So Much More Than a Haircut

Getting my hair cut provides an increasingly sobering experience. My hair has always been thin, wispy and generic brown, never a thick wavy mane of movie star standards. An assortment of random cowlicks have bedeviled generations of barbers. Now the whirling dervishes are only minimized by a healthy case of male pattern baldness.

Yesterday offered only the most recent humiliation. Yet another new stylist needed to be counseled about the obstinance of the cantankerous cowlick above and behind my left ear. Alyssa actually did a good job for a first-timer. Her major challenge was probably making me feel I was getting my money’s worth — no doubt she could have done her job in three minutes. Yet, she combed, spritzed and primped more than necessary to draw out the ordeal for at least fifteen minutes.

What Alyssa had no way of knowing was how troubling was the black apron she had secured around my neck.  Was she to know how brazenly white the cloth made her clippings appear?  Doesn’t she appreciate that — atop my head — hair retains a dark shade of gray? Neither does she know that my eyes are well-trained to see only the neck taper — oblivious to my invisible tonsure — when she positioned her handheld mirror for my final inspection.

This humbling brush with reality well disposed me for a delightfully sobering piece in the current issue of Commonweal [link]. Peter Quinn also bemoans changes which are only to be expected — at thirty, male pattern baldness. At forty, a first set of bifocals. At fifty, the addition of Metamucil to orange juice. At sixty, an assortment of medication that come with a lifetime prescription.

One day we hear a pin drop. Then, suddenly, we can no longer distinguish conversation from background noise (not that it matters much) at cocktail parties. Knees begin to resemble the coil springs on a rusted ’56 Chevy. We open cabinets and instantly forget what we’re looking for. The Commonweal writer confirms that the ability to attach names to the faces of friends is becoming one of life’s small triumphs.

My haircut prepared me to commiserate with Peter Quinn that the inevitability of the final curtain doesn’t make it easier to accept. I’m as reluctant and fearful as anyone else to face the end. A degree of resignation and acceptance isn’t a bad thing. Sooner or later, it’s all right to think about making room instead of taking it up.

And here is where Alyssa comes back into the picture. Alyssa expects to become a first-time mother on May 7. This balding, white-haired man had the temerity to ask, “Are you scared?” Alyssa responded, “Of course! But there’s no turning back now. It’s got a life of its own. It’s going to happen.”

Then Alyssa added, “But, I’m even more scared about being a parent — it’s not just giving birth! I want to be a good parent. This will change my life. Who knows what lies ahead? …but I’m excited, can’t wait!” Upon leaving, I was moved to give her an extra generous tip.

Others have long made the association between womb and tomb, birth and death, death and rebirth.  If Easter is about more than pastels and bunnies it’s about all that life throws at us, about dying and (expectant) rising.

Alyssa gave me a great haircut, and so much more… she reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s marvelous poem, The Journey of the Magi which more often comes to mind at Christmas. Eliot concludes:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

______________

I am eager to recommend Peter Quinn’s entire article, Last Word: Things Fall Apart, The Failure to Stay Young from which I have liberally quoted.  A link is provided above.

“The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot from Collected Poems 1909-1962. © Faber and Faber, 1974.

Threatened With Resurrection

Life is hard! Sometimes it really sucks! Oh, we each have our diversions and delusions. Some of us, by virtue of birth or other unmerited good fortune, have the resources to pretend otherwise. We cultivate the art of social posturing, cosmetics hide our blemishes, consumption deadens a deeper hunger, and we obsess with our frantic pursuit of the “American Dream.”

Believe me, as a white, well-educated, American male I’ve learned how to access and wield power and privilege. I have spent the good part of my life polishing my carefully crafted public persona to a high sheen. I’ve been blessed! …or, have I?

Rarely do we disclose the truth — life is hard, even sucks at times! Rarely are we willing to step from behind make-up and make-believe! Rarely are we willing to let down our heavily reenforced walls of denial.

Good Friday is one day that shoves the truth of our lives in our face. Unless we choose to look away, run away, and deny that we even know this guy Jesus, or those with whom he associated.

As her native Guatemala endured nearly 30 years of violence and repression under a series of dictators, Julia Esquivel did not look away as thousands of indigenous groups were savagely murdered. She refused to divert her gaze or run from the massive violence and brutality her people — and Central American neighbors — were suffering in the 1970s and 80s.

While others lost hope or took up arms, Esquivel claimed the role of activist, poet, and minister. She stood as a witness to God’s justice and compassion.  She found her voice and served as a healer amid a land of suffering.

Esquivel’s poem, Threatened with Resurrection perfectly poses our invitation this Good Friday — to watch, to endure, to keep vigil:

There is something here within us
Which doesn’t let us sleep, which doesn’t let us rest,
Which doesn’t stop pounding deep inside,
It is the silent, warm weeping of Indian women without their husbands,
It is the sad gaze of the children
Fixed there beyond memory,
In the very pupil of our eyes
Which during sleep, though closed, keep watch
With each contraction of the heart
In every wakening…

What keeps us from sleeping
Is that they have threatened us with resurrection!
Because at each nightfall,
Though exhausted from the endless inventory
Of killings since 1954,
Yet we continue to love life,
And do not accept their death!

…Because in this marathon of Hope,
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary
to arrive at the goal which lies beyond death…

Accompany us then on this vigil
And you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know how marvelous it is
To live threatened with resurrection!
To dream awake,
To keep watch asleep
To live while dying
And to already know oneself resurrected!

______________
Threatened with Resurrection/Amenazado de Resurrección
by Julia Esquivel, Anne Woehrle (Translator). Brethren Press, 1994 (first published 1982).

At Long Last, Hope!

A 60-year-old woman battles a fourth recurrence of cancer and is told by her oncologist that the chemo she has been receiving for the past few months has been ineffective.

A 52-year-old man living in a Catholic Charities residence for chronic alcoholics asks, “Where’s God? I’ve pleaded… on my knees! Why won’t God take away the pain?”

With excruciating grief etched across his face, a father kneels aside his bloodied deceased son. They had gone to their masque in Yemen for Friday prayer when it became the target of a suicide bomber.

To such as these the cliché, “There is always hope!” easily sounds stupid and saccharine if not insulting!  Those who proffer such platitudes either don’t know what they are talking about or they live in huge denial of what this Holy Week is all about.

Many of you know that after twenty years of confronting anxiety and depression I went public in July 2014 with my story of sexual abuse and the compounding anguish of being dismissed by Jesuit leadership. Today I want all to know that a nasty, brutal chapter of my life has found healing and closure.

Jesuit leadership really “stepped up to the plate” and I feel validated, vindicated and reconciled. My deep respect and affection for the Society of Jesus has been affirmed. They eventually responded with the best of what I know them to be capable.

In the often nightmarish ordeal I came to learn something about hope. Just weeks before my twenty-year struggle found resolution, a good friend said to me, “Give it up, the Jesuits aren’t going to do anything.” She of all people should know better — and so should the rest of us!

A woman with cancer, a man with chronic alcoholism, a parent grieving the senseless death of a child, victims of sexual abuse… we need more than pious platitudes or cheap grace. That’s what Holy Week is all about.

At some point or another we will all be bought to a place where optimism crumbles, expectation for easy solutions shatters. We are left with raw, stark, desperate hope! We discover nothing more than a fire-tempered conviction — discovered by a frantic clinging to life — coming from a source other than ourselves.

During my twenty-year ordeal wrestling with the demon of sexual abuse I was never optimistic. In fact, quite the opposite! There was too much pain, too many brick walls, blind denials, freaked-out stares and others battening down their defenses.

As with the dejected friends returning home to Emmaus, I too was tempted, “Just give it up! They’re not going to do anything.”  Yet over time, and wholly separate from my best effort, I ran up against a deep source of energy and conviction from a place certainly other than myself.

Today I would describe this as an insistent gift, a tenacious pulse
that I did not always welcome or experience as consoling. It was
beyond me and, frankly, sometimes a burden I did not wish to carry, a thorn in my side, even a royal pain in the ass. Yet it recurred — despite my impermeability, resistance, fatigue or resignation.

Today I call this involuntary impulse, Hope! We do not profess Faith, Optimism and Love! Each of the theological virtues comes as a pain in the ass from time to time. In that, we learn they are not of our own creation but truly gift.

Recurring cancer, chronic alcoholism, terrorist fanaticism, sexual abuse bring us face-to-face with our abject poverty, structures that defend — even enshrine — personal sin or an impervious culture that seems down right hostile.

Yes, we desperately need and await a savior — not of our own conjuring, not even of our own capacity to imagine. Very much from within our creation, though not of our making. Hope makes its tentative appearance when we — even reluctantly, even wishing it were otherwise or according to our plans — hazard to trust that what we really need will all be given.

Appearing amid the brokenness of our personal and collective lives, hope appears in a way and at a time not of our choosing. It is most assuredly not anything we can provide ourselves. Despite my protestations of personal autonomy, even to say “I accept” the gift sounds increasingly dissonant and much too volitional.

Ultimately, we are brought to our knees. At some time or other we are brought low by the death-dealing that life throws at us. We are invited to our knees during Holy Week because this is the truth of our lives — despite our best efforts, ALL is gift. But, ALL will be given.

This is what we are urged to encounter this week — God giving ALL in Jesus. We are invited to accept our radical inability to save ourselves, or even our ability to protect those we love from life’s death-dealing. We are compelled to recognize the inadequacy of easy optimism and pious platitudes. The very most we can muster is to receive God’s gift — always given as a gift of self!

Our eyes are opened.  We like others before us recognize this in telling our stories, in bread blessed, broken, shared — amid the dejection, the real stuff of our lives, where we most need to be saved.

Turning It Over In Your Palm

Kayla McClurg, on the staff at the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, is one of my favorite bloggers.  Her site is aptly named: Inward/Outward, Seeking the Depths.  She never disappoints, but regularly takes me to my depths!  Her post for today, Palm Sunday, is especially poignant and captures the core invitation of this Holy Week:

For the past few years, I have sensed death wanting to be my friend. You know the type. “Let’s hang out more,” she says, “get better acquainted!” But I already have plenty of friends, a busy life, and the truth is, I’m just not that into her. Yet there she is, shuffling along behind me, showing up when I least want her around, throwing her arms around my shoulders to show how close we are, how much a part of my life she already is. “Stop breathing on me!” I want to say, but she doesn’t seem to care. And I have to admit I’m starting to get used to her salty breath, her tattered edges, her constancy. I am almost fond now of her clumsy nearness. What might she tell me if I learned to listen better; what might I see in this crazy quilt of death in life, pieced together in haphazard patterns?

Today is the beginning of the end for Jesus. And the beginning of the beginning. Do you see the wholeness of his life even as death closes in? The fragments of his final week create a story that is dangerously familiar. Read it slowly this year. Walk alongside the other disciples, feel their confusion and fear, hear Jesus confront the powers, offer the wisdom of silence, give it all and then give some more, be abandoned and wait to be found. Pick up a fragment each day or two. Turn it over and over in your palm. Ask it for a blessing

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You may read McClurg’s entire post [here]. You will also be able to follow links to her site in case you’d care to sign up for her daily and/or Sunday postings.

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!
_________________________________________
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!