Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Three New Things

Chicago Botanic Gardens

Sometimes the demarcations of life are anticipated ~ with enthusiasm, dread, indifference, or a combination thereof ~ but expected and anticipated nonetheless. Graduations. The first day at a new school or job. The birth of a child.

Sometimes they are visible only in hindsight. Terrible ruptures that break life into pre and post. Accidents that main or kill. Failures of nerve or integrity. Pearl Harbors and Nine-Elevens. Or . . . unexpected and to all appearances mundane encounters that lead to new creations, new unities, combining the paradoxical and fusing the disparate.

I'm not sure where this one began, but I'm going to put it into the category of unexpected new creations and count the next chapter from today, the Feast of St. Ignatius, and tomorrow, the first day of the month with Three New Things. Today looks pretty mundane from where I sit. My list has 18 things on it (not counting blogging!) : one important letter to write, but mostly things like laundry and vacuuming.

Tomorrow I'm off to the Loyola Retreat Center in Guelph, Ontario for an eight-day silent retreat. I've never been to Guelph. I don't have the foggiest idea who my director will be. I have two goals for the retreat, one having to do with where I find myself right now, and the other being to remain open to the unexpected. A week from now I will still be there in a geographical sense, but who knows where I will be otherwise?

In another couple of weeks, I will begin a two-year training program in spiritual direction, Ignatian style, which will bring me home for a class every couple of weeks. Another retreat, but that one full of conversation and new classmates getting to know one another. New people and new expectations, but both rooted in the spirituality of the man who died on this date 411 years ago.

And then a week later, off to seminary, in response to a call to which I finally responded with a clear sense of commitment and intention and joy and apprehension, all merging in a time of prayer in Paris last summer where the questions and tensions of the Reformation seemed utterly alive to me as I walked the streets where Ignatius and Calvin had walked at the same time (although, no doubt, never together!) Some days, the joy takes over. Some days, the fears. I suppose it was the same for them.


The laundry. And then, Three New Things.

Monday, July 30, 2007

More Life Is Good

We spent the evening having a picnic with friends whose own Lovely Daughter leaves for her junior year abroad later this week. Three of the four Montessori friends were there, each of them in the process of turning twenty this summer.

"We are SO PROUD of you girls," I told them. "How many people have said to me, "Your daughter goes to college in Oregon ? ~ but that's so far! And next year the three of you will be in Singapore, France, and Prague!" They are such wonderful girls: confident, articulate, and good-humored, but also gentle and unassuming. We are indeed all so proud of them.

And I have some more Chicago photos: The Young Adults (including Chicago Son's Girlfriend) in black and white, since The Lovely Daughter would no doubt notice the bruised sheen on her face left over from the Wisdom Teeth Escapade; a four-masted ship docked at Navy Pier; and more from the Stained Glass Museum: a Tiffany window portraying an angel guide, and a window from Chicago's Temple Emmanuel, c. 1908 or 1917.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Birthday Week-end (Click to Enlarge!)

Chicago Botanic Garden: Rose Garden and Carillon on Evening Island

Navy Pier: Ferris Wheel and Stained Glass Museum. The window is from the drum portion of the central lantern and dome of St. Paul's Univeralist Church in Chicago, designed in 1887 and destroyed in 1964.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Chicago Calls

Sunday's my birthday!

And we're spending the week-end in Chicago with ALL of our children!

Life is very good right at this moment.


And....it's the Friday Five:

1. Have you experienced living through an extreme weather event- what was it and how did you cope?

Well, there was Katrina . . . I was the one at home while everyone else was stranded in Baton Rouge after unloading The Lovely Daughter's stuff at Tulane; I was the one yelling into the phone, "I know you can't see the weather channel, but I CAN!!! And it is very very very VERY big!"

2. How important is it that we wake up to issues such as global warming?

Pretty much.

3. The Christian message needs to include stewardship of the earths resources agree/ disagree?

100% agree.

And because it is summer- on a brighter note....

4. What is your favourite season and why?

October is my favorite season. There is nothing at all like October in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Or October anywhere else.

5. Describe your perfect vacation weather....

Crisp, clear, 65 F at night and 85 F during the day. The weather is not complete, of course, without the ocean.
But Lake Michigan will do!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Getting Here (IX): Ignatian Encounter

I wish that I could do justice to the experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. This is the first time I've tried to write about the process in any depth (other than in the voluminous journals I kept for myself), and I think some brief notes will have to do for now.


Ignatius wrote the Exercises (1530s-1540s) out of his own experience of creating them as, recovering from a battle injury, he spent months contemplating the life of Christ. You can pick up a little paperback containing the Exercises just about anywhere, but it's not something I'd recommend. It's not of much use in the absence of guidance. (Of course, I ignored that advice when I got it. I knew that I was an intelligent and insightful reader, so I purchased a copy, took it home, and curled up to read. I lasted maybe, oh, five minutes, six max. The book is really written for the guidance of the one giving the Exercises, not the one doing them. It is, unless you have a helper, almost completely unintelligible.)


The Exercises are divided into four "weeks" of contemplation. We might call them "sections" rather than weeks; they were never intended as chronological weeks. Week One addresses the creation of the universe and humankind and our subsequent fall from grace; the retreatant contemplates God's creativity and love and his or her own separation from same (otherwise known as "sin"). Week Two (usually about ten days in a Thirty Day Retreat) addresses the ministerial life of Christ and includes the famous discernment portion of the Exercises. Weeks Three and Four are shorter; their themes are the Passion and Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.

I'm sure that there are countless ways in which to present and experience the Exercises. My director (who doesn't much care for that word) does so with great fluidity. The booklet I used, a gentle and contemporary guide, offers reflections and questions and several Scriptural passages for contemplation each "day." (I think it contains about 30 "days," which took me most of a real-time year.) Some weeks (real life weeks), I would be almost comprehensive in my coverage of the material. Some weeks I would spend all my time ~ hours of it ~ on a few sentences. Sometimes my director (for want of better shorthand) would ask if I had read this or that novel, or play, or poem, and suggest that I give some time to that alternative.


The Exercises presume a variety of prayer forms. "Contemplation" in Ignatian-ese means an imaginative form of prayer, not the self-emptying sort of prayer so often implied in the use of the term. Ignatian contemplation involves imagining yourself into a scene or event or conversation in the Bible, or imagining one of them into your own life. It's an extraordinarily powerful way of experiencing God, Christ, the Holy Spirit ~ especially when you practice it day after day after day.


The weekly or so conversation with a director is an integral part of the Exercises. It is often said that the "real director" of the Exercises is the Holy Spirit ~ but you do need a regular human being to help with the work. For me ~ a person always caught in the tension between individuality and community ~ it was nothing short of spectacular to receive the gift of another person's calm, kind, and thoughtful consideration of what I had to say about my life of prayer as it became entangled with everything that was going on in my most ordinary of daily lives. As I look back now, I find myself extremely moved by the very existence of the Exercises, created as an offering within the community of the church but passed on from one individual to another over a period of four and one-half centuries. I am particularly touched that in my case the "passing on" was from a seventy-something Jesuit priest to a fifty-something Protestant woman. The Holy Spirit does create the most miraculous possibilities.


Some people use the Exercises primarily to learn to pray: to listen and be in relationship with God. Some, to make a major decision. Some, to find a way to follow Christ more closely in the lives they are already leading (also a major decision!). The advantage of pursuing all of those objectives in the form of a 19th Annotation retreat is that your movement in and out of your daily life (as opposed to a 30-day withdrawal to a retreat center) enables you to bring almost anything and everything, just as it is happening, to the table of prayer and discussion.


Everyone's retreat is his or her own. In some ways, the course is probably fairly predictable. There is a certain pattern. Many of us may think that we want to demonstrate some kind of brilliant and unique spirituality, but in reality, the growth of a spirituality is like any other kind of growth, and what we really want is for it to follow a healthy pattern ~ just as we want to see our children grow from healthy infants into healthy toddlers and so on. Of course, as with anything else, sometimes dramatic differences emerge. But for most of us, our retreat is unique within some fairly typical parameters.


I found that my retreat, in retrospect, seemed to fall into three sort of "chapters." At first, I experienced a great deal of resistance. I didn't give up, but I think that I had a very strong sense of self-preservation which was being challenged, and it was quite difficult to abandon my sense of control and fall into the process. Then I began to sense strongly that Christ was walking around in my life. I can't claim to have found comfort in that. I was . . . alert, observant, curious, challenged ~ but not comfortable. And then, finally, I began to feel that I was walking around in his. The world, and all of us in it, took on a different appearance to me.


I said to someone a few weeks ago that the Exercises do not change who you are; they make you more of who you are. When I first came into the church, I was captivated by the sermons I've mentioned in an earlier entry on the topic of "What would Jesus do?" By the time I had finished my retreat (if, that is, one ever really finishes), I had a different question. We are not Jesus, and so the real question becomes: what would Jesus have you do? You may see anew, with eyes that have been changed by Christ, but it is still you doing the seeing and you who must respond. How would you live your life, the exact one given to the unique person you are?


Doing the Exercises, excavating your spiritual self and developing a depth of aquaintance with Jesus Christ, is serious business. There are frustrations and tears and sometimes there is terrible sadness. But there is also a great deal of laughter and tremendous joy in finding that you really are created and called to be exactly who you are, and that in who you are you do have much to share and a role to play in Christ's continual gift of recreation.

Who We Can Be

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the face of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves.

~ St. Seraphim of Sarov


I came across the second quote some weeks ago. I hesitated to post it because I fall so short. And the the poem appeared on Cynthia's blog this morning. I decided to go with them both. To read and savor and remember them both. Falling short is merely human.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Getting Here (VIII): The Jesuits Step In

It was all an accident.

I had been working on a master's degree at the local Jesuit university forever. One course at a time. I really wanted to pursue a Religious Studies degree, but what was I going to do with it? And I was by that time a teacher of high school English and Social Studies who had to justify some of her graduate work to a school committee, so I went with Humanities. In reality, a stealth Religious Studies program. A course on the Middle Ages? I wrote about the medieval church. A course on Michaelangelo? I researched the dome of St. Paul's. History? I explored Islam. You get the idea.

Early on in my program I needed a course, and there was nothing I wanted to take that semester, except possibly one called something like Spirituality and Narrative, which did sound right up my alley, could be justified on the grounds that the syllabus included Shakespeare and Faulkner and Jewish lore (Ha! I was teaching in a Jewish day school), and had a professor who was described to me by a department secretary as "new, but supposed to be good."

Yeah. Like, rock star good. So I took his next course, too, which was called Spirituality and Autobiography, and focused on Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, all via Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own. I had some difficult stuff going on, and so I read every word of every book and poured hours of effort into my papers. A way out and back into the light.

And then, having exhausted my need to satisfy The Powers That Be, I took the same professor's course on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and, a few weeks into that, asked if he would guide me throught the Exercises themselves, to which the answer was a surprising, "Sure." It's a huge committment and he's got plenty more of them to his Jesuit community, many of which take him out of town and around the world. But he said, "Sure."

I don't know what I thought I was doing. At that point, I had some idea of the Exercises, and some idea that Jesuits led disciplined lives of prayer and service, and I thought that I could turn into that kind of person. I thought I would turn into a person with an organized spiritual life. I thought, rather vaguely, that I would address that lurking sense of a call to ministry, because the Exercises are often used as a tool for discernment ~ but I wasn't too concerned about that, because I was confident that God would never call me into ministry. And it certainly did not occur to me that I would grow into any kind of experience with God, because I knew that I was destined for a life of faith within the limited confines of intellect and reason. In other words, I was completely delusional about my capacity for organization, God's capacity for irony, and my capacity for growth. As good a place as any to begin, I suppose.

I really had no idea what I was doing.

Here's how I described the Exercises in April of 2006, by which time eight months had passed and I had decided to start the process that would take me to seminary:

"St. Ignatius developed the Exercises in the mid-1500s as an imaginative process for exploring the life of Christ and encountering God. His basic idea was that individuals would engage in an intense 30-day retreat, following and praying over a specified range of readings and contemplations, and meeting daily with a spiritual director to discuss the internal journey that inevitably happens.

Thankfully for most of us, Ignatius was nothing if not practical, and in the context of a series of Annotations at the end of the Exercises, the 19th one to be precise, he mentions that some people might do the Exercises in the context of their daily lives, spending time each day in prayer and meeting with a director periodically. As a result, today there are 3-day retreats (more of a sampling, I think), 8-day retreats, 10-day retreats, 30-day retreats, and 19th Annotation retreats, the latter consisting of the orginal 30-day retreat spread across whatever time period it takes. A 19th Annotation retreat has the potential, as far as I can tell, to run on past eternity for those of us with busy lives and more of a mosying style of moving through the spiritual layers thereof.

I got started on my retreat in October and am finding it to be one of the most astonishing experiences I've ever had. I meet almost weekly with a Jesuit priest, in the midst of a life that includes teaching in an Orthodox Jewish school and active participation as an elder in the Presbyterian Church. I read the Bible, I read the Exercises, I read a lot of questions, I read novels and plays and poetry, and I rummage through Christ's life and my own. It's about as complicated and surprising and all-encompassing as it sounds."

I would describe the experience a little differently today. It would take a book! But maybe just a little more in another entry.

Summer Sunday Morning 10-11

A few minutes late to church. We are discussing The Budget at home. One of my husband's amazingly generous contributions to The Seminary Adventure has been to spend hours and hours and more hours over the past week completely reorganizing our finances so that we can send me to seminary, send The Lovely Daughter to her last two years of college including her semester in Prague, repair the gutters and the plumbing, and probably not go bankrupt in the process. His attention to detail and willingness to put the time in are astounding gifts to all of us. (I will spend hours trying to come up with exactly the right phrase for a sermon or presentation, but when it comes to the spreadsheets, I am more likely to wave off with a vague, "Close enough.") I am extremely grateful that his skills and inclinations and willingness are so different from my own.

The music this morning is a sequence of piano, classical guitar, and organ. Our music director is off to an event next week-end where a work of hers for 100 guitars and maracas is being premiered. Pretty cool. Our liturgist is a friend of mine who, like me, is an nth-career seminary student. Our preacher is another in our Summer Lay Preacher series and he does a wonderful job in his deep and elegant voice, interweaving Psalm 121 and the Mary and Martha story to produce a reflection on God's call to each of us to be the person we are. He begins with what seems like a lengthy reading in what turns out to be his native Nigerian language of Yoruba -- it's Psalm 121, which we have just heard in English. Quite beautiful in the Yoruban tongue. "I will look to the hills," he repeats in English, and I think about standing on the tops of very small mountains in the Adirondacks and the Blue Ridge, and horseback riding to the tops of higher moutains in the Rockies, and looking at the tops of very high mountains in the Tetons and the Alps, and about the Sky Islands that I heard about on Morning Edition yesterday.

Conversations after church: the lingering effects of the trip on the stomachs of some of the Nicaraguan travelers, family illnesses, advice on hair coloring (I am something of a beauty klutz ~ no, make that a total and complete incompetent in certain critical areas of midlife), career changes, summer travel plans, a new college graduate about to move to Nicaragua to work with an NGO there, college preparations for other young people, concerns about the impending youth trip to Nicaragua (which seems to have become our church's sister locale).

It's another beautiful summer day and I drive home, listening to the second movement of Tschaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. It's so nice to have made the transition from the first movement of Vivaldi's Winter, the discernment music to which I listened over and over again last March, to the lush peacefulness of the music that matches my present frame of mind.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Getting Here (VII): Back to Church

I changed churches about twelve years ago. I didn't necessarily mean to do that, and if I had it to do over again I probably wouldn't, which in and of itself means that it's a good thing I don't ~ have it to do over again, I mean.

At first I just stopped going to church for awhile. I stopped teaching Sunday school and serving on committees and helping to run programs. I had been so busy with the programmatic and administrative life of the church that it had been easy to ignore the the fact that I had little sense of the Presence at its center, but that stance was no longer satisfactory to me. I started reading a lot and praying a lot and journaling some, taking much of what I encountered at Chautauqua each summer to heart and trying to peel back the layers of "church involvement" and "church membership" to find some sense of "church source."

I knew I was on the right track when, after I told the head of Christian Education at our church that I wouldn't be teaching Sunday School the following year because I was going to take some time out to focus on my own spiritual life, she responded, "Well, give me a call when you get bored."

I wasn't all that keen on a church leader implying that a personal spiritual search would become a boring enterprise. Maybe that's why, despite the energy and activity of that church, I no longer felt at home there.

A friend who knew that I was at loose ends suggested that we try her Presbyterian church. She told me that a new minister had just begun his tenure there, and said that he was an incredible preacher. It was actually a bit strange that I'd never been to her church; our children attended a Montessori school housed there, so I'd been to the building nearly every day for seven years. Still, I'd never been in the sanctuary. I decided to take her up on her offer.

Sure enough, fine preaching and terrific music, along with a long tradition of social justice work. The church had been in the forefront of community racial integration efforts in the 60s, a move which, I eventually learned, had cost it hundreds of members.

A lot of people, I think, when they hear the word "Christian," envision masses of religious fundamentalist political conservatives singing contemporary praise music. And that is an accurate reflection of a powerfully vibrant portion of American Protestantism. But it's not immediately apparent -- certainly not through the media -- that while our numbers may be declining, there are still thousands of congregations housed in mainline Protestant churches, listening to preachers whose education and knowledge stretch far and wide, singing under the direction of well-trained and multi-talented classical musicians, and engaged in significant social action.

It took me maybe seven or eight years to switch church memberships. For one thing, I was preoccupied with some family issues and a major career change, from law to teaching. For another, I had learned my lesson -- as soon as your name in on the rolls of a church, people start to call you up and ask you to do things. So I just modeled myself on a leech for awhile. I went to worship services, taught some Sunday school, volunteered here and there, and otherwise followed on my own little tangential path. My daughter got caught up right away -- this particular church welcomes its children enthusiastically, and the music director doesn't hesitate to get them right up there in front for their little solos. I will be forever grateful to her for noticing that my girl could sing, giving her opportunities to perform, and helping her prepare her very first audition, for a place in the Children's Chorus of our city's orchestra.

Eventually, I felt ready to make the committment that church membership implied to me. By that time, I could no longer interest anyone in my family in even accompanying me on the occasional Sunday, let along joining with me. Even my daughter, having reached that middle school age where friendships are so difficult to sustain outside one's usual mileu, abandoned ship. I decided not to worry about it. If God were calling me to participate in a religious community, then I would respond. Church can look like a "family thing," but it doesn't have to be. I mention this because so many of my friends whose spouses have no interest in church ask me whether I have ever felt awkward in attending solo. The answer has always been "no," and I have developed a small group of church friends, mostly women but also the occasional man, whose spouses seldom put in an appearance.

I admit, though, that at first I felt a bit out of place for other reasons. I had been on a journey of several years toward a more interior life of the spirit, and that's not a process Presbyterians are known for. Presbyterians, at least the ones I know in the liberal PC (USA), tend to focus on corporate worship and social action. Many will readily admit to a rather dramatic level of Biblical illiteracy and even less familiarity with the great writers of the last several centuries of Christian theology, prayer, and spirituality. Our own senior pastor is a man deeply committed to a life of prayer and a journey with God, but his natural pastoral inclinations tend toward the sphere of political and social engagement. I had been very much interested in those kinds of matters in my previous church, but had been on a different journey for so long that I doubted whether I had really found the right place with the Presbyterians.

However, I had become part of a small group at the church that was committed to pursuing the inward spiritual journey, and in bringing it to the attention of the congregation. It was a slow process, but with the arrival of a new associate pastor a few years ago, we have seen lively movement. I served on the committee that ultimately called her to our church, and I was there in large part as a voice for the need to hone the adult education and spiritual formation component of out church. She has helped us us make major strides in becoming a congregation that is truly focused on both the inward and the outward journey.

Our senior pastor has been at the church for twelve years, just a little longer than I have. His message has consistently and emphatically been one of God's pervasive love for all of us. He hammers home themes of diversity and inclusiveness week after week. In a practical sense, that means that it's pretty easy for us to get from the Biblical text to committments to justice . In a personal sense, it means that we all hear, over and over again, that God's love for us never falters in its all-encompassing presence.

For me personally, the church over the past few years became the community where my own gifts were welcomed and celebrated. Those first nagging thoughts about ministry had emerged years and years ago, but were torpedoed by the need for me to address my attention elsewhere. As they started to bubble to the surface again, I was an astounded beneficiary of our associate pastor's attentiveness to the gifts of her parishoners, and found myself intensely involved in every aspect of our adult education and formation program, invited to preach on occasion, expanding my activities into the Presbytery, and enthusiastically supported as I began the process that would lead to seminary.

I also discovered a source of enormous grace outside my own church. Who knew about the Jesuits? Well, okay, a lot of people ~ but not me.

Summer Saturday Morning 9-10

Memories for myself: I thought I would do a series of vignettes over the next several days, just here and there, to record a few slices of my life at this point in time.

I'm driving to Borders to pick up Harry Potter for the Lovely Daughter, whose puffy cheeks with the pale blue bruises where her wisdom teeth used to be are causing increasing discomfort. It was a happy accident that we scheduled the surgery for the HP release date ~ she should be distracted for at least a few hours. I listen to part of an interview with Billy Bob Thornton on Morning Edition; I did not realize that he was a musician as well as an actor. I hear an ad for yet another event we are missing; there are also reasons for which having scheduled a child's surgery for a July week-end is most unfortunate. No Arlo Guthrie outdoors tonight, no Tchaikovsky outdoors tomorrow night, no Irish bands at the fairgrounds all week-end. Well ~ the weather is perfect for all the people who will actually get to go to those concerts.

I am about 12th in line as the store opens, with customers and clerks alike in a jovial frame of mind. I pick up a copy of The New Yorker as well, and head out to the car, where I stop to read the final pages of HP before tossing my package in the trunk. I can never settle down and enjoy a book with the ending still in question. So yes, I know what happens ~ and my lips are glued shut.

I wander across the parking lot to Wal-Mart, and then back to Office Max. I don't know what I am looking for, exactly ~ nothing, really. But it's a beautiful morning, hardly anyone is out and about, and I don't even mind the ugly parking lot and shopping center, products of an alarming failure of imagination on the part of our city fathers and mothers.

I drive to the bakery/coffee shop where I meet with a group of friends most Saturday mornings. Morning Edition is doing a piece on Sky Islands, those isolated groups of mountains between the huge lengths of the Rockies and the Sierra Madre ~ the Chiricahuas, the Catalinas, the Huachucas. It's a fascinating discussion on the efforts to preserve the extraordinarily diverse ecosystems that extend out of the desert as the altitude rises. I have explored several of the places they discuss and am immmediately transported back to sunny days in southeastern Arizona with our very young family, looking for hummingbirds, trogons, and zone-tailed hawks.

As anticipated, none of the regular group has appeared. A lot of people had obligations this morning. I do run into a friend leaving with her coffee, and we have a brief discussion about the movie Evening ~ she is the second of my friends to report that it is somewhat confusing ~ and universal health care, as occasioned by her having seen Michael Moore's Sicko.

I switch to a music station for the drive home. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are singing Carry On, the music of my adolescence. It could be a crisp and sunny day in the Connecticut Valley instead of in the midwest. I wait for an inordinately long red light. The Beach Boys begin singing Wouldn't It Be Nice? Ah . . . a long ago mutual attraction never converted into even the beginnings of a romance. It makes no objective sense, but the Beach Boys and the Berkshires are forever connected in my mind.

And how exactly is it that I grew up NOT to live in western Massachusetts??????

Friday, July 20, 2007

OK, I Finished the Book

The Lovely Daughter had her wisdom teeth removed at 8:00 this morning.

For awhile afterward we sat nestled together, huddled under blankets on a couch at the oral surgeon's, waiting for the anesthesia to wear off enough for her to stand up and get to the car. That was the best part.

The bleeding and Percocet wooze and puffy cheeks are not so good, and reduced us to watching an episode of America's Top Model earlier this afternoon. She's asleep now.

While waiting for my child to emerge from surgery, I went back and finished the memoir eat.pray.love at the urging of several of my wonderful friends whose opinions I cherish.

Here's my rundown, in case y'all care, which I suppose you do not:

Charming, humorous, adept writing.

Great travel: I, too, love to wander the streets of Italy eating gelato. Sign me up for that part.

Gorgeous blonde who finds romance in Italy and Bali. I imagine that a number of my former divorce clients, back in the workforce long before they had planned and duking it out every year over holiday visitation, would sign up for that part.

Blitheringly narcissistic tale of the path to spiritual nonenlightenment, the objective of which seems to be how wildly and ecstatically connected you can feel to a sense of the universal rather than what you might have to share with others.

The Amazon reviews are at decided extremes. I seem to be in the emphatic minority.

'Nuff time on that one.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Getting Here (VI): In and Out of Church

One of the subjects which interests me tremendously is: What experience do people have with church? To what extent does church inculturate a faith in people? How does it change us? Why do we drift away, or move to different churches or forms of religious faith? What do we find in a church, and what do we not find?

I am merely reflecting on my own experience here; I'm not developing a thesis or arguing a point. I am only offering one person's encounter with church in the context of the questions I've raised, and even that in no particular order.

Why were we personally so attracted to a church about which we knew next to nothing? The preaching was the first main thing. Our senior pastor, who turned out to be rather famous in preaching circles, had started that new year off with one of his favorite approaches: a short series on a theme. The theme arose from the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. Written in 1896, it was, as far as I know, the first book to ask the contemporary question, "What would Jesus do?" For four weeks, our pastor preached on the response to that question -- as it might be answered at church, in the workplace, etc. His sermons were exactly what I was looking for, as I tried to figure out how to reconcile an increasingly upscale professional life with the call of the Gospel, although at the time I wouldn't have identified what I was trying to do as such.

For the first couple of years, we were content just to go to church on Sundays. Church as lecture and concert, I guess you could say. We didn't know anyone (there were about 1500 members, with about 400 in attendance on any given Sunday morning) and we didn't know how to get to know anyone. That changed a bit when I was asked to join a committtee, but we were still on the periphery of the community. I don't think that we really understood that there was even such a thing as a church community. In retropsect it seems a bit odd, but I gave birth to my twin sons and then to my daughter during that period and, while their arrival and baptisms were duly noted in ther church bulletin, no one beyond the senior pastor showed up with a dinner or a prayer or anything else.

Things changed shortly after our daughter was born. The church began to focus on small group development, and we found ouselves hooked up with a neighborhood group of several young families like our own. We all had small children and most of us were on our own, far from extended family support. We were starving for companionship, eager to learn about our religion, and thrilled beyond belief to have found each other. Suddenly -- community!!! In the early years, we met regularly for various Bible and other studies and began to celebrate our holidays together. As the women quit work to mother fulltime, we began to get together for conversation every week, and started going away for an annual week-end together. At the same time, we all became deeply involved in the life of the church: teaching classes, taking classes, and serving on committees and boards. Many of us took two or three of the Methodist year-long DISCIPLE Bible study classes together.

I suppose, looking back, that each of us was approaching a life of faith differently from the others. Many in our little group had a childhood faith that was being nudged back into practice. Others were skeptical, but willing to go along. Certainly the magnificent worship services we attended enriched all of our lives, those of us who did DISCIPLE found the intellectual side of our religious lives well nourished, and there was plenty of community activity: programs and service in the church itself and lots of time together, building the friendships that have sustained us all for 20 years.

As the kids grew and moved into involved sports and activities schedules and the moms went back to work, we found it harder to get together, and some of us drifted away from the church. A few years ago, the moms reinstituted our weekly get-togethers -- at a coffee shop these days, where other groups of women also show up and sometimes merge with ours. The days of meeting in someone's kitchen while the children play underfoot are long gone, but more recently we have been known to settle in at the tables we pull together for breakfast at around 10:00 and on occasion decide a few hours later that we might as well have lunch, too. Most of us are pretty liberal, politically and theologically speaking, and we live, intentionally, in a community of unusual diversity. We never run out of things to talk about.

For myself, over the years I found less and less sustenance of a spiritual nature through the church itself. Ministers came and went, and the preaching waxed and waned. I got burned out on volunteering. My husband lost interest -- and it's VERY hard to keep children focused on weekly Sunday School when their dad is sitting in the kitchen reading the paper. Our family was vacationing at
the Chautauqua Institution every summer, and it was to the speakers and classes at Chautauqua that I was increasingly turning for my religious life. There were a few years when the music and preaching at Chautauqua would carry me all the way through to Christmas -- I would buy the tapes of the summer lectures and church services and listen to them as I drove around all year long. (I still do.) I took at least three journaling classes there over several summers, took yoga classses in the early mornings, and bought stacks of books from the authors I heard speak.

At Chautauqua I was discovering a rich tradition of Christian spirituality, contemplation, and scholarship that was not particularly accessible through my local church. Over the years, I heard, many times over, speakers such as Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, Episcopal priests Barabara Brown Taylor and John Claypool, religious scholars Marcus Borg and N.T Wright and Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong, Unitarian pastor Forrest Church, rabbi and lawyer David Saperstein.

My favorite concert ever, and as spirit-moving an event as any of the Sunday services where 5,000 people rise every summer Sunday morning to sing Holy, Holy, Holy in an outdoor ampitheatre, was Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in combination. There we were, the same outdoor ampitheatre crowd that would come back to worship the next morning when, late on a summer Saturday night, Pete Seeger got all 5,000 of us to sing All People That on Earth Do Dwell in a ROUND.

So I was a Methdodist in form and name, but not in practice or attentiveness anymore. I was reluctant to give up my church -- the building is huge, but I knew its every nook and cranny, and the architecture and stained-glass windows are breathtakingly beautiful -- and yet, I wasn't really there anymore. The questions I had weren't being answered and the experience of God I had begun to seek wasn't being fostered. We went as a family to Christmas Eve services, because we couldn't abandon the music and the candles held by hundreds of people in the dark of a cavernous cathedral at midnight, but I was gradually responding to a call from another direction.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Feline Update

You may recall that I showed up a few weeks ago, picked up and brought home by the Human, who was under the impression that I could not navigate a busy street on my own.

She may have been right. As you can see, I am more inclined toward repose than adventure.

I was a little worried at first. I didn't know anyone here and that dog was something of a pest. But the food and water have appeared consistently, the dog understands who is in charge now, and the bed is extremely comfortable.

I believe that there are more adventures ahead, however. Several people have been to see me, and it seems that at least four of them are committed to the well-being of one little cat. Maria the Hairdresser decided that she could not add another to her already illegal twosome, but thanks to her friend Ken the Artist, who loves kitties but can't have one right now, she is going to take me for a week while my New Interim Lady is visiting her mother. Ken and the New Interim Lady came by last night, and I could tell that she really likes me. When she returns, I'll spend a month with her until the Italian Grad Student Who Is In Budapest returns, and then I'll move in with her. They tell me that she is a knockout blonde. When she visits her family in Italy, the New Interim Lady will take care of me -- assuming she gives me up in the first place, says Ken the Artist.

I think she will. She has three other cats and one of them is a Siamese. I foresee something of a challenge in our future.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Getting Here (V): Finding Church

It All Looked Ordinary Enough

There isn't much to say about my spiritual journey in my 20s, since I wasn't making one. I went to college -- three of them, in fact, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island -- and never set foot in a chapel or took a course in religious studies. I got married in a church, that little brick Methodist church of my childhood, but only because a tornado and torrential rains wiped out our plans for an outdoor wedding. We had invited the Methodist minister to officiate, but only because we were very young and had no idea what else to do. (There are a lot of "buts" in this story. That's what happens when you are too young to do the things you are doing.) Given our complete lack of belief in anything, the minister was probably a mistake. I was certainly surprised when he incorporated religious elements into the wedding! I suppose we should have asked a judge, but (!) we were too young and inexperienced to recognize that. We went back to the midwest for graduate school and we went to work.

Something was nagging at me, though. All those years in religious schools had taught me that my life was supposed to be one of service to others. As a child of the 60s, I did, like many of my law school classmates, have some vague and ill-defined ideas about using the law as a tool for social action, but it turned out that those kinds of jobs were few and far between, especially where I live. So I ended up in the corporate world, wearing elegant suits and making good money, taking regular business trips and eating in nice restaurants. And always, always, wondering whether I wasn't supposed to be doing something -- well, something more substantial with my life.

One day when I was in my late twenties, completely out of the blue, I told my husband that I thought that we should find a church. He was agreeable, and suggested that we check out a Methodist church a few blocks away. I was fine with that idea. The building had tremendous appeal -- it's built on the plan of a 13th century French cathedral, and, as anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a sucker for a cathedral.

It also offered a safe trial -- the services were broadcast on weekly cable, so we didn't even have to go near the place to check it out! We liked what we saw -- great music and erudite preaching -- and so off we went, walking on a cold and sunny January morning down a narrow pathway that ran through the several residential blocks between our house and the church. We had not articulated why, but three months later we were members of a large mainline United Methodist congregation.


I've been giving a lot of thought to the way I in which found myself back in church. I almost hesitate to write about it, since it wasn't a path that followed any of the "rules" and since, in my cluelessness, I clearly violated standards and procedures held dear by many people. After witnessing some of the outrage expressed when a "professed nonbeliever" joined a church in Texas a year or two ago, I'm a little leery of offering up another variant on the nonorthodox journey, authentic though it may be. My grandmother once told me that her father, a longtime trustee of his local Methodist church, never became one of its official members. There were a few tennants of belief that he found too incredible to subscribe to, and so he didn't ~ a man of unwavering integrity. As far as I can tell, many people become actual professed members of churches on the basis of far shakier foundations of belief or experience than the one on which he judged himself unworthy. Me, for instance.

Well, as I said, my husband and I weren't particularly focused on prescribed methods (how ironic that we chose the Methodist church) or belief systems. They say that most people go to church because someone issues an invitation. No one invited us. (Well, one of my senior colleagues did. He suggested that we would enjoy his Presbyterian church, since among its membership were numbered several hundred lawyers. It was difficult for me to imagine anything much less appealing than spending Sunday mornings with hundreds of lawyers, and I did have some idea that the professional status of its members should not be the foundation for one's involvement with a church. So we went once, and we went out to lunch at the "club" afterward with him and his wife, and thereby concluded what was evidently a business obligation.)

Once we got to the church we ended up joining, no one rushed to "acclimate" us. I was baptized as an adult, with no sense of the claims I was asserting beyond the recognition that I had no sense of them. The minister, sensitive to my feelings of awkwardness, asked me if I would prefer a private baptismal ceremony, to which I acceded with great relief. What late-twenty-something wants to be baptized in front of 400 people? A few days after that conversation, I called him to tell him that I'd changed my mind. "I don't really understand what I'm doing," I said. "But I think it's something I should do in public. I think I'm making a statement." I suppose that in that moment the relief was his. A few weeks later, we joined the church with my having no real concept of what "joining a church" meant. My husband had grown up in and done the whole Methodist church thing -- baptism, Sunday School children's choir, confirmation, youth group -- and then departed the church at the same time he departed for college. If anything about church "stuck," he hadn't revealed it to me. And me? All those years of education and mass and church and music? They came in more than handy later, when they turned out to have significance beyond my wildest imaginings, but at the time I actually joined a church, I wasn't thinking about them, and had spent barely any time in a typical church environment. ("Hogwarts," as one of my commenters has identified the places in which I spent my adolescence, is hardly typical.)

When I joined that neighborhood United Methodist church, it appeared on the surface that I was engaging in something of a suburban rite of passage -- everyone wore nice clothes, everyone appreciated the quality of the music and the preaching, lots of people were willing to participate in various forms of service to the community ~ but those who were experiencing a significant change of interior orientation as a consequence of church membership were awfully quiet about it. I was quiet, too, when it began to happen to me.

On occasion I am somewhat critical of the membership process followed by mainline Protestant churches. "Challenging" is seldom an applicable adjective. But then I remember my own experience, and I can't fail to acknowledge that, had the membership bar been more than a few inches off the ground, I would have fled faster than the speed of light.

My conclusion? When the Holy Spirit moves, It moves. The Holy Spirit doesn't wait around for us to catch on and isn't burdened by human expectations or processes. It may well lead us by an unexpected process into institutions and relationships that surprise us. In my personal experience, the Holy Spirit is a rather unwieldy force. But that experience was still far in the future.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Lemonade on the Terrace

I am in my late twenties, on a business trip in the southeastern part of the state. Finished by midafternoon, I call my grandmother, in the southwestern part of the state, and ask whether I can come for the night. As if I had to ask! I arrive a couple of hours later and we sit out on the brick terrace that spreads itself beneath the maple tree, drinking lemonade and eating chocolate chip cookies. My grandmother, as I realize 25 years later, is interested in everything about my life, the life that has produced this young woman who has just come from a corporate meeting to sit on the terrace in a silk blouse, a linen skirt, and heels.

We spent many summer afternoons sitting on that terrace and drinking lemonade. I was a little girl in shorts and t-shirts, a student on vacation in jeans and turtlenecks, a lawyer taking a quick break, a young mother welcomed chiefly because of the accompanying three little towheads. Always the grandmother in the housedress and apron, always completely absorbed in everything I had to tell her. Always the brick terrace, always the lemonade.

If you aren't following Funky Winkerbeam in the comics these days, you should be. I had never read it until this week, after someone mentioned that one of the characters has cancer and, in a storyline that began on July 2, has elected to give up medical treatment and focus on the life she has left. She has had to explain herself repeatedly to those who love her. We discussed it last night, me reiterating the questions I had raised about choices as chemo robbed my stepmother of life as surely as her stage four cancer did, and my daughter commenting on our culture's terror of death. The comic strip character's name is Lisa, which is pretty much all I know about her, except that her choices reflect a courage seldom honored in our capitulation to the science of modern medicine.

her choice is about lemonade.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Summertime Miscellany

Last night I went with the Lovely Daughter and two of her friends to see the Harry Potter movie. I found it a bit tedious at first, but we were all mesmerized by the end. And then a bizarre experience on the way home unfolded as a young boy dashed frantically into the street right in front of the car ahead of us, followed by a furiously gesturing man who looked to be in his twenties, who was himself followed by a prancing little dog. Two other boys stopped themselves on the curb, and we all gasped in relief as we saw that neither boy nor man nor dog had not been run over. We called the police, and drove back after dropping off one of the girls to find four squad cars lined up at the corner.

The dog was the most bizarre element of the rather unnerving scene.

Between yesterday and today I've had maybe five seminary related conversations, with administrators and other students, on topics ranging from the practicalities of moving in to some of the more esoteric challenges ahead. Just as it took several weeks for the reality of leaving my teaching job and Jewish community to sink in, now the realization that I am beginning new work in a new community is washing over me with increasing momentum.

I called the Ontario Jesuit center today and made my final deposit on my eight-day retreat, which is only three weeks away. I've never done this before and, while I'm really looking forward to it, I'm also having trouble imagining a large community of people spending a week in almost complete silence together. I suppose that by the time it's over, I will be struggling to imagine people spending most of their time in conversation with one another!

I find that I am increasingly perturbed by the Pope's remarks earlier in the week about the Protestant churches. They have been well analyzed elsewhere; all I really have to note is my personal distress. I know that he hasn't said anything new, and I knew that most of my own Catholic friends are probably more unhappy about the situation than I am. Of course, we have all had our own contribution to make. When I have taught the Reformation to my Jewish high school world history students for the past several years, I have presented it as follows: a day on the social, economic, and religious climate in which frustration with the church fermented; a day on Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII; a day on Luther's anti-Semitism, distasteful and horrific as the topic is, but to me seemingly mandatory in the interest of full disclosure and honesty toward Jewish students; and the usual final day wrap-up of ask-whatever-you-want-about-Christianity.

It's been a long 500 years.

The photographs are of the ruins of the Iona Nunnery. I took them exactly one year ago this week, and I think most of them enlarge pretty well with a click or two. Before I went to Iona, a good friend of mine, a nun in her seventies who has spent most of her life in that rural convent I described a few entries earlier, told me how powerfully the Nunnery had resonated with her on her two visits there. "I imagined those women," she said, "working there, out on that isolated island, eight hundred years ago, and thought: they were trying to do exactly what I try to do!" The Nunnery is in ruins thanks to the Presbyterian Reformers of the sixteenth century. Enough of it remains that it is easy to imagine those women at work, at prayer, at dinner, stopping to stare out the window toward the sea -- and painful to imagine the disruption of their lives by those who thought they had a clearer vision of the will of God.

And so today my own life feels unsettled ~ by the man chasing the little boy into the dark and busy street, by the prancing dog who followed them, by the unknown future, by the persistent voices claiming power and supremacy of vision.

I do need that retreat.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Getting Here (IV): Head, Hand, and Heart

Education of Head, Hand and Heart

Next stop: a new boarding school, this one in western Massachusetts where, between high school and college, I would spend the next five years of my life. Are there many places on the planet more beautiful than the Connecticut River Valley and the Berkshire Mountains? (I'm afraid, though, that I would have to admit to having taken them largely for granted at the time.)

I had finally reached my father's objective for me: a New England boarding school of unquestioned academic reputation. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, it was the fifth of my summer camps and boarding schools in as many states, and I was exhausted from the repeated challenge of starting all over with completely new people in a foreign environment. My high school years developed into one extended period of acting out the losses of childhood and adolescence. I won't bore you with the details.

I will share some of the story from a spiritual point of view, however. You may recall that during my childhood years I had a tangential relationship to small-town midwestern Methodism, and had moved on in junior high to the mysterious ritual of the pre-Vatican II Catholic church. Suddenly, at fifteen, I found that I had landed in an entirely new religious environment.

My school had been founded in the late 1800s by a famous evangelist, whose purpose had been to provide a solid education for the young farm women of the area so that they could be trained as missionaries to foreign lands. A couple of years later, he founded a boys' school across the river, hoping to offer to young men of little or no means the rigorous education that the sons of the wealthy and prominent obtained at the famous New England prep schools.

The founder's legacy -- education of the head, hand, and heart -- left a pattern of interesting dichotomies all over our campuses. I read recently that as the founder criss-crossed the country preaching against Darwin's theories, he was also raising money to ensure that the school's science labs would set the high school standard. From an academic standpoint, our school was renowned for the excellence of its college preparation for young women. (And no, I didn't know that when I arrived. I was fifteen, exhausted, and couldn't have cared less.)

The school also emphasized the value of manual labor. Every student had a job on campus, every day, changing positions each trimester. Sometimes I signed up for pre-breakfast preparation, wanting to get my work out of the way first thing in the morning. I can remember showering in the pitch dark and running down to the kitchen at 6:30 a.m., my long hair hanging down my back and soaking through my kitchen uniform. My favorite job was after-dinner tins -- the endless washing of pots and pans. It was a miserably difficult task, but it took so long that the tins girls could escape some of the two-and-a half hour evening study hall. Whenever I hear the song Spirit in the Sky, I think of spring evenings in the kitchen, dancing to the music as we dried off the huge cooking vats with all possible deliberation and lack of speed.

The job program was probably the reason I chose that particular school. I was given no choice about going away, but I was offered a few options in terms of destination. Most of the catalogues I flipped through featured girls in expensive clothing engaged in what looked like expensive occupations. The one I gravitated toward pictured young women in weird outfits and caps, scrubbing and sweeping and preparing food. I didn't have any more intrinsic interest in those activities than I do today, but I figured that a school where the students did real work couldn't be all bad.

And, finally...the religious aspect. Once again, something that was never discussed in my home, but became critical to my formation.

We attended daily chapel and Sunday church services and, amazingly, I usually showed up. My group of friends tended to be of a mind to skip the religious demands on our lives -- but I loved the morning chapel music and the eloquence of the speakers who visited our campus. I couldn't sing two notes in succession to save my life, but I could listen. I was astonished and mesmerized by my introduction to the Protestant tradition of religious music. While my friends were slinking out the back door of the chapel and hiding out in unoccupied buildings, I was hunkered down in my pew, soaking up the sounds of centuries of Christian organ and choral music.

I loved the speakers, too. I wasn't much of a student in those days, sticking to the subjects I liked and ignoring those I didn't, but when William Sloane Coffin showed up, I paid attention. I don't remember any specifics, but I know that to be awash in the words of the best speakers New England colleges had to offer during the 1960s was a transformative experience.

And so were words, in general. The words, astonishingly, of the Bible, and of the great religious writers of our time. We didn't just go to chapel and church. We also took religion classes as part of our regular academic schedule. Yes, just like in Catholic school -- religion every day. A year of Old Testament, a year of New Testament, and then electives.

These were not your usual high school religion classes. These were an incomparable gift. Our Old Testament class was basically a college-level survey course in the literary-historical critical analysis of the Biblical text. By the time September was half over, "JEDP"* resounded in my head and symbolized the approach that would forever after inform my aproach to the Bible. It was no longer a book of childhood mythologies and improbable miracles. It had become a puzzle, its intricately woven layers of texts challenging the intellect at every level. What a treasure trove of knowledge to hand over to high chool students! I have a friend here who was in my class at boarding school and not so long ago we smiled over those years. "JEDP!" she exclaimed. "We were so lucky! They taught us the Bible as if we were adult thinkers."

My senior year elective was called "Church and Society." We read Bonhoeffer, Freud, Frankl, and who knows who else. I still wasn't a religious person in any sense of the word but, again, my ordinary daily life was informed by the prophetic voices of our century -- in class --and of our decade -- in chapel. I was seventeen, and in an environment where I could assume that everyone grew up in the midst of the ongoing religious and philosophical discussions of the ages. Our school was mostly Protestant in theology , and mostly white in population, but its doors were wide open to every thought and question imaginable.

And, once again, it was a religion teacher who tried to open the windows to the broader world in a more pragmatic sense. My religion teacher senior year was a man from North Carolina. One morning as we walked to class through a couple of feet of snow, he asked where I was applying to college, and then began to rail against what he termed our "parochialism." "Why are y'all so stuck on New England?" he asked. "Y'all should be thinking about Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt. Get out of here and find out something about the rest of the country!"

So what had I learned, by the time I was eighteen, about religion and the people who care about it? That the people who study and teach religion are often the ones who will push you onward and outward, into a vast universe of unanswered questions. That faith is a worldwide phenomenon expressed in a myriad of ways. That almost everyone of faith claims to have some hold on some kind of truth. That if there is a God, then that God seems to have numerous ways of trying to reach people. That religion can be a subject of deep and challenging intellectual inquiry. That it can be a source of illuminating joy or astounding evil. That it can be a matter of complete indifference. That it has inspired music so exquisitely powerful that if there were nothing but the music, that alone could make a believer out of someone not otherwise inclined in that direction.

I didn't yet have any idea that faith could seep into your life when you weren't paying any attention. That knowledge was to come much, much later, when I would begin to see it as the path toward a worldview of openness and curiosity and authenticity

Oddly Enough

In the book A Vision of Light, which the RevGalBlogPals are reading at the moment, one of the characters adopts the view that God is absorbed by and adept at instigating irony.

It makes sense, when you think about it.

I myself found it rather ironical yesterday that just as I had been posting about my educational-religious-spiritual past as influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, and feeling expansively ecumenical (as I pretty much always do), the Vatican was apparently feeling quite differently.

Describing Christian Orthodox and Protestant churches as "wounded" by our failure to recognize the Pope and his (yes, always "his") apostolic succession, the Vatican has reiterated its view that "it is . . . difficult to see how the title of 'Church' could possibly be attributed to them."

A slightly different report can be found here.

And thanks to Beyond Assumptions, who raised the topic earlier today, a response can be found here.

As it happens, I dealt with the heat yesterday by staying inside where the fans are and watching Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ which, thanks to Netflix, had just landed in the mail slot. I had not seen it before and I don't imagine it's going to make my list of movie favorites. However, assuming that the unremitting violence it depicts is accurate, I am again struck by a certain sense of irony: Did all of that anguish and agony occur so that we could argue about how to structure our churches?

Well, I had a few things to say earlier today, but my plan now is to return to my generally ecumenical and open-minded stance of gratitude that there is more than one way. His Holiness has an open invitation to accompany me to church any time at all.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Getting Here (III): Catholic Life

This post turns out, quite by accident, to have a certain timeliness to it. Our Catholic brothers and sisters are embroiled in controversy over the Pope's decision to extend opportunities for the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass to be celebrated where requested. I read a number of Catholic blogs, so I am aware, albeit to a limited extent, that "neoCaths" and "radtrads" are trumpeting victory and urging that the Vatican II generation retire itself to a few isolated monasteries, and the latter are objecting strenuously to what they perceive as backward steps taken by a Vatican which has acted with radical disregard toward its legions of experts in liturgy and its laity, most of whom it simply did not bother to consult.

I suppose that a Latin mass would not bother me; I never studied Latin but I remember enough French and Spanish that I would probably be able to follow it. However, the language barrier would make it unlikely that I would find in it the magisterial awe and sense of reverent mystery that its proponents claim. I would, on the other hand, be seriously disturbed by a mass in which the presiding priest faced the altar rather than the congregation -- a clear symbol of the line of demarcation between clergy and laity and an implication that God's presence is more profoundly available in certain locales than in others.

All of the "woulds" in the preceding paragraph underscore the obvious: I am not Catholic and this is not my battle. However, much of my spirituality has been formed by the Catholic faith, and much of the support in my journey toward seminary has come from the Jesuit priest who as a spiritual director provides me with endless challenge and encouragment. Consequently, I am extemely interested in the direction in which the Catholic Church is moving. Its influence in my life originated in my early teenage years:


Picture: A scrawny twelve-year-old girl with humiliatingly nondescript short brown hair and bangs, wearing a brand new plaid jumper, a pastel blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and black flats. She is being ushered through the high-ceilinged corridors of the convent, hugely built in the mid-1800s and home to classrooms, dormitories, elegantly crafted shelves and woodwork, well-appointed parlors, kitchens, dining halls ("refectories" in convent parlance), and cloistered chambers for nuns. Her guide is a nun -- and whatever that might be, the place is crawling with them. They are all decked out in long black habits and starched white wimples (new vocabularly words for our heroine), with crosses jammed like hunting knives into their black belts and lengthy strands of black beads swaying against the folds of their skirts. (The word "rosary" is, also, as of yet unknown.)

As they reach the enormous Gothic chapel, our young lady discovers that most of the women and girls, upon entering the door, dip their fingers into a container of water and make a mysterious sign across their bodies. They kneel in the aisle and then sidle into the long pews, where they again kneel on little cushioned benches that seem to have been placed there for just such a purpose. Being sort of Methodist, our observer has never seen anyone kneel in church -- not that she has ever encountered holy water or the sign of the cross, either. But she is willing to wait things out patiently. She is only twelve, but she has encountered enough new situations in life to know that there is no point in assuming or expecting anything. Whatever happens will always be something far different from anything that could have been anticipated.

The only man in evidence, grandly dressed in long robes, is at the altar, where he lifts an enormous round gold container of sorts into the air and chants something unintelligible. Most of the crowd in the pews chants right back. Within a few moments, all is made transparently clear: nothing will ever be comprehensible again. There will be no clarification of beads, crucifixes, water, hand signs, kneeling, nuns or chants -- it turns out that every single word is spoken in Latin.

And thus I was introduced to the Roman Catholic faith. A pre-Vatican II faith, in which young women were graduated from high school and immediately entered the convent, in which priests were placed on pedestals so high you could barely see them.

What was I doing there? My father and his brothers were graduates of a high-profile New England prep school and, while he wanted the same for me, my dad was convinced that our local school system was not up to the job of preparing me (to be prepared). He knew the nuns who ran the school -- it was 20 minutes further out into the country from our home. Many girls from our community attended the nuns' school, albeit as day students. I have my stepmother to thank for getting me out of the house on a permanent basis by the beginning of seventh grade.

In other words, I had arrived at a Catholic boarding school, kicking and screaming against my forced spearation from my friends, for academic and family reasons. No one in my family seems to have given a thought to the RELIGIOUS facet of the school, which would come to permeate my daily life. I can only conclude now that my family was so a-religious (not anti-religious; just oblivious to the whole concept of religion) that it never occurred to them that anyone took it seriously. Not even nuns.

Here, in a nutshell, was life in a Catholic girls' boarding school in the mid-1960s:

blue wool skirts and white blouses designed in, oh, maybe 1940;

daily religion classes, Catholics and nonCatholics segregated from one another, but both taught by nuns;

long and narrow dormitories in which we slept on beds in rows of cubicles curtained off from one another;

the Beatles, the Stones, and the Supremes blasting from deeply recessed windows in hundred-year-old buildings;

a weekly liturgical music class and a weekly choral music class;

cigarettes in the bathrooms and in the fields behind the school;

skirts rolled up to reveal several inches of thigh;

Sunday Mass, Friday Mass, and, often, several other masses;

basketball with nuns in ankle-length habits;

Saturday morning sewing classes, which I avoided by hiding out on the soccer field;

Latin, statues, holy water, medals, missals, lacy caps for entering the chapel, tattered books on the gory and self-sacrificial lives of the saints, crosses all over the place, brief periods of freedom on late afternoon horseback rides, prayers before meals and classes, slipping out and curling up in those deep window wells for late night conversations long after the nuns had gone to bed;

numerous hours devoted to the development of carefully designed plots for infiltrating the cloistered area of the buildings where the nuns lived in order to research the answer to that endlessly challenging and earth-shaking question: What kind of underwear do nuns wear?

and, since it was the 60s: the Smothers Brothers, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Walter Kronkite.

If you watched the tv show American Dreams, you could have seen in Meg's school some strong similarities to my own. The main difference, of course, was that we lived there, 24/7, and so it was nuns, may of them remarkably young and entirely Catholic, who filled in for parents.

I left that school after ninth grade as an agnostic at best, more probably an atheist. I had experienced a very short period of religious sensibility, filled with the sense of the mystery that is God, but that was quickly stamped out by my father, who believed that people should wait for adulthood for faith. Eventually I had my fill of religious indoctrination and, as a nonCatholic surrounded by medieval ritual, I emerged with a vastly enlarged capacity for skepticism. But I did make three gains that equipped me well for life:

In the first place, I became accustomed to a world in which women managed their own lives. The convent sat on land far out in the country and the nuns managed their farm, their convent, and their school. Men were seldom in evidence. Oh, there was a priest, but since I was not Catholic, his presence was of little significance to me. I didn't make confession or take communion or study with the upperclass Catholics, so I had virtually no interaction with him. I never had any reason to surmise that adult women were in need of male approval or cooperation for their endeavors.

Secondly, the nuns were, on the whole, particularly broad-minded women. Probably one of the most significant episodes of my entire educational career occurred when Sister Collette, who taught our nonCatholic religion class in 8th or 9th grade, decided that we would study comparative religions. An extremely young woman schooled entirely in the Roman Catholic tradition, she tried to teach us basic Catholicism, since that was what she knew. We, her irritable and difficult students, did not hesitate to communicate to her that her information conflicted with what we had picked up in various Protestant Sunday Schools. After running into several 13 and 14-year-old brick walls, she announced that she had realized that she knew nothing about religions other than her own, and so we were going to study them together. I don't remember any specifics about what we studied -- although I do know that the only Seder I ever attended until a couple of years ago was the one we put together in our little pastel-painted Catholic classroom in the heart of midwestern farmland-- but I have always remembered her fearless and open-minded decision about what we should learn and how we should do it -- with respectful interest and graciousness.

Finally, I learned, without recognizing it as a life skill, to form friendships with other girls and women. I learned to see the members of my gender as reliable, trustworthy, and desirable confidants. I learned that girls and women are smart, talented, strong, funny, and hugely determined people. Year before last, I attended a reunion, and spent an afternoon with women I had last hung out with when we were 14 together. It was so easy. When you have talked with a good friend all afternoon and late into the night, month after month -- well, it's an incredible way to live as a young girl. I suppose that we were too independent of adult supervision, and too limited in our encounters with the opposite gender (not for want of trying, believe me), but we learned how to be with women. Don't misunderstand me -- I would not recommend that a twelve-year-old live away from home. But there are always compensations, and the company of strong women, whether twelve or 80 years old, is one of them.