile work of art should not be seen simply as objects of pleasure – things to be admired, acquired.  They should not be seen as something passive. Rather, such things should be seen as active, as if they impose on us a moral obligation to change our lives; they reach into our passivity and call us forth to become as beautiful as they are.  Take for example Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Candle Indoors”, which opens with:  Some candle clear burns somewhere I come by. / I muse at how its being puts blissful back / With yellowy moisture mild night's blear-all black.
            Hopkins is charmed by the glow coming out of an evening dwelling – that makes the night somehow hopeful.  But in his second stanza he shifts from admiring that candle indoors to sensing it is imposing upon him a moral obligation to become a luminous person; to trim his own lamp, so that others might draw hope from his own candle indoors even as those evening suburban homes aglow which I passed on my solitary walks when I was 10 years old were saying to me, “You have a moral obligation not to despair over the dysfunction of your own home; you have an obligation to save your soul by becoming yourself a candle indoors whence others may derive a moral obligation to have faith, to make of this otherwise dark world  a home alight with warmth.” 
            Of course, I didn’t think of moral obligations when I was 10 years old.  It takes time to catch the voice, the face, the moral imperative that’s confronting us in every “candle indoors”, in every poem, painting, sonata, or biblical episode we encounter. A good example of the gradual nature of spiritual awakening is the case of Mary Magdalene as she sadly faces life on Easter morning as nothing but an empty tomb. But then she sees two angels in white sitting there, asking, “Why are you weeping?”  Then next, she sees a gardener asking her, “Why are you weeping?”  And only then does the apparent gardener get personal, no longer asking questions but simply and intimately saying, “Mary!”
            That’s the way it is with life.  At 10 years of age I pass by those warmly lit dwellings and they awaken in me only a desire for a home that’s more than a stop on a suburban trolley line.  Then, thanks to Hopkins, I later realize those warm domiciles were signaling to me what I myself   must become – a beacon in a world gone dark.  Those angels, that gardener, those suburban dwellings, Hopkins’ poem, every sonata, or vase of flowers, or the evening star, or church interior, or Eucharist lays a moral obligation on you and me to trust that each of us is the most important person in the world.  And over time we should come to realize that the voice addressing us personally (like Mary) out every sonata or Iris or novel or sanctuary or out of every chalice or face we meet is none other than that of the divine Poet out of whose very being came the whole world as “home”, like a rose arbor cascading with galaxies – intent on making you and me his latest poem.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reflection for April 22, 2012

Why all the fuss?

In the 1970 film Little Big Man we follow the adventures of a fellow named Jack Crabb (played by Dustin Hoffman) during the Indian Wars of the 1870’s. Crabb, early on, is captured and taken into a Cheyenne tribe led by Old Lodge Skins (played by Chief Dan George), whom he thereafter refers to as “grandfather”. Circumstances then return him to his own people but later on he is reunited with Old Lodge Skins – and when he reenters Old Lodge Skins’s tepee, the Chief, who is blind in his old age, welcomes Jack (or Little Big Man) back, saying, “Greetings, my son. Do you want to eat?” No rising, no outstretched arms, embraces, tears, no fuss (as in our parable of the Prodigal Son) but simply, “Greetings, my son. Do you want to eat?”

Later on, after much harassment by the U. S. Cavalry, Old Lodge Skins in a quiet moment decides it is “a good day to die” and invites Little Big Man to climb with him from their encampment up a mountain to a place he has chosen to lie down and die. After a ritual dance and chant and words of thanksgiving to the Spirit who lives at the center of the universe, the old Chief lies prone on his back, face to the sky. He closes his eyes and waits - with Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman) watching. After a while it begins to rain hard and Old Lodge Skins gets up shakily, saying something like, “Sometimes the magic doesn’t work.” Then aided by Little Big Man he begins to return to his encampment saying, “Let’s go back to the tepee and eat.”

Old Lodge Skins believes the universe has a center (as does our biblical and church tradition). His problem with modern white men is: “ . . . they are strange. They do not seem to know where the center of the Earth is.” Knowing that himself, he seems always calm, graceful, not easily excited like modern “civilized” people. And so when he is reunited with Little Big Man he simply says, “Do you want to eat?” And when, after his buildup to his self-appointed meeting with death, nothing happens – there is no fuss, no frustration, no bewilderment, no emotion; simply, “Let’s go back to the tepee and eat.”

Now I know that in today’s Gospel when Jesus, after showing his wounds to his frightened disciples, asks, “Have you anything here to eat?” he is validating the fact that he is no ghost, that he is real enough to eat and digest food. But if we overlay what we know of Old Lodge Skins’s style on today’s reading, may we not also suggest that Jesus was trying to snap his disciples out of their unproductive astonishment, “their incredulous joy” (meaning: what they were seeing was too good to be true)? When amid all their wide-eyed, hands thrown back, mouths agape reaction to his risen presence, he simply calls them back to our everyday world with “Have you anything here to eat?” – may he not be saying, “Why all this fuss? So I have risen from the dead? Why should that surprise you? It’s been foretold in Scripture for centuries, it has been the aspiration of human hearts since the beginning of time. So now it’s happened! So let’s get on with it; tell everybody about it – that death has been conquered and need no long freeze us in our tracks and frighten us into crucifying each other. And by the way, do you have anything here to eat? That looks like a piece of fish over there.”

The effect? The disciples are startled into recovering their sense of hospitality. They no longer stand there idle but begin to grill that piece of fish as prelude to their going of into the wide, wide world encouraging people to stop making such a fuss over this transient thing called death.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reflection for April 15, 2012

Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them “Peace be with you.”

It’s consoling to know that no matter how firmly we lock our doors, Jesus can still break in upon our privacy, bringing with him the radiance of a divine world we’ve long forgotten. There was a time, of course, when our doors and windows seemed to be wide open, when our senses of sight, hearing, touch, imagination were especially sharp to pick up the traces of God’s Spirit all around us, be it in a rose arbor or blue jay or the sound and scent of a seascape. Or as Wordsworth put it: There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight, / To me did seem / Apparelled in celestial light, . . . But driven by some radical anxiety, similar to that of the disciples in today’s Gospel, we learned early to bridle our senses, to detect only the ominous instead of the wonderful in our environment. We learned to think survival, to lock our doors, shutter our windows - to dwell within a world of business gray.

Still, even as we grow older, Christ can intrude upon us as he did upon those mournful disciples. Now and again, by way of little signals, he can appear among us to remind us that there’s so much more to reality than our doubting minds will allow - as he did with Anne Porter, who tells of a wartime Sunday morning walk in 1940’s Manhattan with the littlest of her sons. First Avenue was empty and gray. No one was up. The bridges over the East River stood silent like great webs of stillness. Returning home past locked-up shops, she paused to notice one window heaped with old lamps, guitars, radios, dusty furs - And there among them a pawned christening-dress / White as a waterfall. That’s how Christ and the real world he represents can break in upon us - so that suddenly we realize how much we have let death constrict our minds and, if only for a brief moment, find ourselves ready once more to share in Christ’s victory over death, to explore with him once more the brilliant, eternal NOW that lies beyond our muted senses.

Marcel Proust in his masterpiece In Search Of Lost Time writes often of such moments when, for instance, the mere taste of a French pastry dipped in tea would lift his hero, Marcel, out of the boredom of his Parisian social life to taste again the sacramental quality of his childhood village of Combray - where the discovery of a simple hawthorn bush flooded him with affection and the names of the village streets (Rue Saint-Jacques, Rue Sainte-Hildegarde, Rue du Saint-Esprit) made him feel he dwelt in nothing less than a suburb of God’s celestial Jerusalem. And then there was the village church of Saint-Hilaire, whose sculptured facade and stained glass interior made it seem like a gateway into depths light years beyond the shops around it. And its spire! From wherever young Marcel viewed the local landscape, that spire always looked as if it were the very Finger of God tenderly touching the earth.

Indeed, so profoundly did he remember it that, later in life, were he to find himself in a strange quarter of Paris and to ask directions of a passerby to an intended destination and were the passerby to point out some distant spire as the place to turn to reach that address, Marcel would stand motionless, oblivious of his original destination, remembering the spire of his childhood. Only after a seemingly interminable moment would the passerby see him then begin to walk a bit unsteadily, turn the appropriate corner - but as Marcel himself comments, “The goal I now sought was in my heart.”

Moments of epiphany! Moments when Christ and the fullness of life he represents intrude upon our shuttered world! Stay alert! Their frequency may be only dependent upon how often you would like them to happen.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Reflection for March 25, 2012

Reflections on Jenny

I especially remember two things about Jenny. At the literature sessions I conduct in the Spring Lake retirement community’s music room she would always placidly glide into her front row seat five minutes after the hour. Jenny did not seem to live in clock time but in what the mystics might call real time. Somewhere in the course of her life she had acquired the pace of Paradise itself - which is perhaps what made her seem so ethereal to me – airy - afloat as it were - not as much subject to the grip of gravity as we are.

Nor was it only her late arrival that impressed me but the blithe way she paraded in! For Jenny was an individual parade - a pageant of simply one person - as she passed delicately through our lives always wearing a beribboned straw hat and wreathed with diaphanous shawls; clad in pastels of lavender or combinations of pink and purple, iris or rose right down to her ankles - as colorful as a rainbow - more like a child or an angel than an elderly widow. And all of this seemed quite deliberate to me, as if she were determined to live in one season only: Spring - determined to allow Death to have no dominion. As a nurse and spouse of a doctor, she knew human frailty well - had seen the shadow of Death fall upon young and old. And I think somewhere along the way she decided to confront that shadow with lavender and thereby hold it at bay while she gracefully went about her business exploring the Garden of Eden all around her. But Jenny’s pastel spirit was housed within a fragile body. One day my phone rang and a voice said, “Jenny is dying.” It was early evening when I arrived at Warrack Hospital’s intensive care unit. How stunned I was to see her so colorless, her breathing short, her eyes so vacant. And I thought, “So this is what happens to Jenny and someday to me. And what’s the use of all the lavender and lace we contrive to forestall Death.”

But what I didn’t reckon upon as I left her bedside (just moments before her death) was Nature’s imminent intention to strike up the band! To spoil Death’s intent to abort Jenny’s parade! For as I drove down Highway 12 toward Sonoma at sunset a glare in my rear view mirror caught my eye. There and in my side view mirror the whole sky had become an incandescent orange across which there stretched clouds ranging from pink to rose and , yes, to lavender. Then, looking to my left and right and directly through my windshield there were enough wisps of cloud and high mist reflecting the setting sun to make the whole valley before me - in the direction of oncoming night - glow with deeper shades of purple and violet. I mean, the whole sky in every direction was full of the colors of Jenny, as if, even as her soul took flight from that frail body, she had left her whole wardrobe behind, shawls, scarves, ribbons, skirts - scattered here, there and everywhere across the heavens in a final gesture of departure. Or could it be that God himself was laying out by way of all those splendid clouds a whole new, celestial wardrobe for Jenny composed of all the colors of the rainbow out of deference to Jenny’s taste.

I experienced my faith revived. The whole panorama seemed to be a message from Jenny herself saying, “Don’t let appearances get you down. See how gloriously amid my pastels I have survived the ravages of Death.” And I could imagine her already somewhere on the other side of that setting sun, arrived at last in that realm of real time (beyond clock time) of which she already seemed so familiar. Jenny’s son later told me that she died at 8:19 PM, precisely the moment when I beheld that sunset. Of course, then I began to think, if Jenny died at 8:19, could it be that God expected her at 8:14? It would be quite consistent with Jenny’s blithe tendency to arrive anywhere - five minutes late.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Reflection for March 18, 2012

“Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: The God of heaven has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem . . .” First Reading Cycle B

Someone has said we walk through life backwards. We see the past and the immediate present – to some degree – but tomorrow is a different matter. We’re never sure about tomorrow until it happens. Who could guess on September 10th, 2001 that the Twin Towers would collapse into a pile of rubble on September 11th? How could I have known in 1950 as I brooded over my studies that a confrere in Rome would have a breakdown which would lead to my taking his place and travelling down a path of studies that would change my life far beyond my imagining?

Back in the 500’s BC a Jewish poet composed Psalm 137: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion / . . . our captors asked us for songs . . . “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” / How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, . . . / May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you. This fellow’s face is toward the past, the homeland he knew, the Temple of Solomon, David and the Hebrew heroes of biblical history. He is confined among the Jewish exiles in Babylon (modern Iraq). Back in 587 BC the Babylonian armies crushed the kingdom of Judah, put an end to the dynasty of David, reduced Solomon’s Temple to rubble, deported the psalmist and his compatriots to a ghetto far away. His face was fixated on the past; his heart was broken.

But then came news reports out of tomorrow – rumors that a new Persian king named Cyrus was swallowing up one kingdom after another right up to the frontiers of Greece – and about to swoop upon the psalmist’s Babylonian captors. An unexpected tomorrow was becoming today. And what’s more, this Cyrus was not a monarch like the ruthless oppressors of the past (the Assyrians and Babylonians with names that were enough to scare anybody: Ashurbanipal, Esarhaddon, Nabopolassar). No, this Cyrus believed in the diversity of peoples. He favored returning the prisoners of former empires to their homelands where they might rebuild their temples, revive their worship, cultivate their land, all at Persian expense! They would not be allowed to become political powers again; but they could have Persian governors of their own ethnicity!

Who could have predicted this – a savior who was not a Hebrew, unfamiliar with Hebrew history, a worshipper of the sun god Marduk – a total alien, the kind condemned by the prophets - used by God to propel the Jewish people into an expanding tomorrow? Judah (as a political entity) would be transformed into Judaism – the former state would become a Church – guided by priests instead of corrupt royal families, focused on a new Temple and on a fresh collection of old religious traditions known as the Bible.

No longer would political boundaries be a problem. Jews could go anywhere in the world (which they did) bearing their Book, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem’s new Temple, held together not by politics but by a creed, their contemplation of true God and true behavior. Initially their defeat by the Babylonians, the destruction of their homeland and almost of their faith was something for this psalmist to lament – but now as he turned away from yesterday, surprised by how God was rearranging his tomorrow, he had reason to step into that future full of expectancy.

God works in strange ways – and as far as we are concerned in even stranger ways when the next stage of human liberation will be achieved by a nobody out of Nazareth who turns out to be the Grace of God made flesh.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Reflection for March 11, 2012

Campfire Girl

Among Eudora Welty’s stories is one called “A Visit of Charity”. It’s about a fourteen year old Campfire Girl named Marian who, dressed in a red coat and white cap and bearing a potted plant, pays a visit to an Old Ladies Home upon a wintry day. The place itself, made of whitewashed brick and reflecting “the winter sunlight like a block of ice” must have added to the chill. The nurse who opened the door was also dressed in white. “I’m a Campfire Girl,” said Marian. “I have to pay a visit to some old lady.” The visit was worth three points (toward a merit badge?), which will prove to have been the only motivation Marian had to visit the place. The nurse asked if she were acquainted with any specific residents. “With any old ladies?” stammered Marian. “No – that is, any of them will do.” The nurse took her down a corridor to one of the rooms and knocked, saying, “There are two in each room.” “Two what?” asked Marian as the nurse pushed her through the open door. Suddenly Marian was alone with two old women.

One was feeble but up and about. She wore “a terrible, square smile . . . on her bony face.” With a claw like hand she plucked off Marian’s hat. “Did you come to be our little girl for awhile?” she asked - and then snatched the potted plant. The other woman was lying flat in bed, irritable. “Stinkweeds,” she said, referring to the plant. And so it went, with the one being cloyingly sweet and the other increasingly cranky over every remark her roommate made. The tension in the room made Marian go rigid.

The irritable bed-ridden women summoned Marian to her side. “Come here!” Marian trembled. (The other woman explained: “She’s mad because it’s her birthday.”) “It’s not my birthday,” screamed the woman in bed, “ . . . no one knows when that is but myself and will you please be quiet . . . or I’ll go straight out of my mind!” Marian “wondered about her . . . for a moment as though there was nothing else in the world to wonder about.” It was the first time she had ever experienced anything like this. Then the old face in the pillow slowly collapsed. “Soft whimpers came out of the small open mouth . . . she sounded like -- a little lamb.” Surprised and embarrassed, Marian turned to the other woman and said, “She’s crying!”

And with that she jumped up, grabbed her cap and, eluding the other lady’s grasp, ran from the room, down the hall, past the nurse and out into the cold air. “Wait for me!” she shouted to a passing bus and jumped on; then sat down and took a bite of an apple she had hidden for herself.

Even back in the early Church some Christians preferred the company of pleasant folk over the apparently shabby ones. I myself once visited a nursing home almost every day where I had an aged relative and I must admit, I sometimes bridled at the thought because of the condition of so many of its residents – and the forecast it gave me of my own inevitable physical and mental deterioration. The New Testament Letter of James tells us to get over that; that a treasure awaits us at the margins of polite society – a treasure Marian almost acquired when she said, “She’s crying.”

And what is that treasure? An awakening of our closed minds, of our muted senses and consequently of our hearts, of a sense of solidarity with people in pain, indeed an awareness of our own pain, the loss of that numbness we characterize as equilibrium. In other words, an awakening of our humanity! Marian didn’t stay long enough to fully experience such an awakening but hopefully one day she’ll return to that Old Ladies Home with something more than a merit badge in mind.