Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Long Loneliness: The Dorothy (mon)Day QoTW: Marriage, Caesar, and God

Man plans, God laughs. Or so the saying goes. My intention was to send out this post so last evening, but "the internets" in my home has been unavailable, and will continue to be so over the next day or two. Thankfully, I've gotten into the habit of coming to the library on my day(s) off so that I can write relatively undisturbed.

What a fantastic opportunity! For the past few weeks I've noticed a trend in my posts that has been quite enlightening: they often veer from the intended meaning of the quote, which is fine by me. I'm always afraid of being stilted and stentorian in my approach.  Telling my reader what the quote is about is not my thing (anymore). Instead, I prefer to use them as a sort of jumping off point. Thus is the situation with this weeks words of wisdom from Dorothy Day.

"And this preoccupation of his {Peter Maurin} with business, with economy, with agriculture, with labor...his unceasing emphasis on the fact that these are the vital concerns of religion, have led people to think of him as a materialist! "Laying too much emphasis on the material!" they say piously, and return to their prayers. "After all, we must use our spiritual weapons, we must devote ourselves to religious service, and all these things will be added unto us." And withdrawing themselves, "keeping themselves unspotted from the world," they are guilty of secularism, of using religion as an opiate."--Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker, September 1945.

One school of thought would have religious entities stay out of their bedrooms and their bodies; another would have them do little more than pass out bags of food, encouraging people to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps with little help from anyone else. Both sides keep religion in the shadows.

To live as Christ means to live radically in a practical sense. This means we not only give a man a fish, but we help him learn how to fish; we allow him the means to do it. We take all obstacles out of the way so that he can earn a just living. Or, as Dorothy Day put it, we "make it easier for people to be good."

The flip side of that is that we also render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and give unto God what is God's. Here is where we put the mettle to the pedal, and is the crux of many issues today. Can we allow Caesar (legal authorities) his due while retaining moral integrity? Christ tells us that not only can we do it, but we should.

We can allow two consenting adults the ability to have a legally-recognized marriage, this is nothing new. Weddings done by rabbis, ministers, imams and magistrates are all recognized as legal binding contracts, even as they are not sacramentally recognized by the Church. None of these diminish the Catholic understanding of marriage.

The worst offenders of distorting the Catholic view of marriage are Catholics themselves. Divorce is an unfortunate occurrence but it is a problem among the Catholics. Marriage, according to the Catholic faith, is so much more than a legal contract--it is a sacrament, an eternal gift and promise. Divorce cannot break that; neither can the marriages of other people who believe differently.

If we want to preserve the sanctity of marriage, we need to change our understanding of Catholic marriage. Allow those who want to be recognized as legally married to be married, "they" are not harming us, but we are harming them by not extending to them the same rights we accord anyone else who does not desire recognition by the Church. And let's do this with mercy and compassion. As Christ would have us do it.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Mystery & Manners, the Flannery O'Connor QoTW: We Are All Converts

"When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in fumes of the gas chamber." A Memoir of Mary Ann, p. 19.

Frank, my friend Rita's husband, suffers from advanced-stage neuroendicrine cancer. Last week he posted a video (see below) about his experience of pain.

The strange thing is, I started out this post with the desire to write of my adventures in babysitting. O'Connor provided the perfect jumping off point at the beginning of her introduction to the memoir:

"Stories of pious children tend to be false." p. 3

There was no need to continue reading;  I'd had my sound bite, my "money quote," but curiosity set in and I continued. The prose piece starts out with a plea from the Sister Superior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home in Atlanta. They implore her to write a book about one of their residents, twelve-year-old Mary Ann.

She pawned it off, putting it back on their shoulders.

Being gracious, she offered to help them clean it up, rendering it more readable. They sent her the manuscript. She had had her doubts about the saintliness of the child, even as she read their story. She thought it was easy for Mary Ann to be good because her environment fostered such behavior--it was a convent! But an afternoon with the sisters dispelled that.

A-hah, I thought, here is O'Connor's conversion. Here we see her change her mind about the girl. But what really happened was my own conversion. The focus of my post changed into something more about accepting imperfections as a means of accepting grace, which is conversion.

These little conversions are the essence of faith. A man who previously did time for domestic violence can make a simple phone call that liberates 3 captive women and a child because of the ability for grace to enter and change us.

We forget that pain and trials have meaning; they are not superfluous to our existence, even as we desire to rid ourselves of them. In our constant search for perfection we eliminate that which makes us human. I fought the good fight of my addiction, and have the battle-scars to prove it. Society tells me a little bit of surgery can remove them, but if I do, it eliminates real and tangible evidence of my story. People who love me, have a real desire to see me look my best, and for them, looking my best means without blemish. And it means that for me sometimes, too. I forget that every rose has it's thorns; that beauty is rendered more beautiful when there's some craggy darkness below. Christ is more beautiful to me not despite his wounds, but because of them.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Still a Penny A Copy! The Dorothy (mon)Day QOTW: A Backyard Paradise

"I spoke of Tamar's ability to see beauty and to put to one side the trouble she can do nothing about. All around their little cottage there are booby traps set by the children in the way of deep pits, dug outs in the sand, tree houses, and when the children are not making chaos round about, the geese are..."
--Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker, Feb. 1956

Admittedly, I have not always looked on the backyard where my two charges play with fondness. It is not neat or well-manicured. Weeds pop up everywhere, piles of dirt dot the landscape. The fencing is at least forty-years-old.

I have come to love it.

We run, we dig, we sit in the dirt. We pick the flowers that wisp away when we blow on them (see picture above). We cackle with delight at the sounds we make with old drainage pipes strewn about the yard. We play "Ready, Set, Go!" on cracked and bumpy sidewalks--and break out in giggles when one of the toddlers falls. Sure these bumps and cracks are the enemy of the fragile or the prim, but to the three of us, two toddler boys and their near-50 babysitter, they are gold. How can we not laugh when a toddler cracks-up at his own misfortune?

"If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in."
Rachel Carson

The search for backyard perfection stifles the joy of backyard imagination. Kids don't need fertilizers; they need dirt piles and weed patches. Their natural inclination is to explore what can be found on the ground. Chemicals become a barrier between us and creation.

The beautiful backyard is the one children can play freely in, safe from chemicals and other poisons. It's the one where they can become acquainted with the Creator through his creation.

Ms. Carson has one part of the equation right, but given my own experience, I can't help but think that if an adult is to keep his sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of a child. I am doubly blessed.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Flannery Fridays QoTW: Who We Really Are

"It's considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody's mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything."-- Flannery O'Connor, Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.

(January 17, 2008 - Source: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News)

In the play, "Chicago,"Roxie Hart's attorney uses the "jilted woman" defense to sway the jury into thinking she could not possibly be guilty of murdering her lover, Fred Casely. Of course she did it, but the attorney gives the jury the "old razzle dazzle": how could she serve time when circumstances and life events were the driving force behind her actions? Her lawyer played on the sentimental feelings of the jury and won.

Sentimentality can get in the way of true justice and compassion for any number of groups: gays, women, pedophiles and terrorists, to name a few.

True compassion, I think, looks at the whole person, while not exempting them from the consequences of their bad behavior.

This came to light in a conversation with family members over the Christmas holidays. What is the more compassionate thing to do, the question was proposed, take the keys away from someone who is drunk or let them make their own decision?

Alone among many, I opted for the latter. The best thing I could do for that person is to let them experience the consequences of their bad decisions, with one caveat: if I were the owner of the home and/or the host of the party, I would take away the keys. The reason? Not wanting to be held liable should the impaired driver injure, or God forbid, kill another human being.

The desire to save another person from experiencing the bad consequences of their behavior seems to be ingrained in so many of us. What parent wouldn't find it difficult to let their child spend the night in jail if need be?

Often times, the opposite of this type of sentimentality is also true: we treat those who commit the most horrid acts as something less than human. In fact, we call them monsters, or animals. We wish for their death. This is also sentimentality because we've divorced their actions from their humanity. We like to think what they've done is not humanly possible, but it is. It hurts too much to think that we are also capable of whatever it is they've done. But we are. I don't know about you, but that scares the bejeebers out of me.

Knowing that I am capable of what they have done forces me to look on them with a certain tenderness, that is neither blind to their atrocities nor embracing of their wrongs.

They simply remind me that God forgives and loves. And hurts.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Dorothy (mon)Day QOTW: An Extraordinary Prayer

"I must mention a prayer I wrote in the front of my New Testament, and hope our readers, while they read, say this for the strikers:
Dear Pope John--please, yourself a campesino, watch over the United Farm Workers. Raise Cesar Chavez in this non-violent struggle with Mammon, in all the rural districts of North, and South, in the cotton fields, beet fields, potato fields, in our orchards and vineyards, our orange groves – wherever men, women and children work on the land. Help make a new order wherein justice flourishes, and, as Peter Maurin, himself a peasant, said so simply, "where it is easier to be good."
up more and more leader-servants throughout the country to stand with
Please help, Pope John, these rural workers to repossess the land in co-ops, land trusts, with credit unions, clinics--a proliferation of "the little way" of St. Therese. Help us, Pope John. Amen."

Dorothy Day--"On Pilgrimage - September 1973". The Catholic Worker, September 1973, 1, 2, 6. The Catholic Worker Movement.

What I love about this prayer is it's no-holds-barred, balls-to-the-walls approach. She's not praying to a canonized saint, nor even a beatified fellow traveler. She had the faith that her beloved Pope was not only in heaven, but would help out in such mundane affairs as the dignity of the lowliest of workers. A real communion of saints.She's not asking to keep them safe, either. She wants equality and justice. She wants nothing more than freedom and nothing less than everything.

So, let's pray to whomever we want and ask for whatever we want. So long as it glorifies Christ and is in the service of humanity, well, that's alright.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Dorothy (mon)Day QOTW: Hypocrisy and Hope

"But often the critical spirit results in dissertations, from church and priesthood and seminary, and I suppose that is what the hierarchy fears. We have plenty of experience of the critical spirit and have seen the ravages that can be wrought in family and community. We have had many a good worker leave because he could not stand the frustrations, because "those in charge" did not throw out trouble makers, or force people to do better. The critical spirit can be the complaining spirit too, and the murmurer and complainer does more more harm than good."--Dorothy Day, "The Case of Cardinal McIntyre," The Catholic Worker, July-August 1964.

The struggle to break free from the "Us v. Them" mentality is often of the most difficult. I like to think that I am always on the side of good. The problem with this is that invariably it devolves into self-righteousness and divisive thinking.

Saturday, I attended an awards ceremony sponsored by a group which promotes peace in the world. Snickering comments about church hierarchy were heard both in whispers and at the podium. In fact, some of the comments were rather cringe-worthy.

Aren't these people supposed to be about the peace of Christ? I thought.  

Where is the peace of Christ in their whispers and criticisms?

Even as I write this now what was hidden yesterday comes to light to today. My own failure as peacemaker. The criticism of my fellows built a rift between them and me, and it was as great as, if not greater than, the one they were creating between them and the hierarchy.

Where is the peace of Christ in that?

The best I can hope for is the grace of an increasing awareness of this tendency in myself coupled with the willingness to make a living amends to the world around around me.

"The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, "Oh God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity--greedy, dishonest, adulterous--or even like this tax collector."--Luke 18:11

Friday, April 19, 2013

Flannery O'Connor QoTW: The Freedom of A God Who Suffers With Me

Christ be beside me
"The limitations that any writer imposes on his work will grow out of the necessities that be in the material itself, and these will generally be more rigorous than any that religion could impose." --The Church and The Fiction Writer, America Magazine.

"God desires our freedom more than our salvation."-- Laura V.

A recent conversation with Rob, an online acquaintance, centered around the thought that religion, or more specifically a God who can be knowable, imposes impossible standards on people. Rob could no longer believe in such a deity and, he says, he cannot prove the existence of God anyway. Thus, he is an atheist.

Rob certainly is not alone in his thoughts. Judging from statements made in comboxes around the web, atheists or anti-religionists are more common than we think. Our task as Christians or religionists, is to involve those who criticize our faith in a constructive engagement, not so that we can convert them, but so that we can understand our own faith a little better.

The questions that come up most often fall somewhat in this vein: "How can you believe in a god who sets you up for failure?" and "How can you participate in a religion that demands such strict adherence? Where is the freedom in that?"

My contention has always been that we have more laws imposed on us by local municipalities than religion could ever dream of. Try following all the rules of a stop sign, perfectly, every time you approach one. Try it once. Then try it again. Keep it up for a week. It's damned near impossible. And hope that you don't have a policeman around.

But still, I've had to ask myself these questions and in order to get to the truth, I've had to be willing to see the complete picture of my life. This is no easy task. The temptation is to go with current thought--that religion suppresses freedom and that God, if he exists at all, is a sado-masochistic, selfish bloodsucker. A vampire.

Then there is the other extreme--the school of thought that says there is no sin (except maybe social sin and greedy institutions). God requires no sacrifice from us and that turning to God will always make us feel good. God is a warm puppy.

Neither of these satisfies. The middle (God is a warm puppy and sometimes a vampire?) is uniquely unattractive, lukewarm. So what is required? A new thought; a new understanding of God. God is love, yes, but this love requires something of us. Love always does. It requires sacrifice and living a life of service should I choose to love God at all.

This is the God of my understanding--A God who not only has suffered for me, but suffers with me. A God who does not require sacrifice to him, but for others. This is Christ. Christ never requires anything of anybody except that if we are willing to love, that we also be willing to love all the way. Half measures avail us nothing.

How do I know that God does not demand anything else from us? I need only to look at my own actions and that of those around me. I say I am going to pray and I do not do it. I say I believe in the teachings of the Church and yet I don't adhere to them anywhere near perfectly. Had I not the freedom to embrace love and embrace God, I would not have the freedom to fail, either.

Every act of violence in this world demonstrates that God imposes no restrictions on us. The God of my understanding encourages men to put down their knives and stones. To turn our swords into ploughshares. Had that ever been imposed on us, we would not have the capacity to turn pressure cookers into bombs.

Is God absent in all of this misery? It sometimes feels like it. After all, even Christ felt abandoned by his father.  Loving God is not all chocolate and roses. Seeing him is not always easy, but when the fog of despair lifts, we see he is next to us, saying, "You are hurting. That's awful. Let's get through this together."