Guilty as Charged

“Has anyone called you arrogant?” My brother and I were driving south on I-35 south between Minneapolis and the Iowa border when he shot that zinger at me. From anyone else I’d probably be incensed. Coming from him, I’ve had to admit that arrogance is a deeply ingrained trait, especially in the male lineage of my family.

Now we laugh about our shared propensity to such exaggerated self-regard. We still goad one another with the arrogance charge as brothers are wont to do. It’s become sort of a stand-in for expressing our affection — if you haven’t noticed, men are good at code language! It’s guaranteed to make us laugh. As with all good humor, we know that our fraternal jousting is grounded in a good deal of truth.

This all comes rushing back because I just spent eight terrific days with my brother in Florida. Incriminating evidence in something I read yesterday also brought it back with a vengeance. Though I’m no thunder-thinker, I have had the good fortune of a pretty good education, especially in matters theological. Yesterday I was brought face-to-face with my arrogance by being reminded of my gross ignorance.

Inter-religious dialogue — especially among Jews, Muslims and Christians — is a special interest for me. I gravitate to articles on the topic and participate more than most in inter-faith discussions and shared prayer events. While quick to admit my ignorance about Islam, I have blindly presumed I knew something about Judaism.

After all, I have Jewish neighbors and friends. I’ve attended numerous Seders over the years and have been moved by the spiritual richness of Jewish weddings and funerals. I studied the Hebrew scriptures in graduate school. But here is the most dangerous of my assertions — Jesus was Jewish and I know a whole lot about Jesus!

Yesterday I was casually reading, as I am wont to do, an esoteric journal by a Dutch Benedictine monk (that should be indictment enough, right?). Then, here came this zinger: “For many Christians Jewish history ends with the death of Jesus on Golgotha in the year 30 or 33. They know absolutely nothing of the growth and spiritual development of the Jewish people after that.” My ignorance exposed, I stand guilty as charged!

God, like a special big brother, knows how to not-so-subtly lay bare my faults. So it was with even greater intentional ribbing that God seemed to place this bit of wisdom from a 3rd century Desert Father before me this morning:

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you, with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.”

Ouch!!! In my arrogance lies my greatest ignorance. Like my brother’s taunt, God followed with a not-so-subtle poke in the ribs. Do I use my intelligence as a weapon to defend my superiority as well as insulate my pious “convictions”? I shudder to see how easily I presume to be the repository of all truth, especially around matters spiritual.

Yes, I confess my need to be recognized for having “a way with words.” Perhaps the world might be better off if I shut-up more and learned to listen better.

I am also coming to question whether my “male lineage” is the primary source of my fault.  Arrogance seems to be a deeply engrained trait within the whole human family.

We need to get over it.

___________________

The esoteric journal cited is: Sharing Sacred Space: Interreligious Dialogue as Spiritual Encounter by Benoit Standaert, translated by William Skudlarek. Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, 2003., p 15.

The quote of Abba Arserius is from: Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian Publications: 1975), p 6. and was brought to my attention by Richard Rohr’s Daily Mediation for May 8, 2015 sponsored by the Center for Action and Contemplation. PO Box 12464. Albuquerque, NM 87195.

Being Taken

He approached us in the parking lot, a lanky man with short-cropped brown hair perhaps in his upper twenties. His generic tee-shirt and jeans contrasted with the strained expression on his face. Anticipating a familiar story, my brother tried to wave me off from his vantage ten feet ahead.

The young man began apologetically according to script. He had recently moved to this town in central Florida from up-north with his family. “Do you know where I can get some help? I have a job,” he protested! On script, he recounted all the people and places he’d been looking for assistance. Inclusion of the police station on his list slapped against my deeply engrained cynicism.

“I get paid on Wednesday. Please… I need food for my family.” Skepticism converged with my deep seeded need to confront the laggard. Recognizing my position of power and privilege, I indulged my need to test the man by getting him to prove to me his need. “What are the names and ages of your kids?” I asked, intending to catch him in my snare. He responded without flinching, so promptly it could not have been rehearsed.  Plausible, I had to admit.  Now it was me off-stride!

Reaching for my wallet and looking him in the eye, “I believe you!” My response was not so much cognitive or deliberative. It came less from a meeting the minds and more from the meeting of our eyes, man-to-man. What began as a random incident in a parking lot – one that could be easily dismissed – ended in human encounter.

Was I taken as a chump by this skillful panhandler? Whether I was or not misses the point 24-hours later. I remember the man, if not the precise ages and names of his children. Only today do I realize that Wednesday is the last day of the month and could well be the day he receives a paycheck. It doesn’t really matter!

The unanticipated gift this young Dad gave me – someone old enough to be his grandfather – far surpasses the monetary value of what I gave him. There was more than “need” in what he expressed. There was vulnerability that I’ve learned to disguise or rarely risk. He revealed a degree of passion in his appeal too many of us have lost. How many of us are driven by our own heart’s yearning manifest in the account of this struggling parent?

For this – if only for this reminder – I stand in this young man’s debt. Too easily I slip into a smug, unexamined gratitude for having it so much better. But, do I? Really? Is such a question even relevant once we overcome cynicism, skepticism, and fear?

Dare we risk looking at one another eye-to-eye?  Dare we not?

FRED

Jeb the Dog joined twelve men on retreat this weekend. Because it was held at Dunrovin Retreat Center on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix river, Jeb thought he’d gone to heaven.  The rest of us looked at ways we create hell here below with an eye to our way out.

This was all part of the Ignatian Spirituality Project that offers retreats to those who have experienced homelessness at some point and are “in recovery” from some type of addition. As all who work a Twelve-Step program know, it makes no difference whether you are there as part of the staff or a participant.  We are all in this together, all of us recovering from one thing or another, all seeking a more authentic way of being human.

One simple acronym — FRED — got to the core of what our time together was all about.  It stands for Fear, Resentment, Ego and Dishonesty. Pay attention to FRED and we will be well on our way to a spirituality of “some earthly good”.

FEAR — What “secret” festers in the recesses of our awareness such that its exposure would destroy us (or at least we are paralyzed by the prospect that it would)? Find a safe place to tell your story out loud to at least one other caring person.

RESENTMENT — People fail us, betray us, deeply hurt us. As one of the men said this weekend, “My resentment toward [——-] has had me by the balls for 50 years!” Let go of it! This may take time, bit by bit. Let it go — don’t give anyone this kind of emotional power over your life.

EGO — Many of us wear masks and try to project a picture-perfect image to the world. Take it from me, this is exhausting! We balk at being called “selfish” all the while our unbridled “control-center” bullies us and everyone within its reach. Try being honest, vulnerable, transparent, “real” — we find ourselves in good company (perhaps for the first time, our own!).

DISHONESTY — We may call them half-truths or “white lies” but we all tell them. We repeat stories so often they take on a reality of their own. We rationalize our behavior until it becomes acceptable, at least to ourselves.  Denial and deception hang out in the same neighborhood with dishonesty!  Yes, privacy and discretion have their place — not everyone deserves the whole truth, except ourselves. No one deserves a half-truth, most of all ourselves. Get real!

We don’t need to have experienced homelessness, at least in a literal sense, to recognize our need to get to know FRED better.  We don’t need to have gone through treatment for drug or alcohol addiction but it helps!

Being in recovery is not just about abstinence from drugs or alcohol.  It’s an honest admission that fear, resentment, ego and dishonesty too often have us by the balls.  Folks in recovery are just honest enough to admit this universal truth and are willing to work on it.

Rarely am I among more grateful, genuine and unpretentious men as I was this weekend. We would all be blessed to be more like them.

One Who Mentored Christ

Back in more pious, naively idealistic days I chose Joseph as my vow name when professing perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience as a Jesuit. Vow names are somewhat like the name change given to nuns.  But in their case, women were often told what their new name would be. That explains how my first grade teacher went from Mary Ann to Sister Juana.

As an ideal, the new name expresses an intention, at least the hope , that we more fully live out our Baptismal call to become “a new creation in Christ.” (Let’s leave the “bride of Christ” imagery out of this — it always did seem a little weird to me!) My choice of Joseph was a pious act of devotion, not a public announcement or ontological shift! Only my parents would likely be confused when hearing me declare, “I, Richard Joseph…” Having named me Richard Clarence I alerted them ahead of time to what was coming.

I allowed my mother to indulge her pleasant presumption that my choice was in honor of her dad, Joseph Wieseler. It wasn’t. Rather, my choice was inspired by Joseph, husband of Mary. Taking my lead from his “annunciation” in Matthew’s Gospel, I had found consolation in what I thought the angel was saying to him — “Joseph, do not be afraid to espouse all that is incomplete, unknown, unfinished by taking Mary as your wife. It will be precisely in this embrace of her that Christ will be born.”

My naive assumption that virginity was primarily associated with “incompleteness” or being “unknown”, “unfinished” was to be turned on its head! Kathleen Norris has written a marvelous reflection entitled Virgin Martyrs in her masterful book, The Cloister Walk.  Norris observes that first and second century women like Agatha, Perpetua, Felicity, Cecilia, Lucy… those we know as virgin martyrs were anything but incomplete, unfinished or unknown. Quite the opposite!

The brilliance of these women was precisely in their recognition that in their “virginity” they possessed an inherent completeness, wholeness and dignity as a human person.  And all this was theirs separate from any need or dependence upon a man to confer their dignity!

These women recognized that in themselves they held the capacity to manifest the fullness of Christ!  Perhaps this is the most radical and theologically necessary defense for Christians tenaciously holding on to the perpetual virginity of Mary!   On this truth virgin women have staked their lives. In this we recognize the true identity of the virgin martyrs.

Something else about Joseph has been turned on its head since I first professed my association with him — unlike Mary’s one Annunciation, Joseph needs three! Yes, the angel appears to Joseph three times. It is the second that carries the most significance for me now — the one where the angel tells him others are trying to kill the child and they are to flee into exile. They are to become [illegal?] aliens, refugees in an unfriendly land.

Now, having been bruised and bumped around a bit by life, I claim knowledge and hold affinity with Joseph differently. Life may have appeared incomplete, unfinished and unknown decades ago. But it has not evolved at all as I had expected or even could have imagined. Isn’t that the way it is for most of us, certainly those of us in the seventh decade of our lives?

As life unfolds, we certainly know unmerited joy, unimagined happiness and the sheer gratuity of life! We also experience our portion of being Egyptian exiles, too often aliens in an unfriendly world. We learn that life is not fair, bearing far too much heartache for too many others if not for ourselves. By now, some of us have feared for our lives and the lives of those we love. No, life is rarely what we had imagined it would be — for better or for worse!

Today, March 19, is the Feast of St. Joseph. Today I claim his name anew in the hope I may somehow take on more of his identity, character and courage. Older, wiser and — I pray — more humble, I look again and again to the one who cherished Mary and mentored Christ for us!

Our Fathers

What are we to say of our fathers? Mine wasn’t perfect – none are, I suspect. When I turned 40, the age he was when I was born, I suddenly had a whole new appreciation for the man. What must it have been like to be the sole bread-winner for a wife and ten children? I buckled at the prospect. He did not.

Married in 1931, the Great Depression and WWII prevented him and my mother from “getting off the farm” until 1945. How they managed to “keep the farm” during those hard early years – when so many other good people had not – continues to amaze me.

We had our scrapes. What son or daughter doesn’t? I recall announcing at dinner that I was going to protest a Presidential campaign rally of George Wallace. He said, “No, you’re not.” I said, “Yes, I am!” Back and forth we went, horns locked.

Experienced parent that he was he announced, “This is what we are going to do… we will both go! We will sit in our seats. We won’t cheer or in any way express approval. However, we will not be part of an organized protest.” Together we went.

We witnessed those I would have been with taking folding chairs over their backs. The violence made national news. Though it took years to temper my impetuous zeal and admit his more mature wisdom, I never again doubted whether he would “be there” for me.

Who among us would not like to relive, perhaps re-script, certain episodes with our dads. Today, I am still in search of a hamburger to rival those I shared with him as an 8-year-old in cafes of small Nebraska towns when I accompanied him as a sales rep for a farm implement company. Oh, the conversation we’d have!

About a year before he died we shared another meal. I took the risk of asking what he wanted me to say about him at his funeral. His eyes shot up, “What?” “Look,” I said, “I’m going to be there and will probably have something to say. Most people don’t get the chance to say what they want said about them. What do you want me to say?”

Composing himself, he thought for a moment. “First of all, you better be there!” Then he said, “Tell them I wasn’t perfect… I made my mistakes. Tell them I’m sorry. But, tell them I tried my best and have loved them more than they will ever know.”

Dads aren’t perfect. But, then, who’d want to be the daughter or son of a perfect parent! We honor them best by growing into the woman or man we were born to be. In this we become more like them.

Dad has been gone more than 21 years now. Fathers Day without him never gets any easier – just different. There are times I am certain of his attentive presence. At other times I would give the world to share an experience or tap his wisdom.

This year I am especially grateful for the way he taught me to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

Get a Grip

Again, a favorite poem. Perhaps you have someone special with whom you would care to share it for Fathers Day…

 
Sign for my Father Who Stressed the Bunt

On the rough diamond,
the hand-cut field below the dog lot and barn,
we rehearsed the strict technique
of bunting. I watched from the infield,
the mound, the backstop
as your left hand climbed the bat, your legs
and shoulders squared toward the pitcher.
You could drop it like a seed
down either baseline. I admired your style,
but not enough to take my eyes off the bank
that served as our center-field fence.
 
Years passed, three leagues of organized ball,
no few lives.   I could homer
into the garden beyond the bank,
into the left-field lot of Carmichael Motors,
and still you stressed the same technique,
the crouch and spring, the lead arm absorbing
just enough impact. The whole tiresome pitch
about basics never changing,
and I never learned what you were laying down.
 
Like a hand brushed across the bill of a cap,
let this be the sign
I’m getting a grip on the sacrifice.
 

– David Bottoms

______________________
The poem first appeared in David Bottoms’ 1983 collection,  In a U-Haul North of Damascus.  I discovered it in A Good Man: Fathers and Sons in Poetry and Prose, ed. Irv Broughton. NY: Ballantine Books, 1993. p. 104.