Posts Tagged ‘Lent


Lent (Day 40) — we made it…

I did finish Breslin’s book, and I do appreciate his desire to not let the authorities and their short-sighted attempts to keep the whole sex abuse matter quiet for their own political reasons be the final word.  There are two ways of viewing the Church — the traditional view sees the clergy as the rulers and the rest of us the ruled, but the other view looks on all of us as the Church.  In that case, it is possible for the ruled to stand up and make their voices heard, and that is the best way to avoid the situation that has gone on for too long.  

But I have to admit that, on the last day of Lent, I played hooky. I watched Liberal Arts, a film starring Josh Radnor — I guess I was feeling a longing for Ted Mosby.  In the film, he plays the same sort of guy he played in How I Met Your Mother.  

I’m glad that I watched Liberal Arts. As a film about people who are very much bound by books, and what that might mean, the film did speak to me as a person who’s spent his life in education and in libraries (and book stores, too). My reflections on Lent this year were book related, as was last year’s reflections on Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. And just about anything I say or feel is likely filtered through books or film. I’m very much like Woody Allen’s film geek in Play It Again, Sam. His lover, played by Louise Lasser, leaves him at the beginning of the film because he’s a watcher, not a doer. The same might apply to Radnor’s character here, who is a reader, and not a doer. And yet, over the course of the film, Radnor, the reader, grows up and learns to say “yes” to life, a lesson he learned by a near romantic fling with a college student sixteen years his junior, who is part of an Improv Group. And I think that the # 1 rule of Improv is a good rule for living one’s life — say “yes” and add to the scene. That saying “yes” is what the “leap of faith” in my own tradition is all about. And when I think of the victims of abuse, one of the saddest things about them is that their experience as children, saying yes to an authority figure who abused their trust, has taught them to be very wary of saying “yes.” And some may never get that back, which is something no apology, however deeply felt, from their abuser, should any such apology come, will restore. But I think that some do learn to say “yes” again to life and love despite their experience.
But one of the great things about this film (which was not a great film, but a good one) is that Radnor’s character, when the college sophomore wants to sleep with him, doesn’t say yes. And though it is painful in the moment, and as we watch it, we’re thinking, “D’oh!” I think we realize that he made the right decision. The film opens with a line that “He that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow!” And, in a sense, it’s true. The more we know the more that stuff can get in the way of living life. But there is such a thing as wisdom, and learning can lead to wisdom. And pain, to a good end, is better than pleasure to a bad end. There is a danger in only doing stuff that makes us feel good. Life is not all joy, and would not be much of a life if that’s all we knew.
And I thought of Improv and what it can mean to someone who’s read a lot of books, and seen a lot of movies. I think that Improv can teach us (or maybe help us learn is better) how to take our life experience, but also all those words and plots and everything else we have in our heads, and play with that, to enter into a dialog with authors, and each other about ideas presented in literature. We can learn to be better in our use of language, become more poetic, and more graceful, and that’s a good thing. So, Happy Easter — a real time of new beginnings (so much more so than New Year’s Day, in the midst of winter). And my thoughts this Easter will be with the abuse victims, but also with James Martin, SJ, and Josh Radnor.


Lent (Day 21) — “I’m Not Funny and My Life Stinks…”

In chapter 7 of his book, Between Heaven and Mirth, James Martin, SJ lists five FAQs he gets in various lectures and appearances:
1. Does being joyful mean that I’m supposed to be happy all the time? Answer: No. Life has many tragic moments filled with incredible sorrow. Not to feel sorrow and loss would be inhuman. He cites the story of Jesus and Lazarus, in which “Jesus wept.” He also noted that when he has teared up at funerals of friends and acquaintances, he has been criticized by some for not focusing on the resurrection but on the earthly passing of someone. Again — he stresses that life is painful at times and not to recognize it is inhuman. But joy can come out of sorrow, and it is possible for humor to lighten the sorrow somewhat.
2. How can I find a sense of joy if I’m unhappy? Though he didn’t emphasize this, my response would be to let it come when it comes, and not to try and force it. Sometimes the way to joy is to let grief and sorrow play themselves out. But an openness to joy can help one get through most trying times.
3. I’m not a funny person. What do I do? Well, some people think they are not funny, but can be, and remaining open to the possibility of that gift is important. But also, it is possible to be around others who are funny and appreciate their gifts. In Martin’s eyes, humor is something akin to gratitude. So appreciating others who are funny can have the same effect as being funny oneself.
4. What can I do if I live or work in a joyless environment? His advice here is tough to follow when all seems dark, but one is not defined by one’s environment, and even the blackest situation has some bright moments, or moments that are incongruous. So, if work is tough, one can find friends to hang around with after work and laugh about the silliness of the workplace. Certainly a lot of great stand-up comics do this very thing, on a big scale.
5. Father Martin, do you want to hear a joke? Answer: Only if it’s a good one! Of course, it makes sense to end this chapter on a joke. But the idea of a “good” joke is double-edged. On the one hand, one wants to hear a funny joke. But on the other hand, one wants to cultivate a positive sense of humor, and not celebrate mean-spirited humor. This chapter seemed to me to be a bit of filler, and I didn’t find it quite as satisfying. Martin went over some of the territory he’s already explored.


Lent begins…Ash Wednesday

Though no longer a practicing Catholic, and currently a practicing Unitarian Universalist, one never fully loses one’s past, and I’m not sure that I would want to lose something that has long been a part of me.  And last year, as part of the Kansas City Public Library’s Winter Reading program, I read daily from St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul during Lent.  And this time, I thought I’d do something similar — starting tomorrow, I’ll be commenting on what I’m reading in Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin, S.J.  Fr. Martin, culture editor for America magazine (a publication of the Jesuits in the US), and unofficial chaplain of The Colbert Report, has written several books on Catholicism, on saints (a topic near and dear to my heart), and on humor and his own spiritual practice.  As Humor is this year’s Kansas City Public Library’s Winter Reading theme, it seems appropriate that I include the Library again with links to my blog (at least until March 21 — official ending of the Winter Reading Program).  It also seems fitting that I approach Lent from a lighter side this time around (to offset last Winter’s very dark Dark Night).  

That said, I thought I’d take a moment today to reflect on the words that always come ringing home to me on Ash Wednesday.  As I have not taken part in an Ash Wednesday celebration in decades, I do not know if the same words are used as were used when I was growing up Catholic in St. Peter’s Parish, Dorchester, MA.  The words then, uttered by the priest, as he smudged an ashy fingerprint on the center of one’s forehead (ashes, I was told, from the burnt palm fronds from the preceding year’s Palm Sunday), were as follows: “Remember, man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return.”  This memento mori seemed a little spooky to me when I was little.  After all, little kids are not supposed to reflect on death (though I started such pondering sometime in the year I was 7, I didn’t dwell on it much — except for the moment of my first realization of death, which came in Steve Becker’s backyard, where I was waiting, on a sunny day, for Steve Becker to come out and play — in what seems like hours of reflection that day, I had a double epiphany: 1) I could never truly know someone else’s experience [I was stuck in my own body] and 2) having been born, something I had no say in, I was now doomed to die — needless to say, I wasn’t the best play companion that day).  I had a certain fondness for what seemed the “darker” elements of Catholicism — I preferred confession to communion, and thought that Extreme Unction (what became known later under the term “Annointing of the Sick”) was cool (just like Extreme Sports are now the rage).  

For much of my youth, even into adulthood, the prospect of mortality seemed quite daunting to me.  And, in that fear, with a concern about what happens after death, I took some comfort in the idea of Life Everlasting and an Eternal Reward somewhere.  That too changed over time.  Even as a kid, it seemed somehow wrong to me to think of Eternal Reward or Punishment as an incentive to do good or avoid doing bad, that doing good had, in some way, to be its own reward.  That has stuck with me over the years, but sometime in my late 20s, I began to think about the whole matter of an afterlife.  Eternity seemed too vast to me, and the idea of anything lasting forever made me anxious.  I began to take comfort in the idea that life comes to an end.  And I take comfort in that idea today.  If we die and there is nothing (all consciousness ends), there is a comfort in that.  There is a comfort in knowing that I got a chance to ride on the Big Ride, but rides come to an end, and my daughter and others coming after me will also have their turn on the Ride.  On a more realistic note, I don’t think much about the Afterlife (I don’t believe there is one), but rather focus on my life here, which is pretty good — full of enough joy to make the sad times bearable, and with enough wonder even in much of the sadness that I can stand in awe of it.  So, adult me, in response to the priest’s intonation, “Remember, man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return,” I counter with the idea that I am (we all are) a quintessence of dust, and our dusty selves can remain pretty grounded, and that’s a good thing. 


Lenten Observance, Day 40, 2013

I have to say that the only thing I’m thinking at the present is “and then he rested.” Not that I’m comparing myself to God, or that I’ve done anything substantial, but I think I always feel that way at the end of any project I set myself — I’m eager to get it done, and move on. That might suggest a lack of seriousness on my part, or a certain laziness.
What I’m interested in watching the next few days is how the papal selection goes. The last two were done in only a couple of days. I’m not sure how long the two before that were, but I seem to recall the choice of Paul VI took a bit of time, and even the choice of John Paul I was more than a couple of days. I’m not sure what a short turnover would indicate — it could indicate a willingness to take on some of the tough issues and take a radically different approach. Given the conservatism of most of the cardinals, I’m more likely to believe the fix is in. I hope that the Lenten spirit is much with these guys and they really want reform and reconsideration of the old ways, but it’s tough to break out of a rut, even when you are determined to do so. We’ll just have to see.
I’m going to take some time off from blogging to rest my little grey cells.


Lenten Observance, Day 39, 2013

Well, today I was watching a production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. And it struck me that Pirandello’s absurd play could be entitled “Six Characters in Search of God.” The play does address permanence (the characters are ever-lasting — in a sense they never die, but humans die; the characters also have a certain fixity of emotion, as their lines and conception are always set, where humans change from person to person, from day to day — we are always reinventing ourselves). The figures in the play who represent people outside the play (the director, e.g.) are convinced that they have a permanent identity, until they are made to reflect on how different they are from how they were, and how their past is largely conditioned by the memory they have, so that their present version of themselves has largely rewritten past versions, in order to maintain an integrated and permanent identity. And this got me thinking of St. John of the Cross — I imagine he would believe in a permanent self, but that desires and other habits of life have encrusted that over. For St. John, the only way is to somehow break through to a deeper and truer reality than the world of appearances, which we cannot trust. But that concept itself is developed by a sentient being, one who feels and perceives, often incorrectly or inaccurately. So how valid is that concept? Can we ever know? As we have to evaluate it in a system of language, and any such system will itself be somewhat inaccurate. And yet, that union with God is something that is not negotiable with St. John — that has to be a fixed point which is true, beyond anyone’s conception of it. All of that sounds a lot like Plato and his concept of forms (which exist behind and beyond the world of things — that world is a world of shadows, but the world of forms and ideas which stands behind it is the light). And Platonism and Neo-Platonism have played a large part in Catholic theology, even when modified by neo-Aristotelians like St. Thomas Aquinas. As we do not see God as a physical being in the world around us, we must imagine God to be some unseen, but real, presence behind the world of sensation. And to get at that reality behind our illusion, we somehow have to short-circuit our senses. Of course, I can only reflect on this a bit, before my brain starts to swirl and everything goes through the Looking Glass.


Lenten Observance,Day 38

Here continuing my goal of getting 40 posts before I take a break from blogging for a while. What’s in the news lately is the whole brouhaha over choosing a new pope. I saw an article by Sr. John Chittister (she has a weekly article in National Catholic Reporter called “From Where I Stand…” She noted that this is the 6th papal conclave that has happened in her life. And she added that, as always, she looks on these events with a great deal of hope and promise, even though things have not always turned out as she’d like. But each time, I guess like Charlie Brown and the football, hope springs anew. As this is taking place during Lent (that hasn’t been the case in any of the papal conclaves of my life (58, 63, 79, 79, 2005)) I too take some hope that during this time of reflection and a purging of the soul that the cardinals in Rome will reflect deeply and take this chance to choose a Pope who will take things in a new and more open direction. Given that cardinals are naturally secretive, and that they have some dirt to hide, I’m not so hopeful. But I do hope that this season of Lent, with the promise of a new beginning, will sink in and short circuit the hard and fast rules of the College of Cardinals and we’ll get something new. We did get something new in the selection of John Paul II, but that did not turn out so well — a church that had been opening more and more to the world around it offered the papacy to someone outside of Italy (a good sign), but someone who was marked by his own history as a conservative Catholic fighting against the Communist rulers of his own country. And the Church’s phobias with regard to Communism have often led the Church to support very repressive regimes (e.g. Franco’s in Spain, Mussolini’s in Italy, and they made a deal with Hitler too) against those forces they fear as Communist. In Latin America, the promising new theology, Liberation Theology, was put on hold by John Paul II’s Vatican, though that theology alone was fighting the good fight for the poor in Latin America against the power structures with whom the Church had been aligned. And John XXIII, the beloved pope of my youth, was seen as an old guy who wouldn’t have much time to shake things up. Well, he did make a good start of shaking things up, but then his age and health allowed him only 5 years as Pope. So I wonder, will the church make a move towards greater solidarity with the poor? Will it make greater outreach to other faith traditions? Or will it use the next papacy to further turn the clock back, following in the steps of JP II and Benedict? Will it aim at a much more militant and restrictive church, smaller and meaner? Or will it open the tent more? I hope for change, and believe that people can change and that redemption (personal, not from someone long ago) is possible. Maybe we’ll get it. I hope so, even as I fear it is unlikely.


Lenten Observance, Day 37, 2013

Though I finished up with Dark Night of the Soul yesterday, I thought I’d continue for a few days more to get my 40 days for Lent. Of course, those 40 days don’t include Sundays in Lent, but my postings did go up daily, including Sunday.
First of all, how did I think the reading of Dark Night go? Well, that’s tough. I found certain passages almost unintelligible. And others I think I got, but as St. John is a mystical writer, perhaps I did not. There is the whole problem of overconfidence and pride — thinking my way is God’s way. And I’d have to say that certain premises of St. John I’m not willing to accept. For instance, there is a lot in Christian saints on mortification of the flesh, and a suspicion of the body which is separated out from the soul. So much of this goes back to the binary opposition of Manichaeism, which St. Augustine followed before becoming a Christian. And so his Christianity has a Manichaean tinge. But that denial of the senses and the joy one gets from sensual pleasures seems to me false. And the idea that there is a greater reality in the soul (whatever that is) than in the body puzzles me. Surely if there is something called the soul, it is incarnated. It is tied up with our bodies and our senses. That is not to say that senses can be wrong — as I get older, my hearing, sight certainly get vaguer. So the input is a bit muddled. Does that mean my thinking is also muddled? In as much as thinking is tied up with the physicality of the brain and circulation within the brain, yes it must be muddled somewhat. On the other hand, I’m more experienced and so can take input that is muddled and make some corrections. And I don’t believe that we are nothing more than our physical stimula — there is the construct of the ego and superego, which may be mental constructions, just as dreams are, but that does not mean they lack reality, even if we cannot touch them in the same way as we can touch ears, nose, eyes. And the idea of mortification of the flesh I find troubling. We see this in our physically focused world — women and men both wonder what if they were thinner, and take that fixation to unhealthy levels. St. John does address that somewhat, as he notes early in the Dark Night that some people get fixated on these techniques and so mistake that for the real thing.

I was reading something about Mother Teresa the other day, a suggestion that some of the miracles that have been attributed to her, and pave the way for sainthood, may have been manufactured. And I read that her treatment of the poor was based on an assumption that suffering was good for the soul. It’s true that she chose to live among the poor, but if she advocated prayer, or even conversion of these poor souls, over making sure they got proper nutrition or medical help, that’s troubling. I do not know that such is the case, but such is what does come from valuing the soul over the body, and looking beyond to some truth, rather than looking around one in the world.