Family Matters

Family Matters

Among countless pleasures of our 16-day European honeymoon we remember gracious hospitality, spectacular sites, pristine Autumn weather and reunions with cherished friends. And these do not include our delight upon hearing that a friend had upgraded us to First Class for our 8-hour return flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. Ours was truly the honeymoon of our dreams… a dream we will long remember.

One extraordinary gift was the opportunity to visit the small rural hamlets from which my German ancestry emigrated. My paternal great-great grandparents came from Ellsdorf-Esch, near Cologne, in 1850. My mother’s German ancestry (she’s half Irish) left Weiberg/Hegensdorf near Kassel in 1856 for America.

Wanting to symbolically mark the occasion, we gathered dirt from fields near both sites. On our next visit to the cemeteries in NE Nebraska where these forebears are buried we will sprinkle earth from their homeland upon their graves. We will do this in their honor, in gratitude and in testimony to the enduring family bond they established.

We will not perform this simple ritual with naive sentimentality. The strength of family bonds we so easily take for granted required that they cut the bonds that linked them to family, culture and homeland. Their sacrifice was immense and should never be romanticized nor underestimated.

They left everything they possessed and all they knew out of necessity — families from the Rhineland were reeling from intractable poverty, lack of opportunity and political repression following the failed social revolution of 1848.

Virtually all German emigrants to America were desperate refugees fleeing intolerable conditions for a better life. Surely they could never have fathomed the good fortune of their children, not to mention the extravagances and indulgences of our honeymoon.

All this came rushing forth as I read a news report on my iPad from the comfort of our Minneapolis home. John Allen, a reporter for the Boston Globe, wrote about taking an old friend out to lunch in one of his favorite restaurants in Rome. The friend is Bishop Borys Gudziak, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Paris and president of the prestigious Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

Toward the end of lunch, Gudziak looked at Allen and said something like: “This has been a great meal, and I thank you for it. Let’s not forget, however, that millions of people in this world live in extreme poverty, and could never dream of affording something like this.” Allen’s unspoken reaction was, “You’re a great guy, Borys, but you can be a real downer sometimes.”

Bishop Gudziak wasn’t finished. “Almost half of the world lives with less than what a cappuccino costs in this neighborhood, less than two euros a day, and 80 percent of the world lives on less than $10 a day,” he said, with rising intensity in his voice. “There’s 150 million homeless people, 100 million orphans, 60 million refugees.”

Yes, I too easily accept — even with sincere gratitude — the unfathomable opportunities and unmerited comforts of my life. I can easily sentimentalize our family heritage, minimizing the sacrifice, romanticizing the true story. I can claim it as a unique family saga when it is in fact a universal human search for freedom, dignity and a better life for our children.

The dirt we scooped from the fields of Ellsdorf-Esch and Weiberg/Hegensborf sits in a plastic container not far from my recliner, current book selections and flat screen television. Until we have the opportunity to sprinkle it upon the graves of our forebears in sacred testimony to their courage and sacrifice, I will remember that my story is not something out of the 19th century but is more accurately “our” story today.

I will remember with this photo of a migrant praying in a field near the border between Serbia and Croatia about 100 km (62 miles) west of Belgrade, Serbia on Oct. 18, 2015.   It is a family photo for truly this man is more than a neighbor, he is our brother:

image

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The inspirational article by John Allen about his lunch with Bishop Borys Gudziak is from the October 18 online edition of Crux [link].  The photo is from the Associated Press: (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic).

Unrelentingly True to Life

2015 will be remembered for its unrelenting display of October splendor, truly spectacular! Bright blue skies consistently frame brilliant yellows and blazing red landscapes. This morning softens the exuberance with an array of gray which Hopkins so aptly dubs “all a world of wet.”

Yes, October is the most honest month, the one most true to life. We are given the opportunity to rehearse and prepare for what lies ahead with vigor, gratitude and prudence — the wisdom garnered from all that’s gone before.

Our annual harvest is not limited to earth’s bounty. We are nudged by this seasonal reminder to embrace the fullness of our nature. A poem recently discovered expresses why October has become my favorite time of year…

If we could,
like the trees,
practice dying,
do it every year
just as something we do—
like going on vacation
or celebrating birthdays,
it would become
as easy a part of us
as our hair or clothing.

Someone would show us how
to lie down and fade away
as if in deepest meditation,
and we would learn
about the fine dark emptiness,
both knowing it and not knowing it,
and coming back would be irrelevant.

Whatever it is the trees know
when they stand undone,
surprisingly intricate,
we need to know also
so we can allow
that last thing
to happen to us
as if it were only
any ordinary thing,

leaves and lives
falling away,
the spirit, complex,
waiting in the fine darkness
to learn which way
it will go.

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“Learning from Trees” by Grace Butcher. Text as published in Child, House, World (Hiram Poetry Review Supplement No. 12, Hiram College, 1991). I am grateful to Parker Palmer for introducing me to this poem.

Tomorrow, Tomorrow…

Could life get any better? Details aren’t necessary to make an important point — it’s not always like this! Stuff happens, sometimes very difficult and painful stuff. Something always happens to dump the apple cart — that’s just a fact of life, not pessimism!

All the more reason to remember sage advice — Take full stock of the good times, savor them, store them up! Hang on to them. File them away as a resource and consolation when times change, when tough stuff happens, when life ain’t so good. Sure as fierce February follows October splendor, seasons of our lives get harsh with regularity.

Only in retrospect does Parker Palmer celebrate the job he did not get for the way it prepared him for the career he eventually found. Omaha, where I grew up and will always be “home”, is reeling with news that ConAgra is moving its corporate headquarters to Chicago. Two-thirds of the way into the Synod on the Family, Vatican observers are describing it as a model of chaos and conflict. Challenges overwhelm us at times.  Loved ones die.

All the more reason to relish the good times so we will remember them in the tough times. Store up the spectacle of October for solace in the depths of winter. And my 65 years remind me to keep a light touch — grasping and clutching simply intensifies the eventual pain of letting go. Receive all as gift. Cling to nothing. Let gratitude be our only and constant refrain.

A final truth comes with Autumn spading of our backyard garden. Turning a year’s worth of household compost into the spent soil, earth yields an eternal truth — a plowed, over-turned field is better prepared to receive the promise of what has yet to be planted.

Doing What We Must

How did I ever managed to keep a job? At the end of each day there remains so much left undone! Retiring two years ago seems to have only shifted treadmills. I only have a husband and a dog — how do other people do it?

We can identify sources, suggest reasons, even assign blame. One thing for sure, it’s a whole lot bigger than any one of us, my particular family or our “plugged-in” digital culture. It would be futile to try rolling back our lives to some idyllic past that exists only in our imagination. How, then, do we live well within the truth of our lives?

One wake-up call came via David Gregory’s new book, How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey. You may recall Gregory as a former White House correspondent for NBC and then moderator of Meet the Press. Married to one of four federal prosecutors who gained the conviction of Timothy McVeigh, he and Beth Wilkinson are the parents of three young children. They certainly ride the crest of our frenetic, digitalized culture.

It took this Jewish author, wrestling with the salience of his faith and values they want to pass on to their children, to remind me of something foundational: Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord your God.  Wham — keeping Sabbath ranks right up there with (in fact it gets higher billing than) not killing, stealing or committing adultery.

That having been said, an important proviso needs highlighting. Pope Francis offered that essential reminder in a different context this week. Our “obedience” is not a ploy to earn or deserve God’s love. No, mature obedience is our generous response to finding that we are already loved by God.

We keep Sabbath, not to placate a vengeful God, but in faithful gratitude for having been created in God’s own image and called into Covenant relationship. That spirit comes through in the simple meditation David Gregory reads around the family dinner table on Fridays:

As I light these Shabbat candles, I feel the frenzied momentum of the week slowly draining from my body. I thank You, Creator, for the peace and relaxation of the Shabbat, for the moments to redirect my energies toward the treasures in my life which I hold most dear.

All Ten Commandments prescribe elemental parameters for who we are, practical reminders of what went wrong in the Garden of Eden — we too easily think we are God, or at least need to act as if we are gods. Yes, regularly pausing to take a breath seems impractical, impossible, foolish — and that is precisely the point!

Keeping Sabbath is not just a Jewish thing; it’s a human necessity. It prescribes that we at least slow down, if not stop. We are reminded to let go, look around, remember and savor creation. Shabbat is time to observe, perhaps to see; to listen, perhaps to hear.

On the sixth day of each week we too look over all God has made, and we see that it is very good! We remember who we are, as a person, as a people, as creatures within a most splendid creation.

We do so in obedience to a Covenant that binds us in love only to set us free.

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How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey by David Gregory.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. My reflection was inspired by pages 65-68.

Pope Francis’ comments about obedience were made during a homily at a weekday Mass earlier this week.  My source was a post on Twitter.

October’s Honesty

My sister Claudia hates autumn. “Everything is dying, coming to an end.” Me? October is my favorite month of the year! Yes, it can be fickle. Sometimes it even disappoints by failing to deliver. This year, however, it has been spectacular!

Of course, October marks a season of diminishment , a time of dying. Morning walks with Jeb the Dog are now begun in darkness. Though we have not yet had what our Dad would have called a “killing frost”, it is past-time to retrieve sweaters from the cedar chest.

But the blue of an October sky is never more crisp. Yesterday, foliage along the Mississippi demanded an audible gasp. Is there anything more whimsical than the varieties of squash awaiting us at the market? And, the air… a fire-tower sentinel along Lake Superior is likely to see all the way to the Alleghenies.

Still, Claudia is not alone.  Perhaps she represents the majority.  At 65 — certainly the autumn of my years — the sufficiency of harvest is now tempered by the harsh necessity of winnowing.

Parker Palmer, an iconic elder for my generation, also laments the way “summer’s abundance decays toward winter’s death.” He confesses to being “drawn down by the prospect of death more than [being] lifted by the hope of new life.”

Palmer asks, “Faced with this inevitable winter, what does nature do in autumn? She scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring—and she scatters them with amazing abandon.”

Yet, the recognition that I will not live to see to maturity the oak I planted last Spring sends an autumnal chill through my bones. Recognizing the same chill, Palmer admits he is rarely aware that seeds are being planted.

The courageous elder that he is, Palmer explores autumn’s paradox of dying and seeding, and discovers a deep reservoir of hope and purpose. We easily fixate on surface appearances—on decline, decay, finally death.  Mature reflection throughout his 76 years moves Palmer to assert, “On the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.”

He poses the inevitable, urgent question: “How shall we understand autumn’s testimony that death and elegance go hand in hand?” With the compassion, wisdom and clarity garnered only by a true elder, Palmer offers more than an answer. He frames the truth of our lives:

In a paradox, opposites do not negate each other—they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out. But in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter… But if we allow the paradox of darkness and light to be, the two will conspire to bring wholeness and health to every living thing.

Yes, October is the most spectacular of months. Fickle, but full of promise.  No other month is as honest in its portrayal of life.  As foliage falls a penetrating vision reveals the truth of what lies ahead.
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I encourage you to read Parker Palmer’s fuller reflection which inspired me.  They may be found of the Fetzer Institute website [here].

Seeing Each Other’s Naked Hearts

Not much time! In a rush! Participating in a great two-day symposium and need to be back for a 9 a.m. conference. No time to write. So here are a few thought, themes or quotes so far…

Christianity has always drawn on sources outside itself to better express/understand itself. Examples: St. Augustine with Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas with Aristotle. You could say that with contemporary liberation theology and Karl Marx but that is too laden with political baggage to be helpful for a popular audience right now.

The apostle Thomas arrived in present-day India in 52 BC. That’s before Christianity arrived in Rome. Think about that and consider implications if you dare!

Relationship is constitutive of God (e.g., God as Trinity). Religious dialogue is a journey of friendship rather than a convergence of ideas.

Even the tent of Abraham is too small to contain (constrain?) God.

Diversity and difference are NOT a deficiency or an unfortunate reality. Diversity and difference are in fact a blessing intended by God. Differences endure because they speak wisdom.

When it comes to knowing God, we are all seekers and servants.

If you care to pursue education, you commit yourself to being a global citizen, not an accidental tourist!

And, here’s one of my favorites… a quote written for a different context and applicable to so many aspects of life. Hearing it in the context of inter-religious, multi-faith dialogue is a good reminder that what we are ultimately talking about is living richly, fully, in community. It’s a quote from Tennessee Williams:

Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition– all such distortions within our own egos– condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions to our own egos the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts.

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The symposium is titled: Christian Faith in a Multi-Faith World and is sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Inter-Faith Learning, a collaborative endeavor of the University of St. Thomas and Saint John’s University which shares a common curriculum with the College of Saint Benedict. The center sponsors programs at these three institutions and elsewhere throughout Minnesota, carrying out its mission to promote dialogue, friendship and service among people of various religions.

Speaking of Elephants

Every once in a while something hits you up-side the head and you wish it hadn’t. Something challenges your enshrined values and you don’t want to yield your revered self-interest. Something written forty years ago surfaces and seems directed singularly at you.

That’s the case with a book on the formation of Thomas Merton’s prophetic spirituality I’ve just finished.  The part pestering me today is Merton’s assertion that “the one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is the adversary whom we wish to destroy. This is perhaps why we wish to destroy him. So, too, we can help him to see his error, and that is why he wants to destroy us.”

Only after humbly accepting this truth are we prepared for real transformation. Merton continues:

In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own particular truth. Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.

That’s wonderful in principle and maybe in books.  But is it actually possible for any but the truly virtuous among us?  Somehow I remain entangled in a world that seems more nasty and complicated. How do we take such pious principles and give them flesh in the muddle of our real relationships — life as, and among, very imperfect people?

Last evening we watched a documentary on the criminal and civil prosecution of OJ Simpson. How does the family of Nicole Brown Simpson give expression to Merton’s ideal?

How do those who have experienced sexual abuse come to “love” their adversary? What does “love of our deluded fellow man” look like for them?

This week Minnesota Public Radio featured a marvelous piece on the Black Lives Matter movement. Where would we be if Rosa Parks had not said, “I’ve had enough — I’m not moving to the back of the bus!”

I’m resigned to the fact that there will always be “adversaries whom we wish to destroy.” I’m equally convinced that some adversaries like racism, violence, and all forms of abuse need to be challenged and destroyed.

I’m equally convinced that “Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.” Fine sounding words and much needed admonition from geniuses like Thomas Merton. But what about most of us who muddle with our fellows in delusion and sin?  How do we name and honor behaviors which are just inexcusable?

The way forward? Mutuality. Respect. Encounter. Remaining in community, conversation and relationship. These sound nice but can remain so much etherial babble. For me, maybe you, a good start in giving them legs is by talking about elephants in the room.

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The book referenced is In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality by Ephrem Arcement, OSB.  Cistercian Publications.  Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN. 2015. p 136.   Both quotes of Merton cited above are from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. New York: Image Books, 1966, #68.