Extraordinarily Ordinary

Where we were on 9/11 remains etched in our consciousness — meeting with an elderly woman named Hildegard. Those of my generation remember where we were when Kennedy was shot — Sr Monique’s 8th grade math class. My dad recalled spontaneous parades down main street in Hartington, Nebraska on Armistice Day, 1919.

Today, November 30, I vividly remember where I was thirty-five ago on this day — St. Francis Xavier Church on the St Louis University campus. I was a graduate student. It was Sunday. John Kavanaugh SJ was presiding at the popular campus liturgy.

In his welcome, John announced that Dorothy Day had died the previous evening. Like other moments indelibly etched in our consciousness, there was an audible gasp. We recognized the world would never be the same, grieving our collective loss.

Day was more than the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, she was the moral conscience of a nation. She spoke truth to power, not only regarding Viet Nam, but in the way our culture denigrates the poor and dismisses those on our peripheries. Visiting the U.S. these thirty-five years after her death, Pope Francis cited Dorothy Day (along with Thomas Merton) as exemplars of the very best American Catholicism has to offer.

We too easily assume those we want to call “saints” live with some super-human grace, operating on a different spiritual plain than the rest of us. Not only is that bad theology, it’s simply wrong! As David Brooks has pointed out in his current best-seller, “often enough they live in an even less ethereal way that the rest of us. They are more fully of this earth , more fully engaged in the dirty practical problems of the people around them.” (emphasis mine)

That was certainly the case with Dorothy Day. Brooks is only the latest to observe that “Day and her colleagues slept in cold rooms. They wore donated clothes. They did not receive salaries. Day’s mind was not engaged by theology most of the time, but by how to avoid this or that financial crisis, or arrange for this person to receive that treatment.”

Again, nothing super-human. Nothing ethereal, just down and dirty living the ordinary stuff of life with others. Brooks makes this point by quoting a 1934 journal entry in which she describes a typical day: woke up, went to Mass, made breakfast for the community, answered correspondence, did some bookkeeping, read a book, wrote an inspirational message to others.

Included in that day’s routine activity Day records that someone came looking for a special outfit for a 12 y/o girl, a recent convert came to share some spiritual writings, a Fascist appeared trying to incite discontent among the residents, an aspiring art student arrived with some drawing of Catherine of Siena, and on and on.

This sounds a lot like an ordinary day that passes with no special note, polar opposites of 9/11, the day Kennedy was killed, or the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month! Yes, there are the iconic images of an elderly Dorothy Day placing a single white daisy in the barrel of a heavily equipped police officer’s gun. Mostly, invariably, she just lived everyday as it came, doing whatever needed doing, attending to whomever she was with.

To emphasize the point, David Brooks cites the German medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer. He did not hire idealists for his medical mission in Africa. Nor did he want anyone with a righteous sense of how much they were giving to others, or those intent on doing something heroic for the world.

Brooks emphasizes that Schweitzer “wanted people who would perform constant acts of service with the no-nonsense attitude that they will simply do what needs doing.” Isn’t that the way it is for most of us, most of the time? Take it as it comes! Do what you can do, especially for those who need it most.

Thirty-five years later I am reminded to make this my routine, day by day.
________________
I enthusiastically recommend David Brook’s The Road to Character, New York: Random House, 2015 from which I took inspiration for this reflection. My quotes are from Chapter 4, locations 1855 and 1866 of the Kindle edition.

Live the Life You’re Given, Not the One You’re Not

Laparoscopic surgery ranks right up there with GPS as a marvel of modern life. Just had the procedure a couple of weeks ago for a hernia. But as marvelous as it is, I’m learning it provides no miraculous return to “as good as new.” There are some things — like a bit of arthritis in my hip — that are a function of age and will not change.

What are we to do? Well, within the range of options I’ve chosen to smile. Yes, smile! Seems like a new companion has arrived to stay so the best thing to do is to become friends. The temptation to complain and play the “poor me” card surely pops up. I’m skilled at playing the sympathy card!

But as my parents, and other elders deserving of emulation have taught, we really are about as happy as we choose to be. Somehow they smiled, spoke mostly of what is good and praiseworthy, cultivated gratitude. Their sage advice might be: Smile anyway! Live the life you are given, not the one you’re not!

Are episodic hurdles like hernia repairs and chronic conditions like arthritic hips misfortunes, a tragedy of our inevitable diminishment? Or, can we smile? Can we befriend these physical inconveniences as the companions they are, even befriend them? Can we receive them — even invite them — as reminders and bearers of true wisdom?

Just wondering… do we fear death to the degree we fear living, really loving, being truly alive, fully human? In the much loved Canticle of the Sun Francis of Assisi speak of “sister death.” It is said the last words he spoke were: “Welcome, sister death!” What’s that all about?

Yesterday, returning about twenty freshly washed plates from Thanksgiving dinner to a shelf over my head I wondered, “Should I be doing this?” A cautious fear of falling accompanied my navigating an icy driveway. Can such new-found cautiousness lead to an ever greater curiosity rather than some debilitating concern with diminishment?

Yes, we are about as happy as we choose to be. As my parents used to say, “life is pretty much what you make of it!” I first remember them saying that when I was a disgruntled adolescent. Now at 65, a renewed curiosity about what they were trying to pass on accompanies me.

I wonder… is our fear of death commensurate with our fear of living, really living life as it comes to us, not as we wish it to be? Are we free to really, fully live only to the degree we embrace our finitude, our finality? What is the wisdom of true elders?

More and more, I’m curious about whatever comes to us as a function of age with enduring truths that will not change.

Back Room on Display

Sometimes there are no words. This is such a time. We are left aghast at humanity’s capacity to inflict new forms of evil, cruelty and hate.

The horror we are witnessing in Paris is, tragically, not a new or infrequent phenomenon. Each incident leaves us outraged, exasperated. Every recurrence holds the frightening potential to deaden our emotions, erect new walls around our self-enclosed enclaves, and pretend the violence is worlds away. This cycle must stop — both the death-dealing acts of terrorism as well as the head-in-the-sand retreat into denial and isolation.

Sometimes there should be no words! This is such a time. Rather, we must dig deeper and firmly resolve to discover a new capacity to inquire, comprehend and respond with the best in our human nature. This is a time for radical, un”reasonable” love.

Ironically, Hinduism — the most ancient of all the great world religions — is celebrating the feast of Diwali, the annual celebration of light, life and community. Perhaps this is sheer coincidence as the world convulses amid this latest act of death-dealing terror. Perhaps this year, especially this year, ours is a time to recall the teaching and nonviolence practiced by that most famous of Hindus, Mahatma Ghandi.

This is a time to be especially circumspect with our words and judgments. Coincidentally, I was reading about Christian d’Cherge and his fellow Trappist monks when I learned of the Paris massacres. You may recall that d’Cherge and fellow monks lived in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors in Algeria. Their’s was life of radical, un”reasonable” love in the image of Jesus Christ.

Christian d’Cherge grew up in Paris, served as a priest for six years at Sacre-Coeur atop Montmartre before joining the Trappist order. Early on the morning of March 27, 1996, he and six monks were kidnapped from their Algerian monastery, held for ransom and ultimately killed by terrorists in May of that year.

This is not a time for complex reprisal or threatening invectives. This is a time for honest inquiry, sincere efforts to comprehend and responses that spring from the best of our human nature.

Upon his January 1971 arrival amid Muslim neighbors whom he would befriend as an expression of his Christian faith, d’Cherge wrote in his journal these few but poignant words: “They are believers and respectful of all religious people, provided that what is in the back room corresponds with what is in the display windows.”

May all people of faith live with such correspondence, integrity and respect. Now, more than ever, may what we place on “display” through our words and actions manifest that which is best in the “back room” of whatever faith we allegedly profess.
_____________________
The quote of Christian d’Cherge is in translation from his native French: The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria by John W. Kizer. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002. p. 39.

A Much Needed Second Look

This should have been yesterday’s post. But I had nothing to say about the topic. It all seemed so “yesterday”, so passé. In fact, I have some negativity to overcome.

As a kid, the Rosary was a big deal. It was prayed in church before Mass. An expensive set of prayer beads were a typical gift for First Communion to replace the cheap plastic rosary we fingered before we even knew the Hail Mary.

We’d pray the Rosary at the beginning of every family road trip — we knew we better have our beads readily at hand. While other kids ran outside to play after dinner we knew we had to pray the Rosary first — not just during Lent, throughout theyear! My Dad prayed the full 15-decade Rosary everyday well into his 80s.

Life moves on. Religious culture changes. Schedules impinge on time. We outgrow childhood practices. I had plenty of negative baggage to dump regarding the seeming dreary repetitious routine that impinged on my youthful spontaneity.  I quickly discarded the practice for what I thought would foster a more mature “contemporary” spirituality.

Yesterday, my solid Catholic upbringing reminded me that October 7 is the feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary (just like I remembered it was my sister’s 54th wedding anniversary).  But I had nothing to say. It seemed like a kindly artifact of yesteryear. Harmless enough. A bit quint. But, irrelevant.

Then a couple of things happened. A friend shared her delight with a prayer service she had attended the evening before at a local Catholic high school. The service was built around The Rosary with St. James, an innovative way of praying that combines the repetitive and contemplative aspects of the traditional ritual with the message that Christ’s disciple James preached—the message that “faith without works is dead.”

The rhythm, the structure of the five decades, and other aspects of the more traditional format are the same. This rosary uses contemporary composer and liturgist David Hass’s Mysteries of Discipleship:

  • First Mystery: To Serve the Poor
  • Second Mystery: To Serve Those Who Experience Discrimination and Hatred
  • Third Mystery: To Serve the Cause of Peace
  • Fourth Mystery: To Serve the Young and the Fearful
  • Fifth Mystery: To Serve the Suffering and the Dying

Interspersed throughout are musical responses along with inspired passages from the “cloud of witnesses,” including Óscar Romero, Peter Maurin, Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, St. Francis of Assisi, St. John Paul II, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, St. John XXIII, St. John Baptist de la Salle, Robert F. Kennedy, St. Teresa of Ávila, Adrienne Rich, Helen Keller, and Henri Nouwen.

Then, as if God were intent on putting an exclamation point on the enduring relevance of this ancient prayer form, I simply happened upon a blog post by an Anglican who extolled the Rosary’s spiritual benefits. This Protestant recommends it as a graced entrée for prayerfully inhabiting the mysteries of the Creed.

Yes, the Rosary is Marian in character.  This is because she is among all Christians the model disciple. Yet, at its heart the Rosary — the Mysteries on which we meditate — are thoroughly Christo-centic.

The Anglican bblogger confesses that as he prays the Hail Mary over each plain wooden bead, he is brought again and again into the mystery of the Incarnation – in joy, light, sorrow, glory.  God the Word fully assuming our humanity, that our humanity may fully share in the life of God.

I may be a day late with this reflection.  Nevertheless, it is time to take another look at this discarded, even disvalued, prayer.  Accordingly, I am brought back to profound gratitude for the conscientious efforts my parents made to pass on the faith they treasured, a conformity to Christ they personified.

I enthusiastically introduce you to The Rosary with St. James [here] and the perspectives of the Anglican blogger [here].

True But Not Factual

Visiting the iconic Cologne Cathedral is fraught with danger. The imposing structure begun in 1248 remains under constant repair. Yet, the threat is not physical. The danger I felt last week was to my sophisticated 21st century post-modern Christian faith (sarcasm intended!)

The grand edifice was begun to house the physical remains of the Three Magi who presented gifts to the baby Jesus. Yes, indeed! Their bones had resided in Milan until 1164 when they were brought to Cologne where they remain in a gold, gem-encrusted reliquary which rests atop the main altar.

By the way, if you care to see the actual manger in which Joseph and Mary laid their infant child it has long been housed in the Chapel of the Nativity at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome.

I’ve been told that the very foreskin of Jesus was devoutly preserved at his circumcision and can still be venerated somewhere in Europe — I don’t have the time or inclination to verify this claim or its location! Superstition perverts the Gospel. Magic poisons authentic faith. Nevertheless, they abound aplenty!

Pity the one who suggests a story in Scripture can be true but not factual — that the Bible is a proclamation of dynamic covenantal faith, not a presentation of historical facts; that it is a testament to Love, not a treatise of laws. Sadly, this is heresy for many well intentioned folks, some of whom even hold positions of leadership in our faith communities.

Imagine my amazement last week when my belief in the Christian story and commitment to my faith was actually deepened by visiting the Cologne Cathedral. I was awestruck by the majesty of the reliquary and beauty of the edifice.  I found myself moved to venerate what I beheld.

No, I most assuredly do not believe the bones inside the bejeweled gold box are the very remains of the Three Kings. But I most definitely believe in the authenticity of faith expressed by builders of and pilgrims to the Cathedral over the last 1000 years!

This assurance came from the way guides and materials spoke about the centrality of Christ. Yes, the reliquary commands a place of prominence. The Three Kings’ search for the Christ Child — lifelong, through joy and sorrow, danger and discovery — is presented as the universal human pilgrimage.

As did the Magi, we all bring different gifts. But whomever we are and whatever we bring, all is to be placed at the service of the King of Kings. The Cologne Cathedral looms as a physical destination. But what we encounter is encouragement to forego the easy, false paths as did these three exemplars of persistent, searching faith. This monumental church was constructed to assure us of this truth — we too will ultimately come face-to-face with the One we seek.

I walked into the Cologne Cathedral skeptical and dismissive of medieval piety and sentimentality. Days later, comfortably settled at home in Minnesota, my faith remains strengthened, encouraged, grounded by what I witnessed.

Is the story enshrined on the banks of the Rhine factual? Not in the least! Is it true? Yes, I stake my life on it!

Self-Degradation, Self-Inflicted

We have demeaned and degraded ourselves once again. I feel ashamed, dirty. Why we perpetuate this violence and further poison ourselves remains a sickening question. Who do we think we are, God Almighty?

Yesterday, by sheer coincidence, Richard Rohr’s popular blog posted the following suggestion:

Perhaps upon reading passages such as Matthew 25 or the vengeful Psalms calling for God’s wrath, we might do well to follow the Eastern Orthodox Saint Silouan’s advice:

“I remember a conversation between [Staretz Silouan] and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction, ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’ “Obviously upset, the Staretz said, ‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire–would you feel happy?’ “‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit. “The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance: “‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.'”

Yesterday, a jury in Boston swiftly sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death under the guise of justice.  Many — if not most — Americans feel vindicated, grateful, safer. We are no better than those self-righteous fanatics who would stone a woman for infidelity or a man for being gay.

Yes, these news stories have also been reported recently in the news. We mask our own vengeful impulses with the self-serving explanation that these religious extremists know nothing of God, of God’s love or of “true” religious faith! We smugly sit within our own self-righteousness, our own presumption to distribute ultimate justice, our own arrogant propensity to play God.

The deliberate taking of another person’s life is immoral. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty of a heinous crime — even his attorneys do not contest that fact. But, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is securely within our custody — restrained and incapable of further killing and violence. Yet, we as a society are not! Instead, we perpetuate the violence, inflicting further brutality upon ourselves.

God forbid! If we but knew the love of God! We must pray for all.

___________________

Richard Rohr’s blog post for Friday, May 14 — the very day Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death — gave the source of Saint Silouan’s quote as: Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, Vol. 1 of the Collected Works (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2004), 48.

It’s All in the Stories We Tell

It’s the stories, plain and simple. No doubt about it!

Happy May Day!  As a very young kid in Hartington, NE we decorated small baskets with crape paper, pipe cleaners and ribbons. After filling them with candy we’d sneak to our friends’ porches, place them near the door as we rang the bell only to dash into hiding before being found-out! Such childhood memories delight me still.

At school during the 1950s we learned something much more sinister that made us feel unpatriotic celebrating May Day with such frivolities. We were taught the frightening lesson that May 1 is International Workers Day, an occasion for atheistic communism to brandish weapons of unimaginable destruction and the inevitable march of Soviet Marxism to world supremacy. So much for adults destroying the imaginations of innocent youth!

Yes, it’s about stories — the kind of stories we tell ourselves and the stories we choose to believe! At the same time teachers at St. Cecilia Grade School taught us about International Workers Day, we were reassured that Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955 as a direct counter to atheistic communism. Of course, everyone knew that God and Joseph, foster-father of Jesus, are bigger and stronger than Karl Marx and Nikita Khrushchev combined!

Stories about May baskets, atheistic communism or even pronouncements of popes no longer charm or frighten me as they once did. But I still love our stories and get excited about what we choose to tell and believe. Stories about real people living real lives of incredible achievement, scaling unimagined heights, standing up to power, transforming the lives of others.  That’s a vital part of being Catholic I will never regret or relinquish — we have the best stories!

We take a lot of bashing about our devotion to the saints. Like the discipline we remember so well from Catholic school, such admonishment is probably deserved to keep us in line and on the straight and narrow. But kids need more than doctrine and discipline. We all need an abundance of inspiring stories with action heroes proving that good triumphs over evil and lives of exemplary valor are not only possible but more common than we think.

Here is just such a story… How many Americans do you think could name the current Cardinal Archbishop of New York? Too hard? Name any New York archbishop since the 1950s. Now, how many Americans do you think recognize the name Dorothy Day? Hmmm… Cardinal Archbishop or poor single mother, both from New York?

But hasn’t that always been the case? How many stories of heroic virtue and lives that truly changed the world are about the hierarchy or are about bishops? Isn’t it much more common that ordinary people living extraordinary lives is what inspires and transforms?  Beginning with a poor girl’s unplanned pregnancy in Nazareth, the great stories invariably teach that genuine reform more often comes from the bottom up than from the top down.

An indefatigable poor, single mother started the Catholic Worker Movement 82 years ago today. The many who love and cherish her story celebrate that Dorothy Day turned the Catholic Church — indeed, much of twentieth century America — on its head! She died 35 years ago. Ironically, Timothy Dolan, the current Cardinal Archbishop of New York is now spearheading her cause for canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church.

Imagine that!