Friday, May 31, 2013

The Feast of Hospitality

When I was teaching at Montrose a decade ago, one wonderful student posed a challenge.  She was smart, accustomed to getting A’s without much work.  In class, she often pulled out a mediocre novel she was reading for fun; asked to come on back to class, she said she had done the reading, and asserted further – accurately – that she was ready to write an excellent essay on the assigned reading.  I didn’t pull rank; I argued.  I said that the first time you read a great book is a good start, but no more than that; subsequent re-reading gets better and better.  Then I said I could offer a new and interesting insight about the same short reading every day for 30 days.
Maybe I cheated: I chose the reading from today’s Gospel, the “Magnificat.”  It is a simple and moving song of love, attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, and the two pregnant women share insights and joy.
Around day 28, I came to class unprepared, and had to wing it.  I had had a glimmer the night before, but my mind was blank when we started the passage.  I had 60 seconds to get it together.
What I said was, Mary says that God’s name is holy, but I have almost no idea what “holy” means.  A Georgian firebrand (that’s Caucasus Georgia, not America’s South), Boris, promptly offered a dictionary definition: “dedicated to God, belonging to God.”  Great, I said, but what doesn’t belong to the Creator of everything?  That definition seems to cover every single thing that exists.  So it’s not a particularly helpful definition.  I need something else.
Mother Teresa is (was at that time) not physically attractive: knotted hands, twisted feet, outsize nose.  But when people look at her face, especially her eyes, they talk about her beauty.   What are they talking about?  I am not sure, but I think they are talking about her holiness.  When you look at her face, you see that she sees joy and beauty.
So for now, I take “holiness” to be a subset of beauty, referring to a visible quality that is related to a perception of joy.  That’s not a satisfactory definition; it’s a stumbling first step.  But it’s better than pious fuzz.
One student responded: “Best yet, Mr. O.”
Thanks, Matt.
Happy feastday!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

True Matriotism

Matriotism!  May I try it?
At Mass this morning, the first reading was from Sirach, about his love for Israel.  Fr. Martin asked if we love the Church with the same passion that Sirach had for Israel, or even a fraction of it.  That was his question, which I mangled into ... am I a good matriot?  Do I love Mother Church?
I was in a fight recently with a pastor, but my conscience is pretty clear.  I could have and should have done better, but do not think I should have done otherwise.  I’d like to restore peace, especially since the long-range task of protecting children (who are a significant part of the church) from Maurice will be easier, for the next three decades, if Montrose Christian School assumes some responsibility and helps out.  That fight troubles me, but is not evidence of a total failure as a good matriot.
In the 1960s, the feminist revolution was taking shape.  In the 1960s, there were still two quite different strands of thought, intertwined, both called feminism.  One strand has, by now, pretty much taken over; the other strand is hard to find and recognize today.  The revolution began with a clear sense that there was a definable evil to resist, that “sexism” existed and was a serious problem.  In his encyclical Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII wrote of three evils that were challenged in that time (1960s) and could pass away and become extinct: slavery (or abuse of workers), sexism, and colonialism.  (He did not use any of those words; he described them.)  One challenge to sexism – one thread of feminism – focused on employment, ensuring that women could enter the workforce without facing discrimination.  The other thread focused on values, working to ensure that traditionally feminine values were given as much respect as traditionally masculine values.  In other words, one strand of feminism in the 1960s worked to ensure that home-making, child-rearing, peace-making and healing were all valued as highly as competition, economic success, military (and other)aggression, and I forget what-all.  I read and loved the work of John XXIII, and I remain a committed feminist (emphasis on the forgotten strand).
Pope Francis has worked hard from the first minutes of his papacy to change the way we understand the mission of the Church, returning to the teaching of Jesus.  Leadership, as Francis (following Jesus) understands it, is service.  If you do not serve the poor and the vulnerable, you are not a leader.  It’s not only that if you don’t serve, you don’t deserve to lead; more: quite simply, if you don’t serve, you aren’t a leader.
What does this service look like, this old/renewed leadership?  Well, “home-making, child-rearing, peace-making and healing,” in large part.  There’s not a lot of money to be made in those activities, but they are good routes to holiness.  In the church, there is a power structure that controls money, and men hold a monopoly there, unnecessarily. But the real authority in the church, underneath the silly surface, is sanctity. Men do not have and do not claim a monopoly there. Top spot, other than the Lord himself, is held by a woman. 
The greatest power in the life of the Church is to bring the life of God into the world.  Prototype: Mary's pregnancy.  I too claim to have been pregnant; my pregnancies include books, insights, contemplation leading to action. In my life, "pregnancy" is generally a metaphor, but maybe sometimes more.  The goal of contemplation leading to action is to embody the Spirit of the Lord; perhaps that’s a little more than a metaphorical pregnancy.  But Mary’s claim is complete on every level including literal. No competition!
The institution in which the church trains men for the priesthood in called a “seminary.”  Root: semen, Latin for seed; a seminary is a kind of garden, in which the seeds of the word of God sprout and take root and grow.  That’s not a bad metaphor, but a better one is right there.  The place where human and divine seeds grow is not a seedbed; it’s a uterus.  I don’t want to HAVE a uterus; I want to BE a uterus.
But one new word/metaphor/image at a time.  I am determined to be a better matriot.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Hospitality in the Last Judgment

There are six specific kinds of service that Jesus mentions with urgency in his remarks about the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), one part of the Sermon on the Mount.  He says: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers (xenos: immigrants and other strangers), clothe the naked, visit the sick, and visit the imprisoned: rewards and penalties apply.  Most people who recall the list remember five of the six, passing over the third; of those who do remember the third urgent command, most use well meant but quirky and somewhat misleading translations (“shelter the homeless” or even “harbor the harbourless”).  Getting the third right is fundamental – indispensable – to clear thought about how to follow God in America today. 
If you look at the whole passage through the lens of hospitality, focusing on hospitality, there’s much to see.  If you restore the third injunction, it may seem trivial or even meaningless at first: just as you don’t see a lot of naked people on the streets, maybe strangers don’t knock on your door, ever.  But if you look at Abraham as a model of hospitality, and see how Moses uses the principle of hospitality, and let the idea of hospitality take root, new insights pour out. 
Suppose, recognizing the difficulty of translating the third of the Six Final Tests properly, we translate it imprecisely but concisely: be hospitable.  Then there are three specific details of hospitality: food, water, and clothing.  And the last two – visit the sick and imprisoned – are also about hospitality, but about pro-active hospitality, visiting others and offering hospitality where they are, acting as a host although you are not at home. 
It’s not just the general command to welcome strangers that’s about hospitality; ALL SIX questions on the final exam can be understood as aspects of hospitality.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May Day meditation

Some decades ago, Communist leaders in Moscow challenged the May celebrations surrounding Mary by launching a new celebration of workers, International Workers Day.  The Catholic Church pushed back, making today the “Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.”
Joseph has a place in some of the central icons or images of Christianity, in art presenting the “Holy Family.”  These icons present some of the Gospel, of course; but they also challenge us to put aspects of human life into right relationship.  For example, the image of the Holy Family can be the beginning of a meditation on three central questions of human life: identity, marriage, and labor.  Jesus, the central figure, challenges us to recognize the immense dignity of each and every person on earth.  Mary invites us to understand what it means to bring a child from God into the world.  Joseph, a carpenter, invites us to see the immense dignity of work, as an expression of the person and not merely a trap and a curse.  The icon of the three is (in part) an invitation to keep identity and family and labor in balance and harmony.
In our time, we have seen some huge changes in social arrangements for work.  Women are in the workplace in ways that were hard to foresee in the 1950s.  The feminist revolution pushed back hard against systematic oppression of women, and developed new patterns of cooperation.  Hallelujah!
My wife Betsy and I consider ourselves feminists.  One detail of our understanding of the change is in our name: she kept her name (Cavanaugh) and I kept my name (O’Keefe), but we have the same name (Cavanaugh-O’Keefe).  But our intent, when we took each other’s names, was not just to indicate support for the feminist revolution.  It was (and is) our understanding that we became a unit, that two became one.  Henceforward, to see me alone is to see a fragment of a unit; the other half is Betsy.  We understood the change to be God’s work, and (therefore) to be permanent. 
Shifting cultural patterns of labor must change family life.  Not long ago, almost half the intelligence of the human race was focused on family life and child-rearing.  Now, with two parents working, some families turn huge portions of childcare over to uneducated, low-paid, over-worked non-professionals.  That’s not an obviously good thing.
The shift in work patterns is not inherently destructive, but it is definitely a challenge.  If both parents work outside the home, dad must do much more work inside the home than grand-dad did.  In practice, what happens often is that wage earning is split 50-50, and diaper duty is split 95-5 – and dad wants credit for doing his “share.”
For many feminists, the way around this challenge has been to de-emphasize children.  “De-emphasize”?  Kill.  So we have a born/aborted ratio around 70-30.  That solves the diaper problem.  This is so common that many people today equate feminism and abortion.
It would seem to me, considering the balance and harmony of the icon of the Holy Family, that when women take on more labor, men must become more family-oriented, and more protective. 
When Herod set out to quash a rumor of a new king by killing children, Joseph had dreams that he believed to be the word of God, and he took his family and fled into Egypt.  No Hamlet he, he took the visions of the night and translated them into prompt action in the day.  To protect his family from becoming a widow and an orphan, he became a stranger in a strange land. 
Recalling Joseph the Worker, I am re-committed to protecting the dignity of each person, including the rights and dignity of workers and mothers and children.
Happy Feastday!