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Catholic Life (Or, How to Steer A Sail Boat)

On Sunday I headed to Mass with my parents where the new pastor of their diocesan parish introduced himself to the eager congregation. He skillfully utilized a story about growing up with “boat people” here in the Seattle area to offer a little background on his upbringing and simultaneously make a point about the day’s scripture readings.  His mother is a life-long sailor, and met his father, a football player, when he came to her for sailing lessons at the university recreation center. When they married they bought a “fixer-uper” on the lake so sailing could continue as a regular part of their lives together.  Consequently, this pastor grew up on the water, “rowing before he could walk.”

He recalled that the first thing his father taught him about sailing concerned steering.  “Figure out where you want to go and pick a spot in that direction on the horizon,” his father instructed.  “Steer the boat in that direction.”  Trouble arises, he explained, when things distract the sailor from that far-off guide-point.  When this occurs one’s steering shifts, thinkingly or unthinkingly, and the boat will quickly veer off course.  “We must, as Christians, keep our eyes on that right spot in the horizon to ensure that we’re steering our lives in the proper direction,” the pastor exhorted.

As I continued to ponder his illustration after the liturgy, it began to reframe an issue I have been grappling with for a couple weeks now.  At the end of July my friend Dan over at datinggod.org and America reported that Pope Francis had formed a “ground-breaking lay committee.” The committee “will have broad, unprecedented powers at the church’s highest levels” he explained. Dan’s commentary illuminated the significance of this reform within the Vatican: “This move marks a significant change in the way that the Vatican power structure had been previously organized”—a change that empowers lay people, satisfying (at least in part) an enduring hope among many who rally for anti-clerical church reform.

Yet, amidst my excitement about the symbolic capital of this committee, I found myself distracted by a number of nagging doubts. “I wonder if there will be any women on this committee….” This was one of the first thoughts I had upon the news of the committee.  I would learn that there is one female committee member. “Just one?” As I read the comments on Dan’s posts, another disappointment arose. Someone observed that there is only one committee member from outside Europe. “Just one?” I found myself asking again.

Even as the virtual comments about this committee echoed doubts I had already named or disappoints that quickly resonated when I read them, they bothered me. They bothered me, and have subsequently led me to reevaluate my own response to this good news from the Vatican: Why is it that disappointment is one of my first responses to this good news of reform?  Why is it that negative observations about this committee ring much louder in my mind than points of appreciation? Why am I so vulnerable to being distracted by the shortcomings of Vatican happenings, even when I am confronted with such positive signs of reforms?  Why do I so quickly render this reform a failure of some sort?

These comments bothered me because the shortcomings of the lay committee seemed to garner more attention (from me, and from many others) than its apparent gains.  I thought about this after the homily this weekend. The pastor’s sailing image poignantly presents Christian life in terms of orientation.  It invites us to consider whether we are headed in the right direction, generally—whether we are on our way toward the proper destination, a destination that is always ultimately out of reach.  It invites us to consider whether or not we respond to the happenings of the world in a way that keeps us oriented toward God.

We can consider this as individuals and as a church community: As an individual, I suspect that my doubt and disappointment can distract me at times from hope in the world and my church.  Pessimism about the Vatican distracted me from encountering good news with hope—the kind of hope that is so central to a Christian orientation in life. It distracted me from recognizing that the Church may be changing, moving—oriented in the right direction.  And in fact, my pessimism may distract me from participating in the movement of the Church.

That is not to say, of course, that one is misguided in recognizing and responding to the shortcomings of the church.  We are a pilgrim church, a reforming forming church, and we must work toward a more Christian life together.  However, it is tempting as a Catholic to be distracted by the endless shortcomings of the institution and the people who make up our church.  (Likewise, it is easy to be caught up in one’s own personal and perpetual failings as a Christian).  This orients us toward our failings rather than the orienting point in the horizon—a point we will never reach but nevertheless steers us in toward better life together.

Attending to the shortcomings of our community is imperative to staying the course of Christian life. My struggle as a Catholic (and I suspect I’m not alone) is learning to tend to our personal and communal  failings without being so consumed by them that I shift my gaze and the direction of my life toward them alone.  In order to move in the right direction, we must fix our eyes on the guiding point that will lead us toward God and a more holy life together.

Baptism

Not long ago a classmate of mine introduced the Greek Orthodox celebration of Theophany in a doctoral seminar we shared. He presented it as an equivalent to the Feast of the Epiphany, a celebration with which the majority of the class was more familiar.  Here in Boston, his community begins their celebration of Theophany with a blessing of the water in the church. This provides the holy water for the rest of the year.  Next, the priest and congregation move down to the Charles River. There, the priest blesses the river—the water that winds through our city.

I grinned when I heard this. I walk along that river nearly every day, and I knew I could never look at it the same way again.

It wasn’t until recently that I dug deep into the history and theology of baptism in the Catholic Church.  For days, weeks even, I’ve been struggling to wrap my mind around the struggles that have constituted this defining practice in my church: What is the central aim of baptism?  What does baptism do?  How do we understand grace to work in this sacrament?  Somewhere between theologians Karl Rahner and Aidan Kavanagh, I was captured by a moment of clarity. An epiphany, even.  Contrary to what many assume, baptism is not a moment in which the baptized suddenly attains grace she or he had previously been without, like a once-empty vessel suddenly filled to the brim. Baptism is the special signification and realization of the grace that one already possesses—the grace every creature possesses as a creature of God.  Baptism makes real, in a new way, the grace that was always already there.  Once I thought about baptism like that, I wondered how I could have thought about it any other way.

Later in the afternoon after that doctoral seminar–under the first 70 degree sunshine we’d had in Boston this year–I sat on a bench near the river bank. And I couldn’t stop thinking, “All this time it was holy water. All this time it was holy and I never knew it.”

When we think about baptism’s connection to the grace that is already operative in our lives, knowingly and unknowingly, it brings new perspective to the renewal of our baptisms, a practice we carry out throughout the liturgical year and especially during this Easter season. Karl Rahner explained, “When we work hard and unselfishly in the service of our neighbor, when we are courageous and control our moods, when we remain cheerful, even when it is far from easy, but especially when we make the great and heavy decisions of life in a Christian way, we also come nearer to God (even though we do not always explicitly think of God), and the grace of our baptism keeps growing….All of this is properly already a renewal of baptism.”  We’re exercising the grace of baptism all the time.

I can’t stop thinking about this lately–when I’m walking along the river, when I dip my fingers in the holy water at Church–I can’t stop thinking to myself, “All of it is holy—the river, baptism, all of this is holy.”

Believing Thomas: First Reactions to Pope Francis

I find myself among many others who have been pleasantly surprised by the first few days of Francis’s papal ministry.  From the first moments of his balcony introduction, when he donned relatively humble attire, to his commentary on the selection of his name, Francis—after Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his humble commitment to the most vulnerable of God’s creation, I’ve been experiencing feelings I have so rarely held with regard to a pope: Excitement. Gratitude. Affection. Hope.

Could it be that we find ourselves with a pope who demonstrates, in such a seemingly accessible way, the virtues of Christianity to which many of us have clung for so long?  Isn’t this the type of papal leadership that for which we’ve hope for so, so long?  With only a few days gone by, I am constantly surprised as I respond to questions like these with affirmation: Why maybe, yes, this is what we are witnessing…for now, yes, this might actually be happening…. Even as Pope Francis simply reflects the values that I have long believed to stand at the heart of Christianity—radical commitments to the weak and to a life of humility and mercy—I am still so surprised to see it in a public figurehead of the Church.

Accompanying all these good feelings and surprising affirmations has been a sense of hesitation, however. It is a lingering pause. A reluctance. These past few days have confronted me with the fact that I live as a Catholic so often expecting disappointment from the high-ranking officials of the Church.  This is a protection mechanism. It is how I protect myself from the constant scandal and failure of fellow Christians in these positions of power. Were I to give myself, wholeheartedly and without hesitation, to belief in the Spirit’s transformative power in the ministry of these leaders, to the hope that they might really participate in the actualization of the goodness and mercy that we proclaim, then I might live always with a broken heart. I might live plagued by the failings of Church leaders.

Instead, I live with a very qualified Christian hope in our leadership. “I believe that the Spirit is moving in our world, in our Church, in its leaders,” I say, “but—” Always butBut the temptation of wealth and power. But the corruption of sin. But millennia of shortcomings. “Sure,” I think, “in principle the Holy Spirit is working through the ministry of these leaders, but de facto I no longer expect to see much evidence of it among these higher ups.” If I don’t expect radical mercy and visionary witness from them, then I don’t have to live with so much disappointment, right?

My reflections about this tension—this tension of hope and hesitation—has got me thinking a lot about Thomas, the disciple beloved among doubters like me. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he told his friend upon the news that Jesus had risen and appeared to them. Despite dedicating his life to following Jesus, Thomas could not, in that moment, believe that Jesus was the kind of Messiah that had actually overcome death. And I don’t blame him. I imagine we can all relate to Thomas in some way: He was grieving the loss of his friend, and hope in Jesus’s return would be a profound risk of heart—a heart that was already hurting with such sadness and disappointment.

In many ways, Thomas’s doubt was quite reasonable. And, to be sure, there are many good reasons to qualify one’s hope in church officials such as the pope. For one, far too many people invest all their hope for the Church in these men, equating the Church with its hierarchy and overlooking the loving, awe-inspiring work of Catholics living out all sorts of vocations throughout the world. Furthermore, these guys are not God, but sinful creatures like the rest of us.  Sin is a reality that does impede our ability to actualize the Christian life to the fullest and freest degree imaginable.  We shouldn’t place an unqualified hope in anyone.

Still, Christian life is about courageous hope and love, not enduring cynicism.  I am saddened that my response to the witness of charity and humility that I see in Pope Francis is so deeply tainted by cynicism.  For, is not the goodness of creation at the heart of the Christian message? Have I not let my fear of disappointment from church leadership prevent me from anticipating the goodness of this man, and so many other Church leaders for that matter?  It seems that my doubt in the enduring work of the Holy Spirit has inhibited my ability to believe what I see right before my eyes—moments when the Christian message really comes to life.

While most of us recognize the disciple Thomas as “Doubting Thomas,” I read recently that there is also a tradition of referring to him as “Believing Thomas.”  It wasn’t until this week that I marveled so much at the belief he proclaimed after placing his hands in Jesus’s wounds. Thomas doubted—yes, for good reason—but when he recognized Jesus before him he surrendered his doubt—and so humbly.  I pray that when we are confronted with the image of Christ before us—be in a pope or stranger or a beloved friend—we too will surrender our doubt, our cynicism, our guards in order to believe in the goodness of the other.  “We have to put our hearts out,” commented Catholic blogger Fran Rossi Szpylczyn in her recent reflection on the Pope and her own hesitation to hope for this new papacy. “We have to take the risk. That is what faith and belief demand from us.”  That is what faith and belief demand from us—that we all may be a bit more like Believing Thomas.

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.

For these Eyes

When the headlines appear, the questions come in. I’m used to this. And in fact, I’m absolutely flattered by it. It means a lot to me that people take the time to ask for my thoughts about whatever Catholic controversy fills the news on any given day. Sometimes, friends ask me to sort out the esoteric religious jargon for them.  I’m capable of this only sometimes, but I am always honored that folks trust my assessment of the tradition.  Other times, these blessed friends are simply concerned about how I’m dealing with it all. “How are you feeling about this, Jessica. How are you doing?”

In recent weeks when the news spread that the Vatican is making significant strides to revise its handling of clergy sexual abuse cases–all while allegedly linking the severity of these sins to the ordination of women–the questions came in, and I started to ask myself, “How are you feeling about this, Jessica?  How are you doing?

I couldn’t stop thinking about the story my friend Katie told me the other day. During a recent weekend, she volunteered at a middle school camp for inner city youth run by the Catholic parochial school where she taught for a few years after college. On that Sunday morning, she went to Mass with the students and their teachers in the camp’s quaint wooden chapel. The presider was gracious with the kids, and a good homilist, too. “But the tabernacle there–” she told me.  That’s what got her. “The tabernacle looks just like the boy’s Catholic school down the street. Like the shape of their building.”  I began to smile as she went on.  I delighted in the fact that this friend anticipated the wonder I would share with her as she recounted this experience for me.  “This is what Catholicism is about, isn’t it? Recognizing Jesus inside an inner city school like that? Like that?  Believing that Jesus dwells with the underprivileged so much that you make a symbol of it with the most important part of your sanctuary?”

I nodded as we savored this moment that captured the best of our Church.  In that small moment, we didn’t have to convince ourselves that we are so blessed to belong to this Church.  We are blessed to have  church that views inner city schools as tabernacles, and tabernacles as inner city schools.  And blessed to be raised in a church that has given us the eyes to see the world in this way, too. “I wish I had moments like that more often,” Katie said. I think she was referring to the tabernacle at the camp, but I was thinking the same thing about the moment we had just shared–that moment of unwavering pride for our faith.

I’ve been telling a lot of people that, for many reasons, I feel sad and disappointed about the recent Vatican stirrings.  And, really, I’m feeling tired of feeling sad and disappointed. But I am also trying to tell a lot of people about my hope. I’m trying to talk about that, too. I’m trying to tell them about the eyes this tradition has afforded me–Katie and me.  Eyes that recognize miraculous transformations in places and people that much of society overlooks. Eyes that see Jesus in the sometimes harsh and unglamorous realities of our cities.  Eyes set on recognizing God’s redemption of our world in any and every place.  Even in our Church.

Just Say the Word

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.”  Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”  The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes… (Matthew 8:5-8)

There are many things about this section of scripture that make me squeamish.  In principle, I dislike charges of absolute authority, even as they are ascribed to the human incarnation of an omnipotent God.  I am especially uncomfortable with authority analogies related to the military, or any other institutions that employ violence as a means of enforcement, for that matter.  There is something about the centurion’s claim of unworthiness that gets me, too.  Perhaps I’ve seen too many well-intentioned Christians transform “humility” into unproductive guilt.

Despite all this, I cling to that declaration: But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.

This man knew the power of a word.

Jesus responded to the centurion, saying, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would!” I’d like to believe that “Go” was the word with all that power.  I want to believe that because it is often the smallest words that heal me.  Last semester I took a seminar that required students to circulate written reflections on the assigned readings before class. While reading the first reflection paper of the semester, written by male student, I was touched by the care with which he employed one little word. “When one does this, she experiences that…” Every non-specific pronoun he utilized in the essay was gendered female—a stark contrast to the ubiquitous male-gendered pronouns that filled the theological texts we studied all semester. With that little word—“she”—this colleague extended a powerful message: language so often excludes people of your gender, and I am invested in changing that.  This gesture brought a little bit of healing.

Big words and long phrases have power, too.  I keep a stack of blank note cards next to my bed; you will find me frantically reaching for them while reading Nouwen, Teresa of Avila, and Foucault when I have come across a line or a paragraph too precious to forget.  I scribble them down and pin them to the bulletin board hanging on my bedroom wall where they remind me that so many others out there share the truths that I have unearthed in this short life. These are healing words because they remind me that I am not alone in my search for sense and meaning in my strange encounter with this world.

When I think of being “Christlike,” I dream of bringing words that heal.  This is how I make sense of a life of so many books and computer screens. I am searching for the Word.  The Word that heals.