Home » Uncategorized (Page 2)

Category Archives: Uncategorized

Misrecognizing Resignation: Thoughts on Paul Elie’s NYTimes Op-ed

“Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon.  So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.”

A few days ago writer Paul Elie joined the chorus of voices offering commentary on the Catholic Church surrounding the resignation of the now-Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.  As the above quote indicates, Elie’s op-ed, “Give Up Your Pew for Lent,” plays with the double-meaning of the term “resignation” to make a case for a temporary, protest exodus from the Catholic Church.  While Benedict resigned—that is, gave up his office—Elie notes that many American Catholics experience another form of resignation—that is, an acceptance of the inevitable unpleasant reality of their church.  From this, he exhorts Catholics to vacate parishes in an effort express to church leaders the resignation they feel, and to spend time reconsidering their resignation. Perhaps some time away and the experience of other faith communities can even dispel their resignation.

There is much to say in response to Elie’s piece. My friend Dan over at datinggod.org has already articulated well how Elie’s proposal betrays our theological conceptions of church and Eucharist, and misplaces the power of ecclesial change in the hands of those who leave the Church rather than those who articulate their criticisms with the tradition. To this, I would add my concern for Elie’s general characterization of American Catholics—Are we really all so “resigned”?

In my mind, “resignation” connotes passivity, a disposition of disinterest, acquiescence.  To characterize the temperament of American Catholics—particularly those troubled by Catholicism’s interfaith relations or leaders’ handling of the clergy abuse crisis, to cite some issues listed by Elie—is to depict a gross misrepresentation of American Catholics that overlooks some of the most engaged and faithful practitioners in the Church today.  Surely, many dissatisfied Catholics might be characterized appropriately as “resigned,” but to say that this represents the “what American Catholics are feeling,” is an overstatement that overlooks the complex reality of lived Catholicism today.

Furthermore, many of the Catholics I know who are most committed to the types of ecclesial changes underwriting Elie’s op-ed are—undoubtedly—the most engaged and least “resigned” Catholics I know. They have not resigned to bitterness and complaint about the Catholicism; they are deeply hopeful and actively engaged in actualizing a Church grounded in the Gospel.

They are Catholic like those who wrote for the recent publication, Hungering and Thirsting For Justice, co-edited by Lacey Louwagie and my friend Kate Ward, or the colleagues and friends alongside whom I wrote in the collection, From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism.  These and so many other Catholics are anything but “resigned,” and most would adamantly disagree with Elie’s charge that resigning—that is, giving up on one’s place in the pew—is a good way to engage Catholicism.

What’s more, many of the Catholics I know who have resigned—who have left Catholicism—rarely if ever do so in a state of emotional resignation.  They wrestle with the Church and the Catholic tradition, and often experience an incredible amount of conflict about their decision to seek God in another faith community. The kind of easy departure that Elie presents in his op-ed betrays the genuine strife that many Catholics experience as they struggle to understand their place inside—or outside—the Church. The idea of “giving up one’s pew for Lent” seems rather trite in view of the genuine struggles of these faithful friends.

That many American Catholics–on any side of the aisle–are unhappy about the realities of Catholicism is true. That we all feel so resigned is an overgeneralization, I think. It is a misrepresentation of American Catholicism’s complex realities. And, that we ought to resign from our pews, wherever we sit, is no solution for the resignation that some folks do actually feel.

Faith Healing

A couple years ago Roger Haight S.J., one of Catholicism’s leading theologians, visited the Paulist Catholic Center here in Boston to offer a three-day lecture series.  At the beginning of one Q&A session, an audience member stood in a huff and proceeded to deliver a lengthy, rather aggressive monologue directed at Haight.  Those familiar with the controversies surrounding his work might assume that this man took the public lecture as an occasion to echo the harsh words of Haight’s magisterial critics. Quite the opposite, in fact. The audience member argued that the disciplinary measures against Haight were another example of the reactionary shift in church leadership since Vatican II.  The Second Vatican Council, he explained, had offered a vision of hope for Catholics that has only been mired by the Church hierarchy ever since.

This is a message I heard repeatedly during the last three and a half years as a staff member at the Paulist Center. One of the major hubs in Boston for Catholics seeking a community of vibrant worship and lefty social justice commitments, the Paulist Center is hospitable to many folks who wish the Church at large looked a little (or a lot) different than it does today.  Despite my familiarity with this audience member’s perspective, my shared dissatisfaction with the treatment of Roger Haight and his work, and my own related concerns about the current status of Catholicism, I found myself cringing as I sat in the pew just a few feet away from this man.

When the event concluded I headed to dinner with a group of young adults where I facilitated a discussion about Haight’s talk.  As always, I was struck by the earnestness, intelligence, and eloquence of my peers as they reflected on spirituality and our lives as Catholics. These young adults echoed, in content, what that vocal audience member had proclaimed earlier: They, too, where saddened and frustrated to know that our brilliant and kind lecturer had endured so much strife from church leaders.  They, too, worry about what our church does and does not look like today.

What was absent from their reflections that night—and most nights—was the aggressiveness and bitterness that made me cringe when I heard very similar concerns from the older audience member earlier that evening.  I rarely experience the same bitterness among younger “progressive” Catholics that I witness so often among older members of the community.  And I’ve been trying to figure out why for a long time. Have we young adults simply not lived with the church long enough to accrue the degree of anger that we witness in older Catholics?  Is it just a matter of time until we also find ourselves taking the mic for a few safe moments to diffuse some of that frustration we’ve been harboring inside?  Maybe.  Maybe that’s one reason why that man made me so uncomfortable: I recognized much of my own anger in him, and faced with this mirror, I found myself wondering: Has my Catholic faith fated me to a life of bitterness and resentment? Is this what my disappointment and frustration is bound to become? This kind of anger, however sincere and justified, is not what I want for this man, my community, or my life.

I believe these are some of the pressing spiritual questions among many Catholics today.  My years in Catholic young adult ministry have shown me that I am not alone in seeking a hospitable space where I can process my frustrations about the Church with a supportive community.  This blog is one such space, to be sure.  At the same time, there are these moments when there is a temptation to indulge this disappointment and anger in unhealthy ways. We attend to our wounds in ways that cause them to fester rather than heal.  With the best of intentions, we proclaim our anger so loudly and so often that we come to associate only words of resentment with Catholicism.  When we listen to ourselves we only hear how miserable it is to be a Catholic today.

How do we respond to the pain in a way that brings healing and life? Because Christian work ought to be healing work, I am convinced that all Christians—especially ministers—need to deal seriously and carefully with church-related pain, whether it belongs to others or to oneself.  Yet I do not think simply offering a microphone is always the best response; it is rarely a good response if it is the sole response. I suggest this because I experienced a temptation in communities full of genuinely hurt Catholics to join the chorus of anger when it doesn’t quite reflect the complexity of one’s situation of own faith—of one’s own pain.  In the safety of like-minded folks such as that audience member, I have found myself spouting dismissive comments about the Church only to realize minutes later that my own words don’t reflect the reality of my life as a Catholic—as a Catholic who is sad and frustrated, but also enlivened and hopeful. Again, admittedly, there are times when I have rather snide things to say about the Church that need to be named in order to be processed healthily.  But, when faced with such words, I think I too rarely ask myself and others: Is that all you need to say? Can I help you process this more?

As I have expressed elsewhere on the blog, I do not think the necessary result of this healing process will be a long, carefree life within the traditional boundaries of the Catholic Church.  Whatever the concrete results of processing the pain of Catholic life, I believe that healing, life-giving work is the work to which we must faithfully give ourselves.  As much as the concrete results of healing are often unknown and always particular to an individual’s own struggles, I am quite sure that a life bounded by bitterness and resentment is likely not what God wants for us.

Over the years, the frank and hopeful insights of the young adults at the Paulist Center have taught me this.  These peers afforded me opportunities for honest speech in the context of a larger community of healing, for which I was immensely grateful as I concluded my time on staff there last week.  And the healing continues…

The Curse of Catholicism

Yesterday afternoon I broke from my homework to read the latest NYTimes op-ed on Catholicism, “The Curse of Catholicism” by Frank Bruni.  Prompted by Gary Wills’ forthcoming book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Bruni argues that institutional Catholicism has done a disservice to its priests and practitioners by “tuck[ing] priests into a cosseted caste above the flock, wrapp[ing] them in mysticism and prioritize[ing] their protection and reputations over the needs and sometimes even the anguish of the people in the pews.”  The column, relatively lengthy for an op-ed, goes on to connect explicitly the structural privilege of priests and the power abuses exercised in the global clergy sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up.  I have been reading studies on this connection for years and continue to find it deeply concerning.

I do have some contentions with the article—namely, Bruni’s emphasis at one point on Wills’ claim that Christianity was “opposed to the priesthood” from the start, an argument that strikes me as anti-Jewish and rather untenable in view of the tradition of understanding Jesus as the High Priest, as showcased in the Letter to the Hebrews that the church prayed with just this past week!  Still, despite this and despite the fact that I have been brooding over the connection of church structures and power abuses for nearly a decade now, something about this article affected me anew.  Skimming my computer screen, my heart felt so heavy I thought I might have to hunch over to lean my elbows on the table, just to manage of the weight of it.

Perhaps it is because the details of the article reminded me that I am simply so close, so entangled in the ongoing terrible tragedy that Bruni narrates.  A good deal of the piece rehearses new reports about the extensive cover-up of clergy sexual abuse carried out by Cardinal Roger Mahoney, former Archbishop of Los Angeles.  He signed my paychecks in 2009 when I served as a minister in the Archdiocesan Office of Religious Education.  Every day I worked just a few floors below him.  I ministered at liturgies where he presided. I probably shook his hand once or twice.  Or maybe I was struck by my closeness to all this because I read that article from a seminary library—a library I occupy nearly every day—that was sold to Boston College by the Archdiocese of Boston in its scramble to attain excess cash for clergy sexual abuse lawsuits.  The window I sat beside looks out over Cardinal Law’s former residence, which also sits on the property.  The mere mention of his name still infuriates the people of Boston.

In moments like this when I am reminded that I am frighteningly proximate to this scandal, it is also easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of complicity.  This Church—led officially by many people who have abused power, and defined by structures that enable them—I am a part of it.  I choose to be a part of it.  My religious life, my professional life, and so many of my friendships are entirely entangled in this Church.  If the structures of this community enabled some leaders to commit appalling abuses, and I am a part of this community, am I not somehow indirectly complicit?

This question is terribly uncomfortable, but whenever it confronts me I have the conviction that it is not to be easily dismissed. So yesterday afternoon, after closing my computer screen, I let that question haunt me. I sat with it before bed and I woke up with it. And then I read that famous passage about the Body of Christ from the First Letter to the Corinthians, which appears in today’s liturgical readings. Despite decades of familiarity with it, something about this passage affected me anew when I read it this morning. It was two brief sentences that struck me, actually: “Now the body is not a single part, but many….Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” The first sentence reminds us that we cannot reduce the body—the church—to a single part, to oneself.  Or to anyone else for that matter—a pope, a priest, a parent.  The second sentence, however, emphasizes the opposite: we are distinct individual parts within this larger body.  We do not lose our particularities in our belonging to this larger body, as if conflated or erased. This is a tension of being Church: We are many and we are one. We belong to each other but we do not lose ourselves as individuals.  We are responsible for one another, but we are also responsible for our own actions and inactions.

So, again, this question: Am I complicit? In view of the vision of church we find in today’s reading, I think we ought not set aside the question of communal responsibility, of structural sin. At the same time, we must keep in mind the obvious fact that people must take responsibility for their own individual actions and inactions when it comes to this terrible scandal. The Church as a whole cannot be conflated with any of its figureheads; in turn, any priests’ sin is not every Catholic’s sin. We must learn to live in this tension as church, and we must learn to live with it in a way that doesn’t leave us so heavy hearted that we are paralyzed. We cannot let the difficulty of church keep us from being the best of church–

More on that last line in the next blog post.

I’ve been running

I’ve been running.

Had you asked me about running six months ago, I would have sighed, frowned, and said something like, “Yeah, I go for a jog occasionally…” (Grumble, grumble, grumble).  Like some of you, I imagine, running was something I did from time to time because one ought to run. One ought to for her health. One ought to, perhaps, so she can still claim some bit of lingering athletic ability during her mid-twenties.

As I ran I couldn’t escape the physical and mental confrontation of pain, however.  “This hurts,” I thought between the weight and wear of deep, heavy breaths. And then I wondered, “Why is this so painful for me? How do all these other people run so much further and faster through all this pain?!” The mental battle prompted by the pain was ultimately the bigger obstacle, the higher hurdle. Running entailed a confrontation with myself—my own vulnerability, my inability, my pain—that I wanted to run from. And running from it meant not running.

For the last couple months, though, I kept running.

Ms. Jenkins was one of my favorite high school teachers. In addition to introducing me to feminism, she taught me how to live through pain. (Perhaps this lesson pairing is no coincidence).  One day she stopped her history lesson and disclosed to us a great impending truth about our own future histories: “Some day you will love someone so much that when it ends, you will wake up in the morning, lay in bed, and you won’t want to get up because it will feel like the world has ended. You will feel like that. It will hurt that much.  But you must get out of bed,” she said. “You must get out of bed that day, and the next day, and the next day. And overtime you will notice that the pain shifts. And one day while brushing your teeth it will occur to you that the pain has shifted so much that you actually believe you will be okay. You will realize that somewhere between the end of the world and brushing your teeth, things got better.”

I’ve recited this wisdom to myself and my grieving friends about a hundred times. I’ve done that because, after a few of these personal Armageddons, I know that Ms. Jenkins was right. Even so, there has been a shift overtime in my understanding of the process that she described to us that day. I used to think this was merely a story about the inevitable dissolution of pain across time: If one just continues through life for long enough, one will eventually live without that pain. Time heals; this kind of pain disappears.  And while heartache may very well be a kind of pain that quantitatively lessens over days and months and years, I think Ms. Jenkins also disclosed something about the possibilities of relating to one’s pain: Sometimes we have the choice to run from it, to stay in bed—or to run with it, to live into it.

Like running, living into this sort of pain entails a confrontation with my own vulnerability. And it is overwhelming at times to attend to it—to live while paying attention to my own fragility. But freaking out and avoiding the reality of my pain and my vulnerability to it—the alternative—does not foster any sort of transformation, any sort of healing.  I’ve come to think that there will always be pain, to varying degrees, and I will always, always be affected by it.  But I can live well with it. Through it.

When I kept running, I learned to breathe through the pain. I learned to embrace the sense of vulnerability I feel amidst it. That pain has lessened, too, but that has not been the most transformative or reassuring result of this new habit. I have discovered, or perhaps engendered, a deep peace along the way.

A Try

I was recently listening to a Radiolab podcast that featured writer Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that one).  She spoke about inspiration, and how she has remained creative and productive as a writer.  Earlier in her career, she had learned to talk her to inspiration–as if it were outside of her. “TELL ME YOUR NAME,” she had demanded of  her book, “Eat, Pray, Love” when at the final stages of preparation before publication, the completed manuscript had no title.  After yelling at it–literally–for days, she woke up one morning and there it was: the answer, the title.  “I can feel the difference when something is produced purely from my own sweat and blood, and when something is given to me,” she said. A writer has to do the work, she confirmed, of course. But those moments of pure inspiration, those creative gifts that seem to originate from outside of oneself, those are the moments that interrupt the rest of the writing process and make it great.

Last summer while studying French, I learned that the word “essay” is an adaptation of the French verb, “essayer.”  Plainly, “essayer” means “to try.”  An essay–a try.  These linguistic connections are some of the simple pleasures of language study: with the acquisition of a single foreign word, even the most native term can take on a whole new depth of meaning.  An essay–a try.  It made so much sense to me.

And I think it resonated with me because of the creative process that Gilbert described.  When I sit down to write, I am trying–trying to write well, yes–but really, truly, I am trying to be open to that something else…that something “given” that Gilbert describes as inspiration.  In that sense, I am trying not to write at all.  The best stuff on the page doesn’t originate from within me. It hits me, smack in the head, while I’m mid-way through a sentence at my keyboard. I can feel that it arrives from a different place.  From where?

Theologian Gordon Kaufman describes God as Creativity.  I’m not sure it’s God, but I do think, whatever it is, it helps me to believe in God.  There is something deeply sacramental about this experience within the writing process: in the relationship between a writer and her words, something good and beyond interrupts.  Mystery interrupts what is otherwise mundane and laborious. Isn’t that precisely the experience of the world the compels me toward the Divine?

It is the end of finals here at Harvard–and the completion of my Master’s degree, at that. And this is the time of every semester when we find ourselves asking, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” All the pressure, all the essays, ALL the essays.  Still, I keep trying and trying and trying–because, when I ask myself “Why do I do this? WHY do I do this?” I realize I am still waiting, crazy like Elizabeth Gilbert, for the mystery to interrupt. I want to keep waiting, to keep writing. An essay–a try.

Maundy Thursday

Mother, Washing Dishes by Susan Meyers
She rarely made us do it—
we’d clear the table instead—so my sister and I teased
that some day we’d train our children right
and not end up like her, after every meal stuck
with red knuckles, a bleached rag to wipe and wring.
The one chore she spared us: gummy plates
in water greasy and swirling with sloughed peas,
globs of egg and gravy.

Or did she guard her place
at the window? Not wanting to give up the gloss
of the magnolia, the school traffic humming.
Sunset, finches at the feeder. First sightings
of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon,
delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news.

On Holy Thursday, I kneel down on the cool hard floor of the sanctuary before a small basin of water. I take a stranger’s feet into my palms.  With my small hands I tip the heavy pitcher of water, and with great care, I wash these feet. I dry them.

And every year when I am through, I look up at a warm, humble smile. And for a brief, still moment, I offer one too.

I would never want to give that up.

Lying Awake

Recently, I read a beautiful little novel called, “Lying Awake” by Mark Salzman.  The novel chronicles the story of Sr. John of the Cross, a Carmelite nun in a community nestled in the hills surrounding contemporary Los Angeles.  Sr. John’s spiritual poetry has brought her fame in the world outside the monastery walls; this writing talent surfaced with recurring and increasingly intense mystical spells that leave her unconscious after a fit of voracious spiritual writing.   Not long after the novel begins, Sr. John is diagnosed with a form of epilepsy known to result in common symptoms not at all unlike those that have enabled her fame, including tremendous interest in religion and philosophy and rigorous fits of writing.

The good news appears to be that the epilepsy is treatable with a fairly safe surgical procedure.  Free of this illness, Sr. John’s community would be free of the burden of worrying about and caring for Sr. John when these trance-like experiences come over her.  Yet, assent to such a procedure is in no way simple for Sr. John: while the symptomatic mystical writing has brought her fame, it has also, more importantly, given her a consistent, incredibly intimate experience of God’s presence.

Amid her story, any reader is inevitably confronted by the question she faces: If I were in her position, what would I do?  Would I rid myself of these symptoms for the sake of my health and my community—but at the potential cost of losing this feeling of intimacy with God?  Or, would I accept ill health for the sake of this mystical life?

When discussing this book with friends, I have often said that I would choose mysticism.  So much of our lives are spent seeking clarity about the decisions we make, about the convictions we live by—thus, I can only imagine how liberating it would feel to experience the kind of clarity and peace that would accompany this type of mystical intimacy with God.  How could one consciously give that up after experiencing it?

However, one scene from the book made me re-think all that.  On the night when Sr. John must make up her decision, she vows to stay up all night, keeping vigil in the monastery chapel until she finds peace with her choice, one way or the other.  After a few hours in the darkness and quiet, her sisters, one by one, fill the chapel.  Saying nothing, their presence implicitly communicates that they, too, will keep vigil with her until she reaches her decision.  And in reading this, it occurred to me: It is very rare that God gives us the type of mystical clarity that Sr. John experienced for so many years. More often, I think, God gives us each other.

Surely, most of us still long for the sky to open and a divine voice to call out how to live and what to think.  But a longing for this type of clarity, for this type of conviction, can distract us from the gift of God in our midst—the God embodied in those who sit next to us, in word and in silent, as we discern all those small decisions that make up a lifetime. Would I exchange that for mysticism?  Well, maybe—I’ve never experienced the sort of thing that Sr. John did.  But, when I recall the many nights when people have kept vigil with me—around dinner tables, on long walks, over drinks at the bar—I can’t imagine trading that for anything. And I can’t imagine that God wasn’t right there, too.

Hope.

“You’ve heard she’s going to Boston College next year?” she said, gesturing toward me, as we stood around the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard this afternoon. She was referring to my decision to start a PhD in Systematic Theology at BC in the fall.

“Yes I have heard!” said the other woman. “You’re entering the battle ground!” she exclaimed. “I’ve heard what the bishops have done to Elizabeth Johnson at Fordham.” She was referring to the recent negative statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops concerning the work of Prof. Johnson, one of the leading Catholic feminist theologians of our time.  Although much of the theological world has dismissed the legitimacy of any and all of these claims made by the USCCB, the statement has stirred a great deal of controversy nevertheless.

“There is still hope, though!” the first woman replied. Still hope for the future of feminist theology in this church.

“Really?”said the other.

“Yes, yes, there must be! We must hope.” Hope.

Dr. Kiran Martin

Once we found our seats the event moderator introduced Dr. Kiran Martin, the founder of Asha India, an organization in Delhi committed to transforming the lives of the 1/3 of Dehli’s population living in the urban slums. Dr. Martin recounted her story: As a young medical student, she decided to visit Delhi’s urban slums; despite living in the city her whole life, she had never visited these areas in her city.  There, she found herself amid a cholera outbreak and felt compelled to offer her medical services to the sick children there. Once she established regular medical services in these communities, she realized they needed housing renovations. Once those began,  she realized they needed property rights.  Then, she realized they needed opportunities for higher education, and so on.

What began with a single woman, offering what she could for the betterment of a community in need, has resulted in a large, holistic, and exceptionally influential NGO that works with some of the poorest of the global poor.

“Asha,” she told us, “is Hindi for ‘hope.'”  She had called her life’s work, “Hope.”

If this woman, with this monumental mission, can call this work, “Hope,” then perhaps I can claim it for my small work, too. Perhaps I, too, can be one woman, merely offering what I can for the betterment of one community. Perhaps that is how hope can survive, maybe even thrive, in the day to day.

Sabbath

“I haven’t written on the blog in so long,” I told my partner a few weeks ago. “I feel bad about it. But it just wasn’t coming to me–and lately, when the words come, I simply can’t get myself to sit still and write them. I don’t know what’s wrong with me!”

“No reason to feel bad about it,” he said, matter-a-factly. “Even God took a break.”  Even God took a break.

Indeed, at the conclusion of the first creation narrative in Genesis 1, God takes a break–a seventh day sabbath.  Surely, God’s break warrants my own respite from the creation process, right?  This was consoling for a time…until the guilt began to encroach upon my psyche again.  “God took a break after doing something,” I told myself. “I haven’t done any writing at all lately!  And what’s more, God didn’t just create something. God created something ‘very good‘!” This logic only brings me right back to where I began.

This swirling mess of self-justification and degradation so often frames my daily reflection on life–not just my blogging life. If I’m not bemoaning my lazy writing practice, then it’s my inability to keep up with my growing email inbox or to-do lists, or my desire to work harder or fast or better, or harder and faster and better. The more I indulge this mindset, the more I find myself trapped in a world of insatiable demands.  This cannot be the “very good” world that God created…right?

“I feel like I’m drowning,” I recently said this to someone on a particularly overwhelming day of tasks. It’s something I have said a hundred times before on a hundred other days like that one, but on that day the figurative image flashed before me: my arms flailing about, splashing water everywhere, grasping for air.  Suddenly, I said to the drowning image of me, “Don’t you know that once you stop, you will float?”

It takes great courage to float–to believe that our survival does not depend on our own capacity to sustain ourselves.  Such a risk stands in opposition  to the myth of the self-made man that dominates the “American dream.”  That is a dream of insatiable demands. But that’s not the “very good” world I want to live-into anyways.

The great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The world was brought into being in the six days of creation, yet its survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.”  I’m trying to live like this–to live out the belief that my creation, my own hard work, will not alone sustain my survival. Sometimes, we all need to rest–to float–until the gentle current pulls us into another space of creativity again.

Epiphany

“Can you believe that we are looking into the tails of galaxies? That’s what they are, right?”  I walked a few paces ahead of Sarah and Ty as I listened to them marvel at the sky.  We trudged through the damp vineyard, our boots belching as they moved in and out of the thick mud.  It was almost easier to navigate our path by sound than by sight that night.  The moon had somehow disappeared; perhaps she hid behind those ubiquitous clouds that brand our Pacific Northwest winters.  Whatever the case, it made for fantastic stargazing.  Millions of miles away, they glisten far brighter than any distant city lights we could still make out.

“Sometimes when I look up at the stars, I stop thinking. It’s just—too big.”

I grinned as I eavesdropped on their wonder-filled exclamations. It occurred to me that anything anyone ever says about the beauty of the stars usually sounds trite to me. But as my mind wondered off, I realized that this wasn’t really the case this time: the sky did look absolutely incredible from where we stood. And it was just too big. There was something about the stars that night that was more beautiful than I could grasp—too beautiful, more incredible than I had remembered them ever seeming before.

It had been nearly a year since I spent any significant amount of time back in the Seattle area.  Between full-time studies and summer school, and a handful of part-time jobs to juggle at any given time, there was not much vacation in the last year. Not much time for stargazing. So I wondered if the stars looked brighter because it had been so long since I looked at them from outside the buzzing Northeastern urbanscape I now call home.

And then, I wondered if it had simply been so long since I looked up at them from anywhere.  Just as distance makes the heart grow fonder, perhaps my leave from stargazing afforded this momentary, cosmic bedazzlement.  Maybe the stars weren’t really that beautiful; they were simply more striking that night because they were more foreign than before. Simple enough.

Then, I wondered whether they are always this breath taking, yet I just shrug off the wonder of the stars as a justification for my own narrow-sightedness. What if they are always shining like this, and I just don’t raise my gaze high enough to see them?  Maybe the stars are this brilliant in Boston too, I thought to myself, and I just haven’t been looking up as often.

Our muddy path opened up to a look-out with a few benches. Shivering a bit as the nighttime breeze encircled us, I sat down on the damp wood and reclined onto my back.  My shoulders relaxed and opened against the hard surface beneath me. And it was silent for sometime.  And I stopped wondering why all of us were staring up at the most amazing scene of stars.