Sunday, December 30, 2007

What gives me the right??!

I've heard all kinds of complaints, and thirty-eleven doorkeepers (thirty-eleven = a large number, only slightly lower than thirty-eight o'clock, which is a huge number, equal in quantity to the adjective "pinkest" -- if no one has ever loved you thirty-eight o'clock and pinkest, then you're not living) have been banging on my door (a nice change for them, perhaps?), demanding to know who I think I am, and how did I ever get the idea that I can override their adamant collective "no"?

Of course, I'm immensely flattered by all the attention and deeply grateful to be asked this question!

And so, messieurs, I will not keep you in suspense any longer. You see, once a person has received even one (even if it is quiet and quavering) tiny, almost-imperceptible yes -- well, I believe you are more familiar with the rulebook than I am -- that's all the license a person needs. Moreover, as you well know, such a minuscule yes, though it be made of nothing more substantial than a breath, has a peculiar property -- it may be cut into pieces, an infinite number of pieces, and each small fraction of that yes is itself still fully a yes. What I choose to do with all those yeses is entirely my affair. If I wish to distribute them on the air, or spend them all over the cosmos, you can't stop me. The real question, and the one that should concern you more, is whether anyone will actually pick up a yes and run with it. That's the only weak spot in my strategy. Even when the ground is littered with yeses, you will indeed find persons who will shovel them to the side so that they can reach the little stools you so thoughtfully provide beside your gates. They will take a handful of these yeses and use them to cushion their bottoms for the long sit they will undertake, waiting for you to relent.

Where is the Infinite?

Now, this is the real question, the one everyone wants and needs an answer to. It's all very well to say that each person has a need for the Infinite, that we can read it like graffiti all over desperate adult behaviors (everything from addictions to preoccupations with trends, from serial relationships to grasping for power, from filling our short supply of free hours with diversions to play-acting moods we don't actually experience, from beefing ourselves up with various kinds of knowledge to pretending to ourselves that we we already have everything we need). But what use is this self-knowledge if we find ourselves in a corridor lined with doors, all of which are locked?

I'm reminded of Kafka's parable of the man at the gate ("Before the Law"):

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper.

To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. "It is possible," says the doorkeeper, "but not at the moment." Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: "If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him."

These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter.

The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with a statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: "I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything."

During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper's mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inexhaustibly from the gateway of the Law.

Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experience in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man's disadvantage. "What do you want to know now?" asks the doorkeeper; "you are insatiable."

"Everyone strives to reach the Law," says the man, "so how does it happen that for all these years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?" The doorkeeper recognizes the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, he roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."

In this parable, the Law really is the law -- justice, even in human terms. The parable has the feeling of reaching for the divine, for divine reality, though, because the gate is such a pregnant symbol and because the man from the country is described as "insatiable." In fact, the reason why the parable has such force is that the man is insatiable, vigilant, faithful to his desire, on the one hand, and entirely incapable of entering through an open gate, on the other. There is something the man desires more than he desires admittance to the Law -- he desires that the doorkeeper give him permission. The parable describes a conflict, a tension, a drama, and we cannot experience conflict, tension or drama with an abstract concept -- only with a person. The drama plays itself out between the two men in the story. What is it that the man from the country really wants? He wants to hear the word "yes."

The Infinite abides, not in any abstract concept -- not even in Love!!! -- but in a word, in a person. To feed this man's insatiable hunger, it would not be enough to pass through a thousand gates, if at each one he would meet a man who would tell him, "no."

But this is the most interesting part -- he does not necessarily need the doorkeeper to say yes to anything beyond pointing him through the open gate. He doesn't need the doorkeeper to say, "Yes, you may have me, body and soul. Yes, I will love you unconditionally." He only needs the doorkeeper to say, "Yes, that is the way. Go in, walk through."

The tragedy of the parable is that the doorkeeper is as unrelenting as the man from the country is insatiable. The most tragic moment is when the doorkeeper tells the man that he is accepting his bribes, just so the man will feel as if he had tried everything. But this is precisely what life does to us all the time! All of our attempts to feed or assuage our need for the Infinite are met with one "no" after another. Even, most tragically, for many who stand before the gates of religion. I would be a liar if I didn't admit to this fact. This world is full of people who say, "no." We have all of us run this particular experiment under all kinds of conditions, controlling for millions of variables, with the same results.

So, where can we find the "yes"? This word is written into the structure of things. We can begin to hear it whispered when we ask ourselves why there is something and not nothing. Looking at reality (stars, moons, ferns, the wing of a bird, cool water, the petal of a crocus in the snow) and asking, really asking, "Why?" helps us to discern the word "yes." The word resides even more powerfully inside a seed (the smaller the better) and then when we begin to imagine how many seeds there are in the world. But none of this would be enough for us unless we could hear this "yes" on the lips of another person.

So, I will say it for you: "Yes, this gate, the one you are standing in front of that was made only for you, go through it! This is your life, you have permission to live it! Get up off your stool, and invite the doorkeeper to come in with you. If he won't come, blow him a kiss and be on your way."

You only need one thing more -- your own yes.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Freedom Notes from an address by Julian Carron at the CL Opening Day for Adults in Lombady, Italy, September 30, 2006

"What educates us is an event. It is fundamental to help each other to understand this. So our meetings are gestures, not simply words. What broadens the mind is not an abstract argument, but taking part in an event.... It is not a matter of ability or cleverness. We are poor wretches. it is only by letting ourselves be involved in a gesture as beggars, going to Communion as poor wretches, to receive strength from an Other, that we can breathe, for Christ came for this, to facilitate this use of reason, to broaden it.

"'Soon afterward he journeyed to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him. As he drew near to the gate of the city, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, "Do not weep." He stepped forward and touched the coffin; at this the bearers halted, and he said, "Young man, I tell you, arise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, exclaiming, "A great prophet has arisen in our midst," and "God has visited his people."'

"Why do they think of God? Why can they not stop at what they see? The event before them will not let them get bogged down in their own measure. This is what facilitates the broadening of reason, to the point of recognizing God, of glorifying God.

"Now this is the definitive method. In all circumstances we can verify the Christian faith, because the Christian faith is not the prolongation of Christ's words -- if there is faith, it is because the event of His presence goes on happening amongst us. Either Christianity is an event in action, or it has changed its nature -- in other words, it is no longer Christianity. It's not just a matter of using the expression, "Christianity is an event." It is not an event because I say so, it is an event if it happens. We cannot get out of it by using formulas or labels -- it is a present event.

"As I have said on a number of occasions in various settings, I am really astounded at how many events have happened amongst us over the past year. But I need to acknowledge them, I need that 'human genius' Fr. Giussani spoke of, aand that we recalled at La Thuile, that poverty of spirit that makes us let ourselves be struck by what happens. We are often concerned with other things, and not open to accept what happens; our thoughts or our opinions seem more useful, more intelligent than what happens. But reality is stubborn and, as Pavese said, 'the most resolute thought is nothing compared with what happens.'

"Here is what happens when a person is willing to be struck: 'I would like to thank you because these days have been a privileged occasion for me to grasp better to whom I belong.' The writer is a university man. 'When we are with you, this comes out more and more clearly. Some weeks ago, I began to study again At the Origin of the Christian Claim and I was struck by what Fr. Giussani said in the Foreward: "What makes us grow and broadens our mind is not abstract reasoning, but finding in humanity a moment when the truth is attained and uttered." This happened to me. I have grown, I went away more expert in life, in myself, not because I learned something new in the argument, but because I met someone who introduced me to this absolute novelty. Now I am more certain that the only road is the sequela, curious to discover, to know and to fall more in love with Christ, through those who, in reality, make me meet Him as a living reality. Thank you for the education you offer me -- it is the only way not to succumb to nothingness.' [...]

"Another person, who...attended our visit to South America, wrote to me: 'Before you arrived, I asked myself many times what I was expecting, and the only answer I was able to give that really satisfied me was what Fr. Giussani had said , "It seems to me they are not looking for Christ." What I wanted was this [to look for Christ]. Fr. Giussani affirms, "If you could carry with you the content of the awareness of all the past days, of the years spent in the Memoris Domini [group of vowed lay religious with CL] or in the 'verification' or in the Movement, I don't know if you wouldn't feel covered with shame...if we were to realize in that moment that we have never said 'You.' [We can ask ourselves this -- when was the last time we said, 'You,' with all the awareness and emotion we are capable of?] Lord, You are the One I love [St. Augustine said]: 'What does man desire more than the truth?' What is the truth? A man who is present, a man who is present: he cannot be squandered or washed away by the pretty and jolly appearance of the companionship of faces that should be a sign of Him! This happens when you really say 'You' with all the awareness of your 'I' -- the more you are aware of yourself, the stronger, greater, truer, simpler and purer is your devotion to Him." Your simplicity, your clarity, your affection, your way of constantly challenging reality, seeking a verification in it, have truly won me over and made me understand once again the preference and the fullness of the life of Jesus, the life Jesus has us experience every day, and now there is all the desire that this beauty accompany my life and that of all my friends who have seen it.'

"In this way, each one of us can become a companion for others. It is not a question of being good (and we will not be), but of letting ourselves be drawn along by His presence. This is what enables us to look at everything, even what doesn't look nice..."

Hope Answered

Unfinished Russian Icon

If you strip away all the cynicism, stoicism, addictions, and posturing that we learn in order to "grow up" in a world that seems to want to eat us up and spit us out, what is left of us?

What I have seen in small children and in adults who seem allergic to the expedient measures that so many adopt in order to survive -- or to do what they call surviving -- is an openness, an asking, a wondering and a waiting for something.

When something new appears on the horizon -- a move or a new school or new neighbors or an approaching holiday, something observable happens to the children. There is a tension in the air -- we could all see it, all during Advent: Will the wonderful really happen? The wonderful is going to happen?! But will it really happen?

And then, after the new thing has passed, the inevitable feeling of deflation, disappointment, sadness, emptiness -- again, we can see it in the children; it is observable: It was sort of wonderful, but it wasn't the wonderful thing, the truly wonderful thing...

It seems to me that the presents, the traditions, the candy, the lights and decorations are all really there to show us that they are not enough. As parents, we can buy our children everything their hearts desire -- except the one thing that will make them truly happy.

So then the Christmas season becomes a time of explaining, teaching, consoling...

This seems to be the true value of this season -- to show that what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, will never make us happy! It is really a horrible and cruel process unless we have something to give that is greater than what is promised by the wrapping paper and bows and ribbons.

Father Giussani (and now Father Carron) have been stressing that what we need is a conversion of desire. Without this conversion of desire -- without an understanding that even the warm feeling within our families, even the best love that a mother can give to her child, will never ever be enough, we are left with a series of betrayals. Parents betrayed because all they spent on gifts will never be appreciated and children betrayed because their parents will never love them enough.

What can satisfy our souls? What can give us what we need? What will fill that huge longing we feel that we must learn, somehow, to make friends with and carry with us through life? Because it doesn't go away. We can turn cynical, we can adopt attitudes and we can pretend not to need -- but we can't get rid of the need.

Christmas, even more than Easter, is proof that we are made for the Infinite, and only the Infinite will satisfy us. Unless we find a way to possess the Infinite, we will be forever sad and forever hungry. So, my friends, how will be find it? Where will we look? It is essential that we look! It is the most pressing need we have. Otherwise, we will indeed by eaten up and spat out by every circumstance. We will live our lives betrayed and lonely, feeling like our hearts have been carved out.

Only the Infinite. We must ask ourselves, where will we find the Infinite???

Friday, December 28, 2007


The video I posted, under the title "Acqua fresca," features my grandmother, Lena Dougherty, at her ninetieth birthday party, singing a folk song from Piedmonte, the region in Italy where both of her parents were born and raised until their early teens, before they moved to central Illinois to be caught up in the coal mining business.

Grandma Dougherty lived for three more years after her ninetieth birthday. As I stood beside her open casket at the funeral home visitation, one of her neighbors approached my mother and I to inform us, "That old lady in there," he pointed to the coffin, "Was tougher 'n a two-dollar steak."

What he said was true. But, being human, she also contained contradictions and paradoxes. She had a tenderness, too. Perhaps both her toughness and her tenderness can be seen in the video?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Acqua fresca

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, He has visited His people and redeemed them.
He has raised up for us a Mighty Savior, in the house of David, his servant,
as He promised by the lips of holy men, those who were His prophets from of old.
A Savior who would free us from our foes, from the hands of all who hate us.
And so His love for our fathers is fulfilled and His holy covenant remembered.
He swore to Abraham our father to grant us
that free from fear and saved from the hands of our foes,
we might serve Him in holiness and justice, all the days of our lives in His presence.
As for you, little child, you shall be called a prophet of the Most High.
You shall go ahead of the Lord, to prepare His ways before Him,
to make known to His people their salvation, through forgiveness of all their sins.
The loving-kindness of the heart of our God, who visits us like the dawn from on High.
He will give light to those in darkness and those who live in the shadow of death,
and guide us into the way of peace.

* * *
Today we watched the dawn rise in the East, and I thought about how God really has visited his people, just like the dawn, that comes from on high. In the light that he sheds on our humanity, we can begin to see what lies behind, beneath, at the foundation of everything -- Love, loving-kindness and mercy that is infinite. How breath-taking that this mercy is there, generating us, making us live, shaping us in dignity -- that it was there before the foundation of the world, before we could ask for it, before we knew we needed it.

As he promised by the lips of holy men -- how miraculous that he could translate his promises into human words that we can understand and follow! It takes a heart full of love, full of holiness, to hear these promises and to share them with others. The Truth of the world is a person -- how can we even wrap our minds around this fact, that God has made known to us.

Who are our foes, and who are those who hate us? No person is a worse enemy, more hateful to me, than my own sin. In fact, it is my own sin that makes it possible for any other person to be my enemy. Jesus had no enemies, even as a crowd of angry people tortured and killed him -- because his love and forgiveness transformed the evil and hatred into redemption -- salvation -- that was available, even to those who attacked him. How amazing it is to begin to realize that there is something worse than a mortal attack on our bodies! How mysterious that even an attack on our inner life, rejection, can only harm us if our response does not correspond to the way he responded from the cross.

All the days of our lives in his presence -- all our days are spent in his presence! But we need children to show us our connection to this constant presence of Love and goodness. We need to have the heart of a child, a poor heart, open and waiting and expecting this goodness we've been promised.

How do we prepare his ways before him? Examine the life of John the Baptist, from his very first leap of joy to the message of repentance that he proclaimed, relentlessly. Today, we should all take a moment to literally leap for joy! This thing that has happened to us is so beautiful, so astonishing, so miraculous! God's Word is a person who visits us, placing light where there was darkness, hope where there was fear, and love where there was nothing but dust and sand.

The way of peace -- it is forgiveness, leaning on the forgiveness of God, the mercy won for us through Jesus, whose attention to us was so acute, so full of passion for us. Let's be acute like that! Let's live full of passion! Let's leap again and again!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Mystery of Hope, Forgiveness and Resurrection

Found, with the help of Clairty, on the Vatican website, here.



Luigi Giussani

The meaning of life and its truth, that for which one is born, for which one has flesh constituting a body, for which one has thoughts which spring forth, for which one busies oneself with this or with that, for which one passes from day to night, from night to day, and the months and the years build up; the meaning of all this does not coincide with that which we are able to imagine or decide by ourselves: it is mysterious. No one knows, no prophet: «not even the Son but the Father only» says the holy Gospel.

The meaning of our life is mysterious; it is in the "hands of God" as our elders say. In the hands of God, just as we ourselves succeed in saying every once in a while, but with less strength and truth. But this being in the hands of God more than anything means saying that whatever we undergo or whatever we pass through in our daily lives, whatever happens, all is for the better, for a good. One cannot separate the idea of mystery of God from the word "good".

Everything is in the hands of God, and therefore everything is for the best. What better advice can a father give to his children when he undertakes to look at their destiny? That all is for the best. Now this good is affirmed as the total meaning of time and therefore of every action with which man inclines to his destiny.

There is a name which identifies this well: as nature and origin, as possibility in time and how, final solution, of drama - existential and historical - of man. It is the name of the good in its original and therefore ultimate essence; whose name indicates a human person that places himself in the history of all men and in the life of the individual; this name appears in a precise moment of time as the substance itself of the good, the source of every good which says in what the good consists definitively: the good which already touches time. «Then they arrived, in a predetermined moment, a moment in time and of time,/a moment not outside of time, but in time, in that which we call history: sectioning, bisecting the world of time.../a moment in time but the time was created by means of that moment: since without meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave meaning» (T.S. Eliot, chorus from The Fortress). That name in human history is Jesus of Nazareth.

Christ is a man who reveals identified in himself the act of communicating, the making himself known from the man of the mystery from which all things originate, of which all things are made and to which they are destined. The mystery which makes all things is identified with Jesus Christ. And since it is the name of one among us, whoever recognizes Him and follows Him as John and Andrew did (cf. Jn 1,35) can all of a sudden gaze among us differently, the gaze which we fix on things, the sentiment of time which passes through our hands and the weight of the fruit of our labors. How rarified in our daily discourse is this "you" which is more profoundly true of the "you" than you give to your son, to your wife and to your husband, of the "you" with which we address each other among ourselves. That the meaning (or the truth) of the world and of life be totally upset, completely exceed, completely overflow our ways of thinking, measuring, needing, claiming, coinciding with the mystery of happiness and of the good which carries a name because it is made flesh, it has become one among us and has remained among us!

But now saying "you" to this presence should become the most pressing daily necessity, the impetus of a relationship which runs through every relationship, making them diverse; whoever I am, however I am, saint or sinner, never neglecting that which defines our sinful existence is sovereignly, profoundly, globally, forgetfulness, that at twenty, thirty, forty years old, cannot be that of a child, which is almost tenderness. Our forgetfulness is an evil root, it is a lie, it is the root of a lie. And in fact it is the Father of lies - Satan - who promotes it.

This is the battle which qualifies life in the world, which marks the value of time: the battle between the children of darkness, between those who choose to be children of forgetfulness generated by the Father of lies and thus ruthlessly tied to forgetfulness, and the children of the light, who cry to Him Who, present in our weakness and obscurity as voyagers in the world, is as if absent.

You Lord, Who are yet as one absent, become present in my life! As we rise every morning, we say first with our hearts this "you" to him who is accompanying us to destiny Who is He Himself, by which He made us and which constitutes the same flesh, the same bones of our nature, of the nature of our person. One day past by the grace of God in the consciousness of His presence in relationship of Him is a victorious day even if it was full of suffering.

Now this mysterious meaning, this mysterious wisdom which No one can imagine and which we also continuously forget is Jesus Christ, is the Man. Christ, a man born of a woman. The mystery of God which has made the whole world could not come close to us more realistically than like this. The mystery of this wisdom which governs the world, for which the world was made, is Christ, born of the Madonna. That which renders our day wise, the mysterious meaning which gives support and nourishment to our days, which gives meaning to our daily living, is Jesus Christ.

My activity is not defined solely by factors which constitute it from within, by means of which I can analyze it and discover the reasons; every activity is defined ultimately by a factor which supersedes it. If this is Christ, His figure is the foundation for the relationship between action and his destiny as forgiveness. Forgiveness is a factor which comes exteriorly to action; without it the action would vanish in an evil nothingness, we wouldn't be able to remember it, it would not be the advent of anything, it would not establish a history, it would not construct anything.

It is precisely this factor which comes from the outside, the touch of the mystery in our lives, and man understands it when it is revealed; and it reveals itself entering into the life of the individual and thus into society and history as forgiveness. If we were to reflect well we would understand that we may not take again relationship with wife or with husband, with friend, if not fallen in front of the memory of an evil undergone in humiliating forgetfulness - sign and symbol of the nothingness into which everything collapses-. Our relationship could not endure without falling into forgetfulness, if we were not to let ourselves be taken by a factor bigger than us which becomes forgiveness in living the relationship. And this is so impressive as regards our existence: without forgiveness we could not exist, we could not continue living. I cannot consider my activity unless within the terms of that forgiveness which comes from without me, i.e. from the mystery which makes all things and invests me and embraces me and gives me courage and renders me capable of continuing until the next time. The presence of this factor, forgiveness, which has a name - Jesus - , the more it multiplies itself throughout the day as a memory, the more its memory becomes familiar, so much more will we understand the value of our actions, both in their primary mysterious aspect which launches us towards happiness; and in their secondary aspect which is a delusion because of one's incapacity, suffering and approximation, and at the same time a thrust full of gratitude for the final positiveness of the forgiveness of that which I do become invested, rendering therefore the experience of completeness possible.

It is that which happens to a child who has committed an error and in whose eyes reigns not he who broke something, but the mother who looks at him, smiling, the father who embraces him. To place before our eyes our ego as a worried remembrance of an evil subject is an unjust affirmation of something which is superseded, purified, redeemed. It is more just to look at you, O Christ, Who forgives me, than at myself who have erred. The definition of our person and of our acts is not complete if it does not take into account the incumbent love by which it is embraced in every instance and which is called forgiveness as a phenomenon, but which is called Jesus, Son of the Father as an expression of the nature of the mystery of being towards us. «Tam Pater nemo», (To such a degree, Father, No one), as the ancients said.

Therefore the presence in our consciousness of this "you" which we have stressed is important for understanding that which we do, for reintegrating into health that which is evil in us, for investing with gratuity that which we have of good in us, for opening wide the hope for the future, and therefore rendering the present day, the present drama, history, factor of a good history. Christ, incumbent as meaning of your time in each instant that you live.

«He's a ghost» the apostles said when they saw him on the lake during the storm. Christ is not a ghost, He is constitutive presence of the value of action, in as much as is true that he makes continuity in time possible in a new generation, in forgiveness. Christ incumbent in the ephemeral instant making it history, opening it, preventing things from finishing in nothingness. That which prevents this end, that which make s the instant history, that for which we are made, and which corresponds to the nature of our hearts is Christ, the Word made flesh, who accompanies us each day even unto the end of the world.

This man-God - Jesus of Nazareth, dead and risen and present in the Church, his mysterious body - defines the instant as the beginning of a history from which the eternal face of the human person and humankind is generated. The eternal embraces and drags with itself every comma of our present lives.

There is a gesture in which this presence of Christ which forgives, which constitutes the excelling of the instant so that it does not reduce to the past, there is a gesture in which this presence embraces in forgiveness that re-launches the present as the beginning of a history without end: the sacrament of the Eucharist. The mystery of forgiveness and of the Resurrection embraces my activity, purifying it; it makes my activity, no matter how small it is, merit, that is it makes the ephemeral of our lives proportionate to the eternal. The Eucharist as a daily act is the efficacious sign of the mystery of the Resurrection which makes the otherwise incomplete human reasonably acceptable; it is the efficacious sign of the eternal which emerges in the contingent, in the ephemeral of my life; it is the largest sign of that which makes my life a history of truth and of love.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

This is for me!

In March of 2006, Fr. Vincent came to give the first ever Fraternity Lent retreat for our small community. I was on ballet driving duty the day of the retreat, so I slipped into the room late, after Fr. Vincent had already been talking for about an hour. I think he was speaking about the movie, Mad Max, when I entered, I am not sure. In any case, the experience was, for me, one of walking into a room where people are discussing a movie I haven't seen. I picked up some familiar words, like "encounter," "drama," "hope," and "event." But when he was finished speaking, I wasn't certain I knew what he'd been talking about. There was a good question about the word "verify" and what we mean when we use it in Communion and Liberation. Father Vincent said something about how it seems almost blasphemous to us that we should test what God tells us, and we wouldn't have the nerve to do it except that God himself tells us to verify what he says: Jesus tells us to "Come and See," and the angels invite us to "Behold," and then there is the most dramatic moment when Jesus tells Thomas to place his hand into the marks of the nails and believe.

Then there was a time for silence and confessions, and I wandered over to the chapel to wait my turn to receive the Sacrament. A young woman was ahead of me in line, and she took twenty minutes of the hour that had been given for confessions. As I was waiting for her to come out, a young man came in. Evidently he didn't notice me because when the young woman came out, he slipped in behind her. Now another twenty minutes were going to be lost! As I was waiting for the young man to finish, two other men came in, both of whom were in the Fraternity and actively involved with CL. My first thought was, 'I should let them go ahead of me. This is their thing. I can always go to confession somewhere else.' I am always letting people go ahead of me; it is habitual for me, and the fact that I thought of letting them go ahead of me didn't surprise me. What did surprise me was the very next thought I had: 'No! This is for me!' Where did that come from? Why did I think that going to confession with this particular priest was "for me"? I was not in the Fraternity, and I would barely admit to being "in" CL. How did I dare to think, 'No! This is for me'?

Well, it was so surprising to me that I decided to follow it to see where it would lead. When the young man came out of the confessional, I did not let anyone go ahead of me. Instead, I marched right up to the door and let myself in.

The confession was a good one, but Fr. Vincent didn't say anything earth-shaking or astonishing. I didn't think that I had received any new insights into my sinfulness. He gave me advice that felt like penance, and penance that felt like advice, but other than that, it didn't feel like an unusual confession. I was left with the astonishing thought I'd had before going into confession.

We were supposed to host the convivenza at our house, after the retreat, but one of my daughters had mono that day, and we didn't want to expose anyone else to it. I brought a cake over to the new party location, stayed for just a short time, and then left to look after my sick daughter. As I was leaving, Fr. Vincent made a point of interrupting his conversation to thank me for bringing plastic bags to the party. That struck me as funny, given all the work that had gone into my cake. But okay, the retreat was over for me.

All of that happened on a Saturday. Then, on Monday morning I woke up with the thought, 'I want to join the Fraternity.' Here was another strange thought for me! My next thought was, 'Really?!' But since my mind didn't seem to care to elaborate or expand on the original thought, after a moment, I said to my husband, "I'm going to join the Fraternity." He was so startled, he didn't know what to say. For years he had been deeply involved with CL while I stayed on the sidelines, baking cakes, showing up late to things, and quibbling. Finally, he came out with, "I'll go get the form for you" and climbed out of bed. So then I said, "It's okay. You don't have to rush. I'm not going to change my mind." And that's how I came to join the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation.

So then when we heard that Fr. Vincent would be giving a series of parish missions at five churches in Pittsburgh (which is about an hour from where we live) that summer, I very much wanted to see him again and hear him preach. I wanted to know just what it was about him that had started this chain of surprising reactions within me.

I loved the homilies he gave at the various parishes he visited, and I loved the time we spent with him after Mass, when we went out for dinner with him, or out for a picnic with him. As I spent more time with him, it began to make sense to me that he would have opened up a new view of CL for me. The most striking thing about him, or one of the most striking things, was the way in which he paid attention to whomever was in front of him. He really listens to people and really responds to what they say. He also has amazing experiences to relate -- about his childhood, about his vocation, and about his travels. And he never stops talking about Jesus. I remember one time, while listening to him speak, thinking that I wished that I could be a priest, just so that I could have an excuse to talk about Jesus all the time, and nothing else.

Well, during his second-to-last visit to Pittsburgh, I screwed up my courage and told him I would like to ask him for something. He immediately said, "Yes, anything." That made me laugh, because he could have no idea what I would be asking for! So, I told him that I wanted to invite him to our house for dinner. Would that be possible? He said that it was possible, and that we could do it during his next visit to Pittsburgh. I was so excited! I love to cook for the people I care for, and I began planning for this wonderful meal I would serve him. I had several basil plants I had been growing all summer, from seeds. I planned to harvest them and make a monster batch of pesto.

As we got closer to the date, I called Fr. Vincent to see whether he wanted the dinner to be small, just my family, or whether he wanted me to invite anyone else from the community. He told me to invite everyone, because he never wants to say no to Jesus. So, we put the word out and made a plan for everyone to go first to Mass at the parish where he would be preaching and then come for lunch at our house afterwards (dinner would be too late). The week leading up to the lunch, I made many preparations, including baking a massive cake on that Friday evening -- one that could serve all the people who would be coming. Then two of my friends came with me on Saturday evening to attend the vigil Mass at the parish where Fr. Vincent would be preaching.

Well, during the homily, Fr. Vincent revealed that Pope Benedict XVI had called for a day of prayer and penance, to be observed on the following day, Sunday, to pray for peace in the Middle East. He explained why this fact was particularly significant to him, because he would be moving, within the week, to Bethlehem in Israel to begin a new missionary work in the Left Bank. He told everyone in the church that he would be fasting during the next day, and he asked us to join him. As my friends and I were leaving the church, I went to embrace him, and then I asked him if this meant that he wouldn't be eating any of my cake. How kindly he told me no, that he would be eating nothing but bread and water during the next day!

What a blow! As we climbed back into the car, I felt stunned. It took me a while to find my key and another long while to figure out how to get it into the ignition. I found it very difficult even to process this new information. It was very good to have my friends there with me. I think that all three of us were completely flummoxed. As we drove home, I kept thinking of ways in which the cake could be salvaged. My mind simply couldn't wrap itself around the idea that we would not be having our feast together. The conversation turned to questions of etiquette, even the theological nuances of fasting. On the way, we stopped to buy fifteen loaves of my favorite bread and a case of bottled water. Then I dropped one friend off at her home, and while I was dropping the other one at her place, the first friend told her husband what had happened. The husband called my husband, and by the time I had returned home, my husband had all the details, such as they were. So, shortly after I arrived home, I heard his verdict -- of course the feast was off. Though I'd had more time to process all that had happened, I still had not come to that conclusion, and so this "final word" on my feast struck me as unjust. But, as the two men reasoned, if the pope had said to pray and fast on that day, then there was really no choice. It seemed to me that I had been planning and anticipating my party since well before the pope had capriciously chosen the same date for this observation. One friend, a young woman who was staying with us at the time, pointed out that the Church never asks us to fast on a Sunday...But then my husband said, if the pope wants to, he doesn't have to follow any such rule. I listened to the back and forth and had nothing to contribute. All I really wanted to do was cry and write protest letters to the Vatican.

After everyone went to bed, I was able to finally have my good cry. The thing that disturbed me most was how upset I was about the whole thing. Was I just the Great Gatsby, living for the thrill of throwing big parties, and doing it all for the wrong reasons? Why was I so unable to bend my will to the will of the pope? Why was this so hard for me? I even stayed up late to watch the movie version of The Great Gatsby, to try to find an answer. That was a wise move, because after viewing the film, I felt certain that I am not the Great Gatsby. Then, at four in the morning, I finally came to a moment of clarity: the whole point of this party is to show love to Fr. Vincent. If this is the way he wants to be loved, then this is how we will love him, by eating bread and water with him. That thought brought me enough peace to finally stop crying and get a little sleep.

In the morning, I revised my menu. Of course, the bulk of what I would offer would be those fifteen loaves of bread and the case of bottled water. But since children and the elderly and anyone whose health is fragile are not obliged to fast, I would offer some other foods as well -- peanut butter and cheese to go with the bread, a small bowl of pasta with a little pesto on it, and some milk and juice. Then my friend's husband called to tell my husband that they had gone online and discovered that the pope had called for "prayer and penance" and had never mentioned "fasting." They said that it was wrong to force all these other people to fast, when the pope had never called for it. Thus, we should go ahead with the feast as planned! Now it was my turn to say no, that I would only be serving bread and water plus some other foods for those who can't fast, and explained the conclusion I'd come to at four in the morning -- that the party is in Fr. Vincent's honor and this would be the way we could love him. My stubbornness caused a heated dispute that was only resolved (or at least ended) when I reminded everyone involved that it was my party.

So, the guests arrived, and some of them grumbled. They were accustomed to being feasted at my house, and this very different experience wasn't nearly so pleasant. But when I asked Fr. Vincent to come into the dining room to bless the food, he was delighted to see what was on the table. And then, because there was no food to exclaim over, we all crowded into the living room, where Fr. Vincent regaled us with his stories and listened to ours.

I still remember all the things we talked about and how important each thing was for my life. One of his stories ended with the beautiful line, "Christ comes through assholes like us." Another conversation ended with the observation that in order to convert others, we must be willing to go to their living rooms. One sad story concluded with the observation that unless we let Christ embrace all of ourselves, we can get lost and discouraged and fall away.

We sent him on his way to Israel that afternoon with a loaf of bread tucked under each arm. I remember feeling frustrated as I watched him go -- I had wanted to do something for him, to give him a gift, and yet again, he had given me everything, so much more than I even knew I needed.

What did he give? He brought with him, everywhere I have ever met him, the presence of Christ. It is true that Christ comes through schmucks like us (I can't bring myself to use his colorful language except when directly quoting him!), but for me to be able to see this fact, I first had to see Christ in this one very exceptional priest, who made this fact so undeniably evident to me that I couldn't ignore it. It is not just that he embodied Christ for me -- even more importantly, he saw Christ in all the ordinary people around me, so that by following his gaze, I could see Who he was seeing! And this is why I joined the Fraternity and why I give myself to it with my whole heart.

What is Christianity? What is the Church?

Okay, I am feeling a strong need to get down to basics right now. So, here is a large block of text taken from a conversation that Fr. Giussani had with a group of university students in August of 1978. For the full text, follow this link.

I think that Christianity is the event of God who became a man, and this man said He was God and chose…
Fr Giussani That’s enough. It’s enough, we’ve got there! Only this is Christianity! Christianity is this; it’s a fact! A fact. If I were to punch him in the face and break his glasses, that I have broken his glasses is a fact. In the same way, a man said He was God. God became man, and this is why this man said, “I am God.”
The essential category of an answer to the question, “What is Christianity?” is that of a fact; a fact like the existence of Moscow, or the fact that he is a priest; he has been ordained priest–it’s a fact.
It’s a fact. Look, it’s not a question of taste, of intellectual clarity, or putting things in place. It is a condition, it’s the fundamental condition for every Christian thought and every Christian action. The category of “fact” becomes the fundamental category for the Christian journey.
So what is Christianity? It is a man who said He was God; in other words, a man who said, “I am the salvation of you life. I am the meaning of your life.”
The word “experience” and all the rest are consequences of this, do you see? What is Christianity? It is this.
Since I’ve got the answer that I think is exact, I’ll stop here and I don’t want to go back, unless there is some objection, some outstanding question.
Intervention This is the elementary faith of our fathers; my father and my mother taught me this first of all, whereas we see, we look and develop…
Fr Giussani Yes. In other words, this is the danger for us, it’s a really pathetic attitude we have. We are not able to build on this (like all our answers, do you see?), taking for granted, as if we were already aware of what we are building on. Instead, what happens is that we build while leaving behind the cornerstone we need to build on. This is why our thoughts are a little crooked, and this is why our approach to things is always rather ambiguous.
I left the answer about the Church suspended, because the category of “Church” belongs to the fact. But, now, let’s go back to it, and try to come up with an answer.
The word “Church” points to a fact. What category is the Church? In what category must we include the Church? It is a fact! It is an historical fact of a gathering of people who say, “We are Christ”–that is to say, the body of Christ. So the Church must be added as a Nota Bene to the answer, “Christianity is the fact, the event, so much an event… an event happens in a certain place, in a certain moment of time.” Do you follow? It is made of time and space.
The answer to the question, “What is Christianity?” is a piece of time and space, this piece of time and space and this being, born of a girl in that place in Palestine, conceived in that faraway town of Palestine, born in that other faraway village that was Bethlehem. Christianity is this event! Only that this time and space are prolonged. My name and surname are those of a being born in a particular place and time, only it goes on, and from 1922 it has gone on up to 1978. Do you follow?
Instead of lasting from 1922 until 1978, this event has gone on for 2,000 years up to now, and is destined to last to the end of history. How and when I don’t know. It could grow bigger or it could be reduced to twelve people (as Solov’ev imagined at the end of history, with the last Pope, Peter II). This isn’t important; this is the mystery of God. But that event is an event that goes on, like a bang that begins and grows, like a clap of thunder that grows louder, and instead of getting smaller and disappearing, as thunderclaps do, it began and keeps growing. It goes on. This going on is called Church, whereas the period 1922-1978 is called a human life, my human life. It is called Church, the life of Christ. After all, St Paul used the expression, “realizing the maturity of Christ.” The Church realizes the maturity of Christ, so it is precisely the life of Christ Himself.
So it is an event, the event of a man who said, “I am God and I will go on in history in the visible reality of the people who will adhere to me and be united among themselves,” the Church. It is a fact! You can believe in it or not, but it is a fact!

From humanism onwards, Christianity has tended to be reduced to wisdom (the best way to live, the most excellent human philosophy), up to today, or to a morality (the best way to love our fellow men, the prophecy of humanity). It has been reduced like this, and reason will always try to do this, because otherwise Christianity will dominate wisdom. If, instead, reason can reduce Christianity, then it can prevail; reason will judge Christianity. Instead, Christianity is a fact. You can be angry because it’s there, because it has happened; you can blaspheme, you can skin yourself alive hysterically because you don’t want it to be, but factum infectum fieri nequit: you cannot make a fact not a fact.
It is a fact that holds an element of challenge for the future, because tomorrow is not yet here, and this fact, which has reached us over two thousand years, and in which we, too, are implicated, says, “Look, after 34,000 years, I’ll still be here, and after another 3,400,000 years I’ll still be here.”

But it is a fact! Christianity is a fact! That is why our faith, our being Christians, is first and foremost a fact that you cannot get rid of, try as you might, because it is Baptism that took hold of you; it’s a gesture that took hold of you and drew you into the fact, and you cannot get out of it.

* * *

What use is Christianity to me if it's just a beautiful idea? I want something that I can touch, something that I can see, something outside of me that will surprise me. I don't want an answer that I can come to on my own. I don't want solutions that I can devise. I want the Infinite to intervene in my life and surprise me!

Povera Voce

Poor is the voice of one who doesn't exist.
Such is our voice if it no longer has a reason.
It must cry out, implore
that life's breath never cease.
But it must sing out because there is life.
All of life pleads for eternity;
our voice which asks Love for life
can't die, it can't end.
So ours is not a poor voice of a man who doesn't exist.
It's a voice that sings with a reason.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The girl without a face

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is running a series of articles, titled "Touching Evil," about a forensic science class at Duquesne University that established contact with a serial killer in order to try to learn from him. The mostly female class wrote letters to a man who had killed "at least" eight women and who is now incarcerated at Oregon State Penitentiary. Today's front page article, "Serial killer's need to control shows in letters," describes the first two letters that the students received from this man.

What jumped out at me right away were the words, "need to control." I have been thinking about the question of control a great deal lately. My own impulse to control and also my response to others whom I perceive to be trying to control me. The other absolutely fascinating fact that surfaced from the article came from an anecdote that the students' professor told them about another serial killer and how he chose his victims: "He said he would areas in Philadelphia and he would walk around and look and walk and look and walk and look. 'I finally knew which one it was,' the killer told the homicide detective, 'because she was the girl without a face.'"

My grandmother, Lena Dougherty, has given me priceless treasures. She lived her faith and her experience with intensity and humor. But one gift that she gave to me was perhaps a mistake or a misjudgment. She gave each of her grandchildren a large, hardbound book, published by Time/Life from "The Year in..." series. Each of us received the volume for the year in which we were born. My own book was "The Year in 1966." What Grandma Lena didn't know about me is that I have always been a voracious reader. From a young age, I would pour over all the Time/Life volumes she had given to our family -- each of my three sisters, born in 1969, 1971, and 1973 had received a book, too. I absorbed many important and beautiful facts, such as the lunar landing of 1969 and the "British Invasion" of the Beatles, but I also learned about things that no eight year-old can or should have to process: about the Manson murders, for example.

In my own birth year, 1966, a man named Richard Speck broke into an apartment where nine nurses were living and killed them all. I wish I could say that after I'd begun to read it, I immediately closed the book and forgot all about the atrocity. I wish I could say that I didn't return to this article more often than to the others in the book. But I was transfixed by the details of his crime, by the terror of the victims, by the emotional trauma suffered by the lone survivor. In my bed at night, I would imagine myself in the room with the other young women, and mentally rehearse my escape. The idea that one day I might find myself in similar circumstances, in which I would need to have planned such an escape, never met any challenge. It was a fixed certainty. The "serial killer" became a familiar persona in my nightmares. He took various forms, but what strikes me now, as I look back on him, is that no matter what face he showed to me, his desire to annihilate me was always the driving and total motive of his life. And not because he knew me and wanted me dead. No, his was always the face of a stranger, and the particulars of my own life were never available or even of interest to him.

I am confessing to these things now because it seems that the dynamic at work in the personality of a serial killer, the drive to wipe out others, is simply a caricature of the ordinary, everyday evil one can find in any average heart. Ron Freeman, the retired Pittsburgh homicide commander and Duquesne instructor who invited his students to write to the serial killer, commented that the tone of the letters they had received was typical of serial killers, whose goal is to "dominate, manipulate and control."

If we look to the culture we live in, to workplace social dynamics, to advertising and sales, to the way that children are reared and educated, to all kinds of interactions we have with others on a daily basis, how many of these is entirely free from any attempts to dominate, manipulate and control? Even many "morally upright" persons, who have lofty ideals and goals, do not shrink from using domination, manipulation and control in order to achieve their ends. But what would human interactions be like if there were no trace of domination, manipulation or control in them? And what could induce anyone to live without these motives? And if we were to desire to abandon them, what power on earth could help us to do it? But most of all, if we were to abandon these things, would we lose our faces and become potential victims to anyone who still operates according to these methods?

When I was a teen, I began collecting wisdom quotes, which I would copy out into my journals and onto slips of paper that I would staple to walls and window frames. This was a time in my life when I rejected the Church because I saw, in the particular form she showed to me and I was able to see: domination, manipulation, and control (in the way my catechism classes were conducted, in the way our pastor was attempting to raise money for a new church building, in the way that choir members and parishioners jockeyed for position in a kind of social hierarchy). I hope my pious friends will forgive me for what I say. And yet, even during this period, the quote that best expressed an answer to the kind of freedom my heart longed for came from the heart of the Church:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Love does not insist on its own way. These words were written by St. Paul, but they came as the result of what he had learned from Christ. Christ never insisted on his own way. The things that he did insist on all came from beyond, from the Father, with whom he is in communion. "My teaching is not my own," he said. Even so, he never forced, never dominated, never manipulated, even though he had the power to do so. He "emptied" himself of all such means because he embodied the kind of love that St. Paul describes. Instead, he appealed, invited, tirelessly demonstrated this love, betting on it being so attractive that people would seek after it and cling to him without abandoning any of their freedom. And some people did follow him.

What if Christ had risen from the dead and there had been no one to see him? What if Mary Magdalene had not been in the garden, looking for him? What if the disciples, who were on their way to Emmaus had never ever hoped? What if the apostles had had nothing to fear and had never gathered to mourn their dead Master? The grace and truth and life would still have been there, but humanity would not have seen or touched the Word of Life. This is the same question Jesus asks of us when he says, "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8b). Even though the ones who loved him didn't understand what he had told them, they had faith in him. Their faithfulness was not in their being astute or intelligent or having prophetic knowledge. Their faithfulness was in clinging to his memory, to the living memory of a man they continued to love. Even if the disciples, on their way to Emmaus, had ceased to hope, they could still remember that they had hoped. Evidently, that was enough.

We can see this love at work in the world, this love that does not insist on its own way, that does not dominate or manipulate or control, and we can tap into it as a source of our own victory and triumph over all that would seek to dominate us. Love is not an escape plan, or a wall that the weak can build to shut out those who manipulate and control. It is not a refuge for cowards. Love is what happens when we begin to be fascinated by something that does not come from us. When we begin to ask, "Who are you?" and recognize that we will never receive an answer until we listen with all our strength for the response. It is the question (not the answer that we can generate in our own minds) that will give us our faces.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Our Communion and Liberation Advent Retreat

Something happened. I've been afraid to try to write about it because I want to do justice to it, but I also know that I can't. The best that I can try to do is talk around it, spiral fashion, hoping that when I get to the end of all my talking, the tail end will point to that unnameable center, that something that happened.

There is a Life within the life that we live, something that pulses and breathes. At moments we almost seem to touch it -- the skin of our habitual forgetfulness is peeled back and this Life is exposed to view. When this happens, we recognize that what we are seeing is what is real, true -- all the rest is just two-dimensional, black and white.

I had a crushing number of tasks to perform, preparations to make, and I was still not fully recovered from my bouts with viruses and bad turkey. It really seemed possible that this time I would not have the bare minimum in place before Fr. Roberto arrived. I was on pins and needles wondering whether the room for our retreat would be in order, whether there would be something to feed Fr. Roberto when he arrived, whether I could gather all that the babysitters would need, whether there would be enough gas in the car, whether I could prepare the food for the convivenza in time. For me it was a suspenseful time -- but not stressful somehow -- wondering, almost watching myself from outside, 'Will she pull it off?'

Occasionally it would cross my mind that this was not the way I would have chosen to spend my third week of Advent.

But one miracle was that I was not anxious, wondering how my friends would receive the Advent retreat. Ordinarily, in the weeks leading up to a fraternity retreat, I speculate about how one person, or another, will be struck, or not, by what is said. It would be too easy to say that I simply didn't have enough time to worry about these things this time. My prayer, that is to say my inner life was simply caught up in details, details that didn't seem to me insignificant at all. I think that I wasn't stressed out by all my tasks, because I lived each one as a gift to my friends -- even the silly things that couldn't possibly benefit them in any way, like filling the tank with gas, or making sure to put a pen into my bag.

So, when did the world's skin peel back for me? It happened even before Fr Roberto arrived, in the rush and busyness of these days. And then, when the time came to pack my children into the car and bring them over to the parish to drop them at the room where the babysitting would take place, the phone began ringing -- reminders to bring this or that essential item that had been forgotten -- and we simply gathered the objects up and loaded them into the car. Once we'd arrived at the parish, friends who had never been there before had to be guided and helped to find the room. It was as if all these tasks had a halo around them.

I have wanted so much to communicate to my new friends here in Ohio even a taste of the beauty that I have seen and experienced elsewhere. I have wanted to hold out my hands to them, and show them a treasure. But up until now, I felt this desire like a responsibility that I didn't know how to shoulder. I seem, to myself, such a poor vehicle for such beauty. But lately, I have seen something amazing, something I don't really expect anyone to believe -- how can anyone believe it? Because what I've discovered is that I am not the vehicle for this beauty! Mine are not the hands holding the treasure. The treasure is already in my friends' hands -- they are the vehicle for me! I have nothing to show them, nothing to reveal. What is required of me is to look, really look at them, and to listen, really deeply listen. They hold the treasure, they have held it all along. I don't communicate or show them -- they communicate it to me.

I think that even before the Advent retreat, I had intuited this phenomenon in an unconscious way, and this is why I didn't feel stress or anxiety, despite the seeming impossibility of my work. I think that I must have known that regardless of whether I could complete all my tasks on time, my friends would continue to show me this gift.

And so it happened. A completely gratuitous outpouring of gifts -- from His fullness we have all received grace upon grace. All that I need are the eyes of a child and faith that what I am looking for is already in the midst of my life.

Fr. Roberto spoke, and I will be absorbing his words for weeks, maybe months, to come. The Mass was also beautiful, and rich. The convivenza, despite all the practical details that needed attention, was permeated with an incongruous peacefulness. It was incongruous because all the usual human noise and bustle and misunderstanding were there, too, and yet...the faces of all these people had one message for me, a declaration of a love so great that it can generate a new Life in this world, something unforeseen and unplanned by any person: the divine in human form.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"The Capacity to Tolerate Difference" or The Case of the Moldy Sandwich

I've had the flu most of this week -- the upper respiratory kind -- and not the most extreme case I've ever had. I missed two of my daughters' Nutcracker performances, have forgotten many more responsibilities than I ordinarily forget, and have been doing an awful lot of contemplation on all the discomforts Christ had to put up with when he became man. I figured, it was the way he wanted to teach me about the Incarnation this Advent (it's always something new and surprising the way this mystery makes itself felt!). The Gospels never mention whether he suffered from a virus, and I have to assume that being capable of rebuking the weather, he could certainly put a few microbes in their places. On the other hand, when tempted by Satan to satisfy his hunger by using his divine power to transform stones into bread, he declined to do it. Still, if the angels ministered to him then, maybe they were also on pesky germ patrol...But what matters is that if a virus can cramp my style, it's nothing compared to accepting the limits of being bound up in skin, using muscles for transportation, and having only five senses at one's disposal when navigating.

But then life, my present circumstances, threw me this curve ball, because for human beings, the discomforts of walking around in a body are not limited to those caused by the vicissitudes of nature -- there are the kinds we bring on ourselves, and there are the kinds that others, wittingly or unwittingly, bring on us.

So, while soldiering on through aches, low grade fevers, painful ears, and other rotten symptoms, a new, totally unexpected and unforeseen factor entered into my life. It was an event!

A turkey sandwich, which had first been rejected as a lunch option by Sylvie (my five year-old), then forsaken at the bottom of her backpack, then rescued much later in the day and consigned to the refrigerator (rather than to the garbage, where it belonged), resurfaced the following morning and was about to be placed back into dear Sylvie's lunch box, when it caught my eye for the first time. Knowing that the sandwich had been made with bread that she hated (which is the reason she rejected it the first time), I intervened. The turkey sandwich went back into the refrigerator, and Sylvie received a fresh sandwich for lunch. Later in the day, I took the sandwich back out of the fridge, added a little olive spread and mayonnaise, warmed it in the microwave, and sat down to feast.

Well, if I had felt bad before eating the sandwich, it was nothing compared to how I felt a half hour later! Let's just say that the results were dramatic. Not knowing the history of this particular sandwich, I blamed everything on the olive spread.

Later in the day, the whole troubling truth came out, and on top of all my physical symptoms (to which had been added new and exotic ones), I began to experience a sense of betrayal, frustration, neglect, and yes, even flashes of anger. How could this episode have happened by accident? There were deliberate decisions that had been made about this sandwich, decisions that yielded (in my opinion) foreseeable consequences!

My first response, whenever I experience this magnitude of trauma, is to take a bath. So, I retired immediately to my tub. Different elements may be employed during the bath, depending on the level and nature of the trauma: music (chant is especially useful -- I highly recommend Anonymous 4), lit candles (preferably unscented), something added to the water (I favor seaweed baths -- I have found this horrid green powder, that when added to hot water, smells exactly like the ocean at a fishing port), and sometimes, reading materials. Submerging myself in water never fails to bring me back to a position of original dependence and gratitude: I am made, I'm alive! But also wonder and amazement: Who, but God, could have ever thought up something so precious and absolutely perfect as water?

The bath helped, but it wasn't enough to help me tolerate (you know, fully -- with charity and joy) the "difference" that led to my physical suffering. So, the second line of defense is to watch a movie or read fiction -- you know, to open out my horizons so as to get some perspective on what is happening in the minuscule corner of the world that is my life. Since I had my daughters home from school with me at this point, I put on Ever After, thinking that Cinderella and I had something in common, and my two younger daughters watched it with me. Ever After works very well as a fractured fairy tale, and like the model it's based on, it has upsetting bits. Sylvie had never seen this movie before, and so she cried when the stepmother and stepsisters were cruel to Cinderella and when Prince Henry behaved like a cad toward her. The original Cinderella is only a story about clothes, but this retelling has more to it. Sylvie's tears were instructive for me. In the face of injustice, dishonesty, and lack of love, the truly human response is sadness, deep sadness. When the film was done, I took a new look at what I was suffering, and tested it against this insight. Yes, beyond questions of who was responsible, or whether the responsible parties cared about my physical well-being or were really sorry for the full breadth of their responsibility, my particular circumstances were simply sad -- not, by any means, tremendously sad, but nonetheless, sad.

In fact, if someone wrongs someone else, deliberately or by accident, it is essentially sad for him. If the offender cannot recognize his responsibility in another's suffering (I am not saying that this is the case with regard to my adventure with the sandwich), then it is even sadder -- for him. "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing..." Who but Jesus has experienced the ultimate sadness? To be able to see into the human heart, and to find darkness and confusion there, to see just how far this darkness and confusion can take the soul down the path of evil...who but the Son of God could bear this species of sadness?

After I got my girls to bed, I still wasn't good for anything besides lying in front of the television and suppressing groans, so my husband and I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc. I really thought that Ever After had done the trick for me, but here was a film I had never watched before, one that is strange in ways that confound my usual way of seeing things. I haven't watched a silent film in years, and even then, music accompanied the images projected on the screen. The silence of this movie was disturbing and revelatory at the same moment, such that the texture of the flagstones, the white curves of the walls, the act of writing a signature, the viscosity of blood, the play of flames as they lick at and devour an object, and so many other visual details seemed saturated with a super abundance of meaning. Exaggerated facial expressions seemed at first cartoonish and later seemed to unveil a hidden order in the realm of human emotion. Watching Joan's pale face, which filled the screen for most of the film, as it tilted, washed with tears, filled with joy, raised and lowered, was an uncomfortable and voyeuristic experience. The film's script, lifted in chunks from the transcripts of Joan's trial, revealed a rather awful connection to the tale of Cinderella -- it seems that for some of her judges, Joan's life was also only about clothes.

My fever has passed, and I managed a bowl of chicken soup last night, after The Passion of Joan of Arc, but I must still be pretty sick because all I can think about at this point, after all my rambling, is this passage from You (or About Friendship), by Don Giussani:

The method the Mystery has used to give Himself, to reveal Himself to His creature is the sacramental method: a sign that in this sense contains the Mystery of which it is the sign. The community of the Church is the aspect of this sign, it is the aspect of that face, it is the visible aspect of that face. It is the clothing of that Presence, like Jesus' garments were for the little children who came near to Him. The tiny children, 4-5 years old, who milled around Jesus, grabbing hold of his legs, sticking their noses into His clothes, didn't see his face, they didn't remember his face, perhaps they didn't even look at it. But they were there with Him. So that the clothes, the seamless tunic in which Jesus was clad, were more fixed in their eyes than His face. In the same way Jesus makes himself perceivable to us in the ecclesial community, as if it were the clothing with which our smallness enters into relationship with His real presence. (page 31)

My family is a particular fold of the garment. Sticking my nose into it may lead to suffering and sadness, but the story about my sandwich is not a story only about clothes.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas Cheer Challenge

Please take the Christmas Cheer Challenge to help a family in need this Christmas. Thanks!
Undergoing MyBlogLog Verification

vocabulary game/feed the hungry

Click on the picture to play. Every time you get a word right, the United Nations Free Food Program donates 20 grains of rice to feed the hungry.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Advent: Holy Time

Here's something by the great Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel:

Technical civilization is man's conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time...To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.
...There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.
...Our intention here is not to deprecate the world of space. To disparage space and the blessing of things of space, is to disparage the works of creation, the works which God beheld and saw "it was good." ...Time and space are interrelated. To overlook either of them is to be partially blind. What we plead against is man's unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.
One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word qadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar?
It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time...How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: "And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy." There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.
For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise. (Sabbath, by Abraham Heschel)

Well, I didn't mean to quote quite so much of Rabbi Abraham's work! He is speaking here of the seventh day, the Jewish Sabbath, and its meaning. In The Bible and the Liturgy, Jean Danielou quotes St Paul: "Let no one, then call you to account for what you eat or drink, or in regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ" (Collosians 2:16). He then comments, "Here is the statement which will be the guiding principle of our whole study: the substance, the reality of the Sabbath is Christ. We need, then, to discover the religious reality of the Sabbath, for when it is thus set alongside the other types, it will show one aspect of what Christ is...Christ is the true rest...the true seventh day. And this shows us at once what is peculiar to the typology of the Sabbath, -- that it is a typology of time" (page 223).

We can see also that Christ is "eternity in disguise" or eternity veiled under the appearance of a man. Okay, so what does all this have to do with Advent? Advent is a time, a holy season, not a place. It is a time when the Church calls us to live a particular tension that is present throughout the year, in every moment of our lives -- the tension between two converging truths: that Christ has come toward me and that Christ continues to come toward me (ad-vent). And we are called to live this tension in time, which flows on toward fulfillment and already carries fulfillment (as Heschel points out: “Time, however, is beyond our reach, beyond our power. It is both near and far, intrinsic to all experience and transcending all experience. It belongs exclusively to God.”).

We can see the wisdom in this if we pay attention. God only comes to meet me in the present moment. "God with us," Emmanuel, has pitched his tent in time. I must give my full attention to the present moment, if I wish to meet him. It is only in the now that I can taste eternity and thus string together all moments, live memory and desire as present realities, brimming with Love. The extent to which I can savor this moment, live this moment with intensity and honesty, is the extent to which I know that he is with me, even to the end of the age.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

What did Jesus Bring Us?

Click on the above image to view the video.

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."