Thursday, January 28, 2010

Considering "the Word"

“The sower sows the word…” (Mk. 4:14) How odd that I have long felt linked to this oft referenced “Parable of the Sower” and yet never hat I stopped to ask, “what word?” And I wonder; is this the same “word” Catholics speak of when they kneel before the Eucharist and pray, “Only say the word and I shall be healed.”? Jesus, can a person know the difference between what you meant and what your successive followers have taught and continue to teach? Do we now follow Christ or do we follow the church; and is it reasonable to draw a distinction as if all were not one? Tension creates a desire to understand, to know and to strengthen relationship. Would joining a church, for me, be a way of experiencing a sense of resolution for a challenge that has not yet truly been met?

These were the thoughts and reflections that rose in response to yesterdays readings (part of the “readings for the week” that tend to be distributed in liturgical churches). Today’s readings brought further consideration and along similar lines. The Old Testament reading is an account of David responding to God’s promise to “establish his house,” so to speak. While reading David’s words by habitually frame of mind rests on the image of David being literally present with God, having this conversation. I was not aware of my frame of mind until I reached the line, “Therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you” (2 Sam. 7:27b). David responded to God in prayer—suddenly the image shifts to this man, David, alone in large room, on his knees—how did God speak to David? That, I could not so easily imagine. In what way was the promise made known? It was through the voice of Nathan, the prophet (I had almost forgotten the previous days reading accounting for this; how easy it is to lose context!), to whom “the word of the Lord” came at night.

There is the word again. This time it is elucidated; it is narrated by the voice of Nathan and specifically directed toward David. Not entirely to David though, as it does incorporate his offspring. This is the word that God delivers through Nathan telling of how he will relate to David’s offspring: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be my son…I will discipline him with the rod of men…but my steadfast love will not depart from him…” (7:14-15). Perhaps this is the “word” to which Jesus refers in the parable, only he has expanded it beyond David’s line, because as he called God, “Father,” he called those around him “brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3:35). This relates to what I had just been reading in Martin Buber’s philosophical work, I and Thou (I had read the parable just after the passage that follows and wondered if Jesus’ “word” was more closely akin to the basic word “I-You” than to a compendium of doctrine. Incidentally, Buber is not Christian but Jewish and his book is not considered a work of theology):

***How powerful, even overpowering is Jesus’ I-saying, and how legitimate to the point of being a matter of course! For it is the I of the unconditional relation in which man calls his You “Father” in such a way that he himself becomes nothing but a son (an act that both elevates and humbles)…if detachment ever touches him, it is surpassed by association, and it is from this that he speaks to others (this I-You association with the Father is the root from which all other relationships grow)…everyone can speak the You and then becomes I; everyone can say Father and then become son; actuality abides (it is not limited to or possessed by one, all have equal access and equal level of association—when my You is Father, I am daughter; others or brother and sister to me—sons and daughters of the same—neither more nor less.)***

The italicized parentheticals were my own response as I read this text. Later though, C.S. Lewis threw a spoke in my wheel via this dialogue between two characters in That Hideous Strength:

***“I thought love meant equality,” she said.
“Ah, equality!” said the Director, “…we must all be guarded by equal rights from one another’s greed, because we are all fallen. Just as we must all wear clothes for the same reason. But the naked body should be there underneath the clothes, ripening for the day when we shall need them no longer. Equality is not the deepest thing, you know.”
“But I thought that was just what it was. I thought it was in their souls that people were equal.”
“You were mistaken…Equality guards life; it doesn’t make it. It is medicine, not food…”***

I have found, in reading this story, a disquieting tendency to relate to the characters who are being portrayed as caught of in the confusions and illusions of the world. Whether I ought to take this as a challenge to my own philosophy or that of Lewis, I cannot tell. In the past I’d have automatically gone with the former. Now, I think it reasonable to question both—in much the same way that I would question my assumptions behind what Jesus means when he says “the word” as well as I would both question and welcome another’s interpretation of it—we may not be equal but we are each significant, and doubtless carry a small piece to what amounts to a great and mysterious puzzle. In any case, I suppose the thing to do for now is to read on.

I would certainly welcome any thoughts and reflections from you…

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Daily Bread

I had every intention of writing a clean, coherent reflection on the fast I recently participated in with many others in solidarity with Witness Against Torture's recent campaign in DC. However, I cannot seem to pull myself together and really confront myself with the task of writing. What follows then is a compromise, the reflections jotted in my journal over the course of the past couple of weeks that relate what I was thinking and feeling. I primarily included thoughts that relate directly to the fast but included too impressions that at first glance have nothing to do with the fast's intentions but that surfaced from my personal experience of it:

Jan. 12
Day one of the fast went smoothly enough. I felt that what was most difficult was not eating. That is to say, not the hunger itself, but missing out on the action, the ritual. I did feel a little fuzzy and weakened but in good spirits.

Day two begins. I just woke up to my 6:30 a.m. alarm, pressed snooze and could not fall back to sleep. I was very nauseous, feeling strange and uncomfortable. Prayer came for those who wake this way every morning, and also for those of us who create and allow circumstances that lead to such conditions of living. I stood up and had difficulty gaining my balance. I took a sip of water then went quickly to the bathroom where I sat on the floor and vomited liquid into the toilet. My skin was even paler than usual and I was sweating and trembling. It frightens me a bit that I could react this way after only one day without solid food. Now I feel a bit better, though still managing a shakiness. I feel very weak, still a little nauseous and quite unsure of what to do. Yesterday, I was uncharacteristically cold as well.

Jan. 13
Day two of the fast ended far better than it began. In the morning, I made myself a smoothie with a whole banana and walnuts and flax seed which did a good deal towards returning me to strength…I made a really delicious looking savory pie for Anne and put a piece for myself in the freezer. Cooking without eating my craft as I create it requires some discipline and is yet another reminder of how impulsively I tend to act; certainly with regard to food, but with other things as well…It was good to hear from the others why and how they are fasting and I learned that I am not the only one supplementing my juice and water with more substantive things, like a smoothie.

Jan. 14
A terrible earthquake shattered Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a few days ago. The news grows worse daily as journalists are able to gain access and report in more detail…The destruction is more than I can imagine. Aid is difficult because there are virtually no structures remaining in which to store supplies, let alone house people. Men, women and children are dying from minor injuries because they lack the basic tenets of survival—food, water, shelter—and because there are so many more people that need treatment than there are doctors who can provide it…Walking home from the bank with Isaac in tow, my back ached and I moved slow. When we look critically at a mother who seems unresponsive to her child—is she hungry? When we look down on a man for being lazy or lethargic—is he hungry? When we encounter people who seem confused or detached—are they hungry? When a child struggles to keep up with studies, or when that child ceases to struggle—is it because he or she is hungry?

Jan. 15
My menstrual cycle began today and I was advised by some friends that I should eat because of this. Transitioning out of the fast feels like betraying those who continue and abandoning those who suffer. I ate a piece of bread tonight.

Prayed the rosary…Friday’s mysteries were “sorrowful” and could not have been more appropriate as I offered the prayer with intentions for the broken people in Haiti and those in the prison at Guantanamo. I imagined Jesus praying in anguish for them, bleeding before God, as he did for himself in the garden (as he does for those suffering both as their intercessor, and because they are him, incarnations of Christ in this world), while we his disciples sleep; or betray (with a kiss?). I imagined Christ’s presence in them as they are forced to carry an unjust cross, as they are beaten and mocked; mother’s watch in helpless agony, parents separated from children. Christ in them. Christ in me. All One. I prayed the Our Father and came to the supplication, “give us this day our daily bread,” and felt my small voice was the mouthpiece for millions. I could almost feel them, hear them, “give us this day our daily bread…(please, we are hungry!)” Especially poignant because I had not yet eaten. May my feast of a slice of bread tonight be a symbol of what is soon to come for all who hunger! Let me eat as an act of hope.

Jan. 16
…One of the primary challenges of fasting is how it inhibits me socially—eating is such a relational experience. I miss sharing meals with my roommate, bringing a dish to a friend’s house, going out for dinner.

…Prayed the rosary up to the third mystery this evening. Today was “Joyful” mysteries and even with these I could feel the alignment with my intentions. I kept thinking of the seemingly impossible claim God made to Mary which she accepted with obedience and hope saying, “Let it be as you have said,” and I thought that if we are willing to be obedient vessels of hope, living out the prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…” then it will be. And that hope came to us in the form of a small, unknown child, with a long journey ahead.

Jan. 17
…Throughout mass, I was preoccupied with the thought that I wanted so much to embrace and be included in the sacraments, but I don’t feel nearly ready to accept and profess the whole doctrine of the Catholic church, nor do I think any amount of time or study will change that. I believe in God as mystery, intrinsic and transcendent. I believe in God as ineffable. God cannot be tied down with words, however many one might try to pile on (and the church does pile them on!). Yet, I still want the connection, the community, the signs and symbols and in many cases the traditions and teachings…
…I called Pop and had a nice long chat with him and Mom. He gave me some anecdotes about fasts (he has done three forty day fasts and numerous shorter ones):

“If you are driving down the road and see a billboard for Kentucky Fried Chicken and think, ‘man, I could go for some of that!’ then you have not been fasting long enough. If, some time later you pass the same sign and think, ‘man, I could not eat that, all that grease and junk would tear me up,’ then you have not been fasting long enough. If you pass by that same sign again and think, ‘JUST LET ME EAT THE PAPER!’ then you have probably fasted long enough.”

Jan. 18
A quiet day. Revisited yoga, finally, followed by some mediation, prayer and reading of scripture. Sitting and studying the contents of my RCIA binder, listening to itunes and sipping coffee (accepting my empty stomach), I don’t know when I have last felt so much myself…a song, “Sing with the Sailors” comes on and my heart beat quickens. The feeling, I find, is not unlike what I experience when I catch a glimpse of the mystery of God and the intimate love we share; the indwelling of Christ. Oh, I am happy to be returning, returning yet moving forward, returning but becoming new; always becoming.

Jan. 20
Larry’s e-mails have highlighted some of my insecurities and doubts—they’ve also reached into my heart and turned it, ever so slightly, to remind me that I am not looking at the whole thing. He is reminding me of something I keep wanting to believe I have overcome; the fear of loving, truly…

Jan. 22
…Some further thoughts I would like to pursue reflecting on:

• Eating and Community
- inspired to fast because of community I know and love. Supporting them as they support others.
- struggling with fast because of community that I feel separated from (i.e. not sharing meals with Anne)
- feeling more connected to those who suffer both because of my hunger and because of how easily I could and did end it. Feeling and knowing (beyond intellectually) that I did not have a greater right but did have a greater privilege because of where and to whom I was born…this brings up many questions and mixed emotions.

• Prayer and compassion; so much richer during absolute fast. The more I ate the less I prayed and the less attentively I reflected on and followed news.

• Distractions: thinking a lot about Haiti and about myself, including discerning future paths both practical (where will I live? what will I do?), and spiritual (what do I believe? what is my vocation?). Though, I don’t know why I separate the two—practical and spiritual—because for me they go hand in hand.

• Question: is there pride in denying privilege or, a kind of attempt at personal redemption (from guilt) when we deny ourselves—is it a rejection of gifts?

• Recognizing the sin of excess: how seldom I ever feel hunger and is over-eating as wasteful as dumping good food in the trash?

• Supporting others, acting justly through agriculture and loving our neighbor/friend/enemy through sharing a meal.

• Being denied the right to deny ourselves (i.e. Jake’s reflection on hunger-strikers being force-fed)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

prevalent thoughts

I have been thinking it's high time I posted a fresh reflection here but have lately been keeping my mind busy with other things; namely news and novels, personal journaling and one-on-one communications. I have decided to take advantage of an instance of the latter, an e-mail correspondence with good friend from Kentucky, a man I consider to be a mentor, in which I articulated some of the dominating thoughts that have been rambling about my brain of late. I am only including my response to what he wrote in response to my first message as I don't feel comfortable making a message he wrote to me personally, public. I hope having this appear out of context doesn't make it completely incomprehensible:

Yes, I didn’t expect you to be enthused about the Catholicism considerations. For the most part only my Catholic associations and some other folks who have long been straddling the fence are optimistic that I will set my cap on that institution. The view of it as an institution (which would appear so glaringly obvious to the more logical pursuant)is the little detail that continues to put a spoke in my wheel. There is much about the Church that is not appealing to me–much of what is contained in your message–and I find myself wondering if it is possible to take on what I do love (namely, the sacraments, the sense of community, the philosophy of some of the great writers and thinkers and doers) and leave aside what I don’t. The problem with taking on a label though (e.g. “Catholic”) is that you begin to represent the whole of it and not just the parts you favor (this is why for so long I avoided calling myself “vegetarian” and would only say, “I am just not eating meat right now.” The former sets in assumptions and indicates categories, the latter invites questions and illustrates choices). It is something I continue to wrestle with. For a time I tried to settle in as a woman detached from the idea of God, but I find that belief in this Being is so integrally a part of my identity that abandoning religion doesn’t satisfy me; it doesn’t feel true either intellectually or emotionally. Nevertheless, my understanding of God is one of mystery and for any person or institution to try to iron out the details seems a false step to me. So that is an issue too. I suppose the hope would be not to emulate the history of the Catholic tradition but to learn from it and work toward refining it whilst benefiting from some of the practices and theology that I do find edifying as well from the sense of being rooted and connected as I continue to grow and explore. Enough about that for now.

As for Haiti, of course I realize that there is a chasm tremendously wide and deep between my own experience of voluntary fasting and the suffering that is experienced there. I think that is part of what made the connection so poignant, this knowledge that while I could at any point choose to eat, a majority of the people there (even before this earthquake, as you noted) do not have that option. The connection was not a sense that we are the same, but a pointed reminder of my extreme privilege. A privilege I felt too as I laid in bed and fended off the chill in my body by wrapping it in blankets all the while safely within four walls and beneath a strong roof; yet another gift so often taken for granted. I don’t know what to make of all this except that it intensifies my sense of responsibility, not just in being mindful of how I live my life (avoiding waste and damage to the environment and others, being loving towards those I encounter, etc) but also being mindful of how others live and how I might take advantage of my excess and use it as an opportunity to propel myself into a position where I can work toward lessening another’s deprivation. That said, I have thought about going to Haiti and seeing things for myself, but in what capacity, I don’t know. One of the things that weighs on me most is, as you mentioned, the lack of any stable infrastructure or system of governance that would allow for the present aid being offered to lead toward sustainable change and benefit for the country. But, much as I increasingly recognize the importance of politics, I don’t believe that I’ve a real capacity for being particularly helpful in that arena. I have loved the learning that’s been happening for me here with this group of activists and idealists, but I hope to take the challenges and inspiration they’ve offered and translate it into something more relevant to my intrinsic gifts. If only I had a keener sense of what that means! Perhaps that would amount to something I could bring with me to Haiti to offer in return for the life-education I would doubtless receive there. I do remember you talking about your own experience in Haiti. Do you have any thoughts on what a person like me might be able to bring if I did decide to go?

Sorry, I didn’t mean for this to get so lengthy. These just happen to be the two topics that have been most on my mind, and both so full of nuances and contradictions and hopes and frustrations.

What sort of volunteering are you looking into?

Love & Peace,


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Good Stories

I just finished listening to a wonderful articulation my brother shared with his church about storytelling. The crux of his talk was to communicate that good storytelling is about telling the truth. This, I firmly believe. It is something that is often brought to mind and was a point of discussion as recently as New Year’s Eve with a new friend. For some reason, just thinking about stories that tell the truth fills me with a kind of ache and excitement, not unlike the feeling of unmet love, leading me to feel that there is something unfinished in my relationship with such stories. That is a thought I will explore at another time. Presently, I merely wanted to share a list of books that resonate with me. 2009 was a good year for many things in my life and one of them was a return to delighted reading. The following are stories that caused connections to hum in my brain, songs to dance from my feet, and love to swell in my heart. In other words, here are a few stories that told the truth:

(Not exactly in order of greatness as that is something too hard for me to decide, but I will say that the first two are probably my favorite)

1) East of Eden by John Steinbeck
2) The Poisonwood Bible by Barabara Kingsolver
3) Perelandra by C.S. Lewis (2nd book in the Space Trilogy)
4) The Life of Pi by Yann Tierson
5) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
6) What is the What by Dave Eggers
7) The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
8) The Long Lonliness by Dorothy Day
9) Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
10) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver