A Mother’s Joy Denied

IMG_0008The other day while checking what was up on Facebook, I came across this post written by a friend of mine, a young woman of color:

I am seriously starting to wonder if bearing a child in this day and age would actually be a demonstration of selfish behaviour. The mere prospect of the ways in which my partner and I will HAVE to educate our future child (who, but for a random genetic anomaly, will inherit a complexion darker than his or her privileged counterparts) gets progressively more disgusting every. single. day.

In knowing her as a loving, gentle and creative soul, I ached as I pondered the ramifications of her thoughts. Has it really hit the point in our society when a woman and her partner would deny themselves the joy of creating and raising a family? Sadness loomed. And immediately I wanted to respond, to reassure her that she need not fear so much…. to point out that many people throughout history have asked that very same question given the horrific contexts which they faced. I wanted, too, to tell her that parenthood is never without threat, regardless of the key identifiers of a family and its members. Death can come at any age, for many reasons. No parent is free from that threat and the perpetual grief it brings.

But then, before hitting the blue post button on the FB page, I realized what I was doing. In spite of my good intentions, I was failing to address the actual source of her fear. Neither had I admitted this: Even though tragedy may, indeed, strike my family, odds are overwhelmingly against the likelihood of my sons and grandson (and my daughter too) being intentionally targeted due to the most uncontrollable aspect of their physical being – their skin color. Never need they fret being pulled over for a meaningless offense only to be confronted by someone else’s rage. Never need they worry that one word, one look – however unintentional or justified – can and will be used as a reason for arrest. Never need they live in fear that in spite of their own efforts, education, goals and achievements, within seconds, a person of authority may deem them so dangerous, so worthless, that a shot may be fired at them without so much as a single warning. Yes, some of those people who have perpetuated such offenses against sons and daughters of color are now more likely to be prosecuted, but yet, nothing can erase the slur, the humiliation, the death incurred. As I came to see that vast difference of reality we face as mother and potential-mother, my grief deepened, and a question surfaced:

What can I do to change the reality she faces?

Nothing, I grieved, nothing.

In that moment, my own sense of insignificance, of nothingness, grew as I wallowed in that self-pity, for that was what my grief quickly became. Yes, I love that woman, a relatively new friend of mine, dearly. And yes, if I had the power of – let’s say – a politician or a celebrity, or the money of so many of my Manhattan neighbors, I would pour all I could into supporting whatever drive, program or campaign that could somehow address this matter. But who am I, I groveled. Nobody but a 50+ year-old white woman who doesn’t even have a job. Oh how I pitied myself as I wallowed in that sense of nothingness. I even decided that it’d be best to delete that potential post altogether, given that it could be viewed as yet another condescending attempt to brush aside her very real concerns. But then, as I was ready to simply let the matter go, of all things, a bible story came to mind, Mark’s rendition of Jesus feeding the five thousand. In it, when the disciples told him to dismiss the crowds so they could get food, Jesus replied rather bluntly, “You give them something to eat” (Mk 5:37). When they balked, Jesus took over.

I couldn’t help but see myself as one of the disciples, convinced that I have nothing to offer, or at least so little that it would make no difference. And there it was, my excuse. In reality, as a living breathing human being, it is a lie to claim I can do nothing. Rather, the reality is this: I can only do one small thing, not all that is needed, but something. And, in holding that thought just a bit longer, I had to admit an underlying fear. What if when I try to offer my “something,” someone laughs at me, dismissing my efforts, ridiculing my attempt? Worse yet, what if a peer or acquaintance becomes so angry with what I try to offer that they reject not only my “something” but me as well? Wouldn’t it just be better for me to do nothing, to be nobody, than to risk such derision and rejection?

No, my heart insisted, no! In fact, it drew my attention to one other point I was considering for my original post. I wanted to tell her that if, indeed, she and her partner choose to have no children due to the hate and violence projected by others, then, those perpetrators win, having obtained the ultimate expression of oppression – not only the destruction of life, but the obstruction of life at its very beginning. And if that is what “they” are allowed to acquire, then, not only does my friend lose, we all lose. How much joy, how much love, and how many wonderfully unique individuals will creation be denied if she and her partner – and so many others pondering the same reality – decide such a sacrifice is needed?

And that is why I can’t expect her to bear that burden alone. Not only do I want her to experience all the joy and beauty I have as mother, I want our world to be deeply blessed by the gifts her children will bring to us all. And so, somehow, in some way, I will find something I can do to address this situation, even though, right now, after having wrestled with the matter for a few days now, I don’t yet know what it is. And that’s humbling.

But here it is….one more way in which nothingness manifests itself; one more battle that must be fought. How many of us in looking at the many issues of our times – this one of racism included – in being so overwhelmed by their magnitude, decide that there is “nothing” we can do and so, convinced that we’re nobodies, opt out? Too often I’ve done that. It’s time to change. I may not yet know what I can do for my friend, but, I trust, my “something” will make itself known, and, I hope, you, too, begin searching for your “something,” the means through which you offer your self in addressing an issue dear to you.


God? Who’s that?

20130714_211621It’s about impossible for anyone who has ever read anything I’ve written to not notice how much I reference God. It’s a lot! In fact, it’s actually more difficult for me not to reference God than it is to do so. Why? Well, as much as I’ve tried at times to avoid God throughout my life, God just won’t leave me alone. It seems wherever I go, whatever I do, there’s God. And, I also suspect, that as I acknowledge this continual presence of God, most people just might assume this is how I see God: as a superhuman figure who has such a particular plan for me that s/he will actively intervene so I can fulfill it. After all, what else can one think upon reading the words in one of my recent blogs: “But God wasn’t done with me.” So, let me say this loud and clear:

I do not know “God” as a superhuman figure located somewhere in “heaven”.
Neither do I believe that God seeks to actively direct any of us in one way or another for two reasons:
Not only do we possess free will, God loves us unconditionally.

But yet, my actual language seems to indicate otherwise. Furthermore, I must admit this – there was a time when I actually did believe in that superhuman, muscular old man perpetually watching over us from up above. How could I not have believed as such, given the countless Saturday afternoon visits to the confessional where I was required to give a precise count of how many times I may have hit a younger brother or lied to my mother? And, of course, in reading the parable of the Prodigal Son so many times in CCD classes, how could I not come to experience God as a forgiving father with arms wide open willing to forgive everything I could ever do? Or what about being immersed in Catholic Social Teaching, being told that God expects each and every one of us to work for justice by actively serving the poor and vulnerable in our midst? How could I not feel that if I didn’t do such service that I was personally letting God down? Yes, I will admit, that for much longer than I care to admit, when I thought of God, I reflected upon a rather concrete figure – sometimes male, other times female – but definitely one that, well, took human form. Now, I must also admit that those reflections did provide me not only with the comfort I needed – they also inspired me to grow. But yet, but yet…. no longer do I accept such a specific figure for God. So, what then is God? Who is God to me? And here I must say:

I don’t know!
Oh, I can tell you through images and sensations what I have experienced while bumping into the presence I identify as God, but as to what or who God actually is, I will say it again:
I don’t know.

I have found that just as so many mystics have said, God is utterly beyond comprehension, a truth stated within The Catechism of the Catholic Church when God is described as being, “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” (42). At the same time, though, quite a few people, myself included, have experienced God’s presence and so, to describe and share that experience with others, we must use words, words that can capture the essence of what we’ve known, but words that are also limited in their ability to say it all. Again, The Catechism: “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude” (43). As I said, though, there once was a time when, not only didn’t I not quite comprehend the meaning in these words, I actually believed God was the image in my mind. What changed?

Not God…. rather my level of consciousness.

For several decades, psychologists and other researchers have been documenting the progression of growth within the human mind. Most recently, Ken Wilber has published several books on the topic, specifically on human consciousness. In having extensively researched several, maybe even all, of the leading theories, he’s developed his own scheme that documents how each and every person (and human societies as well) move through stages of consciousness as they grow and experience life. He insists that each stage must be experienced (no skipping a grade here), while, at the same time, acknowledging that most people stop somewhere along the way, never attaining the highest levels which he designates as being those of unitive consciousness. He also explains that while at a particular level of consciousness, a person will experience reality (and God) in a particular way, one that is shaped by the values, needs and common desires of that stage. For instance, a person who is at a “tribal” level of consciousness will experience God as a protector so intent upon saving “his” special people, that the deaths of any outsiders may be justified if threats are perceived. In great contrast is the experience of someone at a “global” awareness of God. While identifying with all people at that level, such a person could not imagine God approving the death of anyone, even an enemy, because in that experience of God, God would not make such a distinction.

In having read some of Wilber’s works, I can now more easily accept not only that my experience of God has changed, but also the validity of my earlier imagery. Yes, as a child I did fear that all-powerful God who was capable of seeing everything; yes, as a teen I came to know God as being so forgiving that I could do almost anything I wanted; and yes, my view of God who wanted me to spend as much time as possible working for justice was just as genuine. And now, well, although there is something of a dominant image that lingers – that of a flowing life force calling all in creation forward through evolution – something has changed in me. No longer do I need to insist that this is it! That this particular experience of God is the most correct, the most accurate the most real! Rather, I do suspect, it’s more a reflection of who I am in this moment than of God. And so, I must humbly say when asked as to who or what God actually is, I don’t know.

And yet, I keep bumping into God… and I keep longing to share those experiences with as many people as I can. And so, to offer these moments of grace to all, I will need to use words and images that can convey something of my experience, and in writing about an experience of the past, I need to respect my reality of that time, knowing that even if I, today, might interpret a particular encounter of God a bit differently, back then I could only experience God as I could – and it was that experience that affected me so profoundly, that called me to such growth, that even, at times, cracked open my heart just a little more. And so, I treasure them all – even if I really have to smile at that little girl standing in the confessional line who so earnestly counted up each and every sin she could think of – and even adding a few more just to be sure – to please that old man up in the sky.

Love came first; change followed.

For the past week, I have criticized the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of excluding some people from full sacramental participation. One reason for my focus stems from the upcoming Synod on the Family this fall. It seems that regardless of the hope some have found in various statements of Pope Francis, others believe that little, if any, will change regarding these matters. In spite of my being just an ordinary person, I feel compelled to contribute my “two-cents” to the discussion. Mostly, however, I write for another reason: my own experience. In being blessed with a powerful, even overwhelming, experience of God’s unconditional love, I can’t help but know that that same love extends to each and every person. Once again, I can use a reading from the daily retreat offered through The Riverside Church to share it with you. This was the reading for our final day of the retreat:

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me?” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 1:40-43)

That day’s prompt was very simple, telling us to picture Jesus walking up to us and asking, “What do you want me to do for you?”  We were told to reflect upon whatever came to mind.

What came to mine was a day almost 30 years ago, a bright sunny Southern California day, one so beautiful I just had to walk the three blocks from my apartment to the beach. On the way, though, I wasn’t as happy as I probably should have been. Rather, in spite of my recent success in obtaining adjunct teaching positions at local universities (and with the Navy too), I was lonely, very lonely, so lonely that I found myself saying words I never thought I would, having declared myself an atheist a few years earlier. “God,” I said, even while looking upward. “This is my last prayer to you. I promise. If you’re up there, please send me someone I can love and who will love me in return.” And then I went on with my day.

Not long afterwards, a funny thing happened. In one of the classes I taught for the Navy sat a young man who was really quite friendly so I decided to invite him to see a play with me. Of course, with him being my student, I was a little apprehensive, so, on the night I planned to ask him, when he went to walk out the door while another student stood at my desk talking to me, I thought I’d just forget it. But then, as the door closed behind him, it seemed as if in a second I saw my whole life – my future life, that is – flash in front of me. One question arose: “What am I letting walk out that door?” Instantly, I excused myself from the other student and ran out to invite him to the play. Ten days after that first date, I told my closest friend that this man would be my husband. Now, at that time, I found the timing of my prayer and that experience to be a nice coincidence, but really? Would God really answer my prayer so directly? I thought not, especially given what I had done, who I had become. But God, it seemed, wasn’t done with me.

Because Dan, as a practicing Catholic, wanted to build a life on faith and prayer, I knew that the only way our relationship could work was for me to  return to the Church. My identifying as an atheist wasn’t the problem because, all along, I knew I was just using that title to somewhat justify the abortion I had two years earlier. (It was easier to say that I, the atheist, had an abortion, than I, Catholic woman.) Complicating the matter though was my total lack of guilt or remorse. Because that abortion did allow me to continue my education uninterrupted and to keep my job as a line cook, while also enabling me to remain free of serious family issues, I saw it as something I had to do, no question about it. And so, I wondered, could I return to Church, a place where, if anyone knew what I had done – especially given my lack of guilt – I would not be welcome? In spite of that doubt, on a week-end when Dan was out-of-town, I found a nearby Catholic church to visit, just to see if, maybe, I could return. That Sunday morning, as I dressed, I decided to make one more request of God: “God,” I said. “I’m going to need a sign. You know who I am; you know what I’ve done. If I belong there, I need a sign. If I don’t get one, I’ll just end my relationship with Dan and that will be that.” Yes, I was that bold.

As I slipped into a pew of that small church in Long Beach, I couldn’t help but experience the familiarity of it all. Gaudy gold paint, lots of statues, lit candles – all the usual contents of a Catholic church – surrounded me. The diversity of the parishioners impressed me, a diversity similar to that of my English classes at CSU,LA. The liturgy itself was also pleasing especially since it included a few of my favorite songs. “Could such things be my sign?” I wondered.  But yet, as I stood for the Gospel reading, and looked about, I could only imagine what those people say and do if only they knew my truth. Preoccupied, I began admitting that I probably needed to end my relationship. Once we sat back down, though, the homilist regained my attention by waving a copy of Time magazine before he began his sermon, a rather good one, not too long, one that focused on actual issues of the day. He ended it, then went to take a seat, but just a step or two away from the pulpit, he turned around and went back to the mic. “I forgot to tell you. A family of Cambodian refugees are moving into the neighborhood. I would like our parish to sponsor them,” he said, before adding that food, furniture, clothing and the like would be needed. As he returned to his chair, I admitted I was impressed, given my own interest in refugees. And then this happened: Right before he sat down in his chair, the priest returned to the pulpit one more time to make one last request: “I need an English teacher.” Only then did he finally sit.

I was stunned, absolutely stunned. Could that have truly been my sign?

Yes, it was. In the years since then, as I have returned time and again to that moment, I have been humbled by what happened. There I was, by Catholic definition, an unrepentant sinner, having committed the worst act a woman could. But even without my feeling the tiniest bit guilty at all, I was not only given a sign, I was told I was needed. In fact, when I went up to the priest after mass and introduced myself as his English teacher, he was confused before remembering he had made that request, a request, he told me, he made at no other mass, a request he had not planned to make at all. I cannot emphasize enough how much that request, those five simple words, affected my life from that point on. Yes, I did return to the Catholic Church; yes, I did marry Dan; but even more than all that, I saw in that one moment the absolute unconditional love that God has for each of us, even me.

And so, when I read that passage and heard Jesus ask that question, “What do you want me to do for you?” and recalled what had been done for me,  I couldn’t help but wonder why we as Church don’t initiate all conversations, all relationships, with that question.

Rather than establishing the conditions people must meet before they are to receive Eucharist or any other sacrament, why don’t we choose to model Jesus directly by asking, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Oh, the humility such a question demands of us;                                                    oh, the love that is revealed.                                                                                          And oh, what a response it garners!

That man in the parable, in regaining his sight, did not run away, jubilant, yes, maybe even grateful, to return to his previous life. Rather, we are told, the man then followed Jesus on the way. With that image in mind, and my own experience as well, I can’t help but wonder why the Church doesn’t see that throughout his life Jesus never insisted on conditions to be met before teaching, healing and loving the people who approached him. Always, he met their needs, requested or not; always he extended the loving touch of the One whom he incarnated.

Love came first; change followed.

Not the other way around. And why not?

Because the expectations of worthiness are not those of One who loves us unconditionally,                                                                                                              They are, instead, the ways of humans,                                                                      the means through which hierarchy is created and maintained,                       the means through which obedience, not relationship,                                       and power, not communion, are established and maintained.

I am compelled to write the prayer of Jesus one more time:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:21-23).

May we love each other as we have been loved….                                                      so that in that love we may, indeed, become one.

May we come to see that we are already one –                                                         one in fear, one in joy, one in sin, one in love.

May we come to know the glory of Christ.
May we bring Christ to all.
May we love.

“Why are you afraid…?”

In the Catholic Church today much emphasis is placed on one’s worthiness for Eucharist, so much that some people are actually denied the right to participate if certain conditions aren’t met. In previous posts, I’ve revealed my own parents’ pain in having been excluded. Now it’s time to examine the costs to all people within the Church, regardless of their own personal worthiness. Again, I turn to a reading offered through the retreat provided by a Riverside Church minister:

“And when he got into the boat, Jesus’ disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Mt. 8:23-27)

The prompt for that day did change the setting a bit, inviting us to imagine ourselves sitting across from Jesus at a favorite coffee shop, but the primary question remained the same. Jesus, our prompt established, looks us in the eye and then asks, “What are you afraid of? Why are you afraid?”

In pondering that question, I found that the imagery offered in the actual story spoke greatly to me. In trying to name my fear – of being rejected, alienated from all others – I could recall how emotional terror arises in me whenever I sense rejection/alienation is possible, just as it recently had when I got into a conflict with a person I deeply value. I could feel the power of that terror’s ability to push me off course, to even spin me about, leaving me incapable of maintaining direction and focus. I could name so many times when being rudderless, I made mistakes, trying to gain control, trying to find a means of avoiding rejection, alienation. I also know that in those moments – especially more recent ones when wisdom guides me to prayer and contemplation – that it is through my relationship with Jesus/God that such seas are calmed, that such winds are stilled. And in that awareness, I turned my attention back to the Catholic Church and its identity as being Christ to the world.

Most often when I’ve heard people preach to this story, the emphasis lies in the power of Jesus to calm the storm, and then, the call for us to turn to Jesus when we’re in the midst of turmoil so that he may calm the storms of our own lives. Yes, for those of us who are attuned to such inner awareness of Jesus’ presence, doing such a thing does offer much peace. However, at times, it is not so easy to do so, especially when it seems that everything around us is raging so desperately that we feel our very lives are at risk. At such times, we need a place, a genuine place to go so that we may find such peace. And, I will admit, many of us do go to our Catholic churches. In fact, not so long ago, when visiting St. Pat’s here in NYC, I was moved by the number of people kneeling in the pews, heads down, apparently seeking peace, solace, something there in the middle of the afternoon. Yes, our physical buildings, so beautiful, so quiet, can offer much. But what about we who are in them? Do we provide the peace people need so that the storms may be calmed?

“Of course, we do!” we declare with confidence. And, in the many ministries offered through the Church – formally and informally – much peace is offered. But yet, let’s return to the fact that some people in our midst are not fully accepted, that some people are expected to change their ways before they can receive the ultimate comfort offered by the Catholic Church: Eucharist. What do they experience when they enter the Church?

As I’ve noted before, my own parents did not experience peace within our parish, especially not during mass. Knowing how obvious they were in remaining in the pews, they couldn’t help but feel judged. There they were, wanting only to share their love, to nurture their relationship as they raised  three children, while also knowing that if my mother were to become pregnant again, she would more than likely face yet another life-threatening situation, and what did the Church offer? Condemnation, not peace, because they chose the means that would allow them to love each other and their children without fear.

And what about couples who face divorce? What do they find as they pick up the painful shards of broken hearts? As they sift through the remnants of dreams unfulfilled?  In order to enter into new relationships, they must first give to a distant third-party the most intimate details of their heartache so that he may determine whether or not they are worthy of loving again. And, if he decides that they are not worthy, well, regardless of their being beloved children of God, they are never to be intimate again with another person. Is that the way a storm is to be calmed? Is that the way peace is offered?

I think not. Rather, what’s offered is more stress, plain and simple, stress that intensifies, not calms the storms of life. Have the bishops ever wondered what it’s like to fear pregnancy, knowing a woman may lose her life? Have they never pondered what it would be like to experience the breakdown of a relationship meant to last forever? Have they never looked at what they communicate about God when they insist that only if certain conditions are met that people are worthy not only of sacramental participation but full, intimate human love as well? I must ask: are they that blind? Are they really that insensitive?

“No,” they would insist. “We are not. We are only following God’s will.” They tell us that both Scripture and Tradition have revealed God’s will, that there are certain things we must and must not do. A man marries a woman: forever. A married couple is open to new life: always. Non-heterosexual love is an abomination: absolutely. Only men are to be ordained: without question. Whatever the Church decides is to be respected, because, they insist, Jesus told Peter, the first to hold the keys to heaven, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18). Therefore, we are told, God wants only one thing from us as we strive to maintain relationship: obedience, obedience without regard to its very human cost.

But is obedience really the mark of true relationship? I think all of us know the answer to that: No. Other than between parents and young children, the expectation of obedience damages relationships. But what of our relationship with God? Shouldn’t obedience be the defining factor in that one? We need only turn to one of our favorite parables. Read the words of the elder son as he greets his father after the prodigal son’s return: “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you kill the fatted calf for him!”  (Lk 15:29-30).

In having been so devoted to obedience, the elder son doesn’t even identify himself as son. Rather he sees himself as a slave. Bitterness pervades, especially as he refers to his younger brother as being, “this son of yours.” When he says that the father has never given him even a kid goat, we see, too, he has forgotten an important fact. Immediately after the younger son’s request that opened the story, this is what the father did: “So he divided his property between them” (Lk 15:12b). Through that action, the father clearly shows that he is genuine when he tries to reassure his elder son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours….” (Lk 15:29-31). That estate actually belonged to the elder son as well. Therefore, the son need not have waited or even asked for a kid to be killed; it was his all along, but in being so intent on obedience, the young man failed to not only see the gifts of the relationship but to know his full identity as son. Oh how heartbreaking that is, especially when we know how the story ends. We assume that the father joined the younger son to celebrate the return with a feast. As for the older, well, it seems more likely that he remained in the field, possibly with his hand to the plow, looking back, modeling for us the truth of words Jesus spoke earlier in Luke’s gospel: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).

With this image in mind, I must ponder one other aspect of our bishops’ call to obedience. In addition to hurting those incapable of meeting the standards the bishops set, does it also hurt even those who can obey “God’s will” as they define it? Does it leave those people believing that they are only slaves fulfilling God’s wishes, slaves who will one day be rewarded when their obedience has been proven beyond doubt? Even worse, does it interfere with their ability to see everyone else as sister, as brother? Does it prevent full union in the feast God so clearly longs to offer us?

To be honest, I think that is what the bishops’ call to obedience does. We see it in our communities and even in our parishes where people argue about who’s doing what right, who’s the best Catholic, whose most deserving of God’s loving acceptance. With such tension among members, well, we in the boat of the Catholic Church clearly are not capable of calming the storms of life. Not at all. All too often, in fact, we contribute to them. But yet, but yet, I will admit, being Catholic, being a disciple of Christ does require something: “To love God with all our hearts; to love neighbor as self.”

Just how are we to fulfill that command as a Church?

“If you hear my voice and open the door….”

The very next day in our Daily Prayer Retreat we were given this passage to read: “Listen! I (Jesus) am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20)

In reading these words, I could not help but think not only of my parents’ being banned from communion but also of the way they both died. You see, even though by that time in their lives, they were separated by hundreds of miles and their deaths were three years apart, both faced similar issues. Both struggled to accept my reassurances that, when the moment came, God/Jesus would be waiting for them with open arms, longing to receive them into a place of eternal peace and joy. Both were fixated on what it would be to finally face the one who would judge their worthiness for reception.

My mom tortured herself with that fear, becoming more and more angry whenever I tried to reassure her that God loved her so much that nothing she had ever done would matter, that God only longed to hold her close. Those final weeks of her life became especially painful as her bitterness grew towards me, prompting her at times, to name sins she knew I had committed to wonder why I could be so confident of God’s love. As for my dad, in our last conversations, he couldn’t help but think of his own father, who decades earlier in having committed suicide, had been denied burial in sacred ground as a sign that he had died with a mortal sin staining his soul. Yes, actual church teaching on that matter has changed, but the image of a judgmental God, one confirmed through his own experiences regarding their use of birth control, still dominated his mind. He actually told me at one point that he didn’t know if he even wanted to go to heaven. Why would he want to be with God, the one he had come to know, one who couldn’t understand how painful life is at times, how hard it is to do what’s right? Possibly he was still pondering that thought when his final breath did come. Rather than fulfilling the image so many people give us of that moment, the moment when a final breath is gently released, my dad died holding his breath so intently that every muscle in his body shook as he clenched his teeth in those final seconds. The hospice nurse with us told me that he had never seen such a death before. Yes, I know, he’s now immersed in the loving presence of God, but yet, but yet….

I cannot forget the pain, the agony even, that each faced in what should have been a much more peaceful experience in their lives. After all, Jesus was knocking at their door, calling them to him, wanting only to be with them. What was it that kept my parents from opening that door? What was it that kept both of them apparently huddled in a corner fearing what they would see once that door opened?

And here I must make a rather significant jump to something our current pope, Pope Francis said, not long after his installation. When asked about homosexuality, he said those now famous words, “Who am I to judge?” At last, so many people thought upon hearing them, we have a pope who understands, who will bring to all the loving presence of Jesus to everyone. Because he also intentionally washed the feet of women during a Holy Thursday service, such hope seemed to be warranted. But yet, but yet…. those words haunt me: “Who am I to judge?”

As pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis is a significant symbol to Catholics, yes, and to the world as well. Of course, individual priests everywhere actually celebrate mass in their own parishes, but, it’s understood, that as pope, Francis is the one who officially welcomes us to our altars, altars that are part of the one, universal church. Therefore, the bans upon who may celebrate the sacraments communicate whom Pope Francis believes is worthy of being a full member of this church. And, if someone is not deemed worthy, then, I believe, judgement has been passed, most specifically the judgement of Pope Francis. And so I return to those words, “Who am I to judge?” In spite of the implication that Francis’ does not see himself as one to judge, fulfilling, then, Jesus’ admonition to us, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Mt. 7:1), through the bans restricting full participation in Eucharist, Francis does judge. And that judgement is not equal to the judgement of other ordinary human beings.

In that role, as the official head of the self-proclaimed “one true Church,” Francis is said to be the human representation of Jesus in our midst. If that is what he is, then, yes, everything he declares and allows to be practiced within the Church is reflective of God’s will. Therefore, those bans in fulfilling God’s will indicate whom God favors and does not favor, contradicting the deep conviction that God is a loving God, one whose love is unconditional. Oh, but some may argue – as they do – God loves all sinners which is all people because we all sin – it’s just that, well, some states of sin, because they endure beyond an incident or two, indicate an intentionality to continually ignore God’s will. What right, then, should those people who refuse to alter their behaviors to more fully reflect what we believe to be God’s will have to participate in Eucharist? And here is where we find the problem in such logic.

Yes, there are some human behaviors that are easily viewed by everyone else. A divorced man who marries someone without an annulment of the first marriage is quite visible. A husband and wife who have two children and then no more can be accurately viewed as using birth control. And a lesbian couple who share the same house probably have more than a platonic relationship. But yet, even though many are quick to judge the continual state of intentional “sin” in which those people obviously live, too often, we fail to see other states of perpetual sin. What about the business owner who fails to pay his employees a living wage? What about the politician who refuses to support a bill that allows health care access for everyone? What about the successful married couple who move from large house to larger house while tithing only pennies of their wealth to the Church or its many charities? All contradict Catholic teaching. Why don’t we name those as being continual states of intentional sin that indicate an unwillingness to fully accept the will of God? For one simple reason: if we did, then no one would be allowed at the table of God because, as “sinners,” we actually all live in a perpetual state of sin, much more intentional than most of us want to admit.

To escape this conundrum created by trying to delineate one state of sin from another, all we need do is to turn back to Scripture. There Jesus says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7:9-11). Here we have such a beautiful and powerful invitation to imagine the generosity of God, a generosity of which we cannot even imagine, a generosity of which we ourselves can’t replicate. Why, then, if we know that, do we try to obstruct the generosity of our incomprehensible God by denying the most precious gift we Catholics know we’ve been given? Furthermore, we also know this: Jesus said, “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30). Who among us is not weary? Who among us does not carry heavy burdens? How, then, can we deny each other the rest that comes when being fully welcomed and accepted by the very body of Christ, as the Church identifies itself?

And here I will return to, not only my parents, but to all of us who are banned from full participation in the Catholic Church. Now, the hierarchy may insist that the refusal to accept the teachings that would allow for full participation indicate that we have fallen under the sway of the world, of secular society. In fact, certain church documents indicate that the U.S. bishops are convinced that if they could only better communicate those teachings all would be better. With more enlightened thinking, each of us would turn away from whatever sinful behavior we are practicing because, finally, we would see the truth of Catholic teaching. I think not.

I think not because it is not God that we are willfully disobeying. We are, for the most part, merely trying to live our lives in the most loving way we can – yes, loving. Two people who marry, regardless of circumstances, are offering each other their fullest selves in a committed relationship. Parents who use artificial birth control are creating the most stable and functional context in which to fulfill their relationship to each other and their children. A woman who seeks ordination is offering her fullest self in service to God and all of creation. Tell me, please, where is the sin? Tell me, as well, why a loving God would declare any of these people sinners? Tell me how a compassionate God would not see and accept our very human need to give and receive love within stable and secure relationships and communities?

At this point I am well aware that arguments of all sorts may be made for each of the  examples I’ve used, some that even point to Scripture for their primary reasoning. But yet, but yet, if we turn our eyes to the principles and dogma connected to each, we risk looking away from what should be the true focus, and that is people and our community. When we insist that some level of purity be maintained in order to receive the Eucharist, when we identify one group of people as being less clean, less worthy of another, when we even go as far as telling someone she is not even welcome in our church, what is it that we are really doing? Do we even know?

I do choose

In this first wrestling with my Catholic identity, I feel compelled to address a primary reason I cannot remain within a traditional parish, the exclusion of sacramental participation for certain people. It seems to contradict the very prayer Jesus offered the night before his death:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:21-23).

If, indeed, only some people even within its own doors are deemed worthy enough to celebrate the sacraments, how is the Church to model that union for all to see the glory of Christ in our midst? Of course, the Church has a ready answer. In fact, ever since the bishops met to open the Synod on the Family last fall, they have told us many times why things are as they are. Through the bans, the bishops are not the ones creating the separation. Individuals who choose to disobey their rules – God’s will – are responsible for their own inability to be fully united with the community. If and when they change their behavior, forgiveness and acceptance will be theirs. It’s that simple, the bishops assert.

On the surface, such reasoning may make sense. In fact, it may even seem indisputable. In pointing to passages from both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, they insist that they possess neither the right nor the ability to change what has been so clearly communicated about God’s wishes. Of course, theologians who think otherwise have argued that those very passages can be interpreted differently, but I must admit that I’ve grown weary trying to keep up with the ever-increasing nuanced debates over relatively few words. I had all but given up hope in finding a means of communicating why I just can’t accept the Church’s bans, but then, through my recent participation in a daily prayer retreat hosted by a minister at The Riverside Church I have found it. Over the next few entries, I will share what I learned through that experience.

This was the reading offered for our first day: A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:40-43)

The reflection prompt that followed this text invited us to read the passage a second time, imagining self as the leper. I began, even saying the leper’s request aloud, “If you choose, you can…” I got no further. Those words, “If you choose,” stunned me. The leper realized that Jesus had a choice to make. Given Hebrew law and the cultural norms at that time, Jesus, a Jewish man, had the freedom to walk right past him, a leper, completely disregarding him, and no one would have thought anything wrong of Jesus in doing that. After all, to interact with a leper would have contaminated Jesus’ own purity. And so, the leper, knowing that the law and norms made him not only untouchable but invisible as well, declared, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” The next words truly gave me pause: “moved with pity.” Touched by emotion, Jesus did stretch out his own hand and said, “I do choose.” And in that moment, the man was cleansed.

In reflecting upon that interaction, rather than seeing myself as the leper, I began to wonder whom I have rendered “unclean” through my daily judgments and biases. Whom do I pass by each day because law and/or cultural norms allow me to do so? My heart grieved as I saw the homeless folk I pass each day on Broadway, the pictures of suffering people around the world in The Times I glance at each and every day. “Why,” I asked myself, “Have I not heard them say, ‘If you choose you can….’?” The answer was simple: rarely do I truly see them for who they are – beloved children of God, my brothers, my sisters, ordinary human beings too often overwhelmed by life’s circumstances. Rather I see them through a lens created by economics, politics and social norms, a lens that clouds my ability to see the genuine person before me.

Now, in that moment, I was humbled by both the pain of that insight that came in acknowledging my own hardness of heart, and the joy in realizing that maybe now I can grow in love for all. That in itself is a true gift. My thoughts did not stop, however. I could not help but recall words spoken so frequently by Roman Catholic bishops when key teachings are challenged, such as the bans on women’s ordination or artificial birth control. Even if they wanted to, they insist, they cannot change those laws because, in doing so, they would break God’s law, to go against God’s will. But yet, in the gospel reading above, the leper boldly challenges Jesus, the very incarnation of God, to act in a way that contradicts Hebrew law, the recognized will of God. “If you choose…” he said, and in response, Jesus turned, looked and saw, and was moved with pity. Why, I wonder, the bishops, in knowing how Jesus responded to such a challenge, don’t respond in a similar way? Rather than turning their attention to their laws and traditions, what would happen if, instead, they turned their eyes to one today who stands before them saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean”?

Quite possibly, they might see someone like my mother, a woman who went into a confessional booth in her parish, the fall of 1965, not long after the traumatic, premature birth of my youngest brother, her third child. At 38, she had just been told by her doctor that, given the fact that this was not the first, but the second time she nearly died in pregnancy, she needed to go on “The Pill.” That same doctor, upon seeing her hesitate when he first told her that, took it upon himself to talk to my father, suggesting that he consider divorcing my mother since, he – not yet 40 – was still a “young” man, a man who may find it hard to accept a diminished sex life. My mother, a good Catholic woman, had no intention of disobeying church teaching, that third pregnancy being the result of a failed attempt of following the rhythm method. But yet, what was she to do? And so, she agreed to go on birth control, in spite of the Church’s ban. In that confessional booth, upon hearing my mother’s story, her confessor looked not at this woman, a mother of three young children who knew that to maintain her marriage she would need to risk her own life if she obeyed church teaching; rather, he looked to Church law before telling her that, as long as she was taking that pill, she was not welcome at Communion. She was to remain in the pews.

For the next 17 years, she and my father not once went up at Eucharist, in spite of being at church each week with the three of us in tow. Possibly, that priest, when looking out at the congregation, saw a married couple, in sin, who knew their rightful place in the Church. Maybe he even said a silent prayer for them and the handful of others who stood alone, isolated from the celebration as others partook in the beloved ritual of the Catholic Church. I suspect, however, he did not see the suffering such a moment instilled upon them. Each and every week their remaining in the pew communicated oh-so-clearly that they were not truly respecting God’s laws, that they, indeed, were sinners, unworthy to approach the altar of our Lord. How hard it would have been to not feel as if each and every other person were judging them in that moment. That suffering was inflicted upon them through the insistence that a priest’s gaze must be focused on the law, not on the human person. Again, words of Jesus come to mind:

“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4).

Now, given the reality of a woman’s body, there did come a day when she no longer needed to be on the pill, and so they were both able to begin celebrating Eucharist once again. Possibly their return allowed their pastor to feel that all was then as it should be, with no harm done, given the gracious mercy of our loving God. However, those 17 years of denial and judgment did not leave them unscathed, just as the denial of sacramental participation to anyone else doesn’t leave them unhurt. Those wounds created by exclusion and abandonment in their time of most need never quite healed; in fact, each suffered deeply as they neared the time for their ultimate reunion with God…..

My role as a Catholic….

As I begin this blog, my focus will be first on my Catholic identity and relationship with the Catholic Church itself. A complicated affair it has been right from the start. Born in 1960, I came to consciousness as the Church was implementing changes directed by Vatican II and its many documents; as a young adult in the 80’s & 90’s, I read numerous pastoral letters and encyclicals that addressed a variety of social justice issues, while also seeing the examples of notable “men of the cloth,” including, of course, Cardinal Bernadin. I will never forget his loving presence even when surrounded by cameras and journalists who repeatedly asked him questions regarding his vow to celibacy and the accusation of sexual abuse that he faced. Accompanying all that was also the work of many nuns/sisters and lay women who devoted their lives to the Church. How can I not be moved by the martyrdom of the four women in El Salvador? How can I ever overlook the wisdom I gained by such a wide range of scholars, including Elizabeth Johnson, Joyce Rupp, Joan Chittester…. and so many more? And then, of course, there is the rich tradition of Catholic mysticism and spirituality. Who would I be today if I had not read works written by St. John of the Cross, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, St. Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Anthony de Mello, Thomas Merton…. the list goes on. Yes, I am Catholic: formed and enlivened through a powerful tradition that extends back centuries.

In embracing that identity, I, with my husband, found it relatively easy to say, yes, we would raise our children as Catholics, educating them in Catholic schools, accompanying them to church each Sunday. The two of us also took active roles within our parish, and I, when needing to seek employment, was honored to accept the responsibility of teaching theology in a girls’ Catholic high school. Of course, we knew the institution was not perfect, but, no other institution is as well, so we did our best to remain loyal and committed, even as the sex abuse scandal began emerging. Our hearts ached as we heard the stories of so many, but still we hoped that, in time, church leaders would begin truly addressing not only the issue itself, but also the pain of so many people whose lives were so tragically wounded and permanently scarred at their hands. Unfortunately, such accountability has been slow in coming, too slow actually, and then it seemed, a shift occurred.

Increasingly, as the Church discussed “Catholic identity,” attention turned to who is and is not worthy of receiving the Eucharist. Of course, official teaching had always indicated such things, but, other than my childhood pastor, few of the priests I had come to know ever made such distinctions. Vatican II and its response to Pope John XXIII’s call to open the windows of the church have all but been forgotten. And who can overlook the Church’s official stance towards women. To even talk about women’s ordination brings the threat of excommunication. Even worse, however, is the public tone of the Catholic Church as communicated through many of the U.S. bishops and the Vatican. Rather than acknowledging that all people have the right and ability to live according to their own conscience, the Catholic leadership today too often insists that their own right to religious freedom gives them the power to dictate whether or not other people, even non-Catholics, have access to both the materials and the rights they need to thrive in our world today. Oh how my heart has ached!

As that ache grew over the years, my first reaction was to walk away, and, to some extent I have. No longer do I teach in a Catholic school; neither am I a member of a Catholic  parish. Initially, I embraced my freedom, thinking I need no longer concern myself with anything to do with that church. But, I overlooked one fact: I am Catholic – to my core. Baptized, confirmed, and so deeply formed, I can no more cast aside my Catholicity than I can my body. It is who I am. It is – through its sacraments, mysticism, and teachers – what has brought me peace, joy and solace at critical points of my life. Gratitude for those many gifts fills my heart, telling me that I cannot just walk away. But what to do?

Many of my friends who ache just as much as I do are active, loving members of their Catholic communities, hoping and believing that in remaining in their pews, their presence will enable the Holy Spirit to once again inspire and lead the Church to fulfill its own self-named role – to be Christ in the world. Some have left, a few even being baptized in Protestant denominations, convinced that the Church must be abandoned completely for it to see that change is needed. And still others are learning to live their Catholic identity in new ways, accepting their calls to Catholic ministry that do not depend on official approval and affiliation. The women’s ordination movement is doing just that. Catholic women who have been called to give their fullest selves in love and service to creation and all God’s people are accepting their rightful claim to ordained ministry. And, yes, I have taken the initial steps of that journey. In December, 2013, I was ordained a deacon. For several months I did play an active role in nurturing a small community in Louisville, along with a woman priest and a sister deacon. But then came my move to New York City, a place where, in having no connections, I have no community as well. In short, I feel as if I’m in limbo as an ordained Catholic woman.

Knowing no traditional parish would want me, I have joined The Riverside Church to stand in community with that diverse group so dedicated to promoting justice in all its varied forms. Yes, I have a role to play there, but yet, I am Catholic. How, without a Catholic community, do I embrace that identity, continue serving my Church? For now, it seems, given the time I have to ponder and reflect, free from both the joys and challenges of nurturing and serving communities, I am called to simply offer that…. my pondering and the reflections that emerge. As Catholics, we know that Jesus freely offered his life to us, teaching us, healing us, loving us so well. We, of course, are called to do the same. And so, with words from Ezekial in mind, I will not worry about what others might say, or be dismayed by the looks I may be given. I will simply offer what I can – a few words here and there given freely to be accepted or not. For now, it is enough. And so I will begin by addressing some of the issues that will be discussed at the upcoming Synod on the Family…..