Holy Week

Holy Thursday

Jesus’ words at the last supper are important because they occur so near the end of his life, a privileged place. Here Jesus addresses one of the hardest things in any relationship—saying a final good-bye. To help retreatants appreciate this gospel section (John 14-17), I’ve asked them, “if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you want to tell your loved ones?” Given the narrow time frame, they focus on what’s really important, and forget their petty concerns. Like the goodbye calls on September 11, the content is nothing but love.

Likewise, Jesus’ final discourse contains precious gold. Rarely does he mention sin. (So too, if we were telling our children, spouses, relatives or friends goodbye, it’s doubtful that we would catalogue their failures.) Instead, he speaks of a flow of love that began in creation, and that must wash even protesting Peter. “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me” (John 13:8). The stream image continues in the words of the Mass where the presider addresses God as “the fountain of all holiness.”

Jesus Betrayed

What we may need most in grief is presence. A woman dealing with multiple losses said appreciatively of her counselor: “I told her this was a 4-Kleenex day!”

That is our first, feeling response. Those who share it with us perform an important work of mercy. But at another level, human beings strive for understanding. Our urge to make meaning underlies the natural question, “why?” When we face distress, we seek other people of faith standing in a tradition to help us ground our sorrow within the meaning of Christ’s suffering.

That was exactly the frame of reference used by a woman visiting her brother Frank in the burn unit of a hospital. A nurse asked if she’d seen Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion.” “Why would I need to see that?” she replied. “If I wanted to see the passion, all I’d need to do is watch you change Frank’s dressings.”

Healthy people reject a God who would cause pain. But they are drawn to one who suffers it with them.

In Luke’s account (22:48) of the betrayal, Jesus seems startled when Judas approaches him in the garden. “Judas, do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” he asks. The symbol of love twisted to betrayal mirrors the deepest human sorrow. We are hurt the most by those we love; the others we don’t care that much about.

Yet even before Judas’ lips have lifted from Jesus’ cheek, before the kiss has dried, comes forgiveness. Within Jesus is a deep pool of compassion, also experienced by the woman taken in adultery, the paralytic lowered through the roof and the man born blind. How hard it must be for Judas to expect revulsion and find instead unrelenting love. How hard it is for us, expecting retribution, to discover instead the infinite well of mercy.

As if Judas’ betrayal weren’t enough, Jesus must also endure Peter’s too. After Peter’s triple denial, one line is heart-breaking: “The Lord turned around and looked straight at Peter…” (22:61). What hurt that look must contain; it prompts Peter to “weep bitterly.”

But another emotion is there as well, a hope that prompts Peter to repent. He and Judas do the same thing, but respond differently. When Jesus asks “Do you love me?” three times, and Peter answers yes, the slate is wiped clean. He is completely forgiven.

The message this gospel contains is that there is nothing Jesus cannot forgive. We live out the rest of our lives within that look, knowing that it falls not only on us but on our most despised enemy. No matter what any of us have done, we simply cannot move outside the circle of God’s compassion.

Lent, Continued

Jesus’ integrity and earnestness is born of his desert experience. In that harshness, with no modern conveniences, he could have died. Because he survived, he can speak authentically of God’s sustaining presence there—or anywhere. Just as Jesus would say that the Prince of this world has no hold on me, so we too belong to God, not to anything that threatens.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are traditional Lenten practices. The first is a call to live more reflectively, taking time with God, reading scripture or other inspirational books, journaling, or listening for God’s voice in the silence. The second isn’t guilty dieting, but a practice of many religious traditions which encourages saying no to ourselves, instead focusing on our hunger for God. In solidarity with the hungry throughout the world, we create an empty space for God to fill. Fasting reminds us that humans don’t live by bread alone and that restricting our physical pleasures can turn us towards spiritual richness. Almsgiving, what we do for others, springs from gratitude that God has given us much. If money is tight, we clean out closets, donating clothes that don’t fit or household objects that aren’t used.

Questions for Lent

Setting the Tone

Whatever Jesus goes through, he breathes into us. The story told on the first Sunday of Lent, about Jesus’ temptation, sets the tone for the season to follow. So, if he endures a desert struggle, so do we. If he must assess his priorities in response to the devil’s challenges, so must we. And if he turns from the dark, destructive voice to the life-giving one, we do the same pivot.

It’s an excellent time to ask ourselves, as we should regularly: What’s going on inside? What am I hungering for? What matters most? Lent is the ideal time to tackle the tough questions: Where have we become inauthentic or sluggish? What have we neglected? Where do we need to spend more time, money or energy? How have we squandered our gifts? Knowing that physical privations are secondary to emotional suffering, we burrow deep into the soul. What obstacles block the pathway to God? What selfishness strains our compassion for others?

Lent: Places to Pause

from The Best of Being Catholic

An annual season of penance and reflection is common to many traditions, for example the Muslim Ramadan. So what makes a Catholic Lent unique? What are its best parts?

As with most things Catholic, a big part of the answer lies in the sensory connections. Sometimes, in giving a catechetical workshop, I’ve asked the audience to remember the Lent of their childhoods. A wealth of sense impressions emerges: the fragrance of incense, the singing of “Stabat Mater,” the taste of tuna casserole or fish sticks on Friday, the soft swish of ashes on a forehead, and with older people, the draping of the statues in purple. No one ever mentions the headier doctrines. Instead, it’s immediately clear: messages engraved on all five senses endure. So while this is not a complete or doctrinal approach to Lent, it describes some of the highlights which have touched people enough to change their lives.

Lent Begins: Ash Wednesday

People unaware of this date may wonder why co-workers or passers-by have a large smudge of what looks like dirt on their foreheads. This is part of a ritual where ashes are marked in the form of a cross on each participant. A slight change in the formula spoken when ashes are given is significant: “Turn from sin and trust the good news.” Sin in the Hebrew context was anything less than the fullness of what God wants us to become. While the media and the grapevine may hum with news of “giving up”  (alcohol, chocolate, meat, etc.) for Lent, the real fast is from what destroys us, the bad memories, overstimulation, and worries that will sicken us if we focus on them.

No matter what the darkness in our past (argument, illness, divorce, betrayal), the dynamic of Lent is to name it, not deny it, treat loss with gentle kindness, then move on. Whatever vortex threatens to suck us in, we look to the hope offered by Jesus, his dear and welcoming embrace. We know we can make this passage because we’ve done it before, just as our spiritual ancestors the Jews left the slavery of Egypt.

Dorothy Stang, Part 2

Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a 2 part series.  Read part 1 here.

Enter the villains. The ranchers hire gunmen who shoot her to death on February 12, 2005. Seeing the gun, Dorothy doesn’t run or plead for her life, as most folks would. Fear would’ve been natural and understandable. Instead she pulls out her Bible and reads the Beatitudes aloud. The divine power transcends human limitations; in those final moments, she imitated Christ. She must’ve spent a lifetime preparing for that climax; now she teaches me how to live.

Breathing a deep lungful of piney mountain air, scented with sage, at home in the Rocky Mountains, I recall Dorothy’s joy outdoors. Without much institutional church, she finds God in the green canopy of trees, the cathedral of forest. Dorothy reminds me that when we lose our sacred connection to the earth, we’re stuck with small selves and petty concerns. In film footage, she proudly shows off a tree farm, exulting, “we CAN reforest the Amazon!”

Dorothy has encouraged me to stop eating beef, since intensive grazing requires destruction of the rainforest. I’m learning “green” alternatives to wasteful habits. Like most North Americans, I have enough stuff and now lean towards a simpler life. David explains, “she was so in love with what she was doing, she didn’t notice her dirt floor, primitive plumbing, no electricity.”

“Holy” once meant pious and passive. But Dorothy models how to raise Cain and act for justice. As we baby boomers age, Dorothy is patron saint for slow butterflies and reluctant caterpillars. She didn’t remain captive to her traditional upbringing. She probably could’ve hunkered down into the retirement center, counted her wrinkles and kept careful tabs on her ailments—as some older folk do. Instead, vivaciously, she tried new things, journeyed to new places. Her face is so youthful, it’s hard to think of her as 73. If I want to look that luminous at that age, I too must shed fears and take risks.

I want to love as gladly and fully as she did. It’s easy to get caught up in trivia: social commitments, work deadlines, domestic chores. But is this how we want to spend the precious coinage of brief lives? At Dorothy’s funeral, her friend Sister Jo Anne announced, “we’re not going to bury Dorothy; we’re going to plant her. Dorothy Vive!” If I want that immortality, I should examine what seeds I’m planting now, how I’ll live on in memory.

Dorothy has ruined my easy cop-out: how can one small person offset complex and apparently hopeless wrongs? Dorothy and I are the same height, 5’2”. Yet look what this giant accomplished: her killers’ trials, televised to every Brazilian classroom, have given children hope.

Her family and community won’t pursue canonization, preferring to give the poor the money that cause would require. Many already consider Dorothy a saint and martyr—in the early church, that’s all that mattered. As one biographer said about St. Catherine of Siena, “someone must’ve told her women were inferior. She clearly didn’t believe it.”

Oscar/Olympic Heresy?

I know: saying this, I’ll be pummeled with little gold statues, medals and ice skates. But at what point will humanity outgrow competition? When will we say, “Here’s what the Canadians did beautifully. These were the Russian strengths. And the U.S. excelled at this.”

It’s not quite the same as giving every kid who plays soccer a trophy—though I wouldn’t mind that either. By the time athletes, actors and actresses have reached the point of competing in the Olympics or being nominated for an Academy Award, they’re at the top of their fields. They’re all spectacular. Trying to compare Amy Adams and Judi Dench is like adding apples and oranges. Let’s simply say, “Cate Blanchett, you were riveting. Philomena, you were the very portrait of a formidable forgiveness.”

The original Olympic athletes received a laurel wreath. No record that they were painted gold, silver or bronze. Can’t the world’s finest come together for the sheer joy of the sport and the celebration of their skills? Why must some go home angry and disappointed? As for the movies: throw the parties. Parade the gowns and jewelry. Lift a glass of champagne to the fine art of film-making. But forget the envelope, the phony suspense, the awards that often seem arbitrary. Why must the human race be further divided?

Environmental Warrior: Dorothy Stang

In a slightly belated tribute to Sister Dorothy Stang, who died 2/12/05, this essay is reprinted in two parts, from THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC.

Dorothy’s brother David is always eager to talk about his martyred sister. “She whacked me around as a kid,” he admits. “A tomboy, she played the best football in the family.” That tenacity carried her through the Amazon, where she became a feisty defender of the poor and the rainforest. After her death, she’s still a role model in the arenas of the environment, aging and women’s roles.

Her story has the attributes of heroic legend, so let’s tell it that way. First, the setting(s). In Brazil, less than 3% of the population owns 2/3 of arable land. When the government gives land to displaced farm workers, loggers and ranchers burn poor settlements, sell valuable timber, then graze cattle (to supply our McDonald’s!) The consequent loss of the rain forest is tragic because it contains 30% of the world’s biodiversity. Some call it “the lungs of the planet.” As it shrinks, global warming increases.

It’s hard to imagine a place more distant from Brazil than Dayton, Ohio. Young Dorothy lives here, her backyard a model of organic gardening, where she learns composting and the dangers of pesticides. In 1948, she becomes a Sister of Notre Dame and teacher. You expect her to become a benevolent nun who dies of old age in a quiet convent, right? That’s where her story gets interesting.

Our heroine volunteers for Brazil when her order calls for missionaries. She accompanies families to Para, bordering the rain forest, to defend their land. She asked the right questions there: not minor matters of narrow denominational or territorial concerns, but “How do we preserve the earth’s treasures? How do we empower God’s beloved people who live upon this land?” Dorothy had the expansive spirit of Roman philosopher Seneca, who declared in 42 A.D., “the whole world is my own native land.”

She organizes people into co-ops: they learn crop rotation, read the Bible and worship with music and dance. (Because priests are scarce, she becomes their “shepherd.” In a contemporary version of Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”), it didn’t much matter if she was male or female, ordained or not. What DID matter, burningly, was “no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.”

When her people are attacked, she tells them brusquely, “quit crying; start rebuilding!” Her old VW Beetle wobbles over bridges with rotting planks—while her passenger David makes a nervous sign of the cross. Dorothy takes the peoples’ case to the government. When officials deny receiving her letters, she burrows through their files ‘til she finds them. Persistently, she asks for protection of poor farmers, but nothing is done. Amazingly, she keeps this up for 38 YEARS. Dorothy starts fruit orchards with women and projects for sustainable development with 1200 people. The Brazilian Bar Association names her “Humanitarian of the Year” in 2004.

To be continued…