Death, Be Not Proud

Today, March 31 is the anniversary of the death of John Donne, Anglican priest and poet in 1631. I am familiar with only a small portion of his writing but everything I have read has left me stunned with its sublime beauty and profound spiritual insight. Perhaps you know this selection from MEDITATION XVII in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: 

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” 

The following is not only my favorite of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, it is among my all-time favorite prayer-poems, ever…

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

 

Another Donne sonnet grows in significance with each passing year and loss that I have grieved…

 

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

 

What are we to say about someone whose words still nourish, inspire and console nearly 400 years after his death?

Eyes that Refuse to See

Yesterday I was in my doctor’s office for a routine lab test to confirm that the 10 mg of generic Lipitor is keeping cholesterol within my doctor’s prescribed limits. An issue of WebMD was the best choice among really lame publications in the waiting area. Passing over articles on reducing belly fat, seven ways to prepare chicken and secrets for a good night’s sleep I was attracted to a report out of Australia that older people who have an active social life – that is, friends – live 22% longer! Do we really need WebMD to tell us that?

Many bemoan the apparent disintegration of our families and communities. Millennials are disaffiliating from their parents’ religion at unprecedented rates. Schools, Scouts and service centers are finding it virtually impossible to recruit sufficient volunteers for essential programming. Sociologists chart the disintegration of urban neighborhoods as the rural areas continue to empty of population. Some frantically bewail an attack on the very definition of marriage and family. The result is a broad-based anxiety, heightened sense of isolation and fear for personal safety all the while we become more isolated. No wonder we don’t need a magazine in our doctor’s office to tell us that people with a rich assortment of friends are happier and live longer.

Our social reality is an ideal “place” from which to hear the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday in Lent – the story of the man born blind. Deborah J. Kapp, professor of Urban Ministry at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago brilliantly debunks the simplistic claim that families and communities of the past were more connected, attentive and supportive – that people took better care of each other! Kapp invites us to more carefully look at the story of the man born blind through this “lens of anxiety about collapsing social capital.”

We see that our prized and protected presumptions about some prior idyllic age are what collapse. Each of the social supports that were supposed to be in place for the blind man fails to deliver. The man’s communities, the religious authorities, even his family want to see a certain “reality” and fail to “see” him for who he is or appropriately “deliver” for the man. Religious leadership doesn’t want to believe the man’s story because it opposes the story they want to tell and the power they want to retain – authority to define sin and dispense grace is a blinding narcotic! Even the man’s parents put their own social standing before their son’s welfare. Perhaps we too are so blind to this overly-familiar text that we fail to see its compelling relevance for our lives.

Yesterday, something else I was reading jumped off the page. This time I was at home in my recliner, not the doctor’s office. Although it is not an ancient text nor reverenced as Scripture, it delivered a corroborating indictment of blindness in…

those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. … In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. 

What do we see when we look upon our families, neighborhoods, work places, faith communities?  How do we view and exercise authority? How are we called to receive, to heal, to serve? Are our eyes opened when we read the Scriptures? Do we truly recognize the Christ before our eyes?
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The contemporary text is from Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel, #94-95. You may link to the original [here] which opens to the entire document.

Professor Deborah J. Kapp’s insightful analysis of John 9:1-41 may be found in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2 edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. pp.116-120.

All the Same God

A friend who commiserates with my impatience and frustration with politically correct God-talk which too often degenerates into namby-pamby babble sent a You-Tube link she knew I would appreciate. Canadian Bruxy Cavey, leader of The Meeting House ministry, brilliantly addresses in 2 minutes and 42 seconds the all too common question: “Don’t we all believe in the same God?” There are times and places where it is appropriate to ignore that question and move on to social banter about the relative benefits of Arizona in February over sub-zero Minnesota. But willful complicity with slopping thinking and post-modern relativism is inexcusable.

When the occasion is appropriate Cavey proposes a simple, honest and respectful formula: Ask lots of questions. Learn what you can. Affirm all that you are able to affirm. Build bridges on anything you hold in common. Respectfully share what you believe. Notice – and this is very important – the questions and dialogue are mutual, genuine and sincere. They are not a clever snare to catch the other in their error or ignorance so we can demonstrate our superiority. We all see such traps coming and are sick and tired of such foolishness and waste of everyone’s time.

Cavey’s core message really hit a responsive chord in me and has provoked fertile “dis-ease” for my Lenten reflection, perhaps yours as well. He states with transparent conviction that he believes in a God so loving and so relational that he comes to us in Christ most clearly, most explicitly. Then Cavey delivers the clincher: “I love a God who loves us so much he dies for his enemies rather than slays his enemies. Most gods would slay their enemies. This one dies for them, to forgive them, to embrace them.” WOW!

Intellectually I have mouthed that truth for decades. Getting it into my heart – and gut – is a lifelong challenge. At this time, this year, this Lent the challenge has much less to do with the ontological nature of God and everything to do with my belief, my conviction, my willingness to follow this Christ:

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.…” (Luke 6:27-29)
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You may view Bruxy Cavey’s 2 minute 42 second video [here]

Mercy Me!

Who knows where such thoughts originate! For the last twenty-four hours the melody of “There’s Wideness to God’s Mercy” has been resonating through my mind. It’s been mostly consoling, also a bit tedious. I don’t especially care for the tune – too saccharine for my spiritual proclivities:

If our love were but more simple,
We should take Him at His word;
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord. 

Sorry, that sort of sentimentality simply doesn’t cut it for me! Composer Frederick William Faber (1814-1863) was just too 19th century British for my tastes. Though the Victorian style is off-putting I confess very much appreciating the hymn’s concluding refrain: 

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us
Come and gather at His feet?

I guess its in the air — much is being said about mercy these days. Pope Francis talks about it incessantly. Mercy certainly permeates the Lenten air we breathe. April 27, Divine Mercy Sunday, is the day chosen for the celebration in Rome of the canonization of Saints John XXIII and John Paul II. Perhaps these are all factors for the “wideness of God’s mercy” being such a resonate refrain.  It might just as well be a simple recognition and reluctant admission that I am in need of such “sweetness of the Lord.”

A much more appealing “resonance” comes from Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ. I vividly recall the refreshment – “plentiful redemption” – I experienced about twenty-five years ago when I came upon her ground-breaking classic, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. In theory we might all agree that God is ultimately indefinable, beyond all images and words. In God’s design and given human nature, we need the Incarnation of Emmanuel, God-With-Us. But we easily get hamstrung regarding gender. God is neither male nor female! God can and needs to be spoken of in terms of either and/or both genders.  Male and female are equally Imagio Dei and mutually interdependent.

She Who Is honors that truth by meticulously demonstrating that our Jewish and Christian scriptures are replete with female images of God — provided we have eyes to see and hearts open to receive! For example, in the Hebrew Bible, the word for mercy is taken from the root word for womb, rechem. In our prayers for mercy, we are actually asking God to have womb-love, to forgive us the way a mother does the child of her womb. In praying that God have mercy on us we are asking that God “mother-us” back into the fullness of life.

Few scholarly insights or theological teachings have warmed my heart and transformed my prayer as this deeper appreciation for God’s merciful love. There is a wideness to God’s mercy …and plenteous redemption!

Mercy me! Mercy me!
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Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ is Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Fordham University. Her website, especially the section “Professional Influence”, is illuminating and liberating.

In Grateful Memory

Dom Christian de Chergé and his fellow Trappist monks rank among my all-time heroes. The movie “Of Gods and Men” recounted their faith-filled commitment to inter-faith dialogue and their tragic fate. On the night of March 26-27, 1996, seven monks from the monastery Notre-Dame de l’Atlas of Tibhirine in Algeria were kidnapped.  They were held for two months and then found dead in late May 1996.

Aware of the reality in which they chose to live, Dom Christian, the superior, wrote a testament in 1993 to be opened and read if he died by violence. The text was opened on the feast of Pentecost, May 26 shortly after the monks were killed.  In prayerful respect for these martyrs I recommend Dom Christian’s testament for your reflection on this anniversary:

If someday -and it may be today- I happen to be a victim of the terrorism which now seems to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country. 

May they accept that the Sole Master of every life cannot be indifferent to this brutal form of departure. 

May they associate this death with so many others, just as violent, left in the indifference of anonymity.

My life is not worth more than any other.

Nor is it worth less.

In any case, it lacks the innocence of childhood.

I have lived long enough to know my complicity with the evil which, unfortunately, seems to prevail in the world, and even with the evil which might suddenly strike me. I would like, when the time comes, to have this moment of lucidity which would enable me to ask for God’s pardon and that of my brothers in humanity, and at the same time to pardon with all my heart the one who strikes me down. I cannot wish such a death. It seems important to testify to this. I do not see how I could be happy to see this people whom I love to be indiscriminately accused of my death. It is too high a price to be paid for what is perhaps called the “grace of martyrdom” by an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes Islam to be. I know the contempt in which Algerians are held. 

I also know the caricatures of Islam, encouraged by a certain idealism. It is too easy to think that one is acting in good conscience by identifying this religious path with the fundamentalisms of its extremists. Algeria, Islam is something else for me; it is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough. I believe this, as far as I know and have seen, so often finding in this place this leitmotiv of the Gospel learned at my mother’s knees, my first Church, specifically in Algeria and already respecting Moslem believers. Clearly, my death will appear to justify those who would quickly dismiss me as naive, or as an idealist, “let him tell us what he thinks of it now”! But they should know that this will finally liberate my most burning curiosity. For, God willing, I will be able to plunge my vision into the Father’s in order to contemplate with Him His Islamic children just as He sees them, all illuminated with Christ’s glory, fruits of His Passion, clothed by the gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and re-establish resemblance while enjoying the differences. I give thanks to God who seems to have wanted this lost life, completely mine and completely theirs, for heavenly JOY, for everything and despite everything. 

In this THANK YOU which says everything from now on about my life, I of course want to include you, friends of today and tomorrow, and you, friends here, beside my mother and father, my sisters and my brothers and their families, repaid a hundredfold as promised! And also to you, friend of the final hour, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, I also desire this THANK YOU for you, and this A-DIEU (TO-GOD) foreseen for you. May we be allowed to meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, Father to both of us. AMEN!
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I highly recommend the compelling history, The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria by John W. Kiser (St. Martin’s Griffin 2002).

Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope by Christian Salenson (Cistercian Studies, 2009., trans. 2011) is perhaps the most compelling and inspiring theology I have read in ten years.

Contours of Capacity

I landed in Phoenix seven days ago with a quote from Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings framing my arrival: “Each day a life. Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back.  It must be held out empty – for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity.”  Enduring gifts of family, companionship, place, years and memory invited me to trust my emptiness as the markings of capacity.

For decades my brother Jerry made sure my sister-in-law had a fresh long-stem red rose on the coffee table. This was my first visit since his funeral in July so there was a boatload of apprehension about his absence. I arrived at Marilyn’s house on the first morning with a fresh red rose from the same Safeway that was Jerry’s source. We shared a tearful embrace in the family room within eye-shot of Jerry’s recliner, his mantra fresh in my ears: “Life on life’s terms.”

How proud he would be, and I am, of his sons! On Sunday evening, in the side yard of the home where the boys grew into men, 39 y/o Matt leapt with sweeping command of airspace tossing a football to a jumble of Jerry’s grandkids – unknown to Matt I recognized his father’s athleticism and good-looks flashing across his face. We had just returned from the zoo where the kids were strategically preoccupied with all-things exotic allowing this godfather to savor with approval stories of a godson’s incessant juggling of parenting, profession and priorities. What is “success”? How is its definition different at different times in our lives? Quantification, calculation are so inadequate, deficient. Marilyn had previously presented Jerry’s walking stick to me. I was grateful to lean upon its sturdy base while we made our way through the elephants, camels, flamingos, jaguars and macaws!

Before dinner Chris garnered an uncle’s unspoken praise and admiring attention when he dismissed his choice of ice water as a matter of Lenten abstinence. His eldest would later share her frustration with “giving up candy” but failing to “make it through Ash Wednesday.” She quickly shifted to excitement at the prospect of her fourth grade class being able to enact the Stations of the Cross at church on April 12. With an inward smile I commiserated with Ella’s frustration and delight – of course we fall short with even our best intentions. Perhaps the point is not our success or endurance but our need for God and enduring providence.  Enacting the Stations of the Cross will serve her well – hopefully a far distant time from now – when life inevitably presents them to her in a myriad of forms. But that avuncular wisdom should surely wait another time. We had a multiplicity of blessings before dinner as numerous children vied for the prestige of leading our family prayer. What goes through a grandparent’s heart at a moment like that?

My mind remains awash with the prospect of Ella’s class enacting the Stations of the Cross. I was reminded all too well throughout the week. Staying with a dear sister is a precious gift but provides yet another lesson in letting-go and moving-on. Claudia and her husband share a love strengthened by having grieved the loss of their first loves. Dean is an absolutely marvelous man! Thankfully, love is not a zero-sum game and he and Claudia have no need to disguise an enduring love for Carol and John. News on Saturday of a sister-in-law’s uterine cancer weighs heavy as another cross to bear with a tenacity only hope can inspire. The prospect of a favorite nephew’s move to Boston comes with the sobering reality of seeing much less of him, and his objectively adorable pre-school daughters. A weekend retreat at the Franciscan Renewal Center imprinted a resonant image of Moses – a man of privilege as a member of Pharaoh’s household whose fidelity to his core identity transformed him into a poor desert nomad with leadership and authority of a very different sort.

Lenten wisdom even sprang from the utter devastation ten and twelve-year-old grandnephews expressed after Creighton’s collapse in the NCAA basketball tournament. Their dad, another godson, used the occasion to introduce them to one of life’s hardest lessons: Very, very few people ever win their last game! Do the math… 68 teams, single elimination, only one team wins the championship, on that team perhaps only four or five are seniors for whom this is their final game.  So many compete, so very few finish with a victory. Perhaps the greatest lesson parents can teach children is the fine art of losing and that life is ultimately about loss, letting go… Lenten themes, Stations of the Cross, paschal mystery, emptiness marking the contour of our capacity.

I never shared Jerry’s athleticism and actually hated football. Perhaps now I can finally catch the wisdom he wanted to pass on to grandchildren. I leave PHX today with Jerry’s walking stick firmly in hand, grateful to lean on its steady base, with his mantra echoing still… Life on life’s terms!

Even more, as he never tired of saying… Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Gracias, San Romero!

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was shot while celebrating Mass in the chapel of La Divina Providencia Hospital on this day in 1980.  It was one day after a sermon in which he appealed to Salvadoran soldiers – as Christians – to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government sponsored repression of the poor and denial of their fundamental human rights.  An estimated 250,000 people participated in his funeral six days later in the Cathedral of San Salvador.  I have had the privilege of visiting the chapel, Romero’s modest residence on the hospital grounds and to pray at his tomb three times over the years.

We do well to hear his words again today:

“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”

One day before he died: “When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.”

And seconds before he was shot: “I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.”

Today Romero is popularly referred to as San Romero among Salvadorans.  He is one of the ten 20th-century martyrs who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London, a testament to the wide respect for him even beyond the Catholic Church.   In 2008, he was chosen as one of the 15 Champions of World Democracy by the Europe-based magazine A Different View.  In 1982 Pope John Paul II prayed at Romero’s tomb on his first visit to El Salvador and officially recognized him as a “Servant of God” in 1997.  It is widely presumed that Archbishop Romero will be beatified during 2017, the centennial year of his birth.

What would Archbishop Romero say about all the fanfare and adulation?  I’m pretty sure he’d challenge us to ask what is it about us that needs to place others on pedestals, declaring another’s faith “saintly” as if it were rare… and rarefied!!!  He would likely explain he was simply doing what needed doing in service of the Gospel… that we should expect our shepherds to smell like their sheep.   Would that we had many more pastors and bishops who cared for the vulnerable and poor with such evangelical clarity and passion!  I suspect he’d tell us to be careful about pointing fingers, questioning whether anyone should be on a pedestal.  With genuine pastoral humility he would say, “What about you?  Tell me more about you.”

What about us?  You?  Me!  How am I going to live the Gospel – today, here, now?