Friday, April 29, 2011

THE WEEK IN REVIEW

MORNING SON REFLECTED ON COURTYARD WALL
VIEW FROM MY BEDROOM  

1. ARS LONGA

By Hilde Domin

The breath
in a bird's throat
breath of air
in the branches.

The word
like the wind itself
its holy breath
goes in and out.

Always the breath finds
branches
clouds
throat of birds.

Always the word
the holy word
in a mouth.

--trans. by Agnes Stein

2. "That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to."

--Flannery O'Connor, from the preface to Wise Blood

3. "Have you nothing to annoy you? My child, tell Me your annoyances, with every detail. Who has pained you? Who has wounded your self-love? Who has treated you contemptuously? Tell Me all, and then say that you forgive and forget; and I will give you my blessing."
--From a pamphlet entitled "A Meditation Before the Blessed Sacrament," sent by "Rose"


4. Exchange between me and my 9-year-old niece after she FB-friended me:
"Savannah, you darling girl! What is iPigWorld if you please?"
"it an AWESOME app that you make a pig name and its color. its so awesome!! how are you"

5. Excellent review by Rod Dreher of the film about the martyred Algerian monks Of Gods and Men.
--Contributed by "Philip"

6. Video clip of Good Friday procession, in silence, from Brooklyn's St. James Cathedral across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, Ground Zero, and St. Peter's in Manhattan.
Newscaster: "What does this mean to you?"
Anonymous member of the faithful: "Everything"...

Good Friday Way of the Cross in NYC: MyFoxNY.com
7.SNAKEBIT
"Having a passion makes it easier to stay sober...This feels like I'm always having to grow. I can't write the same song twice. I always have to go into a place I don't understand and figure out something...The challenge of writing is so profound that it's gonna take me the rest of my life to start to get good at it...I'm gett'n better...I think it takes a long time...it takes a long time"...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

RESURRECTION MORNING: THE LADY WITH THE ASH BLOND WIG

EMPTY TOMB
PHOTO: WORSHIPPINGCHRISTIAN.ORG

I've published it before; I'll publish it again: a little tale of my bout with breast cancer.

...Back in 2000, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had one overriding emotion: self-centered, panic-tinged fear. I didn't know that eight years later I'd be fine, that the scar would be barely visible, that months would go by where the word "cancer" never entered my thoughts. Back then I still thought about it every waking and sleeping moment. So before I even had surgery, I signed up for a second opinion clinic at UCLA.

The day of my appointment, I found a seat and looked around at the ten or so others, perched stiffly on the edges of their chairs. They know what it's like to lie staring at the ceiling all night, I thought. They could die, too.

"What a bunch of crap," a voice muttered, and I turned to see a petite blonde gal, about my age, in a Dolce & Gabbana jersey and black leather pants. With one gold-beringed hand she was filling out a clipboard of forms. With the other, she chowed down a Whopper.

"This your first time?" she asked, wiping a smear of mayo from the corner of her mouth.

“My first time? Well...yeah."

"First time's the worst," she reported, as if I could look forward to several more such visits. "It's my third."

"Your...third?" I faltered. That was when I took a good look at her hair--bangs and a shoulder-length flip--and saw it was way too shiny to be real: she was wearing an ash blond wig.

"Oh, chemo's nothing compared to all I've been through," she informed me. Double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery. Thought I was home-free after the bone marrow transplant"--she paused to scrape the pickles off her hamburger--"but now it’s metastasized to my liver."

Except for the wig, she looked normal, if a little ethereal: translucent skin, a blue vein tendrilling across her temple.

"I have three teenagers at home in Newport Beach, that’s what keeps me going, that, plus my friends, and shopping. Money means zipola to me, which isn't exactly great for the old marriage"--she jerked a thumb to her left, where a long-suffering businessman type sat shuffling papers on top of his briefcase--"but at this point I could give a rat's ass. The only reason I'm here is to see if they have any drugs that might give me an extra month or two.”

I couldn't get my mind around it: this middle-aged Orange County mall rat, with her manicure and Prada pants, nonchalantly telling me that she was going to die.

"You'll be fine, though," she added, giving my knee a friendly slap. "The fear of the unknown is the worst. Actually going through it is no big deal."

All afternoon I waited in a white room while doctors filed in with their stethoscopes and charts. I prayed my breast wouldn’t have to be mutilated, I prayed they wouldn’t tell me I had some mutant strain that was reproducing at an outlandishishly unheard-of rate, I prayed if I had to die of cancer, it wouldn’t be for a long, long time and they’d give me lots of drugs first. Around 5, the “team”—the social worker, the radiologist—came in to report their findings. The surgical oncologist summed it up. "For patients like you--Stage 1 with a tumor under a centimeter and assuming there’s no lymph node involvement, the risk of recurrence is about nine percent."

Nine percent ran through my mind like a mantra as I got dressed and gathered up my things. If only it's not in my lymph nodes, nine percent's not bad. It could be a lot worse than nine percent. I can live with nine percent. Outside the elevator, I ran into the woman with the ash blond wig.

"How did you do?" she cried. "Good news?"

"Not bad, I guess," I admitted.

"Oh hon, that's great!" she said, leaning over to give me a big hug. "I told you you'd do fine!" She stepped onto the elevator and the doors closed behind her.

How can you describe such goodness, such bravery?—this woman who was dying, who had been through hell, asking "Good news?"—hoping someone else would make it.

I think of her often, this woman from Newport Beach who wore a huge diamond, whose hobby was shopping, who could have treated her husband a little better. And each time I remember how, when Christ walked among his disciples after the Resurrection, nobody had recognized him.

And/or listen to the story on NPR's "All Things Considered":

Thank you all for the TRULY FAB fab suggestions for my possible talk next year at the Religious Ed. Congress. I am mulling...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

MY WEEK IN JOSHUA TREE



I spent last week from Tuesday on out in Joshua Tree, a couple of hours from my home in L.A., but don't ask me what I did. I walked, snacked, read, napped, went into town to check my email, looked out the window, reflected, prayed, went to Mass, looked out the window. That doesn't seem like much and maybe it wasn't (though re the latter, I was thrilled to discover recently that filmmaker Robert Bresson spoke of  "the ejaculatory force of the eye"). But my brain was so overloaded from working very intently, and my body was so overloaded from...living in a huge city and being me, and my psyche was so overloaded with Lent and the buildup to the Passion, that even so, my days and nights seemed full to bursting.

"Liminal space refers to times when we experience change and transition in our lives. (In fact, Catholic Priest Richard Rohr suggests...that all meaningful transformation happens in liminal space.) It’s often a time in our lives where the old way we have been functioning seems to no longer “fit”, but we haven’t yet discovered or figured out the new way—at least not completely. We may experience times of liminal space with regard to our job (also called our vocation, which may or may not be the same as our calling), our personal relationships, or even as we wrestle with bigger issues like our beliefs about the nature of God in general." (from precipicemagazine.com).



HANDS OF CHRIST, GESTURING TO THE WOMAN AT THE WELL [JOHN 1: 1-42]
TABLEAU, DESERT CHRIST PARK, YUCCA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA


Monday, April 25, 2011

THE REDEMPTION OF TIME

SALVADOR DALI
THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY, 1931
It's often said that, by entering into history, at a particular place, with particular people, that Christ entered into time; Christ redeemed time. What do we mean by this?

Einstein said the reason for time was so that everything doesn't happen at once. That may be true (and funny) enough in its way, but I like the poetic approach better. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ "The Wreck of the Deutschland" is dedicated "To the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th, 1875," one of whom had cried out as the ship went down: "O Christ, Christ, come quickly"…"Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east," wrote Hopkins, and to know that even one human being, anywhere, once, responded with a line of such beauty, somehow helps us believe Christ did come quickly, Christ must have come quickly...

"We can't bind ourselves to joy," observed William Blake, "we have to kiss it as it flies." We don't kiss concepts. We kiss people; we kiss what we treasure, and I wonder if Christ did not somehow incarnate time, enflesh time, make time a medium in which love and suffering, if we're graced to love and to suffer enough, can find their way to one another's heart.

Anne Harrington, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, tells of asking "a breast cancer support group, in which the women discussed their feelings, hopes and fears, whether they felt that their support group was helping them live longer.

No, they said, but it didn’t matter, that wasn’t why they’d joined the group.
            'Why then, were they in the group?' I asked. What did it mean to them. Again, the answer was clear: they stayed in the group because they learned there, from one another, how to live better with cancer and how to die better from cancer, something that they could learn nowhere else in their culture. And more particularly, they had all learned that the process of dying was infinitely eased when one did not die alone; as a group, they had learned that they could give this gift of connection and companionship to one another.
            At this point in the conversation, a patient who had been largely quiet so far looked up and perhaps took pity on me. She knew I had come to ask whether they believed that participating in the group was helping them to live longer, and perhaps she thought I was disappointed by their response. So she tried to help by putting the consensus of the group in a different way. ‘If you eliminate the concept of time,” she told me, 'I guess then that you could say that we live longer.’”

-- Anne Harrington, The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine 

WILLIAM BLAKE
THE ANCIENT OF DAYS

Saturday, April 23, 2011

HE IS RISEN

ROETTGEN PIETA
MIDDLE RHINE
14th CENTURY
"Room Four [the “Death Row” hospital ward of the TB sanitarium/Soviet prison at Tirgul-Ocna, Romania] was the scene of great kindness and humanity. Prisoners from other wards often came to spend the night with us, helping the dying and offering comfort.
            
At Easter, a friend from his hometown brought a gift wrapped in a piece of paper for Gafencu, the former Iron Guard trooper. “It’s been smuggled in,” he said. “Open it.”
            
Gafuncu undid the paper to reveal two lumps of a glittering white substance—sugar. None of us had seen sugar for years. Our wasted bodies craved it. All eyes were on Gafencu, and the prize in his hand. Slowly he wrapped it up again.
            
“I won’t eat it just yet,” he said. “Someone might be worse off than I during the day. But thank you.” He put the present carefully beside his bed, and there it stayed.

A few days later, my fever increased and I became very weak. The sugar was passed from bed to bed until it came to rest on mine.

“It’s a gift,” said Gafencu. I thanked him, but left the sugar untouched in case the next day someone should need it more. When my crisis passed, I gave it to Soteris, the elder of two Greek Communists, whose condition was grave. For two years the sugar went from man to man in Room Four (and twice it returned to me). Each time the sufferer had the strength to resist it.

--Richard Wurmbrand, Christ in the Communist Prisons


Reading this morning’s Gospel, John 20: 1-9, I noticed something new:

“They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths buried there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.”

But rolled up in a separate place…Jesus had folded his clothes. After all he’d just been through, Jesus had folded his clothes.

What courtesy, what delicacy, what a connotation of prayerful calm, what attention to the homely details of life! What an example for those of us in necessarily less straitened circumstances. Surely no matter how depressed or despairing, we, too, can make our bed and straighten the kitchen. Even if we’re sick and confined to bed, we can “fold” our thoughts. Even if we’re dying—which we all are by the way—we can direct them toward prayer…

It’s been a long haul, as Lent always is. After the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Mary’s of the (Yucca) Valley, I’m leaving the desert, back into L.A….wishing all of you a love-filled Easter Day...

Friday, April 22, 2011

GOOD FRIDAY

Ayudad a llorar a vuestro Dios
“Help your God weep!”
-- St. Teresa of Avila

NIKOLAI GE
THE CRUCIFIXION,
OR GOLGOTHA, 1893
The point of the Crucifixion isn't so much the violence and evil (which is why I could not in any way get behind Mel Gibson's film)--we'd been doing such violence to each other forever. We’re still doing it now. The point is that before Christ we "knew not what we did." We thought we were doing justice by taking an eye for an eye etc. But Christ showed us that, as René Girard points out in The Scapegoat (discussed in a recent post), we will hate without reason. We will kill even the person who does no wrong. We killed the one person in fact who never did wrong. We will try to kill the God inside us. But after Christ, we DO know...So that the knowledge will not overwhelm us, lead us to kill ourselves, we are simultaneously forgiven. But after that, everything changes. After Christ, we know…

Thursday, April 21, 2011

HOLY THURSDAY: WHEN I LAY MY BURDEN DOWN

Clarence Jordan, 1912-1969, Baptist visionary, founder of Koinonia Farm
"Following the Supreme Court's ruling on school desegregation, (Clarence) Jordan got into serious trouble with racists and members of the Ku Klux Klan when he tried to assist two African-American students in their application to a formerly segregated business college. This led to shooting, bombings, and vandalism against the Koinonia Farm. But Jordan steadfastly refused to leave. He spoke of these adversaries as people "with their personalities twisted and warped by prejudice and hate . . . If there is any balm in Gilead; if there is any healing in God's wings; if there is any hope — shall we go off and leave people without hope? We have too many enemies to leave them. The redemptive love of God must somehow break through. If it costs us our lives, if we must be hung on the cross to redeem our brothers and sisters in the flesh, so let it be. It will be well worth it. To move away would be to deny the redemptive process of God."
--From the "Loving Enemies" tab of Wedgewood Baptist Church

"[T]here just isn’t any word in our vocabulary which adequately translates the Greek word for 'crucifixion.' Our crosses are so shined, so polished, so respectable that to be impaled on one of them would seem to be a blessed experience. We have thus emptied the term 'crucifixion' of its original content of terrific emotion, of violence, of indignity and stigma, of defeat. I have translated it as 'lynching,' well aware that this is not technically correct. Jesus was officially tried and legally condemned, elements generally lacking in a lynching. But having observed the operation of Southern 'justice,' and at times having been its victim, I can testify that more people have been lynched 'by judicial action' than by unofficial ropes. Pilate at least had the courage and the honesty to publicly wash his hands and disavow all legal responsibility. 'See to it yourselves,' he told the mob. And they did. They crucified him in Judea and they strung him up in Georgia, with a noose tied to a pine tree."
--Clarence Jordan, from wikipedia



 More on the beyond great Fred McDowell, 1904-1972
Watch "Briars in the Cotton Patch: The Story of Koinonia Farm" on PBS

It's Holy Thursday and all over the world, Catholic priests celebrating Mass will re-enact Christ washing the feet of his disciples the night before he died. Not long ago I read an article in Traces ("My Journey Begins Here, by Fabrizio Rossi, July-August, 2010) about the about the pilgrims who walk the Santiago de Compostela through the Pyrenees into Spain, as pilgrims have for centuries. The piece quoted a man who, at one hostel along the route, washes the guests’ feet in a basin, by the light of a candle. “Many visitors are not Christians,” he said. “They enjoy trekking, they make the journey for sport, but when they receive this gift, they sense the meaning. They don’t say anything, they just weep.”


CHRIST ADORED ON THE CROSS BY ST. DOMINIC, DETAIL
FRA ANGELICO, 1440s

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

FINISHING THE RACE: CHRIST AS ATHLETE AND AGONISTE

MATTHIAS GRÜNEWALD
DETAIL FROM THE ISENHEIM ALTARPIECE
Hi folks, it's Holy Week in case you haven't noticed and I have in fact fled to the desert outside Joshua Tree National Park to pray to and with my Savior. Actually, from where I'm staying I can walk into the park, via Covington Flats Road. No internet so I'm in the Yucca Valley Starbucks headed for 8:15 Mass at St. Mary of the Valley...sometime during Lent, now I can't remember where, I swear I read that St. Francis of Assisi considered failing to celebrate daily Mass akin to a crime...did anyone else see that, in Magnificat maybe, or the Office of Readings? If so, let me know cause it has stuck in my head...

Anyway, I borrowed a bunch of books from my friend Julia before coming out, among them short stories by Gogol, Aesop's Fables, The Turn of the Screw (which I've only read about five times) and The Best American Essays 2008.

For one thing I was pleasantly surprised to find in the latter my essay "Sooner or Later, Delicate Death" (North Dakota Quarterly, Winter 2007) had a "Notable Essay" (i.e. runner-up, consolation prize) in the back, which I hadn't even known about. But more to the point, I came across an essay that braced me no end: "Where God Is Glad," by Joe Wenderoth, which is about a Baltimore...not exactly a strip club but a joint that reminds me of the bars where I used to drink near the end of my run in Boston. The place is called Tony's and the first time Wenderoth goes in  the roster consists of a woman who weighs 270 pounds, another with a misshappen arm, a third, "a thin, middle-aged blond woman (thin save for a beer belly, that is)." The sign for the place is misspelled and the girls go around after and collect a buck tip.

Here's an excerpt:

"The ladies have changed over the years, and continually, but the essence of the ladies has not. I recall one night I was in there with a friend, and mostly it was Eastern European young women dancing, but there was one straight-up Baltimore woman. So she dances and then descends and makes her way down to us to get her dollars. Wanting to make conversation, my friend says: "Hey, what's up with the patch on your arm--quitting smoking."
"Oh, no," she says, "it's painkiller."
"Oh, man, what do you need that for?"
"Bone cancer," she says, and moves along to the next guy down the bar...

Tony's is more like a hospital, really, than a strip club. Or many it's better to say a hospice. The sort of place wherein no one thinks about the prospect of discharge. At Tony's, one thinks: Life will never be better than this; I am sick...But there is something that's still missing from the analogy. Think of it as a hospice in which there is a celebration going on!..."

A hospice with a celebration going on is one very good way to describe the Crucifixion and Resurrection and corroborates for me one more time that Christ is about life, and the weirdest, most head-shaking life imaginable, which is what life is. This was the first I'd heard of Joe but you can be sure I already have his collection, The Holy Spirit of Life: Essays Written for John Ashcroft's Secret Self, on reserve at the library.

Also speaking of the Crucifixion, here's a reflection tying in my run on the Winnacunnet High girls' basketball team, motherhood, and Mount Calvary.


FINISHING THE RACE

Even as a sophomore in high school, on the girls’ basketball team, I had a Greek sense of the nobility of the athlete. I once wrote that I was willing to die for those girls, my teammates, and I wasn’t entirely kidding. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” observed St. Paul (2 Timothy 4:7), and to follow Christ, you do have to be an athlete of sorts. You have to train in loneliness, in poverty, in being persecuted, in pain, and misunderstood, in resisting a culture that encourages you to anaesthetize yourself, to take the shortcut, to not feel or think.

Years ago I read a column by Ron Rolheiser: “The Agony In The Garden - The Place To Ready Ourselves For Ordeals.” 

Rolheiser wrote:

Luke's account of Gethsemane says this of Jesus: "And being in a certain agony (AGONIA), he prayed more earnestly." This word, AGONIA, doesn't just describe the intensity of Jesus' suffering, but also his readying of himself for the painful task that awaits. How?

An athlete doesn't enter the arena of competition without first properly warming up and, at the time this text was written, a serious athlete would warm up for a competition by first working himself or herself into a certain intense sweat, a lather, an AGONIA, so that he or she wouldn't enter the competition with cold muscles…

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus dies before he dies and in that way readies himself for what awaits him”...

Sports is a rudimentary form of self-sacrifice. You bond with your teammates and, together, consecrate yourselves to something higher. You “die” to yourself in favor of the shared goal of winning the game. This form of self-sacrifice, calling forth a deep nobility, underlies the family, politics, and war. You lay down your life for your teammates, your family members, your country.

But there is one thing higher, and that is to lay down your life for all mankind. To lay down your life not just for your own family, but for everyone’s family. To lay down your life not only for your friends, but for your enemies. To love each other as we are loved by Christ. Christ: the sinless victim who could have vaporized the entire Roman army with a word, but who chose not to. Christ, who could have knocked over the chalice with a glance, but who chose instead to drink it to the last drop. Christ who could have chosen to be impervious, untouchable, unwoundable, but instead became one of us.

To let go of the fruits of our work, our lives, is in some sense to die. Behind all true spiritual pilgrimage is the willingness to relinquish control. You’re moved to leave something behind and go, without knowing why or how the journey will end. You have to be willing to not be “productive” or efficient or relevant. You have to be willing to have “nothing” happen. You have to know that your pilgrimage, your contest, is a matter of life and death.

A runner friend of mine once described a race during the course of which she made a conscious decision to put the focus not on winning but on letting go. “My surrender of autonomy came in the form of declining to measure effort in a rational or strategic way. It was really a sacrifice of focus or drive. In racing, this is a tremendous risk, usually a grave mistake”…

Again, Christ’s passion comes to mind. The intention, focus, and drive remain absolute: but the object is not so much to win, as it is in a race or a war, but to offer oneself up, to relinquish control over the results (while still, of course, wanting to “win.” i.e. there’s nothing in it of resignation, or giving up, or out of false modesty, allowing the adversary to win). Faith consists in just this “letting go” into a way of being we can’t yet imagine: startling, new. Interesting that the “aching, ugly, beautiful moment” this same runner described experiencing later in the race could also have been applied to childbirth.

The Crucifixion was Christ’s “race.” He trained all his life. He took the gravest of risks. Like my runner friend, he declined to measure effort in a rational or strategic way. He worked up his bloody sweat, his agonia, in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before. He endured betrayal, scorn, ridicule, and all the evil in men’s hearts. He bore the scourge, the crown of thorns, the sponge soaked in gall, the nails. With his last drop of strength, he consoled the thief beside him. With his dying breath, he commended his spirit to God. He refused to return violence for violence and thereby established the eternal triumph of faith over fear, love over hatred, good over evil, life over death. He finished the course.

And there at the foot of the cross stood Mary. Torn with grief, but still standing. In anguish, in horror, but still standing. With the sorrow of the world on her shoulders but still standing.

For to his finest, most sublime hour--as any great athlete would--Christ had invited his mother.


I walked for an hour and a half yesterday afternoon through the chaparral, scrub, Joshua trees, and mountains, and sobbed half the way so it's good I'm out here. Thank you all for helping to...sustain my strange little existence.

The Mother is Still Standing...

Monday, April 18, 2011

RENÉ GIRARD AND THE SCAPEGOAT

DOROTHEUS OF GAZA
505-565
The root of all disturbance, if one will go to its source, is that no one will blame himself.
--Dorotheus of Gaza, 6th c. monk

In a recent post, I observed how, when we read the Passion story in church on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we say CRUCIFY him!, when if my black heart work is any indication, we should be putting the emphasis on the second word, as in Crucify HIM, Crucify HER, Crucify anyone but me. Let someone else suffer, let someone else bear the tension, the brunt, the burden, the scourge, the spitting, the nails. 

Then I had another thought: that this phenomenon began in the Garden of Eden. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and we've all been blaming each other since. Then Christ came along: the one person who had no sin, who bore no blame, and yet consented to take the blame and let it stop with him. Who did not return violence with violence. Who disrupted for all time the paradigm of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. 

As often happens, I have some scrap of an intuition or thought and then I stumble upon someone who had the same thought and has spent his or her entire life developing it. Of course in one way all of Christianity is about this "thought." But French anthropological philosopher René Girard has made a particular study of the phenonemenon of scapegoating.

His theories (courtesy of wikipedia), are basically:

1. mimetic desire: imitation is an aspect of behaviour that not only affects learning but also desire, and imitated desire is a cause of conflict,
2. the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry,
3. the Bible reveals the two previous ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.

Here are a few excerpts from The Scapegoat:

"[H]uman culture is predisposed to the permanent concealment of its origins in collective violence."

"Persecutors always believe in the excellence of their cause, but in reality they hate without a cause...The Old Testament provides an inexhaustible source of legitimate references to this extraordinary work of the Gospels, which is an account of persecution that has been abrogated, broken, and revoked."

"Without using our terminology, yet omitting none of the knowledge necessary to protect us from its insidious effects, the Gospels reveal the scapegoat mechanism everywhere, even within us. If I am right in this, then we should be able to trace in the Gospels everything that we have identified about the mechanism in the preceding pages, especially in its unconscious nature. The persecutors would not allow themselves to be restricted to their accounts of persecution were it not for this unconsciousness which is identical with their sincere belief in the culpability of their victim...
     The sentence that defines the unconscious persecutor lies at the very heart of the Passion story in the Gospel of Luke: "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). Christians insist here on the goodness of Jesus...[but i]f we are to restore to this sentence its true savor we must recognize its almost technical role in the revelation of the scapegoat mechanism. It says something precise about the men gathered together by their scapegoat. They do not know what they are doing. That is why they must be pardoned...
     The considerable interest of this sentence lies in the fact that it once more draws our attention to the two categories of forces, the crowd and the leaders, both of whom are equally unconscious. It is an implicit rejection of the falsely Christian idea that made the Passion a unique event because of its evil dimension  since its uniqueness lies in its dimension of revelation. If we accept the first idea we are making a fetish of violence and reverting to a variation of mythological paganism.

"Jesus intervenes when the time has come or, in other words, when violence can no longer cast out violence and internal division has reaches its crisis....Thus we come to understand what is involved in the Kingdom of God and why it does not represent for men an unmitigated blessing. It has nothing to do with a flock of sheep grazing in an eternally green pasture. It brings men face to face with their hardest task in history.” 

“There is only one transcendence in the Gospels, the transcendence of divine love that triumphs over all manifestations of violence and the sacred by revealing their nothingness," Girard observes.

“To adore Satan is to aspire to world domination. It involves reciprocal relationships of idolatry and hate which an only end in false gods of violence and the sacred as long as men maintain the illusion. When that illusion is no longer possible, total disaster will follow:

Now, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “I will give you all these,” he said, “if you fall at my feet and worship me.” Then Jesus replied, “Be off, Satan! For scripture says:
     You must worship the Lord your God;
     and serve him alone. (Matt. 4: 8-10)”

There were times when I lost him, but anyone who gets across that Christ was not some bland, meek figure we can appropriate to our own ends, nor was he on a par with any other mythological or spiritual figure, gets my vote. Anyone who insists that the root of our problems goes way beyond the political or the economic or the social gets my vote. Anyone who talks about the fact that our culture comprises one huge psychic, emotional and spiritual idol gets my vote. Anyone who gets across that Christ blew everything apart gets my vote.


This is the real stuff, the heart of the cross. To recognize that we are complicit in the suffering of the world and therefore to beg forgiveness for OURSELVES when we are the victim of hatred, AND to beg forgiveness for the perpetrator is so radical, so goes against our ego-based notion of justice, that we want to somehow water the message down. Make it blander,  more palatable, more in keeping with the earthly realm. Blander and at the same time more seemingly effective, productive, worthy of notice, results-geared. What kind of loser would pray for his enemy? What possible good could that do? The world doesn't give points for prayer, for the long, hard spiritual warfare we wage silently, hidden from the eyes of the world, in our hearts. The work from which all real peace springs...can only spring.. The work that leads us to see that the problem is not "out there." The problem, as Dorotheus of Gaza knew centuries ago, is in us...

Friday, April 15, 2011

SEVEN QUICK TAKES FRIDAY: JUDGE TENDERLY OF ME

CALIFORNIA POPPY
ST. YNEZ
PHOTO: BILL McIVER
I have been way too busy for my taste. Monday, I'm attending a Seder (dressed as a Bedouin and with a roasted beet and blood orange salad, don't ask, my friends Julia, Aaron and Helena) after which I intend to flee to the desert to be in silence and solitude for Holy Week.

Meanwhile, this week, as always, was action-packed.

1. From Albany, New York:
"Don’t let the “John” or the “Esq.” throw you off.  You knew me “sometime back” in Boston on Charles Street as “Jack” the day bartender at The Beacon Hill Pub"...

2. From Dylan Thomas DeFreitas in Arlington, Massachusetts:

"But there's one thing I wanted to share with you. It's a line of poetry that I'm remembering from an open reading I went to, twenty-plus years ago. An elderly chap in a beret announced that he was going to read translations he had made of Emily Dickinson into Italian! (Initially, his audience greeted this with muted tittering.)

But then he read, and he read beautifully.

Do you know the poem that begins "This is my Letter to the World"? That was the poem I'm remembering. Only its last line, in Italian, almost improving (if possible!) on the original "Judge tenderly of Me":
giudicatemi con tenerezza!

And that is what I ask of you (and of all my friends, near and far) tonight:
"giudicatemi con tenerezza!"

3. "But what about our past and the things we have still not really accepted; wounds that have not healed but, on the contrary, have become infected? Sometimes an unpleasant word from someone or an insignificant event in our lives brings forth a totally disproportionate reaction, which shocks not only those around us but even ourselves? Was it not perhaps an old wound that was laid bare?"...
--Wilfrid Stinissen, from Into Your Hands, Father, a copy of which was sent to me by the very generous Paul Rodden of the UK

4. It is here, in the pieces of my shame, that I find myself.
--Rilke

5. After a talk I gave Tuesday morning to a Bay Area group called Catholics at Work, in which I told the story of my life, conversion, and work, someone from the audience asked, "What next?" "Well, I know I'm gonna be on the 11:05 Southwest flight back to Burbank..." I replied.

That afternoon I received the following from Robert A. Hill:

Lead, Kindly Light,
amidst th' encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark,
and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet;
I do not ask to see
The distant scene;
one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus,
nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path;
but now lead Thou me on!

I loved the garish day,
and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will.
Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me,
sure it still will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen,
o’er crag and torrent, till the night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile, which I
Have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Savior, lead me home in childlike faith,
home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

--Cardinal Newman

6. From Timothy A. Brown of Hampton, New Hampshire:
"Could you let me know if you still have the court record when we were officially divorced?"

THE WEATHERFORD QUARTET: GLAD REUNION DAY
7. Who knew white people could sing gospel?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

MARTA BECKET CODA: PART II OF THE AMARGOSA OPERA HOUSE...

BADWATER BASIN
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
Yesterday I wrote about Marta Becket and the Amargosa Opera House. I hadn't consciously thought too much about Marta in the three years since I'd been to Death Valley Junction so I consulted my journal in which I tend to record all kinds of at the time seemingly irrelevant details which later turn out to be very useful and/or reveal themselves in a new, strange light. Such was the case here. So to complete the tribute to Marta, I offer this:

I drove down the road a little ways last night and pulled off by the side of the road and said Evening Prayer and felt so peaceful. I felt some peace and I also realized that the desert doesn’t yield to impatience. You don’t just barge in and say, “Okay I’m here, where is everything? I’m gonna see everything there is to see in a day.” You have to soak everything in and after awhile you realize Oh I see, it is the line the tops of the mountains make. It is that shadow that changes during the course of the day. It is that grain of sand the wind just took...

This morning I motored down to the lowest point in the western hemisphere if not the world, i.e. Badwater, which is 13 miles off the main road, walked as far as I dared out onto the salt flats, and let myself broil in the baking sun. The salt is just like sheets of dirty snow, and every once in awhile my foot would break through the crust, and I was convinced I’d be plunged into boiling water though underneath is probably miles more of salt. I decided to take a little rest while I was out there and lowered myself down—the salt has a surface like miniature sea urchins, which is to say covered in needles, but it was still kind of restful and definitely weird lying down out there with not a person around, like lying in a hot field of snow. It’s not even that hot out yet and it’s almost unimaginable what the place must be like in July or August. There are literally no trees and hence no shade and a lot of the ground on top is therefor just sort of bare gravel. Saw four or five different kinds of purple flowers, one of which I THINK was the desert five-spot, with one bud just starting to unfurl.

I feel like I’m waiting, waiting, waiting for…something to happen! But what? Waiting for some thing, or some person, or some place, or some project…I can’t quite get to it…I have the energy but I need something to spark me creatively or light me up or some damn thing. 

VIEW FROM WIINDOW OF AMARGOSA HOTEL
PHOTO: BILL McIVER
Which brings me to the truly amazing, truly splendid Marta Becket who now I’m really really sorry I’m not going to be able to see. She’s the spirit of this place and lost her own marriage cause the guy—well she actually saw him as a bit of an appendage to her, I think…She’s not a genius, though she is really a lovely dancer, but her life and spirit are utterly unique and it just goes to show you don’t have to be a genius, you only have to have love.

I’m very taken with the fact that when no-one was coming to see her, she got the idea to paint an audience on the walls of the opera house. This is one of those symbolic acts Robert A. Johnson talks about, sort of. She’d already “built” the opera house and nobody was coming so she painted the audience cause she’d already decided she would perform even if nobody maybe EVER came…. She wishes she could live forever because every day is filled with music, art, projects etc. This is what we all need: a vision.

OUTBUILDING,
AMARGOSA OPERA HOUSE AND HOTEL
PHOTO: BILL McIVER
Cause I can’t keep wandering the earth like a lonesome [expletive deleted] pilgrim my whole life. What if I stayed still but had some…I don’t know how to put it, some charism, some event or circumstance or teaching or something to offer, maybe just a place to stay, where people came to me, or to where I was? I don’t want to be a hermit, I’m not cut out for that exactly, but I also don’t want to join a community. It has to be something where I’m in charge, not so much because I always need to control everything but because the whole point would be to have something all-absorbing and challenging, to take a risk in a way. To not keep my light under a bushel, which I don’t mean egotistically; I mean we’re supposed to be having fun! Fun has sorrow, disappointment, rejection, failure, uncertainty, discipline and hard hard work built in but it is still fun. Like when someone asked Marta B., You spent six years painting the walls of this place that could be sold, or torn down, any minute? And she said, “Nobody can take away the hours of joy I had painting it. Nobody can take that away from me.” And that is exactly it. That’s how you have to look at all of life. Cause everything can always be sold or torn down at any minute. Even the greatest play, eventually they strike the set...

Anyway, the point is I have actually started to think: what could I give people? Obviously I’m not any great thinker, or theologian, or Biblical scholar, or saint. But what has come or could come through me, out of Christ and the sacraments and the Gospel, I don’t mean something new, but something unique, something born of all my pain and all my joy? Something that would HELP PEOPLE, encourage and comfort them? Some little way of looking at things, fostering creativity. Couldn’t be organized, couldn’t have administrators etc., would have to be almost laughably out of the way and unlikely and small...

I wrote that on April 11, 2008, three years ago almost to the day. And I didn’t realize it till now, but I can’t help but think I have Marta Becket to thank, at least in part, for Shirt of Flame.

BARBED WIRE AND WINDOW GIVING ONTO THE SANDS OF DEATH VALLEY
OUTBUILDING, AMARGOSA OPERA HOUSE AND HOTEL
PHOTO: BILL McIVER

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

MARTA BECKET, THE AMARGOSA OPERA HOUSE, AND THE THREE TEMPTATIONS OF CHRIST


Three springs ago, I took a road trip to Death Valley, stayed at the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, and fell in love with Marta Becket.

I never actually saw Marta, who is the opera house’s founder, owner, and for 41 years at that point, its sole performer. At the age of 84, she performed only Saturday nights. But I did fall in love with her story. 

In the early 1960s Marta, a New York ballerina, singer, painter, and pianist on a road trip to California with her husband, stopped in Death Valley Junction with a flat tire. While their car was being fixed, she peeked through the window of a dilapidated dance hall, left over from mining days, and saw her future: her unlived life, her destiny. So she and her husband packed up and moved and rented the dance hall and opened the opera house.

The population of Death Valley Junction, which Marta now owns, was at one point two and even now is maybe ten. The first show was in February, 1968. The audience would often be five or six people and if nobody came, as happened frequently, Marta danced anyway. In the middle of the desert, by herself, she danced anyway...


“I realized I’d moved to an area where art is completely unknown to most of the locals.” So she gave dance lessons to the kids.

Then she got the idea to paint the walls of the opera house with an imaginary audience: nuns, courtiers, courtesans, popes, dukes. She spent four years painting the walls and two more painting the ceiling, during which time her husband, who was tending bar at a nearby brothel, got tired of playing second fiddle to Marta’s art, found a girlfriend, and eventually left.

Armagosa, a documentary by Todd Robinson, was released in 2000. Someone asked, “You spent six years painting the walls of this place that could be sold, or torn down, any minute?”

“No-one can take away the hours of joy I had painting it,” Marta responded. “The experience is what’s important. No-one can take that from me.”

Her husband left but she stayed: painting, playing the piano, sewing costumes, practicing, dancing, acting, singing, creating new shows: “Comeback Vaudeville,” “Turkish Fairytale,” “The Mirror, the Carpet and the Lemon.”  She appeared every Friday, Saturday, and Monday night without fail. The audiences slowly picked up. Busloads of folks came from Las Vegas, L.A., and in time, even farther afield. National Geographic did a special.

She danced for decades: through her broken heart, her mother’s death, the floods that covered the floor of the opera house with mud. If you’ve ever been to Death Valley, you know that nerves of steel and an almost unearthly vision would be required to live in such eerie desolation. Just beautiful, but very harsh, very isolated. In summer the temperature can reach 125.

In later years Marta “discovered” the handyman Tom Willett, aka Wilget, who under different circumstances might be in danger of being called an eccentric and a clown, and incorporated him into her act. “He willingly put on a hoopskirt and picked up a fan in Gossip. His best turn was as Miss Victoria Hoops in Looking for Mr. Right.” They were soul mates, this unlikely couple: the refined ballerina and the prankster who rode a golf cart around the property barking like a seal. They “took their meals” together and, Marta delicately gets across, went their separate ways to sleep.

They put on the show together for 20-odd years and then one morning in 2005, Marta called, as she did every morning to wake him, and he was gone: felled by a stroke from which he died a few days later. She took one Saturday off and then she was back on stage. She painted Wilget into the circus backdrop of her next show.

She wrote a memoir: To Dance on Sands.

At 80, she was still dancing en pointe. She broke her hip in 2009 and went on to create what she called “The Sitting Down Show.” She lives alone, in back of the opera house, with a menagerie of stray cats, and still performs every Sunday night.

In this season of deserts, I can’t help thinking that Marta’s life, as it is for all of us, has been one long Lent. I can’t help thinking of the three temptations of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11):  

Man does not live by bread alone.
No-one could accuse Marta of selling out or taking the shortcut. She gave everything she had, put out a huge gold-painted donation can, and continued to perform on whatever people chose to give back.    

You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. 
Her husband cheated but she didn’t. She never risked compromising her work, nor betrayed the purity of her vision, by less than stand-up behavior. 

The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.
I’m not sure what else you’d call it but serving something higher than yourself -- but love -- to put on your makeup and slippers and tutu and, decade after decade, go out under the lights and dance. To believe with your whole heart in the magic of theater, story, song; to lay down your life in the effort to bring that magic to others.  

“Society laughs at old people’s dreams. They even laugh at dreams…until they come true”…

“I must keep going, alone...I’m determined to keep going as long as I can.” 

“I’m still dancing and I’m going to keep moving until I drop.”

Death Valley is an easy place to picture Golgotha. The cross on a hill. That day when we will all be called to give an account of what we did with our gifts. The desert that terrifies and compels, the desert in which we are tormented and glorified, the desert in which we are crucified and if we stay the course, resurrected.

Or as Marta Becket—nearing her last season—puts it: “I listen for Wilget in the wind, even though I never liked the wind.”

MARTA BECKET SPENT SIX YEARS PAINTING
THE INTERIOR OF THE OPERA HOUSE


And check in tomorrow for the coda to this California/otherworldly story....

Monday, April 11, 2011

PANIS ANGELICUS


Continuing with my Lenten fasting theme, I'm proud to say I have a piece called "Panis Angelicus" (Bread of the Angels, for all you non-Latin speaking rubes like me) (whoops, I mean I submitted the piece as "Panis Angelicus" but now it's called "A Sacrament of Food") in the Spring 2011 issue of the very classy alumni publication of the University of Notre Dame.

That I've appeared in Notre Dame at all is due in large part to associate editor John Monczunski. John has shepherded several of my pieces over the years and is a wonderful writer himself. We’d met a couple of times in L.A., once when he was here on business, once when he was on a cross-country pilgrimage by bus, and in the fall of ’07, when I was madly driving across country on my own pilgrimage, I made a very important layover: I stopped in South Bend, Indiana, so he could show me around campus.

I'd driven through hundreds of miles of cornfields (or that's the way I remember it) to get there. I'd seen the Golden Dome towering on the way in.  I knew the university was prestigious and über Catholic. Other than that, I didn't know much about Notre Dame. As I was unpacking John called and asked, “Are you free? Do you by any chance want to meet Father Ted Hesburgh?” I replied, “Well, sure,” thinking Truth to tell I'm a little tired, but I am always glad to meet any priest, and how sweet that John wants to introduce me to his country parish vicar!

On the way to campus, John informed me that Father Hesburgh had been a key member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, an advisor to Jimmy Carter, and president of Notre Dame for 35 years (from 1952 to 1987): longer than anyone else in the history of the university.

Father’s office, in fact, turned out to be on the 13th floor of the 14-story Theodore M. Hesburgh Library, with windows featuring a bird’s-eye view of the Golden Dome topped by a 16-foot statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary: apparently one of the most well-known university landmarks in the world. Father himself was 90, smoked a cigar and, as might have been expected, had a bit of a presence. I didn't exactly feel intimidated; I just wanted to find some common ground, so I told him I’d been to Mass every day of my trip. “Good for you," he replied, "that’s what’s most important”--so I liked him right away.


And then this world-famous, globe-trotting, by all accounts universally-respected priest took time out of his  day to tell a weary undistinguished traveler of celebrating Mass all over the globe: in submarines, the North Pole, little out-of-the-way spots, tropical, subtropical. But he won me over completely when he reported that in some shabby outpost with about three communicants, a bystander had once had the temerity to inquire, “Who are saying the Mass for?” Father had whirled around, stared the guy down, and replied: “The whole bloody world.”

John went on to show me the “Fair Catch Corby,” “First Down Moses,” and “Touchdown Jesus” statues.  We viewed the Grotto of 
Our Lady of Lourdes and  the famous letter from Tom Dooley:  "Because I can pray. I can communicate. How do people endure anything on earth if they cannot have God?"...We attended 5:15 Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.


MY NEPHEW ALLEN, AGE 12, WITH
CARDBOARD MODEL OF NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL
(PARIS NOT SOUTH BEND)
(SCHOOL PROJECT)
Bur best of all, we went to dinner afterwards and talked books, pilgrimages, broken hearts, John's two accomplished daughters, and writing.

All of which is to say I think we can rest assured that Notre Dame is in very good hands.

"…But what is love? [Holy Cross priest and Notre Dame theology professor John] Dunne says there is in African love song that consists of a single sentence: 'I walk alone.' 'Love, according to the song,' he says, 'is loneliness, and loneliness is love, a longing for communion with another.'”
--John Monczunski, from an essay entitled “What the Hermits Know”

Friday, April 8, 2011

FRIDAY ROUNDUP: A LIVE GRENADE, A SWAN, AND NOTES FROM JOHANNESBURG

GREENSTONE, A PRIVATE HOME DESIGNED BY
JOHANNESBURG ARCHITECT LUIGI SALEMI
photo: Luigi Salemi
All week I've been reviewing the galleys for Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux, (forthcoming, please God, from Paraclete Press in September, by me) and all week I've been testy and withdrawn. Endnotes, permissions requests, the proper form for quoting Bible passages: I'm reminded why, among other reasons, I so did not enjoy being a lawyer. I'm as meticulous as the next person when I have to be, but using that kind of energy drains the energy that ordinarily goes into reflecting, making connections, and snacking. And though my copy editor could hardly be more generous, forbearing, and thorough, really, I want to say: Isn't it enough I wrote the damn book?

Cause that's the kind of person I am, in or out of Lent!

Into this abysmal state of mind came an e-mail the other day from one Luigi Salemi, an up and coming architect from Johannesburg, South Africa. "I have been riveted, mostly by your witness," he wrote. "I find great consolation in your person, in the fact that there is someone out there like you, and I thank God for you!"

photo: Luigi Salemi
You can be sure I warmed to this clearly fine young man on the spot and went right to his FB page. Here I found photos of the amazing private home he's designed in Barberton, Mpumalanga (I bet you think I didn't know where that was). I also unearthed a Traces article called  "The Second Synod for Africa." Africa is "the most lacerated continent and, at the same time, the protagonist of an exceptional increase in faithful"--author Allessandra Stoppa notes, which, along with these photos, makes me want to visit this beautiful part of the earth at least once before I die...

photo: Luigi Salemi
Quite a house, right?--but all glory to God. As Luigi says, "I think the beauty of this house is that it doesn’t point to its own beauty but the beauty of the creation, which is the sign of the Mystery who created it. It’s by no means a humble home but its humility lies in the fact that it opens out to the rest of reality, which is awe-strikingly beautiful!"

Or as Victor Hugo observed in Les Misérables"We must say, by the way, that the hatred of luxury is not an intelligent hatred. It implies a hatred of the arts."

MORE WAR:
And more evidence of the paradoxes of war: I usually avoid videos like this, but when faithful correspondent Fr. Patrick sent it along, I felt duty-bound to watch. Check it out: Medics risk their lives to remove a LIVE ROCKET-PROPELLED GRENADE that had impaled itself in the pelvic area of Spc. Channing Moss, a soldier in Afghanistan--and, along with Moss, give some very moving after-the-fact testimony.


MORE PEACE:

SOLITARY SWAN, TICKET STOWED, AT THE ZURICH, SWITZERLAND, TRAIN STATION
PHOTO: CHRISTINE MADSEN
MORE EXCITING TRAVEL:

Monday, a group of largely I gather well-heeled Catholics are flying me up to northern California to give a Tuesday morning breakfast talk to a group called Catholics at Work. The head of the outfit is venture capitalist, amazon reviewer extraordinaire, mover-and-shaker, man-of-deep-faith Tom Loarie and I can hardly wait to tell the folks how they, too, can chuck the corporate life and use the time to read, ponder, pray, meander to Mass, commune with the saints, take solitary nocturnal walks, study the birds, hills, trees and sky, tell jokes, create their very own blog, and hear from folks far and wide who lift their hearts, mind, and week...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

PRAYER, MERCY AND FASTING

PETER CHRYSOLOGUS
c. 380-c. 450

 There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.
            
Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated…
--From a sermon by Saint Peter Chrysologus, bishop, Office of Readings, Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent

Since coming into the Church in 1996, I have more or less eagerly embraced the Lenten fast. For many years I “gave up” coffee, a near martyr-like effort for a caffeine addict such as myself. For the last several years, I switched to sugar, a feat which likewise could only have been achieved with supernatural help. Even so, last Easter morning I went to the 7-11 before Mass, bought a bag of Gummi Bears--because by that time I didn’t want any fancy bittersweet chocolate, I wanted cheap cane sugar in as unadulterated a form as possible short of simply scarfing the stuff with my hands from a five-pound bag--and the minute I got back to my car, dug in. 

The object from which I chose to fast, I realized, was the least of Lent, and at the same time, the fasting was a major focus. (Hard to believe the luster a, say, Lindt bar acquires in the absence of booze, drugs, nicotine, sex, junk food, and TV). So as Lent approached this year, I thought: Those people who say fasting is just an ego-based endurance test are right. I’m going to do something different this year. I am going to fast from badmouthing people. I am going to fast from something that can effect some actual good.

Ash Wednesday dawned, I waited to be transformed from within, and about an hour and a half later I was nitpicking at people: maybe just in my head, but still. A few days later I badmouthed someone out loud, the day after that I nakedly passed on a bit of juicy gossip, and things went downhill from there. I was praying for people. I kept praying not to badmouth, and one more time, there I’d be. Well, this is just going to show me my hardness of heart, I thought. This is going to be a real lesson in humility.

I finally realized what it was really going to be was business as usual, and that I was poised to skate through Lent basically unscathed. That was when I read the above quote from St. Peter Chrysologus and realized: Nice try, but unh-unh.  Prayer without fasting is a gesture. Mercy without fasting is a gesture. Fasting is not a gesture. Fasting is where things get real.

So three weeks in, I began fasting from sugar, and--interestingly enough--right away I noticed my badmouthing diminished. I gave away some money. I went to Mass that weekday and I’ve been every day ever since, walking the twenty minutes to St. Francis or the fifty minutes to Our Lady of Good Counsel, because walking always makes things a tiny bit of a pilgrimage. Walking, your feet, back and legs hurt just a little. Walking is to slow down and walk the Via Dolorosa with Christ.

Why is this? Why the connection between mercy and fasting? Maybe it has to do with a concept emphasized by spiritual writer Ron Rolheiser: that as followers of Christ, we are called to hold a certain amount of tension. We’re called to hold the tension, as Christ held the tension of the whole world on the cross, of emotional and sexual loneliness, our craving for recognition, our perpetually conflicted psyches. I never think of myself as having that much of a sweet tooth, but take away the sugar in my first cup of morning coffee, the honey in my yogurt, the square or two of afternoon chocolate, and you take away a major source of comfort, pleasure, and temporary release/relief.

And in that tiny “desert,” bereft of my usual anesthesia, I am suddenly given to see the tension that so often precedes as well the making of a snarky comment or an unfounded judgment or a thinly-disguised character assassination.  I’m afraid I’m a loser so I try to make someone else look bad. I’m afraid people are judging me, so I judge someone else instead. I can’t bear to suffer the tension of the human condition, so I subconsciously try to make another suffer in my place.  

In a sense, Christ came to address this precise, profoundly evil urge. CRUCIFY him! we say on Good Friday, but we’d more accurately put the emphasis on “him.” Crucify HIM, crucify HER, crucify anyone but me.

Fasting reminds us that our culture is one giant narcotic and if we don’t pay attention, we can skate through our whole lives anesthetized, asleep, numb. Fasting reminds us that Christianity is not to continue to do what we’ve always done while tacking on a nominal good intention or two. Christianity is not a gesture. Christianity is not a vague wish for goodwill. Christianity is to be stripped, in the name of love, of all that is familiar, safe, anodyne, and nailed to a cross.

As Thérèse of Lisieux neared the end of her life at the Carmel cloister, her sister Céline, frustrated at having so much less charity than she would have liked, exclaimed, “Oh, when I think how much I have to acquire!”

“Rather,” Thérèse replied, “how much you have to lose.”

THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE
1846-1850