An Unimaginable Ejection

Right around 3:00 a.m. on November 9th, I saw that the unthinkable had happened. Donald J. Trump attained 278 electoral votes and Hillary Clinton conceded the election.

Stunned, overwhelmed, absolutely crushed, I wanted to scream:

How could we have done this? How could we have just elected a man who had spent months promoting racist, sexist, xenophobic notions, almost all built upon lies?

Where am I?  I couldn’t help but wonder.
Surely this couldn’t be the United States I know and love,                                                            not the country so widely revered for its devotion to freedom for all.

Of course, there had been warning signs. I saw them. In his rallies, when Trump mocked a disabled reporter, people laughed; when he encouraged people to rough up protesters, they did; when he called for a return to law and order, they cheered; and when he even admitted to groping women and rarely – if ever – paying taxes, they shrugged. Clearly, the man appealed to people.

Yes, I saw all that, but this too I knew.

We had come so far as a community. Rather than teasing the disabled among us and taunting foreigners, we increased accessibility to both groups, and benefitted greatly from their labor and talents. Instead of bullying each other into submission, we peacefully protest wars and unjust treatment, and celebrate LGBTQ weddings. Realizing that the ruthless crime bills of the past were decimating neighborhood and lives, especially those of color, our community leaders have begun to repeal “stop and frisk” and “three strikes you’re out” policies. And as for greater respect for women – well, his opponent was our greatest symbol of just how far we thought we’d come.

Yes, I knew that debates raged about costs, true patriotism, traditional values, and the safety of our streets. And yet, I honestly believed that once people entered the voting box, and the excitement of being in such raucous crowds had settled, that our respect for human dignity and personal freedom would prevail. But as I stared at the numbers on my cell, I knew that I was wrong. Feeling absolutely defeated, I stumbled back to bed only to toss and turn the night away as one image dominated my thoughts:

Everything I held to be good and true had been completely uprooted.

Grief wrapped itself around me as I mourned the apparent destruction of my deepest values. How I ached for those who would be most affected by the changes of policy that may accompany those taunts and jeers of Trump. Even with my husband next to me, I felt so insecure, so alone, ….. so isolated. It seemed as if I had been kicked out of a beautiful garden and into a cold harsh world I do not know. How I pitied myself, and those I loved, realizing then that I wasn’t the only one so awash with grief, the only one jerked into a new reality. Many of us that night were ejected into unpredictable, unknowable, uncertain territory. Again, I wanted to scream:

How could this have happened? How could you do this to us??

But who were the “you”? Our analysts tell us that it was the white working class – non-college educated men and women – who most supported him. They were the ones who marched into our polling places eager to elect someone who promised to make their America great again. None of the rest of us saw or understood their passion, their determination to uproot the system.

We didn’t see it coming – not at all. But this I’ll admit, I should have.

In having been raised within a working class family by parents who never went to college, I once lived in a home where money was earned through hours clocked, not a salary contracted, a social class which valued strength and common sense, not book-smarts and good manners, a life where everything could be threatened by a lay-off, an accident, or a politician’s refusal to respect laborers. Yes, I remember that experience well. One Saturday morning stands out. For over two hours I sat crying at the kitchen table after having broken both arms. The day before my dad had been laid off, so, without health insurance, they needed the cheapest hospital, a search that took time. That delay cost them. My arms swelled so badly that I was admitted to the hospital where I stayed for three long and expensive days.

In fact, as I was growing up, my parents’ very lives were threatened more than once by low pay, unexpected lay-offs, and heavy tax burdens. Fortunately, given the arc of their lives, when they retired in the early 1990’s, they possessed ample savings, and their combined benefits covered most of their needs. In contrast, a generation or two later, those who would be their peers do not have such resources. Well-paying jobs have been made obsolete by technology; manufacturing plants moved; robots eliminated much of the need for skilled labor. Once respectable service jobs are now viewed with disdain and rarely provide living wages. Routine, even sacred, benefits are inadequate or even nonexistent. In short, women and men who do not attend college – of any ethnicity – no longer have the ability to create and sustain stable and secure lives the way my parents’ generation eventually did.

I must ask myself – if I had never won the scholarship that allowed me to attain a college education – what would I be doing now if that were still my reality? At the very least, shouting, even screaming for attention, for justice. I may even have voted for Trump, the one who says he’ll bring back jobs, hold companies liable, make such a life great again.

That last thought humbles me.

It forces me to realize this: long before this election, other people were ejected from their beloved gardens of security and safety and into a cruel world they did not know, a world which – by all indications – no longer valued their labor, their service, their very lives. That world, however, was actually already populated by many of today’s targets of Trump’s cruel jests, people who had never been able to reap the riches and rewards of our society. Rather than accepting each other as victims of injustice, though, the inhabitants – both new and old – believed those who told each group: “There is your enemy! He is to blame for your suffering!” And so fear, hate and despair flourished. And we are where we are.

In having been ejected from my own small, safe world and into this one:                            what am I going to do?

Am I going to blame others for creating this mess? Reject Mr. Trump as “my” president? Allow self-pity and fear to conquer me as I struggle to stand in this new place?

No, I’m not. It’s time for me to release my place of privilege, to enter more fully into the experience of others, to seek to see and possibly understand the suffering of all people, not just my chosen few. It’s time to plant seeds of beauty, hope and trust out in the open, not just in my own small zone of comfort. It’s time for me to believe that somehow – all shall be well,” a task dependent upon accepting this truth:

we are “many members, yet one body,” and so,                                                                                “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it,” *                                                             regardless of who that person may be.

It’s time for us to work together to unite the many states of mind among us.  Only then  may the collective insight, wisdom and compassion we so desperately need arise. Only then do I believe we can overcome what we’ve done.

*lines from 1 Corinthians, Chapter 12.

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The Rock of My Bitterness

Recently, I had the opportunity to lead the senior ministry team of The Riverside Church on a tour of Central Park’s north end. Having met at the Harlem Meer, we ventured over to the Conservatory Garden, before meandering along the paths that connect the forts, and then down past Lasker RinkIMG_1398 and Pool. When we reached the parking lot behind the complex, a few participants thought we would head up the drive to our left so that we could walk the main road to which it led. As soon as they looked to the right, however, they knew that was not the plan at all for before them was the most magnificent arch in the park: Huddlestone. Like the other 35 arches and bridges, this one was designed to provide an appropriate transition for what lie ahead, in this case, The North Woods, one of the most natural areas within the park. Needing to communicate something of the rustic beauty that lies ahead, Huddlestone Arch consists of boulders, each sitting one on another, with no mortar cementing them into place.

The rocks’ mottled coloring, the plants growing through the cracks, the uneven but beautiful lines drew us near, teasing us with a glimpse of what was to come.

We paused for a moment in collective awe, and then, knowing only gravity _MG_4590and pressure prevented the boulders from tumbling down, we entered, only to stop again. There, embedded in the wall was a rock that some estimates place at 100 tons in weight. Immediately we wondered aloud what came first: the rock’s original location which invited such an arch to be built or the arch’s design, one the planner knew would be enhanced if that rock were moved right there? Regardless, it was now quite apparent that the rock was an integral part of the arch – and of its experience as well. Truly, no one could pass by without pausing to wonder about its mass. Of course, that day, we soon moved on, continuing our tour into the North Woods. Recently, though I’ve had reason to return to that experience, to see what it may teach me as I process my most recent life decision.

Little did I know what that rock would offer me.

A little more than two and a half years ago, I joined a group with the intention of making a life-long commitment. How eager I was to become a member, to participate in their life-giving activities, to be part of a vibrant community striving so earnestly to transform our world. Through it I hoped to gain both identity and purpose, while contributing mightily to its work. I embraced my new community and role with gratitude and joy. Over time, though, as I entered more deeply into the experience, I needed to move further into its structure, into the back rooms, per se, where the work gets done. Usually when we enter such rooms, as everyone must when s/he joins a new community, we find that although imperfection exists, we can accept the methods, the goals, the culture that drive it. Sometimes, we cannot. Sometimes the deeper we enter into the backrooms, the more and more uncomfortable we become. Sometimes that discomfort reaches the point where we must admit that we just don’t belong. That is what happened to me. I could not remain, and so, I resigned.

In doing so, I am, of course, stuck with the consequences, the primary one being the question: What now?

As I ponder that question, I sort of feel as if I’m standing in the parking lot behind the Lasker complex. To my right is that magnificent arch; to my left is that driveway that can take me to the main road of the park, the road on which service vehicles, cyclists, runners and walkers all traverse. In some ways I feel as if I am being presented with a challenge that lies in scripture:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Mt. 7:13-14).

Of course, I would never say that those who are traveling the main road through the park are headed to destruction. But, in my own life, I see that, if the drive represents the wide road with the arch being the narrowIMG_1400 gate, in opting for the wide road, I would destroy my own dreams. I must choose the arch. And really, there is some joy in being presented with such a choice. Haven’t we all heard it said that the road less travelled is the better one? Or what about that old cliché in which its promised that God opens a window whenever a door is closed – mixed metaphors aside? And, so I enter the arch, confident that a new path will emerge. But then, inside, awaits that rock – huge, ponderous, not only immoveable but absolutely necessary to the arch’s support. Seeing it again, I realize this:

I am standing under that arch, ready to begin a new journey, only because I could not find my place within that other community.

To be honest, such awareness overwhelms me. I must admit, for months I struggled through a myriad of emotions – confusion, anger, guilt, resentment, grief, frustration. Because I’ve done my best to appear to be a loving and forgiving person through it all, I’ve either hidden or even denied that I was experiencing them. I also wanted to leave the group, acting as if I could easily
walk away, unaffected by all that had occurred. Yes, of course, grief was appropriate to claim. As for all the other emotions, well, as I said, I’m a “loving” person….. But this, too, I must admit: if I don’t claim and work through all those emotions, I run the risk of allowing them to become so entangled that bitterness arises, a bitterness that may have the power to prevent me from taking a single step on my new path. In seeing that rock, however, I see that the entire experience I had with that group, good and bad, is now not only what pushed me out of the community: it is what’s holding up the gateway to the next phase of my life’s journey.

Suddenly, everything changes.

First, humility enters into my heart. What right do I have to be angry at “them” for not fulfilling my hopes and expectations? Of what use would it be to nurse the wounds I felt inflicted upon me? Such self-absorption not only denies what the rock teaches me, it would prevent me from passing through the arch, the narrow way into new life. Gratitude emerges, gratitude for all I experienced, all I learned, and all that brought me to this place. I see that rock, now, as the symbol of all the emotions I have felt during my entire experience, including the earliest ones of joy, abundance and deep admiration. Rather than it becoming the rock which I, consumed by bitterness, would have longed to throw, it has become the foundation upon which I build my future. Peace enters my heart. Not only can I walk away from the experience without bitterness; I can do so knowing and cherishing the vital role it has played in taking me to this new place. And so, in bowing to this rock and that community for all they have offered me, I move on, eager to leave the darkness, eager to step into new life.

Love becomes possible.

Of course, I cannot know what actually lies ahead of me now. But this I do know. The path that runs through the North Woods does lead us by peaceful waters, along which we may pause to rest, before coming to another arch, 20140806_193612Glenspan, and, oh, what a vision it offers!

Yes, hope springs eternal,
All, indeed, shall be well!

And, knowing that everything does belong, I may now offer to all I meet

love untainted by bitterness.
That is my dream.

“Why me, God?”…….”Why not you?”

Years ago, the summer I turned 21, I remember how, on days when no one else was home, I would go out in our backyard to scream, “Why me, God? Why me?” I just couldn’t understand why I had to bear the burdens I was: the need to live at home with a demanding, sometimes cruel father, my parents’ lack of support for my college education, my need to work long hard hours as a line cook, and, worst of all, my loneliness, my complete inability to fit in at school or to even be asked on one date. I felt absolutely alone at times, abandoned even, since it seemed that everyone else had so many friends, easy access to the things they wanted, and such loving parental support that, well, their lives seemed perfect – and so – in that back yard I screamed,

“Why me, God? Why me? Why must I work so hard, be so alone,                   suffer so much?“

Yes, the years have passed. No longer do I retreat to a backyard to scream. No longer do I feel so abandoned. And as I look back to my younger self, I am tempted to not only smile at the figure she must have presented out there, shaking her fist at that grand California sun; I am tempted to dismiss her claim of suffering. After all, now that I’ve endured the deaths of both parents, seen the torment friends have faced in losing their children, and experienced genuine failure and rejection in a whole host of ways, well, I am tempted to say that that young woman’s suffering paled in comparison not only to what lay ahead of her, but also in the face of the suffering of millions around the world even on those very days she screamed. But I can’t. However suffering arises – through crushing tragedy, relentless oppression, chronic pain and illness, even our ego’s obsessions, however justified or imagined – the actual pain of suffering is real, genuine, undeniable. And so we scream: “Why me?” a question that I found my self pondering not too long ago.

Throughout this past summer, more often than not, sleep eluded me. Oh, I often fell asleep easily enough, but two hours later, upon the raging of a hot flash, I would awaken, and then, disturbed by noises, temperature, textures and my own thoughts, I would remain awake for 2, 3, sometimes 4 hours before, right as dawn creeped into our room, I could sleep. Nothing, it seemed, helped. Not daytime exercise or good dietary habits. Neither did abstaining from caffeine, alcohol or even chocolate. Nor did the aids suggested by friends: valerian, black cohosh, melatonin – nothing. The worst nights were what I came to call my “night 3’s”, the third night in a row when the most sleep I could garner was 4 hours. It was on those nights when, after having drank warm milk, replaced my ear plugs, written out my concerns and even meditated, that as the tears began to flow, that old question arose: “Why me, God? Why can’t I just fall asleep?”

It was one of those night 3’s when, finally, I awoke, really awoke.

Lying in bed next to my husband, I decided to get back up once I could hold back the tears no longer. Frustrated, exhausted, I went to the living room and sat in our over-sized chair. It being 3:30 or so in the morning, I stared out our window through its transparent shade, at the buildings across the street and down an alley. Rectangles of yellow light marked windows, windows of homes where others, like I, were not sleeping. Pondering that scene, I wondered why they were not blissfully dreaming the night away. Yes, I knew, some may be enjoying the company of someone special, but this, too, I realized. Just as likely, worry, pain, fear – suffering – kept sleep at bay. Glimpsing that behind those curtains and shades were people sick with cancer, overburdened by financial debt or trapped in endless, relentless grief, I felt my heart crack open. Yes, the suffering I experienced from insomnia was real, but, I could so clearly see in that moment, I was not the only one to suffer. And then the buildings in front of me seemed to vanish. Suddenly, I could see suffering everywhere, suffering that, if it were mine, I knew I could not bear. Images of people living within war zones, terrorized by violence and incapable of even feeding their children one healthy meal a day humbled me. I could do only one thing: open myself to deep silent prayer, holding all close in that moment. As a tender love filled my heart, peace settled in as well. Returning to bed, I slept.

The next morning as I reflected on that experience, I began to write out that old question: “Why me, God?” This response arose:

“After last night, you need to ask?”

Recalling that peace that had emerged through the union I experienced, I couldn’t help but be grateful – not for the actual suffering I felt, of course; rather, for the communion it allowed me to enter. For those few minutes, as I basked again in that sense of union, another question emerged:

“Suffering? Why not you?”

The implications of that question stunned me. In spite of thinking that I was doing my best to “love my neighbor as my self,” I saw how miserably I was failing for one simple fact: I did not see myself as equal to my neighbor. Not at all. Somehow, deep down, I saw myself as exceptional, someone worthy of living a pain-free life. Of course, we all know that such an existence is impossible, but yet, that thought that I could demand of God, “Why me?” revealed something else I did not want to see.

I honestly believed that I was entitled – yes, entitled – entitled to pursue as comfortable a life as I could.

Of course, the pursuit of such a life lies at the heart of what we call, “The American Dream,” a condition that encourages each of us to acquire all the resources and materials we need to live comfortably. It seems reasonable enough. In that moment, though, as I acknowledged all the comfort afforded to me through the many resources I possess, I couldn’t help but see the irony between my experience of unity the previous night and the fact that what I possess creates not union but division. In so many ways, the stuff of my life allows me to not only avoid certain people, but to choose to ignore them entirely, even their suffering. In fact, when I am confronted with their suffering, too often I give into the temptation to name a reason for why they must suffer while I don’t. Rarely do I allow myself to see the connection between my own pursuit of comfort and their suffering.

Rarely do I ask myself as I pursue all I can to avoid pain: At what cost does this come?

The burden of that question overwhelms me, actually. In trying to answer it, I see so many ways that my desires contribute to the problems of others, both personally and socially, too many, really to name here. Just glimpsing them, however, brings forth two emotions I’d rather avoid – guilt and shame. Guilt in knowing that I have truly benefited from societal practices such as low taxation and/or wages, and shame in that I have refused to acknowledge how the subsequent lack of monetary resources hurts people. And with those emotions comes….. suffering.

A choice now arises.

Do I deny all that I have just acknowledged, reasoning that all is as it should be because our country is great and/or I have earned all that I’ve acquired? Many will tell me to do just that – it is, after all, the way of capitalism, of the American Dream. I need not feel guilt, neither shame. Nor suffering. Or,

Do I embrace this guilt, this shame, this suffering?

Already, it’s too late. The suffering generated in those few seconds of admitting guilt, bearing shame has done it again: it has cracked my heart open. How my heart longs to reach out to those denied the opportunities I’ve had, to those who’ve endured the consequences of my own comfort, to those whose suffering I now see. I feel helpless, yes, in this moment, knowing that as an individual I can’t make all things right now or even in 100 years. But, if I enter into the communion of all,

if I take my rightful place among my neighbors, allowing myself to be treated as they are,

maybe, just maybe, in releasing my own need to avoid suffering at all cost, at least a few others may not bear the burdens of those costs. Maybe the suffering they will endure will be that which is inevitable in being human, not that which is forced upon them by other humans.

Maybe I will finally be able to learn how to love my neighbor as my self, striving to establish justice, not comfort, as my central goal in life.

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?