Monday, October 18, 2010

Giving and Receiving

I parked my bike off the lake trail so that I could walk about the segment set aside for “nature preservation.” The city is trying to revive the flora of the prairie. The long brown and bowed stems I gingerly stepped over revived a memory. It was of a trail I frequented almost daily in Berea, KY—specifically of the small patch of lowland prairie carved from forested hills. Tall flowering grasses turned to straw-like sticks in the fall and were intersected by a narrow trampled path. A Midwestern sky with clouds like shoreline sand soared overhead. On one side was a wall of evergreens, ever waving, darkly mysterious and sweetly inviting. On the other side was an assortment of maples and oaks, one monumentally thick and knotted with reaching arms as strong as a mother’s.

Now, I am sitting on a stone wall, beneath the shade of a voluminous “Wooshing Tree” (a.k.a. Weeping Willow), facing the lake; a different kind of beauty. I felt turned inward. This morning I was squeezing a quick online conversation in with my sister, Hannah (in South Korea, too many time changes away for me to keep track of), before heading off to mass. Interrupted by a persistent knock at the door I resignedly went downstairs. It was Dennis.* He wanted money for a 7-Day bus pass to get to his new job. Despite some reservations I gave him what he asked for, admittedly as much out of curiosity—will he really come back to share meals with us and volunteer around the house as promised?—as out of compassion. Questions about what it means to serve the poor, and more to the point, what it means to know and love a person, to identify and meet their needs, surfaced and churned.

The day before I had met Rose at Pax Christi’s Mass for Peace and potluck. She is, I would guess, in her forties, but with a thick, weary body and soft, deep-lined stranger’s face that makes her appear older. Her hair is thin and brown, her eyes, pale blue. The top row of her teeth grow in an ascending slant ending in unfettered pink gums. She is friendly and open though difficult to understand, speaking in garbled tangential phrases. I saw her again at mass and she came up to me, I asked her if she’d be going to the brunch our friend’s community hosts next door. She said yes but didn’t know where it was, so we went together. Lately, I’ve lamented that I don’t have enough personal contact with the poor to legitimize my words and work. God’s gifted me with a glimpse of what a that life looks like, one man, one woman, at a time.

I keep being revisited by a phrase my housemate John brought into prayer once about “building a movement.” I frequently forget it or maybe I just don’t fully believe it. That we could be agents in the creation of another way of living that reaches beyond our little home, beyond our network of friends. After Saturday’s peace mass a sharing circle was initiated and two questions were posed, “what are you working toward” and “what gives you hope?” It was beautiful to hear the variety of projects that the men and women there had undertaken. Probably 98% of those present were over sixty and I was encouraged by their persistent dedication to working for peace, justice and being a voice for the voiceless. George, an older man and friend of our community said that he finds hope in Catholic Worker houses, and others like them, “because they give to the poor, but not from a position of power.” I was deeply touched by his words, and challenged to honor them.

Telling Hannah about Dennis I had the sense that she was wary of his authenticity. I couldn’t blame her, I was as well. I had to by intentional about reminding myself that there are many who don’t have their needs so easily met as I do. They have to either ask, or go without. If I was in a tough spot, there are people who would see and offer assistance. What happens with those whose needs stand before blind eyes and cry before deaf ears? (Later it occurred to me that part of not giving from power is not needing to know or control what happens with what I give, but to give of my excess regardless. Whatever Dennis’ intentions, I have more than I need and he has less.) Hannah posed the critical question, why don’t they have support? The answer remains concealed. The question though reveals a path to response: that we not only give alms, but ultimately offer relationship, become the church.

The time, insight, and commitment required for this can feel like an overwhelming cost. At times it seems unattainable, especially when thinking of the multitude in need not just the one at the door. Thinking about this while hurriedly biking to mass I felt a renewed recognition that this is what the Catholic Worker is for. We are here to fill in the gaps, to be family to those without, whatever the reason for that may be. We are and we are becoming the church. This requires resources that we, because of investing our time and talents in being present to the “least, lost, and lonely,” are often lacking as individuals. Hence, community, and not only that of this house. We, by some twist of fate, do have friends and family and a voice that is more likely to be heard in society. So, we ask for help on behalf of those who lack these gifts: Asking partly because we know we have not because we are more deserving but by some strange grace. We are obliged and grateful and overflowing.

I thought about the parable of the man who had a visitor. He had no bread to offer this visitor, so he went to his friend’s house, woke him from sleeping, and asked persistently until this friend, reluctantly and irritably, complied (Luke 11:5-8). During mass the gospel reading was of a widow who unflaggingly plied an unjust judge for justice against her adversary (Luke 18:4-5). I couldn’t help smiling, filled with both consternation and delight at the reading and at the way the judge says, “Though I neither fear God nor respect people…I will give this widow justice so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” How often Jesus upholds persistent petitioning! How often he upholds, even, begging, which we as individuals and as a society are so resistant to. We modern Christians often allocate this advocacy of begging to a symbol of spiritual supplication, to prayer. But why not acknowledge it as it is presented; a commendation of begging for help in addressing tangible needs?

At the post-mass brunch I sat at table, across from Rose, and watched as my friend Liz cheerfully, patiently, deciphered her confusing conversation. I though of the parable of the banquet where all are invited and the one of the lowest social position is given a seat of honor. I though of our little open meals at the White Rose where often the guests are strangers, some not even English-speaking, and how strange and how wonderful that no one present acts like anything unusual is happening. We are serenaded by guitar strumming and Spanish songs as we share a meal with brothers and sisters whose stories are a mystery to us.

Before mass had ended, kneeling before the Eucharist, I felt challenged by Christ’s presence. Each week I consume him, but am I in turn offering myself to be consumed as he would? I continue to wade through questions and confusion about appropriate giving, healthy relationships, appropriate work, effective ministry, and movement building. For today though, I choose to be grateful that when Dennis knocked—though I was reluctant to be interrupted, reluctant to part with cash, reluctant to be manipulated—the door was opened.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Love Letter

Dear One,

This was a beautiful day; warm, sunny, blue. Yesterday was like it, unusual weather when October already is casting its first week aside. This sort of anomaly is welcomed here as we anticipate dark, cold days. I remember this weekend as at home, outdoors. I remember the main thought as, “thank you;” the main feeling, “Love.” Most of the rest, I imagine, will be forgotten, but these I will carry.

Do you know this wild love for living? It is oddly unaccompanied by fear of death. Though, it does know sorrow. Here is a thought I recall—it came alongside me where our garden grows in the alley between our backyard and the tall fenced soccer field of Loyola University. I was crouched filling a watering can from the barrel (filled by hauling water from the rain-catching-barrel attached to the house), feeling proudly like a farmer. The sun’s warm hand touched my shoulders, pretending to be summer. I was filled with love for that touch, for the solid ground supporting my feet, the little leaves of lettuce reaching from raised beds. I felt love for the shockingly white chickens chirping gratefully at having been release into a heap of bug-ridden compost, for Matt who was fixing Regina’s bike brakes, for John and Regina who were building a new worm bin to supplement our abundant need for a place to direct food scraps. I felt love for God, for letting me know all this, for myself for saying “yes” and living. Quietly entered the thought, “is it wrong to have all this joy when so many suffer?” Even while asking I knew the answer was no. Joy and grief are not exclusive emotions. They live side by side, and know each other well. Tenderly, even, they know each other deeper than I understand and one will seldom lose sight of the other. It is, in fact, joy that gives me grief (consider, maybe it really is a gift, in this context at least). Accident or oppression or ignorance, create walls detaching joy from grief. This is what turns loneliness to alienation, sorrow to despair. Joy compels me to break the barriers and love the grieving back to life. If I abandon joy for grief, I diminish the hope of their reunion.

What am I talking about? By four o’clock I was tired. Now, I am downright weary, but with a spirit well-rested, satisfied, and wanting to tell stories. Last night we (the White Rose) hosted a roundtable discussion on climate change. The large group broke into smaller ones. I inserted myself into a circle of folks talking about the spirituality of consumption and conservation, or something of that nature. I talked about mindfulness and interconnectedness. Others talked about small steps, about wants vs. needs and self-care and sanity. Someone said, “Fear.” The word punctured me and poured out further reflection. My heart pounds and hands reach not from fear—unless it be of the awful (awe-filled) variety typically attributed to awareness of the Holy—fear paralyzes. Admiration and affection move me. I am driven to address environmental justice because of a reverence, a tenderness toward the earth and other people, toward the wind—when I imagine it to be God’s continually whispering creation into being, or its just being a movement that coolly kisses sweat from my skin and dances with leaves—water, and waste that when managed well returns to life and sustains me and you and everyone.

I am moved toward a good life. Not the proverbial “good life” of ease and abundance. That is to say, ease in its time and abundance toward all; a life that gives as often as it takes, that says, “I love you” with its actions. Then too, a life that at times fills in the gaps left by the times when my actions inevitably spoke, “I don’t care,” “I forgot,” or (God forgive me) “I hate you.” A life like this means being compelled, when the occasion calls for it, to stand in the way of those who don’t endeavor for the good but do quite the opposite, intentionally or otherwise.

If I have an agenda in developing this life, it was woven into me, by my upbringing and by a spirit I consider to be God who I believe is Love. I can’t see the threads beginning any better than the end. It’s been molded over time by experiences and influential friends and an enduring (imaginary? maybe, but I don’t think so) relationship with the so-called-son-of-God who tried to teach a timeless truth. “Ask and it will be given,” he said, “Knock and the door will be opened…” He spoke these like a promise, but I hear them as a call too. Because he said also, “give to all who ask of you,” and “as you did to the least…you did to me.” I have been told too that we who believe become part of his body, in and out from God as he is. Do his promises too become mine? (I suddenly remember being barely twenty, on the phone with an ephemeral man, asking, “What does it mean to be a disciple? Does anyone live that way?” Afraid, because I’d realized I wasn’t and didn’t know how to be.) After all, if everyone gave when asked then those who asked would receive. If all answered to a knock, then the door, indeed, would open.

Of course, all don’t. It’s possible, probable, that all never will. Does that mean the much proclaimed Kingdom is not already here? Or does it come when we live (as we often advocated for in recovery) “as if”? The Kingdom is at hand when I practice personal responsibility and love my neighbor as myself. The Kingdom comes when I resist the evil in me and that in my government and culture (even when that resistance is rude, awkward, risky). Sometimes it means little more than the elusive quality of mindfulness, cultivating attentiveness and intentionality into our thoughts, words, and deeds. Before you buy that—where did it come from? Who worked for it and how were they treated? What waste has and will be created by it? Before you judge her—would you welcome the same judgment for yourself? Sometimes it means intentional planning and action. Many need to be wakened from slumber. Many need dull perceptions sharpened. Even those who see sometimes forget to look.

Dorothy Day writes, “We need always to be thinking and writing about poverty, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it…” Contemplating this, I realize that the word “poverty” could easily be exchanged with a multitude of others. We need always to be thinking about the: workers who fill the jobs we ignore; children, mothers, fathers, who are killed by bombs our money bought; land abused for the sake of indulgence; people dying of thirst for water we flush down the toilet; people with confused minds and wounded hearts that need healing though there is no one to blame for their brokenness.

I consider all this and decide that it is too much. It is impossible to be mindful of so many things. It is absurd to hold all this in one’s hands and say, “I will carry you.” Yes, yes, as absurd and impossible as a camel passing through the eye of a needle! I will remember though that my hands are not mine only but part of a body made up of millions. I will remember that it’s been said that though with humans such things are not possible, “with God all things are possible.” Such a wild promise. When I consider the wildness of this life, it just might make sense. I will believe (Lord, help my unbelief!) I will let love give me the strength to embrace sorrow, and the arms of grief press me to create spaces where I can plant seeds of joy. Then I can listen to the promise, “the kingdom is coming, the kingdom is coming” in the context of the quiet, audacious assurance, “the kingdom is already here!”

But who am I to say these things—a sleepy sun-burned girl, lying on the carpet on her bedroom floor, surrounded by the clutter of shared space, listening to music mixes, pouring the fullness of her heart through pen to paper—I am yours.