From the Playground

Riley, my nephew’s senior Golden Retriever stood at the fence with tail wagging.  On the other side were young children on the playground of Villa Montessori.  Shouts of freedom, tromp of running feet and rhythmic squeaks of swing sets offered a consoling din to our conversation.   Lunch on the patio with a favorite sister-in-law marked another consoling ritual renewed.  Among memories recounted and updates feverishly made, Marilyn reminisced, “Remember how Mom used to love being out here when the kids were on the playground?  She loved their running, yelling and screaming!  She’d never tire of their energy and joy… reminded her of her own childhood, the kind she always wanted for kids.”

Nearly the age she was then, we affirmed her truth as gospel.  Perhaps a little wizened by age, it felt refreshing to cut through the flurry and noise of our lives – years – to cherish memories, reclaim life’s gift, reaffirm what matters.  Unknown to Marilyn I was distracted by another flash of memory.  A few weeks ago at a formal dinner preceding a panel discussion at a university, Rabbi David Wirtschafter grounded us with a quote by Reinhold Niebuhr: “Humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer.”   My overly primed intellect had resonated with the truth of Niebuhr’s insight and envied the rabbi’s brilliance.   Nussled with  sounds from the playground, recalling a mother’s joy, they were reconfirmed now by maternal wisdom.

With all this rippling through my day, I became intrigued with a story spotted during a routine iPad survey of favorite sites.  What really drew my attention were remarks by Jesuit Superior General Fr. Adolfo Nicolás marking the 100th anniversary of a Sophia University in Japan. Likening religious experience to a person who can appreciate the intricacies and variations of classical music, Nicolás explained that “religion is first of all very much more like this musical sense than a rational system of teachings and explanations.”  In this Jesuit’s teaching I heard the wisdom of Rabbi Wirtschafter and Pastor Niebuhr affirmed.  Even more, I heard music that charmed my mother’s ears. 

Here to escape the harshness of winter and soak up the warmth of Arizona family, I resonate with Nicolás’ lamenting how many people have lost our attentiveness to music because of the many other distractions of the modern technological age: “Just as this musical sense is being eroded and weakened by the noise, the pace, the self-images of the modern and postmodern world, so is religious sensitivity… [We] must first of all work toward helping people discover or rediscover this musical sense, this religious sensibility… This awareness and appreciation of dimensions of reality that are deeper than instrumental reason or materialist conceptions of life allow us.”  AMEN!

Being reminded of how Mom used to love hearing children at play – their running, yelling and screaming being music to her ears, renewed by their boundless energy and joy – I am again grateful for the way she taught me to pray.
Joshua J. McElwee’s report on Fr. Adolfo Nicolás’ remarks may be found [here].
The quote by Reinhold Niebuhr is from Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.

Our Capacity

Today I repeated a forty-year ritual – it began at 4 a.m.  In 1974 I drove my parents to their retirement in Arizona.    Today I am the age they were then and have begun taking early Social Security.  Rushing down Concourse F to catch a 7 a.m. flight to Phoenix I recognized the change.  I could readily identify the demographic – faded polo shirts ten years out of style, denim pant suits, either a profusion of jewelry or none at all, sensible soft-soled shoes, demeanor suggesting a 4 a.m. wake-up every morning, and all the gray hair …or cocker spaniel blonde.  Even before getting close to the gate I recognize my companions on Delta this morning.  How did we get here? …so soon?

My Dad died in Phoenix more than twenty years ago.  We are now in our fourth generation of Phoenicians.  It’s my first visit since my brother’s funeral in July.  His son took my grand-niece to a father-daughter dance last weekend.  Change imposes its will on all of us. I am staying with my sister who was the fourth sibling to flee the wily Midwest for winter warmth.  In the guest room where I write the flag that draped the casket of a brother-in-law I knew since age nine sits atop a bookcase.  Laughter from my sister and her “new” husband ripples from the living room.   Life changes quickly.

I need this break.  Forecasters anticipate consistency: lows in the upper 50s, highs in the lower 80s.  No chance of precipitation.  Humidity today was 4% — low even by desert standards.   It’s been a harsh winter in MSP with more than just a few storms along the way.  I need the warmth that Arizona family has afforded these many years.  Reflective of the season, I fell on the ice this morning at 4:45 when Jeb the Dog took me out for my morning walk.  Jeb can be left to roll in the anticipated four inches of additional snow by himself.  Some things just can’t end soon enough!

The aridity of a three-hour flight has a way of focusing attention.  Time to reflect.  Remember. Read.  It returned me to an accumulation of unfinished books on Kindle.  Today I found a long neglected biography of Dag Hammarskjold.  A quote from the Secretary General jumped off the screen:  “To remain a recipient – out of humility.  And preserve your flexibility. To remain a recipient – and be grateful. Grateful for being allowed to listen, to observe, to understand.”  Hammarskjold never had the luxury of a long life or the reminiscence proffered by retirement.  He died too soon in a plane crash at age 56.

For those given the gift, a quote from Hammarskjold’s Markings frames our 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.”  Today I arrive empty hoping to remain a recipient, to be grateful, to listen, to carry, to give back.  The gifts of family, companionship, place, years and memory dispose me to trust my emptiness as the markings of capacity.
I highly recommend: Hammarskjold: A Life by Roger Lipsey, University of Michigan Press 2013.

“Let Your God Love You”

Be silent.

Be still.



Before your God

Say nothing.

Ask nothing.

Be silent.

Be still.

Let your God

Look upon you.

That is all.

God knows.

God understands.

God loves you

With an enormous love,

And only wants

To look upon you

With that love.




Let your God –

Love you.

– by Edwina Gateley
from In God’sWomb

No Jumping Allowed

Reverend Fred Phelps, the founder of the nefarious Westboro Baptist Church, is reportedly dying at a hospice in Kansas.  We all know him for organizing protests at the funerals of anti-LGBT hate crime victims, soldiers, and celebrities under the slogan “God Hates Fags.”  It was a proud Sunday morning about twelve years ago when we at the Church of St. Luke warranted his angry attention.  Never had the 9:30 lower church community sung “All are Welcome” with as much vigor, resolve and celebration.

I wish we had done something explicitly prophetic to merit Westboro’s ire. “Lukers” truly were a community of faith-filled, joyful, inclusive, prayerful and socially committed Christians. Truthfully, we were simply one of a series of churches targeted by Phelps in a media-mongering march to our neighbors at St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church.  Reformation had recently called a lesbian to serve as an associate pastor.  Still, this moment stands out as a very proud day within a very distinguished history of what was Church of St. Luke.

It came as a shock to learn that Fred Phelps had been a champion of civil rights.  Unbelievable.  Hard to imagine but the evidence is irrefutable.  In a PolicyMic post on Twitter, Matthew Rozsa explains the inconceivable. After moving to Topeka in 1954, Phelps developed a reputation for taking civil rights cases that other attorneys — black as well as white — refused handle. Phelps’ reputation reached the point that he became the go-to litigator for victims of racist persecution. Rozsa reports, even after he received numerous threats and had his windows shot out, Phelps persisted in his work. By 1987 Phelps won an award from the Bonner Springs branch of the NAACP for his “steely determination for justice during his tenure as a civil rights attorney.”

So what happened?

Rozsa debunks the argument that Phelps merely took those cases to make money. He also discredits as far too simplistic the idea that Phelps’ subsequent hate-mongering proved his earlier work was insincere.  We want to believe there is an impermeable wall between that which makes one person a “hero” and another one a “villain.” Rather, the frightening fact we so tenaciously want to deny is that good and evil simultaneously reside within each of us.

Rozsa’s uses Phelps’s life to illumine the truth we want to flee – not only can good and evil co-exist within each of us, they often spring from the same source. Rozsa credits philosopher Eric Hoffer’s classic The True Believer when explaining: Individuals who invest their life’s work in larger social causes often do so for psychological as well as ideological reasons. Regardless of the exact beliefs of the movements in question — whether they are religious or political, left-wing or right-wing, intellectual or visceral — people who become “true believers” in those causes frequently do so to fulfill a variety of needs to both their egos and their ability to comprehend the dauntingly complex external world. Indeed, as Hoffer demonstrated, this fanatical personality type could be found behind causes ranging from Communism and Nazism to Christianity and Islam… with “true believers” able to flip from one point-of-view to a seemingly contradictory one precisely because their core psychological needs were still met.

Consequently, instead of viewing Phelps’s earlier civil rights activism as an angel to his subsequent raging homophobe’s devil, we should see them as different manifestations of a single root drive. We need to recognize that the same fervent conviction and inner belief system that can fuel the cause of justice can also be used to deny justice to others, even though the genesis of both those forces can sincerely hold that each is serving a righteous cause.

Nothing excuses malevolence or hate.  But it helps, especially during Lent, to hear the warning implicit in Fred Phelps’ tragic life:  Everyone — progressives, conservatives, libertarians, centrists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists — is capable of being both a hero and a monster. We all believe what we do as much out of pride and the need to be swept up by a “greater cause” as we do out of detached intellectual and moral analysis.

It’s not just about Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church is it?  It’s not about self-congratulatory contentment with communities as objectively praiseworthy as St. Luke’s.  It is not about a single protest or revolting slur.  It’s not outside “us” or about “them.”  It is about me, you, us, all of us together. It’s about each of our faith communities and our nation.  It is about sin, violence and all that lurks in the human heart.  It is about grace, love and becoming the Imagio Dei we are at our core.  It’s about giving ourselves over to the paschal mystery.

It’s about not leap-frogging Lent in our desperate need for Easter.
Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist.  His article on PolicyMic is available [here].


You’ve got to love this guy!  Bright. Successful. Self-confident. Leader in the community.  Well connected.  Spiritually curious and open.  Seeks facts on which to base judgments.  Prudent.  Assertive.  I imagine him as someone who does more than builds a list of contacts but actually works his social network!  Appears to keep clear boundaries between faith practice and public life — a real 21st century kind of guy.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I loved the guy back in the 20th century – he’s someone with whom I readily identify.

Nicodemus schedules his face-to-face meeting with Jesus at night.  Curious but not ready to go public.  Intrigued but not fully committed.  Outside of daytime hours and professional routines, Nicodemus is careful to hedge his bets.  Tolerance and prevailing norms prescribe keeping one’s spiritual pursuits private, personal, segmented from one’s wider life.  One might even imagine Nicodemus saying, “Who am I to judge?”  I trust anyone who can be that honest.

What I’ve always loved about Nicodemus is that he is more than a caricature of a man’s man.  He represents so well the perennial human challenge of integrating our public life and religious norms with personal spirituality and the living of our faith.  Nicodemus struggles with the same complex human reality as the rest of us.  I even “get” the prosaic absurdity of a man wrestling with yet another male’s (Jesus) admonishment about the need to be “born again.” At least in the way the evangelist tells it, there isn’t a woman in sight. Don’t you just love it – two men remonstrating about the birth process!  Talk about being in the dark!  Truth be told, I often am too.

The Gospel for today, the Second Sunday of Lent, gives us only the first of Nicodemus’ three meteoric appearances in John’s gospel.  The second comes in chapter 7 when he offers a courageous but ambiguous defense of Jesus in the form of a rhetorical question: “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”  My faith is often like that – nuanced, cautious, tentative, perched on the difference between what law prescribes and what human wisdom proposes, covering all the bases.

I don’t think it disrupts our Lenten practice to jump from the Second Sunday to Good Friday.  It doesn’t ruin the story by pointing out that Nicodemus’ third appearance is with Joseph of Arimathea in taking Jesus’ body down from the cross – certainly a moment of profound nocturnal darkness.  In the synoptic gospels the women prepare the body of Jesus for burial.  In John’s gospel it is these two men who come with the spices to perform these intimate rituals.  It is consoling to know that both genders are capable of such expressions of courage and intimacy.

I love Nicodemus because he is so genuine, believable, contemporary.  Aren’t we all a bit like him?  Curious but cautious. Committed but careful.  Anchored in what the law says but pushed to break the rules.  Ambiguous.  Equivocal.  Persistent.  I hope to hang in there with my fears, questions and distractions all the way to Good Friday.  I would like to believe that I might join at least another man and a few women in lovingly taking the broken body of Jesus from the cross.

Just People

Forty-nine years ago I was popping my buttons with pride.  High school was a tough time for me with peer pressure dampening any spontaneous expression of individuality. But inside I was exploding with satisfaction, pleasure, even a dash of adolescent smugness.  My big brother was marching in Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King.  No one else at my elite, all-male, JESUIT Creighton Prep could share that distinction with me.

Lest we forget, it was illegal for whites to marry a black person or an Asian during my seemingly idyllic childhood in Nebraska.  That barrier fell two years before Selma but it was not until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all such prohibitions remaining in recalcitrant states.  Unjust laws were crumbling and a wave of much-needed reform was sweeping our nation.  My brother was atop that wave.  Not until last Sunday afternoon, March 7 was I reminded of the anniversary.  I regretted not having honored that momentous event on these pages.

This weekend provides another chance.  Today, March 14 is the anniversary of the death of a famous icon of the civil rights movement.  Fannie Lou Hamer died on this day in 1977 from breast cancer at the age of 60.  She lived most of her life as she was born – a poor black sharecropper in Mississippi with a fourth grade education.  The system persisted well beyond emancipation as nothing more than a system of “debt slavery” enforced through insidious segregation and intimidation veiling all too real brute force.  This began to change for Hamer when at the age of 45 she heard a preacher encourage blacks to defy racist repression by doing something as radical as registering to vote.

It remains difficult for us to accurately recall the shame and injustice of these years and admit the oppression and degradation that was part of the air we breathed in America.  But somehow, somewhere this poor, black, uneducated woman had the inspiration and courage to decide that subsisting by sharecropping a “master’s” land was not what God had in mind for her or for others like her.  She would pay a heavy price!  In 1963 Hamer was one of a group arrested in Charleston, South Carolina for having the temerity of illegally entering the side of a bus terminal reserved for whites.  While in jail she was savagely beaten and left with a damaged kidney and eyesight permanently impaired.  In 1964 she would be part of a “Freedom Delegation” from Mississippi challenging the credentials of that state’s slate of all-white delegates to the Democratic National Convention.  Though thrown out, Hamer’s eloquent defense touched the conscience of a nation.

A few weeks back I wrote on this site about a friend who teaches at a Catholic high school. Regulars here will recall she wanted stories about the great men and women of faith her students needed to know about.  Today I nominate Fannie Lou Hamer.  Yes, she was powerfully motivated by the unspeakable injustice she and others like her had to endure.  But, she was empowered and sustained by her faith!  She cited Ephesians 6:8-9 as her touchstone: “Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Isn’t this the sort of hero, mentor, role model, woman of faith, saint we would want our young people to emulate?

And what about us?  Are we willing to confront the structures of injustice that permeate the familiar “world” that props up our seemingly secure and predictable lifestyles?  Are we willing to courageously change course even in mid-life – Hamer was 45 – when suddenly we hear the Word of God calling us to live lives of integrity and self-transcendence.  Are we willing to pay the price that all God’s children are rendered the equal dignity, inalienable respect, practical opportunities and legal protection which we would demand for ourselves and for our children?

Fannie Lou Hamer died of breast cancer at age 60.  She freely gave her life for causes far greater that we might put an end to human degradation and structures of violence.  We are blessed that her compelling witness comes to us during Lent.  We, too, are called to repentance, conversion, and transformation in the way we give flesh to the Word of God.  Like Hamer, my brother was just an ordinary sort of guy.  We have heroes, mentors and role-models all around.  What about us?  What about today?
I was inspired by and recommend to you the story of Fannie Lou Hamer for today, March 14 in All Saints: Daily Relfections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time by Robert Ellsberg.  Crossroads, 1999.

Our Moment

In ten years there will be half as many Catholic priests in the United States than there are today.  Yes, you read that correctly – in 2024 there will be 50% few priests in active ministry in the U.S. than there are now. That comes as a shocker!  A real wake-up call.  Some cynics might cite this as evidence that the Church truly is going down the tubes.  Traditionalists might revert to ever more fervent prayer for vocations.  A more appropriate and faith-filled response would be to acknowledge this portends huge changes ahead (and change always carries an element of loss, upheaval and fear) but to see it all with hope-filled curiosity.

It all comes down to how we view the church, who’s in charge and the nature of our faith.  Is the church essentially hierarchical and dependent on ordained clergy?   Is celibacy a prerequisite for priesthood?  What is ordination and, more critically, need it be gender-specific?  What if the church really is “the People of God” as consistently reaffirmed – for Catholics at least – fifty years ago by Vatican II?  What if we take Baptism and Eucharist as the foundational sacraments on which the whole edifice is founded?  Rather than burying our heads in denial of reality or interpreting this reality as proof that the world is going to hell, there is another option – the option of faith, trust, yielding to God’s initiative, wide-eyed curiosity about what God might be up to now!  Imagine God still engaged, the Spirit still active, the Risen Christ still alive.

Much has been made this week about the first year anniversary of Pope Francis.  Analyses, op-ed pieces, bloggers and pundits have all weighed in with amazement, gratitude and high praise for the refreshing change this old man is bringing to a seemingly moribund institution. Some of us would say it’s about time!  I’m squarely among this later group.  But it’s ultimately not about how many priests will be active in ten years, what Vatican II said fifty years ago or even what Francis has brought to a lumbering bureaucracy in only one year.  All are pieces of a bigger drama that Francis would be the first to say is not about him at all.

Christopher J. Hale and Ashley McGuire in the current issue of Time, an icon of American culture with no mission to evangelize, observe correctly: Francis has reminded us that the faith is not simply a set of rules, regulations and procedures, but a complex human drama about the goodness of creation, the pain of sin and brokenness, and the power of God’s redeeming love. E.J. Dionne incisively captures the essence of the man in the Washington Post: [Francis] declared that the church’s main mission would no longer be as a lead combatant in the culture wars. It would stand primarily with and for the neediest.” Francis would be the first to say that all the hoopla must not be about him!  Ultimately, it’s all about us — about all of us loving others and the merciful love of the Holy Other for all creation.

We need not fret about ten years hence, appeal to exhortations fifty-years past nor fixate on the vitality of a single year.  Michael Sean Winters summons us in the National Catholic Reporter to live in this God-given moment: “We are to preach the Gospel and, it turns out, people are still hungry for the Gospel. We are to walk humbly with Jesus Christ and, it turns out, people are still encouraged and comforted and ennobled by the companionship of their savior. We are to reach out to the poor and the marginalized and, it turns out, people in this highly self-referential age are still capable of self-transcendence with a bit of inspiration and encouragement.”  Francis has been extemplary in offering that encouragement.  But, we miss the whole point if we assume this is about the Pope.  It is the vocation of the whole People of God and of each and every one of the Baptized, all who are gathered at Eucharist.

Imagine God still engaged, the Spirit still active, the Risen Christ still alive.  How might this change and transform us …and our world?
You may find the entire articles at the following sites:
Christopher J. Hale and Ashley McGuire [here]
E.J. Dionne [here]
Michael Sean Winters [here]

Getting Centered

Last evening I participated in a men’s Centering Prayer group that meets monthly.  You need to know that my arrogant Ignatian heritage is really skeptical of much out there parading as “meditation,” especially the practice of “mindfulness.” And in the spirit of absolute self disclosure, I wrestle with a harsh and inflated judgmentalism that prejudges anything that smacks of “centering” as Gnostic navel-gazing.  Okay, my rhetoric here might be getting a bit carried away.  But it’s to make a point!

Last evening provided a breakthrough! Something flew beneath my egotistical radar! It was an opening reference to Centering Prayer guru, Fr. Thomas Keating (Disclosure: I am favorably disposed to all things Trappist).  The man leading our pre-prayer discussion recalled Keating’s observation: “Silence is God’s primary language.  Everything else is a poor imitation.”  Defenses lowered, I am at least paying attention!

A second image really helped me better understand the sort of self-awareness we try to cultivate in Centering Prayer.  This self-awareness talk is what trips me up and triggers judgments of navel-gazing.  The very common experience of sitting in a bad movie is what allowed me to further lower my defenses.  We all know the experience!  And, we all generally tend to sit there enduring the bad movie – we’ve paid for it; I must be missing something others find good; it would be rude for me to walk out.  We all know the script!  The sort of “awareness” Centering Prayer tries to cultivate is that which frees us to walk away from the bad tapes and videos in our prayer, and possibly disposes us to walk out of the bad movies of our lives!

A couple other experiences last night were also instructive and therapeutic.  The first is better understood in relation to the bad movie.  We believe we “should” sit there!  No, no, no, no!  The self-awareness we seek never uses “should” except to highlight the truth that its appearance in our reflections should be a big red flag that our “super-ego” is controlling our behavior.  At least when it comes to prayer, when the demonic word “should” appears, we should immediately run the other way!  Moral norms certainly have a place!  They simply are a crappy basis from which to pray.

Another “learning” I really need to take away and bring to my prayer is getting out of my head, my intellect.  The sort of awareness we seek in Centering Prayer is visceral, lower-down, in our gut.  It doesn’t align with our mind.  Rather, it is better recognized as one’s listening heart.  In that regard, my prayer would be vastly enriched with a few simple steps: Breathe. Go deeper. Be present there. Be carried. Another pray-er’s explanation also hit home: Yield. Soften. Watch. Smile. 

What really brought the evening’s prayer and teaching together was reference to Mary of Nazareth as exemplar.  The Annunciation to Mary by the angel was certainly anything but cognitive or head-centered.  It certainly wasn’t egotistical or navel-gazing.  Here only Denise Levertov’s disarmingly apt description suffices: “consent, courage unparalleled, opened her utterly.”


Denise Levertov’s Annunciation is a must-read and may be found [here].

Anticipating Dawn

Last evening was the final gathering of “Storying and Re-Storying” at Wisdom Ways.  That carries a bit of regret but also feels right, a feeling of being satiated after a three course meal of rich fare and stimulating conversation. Reminds me of deep bonds of companionship my friend Susan Stabile has recounted with fellow pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.  Reminds me of moments of intensity and insight, graced intrusions into our lives, we may recall but can never recreate.  Over the course of three gatherings we ruminated, wrote, read, shared, retold and remembered.  Along the way, our eyes were opened and we recognized the sacred in breaking open the stories of our lives.

Our focus last evening was Legacies of Resiliency and Hope.  Unlike the two previous evenings, I did not leave with a poem to be tweaked or a grand synthesis ready to share.  Only fragments remain to be gathered, re-membered.  Among these fragments left for gathering-up and re-storying:

Grief and hope are not exclusive of one another or coldly sequential; we hold both/and if we hold the second at all.

That fragile, nearly imperceptible shift in our voice moving from lament to yearning – deep, insistent, yearning – is the harbinger of hope’s return.

Disruptive events become engrained in the stories of our lives. Each needs to be “re-storied”.  Discordant memories can be re-membered, need to be re-membered if they are to bring efficacy and worth to our lives.

“The direction in which you look will determine what you see.” – Ted Bowman

When feeling awash in life’s relentless flurry, trust that “flow” which has the capacity to hold you and take you where you may not yet know.

Hope presumes and requires others – it is social as well as personal.  Hope is not a possession or a product but takes practice and is a process. Real hope presumes, may even prefer, that the future remain open if not ambiguous.  Real hope is practical, prudent and active; favoring goal-setting, decision-making and willingness to change.

The vacant room, the empty chair, that hole in our heart may never be filled, need never be filled.  It is what it is, perhaps sacred, a lingering testimony to love.

And from Thoreau: “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”

State of Grace

Some days, life is simply an embarrassment of riches.  Yesterday was one such day.  The fact that it was nearly 60 degrees and I was out and about without a coat from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. had a lot to do with it!  Many things conspired to make it so.  Certainly one big ingredient was the rich discussion over dinner and later at a panel discussion sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Inter-Faith Dialogue. Last evening was the culmination of four monthly gatherings of a discussion group reading Religious Understandings of a Good Death in Hospice Palliative Care, edited by Harold Coward and Kelli I. Stajduhar.

Now, WAIT! … hold on before you dismiss the topic as depressing!  What made the evening so inspiring was the convergence of a shared conviction that a “good death” is the culmination of living well. Another contributing factor was the extraordinary array of panelists representing Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim perspectives. They were graciously facilitated by Rabbi David Wirtschafter, the Jay Phillips Center’s visiting scholar in Jewish Studies.  It really was quite an enjoyable, hope-filled evening.

Prior to the program, I was privileged to sit at dinner with Owais Bayunus, past president of the Islamic Center of Minnesota and current director of its interfaith activities. He convincingly described how the Five Pillars of Islam – declaration of faith, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage – dispose one throughout life to die well.  When the inevitability of death comes we are better prepared.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, nationally esteemed leader of the Jewish healing movement and in the field of Jewish spiritual direction related a wonderful story from the Talmud.  When asked by students how to have a good death, the rabbi simply explained: “Repent the day before you die!”  After disappointment and incredulity, the students finally understood the rabbi’s simple teaching: living as well as you can every day is the same as preparing for death.

Joen Snyder O’Neal is an ordained Zen priest who received dharma transmission from Katagiri Roshi in 1989. She was my personal favorite for the translucent manner with which she manifested the blessings of more than 40 years of Buddhist practice.  Joen recounted childhood truths garnered from her father’s patient instruction on the right technique for diving into – passing through – waves on the Delaware shore.  She referenced Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching about the inimitable “personality” of each wave that purposefully rises in all its uniqueness only to subside in reluctant but honest acknowledgment that it too is only one manifestation of the more expansive and enduring water.

Joan Olson, board-certified chaplain at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and certified spiritual director represented the affiliation of the Christian majority in the room.  Her compassionate presence, considerable experience and obvious love for her Catholic roots warmly complemented the wisdom of the other presenters.

My own experience with death teaches that medical condition, age, time to prepare for “the inevitable,” many factors contribute to a “good death.”   Some deaths are simply easier and more peaceful; some can be excruciating and prolonged. One thing I know for certain – each and everyone deserves to be treated with love, dignity, compassion and respect.  Something I observed during my 12-month chaplain residency was affirmed by the panelists – more often than not, it is the nurse and immediate health care providers, not the priests or pastors, who most consistently “minister” God to the dying and bereft in our health care settings.  Again, it takes a village!

Yesterday was a spectacular day of rich blessing and easy gratitude – a very good preparation for dying “in the state of grace.”