Shattering Shelter and Simplicity

You don’t need to have seen the movie Ida to be moved by its timeless and provocative questions. Trudging through the English captions of this Polish production only engages the viewer more deeply with the protagonist’s quest. Filming in black and white brilliantly sharpens the movie’s impact.

The story is that of a young Polish novice about to profess vows in the convent where she has been raised since being orphaned as an infant. She is encouraged by a wise and solicitous mother superior to discover her true identity and desires before moving forward with her profession.

Fledgling curiosity — like any who would engage the universal struggle for authenticity — shatters the ordered, sheltered and simple universe of Ida’s youth. She discovers her heritage as Jewish, the daughter of parents whose home was confiscated and who perished in the Holocaust. A hardened, forceful, agnostic maternal aunt serves as midwife for Ida’s birth into maturity.

A neighbor and I discovered a mutual love for Ida.  This has lead to snippets of conversation and email banter over the past few days.  Sarah and I are intrigued by lingering images, unanswered questions and left to wonder…

How is religion a “container” of sorts? In childhood this allows for a feeling of safety and security. Maturation, should we choose to grow-up, will burst these old wine-skins. Sometimes this even requires us to ask whether that original container was all that  safe or secure.

In any case, the rough and tumble of youth will force us to outgrow it. We may fiercely resist. It may be a relentless struggle. But one way or another a wise mother superior or a wizened maiden aunt is likely to introduce us to a more complex and authentic God outside of convent walls.

Does our religion — any ordered, regular spiritual practice as “convent life” implies — bring one to awakening? Or, does it close us off to the rough and tumble of life meant to move us to maturity? Does our “god”, our church, our spiritual practice keep us safe and small or does it make us magnificent and magnanimous?

The movie leaves us hanging… we do not know where Ida is headed! Had she seen enough of the world? Might she be going off in a totally new direction?  Will she reclaim the home and heritage of her parents? Returning to the convent is now a more mature option — but somehow feels like it might just be too safe of an option. But who knows?

Is this newly empowered and freshly inspired woman even ready to comprehend the complexities of life and the huge loss she has just uncovered? Any who have dealt with some hard things in our lives will, even if begrudgingly and through monumental effort, come to embrace these complexities and losses.  But this is a process into which we are mentored over a lifetime.

Wisdom comes much later… is still coming… never stops coming.


See Ida if you can still find it in a theater near you. If you cannot, or if you want a perceptive synopsis before you go, Commonweal magazine provides a great [review].

Be Not Afraid

Too many of us are hamstrung by fear, anxiety and shame. No, not the prudent fear that keeps kayakers off the raging Minnehaha Creek running wildly out of its banks. Neither should we tolerate true mental illness that too often goes unrecognized and untreated with tragic consequences.

But we should be wary of overly inflated egos or a consumer culture which often belie self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.  A mom disciplining her eight-year old daughter coming out of church on Sunday perfectly expressed the right balance: “Honey, I know that’s what you want, but right now it’s not about you getting your way.” Hurray for this mom! What a fortunate child!

The sort of fear and anxiety I’m talking about functions more as subtle undertow on our sense of self and emotional well-being. For example, I tire of well-intentioned warnings to “Be careful – that’s dangerous!” when others learn that I ride a scooter. I’ve learned to reframe these as an expression of care, even affection, that comes out sideways.

Too often fear and anxiety get tangled up with legitimate concern and appropriate caution. Again, a parent struck the right balance: Rather than telling her child, “No, get off the wall, you’ll get hurt!” I saw a mom attentively teaching her four-year old son how to walk on top of a two foot high retaining wall along the sidewalk. Good for her! That’s a child who will grow into mature self-esteem.

Shame is where fear and anxiety get really embedded and problematic. Healthy guilt comes with an appropriate regret for something I have done wrong. Shame is that toxic self-judgment that something is wrong with me and that I am deficient in who I am as a person.

Addiction finds a receptive host in shame. Marketing of all sorts feeds off this fear and suggests we will be happy or whole if we buy this product. We are awash – like Minnehaha Creek running out of its banks – with consumer products that brazenly promise what they cannot deliver.

Churches are all too often purveyors of fear, anxiety and shame as well. We joke about “hell, fire and brimstone” but know that humor always carries an element of truth. America carries in our DNA the heritage of Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon: “Sinners in the Hands of a Vengeful God.” Why else do so many smile knowingly to another’s comment about being a “Recovering Catholic”?

Ronald Rolheiser, a contemporary American preacher I much prefer, offers a clever way to slip behind our puritanical heritage. He tells of a dream in which he was to go to the airport to pick up Jesus arriving on a flight.  He characterized the dream as anxiety producing! How would he recognize him? What would he look like? How would Jesus react to his chauffeur? What would he say to him? Would Rolheiser like what he saw? Would Jesus like what he saw?

Dispensing with pious overlays of what we’ve been told in church or given as “Gospel truth” this simple exercise slips behind such filters. Don’t dismiss it too quickly, or at least before you honestly ask whether fear, anxiety or shame is at the basis for “not wanting to go there.”  Give it try! Your personal meeting-up with Jesus at the airport is what counts!

I will share one memorable encounter conjured for me by this exercise – I was seven years old. My favorite grandma, now in her eighties, was visiting. I dashed through the kitchen door and saw her seated on a straight-back chair near the warm radiator. Thinking it to be an odd place to sit I asked, “Grandma, why are you sitting there?” Without missing a beat she said, “Because it’s next to the window and I can see you sooner coming home from school.” Can a child feel more loved?

We probably all get tangled up in fear, anxiety and shame because at some deep level we doubt whether we are loved, unconditionally. I thank God today for my Grandma, for the mom with the eight year old daughter at church and the parent who taught her son to walk on top of retaining walls!


The complete story of Ronald Rolheiser’s dream is in his book, Prayer: Our Deepest Longing. Franciscan Media, 2013. p 17.


I can’t pray the Our Father anymore – at least as I have in the past. Honesty requires that I admit my paralysis. Most of my prayer remains sincere but I now get hung up on “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Integrity demands that I admit deep resistance and objection.

It’s easy in conversation to accept that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves is pretty radical. In every day practice we might be able to transcend our urge to extract “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”. But love my enemies, pray for those who persecute? Offer forgiveness, not just once but seven times seventy? Do not resist an evil doer but offer the other cheek as well to the one who strikes you?

Last weekend we went to see The Railway Man, a searing account of a former prisoner of war who is unable to overcome the emotional trauma of his past. Based on a true story, Eric Lomax was one of thousands forced into slave labor to build the notorious Burma Railway, known as the “Death Railway” because of the thousands who perished during its construction.

“The Railway Man” begins three decades after the war. It’s long shadow of looms over his marriage. Lomax has terrifying nightmares, and his behavior is erratic, at times violent. His wife sees he is shell-shocked and desperately wants to help. But Lomax refuses to discuss what happened in the internment camp. Intending revenge, Lomax instead travels to Asia to confront his tormentor.

How are such victims to forgive? Are they to be forgiven as they forgive those who have trespassed against them? Locally, two men “sucker punched” and kicked in the head of a young dad who now lies in critical condition struggling for his life. What should “forgiveness” look like for this wife and mother?

Perhaps the ultimate test for our generation is clerical sexual abuse. We all know too well that such a victim never does fully recover from such a profound violation of trust. Unspeakable pain lingers. Emotional landmines lie hidden while spawning a veritable tsunami of collateral damage. Relationships are forever poisoned.

Our generation has been collectively victimized, violated, traumatized. One need not have experienced explicit physical exploitation to know the deep pain. What angers us, what hurts most, is not simply the reprehensible behavior of initial perpetrators. We have come face to face with the fact that the Church itself has failed us all. Unconscionable behavior by the hierarchy seems relentless — like [this] out of Seattle yesterday.  We are all victims of their abuse.

How do we pray with integrity “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”? One thing I have recognized is my tendency to link my need to be forgiven with my willingness to forgive – quid pro quo, we are forgiven as we are capable of forgiving. I’m doomed if my forgiveness is contingent upon or in proportion to my capacity to forgive.

Where is the hope? And, yes, there is always hope! Whether a prisoner of war like Eric Lomax, an anguished wife and mother in Mankato or a “cradle Catholic” in the pew on Sundays, forgiveness sometimes requires a superhuman act. In reality only God can forgive.

“Who can forgive sins but God alone?” remains as pressing in our day as for the Pharisees grilling Jesus. (Luke 5:21). Despite the normative teaching of Jesus in the Our Father, forgiveness is really only possible through God’s saving action in Christ (Rom 3:25f).

Ultimately, God has reconciled us to Himself and to one another while we were still sinners (Rom 5). That gives me hope despite my paralysis in prayer. That is the sole grounds on which we may have hope for the Church as well.

God save us!
Again, I am indebted to Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Walter Kasper, Paulist Press, 2013 for prompting much of these reflections; esp., pp 138-142.


Mercy, Mercy!

Imagine my delight! A long-awaited book has finally arrived. I was quite aware of the block-buster frenzy its release made in 2013. But that was in German and I had to await its release in English. Well, it arrived this weekend!

The book is Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Walter Kasper who served as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 2001-2010. Warning: you will likely be reading more about this book on this blog in the weeks ahead.

Regulars recall my reveling in the linguistic connection between the Hebrew words for mercy and womb. They come from the same root. Those who know Hebrew would immediately catch the connection between God’s mercy and the “womb love” of a mother.

Not having that cognate in English, this understanding and appreciation is lost on many of us. We Anglo-Saxon English-speakers can easily apply juridical connotations when we speak of mercy – unwarranted forgiveness, commutation of punishment due us, sheer gratuity from a just authority. Yes, that’s a part of mercy! But think of how much we miss if translations fail to convey the fullness of meaning.

Well, folks, imagine my delight when the translator’s preface to Kasper’s Mercy makes the very same point – but not in relation to Hebrew but in terms of German. Please bear with a few technicalities… it’s important!

Kasper uses the German words barmherzigkeit and erbarmen to describe God’s “merciful” attitudes and actions.  Here’s the point… the root “barm” implies physical tenderness and concrete action. Erbarmen means literally “to cherish in one’s bosom, press to one’s heart.” A second root in barmherzigkeit is the word for heart, herz. The translator wants the reader to appreciate that this German word suggests that one has his or her heart with those who are poor or in distress.

The translator of Mercy from German into English further emphasizes this critical understanding by drawing the equivalent connection with the Latin, misericordia and the word cor meaning heart.

Womb-love, being cherished in the bosom of another, or a God whose heart is with the distressed and poor is not the first place my thoughts go when the priest says, “Let us call to mind our sins.  Pray for God’s mercy!”

Unfortunately, my old Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic heritage still sends me into a nose-dive of pleading for unwarranted forgiveness, guilty as accused and deserving of punishment by a just authority.

How much more blessed – and accurate – we English speakers would be if the next time we prayed “Lord, have mercy!” we recognized the poverty of our English translation and again got in touch with the richness conveyed in the German, Hebrew and Latin originals.


We are all guilty.  Yes, we craft sophisticated excuses and feign innocence.  We dance in self-defense.  Excuses abound.  Denial and rationalizations flurry forth.  At its most painful, nothing hurts more than betrayal in relationship.

On this Wednesday in Holy Week we presented with the figure of Judas Iscariot.  We know well his selfishness, smallness and fate.  He betrayed his friend for a bag of silver.  We do well to sit with his story, his truth, our story.

Don’t flee the poignancy of his betrayal.  But it is not his alone. Virtually all of Jesus’ friends and companions betray him, abandon him.  We are given the image of only a few women, John the Beloved Disciple and his mother who hang with Jesus to the end.

At least Judas knew his motivations and followed through with his intentions. Perhaps the more reprehensible betrayal was delivered by Peter.  Not only did he flee, he adamantly denied that he even knew the man.  Imagine the pain!

The issue is not whether or not we betray Jesus.  The issue is what we do next.  Judas despaired!  Peter ultimately professes his love.

Wednesday in Holy Week places us precisely in this “moment”, challenges us with our “truth”, presents us with our own story.  Our journey continues…

Redeeming Pain

There is more than enough tragedy and suffering to go around. Instant global communication has compounded the impact. For example, outrage at the killing of Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt in Syria yesterday ricocheted around the world within 24 hours. Such moral outrage is necessary and important – but it can be numbing. All the more reason to celebrate healing, success and grounds for hope!

Thanks to a friend from the Minnesota International Center who shared a [link] to a really powerful piece about forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda. Stunning photos accompany disarming profiles of human anguish and triumph – a testimony to healing and hope for what is possible within a generation of the horrific genocide in which 1 million Rwandans were killed.

We have witnessed such reconciliation and reason for hope before. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu provided a mechanism for people to confess their participation in human rights abuses during apartheid and receive amnesty. Some argue that those responsible for the policies of apartheid should have been held criminally liable. But that is not the route chosen by the Nobel Peace laureate archbishop or President Nelson Mandela.

The moral genius of the TRC was the public airing of the painful truth which prevented the violence of apartheid from being buried in the past.  Rev. Marie Fortune warns on her [blog], the Shakespearian advice to “forgive and forget” is too often directed at victims and survivors of violence. “Forgiveness does not come from a position of powerlessness but from a place of empowerment and a degree of safety; forgiveness is never about forgetting the past, but in remembering the past in order to strengthen our efforts not to repeat it.” Justice requires truth-telling and remembering before forgiveness.  We see this in Rwanda.  And, as numbing as it can be, instant worldwide news reporting has the potential to serve this essential purpose.

Coincidentally, David Brooks has a marvelous piece in today’s NYTimes entitled “What Suffering Does” [link]. He is quick to point out, “there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.” Yet, Brooks celebrates those transcendent survivors who have the capacity to understand their suffering in some larger providence:

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. …  

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. 

Martyrdom in Syria, the hard work of reconciliation in Rwanda, requisite remembering with truth-telling of Marie Fortune, suffering’s ennobling potential cited by David Brooks… wherever we look a world in anguish invites us – desperately needs us – to embrace the paschal drama of Holy Week.

Bread for the Journey

This weekend I am participating in a LOGOS Lenten retreat at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, popularly known as the Casa.  My family has been associated with the Casa since 1974 when our parents moved to the Valley.  My sister, with whom I’m staying while in AZ, was married there. We celebrated my brother Jerry’s funeral there last July.  Many memories ground me in this space — deeply consoling.

Our retreat theme is “the Patriarchs” (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc). Our leaders bring a rich perspective — one earned his doctorate from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, another is an Arab Christian from Egypt and the other is a rabbi from Massachusetts.  We began Friday evening and continue through Sunday until 1 p.m.

With these memories and focus for my weekend, I leave you with two favorite quotes from Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey:

  • The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves.
  • Being with a person in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair, sharing with a friend times of confusion and uncertainty…such experiences can bring us deep joy. Not happiness, not excitement, not great satisfaction, but the quiet joy of being there for someone else and living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family.

Both messages appeal to me for very different reasons.  Each provides good fodder for my Lenten reflection.  Perhaps they will challenge and enrich your day as well.