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!

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!

Woman, Centered in God

We prayed the family Rosary when I was a kid – not just during Lent, not just one day a week, we prayed the Rosary after dinner every day of my childhood. Okay, we may have been allowed a reprieve from time to time but this was truly the exception, not the rule!

Imagine the tens of thousands of times we recited the “Hail Mary” together as a family! I cannot begin to express the culminating grace and profound consolation standing aside our mother’s bed on January 19, 2007 as she breathed her last. One last time we prayed, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. AMEN!” 

May is a month many Christians dedicate to Mary. Certainly there would be no reprieve from our family Rosary this month! Now these deeply imprinted memories are a source of fresh gratitude and comfort.

The Litany of Loreto [link] concluded our family’s after dinner ritual. I confess that as a 7 year old I took inordinate pride in being able to lead the entire Litany from memory! Today I find the images saccharine and archaic. But they set a foundation for which I am eternally grateful.

Today, I much prefer the Litany of Mary of Nazareth. The images are much more accessible and evocative for my heart. On this day in May – the month of Mary – I enthusiastically recommend it for your prayer:

Glory to you, God our Creator … Breath into us new life, new meaning.
Glory to you, God our Savior … Lead us in the way of peace and justice.
Glory to you, God, healing Spirit … Transform us to empower others.

Mary, wellspring of peace ………. Be our guide,
Model of strength…..
Model of gentleness…
Model of trust..
Model of courage
Model of patience
Model of risk
Model of openness
Model of perseverance

Mother of the liberator ………. Pray for us.
Mother of the homeless…..
Mother of the dying…
Mother of the nonviolent
Widowed mother
Unwed mother
Mother of a political prisoner
Mother of the condemned
Mother of an executed criminal

Oppressed woman ………. Lead us to life.
Liberator of the oppressed…..
Marginalized woman…
Comforter of the afflicted
Cause of our joy
Sign of contradiction
Breaker of bondage
Political refugee
Seeker of sanctuary
First disciple
Sharer in Christ’s ministry
Participant in Christ’s passion
Seeker of God’s will
Witness to Christ’s resurrection

Woman of mercy ………. Empower us.
Woman of faith…..
Woman of contemplation…
Woman of vision
Woman of wisdom and understanding
Woman of grace and truth
Woman, pregnant with hope
Woman, centered in God

Mary, Queen of Peace, we entrust our lives to you. Shelter us from war, hatred and oppression. Teach us to live in peace, to educate ourselves for peace. Inspire us to act justly, to revere all God has made. Root peace firmly in our hearts and in our world. Amen.
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Source: The Fire of Peace: A Prayer Book edited by Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB for Pax Christi USA

Doing Our Mothers Proud

Sunday will be the eighth Mothers Day without my Mom. I no longer turn away from the greeting cards prominently displayed at Target. Pop-ups offering flowers interrupting my web-surfing don’t make me sad as they did. Yet, I still miss my Mom and wish I could tell her again – with new insight and fresh motivation – how much I love her.

A few days ago I even posted a request on Facebook: share your best suggestion for how those of us who have lost our mothers are to mark this weekend holiday. Friends offered some great ideas: make one of her favorite recipes, do something she enjoyed doing, share favorite stories about her with others, visit someone in a nursing home.

The suggestion I like best did not come from Facebook but from columnist Nicholas Kristof. The world community is increasingly aware and outraged by the 276 school girls kidnapped by religious fanatics in Nigeria. His “update” from yesterday deserves to be read [here] regardless of his great suggestion for celebrating Mothers Day.

Neither Mr. Kristof nor I begrudge anyone celebrating our mothers with flowers, chocolates or out-for-brunch. I wish my Mom were here to enjoy them. Kristof’s brilliant idea is to celebrate them by honoring the girls still missing in Nigeria. Think of their mothers’ anguish.  In my family’s case this would be especially appropriate.

Regulars here will recall that my favorite Grandmother was orphaned at age 7 and sent from Boston to South Dakota on an orphan train. Her formal education ended at the third grade. My mother earned the highest score in her county on her eighth-grade standardized exam. However, cultural values prevented her from going to high school, despite the protestations of her teacher, because my grandparents presumed she had enough education for what they envisioned her future to be. (Read my previous post [here]).

The greatest threat to the extremism of the Nigerian kidnappers is a girl with a book. Boko Haram, whose name means roughly “Western education is a sin,” admits responsibility for this violent abuse being played out in Nigeria. The greatest antidote to their fanaticism would be to educate and empower women. I am absolutely certain my mother would agree.

Kristof offers a number of excellent suggestions: One would be a donation to support girls going to school around Africa through the Campaign for Female Education [link]; a $40 gift pays for a girl’s school uniform.

Or there’s the Mothers’ Day Movement [link] which is supporting a clean water initiative in Uganda. With access to water, some girls will no longer have to drop out of school to haul water.

You may wish to support something closer to home. This year I plan to send what I would have spent on flowers for my Mom to Avenues for Homeless Youth [link].  On any night in the state of Minnesota, 4,000+ youth and young adults are homeless and unaccompanied by an adult. Youth homelessness has jumped 63% in Minnesota since 2009.

Other than keeping the pressure of global outrage on the tragedy in Nigeria, there is little you and I can do to rescue the kidnapped girls. Whether our mothers are with us to receive our expressions of gratitude and love or they have passed from us, there is still so much we can each do to honor these girls and celebrate the lives of our mothers.

Let’s make them proud!

Each Child: A Reason for Hope

The birth of a child is such reason for hope. The occasion brings joy and conjures dreams about what this child might become. This is true the world over!

One of the biggest new ideas in international development comes from economists, academics, doctors, politicians, and aid workers. There appears to be a broadening convergence of evidence confirming the profound ways in which proper nutrition in the earliest years of life influences a person’s ability to grow, learn, and work.

The 1,000-day period from the beginning of pregnancy to a child’s second birthday will largely determine your child’s health, ability to learn in school and perform at a future job. It all seems so obvious… proper nutrition for the mother and child, as well as good sanitation and personal hygiene, are vital to prevent stunting of the body and brain.

For years, ensuring good nutrition during the first 1,000 days was largely absent from national and global development priorities. Efforts to improve young lives and brighten future prospects focused on getting children into school. It has been in primary schools where interventions related to childhood nutrition usually begin.

Yes, global resolve and cooperation are essential. But all is not dependent on governments and creating new bureaucracies. Much is already within reach of families and villages. Farming needs to be diversified by growing more nutrient-rich crops for household consumption. Homes need to maintain clean living environments. Culturally ingrained behaviors such as women eating last at mealtime even when they are pregnant or breastfeeding must be challenged and changed.

In 2012 some of the world’s leading economists and development specialists gathered to consider a question: If they had an extra $75 billion to improve the state of the world, which problem would they solve first? The group declared that investments to eliminate hunger and malnutrition would do the world the greatest good. It found that improving child nutrition was also the most cost-effective intervention, with a return on investment of at least 30 to 1.

In essence, malnutrition keeps poor countries poor. This is true in the United States as well. We are beginning to acknowledge connections between poor nutrition in the 1,000 days and poor school performance, as well as increasing rates of obesity and diabetes.

When he hosted a Scaling Up Nutrition summit in 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel estimated that as many as 500,000 of the city’s citizens could be living in “food deserts” without nearby access to affordable vegetables, meat, and fresh fruits, leading to unhealthy diets centered on cheaper junk food and readily available fast food.

It is in these 1,000 days where so many of America’s social problems begin: failing health, failing students and schools, a weakened labor force and high crime rates. What might a single child have contributed to the world had he or she not been stunted during the first 1,000 days?

Every child is a reason for hope.  Each looks to us to be nourished and nurtured.  What are we to do?

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I am indebted to Roger Thurow’s brilliant article in the May 2014 issue of The Atlantic for this information. I encourage everyone to read his entire report [here].

Gutsy Women

Here’s to strong, gutsy women! One such woman is Catherine of Sienna who died on this day in 1380. Seeing the power she wielded and the impact she made during her short 33 years is nothing short of startling!

Something must have been in the fourteenth century air… Catherine was born in Italy five years after Julian of Norwich was born in England (1342). This was the time of the Black Death, the 100 Years War, and the Avignon papacy. It is estimated that 38% of women would die giving birth. Catherine was the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. Clearly, she is an exemplar of one who achieves greatness in the throes of adversity.

Rather than enter a monastic religious order, Catherine associated herself with the Dominicans and claimed for herself, “My cell will not be one of stone or wood, but of self-knowledge.” Here we must be careful not to interpret this from the post-Enlightenment perspective or the autonomous individualism of 21st century culture! “Self” was clearly understood as relational and imbedded in solidarity with others and with God.

After three years of prayerful turmoil and seclusion, Catherine rejoined her family and began serving her neighbors. She cared for victims of the plague, gathered alms for the poor and ministered to prisoners. She would soon recognize a further call to serve the wider world and press for reform of the church.

Catherine honed her peacemaking skills mediating between feuding families of Sienna. Then, she took on the Pope! With a retinue of companions and with enthusiastic support along the way, Catherine traveled to Avignon in France to mediate the armed conflict between the city-state of Florence and the papacy. There she was blunt and uncompromising in her insistence that Gregory XI return to Rome. The pope complied!

Extraordinary women like Catherine are more numerous than our history books suggest. Thankfully, others like Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) are being rediscovered. Catherine was named a Doctor of the Church in 1970; Hildegard was similarly honored in 2012. Of the 35 so honored, only four are women – Catherine, Hildegard, Teresa of Ávila (1515 -1582) and Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897).

Yes, there is much rediscovery of our full heritage to be made. Thankfully, there are places like the University of Saint Catherine here in Minnesota. More of us need to reclaim the vision, courage and mission of Catherine in empowering strong, gutsy women to lead and reform our church and world.

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Many good biographies of Catherine are available on the Web. Again, I am grateful to Robert Ellsberg for his inspiring, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Times (Crossroads, 1999) for his “rediscovery” of an eclectic assortment of great people of faith.